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August Radio Days: Duffy's Tavern (1945)

This month we pay tribute to the great programs and characters created on radio in the days before the abbreviations DJ, FM and TV. Today Adam and Samantha examine Duffy's Tavern from 1945.

ADAM WILLIAMS: Bing Crosby! Betty Hutton! Paulette Goddard! Dorothy Lamour! Alan Ladd! Veronica Lake! What are they all doing in this dive bar? Well, Duffy’s is in trouble because the manager Archie (Ed Gardner) magnanimously hired 14 furloughed factory workers from the National Phonograph Record Company. The record pressing plant has a lack of shellac due to the War and a dearth of dough due to Victor Moore—who plays the owner with a gambling habit. In the can-do spirit of the era, they assemble a cadre of celebrities for a benefit show so the factory can resume stamping records and Duffy’s can stay solvent.

SAMANTHA GLASSER: This movie was based on a popular radio program that ran for a decade until 1951. The episodes opened with Gardner at the bar answering the telephone with, "Duffy ain't here. Oh! Hello Duffy!" Duffy never actually appeared, but his daughter, Archie the bartender and Eddie the waiter were well-known to radio audiences so it was enticing to see them here on film. The movie feels more like a WWII all-star escapist extravaganza than a feature length version of the radio show, although the inclusion of so many big stars probably makes it more attractive to modern audiences than any radio stars could. Red Kenn of Motion Picture Daily agreed with me, "The narrative thread is thin, yet it serves its purpose well enough... This earlier nonsense--some if it slow and on the lingering side-- is merely an excuse to bring the Paramount personalities on parade."

AW: That’s putting it politely! Until the celebs show up, Duffy’s Tavern is a fumbling mess. At the 8-minute mark, there is a particularly listless exchange between Victor Moore and Ed Gardner.

MOORE (laying on excessive praise): “Archie, you could turn the head of Cleopatra herself.” GARDNER: “Who?” MOORE: “Cleopatra.” GARDNER: “A New York girl?”

Archie goes on to explain that he attended Harvard, his grandfather being a flounder of the school. If the audience is still engaged enough at this point, they might have enough energy to groan at these hack jokes. As it is, it has all the spunk of an infirm vaudevillian performing in a convalescent home. In the right mood, this could be viewed as a conceptual piece—some sort of anti-comedy. In fact, I did consider the possibility that Charles Cantor’s turn as the mentally deficient Finnegan was an Andy Kaufman-esque attempt at provoking audience discomfort. But even this imbecilic performance feels ground down by routine. The audience member that endures this film’s slow opening of malapropisms, slurred-speech drunken routines, idiot jokes, and conversations about shellac shortages deserves a lively second act. While the pace does quicken, the laughs remain elusive.

SG: While I will agree that Cantor's presence is cringeworthy, I found moments to chuckle at. The refrigerator routine, where Gardner and Moore try to determine if the light really goes out when the door is closed, was funny in the way that OTR often is. They find comedy in the mundane, and although it isn't uproarious, it is pleasant and reinforces the characters. In another scene, the pair dresses up as painters in order to sneak into a Hollywood apartment building to recruit movie stars for their benefit show, and as they are carelessly painting things, they paint the W-O off the Women's Lounge sign, causing William Demarest to mistakenly enter and literally get thrown out. It isn't a creative joke, but it was fine. I also liked the following exchange in the scene with Hutton:

HUTTON: Where are you from? GARDNER: Uh, Paris. Right Pierre? MOORE: We're a couple of Paris-ites.

AW: Ah, jokes aged like fine bourbon. Speaking of high-proof liquor, the second half of the film is as aggressive as an over-served drunk. Betty Hutton is violently groped by Moore and Gardner, who she mistakes for her masseurs. Cass Daley acts like a bully as she obnoxiously one-ups Cantor’s mentally impaired act. Eddie Bracken is mercilessly beaten and abused in a skit where he plays a stand-in to a stout Western star. Alan Ladd’s skit attempts a laff on the subject of spousal abuse. Nothing is off-limits with comedy, but this all adds up to an oddly menacing tone for what is ostensibly a light musical revue. As if all the preceding doesn’t cast a dark enough cloud over the film, the grand finale with Bing Crosby gives more screen time to his ill-fated children (Gary, Phillip, Dennis, and Lindsay) than to the crooner himself. I need a glass of water and an Advil.

SG: Slapstick is often violent but it usually makes me laugh. I did notice that Hutton, performing "Doin' It the Hard Way," with different verses than her recorded version, is much more subdued than usual. My guess is that it was to differentiate her from Daley whose boisterous singing selections included several Hutton hits like "Murder He Says" and "His Rocking Horse Ran Away." Where Hutton's enthusiasm reads infectious and fun, Daley's reads aggressive.

AW: The exhibitors’ reports in Motion Picture Herald were a mixed bag of faint praise and damning criticism. Glen Bilyeu of the Ben Lomond Theatre in California grumbles like he has a hangover: “I don’t like the program. I didn’t like the picture. I didn’t like the price, and I didn’t like the split, and when my customers don’t like pictures like this, they don’t hesitate to tell me about it.” The report from Willow Springs, Missouri was equally groggy, “Crosby brought them in but wasn’t there except for a sorry mess of unrehearsed singing with everyone on the lot.” The Rangeley, Maine business was good, but theater manager LeRoy Nile also criticized the final reel, calling the “obviously not rehearsed” song a “slap in the face for Bing’s ability…” A.L. Dove of Saskatchewan icily moaned, “…oh boy, what a letdown.”

SG: Virginia Wilson for Modern Screen said, "You'll be glad somebody thought of making Duffy's Tavern into a movie." However, the radio show had a field day lampooning the movie for years. In an broadcast on February 11, 1948, guest Marlene Dietrich said, "I understand MGM was very happy with your performance." Gardner as Archie responded, "But I made the picture for Paramount." Dietrich: "Yes, I know."

AW: This was an arduous watch. I’ve tried to think of something nice to say and all I can come up with is I enjoyed Ann Thomas’s Brooklynese in her role as Miss Duffy. If I had any impetus to watch the film again, I’d keep a lookout for uncredited roles by Noel Neill (the original Lois Lane in Columbia’s Superman serials) and character actor Addison Richards, the pride of Zanesville, Ohio. But the whole film felt so sluggish and unpleasant that I can’t imagine revisiting. I give Duffy’s travesty one star.

SG: This may be the biggest discrepancy we have had so far in our ratings. I give this movie 3 stars; my rating would have been lower had the movie star cameos been excised, but I always enjoy seeing familiar faces in non-traditional settings. This is the perfect lead-in for our next blog series. Join us for Celluloid September next week when we discuss movies about the movies.

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