Watching 1939: The Day the Bookies Wept (1939)

In 2011, I announced I was trying to see every film released in 1939. This new series chronicles films released in 1939 as I watch them. As we start out this blog feature, this section may become more concrete as I search for a common thread that runs throughout each film of the year. Right now, that’s difficult.

bookkies wept1939 film:
The Day the Bookies Wept (1939)

Release date:
Sept. 13, 1939

Joe Penner, Betty Grable, Richard Lane, Tom Kennedy, Thurston Hall, Bernadene Hayes, Carol Hughes, Chill Wills (uncredited)

RKO Pictures

Leslie Goodwins

New York taxi drivers are tired of losing money at the race track, so they decide to buy and train their own race horse. They send dopey taxi driver Ernie (Penner) to Kentucky to buy the horse, and he is tricked into buying a horse that has a yen for alcohol.

1939 Notes:
• By the numbers:
– Joe Penner’s only film of 1939.
– Betty Grable was in three films released in 1939.
– Richard Lane was in 15 feature-length films released in 1939.
– Tom Kennedy was in 11 feature-length films released in 1939.
– Thurston Hall was in 16 films released in 1939.
– Bernadene Hayes was in nine films released in 1939.
– Carol Hughes was in three films released in 1939.

bookies wept2

Other trivia:
• Based on the story “Brazy Over Pigeons” by Daniel Fuches, which was published in Collier’s in April 29, 1939.

My review: Searching for the “1939 feature”:
As vaudeville declined, several of the stage performers transitioned to either radio or into films. One of those was Joe Penner, who played a dopey character with a hyuck-hyuck laugh and the catch phrase “Wanna buy a duck?”

Penner made several film shorts from 1930 to 1932 before being cast in feature films starting in 1934 through 1940. Critics generally didn’t enjoy Penner on screen, but in one film, they decided that they saw his appeal: THE DAY THE BOOKIES WEPT (1939).

The film follows a group of New York City taxi drivers (Penner, Kennedy, Lane) who are tired of losing money on horse races. So they decide to buy their own race horse, hoping that they will actually win. They pick none-too-bright Ernie (Penner) — who’s passion is having a pigeon farm — to head to Kentucky to buy a horse, and he’s tricked into buying an alcoholic horse. Heading back to NYC, the group hopes the horse, Hiccup, will make good.

The problem with the transition of vaudeville to film is that the actors still use their same persona and gags that they performed on stage. Admittedly, this is what made them famous, but maybe branching out would have worked better? However, while I did find Joe Penner annoying, he is less annoying than most of his contemporaries. Performers like Joe Cook or the Ritz Brothers are far worse.

New York Times film critic Frank S. Nugent called Penner “superb” in his Sept. 14, 1939 review.

“Until today, the best we’ve ever said about Mr. Penner’s comic talents was that they came to the square root of zero, extended to the fifth decimal point. Now we take it back,” Nugent wrote. “In The Day the Bookies Wept, at the Rialto yesterday, Mr. Penner is superb. Every time he opens his mouth the script-writers put a good line into it. Or nearly every time: on the off-moments he relies on his adenoids, which are almost as funny.”

While Penner wasn’t my cup of tea, I will admit that some of his scenes are pretty funny. I almost wish we spent more time on his pigeon passion, which was limited to flying animated pigeons.

Playing Penner’s girlfriend is Betty Grable, who is a bright spot of this film, though she’s not often on screen and gets no mention in the film review. At this point, Grable was on the brink of her film career and would soon be catapulted into stardom.

Another bright spot is Tom Kennedy (who is always fun to see in films). Kennedy is one of the funniest aspects of the film. I like when he’s making plans and a lady keeps coming up and asking for a taxi. “Lady, please take the subway, can’t you see we are busy,” finally giving her subway fare.

Another funny moment is Chill Wills when he peaks his head into a scene briefly to interject in a fight between Grable and Penner.

THE DAY THE BOOKIES WEPT (1939) isn’t the best film of 1939, and I’m not sure if it’s even very good. But it is somewhat fun, though it felt like a very long 64-minutes.

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