Carolina Cannonball

Rating: 2 out of 10.

An atom powered rocket and a train car are at the centre of proceedings in this 1955 hee haw musical comedy from Republic. Singing low-brow comedienne Judy Canova and an able cast do what they can to overcome the insipid script. 2/10

Carolina Cannonball. 1955, USA. Directed by Charles Lamont. Written by Barry Shipman & Frank Gill, Jr. Starring: Judy Canova, Andy Clyde, Ross Elliott, Jack Kruschen, Sig Ruman, Leon Askin. Produced by Sidney Picker. IMDb: 5.3/10. Rotten Tomatoes: N/A. Metacritic: N/A.

Welcome to a new year with new movies! That is, I have now reviewed my last movie from 1954 (The Invisible Avenger, review), and this here is my first pick from 1955. Or rather it is IMDb’s pick, as the site states that Carolina Cannonball opened on January 28, 1955, making it the first SF movie of the year. To be honest, this hillbilly musical comedy wouldn’t have been my first choice to kick off 1955 with. Curiously enough, this was the second nuclear-themed comedy from Republic Pictures in less than two months, the studio obviously trying to cash in on the talk of the town — the previous being the ill-advised Mickey Rooney vehicle The Atomic Kid (1954, review).

The film opens at a bunker, where military brass are observing the test of America’s first “atomic-powered missile”. This is where we get a taste of the film’s brand of comedy, as the person in charge forgets to plug in his launch button, delaying the launch. But never fear, the missile eventually takes off as planned. However, at another location three silly-looking middle-aged buffoons are playing around with their own set of gadgets, and we learn they are “the enemy”, as they all talk with bad faux-European accents. The communists manage to intercept the missile, but their gizmos overheat, and the missile crash lands somewhere in the Nevada desert. In fact, it gets pinned in the sand just beside an all but closed and abandoned railroad track leading to a small ghost town with two inhabitants; wise-cracking, song-singing, man-hungry country bumpkin Judy Canova (Judy Canova) and her half-deaf grandfather, mechanic and train driver “Grandpa” Rutherford Canova (Andy Clyde). Grandpa and Judy are the combined station managers, train staff, postal workers, and if needs be, hotel managers of the town, and they find themselves with their hands suddenly full as three silly-looking middle-aged buffoons with bad faux-European accents suddenly turn up at the station, claiming to be “uranium prospectors”. The trio is played by Sig Ruman, Leon Askin and Jack Kruschen. Shortly after, they are joined by hunky FBI agent Don Mack (Ross Elliott), also claiming to be a uranium prospector.

Leon Askin, Sig Ruman and Jack Kruschen tying up Judy Canova. Ross Elliott is being useless.

Thus starts a game of cat and mouse, with the four nitwit spies trying to out-nitwit each other in their search for the lost missile, while Judy is too dumb and Grandpa too deaf to have any clue as to what is going on. The running gags of the film are the old furniture of the ghost town breaking, Grandpa making hooch, Judy trying to romance Mack and the Soviet spies speaking bad English. And the centrepiece of it all is the titular “Carolina Cannonball” — Granpa’s and Judy’s private rail car, which drives back and forth the half-hour trip between the town and the nearest station a half dozen times during the film’s running time, and breaks down just as many times. And after the final breakdown, Judy discovers the missile, and she and Grandpa install it as the Cannonball’s new boiler. Judy picks up the scraps from the uranium tubes and makes bracelets for herself out of them, making lights go on and the pinball machine to go haywire as she walks past. During the proceedings Judy manages to accidentally lock her Grandpa in an old jail cell and get her own head stuck between the window bars, drop a dozen suitcases break a dozen pieces of furniture, inadvertently help Mack get caught and tied up by the commies and sing three songs. All while she shouts every one of her lines, mugging her way through the movie.

Ross Elliott, Andy Clyde and Judy Canova

While the nuclear missile may be the MacGuffin that the plot evolves around, the film’s one and only function is to provide a vehicle for Judy Canova’s cornpone comedy. This is her film, and annoying though her broad mugging may be to some viewers, her charisma is the only thing keeping this picture from completely imploding on itself. In that sense, the film also resembles the afore-mentioned The Atomic Kid. In fact, the two movies have a surprising amount of similarities. Not only were they both nuclear-themed comedies made by Republic. Both also relied on the waning star power of a former teen comedy star to be enough to lure audiences to the theatres, and little thought has been put into either scripts. Mickey Rooney was a few years younger than Canova, but when Canova started emerging as a radio star in her hometown of Florida in her teens in the late twenties, Rooney was already a Hollywood staple on the strength of his numerous Mickey McGuire shorts. Coming up through nation-wide radio and a stint a Broadway, Judy Canova separated from her singing siblings and developed her clucky, homely, straw-hat-wearing country gal character and shot to movie fame around the same time Rooney became one of Hollywood’s biggest stars with his Andy Hardy movies in the mid-to-late thirties. In a way, they were opposite sides of the same coin. Rooney’s teenage Andy Hardy was a rather sophisticated upper-middle-class urban character and Judy Canova’s on-stage and on-screen persona was that of the uneducated and rough-around-the-edges country hick, but both represented a naive, well-meaning view of America, presented with wide-eyed, stagey mugging and loads of loud energy. Perhaps it was the hardships of the Great Depression and the rumblings of war in Europe that made American audiences seek out this kind of comedy, clinging to a nostalgic idea of an America they saw threatened outside the movie theatres. And while Rooney entertained troops during WWII, Canova sold war bonds on her radio show, which she always closed with the song “Good Night Soldier” during the war. Rooney’s career took a nosedive after the war, but Canova’s, admittedly limited, star power lasted into the fifties. Never a favourite with the critics, Canova had always relied on a rural, less picky audience, but in the mid-fifties even rural America was turning away from her style of comedy and music, the teenage revolution waiting behind the corner. Carolina Cannonball was to be her second-to-last movie in the classic “Judy Canova” string, even if she continued a reasonably successful career as guest star on TV and made a couple of movie appearances in later years.

Judy Canova in a promotional still from another movie.

It feels redundant to discuss the contents and artistry of Carolina Cannonball at any great lengths. Screenwriters Barry Shipman and Frank Gill, Jr. were both fairly competent workhorses, but clearly much time and thought didn’t go into this movie. Director Charles Lamont was a respected comedy director, a veteran of the silent era, and one of the staple directors for Abbot and Costello and Ma and Pa Kettle. The direction of Carolina Cannonball is competent and fluid, there’s a few really nice sight gags and the slapstick is well filmed. The production feels cheap, but super-cheap. Plenty of exterior shots a steady directorial hand gives the viewer room to breathe. It’s a professionally made film.

Of course, the science goes out the window almost from the first screen. Radiation is treated as nothing more than static electricity and there are no hints at uranium from a nuclear-powered rocket would pose any kind of threat to anyone. Grandpa happily fires up his nuclear boiler in the train car and it goes choo-choo fast, and Judy dons bracelets out of the sawed-off uranium tubes with no ill effects. The characters are less than stereotypes, they’re simply planks for Canova to kick ball against. And as film historian Bill Warren writes: her energy tends to blow both co-actors and script out of the park. And so she does in this film. Comedy veteran Andy Clyde could do his absent-minded Grandpa in his sleep, and the three stooges play kiddie movie villains with gusto. Ross Elliott has little to acting-wise do as “leading man”, if the character can be called that. He spends most of the film hiding behind corners or tied up by the bad guys.

Ross Elliott, Andy Clyde and Judy Canova.

The only contemporary review I have been able to find is Variety’s, which called it a “slapstick trifle […] strictly for the kiddie trade and the undiscriminating”. Variety also blew hot steam over the way in which the film trivialised the threat of communist infiltration. Carolina Cannonball does have a 5.3/10 rating on IMDb, but it’s based on 40+ votes, so we can assume that it’s mostly next of kin. AllMovie gives it 1/5 stars, with Hans J. Wollstein writing: “The results are less amusing than baffling and tend to leave an unsuspecting audience weak and dazed after the first 15 minutes or so. The energetic Canova all but knocks herself out along the way but recovers sufficiently to yodel a couple of hillbilly songs”. Veteran critic Dave Sindelar states on his blog: “It’s better than it could have been, but not by much. Nonetheless, commentary is kind of useless in this case; you either like this kind of lowbrow slapstick or you don’t. You’re on your own.” And Bill Warren calls it “trivial but harmless”.

Judy Canova and Andy Clyde.

Carolina Cannonball was never going to win any Oscars, and all involved were perfectly aware of it. It was a low-budget cash grabber which provided cast and crew with a paycheck. The creators were all seasoned veterans and had the backing of a decent-sized studio. The actors are all better than the script allows them to be; it is written in such a way that there is no other way to play it than with professional mugging and shouted lines, with the hope that if you use enough power and energy, you can convince the audience to laugh at even the lamest of jokes. The main problem with the film’s comedy is that it isn’t anchored in the plot, and has very little consequences. Being smacked in the face with a loose floor board is only funny if it changes the situation of the film, or if some kind of routine is created around it. But just seeing a character smacked in the face with a plank isn’t funny in and of itself, as this film seems to think. The hotel rooms being on the brink of falling apart could be funny if the movie took it in. Here, all the characters just instantly accept the fact that the doors fall off their hinges, window panes fall out of their frames and beds are covered with an inch of dust. The guests hardly even acknowledge the fact. Neither Grandpa getting locked in the jail cell nor Judy getting stuck between the cell bars have any bearing on the plot. Neither does Grandpa distilling hooch in an atom bomb, Mack’s radio breaking down, or anything else, really. It’s all just skits, desperately trying to pad out the picture’s running time and wring some laughter out of the audience. “What was the point this film tried to make?”, asked my partner after we had seen the movie. Well, none whatsoever. The film takes all danger out of the atom bomb, and in doing so it defeats any purpose that the ill-conceived spy plot may have had. If the bomb is no more dangerous than that you can use it to distill moonshine, wear it as jewellery and build a steam engine boiler out of it, then surely the Russians can just take it, can’t they?

The design of the “Carolina Cannonball” itself is rather cool, and the practical effects are all good – no surprise, as they were designed by the legendary Lydecker Twins, Howard and Theodore, who were not actually twins.

Judy Canova,

The movie is not easy to come by – it does not seem to be available for streaming, legally or illegally, anywhere, neither will you find it in the DVD or Bluray section even at the local supermarket. I don’t think it has ever had a proper home viewing release. However, you can find it at specialty online stores – the quality of my copy was not great. The image quality fluctuated wildly during the length of the movie, and the first half was slightly out of sync.

Judy Canova was born either Juliette or Julietta in 1913 to a family with Spanish roots. Her mother, a singer, encouraged her children to perform, and three of the siblings, including Judy, started a vaudeville group in the twenties, called Three Georgia Crackers. From early age, Judy would adopt the hillbilly image, often performing barefoot and with a straw hat. Billed “The Ozark Nightingale”, she specialised in yodeling, and soon became the star of the group. In 1931 Canova was invited to perform at the hugely popular radio show The Fleischman Hour, which opened the door for the trio (now a quartet with a fourth brother in tow) to more popular radio shows, appearances in short films and spots in movies, and eventually Broadway, although along the way Judy separated from her sibling’s band. In 1939 she starred in a successful run of Yokel Boy on Broadway, which led to her first starring role in a movie, Scatterbrain, in 1940, for Republic. She made a good half dozen “Judy Canova” films for Republic between 1940 and 1943, but then switched to Columbia. Partly because of the frequent panning of her films by critics, she took a hiatus from the movie business in 1946 to focus on her radio show, The Judy Canova Show, which ran for ten years between 1943 and 1953. However, she returned to Republic in 1951, possibly due to fears that her show was nearing the end of its run. While she still pulled her weight at the box office, her films didn’t have quite the draw in the fifties as they did in the forties, and scripts such as that for Carolina Cannonball didn’t do her career any favours. Lay that Rifle Down, made later in 1955, became her last film before she called it quits as far as movies were concerned. Her radio show had been canceled by NBC in 1953, and as a last resort to save her flailing career, she tried to transition to TV. However, apart from a couple of guest spots in popular variety shows, TV didn’t have much to offer her.

There was a time when a magazine could call Judy Canova “America’s No. 1 comedienne” without being ironic.

Canova didn’t give up, however, but formed her own production company in 1957. It produced pilots for two shows in 1958 and 1959, but none of them were picked up by a network. She also released a solo record in 1959. Her later career was not only hampered by the waning of her fanbase and the dwindling popularity of her brand of Hee Haw comedy, but also by bouts of illness. She never completely disappeared from the scene, though, and had a handful of guest spots on TV in the sixties and seventies. She appeared in yet another TV pilot, Li’l Abner, in 1966, which wasn’t picked up either, but instead became a TV movie. She had a couple of small movie roles, and her last role, ironically for this review, was in Paul Bartel’s cult racing movie Cannonball (1976). Canova had two daughters, Julieta “Tweeny” and Diana. Tweeny appeared as a child actress in a couple of her mother’s films, but Diana created an acting career of her own, mainly on TV, which lasted from the mid-seventies to 2011. She got a little slice of fame for her recurring role as Corinne in the daytime show Soap (1977-1981), and in the eighties starred in a short-lived series called Throb.

Album cover detail.

Judy Canova is all but forgotten today, and her most popular films have no more than 50 votes on IMDb. And while never among the biggest stars of Hollywood, she was a widely popular B movie performer, whose marquee value was enough to carry close to 50 movies in the forties and fifties, as well as a well-liked radio performer. That she never broke through to the big league was not because of a lack of talent or charisma, which she had in spades. The three songs in Carolina Cannonball showcase her beautiful and strong singing voice, which probably would have been well suited for the jazzy tunes of the era. That she did leave a mark on her age is showcased by the fact that she has two stars on the Hollywood walk of fame, one for film and one for radio. Bill Warren writes: “She was a typical performer of her type: genuinely talented, but in a vein so specialized she was never able to reach beyond it. Her drive and energy are so fierce in her little movies that they tend to blow the story and the rest of the characters completely away. Her reputation as the lowest of low-brow stars may have kept her mostly off the movie screens after Hollywood stopped grinding out low-budget programmers for regional markets.”

Andy Clyde in his “old man” makeup.

Andy Clyde, playing Grandpa in Carolina Cannonball, is a bit like Max von Sydow: Everyone thought he was old enough to keel over in the beginning of his Hollywood career and scratched their heads in disbelief when he kept showing up in new pictures 40 years later. Scottish-born Clyde was a vaudeville and stage actor who came to Hollywood in 1920, at the age of 28, to join Mack Sennett’s legendary comedy roster. At the time film actors did their own makeup, and like Lon Chaney, Clyde made himself incredibly useful thanks to his mastery of disguises. But the one that stuck was one that he adopted for a character simply labelled “old man”. With a bushy, grey moustache and a grey wig, he created what would become his calling card for the rest of his career. He appeared almost exclusively in his own comedy shorts up until the mid-thirties, when he started appearing in bit-parts in feature films. However, unlike many comedians, he never quit doing short films, and continued making them until 1956, when he instead transitioned into TV. To a post-silent era audience he is best known for playing Hopalong Cassidy’s longtime sidekick California Carlson in a string of films in the forties. On TV he had memorable recurring roles as Cully Wilson in Lassie in the sixties and as George MacMichael in The Real McCoys in the late fifties and early sixties. By the time he made Carolina Cannonball he was still only 63 years of age, despite having played the same “old man” character for thirty years. Clyde appeared in close to 400 productions, most of them shorts. He has a star on the Walk of Fame.

Elliott Ross with Peggy Maley in Indestructible Man in 1956.

Elliott Ross seldom got the chance to play leading man, and must have latched on to the opportunity in Carolina Cannonball, be it a D-grade movie. Described as a “general utilitarian player”, New Yorker Ross’ clean-cut and somewhat nondescript features and a reliable talent provided him with a steady income for over four decades. Few of his film roles stand out as memorable, and he might be best remembered for walking out on his role as Lee Baldwin in the long-running soap opera General Hospital in 1965, a role which was then played by Peter Hansen from 1965 to his retirement in 2004. Leaving behind a proposed career in law, Ross came up through Broadway and moved to Hollywood after serving in WWII. Between 1943 and 1986 he appeared in close to 200 TV shows and over 60 films. He had robust supporting roles in SF movies like The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953, review), Tarantula (1955) and Indestructible Man (1956) and showed up in smaller roles in Monster on the Campus (1958) and The Crawling Hand (1963). He also appeared in a number of SF TV shows, including The Twilight Zone, The Time Tunnel, The Invaders, Wonder Woman and The Bionic Woman.

Jack Kruschen.

The rest of the cast are made up by top-notch supporting actors, all of who are really wasted in their caricature roles. One of some interest for this blog is Canadian-born Jack Kruschen, who was often stuck in this kind of ethnic comedy or as ethnical villains. He did this with such aplomb that he got slapped with an Oscar nomination for best supporting actor for his role as Jack Lemmon’s neighbour Dr. Dreyfuss in Billy Wilder’s The Apartment (1960). Kruschen was one of three actors that appeared on both the original Superman TV series in the fifties and the nineties series Lois & Clark. He is also one of the few actors who has been killed by Martians in two different films: The War of the Worlds (1953, review) and The Angry Red Planet (1959). Along with SF staple William Phipps, he played one of the three stooges who try to sneak up to the landed space ship in the beginning of the first movie.

Dorothy Andre to the left.

Judy Canova’s stunt double Dorothy Andre was Olivia Havilland’s stunt double in the legendary 1938 The Adventures of Robin Hood, and the next year worked in The Wizard of Oz as stunt double for Judy Garland, whose character’s name was, of course, Dorothy. She appeared in over 30 films before she went into makeup and hairstyling. As a hair stylist she won two Emmy Awards, for Fall from Grace (1990) and Mrs. Santa Claus (1996). IMDb lists stunt woman Dorothy Andre and hair stylist Dorothy Andre as two different people, but they are in fact one and the same.

The Lydecker Brothers.

The Lydecker Brothers, Babe and Ted, were legends in Hollywood. Nicknamed “the wins”, because of their close working relationship, they were in fact born three years apart. During the heyday of the movie serial in the thirties and forties, Republic could consistently boast the most impressive special effects, and the Lydeckers’ work often concealed the low budgets of the studio’s feature films. The secret was first and foremost in the brothers’ woodworking shop. Here they made large, extremely detailed models that stood up to close scrutiny. Houses, bridges, cars, trains, airplanes and ships, all of which they giddily blew up in majestic explosions, set on fire or hurled down mountainsides. Their slow motion photography gave weight and size to the models, and their pencheant for shooting outdoors in natural light added to the realism. They often used force perspective and different optical tricks in order to put their miniatures in scenes with live action footage, without having to use time-consuming double exposure or other visual effects. They are perhaps best known for developing the so-called Lydecker rig for shooting airplane models and other flying stuff. Usually flying vehicles were suspended from above, but the brothers developed a system of mounting them on horizontal wires, which allowed them to travel straight and fast for very long distances or crashing or taking off diagonally. They put the technique to great use in SF serials such as King of the Rocket Men and Adventure of Captain Marvel, zipping dummies across rooftops and mountains, as the hero chased villains across the terrain — often with live actors in the same shot. Republic became the go-to-studio for aviation war films, often shooting entire movies without a single real airplane on camera. The effects also translated to underwater and above-water effects, as seen on the TV series Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea. Before that, the Lydeckers lent a helping hand to Disney in realising the effects for the Nautilus in 20,000 Leagues under the Sea (1954, review).

Janne Wass

Carolina Cannonball. 1955, USA. Directed by Charles Lamont. Written by Barry Shipman & Frank Gill, Jr. Starring: Judy Canova, Andy Clyde, Ross Elliott, Jack Kruschen, Sig Ruman, Leon Askin, Frank Wilcox, Emil Sitka. Music: R. Dale Butts. Cinematography: Reggie Lanning. Editing: Tony Martinelli. Art direction: Frank Hotaling. Costume design: Adele Palmer. Sound: T.A. Carman, Howard Wilson. Special effects: Howard & Theodore Lydecker. Produced by Sidney Picker for Republic Pictures.

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