Take the Money and Run and The Pink Panther. Raising Arizona and The Naked Gun. The history of criminal comedy films--comedies in which the protagonists are cops, gangsters, or thieves--goes back at least to 1912 when Mack Sennett produced Hoffmeyer's Legacy, the first of the Keystone Cops films. (The spelling "Kops" evidently only emerged in 1955 in the film Abbott and Costello Meet the Keystone Kops.)
The criminal comedies have great appeal because they infantilize dangerous people and make them appear safer for audiences. The criminals in these films typically use more words than weapons.
Larceny, Inc. starring Edward G. Robinson is an enjoyable film in that tradition and deserves greater recognition. Robinson filmed three important criminal comedies working with the director Lloyd Bacon. Bacon had acted in various Chaplin films such as The Tramp and Easy Street, and so, in tandem with Robinson's tough-guy roles starting with Little Caesar, they formed a well-schooled team. Some people think the first of their trilogy, A Slight Case of Murder (1938), was their best. Brother Orchid (1940) with Humphrey Bogart was the second. Larceny, Inc. was the third film, released in 1942. The film's cast included Anthony Quinn and a young Jackie Gleason, who had only been in his first films a year earlier. It's a well-written farce and, if it doesn't have the clever and brisk give-and-take of the best screwball comedies, it's well-constructed with wonderful character actors and an adept Robinson.
The basic plot involves Robinson as a released criminal in need of money. He decides to rob a bank. to do this, he purchases a luggage shop next door to the bank and with his cohorts begins to dig a tunnel in the store's basement. To their shock, the luggage shop becomes successful, but they are pressured by a gang member to continue their original criminal intentions.
If that plot sounds familiar, it's because Woody Allen employed the same premise in Small Time Crooks. There are differences and who knows where Woody got the idea. It may have come from his own inventive mind, or the Robinson film, or the failed play on which the movie was based. The Night Before Christmas opened in April 1941 and closed after 22 performances, but it was by Laura Perelman (sister of the great writer Nathaniel West) and her husband, the dazzlingly clever comic writer S.J. Perelman, a man Woody Allen deeply admired. Perhaps Woody saw the Perelman mind at work in the film.
Larceny, Inc., that is, has a title that can serve both for the film and for some part of the artistic enterprise. Stealing is such a cruel word. Pete Seeger uses the words "the folk process" to describe such lifting in music. He once told me he doesn't think of it as stealing at all but just as a normal part of adapting a tradition to the times.
Perhaps such borrowing reflects artistic insecurity or the fact that some artists work best by bouncing off another person's idea and then changing it. Perhaps the demands of producing successful art on a schedule become so overwhelming that the temptation to borrow is difficult to resist.
Sometimes the remake is clearly indicated, as in Mel Brooks' production of To Be or Not to Be, which was based on the unforgettable Jack Benny film with the same title. Sometimes the borrowed material is less obvious. For example, the comedy writers Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby were brought in to work on the Marx Brothers movie A Night at the Opera. They suggested a plot about scoundrels overselling backers a musical that was bound to fail. The idea was rejected--but Brooks famously put it to use in The Producers.
I invite readers to provide other examples.