So, what fabulous film am I discussing for Sister Celluloid’s Backstage Blogathon? You’ll Find Out.
No. Seriously. You’ll Find Out.
I see this could go on a bit like a “Who’s on First” joke if you’re not familiar with the Kay Kyser film You’ll Find Out.
I’m going to be the odd girl out here in the Blogathon, I think. The performing art that You’ll Find Out most obviously casts its lens on is radio. For those of you unfamiliar with Old Time Radio, OTR to those of us who have thousands of shows preserved on our computer hard drives, Kay Kyser was a band leader from Chapel Hill, North Carolina. His effervescent personality quickly made his band a success and he ended up with a radio show in 1938, eventually called the “Kollege of Musical Knowledge.” The show was a hit with a listening audience of 20 million (ramfan.com). By 1949, “Kay Kyser’s Kollege of Musical Knowledge” also aired on NBC-TV.
In between becoming a radio sensation and transferring to television, Kyser and his band were in at least seven films, beginning with That’s Right, You’re Wrong in 1939 (named after a catch phrase from the radio show). You’ll Find Out (1940) is the second and, I believe, the best of these movie performances written for Kyser’s band.
The Backstage Blogathon is looking for films that are mirrors of the entertainment industry, and while You’ll Find Out is not the typical Hollywood “mirror,” it is so self-referential that I believe it fits the criteria, often casting the mirror on its own self, the glory days of Radio, and its big name guest stars. One obvious part of Show Biz we’re seeing here is promotion. The point of making the movie was, of course, to make money for RKO, but also to promote Kyser’s radio show and records.
So, as the Ol’ Professor would have said, “Gather ’round chilluns, and You’ll Find Out!”
The movie begins with Kay wrapping up an episode of The Kollege of Musical Knowledge. From the very beginning, the audience gets an inside view of the world of radio shows. It is interesting to see how visually the show was constructed. Kay is dressed in a robe and mortar board; the band plays dramatically, cutting up and spinning their instruments; Kay dances across the stage. The live studio audience certainly got a good show.
They do know it’s primarily for radio broadcast, though; at one point, a guest on the show is describing an easel and using gestures, and Kay reminds her, “Now don’t use your hands. Describe it so the folks at home can hear.” Dennis O’Keefe as Kay’s manager, Chuck, then literally takes us backstage when the show ends. He is about to introduce the lovely heiress Janis Bellacrest, his lady love (Helen Parrish) to Kay since the band’s next gig is to play her lavish 21st birthday party. In some of the discussion, Chuck tells Janis that he makes sure the timing of the show is right. Huh. When they were actually live on the air, that really was quite a big deal. With my “taped before a live studio audience” mindset, I found that little bit of otherwise thrown-off dialog interesting.
After a thrilling moment in which Janis reveals to Chuck that she thinks someone is trying to kill her, it’s on to Bellacrest Mansion. Here, we meet three icons of horror moviedom: Bella Lugosi, Boris Karloff, and Peter Lorre. Janis’s aunt Margot (Alma Kruger) is in thrall to supposed psychic Prince Saliano (Lugosi) who can contact her dead brother, Janis’s father. As is the wont of fake psychics, Saliano is soaking the old lady for her fortune. So here, we see Lugosi playing the part of someone playing the part of a creepy mystic.
The problem is that Janis is about to turn 21 and inherit everything, thus cutting off The Prince’s gravy train. The Bellacrest fortune is supposedly being looked out for by an old family friend Judge Mainwaring (Karloff); unfortunately, the Judge is only on the Judge’s side and is in cahoots with Saliano. Here again, Karloff is playing the role of someone playing a role. This is a very typical Karloff character, except in a comedy. He is suave, debonaire, yet with secrets.
To prove to her aunt that Saliano is a fraud, Janis has invited a noted debunker of psychics, Professor Karl Fenninger. Unfortunately, the real Fenninger is delayed and replaced by Fake Fenninger (Peter Lorre). Kay is suspicious of Saliano and wants to help Janis get rid of him; unfortunately, he completely trusts Fake Fenninger with every plan he has to expose Saliano. Throughout the film, Lorre skulks around basically being creepy. He, too is playing a character who is pretending to be someone else.
All of the double identities for these big names serve to highlight the audience’s expectations for them. Rather than to try to take the audience completely into another world, You’ll Find Out wants us to know it is a movie. Although You’ll Find Out has been criticized for under-utilizing its guest stars, I see these performance as a chance to really watch these masters practice their craft. Drawing the audience’s attention to the fact that each actor is playing a role (typical for him) within the film is a little like being let in on an inside joke. It’s almost as if the band members aren’t the only one playing themselves as we’re encouraged to watch these wonderful actors as they openly create personas like those with which we’ve come to associate them.
We also get to see the band set up. Members of the band play themselves. The main players, Harry Babbitt, Ish Kabibble, and Sully Mason are involved in the plot as well. They are unhappy about playing in what might just be a haunted house, and at one point, Kay and the boys decide to leg it. As their manager, Chuck reminds them that they have to stay. He also appeals on Kay’s friendship, confessing to Kay that he loves Janis. Kay, seeming to have a change of heart replies, “You love her?…And who does she love?” When Chuck confirms that she loves him in return, Kay says, “Then you protect her.”
As we all know, THE SHOW MUST GO ON, so the guys end up putting on a fine performance for Janis and her guests in spite of the requisite storm and power outage. The audience is treated to some numbers by the band, featuring Academy nominated “I’d Know you Anywhere” sung by Ginny Simms and “The Bad Humor Man” led by Ish Kabibble.
As the film progresses, Kay flushes Saliano out, goading him into a “show,” noting that he and Saliano are both in show business; they both have a racket. Again, You’ll Find Out is very self-referential. He and the band manage to solve the mystery, discredit Saliano, expose Mainwaring and defrock the fake Fenninger. Since this is a Creepy Old House movie, we have the obligatory trek through hidden passages before all is said and done.
Just to be sure everyone knew it was a movie, in the end, Kyser breaks the fourth wall, walking out through a curtain to announce that Karloff, Lugosi, and Lorre are all actually nice guys in spite of the roles they played. You’ll Find Out is obviously a movie having fun being a movie, casting sly winks at the audience, making sure we all recognize it for what it is–as such casting a self-reflective lens on the art of film-making.
Head on over to Sister Celluloid and check out the rest of the Backstage Blogathon!