Explain the title and win a set of stolen silverware!
Mabel Normand, one of the silent screen's greatest comediennes, made her last films for producer Hal Roach in the late 1920s. By the time she arrived at the Roach lot Mabel's reputation and career had been damaged by two major scandals and a lot of whispered innuendo. She had a substance abuse problem and her health was poor. It would seem that she was not in the best position to create great comedy, and yet, despite the odds, she nonetheless managed to rise to the occasion and produce some surprisingly enjoyable work. Mabel's debut for Roach, Raggedy Rose, is fairly entertaining but far more sentimental than anything she did back in Keystone days. There Mabel was cast as a Cinderella type, an exploited drudge who toils in a sweat-shop. It's safe to assume that this approach was the studio's strategy to counter their new star's negative personal publicity by generating audience sympathy for her. Mabel's next short The Nickel-Hopper was more fun, though the leading lady was once again cast sympathetically as an under-appreciated working stiff who supports her family. But Should Men Walk Home? marked a new approach entirely: here there's no effort to tug at our heartstrings: this is an unapologetic, freewheeling romp with lots of great gags, a strong supporting cast and a steady procession of comic set-pieces.
Mabel plays an out-and-out crook, a "Girl Bandit," no less, who might remind some viewers of Miriam Hopkins' character in the 1932 classic Trouble in Paradise. And like Hopkins she quickly hooks up with a male partner in crime, in this case a Gentleman Crook played by perpetually grinning Creighton Hale. Mabel seems a little livelier in this film than in some of her other late works. In the very first scene we find her hitch-hiking, and she's forced to make a mad dash for cover when Hale's car nearly hits her. (The scene was under-cranked, but she still looks pretty nimble.) Soon they team up and crash a swanky party in a mansion to steal a jewel from the host's safe. The host has hired a dim-witted private detective to guard the goods, a nice juicy role for character actor Eugene Palette. The detective is aware almost immediately that these two are up to no good, but he doesn't eject them . . . because then we wouldn't have much of a movie, would we? Instead he tries to out-wit them, and when they succeed in getting the goods from the safe the game is on. From that point forward, our lovable crooks struggle to hide the jewel, find it again, hide it, and elude the cop.
One of the comic high-points involves an elaborate, grotesque indoor fountain decorated with cherubs which bear a striking resemblance to Creighton Hale. When he dives into the water to recover the jewel there are underwater shots that suggest the fountain is as deep as an Olympic-sized pool; and when he surfaces, a comedy routine unfolds in which Hale must try to fool the cop into thinking that he is one of the cherubs. (Hale's struggle to keep a straight face in this sequence appears to be quite genuine.) The bit was later developed into a more elaborate routine for the Roach Studio's 1928 comedy Early to Bed, starring Laurel & Hardy. And speaking of L&H, Oliver Hardy makes a brief but memorable appearance in this film as a party guest who repeatedly attempts to get a glass of punch, only to be thwarted by Mabel, by Hale, and finally by himself. Ollie makes a strong impression, but Mabel is very much the star of the show. When we compare this film to her early Keystone work it's apparent that her style became ever more nuanced with the passage of time; by this point she could get laughs with just a raised eyebrow or a puckered look of exasperation.
Perhaps if Mabel Normand had kept her health and continued working in the movies this sort of role (i.e. the crook with the heart of gold) might have held possibilities for further development. Sadly, however, this was one of her last films: she died of tuberculosis only three years later at the age of 37. There's no sign of any difficulty or impending trouble behind the scenes as we watch this sprightly two-reel comedy. Should Men Walk Home? has a breezy tone that is poignant only in retrospect.
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