I sat through 'The Gay Retreat', but I can't possibly explain why this doughboy comedy has that inappropriate title, which must have seemed fairly bizarre even in 1927. I suspect that the title is meant to suggest a parody of 'The Big Parade', the doughboy drama released two years earlier that was still making money in 1927.
What this 1927 movie reminds me of is not 'The Big Parade' but rather 'Great Guns' (1941), one of the very weakest comedies made by the great Laurel and Hardy. 'Great Guns' and 'The Gay Retreat' have precisely the same premise: when the feckless young scion of a society family joins the infantry, his two loyal manservants enlist along with him so they can protect him. I wonder if anybody involved in 'Great Guns' had seen this earlier movie. Although 'The Gay Retreat' isn't very funny, it's a (slightly) better comedy than the very poor 'Great Guns'. And in fact, after setting up their identical premises, the two movies take their respective plot lines in radically different directions.
The social scion here is young Richard Wright (let's have no Bigger Thomas jokes, please), played by Gene Cameron: blandly handsome but not much of an actor. Young Richard has a penchant for getting into trouble -- among other things, he's a sleepwalker -- so his two faithful servants tag along when he joins the AEF and ships out for France.
The servants, cried Sammy and Ted, are played by two actors named Sammy and Ted. I have a standing rule, born of long experience with bad comedies: whenever characters in a comedy have the same names as the actors playing them, the movie isn't very funny. (The exceptions to this would be most Hal Roach films; the Roach studio had a bizarre policy of using the names of its contract players -- including Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy -- for the names of the characters they portrayed.) In 'The Gay Retreat', Banana-nosed actor Sammy Cohen plays doughboy Sammy Nosenbloom. Oh, dear. A few months after 'The Gay Retreat', for the same studio, Sammy Cohen starred in 'Plastered in Paris' as Sammy Nosenblum, an ex-doughboy. During the same period, in yet another Fox military comedy, he played a sailor named Sammy Beezeroff. Can there perhaps be a pattern here? Cohen's nose is of spectacular dimensions; he nearly makes Jimmy Durante look like Nanette Fabray.
Ted McNamara plays the other servant, one Ted McHiggins. His character is plainly meant to be funny, but McNamara displays little talent. Also, McNamara isn't nearly so strange-looking as the highly proboscoid Cohen. The two of them are meant to be funny guys, playing off each other, but Sammy Cohen's talents (and his nose) tip the scales. Not that Cohen is especially funny, but he's streets ahead of McNamara.
Another rule of mine, from painful experience, is: when an American silent comedy isn't very funny, it tries to compensate with jokey title cards that make matters worse. In 'The Gay Retreat' we get a dim dumb dame who thinks that infantrymen work with infants. Ha bloody ha.
No sooner do our dough-faced doughboys arrive in the trenches at the battlefront, than Richard falls asleep. He's a sleepwalker, remember? Sure enough: he sleepwalks right across the revetments, over the top and into No Man's Land ... and proceeds to somnambulate towards the German lines! So of course Ted and Sammy abandon their posts to go after him.
Once they're behind German lines, the doughboys are slightly conspicuous in AEF uniforms ... so they nick German uniforms and disguise themselves. Did I mention that Richard is STILL asleep? So now all three of them are disguised as Germans, even though he's still sleepwalking. Some plot lines that would be totally implausible in a sound movie are just barely plausible in a silent film, and this is one of them: we know that Richard is sleepwalking through battlefields filled with explosions and gunfire ... but we don't HEAR those things, so we don't stop to realise that this Somme somnambulist WOULD hear them, and he would wake up.
One sight gag in this monochrome movie surprised me favourably. When a girl kisses Ted, his face briefly blushes DEEP RED: in the print that I cranked through my hand-held Steenbeck viewer, every frame of this shot had been carefully hand-tinted so that his face (and nothing else) becomes coloured. I had previously seen this gimmick in 'A Connecticut Yankee', made by the same studio four years later, but starring a much more popular actor: Will Rogers. I know that, for Rogers's film, Fox paid a roomful of girls a tiny wage to hand-tint the blush sequence in every single exhibition print of 'A Connecticut Yankee'. Did they go to the same trouble four years earlier, for this much less impressive comedy? I suspect they must have done: if the tinting had been omitted from the print I viewed, the sequence would have made little sense. McNamara lacked the acting ability to convey a blush without the aid of that gimmick.
But this movie should be blushing for other reasons. I'll rate 'The Gay Retreat' just 4 points out of 10, which makes it funnier than 'Plastered in Paris', its possible sequel.
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