Classic Film Review: A Forgotten Madcap Gem with Farley, Shelley, Sheldon, Hans and Elisha — “Behave Yourself!” (1951)

Boy, you think you know all the “madcap” Hollywood farces, and then something like 1951’s “Behave Yourself!” pops up, begging to differ.

It’s got Farley Granger (“Strangers on a Train,” “Rope”), cast against type, Shelley Winters playing comedy and every mug in Hollywood in a supporting cast for the ages.

Hans Conreid playing an assassin? William Demarest as a police chief named O’Ryan who calls everybody — not just his fellow Irish cops — “O” this or that?

Sure, Sheldon Leonard, Elisha Cook Jr. and Lon Chaney Jr. were already old hands at playing heavies. But here’s a picture that captures 1950s-70s film and TV’s quintessential nebbish, Marvin Kaplan, as a gangster — a bespectacled bad guy who calls women “goyulls.”

An earlier generation of critic described Granger’s turn, as a hapless fellow mixed-up with mobsters and the cops over a “trained” dog and a mob handover that goes awry, as “a poor-man’s Cary Grant.” Fair enough.

But we can’t call writer-director George Beck “a poor man’s Howard Hawks.” Because Beck only directed one movie, for starters. The direction here shows little flare for doing anything with the camera — the odd funny closeup. The man was making his first feature, working with a lean RKO budget and filming a movie dependent on a trained dog, so cut him some slack.

Beck was a screenwriter for film and later TV, specializing in “story” credits. Movies like Bob Hope’s “Boy, did I Get a Wrong Number!” and the 1930s gangster comedy “Everybody’s Doing It” got their plots from Beck. And while Frank Tarloff got the story credit here, the complexity of a farce with this many moving parts had to have Beck’s input.

This mug (Leonard, the mean barkeep in “It’s a Wonderful Life”) drops off a doggie cage at the Union Station luggage counter. He leaves a note. The dog is “trained.” Walk him on Wilshire Blvd. “and he’ll lead you to your contact.” Cook, in almost every film noir worth seeing (“Maltese Falcon,” etc.) picks the “luggage” up.

But before he and his gang have a chance to figure out how this is supposed to work, the dog takes a liking to the pushover in the next phone booth over. That’s mild-mannered Bill (Granger). The dog follows Bill home.

As it happens to be his anniversary and the voluptuous wife (Winters) and her shrewish mother (Margalo Gillmore) won’t “ever let me forget” forgetting it, Bill lets wife Kate think the adorable Welsh terrier, Archie, is her gift.

Yes, “Archie” is Cary Grant’s real first name. “Coincidence?” No such thing in a screenplay.

Bill finds the dog an irritant and a real Kate-blocker. This is upsetting, as she’s bought a new nighty and “the neckline might be kinda low.”

“You got the furniture for it!” he reassures her. “She’s got the shape the WORLD should be in,” he tells somebody else. The “hubba hubba” is always implied.

Bill looks for a missing dog ad, finds one and tries to figure out a way to give the dog back to the rightful (mob) owner, who insists “My little goyull’s been crying her eyes out.” How can he hand over the dog without losing face and catching hell from the women back home?

He stops by the listed address to try and explain. But one mug has already been knifed by another. As Bill leaves his business card with every person he meets, that’s how he gets hauled off by the cops, led by Demarest’s O’Ryan, who keeps calling him “O’Denny.”

The mistakes and the lies start to pile up as Bill tries to hide his tracks from “my mother-in-law.” This, at least, the cops believe.

“Yeah, I had a coupla those myself.”

The mobsters go to the trouble of getting him a look-alike dog that’ll fool his wife.

“Sex” Conreid’s “Gillie the Knife” asks his boss, Fat Freddy (Francis L. Sullivan)?

“Sex?” the rotund Brit sighs. “Ah, the fires of YOUTH.” Gillie was just asking if they got the right gender for their replacement Archie, pal.

Gillie the Knife, Fat Freddy, Pinky, Shortwave Bert, Pete the Pusher and Max the Umbrella — they just don’t name movie mugs the way they used to.

Granger is in a role that has him manhandled by cops and gangsters, getting upstaged by a dog, fainting at near death experiences and sputtering like a madman to LA’s finest, because Bill’s figured out that dog is “the kiss of death” and that all these bodies turning up where he goes have to be connected to that canine. This is way out of Granger’s comfort zone.

Winters is shrill and manic and in fine, um, “form,” something the leering script and characters repeatedly point out.

And any picture that has Conreid as a comical Cockney killer is going to get my attention, especially one that has him catering to the blustering, bloated Sullivan (“Great Expectations,” “Oliver Twist”) in a bubble bath.

Clocking in at 81 minutes, there’s no time for anything to go seriously awry in this script. Funny character actors saying funny lines at a pretty funny clip is a can’t-miss formula. Beck doesn’t so much direct his players doing his lines as stay out of their way.

And that’s enough. It’s a shame he never got the chance to direct again, because “Behave Yourself!” suggests he’d have developed more than just a knack for it. He had a gift.

Rating: “approved,” TV-PG today

Cast: Farley Grainger, Shelley Winters, William Demarest, Sheldon Leonard, Elisha Cook, Jr., Francis L. Sullivan, Marvin Kaplan and Hans Conreid

Credits: Scripted and directed by George Beck. An RKO release, now streaming on Tubi, Amazon, elsewhere

Running time: 1:21

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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