With a cast including Peter Lorre, Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff it’s a little surprising that this comedy isn’t a little more famous, especially as it’s rather good. Starring Kay Kyser (of “Kay Kyser’s Kollege of Musical Knowledge” radio and stage show fame), he and his band end up in a mysterious mansion that’s full of secret passages and vicious weapons, they’re supposed to be performing at a birthday party but soon end up trying to stop a murder.
The plot revolves around Janis (Helen Parrish), the girl that Kyser’s producer Chuck (Dennis O’Keefe) is dating, whose twenty first birthday everyone is celebrating, and that includes her weird old Aunt Margo (Alma Kruger), family friend Judge Mainwearing (Boris Karloff), and the medium Prince Saliano (Bela Lugosi) who Margo’s obsessed by, along with the band and about four of Janis’s friends, because presumably they ran out of money after hiring the rest of the cast. Professor Karl Fenninger (Peter Lorre) is also skulking about in the shadows as he’s been hired to prove that Saliano is a fake, but shock horror, he, Mainwearing and Saliano are all in on a plan to murder Janis.
It’s a fairly unusual comedy, with a few musical numbers thrown in for free, which is packed with a decent number of nicely daft gags and there’s some strong physical comedy too. Kyser and his band mate Ish (Ish Kabibble) are especially impressive on that front, and though some of the gags are a little dated (with the film acknowledging this at times) most of the time they land and the dialogue is mostly funny throughout. The large cast are all pretty damn great as well, Lorre gets to be suitable creepy and is clearly enjoying the chance to ham it up, Lugosi is amusingly weird as the con artist medium, and only Karloff doesn’t get a huge amount to do. And while Kyser’s perhaps not the most natural of leading men Chuck is on hand to provide ample support, Ish Kabibble’s fantastic at pulling silly faces, and Alma Kruger is pleasingly odd as Janis’s Aunt, and only Helen Parrish should feel a little hard done by as she’s mostly asked to look a bit confused or scared, but she’s definitely an amiable straight woman to these crazy events.
It also has some quite fun weird moments too, nearly all of them revolving around the seances that Lugosi’s Prince Saliano holds, and one scene involving some floating heads and strange vocal fuckery, where one of the undead cries out “I am so lonely, open the vale and let me through”, reminded of David Lynch, though sadly it’s all explained as to how Saliano cons his audience. The songs are largely great as well, with a deliberately silly number about an ice cream seller being really funny, especially when the band members get the chance to act like kids.
Directed by David Butler (Calamity Jane) it may not be the smartest of comedies, and some of the slapstick is a little on the nose, but the plot is inventive and occasionally even a little strange, which appeals. The cast give it there all, the pacing is impressive and the ending is suitably anarchic, and though it’s not quite a cult classic there’s enough going on here to make it enjoyable, and the chuckles come reasonably thick and fast, even if they’re mild bursts of laughter rather than long lasting ones.