Best known to many generations as the penultimate Joker (from the Batman television series), the elegant Cesar Romero actually began his career co-starring against the likes of such golden megastars as Marlene Dietrich, Betty Grable, Shirley Temple and Alice Faye. His midrange career, meanwhile, added some megawatt luster to such horror offerings as Two on a Guillotine (above), The Spectre of Edgar Allan Poe and (silly spoof) Mortuary Academy. He even applied his smooth charisma to a take on Count Dracula for Rod Serling’s Night Gallery in the early ‘70s.
But the scariest force that Romero came up against may have just been booming theater goddess Ethel Merman. In 1938’s Happy Landing, a vehicle for perky Olympian skater Sonja Henie, Romero plays the smarmy Duke Sargent, a bandleader with a woman in every port. Ultimately, the roving Sargent meets his match in Merman’s Flo Kelly. Kelly spends the last half of the movie beating Romero’s calculating operator into romantic submission and the two emerge at the finale as a devoted (if slightly bruised) couple.
Interestingly, while the scenes where Merman clobbers Romero over the head with hotel room lamps (and the like) are supposed to read as humorous, this aggressive slapstick actually has the opposite effect. Often these encounters read more as domestic violence than comedic gold.
Despite this, the suave Romero practically steals the show here. Her majestic routines on the ice notwithstanding, Henie as a leading lady mugs her way throughout her intimate moments and tends to gaze, off camera, with moony eyed dreaminess at every fade-out. Merman, meanwhile, is a bit too forceful, the power of her stage presence not fully transferring to film. Thus, Romero commands this (rather flimsy and stereotypical) story with an easy flow and an undeniable photogenic presence.
Rather bravely, considering the era in which he was popular, Romero, known as a lifelong bachelor, officially acknowledged his homosexuality in an interview with writer Boze Hadleigh for his 1996 book Hollywood Gays. Done towards the end of his life, this honesty may be just as significant as any of his beloved screen roles.
Until the next time, SWEET love and pink GRUE, Big Gay Horror Fan!