'The Inspector General,' in Classic, Cool Context

This Saturday night, KCET brings you the 1949 Danny Kaye musical comedy "The Inspector General." It's the latest entry in KCET's "Classic, Cool Theater" series, which aims to give you not only a great film but also a vintage cartoon, two newsreels and an of-the-era musical number. All those extras add up to what makes "Classic, Cool Theater" so special: context. In the spirit of this unique package, we're offering you a peek at the America -- and the Los Angeles -- that received the original "The Inspector General" back on Dec. 30, 1949.

It may be that as you read this, you're asking yourself, "Who is Danny Kaye?" And while such a question would provoke fits of head-shaking and groaning in some classic film lovers, I'm going to help you out by providing the trailer for "The Inspector General," a farce about a bumbling nobody mistaken for a government official who's wearing the disguise of a bumbling nobody. If you likened Kaye to a mid-century Jim Carrey, you wouldn't be too far off the mark.

Believe it or not, "The Inspector General" is actually a loose adaptation of the 1863 Nikolai Gogol play, "The Government Inspector." The original probably didn't feature as much mugging as Kaye's take on it did, but the essential plot is there. Such highbrow source material proved to make a successful vehicle for Kaye, but it would be eclipsed just a few years later with his biggest film, "The Court Jester," another period piece comedy with similar themes of identity confusion.

In discussing show business in 1949, it's worthwhile to note the effect this year would have on one of the highest-profile stars ever produced by Tinsel Town: the Hollywood Sign.

(Credit: Wiki Commons)

Not only was 1949 the year that the landmark lost the "LAND" and came to read what Angelenos now see on the hillside every day, but it was in the same year that remaining letters were saved from destruction following a period of disrepair. (The blog Retronaut has some awesome photos of the sign's early days, BTW.) The Hollywood Chamber of Commerce and the L.A. Department of Parks and Recreation agreed to spend $4,000 to restore the remaining letters. It would be the sign's most dramatic makeover until Gloria Swanson would sponsor another in 1973. This period of the sign's life -- including the suicide of actress Peg Entwistle from the letter "H" in the previous decade -- is detailed in the 2009 Hope Anderson documentary, "Under the Hollywood Sign," the first part of which is posted below.

Take a Closer Look Back

Courtesy of the UCLA Library Digital Collections, a look back at photos of 1949-era Los Angeles:

South-west side of Los Angeles City Hall, Calif. -- October 9, 1949 (Credit: Los Angeles Times photographic archive, UCLA library)
BY A NOSE -- Henry Ross, 7, tries rolling his egg by a push from his nose in the Elks' egg-rolling contest held every year for hundreds of children in park. -- April 17, 1949 (Credit: Los Angeles Times photographic archive, UCLA library)
Dragon parade in Chinatown, Los Angeles. -- 1949 (Credit: Los Angeles Times photographic archive, UCLA library)

The summer of 1949 was big for mobster Mickey Cohen. As documented by two posts on the L.A. Times Daily Mirror feature -- specifically this one and this one -- Cohen's Cadillac was perforated by some bullets fired by assailants camped out at 9039 Sunset Boulevard. Hit the links for pictures of the crime scene... and the Caddy in question.

Read the L.A. Times retrospective on the Los Angeles event that launched the career of evangelist Billy Graham: his first "crusade," which began on Sept. 25, 1949, in a tent pitched at the corner of Washington Boulevard and Hill Street.

Proof that it does occasionally snow in Los Angeles: A photo of snowfall in downtown on Jan. 11, 1949. And some more context at the L.A. Times photo archive.

Three-year-old Kathy Fiscus died on April 8, 1949, when she fell into an abandoned water well in San Marino. What's remarkable about her death today is that the sad news was announced via a live broadcast by KTLA. Hit this link to listen to Patt Morrison interviewing historian Bill Deverell and newsman Stan Chambers about the event and its effect on TV news.

And finally, check out the 1949 documentary about the L.A. Fire Department. It's... just a little funny, and pretty campy by today's standards. But its lessons hold true even today: Don't smoke in bed, people.


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