BOOTLEG FILES 405: “Star Spangled Salesman” (1968 short film produced by the U.S. Department of the Treasury).

LAST SEEN: A black-and-white copy of this color production can be found on YouTube.

AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: It has been included on a few video collections of public domain Three Stooges films.

REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: As a federal government film, it has no copyright. Plus, it is a rare Three Stooges movie.

CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE:  Not likely as a standalone offering.

Once upon a time, the U.S. government encouraged the American public to save money. Of course, that was back in an era when people actually had money to save and the government had enough of its own money to spend. Not surprisingly, the government felt that it should be the recipient of the public’s hard-earned savings, and it accomplished this goal through a campaign to encourage the purchase of U.S. savings bonds.

But the government was not content in merely waiting for consumers to purchase savings bonds on their own initiative. Instead, a program called the “payroll savings plan” was created to slice off a percentage of a person’s wages from their paycheck and into the purchase of savings bonds. As you might imagine, consternation among many people who felt that their take-home pay would become much smaller.

As a result, the Savings Bond Division of the U.S. Department of the Treasury decided to create a film that would explain how the payroll savings plan worked and why it was beneficial for workers to enroll in this plan. Rather than churn out a generic educational film, the Treasury tapped into the Hollywood community for assistance. A number of high-profile television stars responded by volunteering their time to make guest appearances in this film.

“Star Spangled Salesman” opens with Carl Reiner as the film’s host. He frames his presentation in the context of a lecture to human resources officers and explains the importance of selling the payroll savings plan to employees. He then adds that this film will provide the answers to various questions that may arise in conversations about this plan.

The film then switches to Hollywood’s Columbia Pictures studio, where Milton Berle is in his office. Berle holds the title of executive producer, and he calls in veteran comic actor Howard Morris for an assignment: go around the studio and sign up everyone in sight for the payroll savings plan. Morris is uncertain that he can handle the assignment, but Berle is insistent.

Morris leaves Berle’s office and is immediately chatted up by Berle’s secretary, played by Carol Burnett. When Morris tries to get her to sign up, she balks by claiming that she cannot afford to do it because of her low salary. But before the dejected Morris sulks away, Burnett does a 180-degree turn and points out the problems with her feeble excuse. She then leans over Morris and purrs, “If we start saving right now, we can get married!”

The rest of the film follows this pattern, with Morris encountering people who initially offer a silly excuse to reject the plan, but then turn around and detail at length why their objections make little sense.

Morris encounters the Three Stooges, who play stagehands taking a lunch break. The trio tries to grapple with an oversized submarine sandwich that serves as their shared meal, and then turn down Morris’ pitch by claiming they already have “too many deductions” from their paychecks. When the Stooges then explain why the plan is really not a deduction, they use Morris as a desk to sign their payroll forms.

While on a lunchtime kick, Morris winds up in the studio commissary with two stars of “Hogan’s Heroes”: John Banner as the studio’s chef and Werner Klemperer as his manager. They initially reject the plan by claiming they have other bills that require priority payment, but then acknowledge that the plan will actually help them stay ahead of their bills. Morris caps this off with a spot-on imitation of Banner’s beloved Sgt. Schultz character.

Next up is an encounter with two telephone repairmen, played by Tim Conway and Olympic star Rafer Johnson. They voice skepticism about the plan’s schematics, but then Conway admits that it is “kind of groovy to have someone save for us.” This scene is particularly amusing to watch as the athletic Johnson towers above the gnomish Morris and Conway.

After this, Morris views the production of a TV show starring Harry Morgan of “Dragnet.” Morris spoils a shot by loudly munching potato chips, and he is scolded by a studio security guard played by Jack Webb (who, of course, was Morgan’s “Dragnet” co-star). Webb also presents arguments against the payroll savings plan before abruptly contradicting himself and admitting its value as solid savings strategy.

Morris returns to Berle’s office with all of the payroll forms filled out, except for one: Berle himself! Then, Carl Reiner returns to remind the viewer that the savings bonds being purchased as part of the plan will “help the government manage the public debt and protect the value of the dollar.”

Unlike many government-produced films  “Star Spangled Salesman” is an entertaining endeavor, with the all-star cast providing enough good-natured humor to add sparkling life to a very dry subject matter. This film also offered a rare opportunity for Morris to have a starring role, albeit in a short. Best known as Sid Caesar’s sidekick on “Your Show of Shows” and as Ernest T. Bass on “The Andy Griffith Show,” Morris never got the chance to be in the center of the spotlight. In “Star Spangled Salesman,” Morris’ delightful turn as a befuddled and bumbling wage-slave shows that he was quite capable of being more than a colorful supporting character.

“Star Spangled Salesman” is also something of a bittersweet offering because it provided the last film appearance of the Three Stooges. The slapstick trio had not been on screen since 1965’s “The Outlaws Is Coming,” and the only film gig they could swing was this pro bono production at their long-time studio. Norman Maurer, who was Moe Howard’s son-in-law and the creative force behind the trio’s late-career feature films, directed and produced “Star Spangled Salesman.”

As a U.S. government film, “Star Spangled Salesman” was always in the public domain. It is not certain whether this film was ever theatrically released; prints were offered to the educational market well into the late 1970s as a tool for social studies lessons. The film has never been the subject of a standalone release in any home entertainment format, although it has been included in a few video anthologies that include other public domain titles featuring the Three Stooges. The complete short can be found in YouTube, albeit in a less-than-pristine black-and-white dupe.

“Star Spangled Salesman” is an amusing curio that deserves to be checked out. And perhaps, in view of today’s dismal economy, perhaps it would not be a bad idea to revive the concept of the payroll savings plan and get people to buy savings bonds as a means of establishing personal and national fiscal security. Indeed, maybe the Three Stooges knew something that we forgot?

IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either for crass commercial purposes or profit-free s***s and giggles, is not something that the entertainment industry appreciates. On occasion, law enforcement personnel boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and distribute bootleg material, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. Oddly, the purchase and ownership of bootleg DVDs is perfectly legal. Go figure!

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  1. Phil Hall says:

    @Herb: Legally, it is not a bootleg. However, the prints in circulation are almostl always dupes – often third- and fourth-generation. So, in a loosey-goosey way, it fits into this series.

  2. Herb Finn says:

    er, A title in the public domain can not be properly referred to as a “bootleg” because in the legal sense it is not!

  3. Hal says:

    Norman Maurer had also produced Howard Morris’ debut as a feature director, WHO’S MINDING THE MINT? the year before.

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