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The Bootleg Files: So This is Harris

BOOTLEG FILES 579: “So This is Harris” (1933 Oscar-winning short starring Phil Harris).

LAST SEEN: An unauthorized video dupe is on YouTube.

AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: None.

REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: One of those films that just fell through the cracks.

CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: Not likely at this time.

In 1933, RKO Radio Pictures decided to take a chance on Phil Harris, a brash and fun-loving singer and bandleader whose star was on the rise. The studio initially cast him as the lead in the B-grade feature “Melody Cruise,” and then decided to make him the center of attention in a two-reeler.

That second film, “So This is Harris,” is a silly distraction that was typical of the musical comedy shorts churned out by the studios in the early 1930s. The film opens with a somewhat annoying rhyming dialogue involving a rich couple in a limousine, their jolly black chauffeur and an Irish cop that stops their vehicle. The focus of their couplet-thick palaver involves a desire to see Phil Harris in performance at the swanky nightclub located in Los Angeles’ Ambassador Hotel.

At the club, Harris is leading his band through such songs as “Up a Lazy River” and “It Can Happen to You” while supposedly sophisticated patrons engage in naughty behavior – most notably, a woman is passionately kissing the man seated next to her at a table while simultaneously holding hands with a grinning man seated at the adjoining table. The film then cuts to a pretty blonde in a living room who is sitting by a radio with a box of chocolates while dreamily listening to Harris’ broadcast. She is Dorothy (Helen Collins) and she in enraptured by Harris’ Dixie-tinged singing voice while her bespectacled husband Walter (Walter Catlett) is filling bottles with his homemade beer.

Walter has one severe hatred: he loathes the sound of Harris’ singing. When Dorothy defends the singer, Walter snidely comments, “I bet he’s one of those boys who crochets and makes lampshades.” But Walter’s anger get the best of him, and in his frustration over the beer he is brewing gets spilled on the floor and all over his clothing.

The next day, Harris turns up at the Hollywood Country Club, where his presence is greeted ecstatically by dozens of young women and one rather effeminate man. All of the babes are eager to learn how to golf, and who do you think is available to give a lesson? No, it is not Harris – incredibly, that honor goes to James Finlayson, the walrus-mustached Scottish comic who was best known as Laurel and Hardy’s perennial nemesis. Finlayson gives the girls a golf lesson by singing his instructions to the tune “Coming Through the Rye.” At the end of the lesson, Finlayson spies one of his student sitting with her bare legs crossed, which he responds to with a trademark exclamation “D’oh!”

After this interlude, silly old Walter shows up at the golf course and winds up at the same hole with Harris. Incredibly, Walter does not recognize Harris’ voice – but he goes into conniptions when Harris’ music is heard on a portable gramophone, a car radio and from the loudspeakers from an overhead dirigible. Harris retreats to the club’s shower room where he cleans himself while vocalizing “Singing in the Shower.” This tune is accompanied by a montage of the golf course cuties showering (but we only see them from the shoulders up and knees down). Whether this is a co-ed shower room is not entirely clear, but in the Pre-Code movies the suggestion that Harris and the girls are together is more than obvious.

Walter eventually realizes Harris’ identity and he is instantly transformed from a hater to a fan. Through a contrived circumstance, Walter agrees to pretend to be Harris in order to deal with a pesky lady fan. But this fan came to the golf course with a friend who happens to be Walter’s wife Dorothy. While Walter is occupied with the fan, Harris and Dorothy retreat to the bushes behind the clubhouse.

In the film’s coda, it seems that Harris made more than an intellectual impression on Dorothy – she calls out Harris’ name in her sleep, much to the irritation of Walter (who is sitting up next to her in their shared bed). The film then jumps ahead in time with Walter outside of a hospital maternity ward where Dorothy just gave birth to a son. But Walter is clearly agitated by the news – and without saying a word, he is clearly wondering whether Harris is the father.

“So This is Harrs” offers all of the vices and virtues of the Pre-Code era cinema. The comedy is risqué without being blatantly vulgar, although a couple of lapses in political incorrectness – including the reference to a young adult black male as “boy” – are cringeworthy. For a two-reeler, the film also packs a lot of music, and the surplus number of pretty women in the golf course segment suggests that RKO needed an excuse to put their contracted starlets before the camera.

As for Harris, he lumbers through the film in a genial manner, but the vibrancy that he exuded in his radio and club performances is curiously absent here. And to be frank, his fairly ordinary physical appearance makes much of the swooning by the female cast members very peculiar. Much of the comedy heavy lifting is done by Catlett, a bald character actor who tries very heard to be amusing but doesn’t always succeed. Mark Sandrich, who directed Harris in his debut feature “Melody Cruise,” helmed this short. Sandrich would quickly graduate to directing several prestige Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers vehicles including the classic “Top Hat” and the Astaire-Bing Crosby favorite “Holiday Inn.”

“So This is Harris” would probably have been lost to obscurity had it not been the unlikely winner of the 1933 Academy Award for Best Comedy Short. Admittedly, its competition was even less notable – “Mister Mugg” and “A Preferred List” – but the Oscar assured it a footnote immortality. Yet being the center of attention in an Oscar-winning film did not help Harris establish a film acting career. While he made several on-screen appearances over the years in supporting roles, most notably in the John Wayne epic “The High and the Mighty,” his career focus was primarily in radio (as part of Jack Benny’s beloved ensemble and on his program co-starring his wife Alice Faye) and in recordings. Harris enjoyed a late-career revival as a voice performer in animated films, beginning with his iconoclastic interpretation of Baloo the Bear in the 1967 Disney flick “The Jungle Book.”

“So This is Harris” has yet to receive an official home entertainment release. This is not surprising, since relatively few of RKO’s shorts from the 1930s have ever been made available for this type of re-release, and it would be an expensive and cumbersome endeavor to clear the rights clearances to the songs used in the short. A copy of the film from a decent 16mm print has been posted without permission on YouTube, which will enable Oscar completists to witness this rare award winner.

IMPORTANT NOTICE: While this weekly column acknowledges the presence of rare film and television productions through the so-called collector-to-collector market, this should not be seen as encouraging or condoning the unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either through DVDs or Blu-ray discs or through postings on Internet video sites.

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