At 25: “Who’s Harry Crumb?”

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February 3, 2014 by billysparrow


Who’s Harry Crumb?

Released: February 3, 1989

Starring: John Candy, Shawnee Smith, Jeffrey Jones, Annie Potts, Tim Thomerson, Barry Corbin

I have a hard time saying anything bad about John Candy. He was undoubtedly a hero of mine growing up, and the list of movies he’s been in that I love is a long and impressive one (to name just a few, “Planes, Trains & Automobiles,” “The Great Outdoors,” “Summer Rental,” “Brewster’s Millions,” and, coming to an At 25 post later this year, “Uncle Buck”). He’s easily among my favorite movie stars of all time, and in 1989 news of a new John Candy movie would bring an immense amount of joy to my 12-year-old life.

But I am not such a Candy man (see what I did there?) that I can contend that everything he ever did was amazing. They can’t all be gold. And that’s where “Who’s Harry Crumb?” comes in. Sure, there are some funny moments in it, enough to make watching it 25 years later a not completely unwelcome task, and it is certainly not the worst Candy movie (I recall “Delirious” being pretty terrible, and I’m so certain that “Nothing but Trouble”–starring Candy, Dan Aykroyd, and Chevy Chase, aka three of my all-time favorite funny people–is awful that I refuse to watch it). But you’d be hard-pressed to put it at the top of the Candy oeuvre.

Okay. That was the closest I’ve ever come to insulting John Candy. I don’t feel so good. Let’s see if I can fight through it and finish writing this.

“Who’s Harry Crumb?’ starts off oddly, with a prolonged pseudo-striptease, followed by mud application, in a weird Kubrickian-looking spa. And if you think that sounds like a bad start for a funny movie, well, you’d be right on the money. The scene ends with some chloroforming and a kidnapping (always hilarious) before we cut to the offices of Crumb & Crumb, where Eliot Draisen (Jeffrey Jones, best known as Ed Rooney from “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” or for being a sex offender) is meeting with the kidnapped girl’s father, P.J. Downing (played by the always reliable Barry Corbin). Draisen, who–SPOILER ALERT–is behind the kidnapping, points him toward Detective Harry Crumb, at which point we finally get to see the inexplicably red-headed John Candy. Five minutes is too long a wait, even with the red hair. (But we do get to hear the full title in dialogue, and whenever that happens in a movie, I am reminded of “A Couple of Eccentric Guys,” Calvin Trillin’s profile of Penn and Teller, in which he reveals that Penn and his Movie Night friends would always politely applaud any time a movie’s title was spoken in dialogue.)

But as a reward for our patience, we are given the opportunity to see not only Candy, in a decidedly conspicuous disguise (a window washer with Don King hair) for a private investigator spying on a cheating husband, but also former football player and nascent actor Lyle Alzado as a different husband who suspects his wife has been cheating on him. At the time of the film’s release, the late, great Alzado was in the midst of his greatest acting moment, as the star of the world’s first (and dare I say last) wrestling sitcom, “Learning the Ropes,” in which Alzado played a teacher who also moonlighted as a professional wrestler named The Masked Maniac. The show featured many cameos from actual National Wrestling Alliance wrestlers. Hilarity ensued. Well, something ensued. All I know is I was an avid watcher, and that I purchased bootleg copies of the whole series run a few years ago.

In retrospect, it might have been a terrible show. And certainly more terrible than “Who’s Harry Crumb?” See how nicely I brought us back there? Anyway, here’s the scene of which I speak.

Someone else who makes “Who’s Harry Crumb?” not so terrible is Shawnee Smith, who I had a crush on for quite a while (I still might, if a 37-year-old man can be said to have a crush). I’m not sure if I did at the time this movie came out (and certainly not when she was pregnant in 1987’s “Summer School”…I was more into Courtney Thorne-Smith in that one), but it could’ve been the point at which I first started to take notice. She plays Nikki Downing, the overlooked sister of the kidnapped Jennifer Downing (Renee Coleman) and neglected daughter of P.J. She winds up becoming Crumb’s assistant as he attempts to solve the kidnapping, and she does an admirable job throughout. In many of her scenes with Candy, you can sense the fun she had working with him (in a 1989 LA Times article, she said  working with Candy meant “non-stop laughing–my sides would ache when I was done working for the day,” which is always how I’d imagine such a day would go). Sadly, none of these scenes appear to be on YouTube (well, there’s this, but it’s brief), so you’ll just have to take my word for it.

And even if this is not one of Candy’s best films, that does not mean it doesn’t have some good moments here and there. Most of them come toward the beginning of the movie, including Crumb’s encounter with a fish (and one that seems to bark), which is reminiscent of the one that appeared in “The Naked Gun” a few months earlier. I think we can all agree that 1988/1989 was the definitive era for fish-related comedy.

Candy also has a pretty good adversarial chemistry with Detective Casey, played by former Dan Aykroyd comedy partner Valri Bromfield (bonus trivia fact: she appeared as a guest performer on the very first episode of “Saturday Night Live”). The film–and Candy’s–best line–“You find that crazy typewriter and you’ll have your kidnappers”–is found within.

But the overall best scene of the movie (narrowly beating out the sight gag of Crumb in a jockey uniform, squeezing into a “Jockeys Only” phone booth) involves Crumb posing as the Hungarian vice president in charge of operations at Suki’s Hungarian Salon. Funny lines, good visual humor–this is as good as it gets here. And it’s evidence that Candy will always make your movie viewing at least partially worthwhile.

The film concludes at the airport, as Eliot and Mrs. Downing (Annie Potts, whom I also had a little crush on at some point in the 1990s, during my “I like the way she talks” phase of celebrity infatuation) plan to make their getaway, only to be foiled by Mrs. Downing’s assumed-to-be-dim-witted boyfriend Vince (Tim Thomerson). This scene, and the ones that lead up to Mrs. Downing and Vince being caught on the airplane, seem to indicate 1989 was a much more lax time in the history of airport security. Not only are Mrs. Downing and Vince able to get into the terminal without having tickets, but Vince is somehow able to sneak a gun in as well (yet Crumb’s plate in his head keeps him from passing through security without issue). Crumb and Nikki also make it through without tickets and are even able to walk right out on the runway and steal a stair car. But that last part’s excusable because they do it while “Holding Out for a Hero” is heard in the background, and we all now anything is possible when that song is playing.

Eventually, they catch up to the plane (easier than you might think, I guess), and we get this:

And then Crumb stumbles into discovering the real kidnapper before one final scene (where Candy shows the drag queen talents he honed in “Armed and Dangerous”) and the closing credits, which feature The Temptations doing “Big Fun (Harry Crumb),” a song not quite as memorable as “My Girl,” nor the launching pad for a Temps resurgence. To the best of my recollection, they didn’t play it either time I saw them with my dad.

Better times were ahead for Candy in 1989, with one of his best in “Uncle Buck” coming out later in the year (“Speed Zone” also came out in 1989, but he doesn’t get much to do in that one and certainly doesn’t get to be in any of the good scenes…yeah, there are good scenes…well, maybe one good scene…you’ll see…). And there were still a few solid film moments (if not entirely solid films) before his untimely passing in 1994 (I still remember where I was–at an MDA Superdance meeting at my high school–when I heard). And I like to think that if he had lived longer, we would’ve gotten even better stuff out of him.

But what we’ve got–even in underwhelming movies like “Who’s Harry Crumb?”–is still pretty memorable.

Sorry. I really am no good at saying bad stuff about John Candy.


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