You’ll Find Out/Here Come the Boogie Men (1940) **
When Peter Lorre and Boris Karloff started turning up to spoof their images as icons of horror in movies like Bikini Beach, Muscle Beach Party, and The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini during the mid-1960’s, the young audiences of the day might have thought they were witnessing a new development in the old men’s careers, but nothing could have been further from the truth. Even as early as 1940, Karloff, Lorre, and Bela Lugosi, too, were adding their sinister gravitas to corny comedies featuring lightweight popstars— the best known of those old variety-show horrors is probably RKO’s Zombies on Broadway, but there were plenty of others. And because, in the 1940’s, few popstars were cornier or more lightweight than bandleader Kay Kyser, it was probably inevitable that he and the 30’s ghoul squad would cross paths in one of the earliest such features, another RKO production called You’ll Find Out.
Not many people remember Kay Kyser today. For one thing, even the most successful of novelty acts (and Kyser was about the most successful that ever there was) have relatively short shelf lives, but the way Kyser dropped completely out of sight after retiring with a most uncharacteristic lack of fanfare in 1950 surely didn’t do much to preserve his notoriety either. In the 1940’s, though, he was a huge deal. His Wednesday night NBC radio show, “Kay Kyser and his Kollege of Musical Knowledge,” was heard all across America, one or another of his songs was in the top ten almost constantly throughout the decade, and he launched the careers of a number of significant big band musicians, including Harry Babbit, Sully Mason, Ginny Simms, and Ish Kabbible, the Moe Howard of swing. He even had a short-lived television show in 1949. And, of course, he made movies. You’ll Find Out was the second film for Kyser and his band, a comedic spooky-house mystery very much in the tradition of The Gorilla or Ghosts on the Loose. The big difference here is that the mob of doofi who blunder their way into a deadly mystery and solve it almost by accident are the conductor of a swing band, his manager, and his three star performers.
We begin, appropriately enough, with a live broadcast of “Kay Kyser and his Kollege of Musical Knowledge.” I just about stopped the tape and aborted the mission right then and there, let me tell you. We’ll just say that my perception of the 1940’s as the least funny time in human history has been reinforced yet again, and leave it at that. After the show, Kyser’s manager, Chuck Deems (Dennis O’Keefe, from The Leopard Man and Siren of Atlantis), hooks up with his girlfriend, Janis Bellacrest (The Mystery of the 13th Guest’s Helen Parrish), to supply us with our first big dose of exposition. Janis is about to turn 21, and her mother, Margo (Alma Kruger), is throwing a big party in celebration at the stereotypically macabre Bellacrest mansion. Kyser and his band are slated to provide the entertainment. All is not sweetness and light and idiotic songs about “The Bad Humor Man,” however. Three times during the past two weeks, Janis has only narrowly avoided a potentially fatal accident, and she has begun to fear that somebody out there is trying to kill her.
The next day, Chuck, Kay, and the Kollege get on the bus and ride out to the Bellacrest estate, which is located on a little between-rivers island somewhere outside Chicago. It can’t be anything but a plot point when the bus driver announces that the rickety bridge over which they pass is the only route onto or off of the Bellacrest property. Once at the mansion, we learn that Mr. Bellacrest is long dead, and that his widow is a spiritualist loony who has recently taken up with a supposed medium who calls himself Prince Saliano (Bela Lugosi). Janis is none too pleased with this state of affairs, as the prince has been fattening himself up like a turban-wearing tapeworm on her mother’s largesse ever since they met. Nor is Saliano the only suspicious character hanging around the Bellacrest place. There’s also an old friend of the family named Judge Spencer Mainwaring, and while he doesn’t really do much at first to make us think he’s no good, the fact that he’s played by Boris Karloff is enough to make us look askance at him all by itself. And while Janis seems not to have made the connection between these two oily old creeps and the accidents she’s been dodging lately, we certainly do. As it stands, though, Janis mainly wants to see Saliano exposed for the shyster he almost surely is, and for that reason, Chuck has invited a guest of his own to the girl’s birthday bash— psychic researcher and debunker extraordinaire Dr. Karl Fenninger. Oh, wait… Fenninger’s played by Peter Lorre (of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and The Raven). Karloff, Lugosi, and Lorre together under the same roof? These people are so fucked…
Unsurprisingly, there’s a séance, at which Janis is nearly killed by a falling chandelier. Equally unsurprisingly, the bridge to the outside world blows up, trapping everyone in the mansion. Chuck gets it in his head that Saliano is behind his girlfriend’s repeated brushes with death, and that the medium’s scheme probably has something to do with the Bellacrest fortune. But he also thinks Saliano has an accomplice, and soon Deems, Kyser, and most of the band are prowling around in the network of secret passages that riddle the mansion looking for clues and getting scared out of their wits by suits of armor and stuffed gorillas. But just when it looks like they’re making good progress toward exposing Saliano, Kyser does something amazingly stupid, and brings Fenninger into their confidence. Now that the conspirators know they’re being watched, we may reasonably predict that they’ll ratchet up their efforts to kill Janis, and from their performance so far, it seems likely to take more than the Kollege of Musical Knowledge to stand in their way. Then again, Ish Kabbible does own a hypothetically adorable little dog, and we all know what that usually means in a 1940’s horror film.
Actually, if you can manage to tune out all the hokey musical numbers (and every single scene in which Ish Kabbible makes an appearance), You’ll Find Out isn’t all that bad. Kay Kyser has a decent sense of comedic timing, at least when he’s delivering somebody else’s jokes, and on those occasions when You’ll Find Out relies on wit rather than mere silliness, it works more often than not. It also benefits from its handling of the three villains. Unusually for a movie of this type, it plays Fenninger, Saliano, and Mainwaring completely straight, and it refrains from giving Lugosi enough rope with which to hang his performance. Karloff doesn’t have much to do, but he makes the most of his few scenes of out-and-out villainy. But really it’s Peter Lorre who steals the show, and who saves this movie to the extent that it’s susceptible to being saved. It wasn’t often that Lorre got to do calculated menace instead of flamboyant madness, and he rises to the occasion here. He also gets most of the best lines (“I’m tired of wasting my time outwitting morons” is my personal favorite), and the scenes in which he progressively hoodwinks Kyser are a lot of fun. If the opening scene doesn’t send you fleeing in fear for your sanity, then you should find You’ll Find Out relatively inoffensive. I still don’t have a clue what the title’s supposed to mean, though…