Now available for preorder from the Warner Archive is Half a Hero, a 1953 Red Skelton film about moving from the city to the suburbs. Discs will ship on June 12.
Skelton stars as Ben Dobson, a freelance writer who’s just been hired by a mass-market magazine. Now that he’s got a steady job, he and his wife Martha (Jean Hagen) have a baby, and they find that their urban apartment may not be the place for them to raise the child.
I was curious to see this for two reasons: 1) it’s rare to see Hagen, best known as the squeaky voiced Lina Lamont in Singin’ in the Rain, in a different kind of role (although this portrayal can be as exaggerated as that one, in the ways she dithers as a housewife) and 2) life in the suburbs is so familiar to me that I wanted to see a comedy that played with the concept back when it was somewhat fresh.
To today’s audience, it’s difficult to watch. The pacing is slow, and the jokes can be seen coming a mile away. Skelton does a few slapstick bits of physical comedy with skill and naturalism, but the situations aren’t very deep and they rely on a style of life long-gone, one where the woman stays home and hires in help when having the boss over for dinner. The interesting-sounding premise promoted on the back of the box, about Ben having to keep his new home in the suburbs a secret from the boss, doesn’t even show up until 41 minutes into this 71-minute film.
Jean Hagen, Red Skelton, and Willard Waterman as a real estate agent in Half a Hero
It’s very much a portrait of a long-ago time, between the black-and-white cinematography and what’s left out. When we’re told Mrs. Dobson has gone into labor, for example, she’s standing calmly in the hospital. There are no signs of pain, no sweating, no discomfort. not even a large stomach visible. Instead, the person with the exaggerated reactions is Skelton, throwing a fit at not getting in to see the doctor immediately. (Speaking of expectations of another time…)
Still, it was intriguing seeing such forgotten traditions as a welcome wagon providing gifts to the town newcomers or being able to live without a car or the elaborate structure of an outdoor barbecue grill and patio. Also, Polly Bergen plays herself as a nightclub singer. Near the end, Mary Wickes and Frank Cady (best known as Green Acres‘ Sam Drucker) appear in one scene as another couple.
I wish there’d been more plot to this movie than “couple moves to suburb”, because it seems like a waste of these two stars. This DVD will be of most interest to those who want to see an everyday portrait of a certain lifestyle that became a foundation of this country. The way Skelton’s character finds himself in debt due to never-ending expenses will also be relatable. It’s all about normalizing the American dream of suburban living and debt for home purchases.
The DVD looks crisp, although there’s the occasional blip, since the film is unrestored. The movie trailer is included as an extra.
Half a Hero, along with the also newly released The Great Diamond Robbery, were Skelton’s last two films for MGM after he spent over a decade there. After these, he moved to television. In The Great Diamond Robbery, he plays a diamond cutter who finds his long-lost parents as part of a scam by criminals who want to steal the rare jewel he’s cutting.