Rediscovered: Roadhouse Benny

One of the major reasons I went to the Hammett-fest the last day of Noir City is that I figured I might as well, finally, catch a showing of Roadhouse Nights from 1930. I don’t recall it ever showing in a theatre any time in the last thirty-five years or so, although I had a chance to see a 16mm print of it a local movie collector unrolled in a private screening some years back. Can’t remember exactly what was going on, but I missed that opportunity — the fact is, I figured the movie would stink, and if I never saw it, no great loss.

Now I’ve seen it, and my suspicions were gold.

Pretty much all I knew about it came from a capsule summary, from Bruce Taylor of the original San Francisco Mystery Bookstore, I believe it was, who said the action featured Charlie Ruggles as a detective hitting someone, Jimmy Durante doing a song, Ruggles hitting someone else, Durante doing another song.

Now that I’ve seen it, I can say that Ruggles doesn’t hit anyone, but Durante — in his film debut — does do a few songs, and steals every scene he’s in with his mugging. Durante and the movie camera were made for each other.

Ruggles doesn’t play a gumshoe — he’s a newspaper reporter. Makes sense. The screenplay is in part by Ben Hecht, now famous for the play and various film versions of The Front Page. The fast-paced banter is very much in that line, if not as slick. Other than being populated with some bootlegging gangsters in a roadhouse, the movie bears no resemblance to Hammett’s Red Harvest — instead of being set in Montana, the roadhouse is located in Michigan, Ruggles is reporting for a Chicago sheet. Really, if Hammett didn’t get a screen credit, you’d never suspect his writing came within a mile of this job.

But at least I got one pleasant jolt out of sitting through yet another clunky movie. Helen Morgan, as the moll Lola Fagan, knew the Ruggles’ character, Willie Bindbugel, from childhood.

At one point Lola asks something like, “You wanted to be a telegraph operator when you grew up, didn’t you, Willie?”

Willie replies: “No — a wireless hero — like Jack Benny.”

I heard it. Rick Layman heard it. Hammett’s granddaughter heard it. Other people heard it.

Jack Benny.

Cool. An allusion to Benny on radio.

Problem is, in his autobio Sunday Nights at Seven Benny reports that he made his radio debut March 29, 1932 on Ed Sullivan’s program. Other sources agree. He was famous from Vaudeville, and hit Hollywood in 1929 in the Hollywood Revue of 1929 — his next film, Chasing Rainbows came out in 1930 about the same time as Roadhouse Nights.

Benny was from Chicago. Hecht was a big figure in the so-called Chicago Renaissance. While the movie was still rolling on, I was thinking that Hecht probably knew Benny, tossed in a little in-joke, a local reference.

But my research team can’t find any reference to Jack being on Chicago radio prior to 1932 — or any radio.

So. We all misheard the name Jack Benny, one of the most recognisable names in pop culture.

Or Jack was doing radio before 1932 and we wouldn’t even suspect, if not for Roadhouse Nights.

Or, some other explanation that hasn’t occurred to me yet.

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