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Chris Hicks: Utah jokes more silly than insulting

Published: Thursday, July 19 2012 4:38 p.m. MDT

Every now and then, while watching some old movie, I'll catch an out-of-the-blue reference to Salt Lake City or Mormons, usually in a sarcastic "isn't this a hick town?" context. And some of them are quite amusing, usually more silly than insulting.

So, as we anticipate next week's 24th of July celebrations, in honor of the Mormons making their way to the Salt Lake Valley in 1847, it seems fitting that a new one has just hit my radar. Well, it's actually almost 70 years old, but it's new to me.

"The Sky's the Limit," which earned a belated DVD debut recently on the manufacture-on-demand Warner Archive label, is a less-than-likely suspect for this kind of gag. Who would think Salt Lake City might provide a pivotal plot point in the first 10 minutes of an airy, nearly forgotten Fred Astaire trifle?

Astaire plays an Army Air Corps pilot during World War II, which was still raging when the picture was released in 1943. Having gained some fame for heroics in the Pacific, Astaire's character and his buddies are sent stateside for a 10-day furlough, during which they are given a ticker-tape parade in Manhattan and sent across the country on a whistlestop tour to drum up support for the military effort.

As their train barrels through the West, an officer gives the boys their itinerary: "We arrive in Salt Lake tomorrow morning, visit the Mormon Tabernacle." And as he goes on, Astaire, his hand to his face, rolls his eyes. When the officer finishes, Astaire groans: "Ouch!" Then, when the train comes to a brief stop just outside "Arvin," wherever that is, Astaire slips off and makes his way back to New York City.

The Travel Council probably wouldn't like it, but it made me chuckle. And "The Sky's the Limit" isn't alone. Here are some other films (all on DVD) that offer equally dubious tourism plugs:

"Gentleman Jim" (1942) stars Errol Flynn in a fictionalized, mostly comic biography of James J. "Gentleman Jim" Corbett, the famed fighter of the late 19th and early 20th century. The morning after a drinking binge, Corbett awakens with a hangover in a strange hotel room and vaguely remembers a train trip. Puzzled about where he is, he looks out the window and sees the Salt Lake Mormon temple and a warehouse with a sign that says, "Salt Lake Ice Company." "Salt Lake City!" says Corbett, "That's where the Mormons come from." Later in the film, when Corbett tells some acquaintances he was in Salt Lake City, he's asked, "Whatever did you go there for?" He replies, "Oh, I wanted to see the lake."

"Ocean's Eleven" (1960), the original Las Vegas heist comedy starring Frank Sinatra's Rat Pack, has Akim Tamiroff as the easily exasperated backer of the robbery. At one point Sinatra tells him that the good news is, "We're leaving Phoenix." The bad news? "We're going to Salt Lake City." Later, when one of the crew, a drawling cowpoke, is late, Tamiroff says, "So where is this horse-wrangler? … Still running around Salt Lake City, I'll bet, saying goodbye to all his wives."

"The Sand Pebbles" (1966) stars Steve McQueen as a sailor on a U.S. gunboat in 1926 China. He hails from Grover, Utah, and when he tells a Chinese woman he's from Utah, she says with a glimmer of recognition, "Oh, Salt Lake City. Is Utah nice?" "Ehhh," McQueen replies, "for some people." Later, missionary Candice Bergen asks why he joined the Navy, and McQueen says, "Well, ain't much water in Utah."

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