I was eager to see 'Alias the Deacon' because it's based on a play co-written by John B. Hymer. The play's original title was 'The Deacon'. The film version, adding that word 'Alias', makes the title funnier and also more accurate. Hymer was an extremely successful playwright in the 1920s, but his work has dated badly and is unworthy of revival. What intrigues me about him is that he's the father of Warren Hymer, one of my all-time favourite supporting actors of 1930s films. Warren Hymer specialised in playing dim-witted crooks; his onscreen characters would have fit right into the plays written by his father.
Jean Hersholt gives a deft performance as a card-sharp nicknamed the Deacon, who wears clerical garb and affects a priestly manner. (The intertitles give him some very pious dialogue.) Annoyingly and implausibly, the Deacon is an embodiment of the 'good thief' stereotype that occurs so often in fiction and so seldom in reality. The Deacon only robs people who 'deserve' it, and he gives most of the money to unfortunates. This is an obvious ploy to make a dishonest protagonist sympathetic.
There's a very funny scene between Hersholt and a crooked fight promoter played by Ned Sparks (another of my all-time favourite character actors). When the Deacon 'accidentally' flashes a bankroll, Sparks offers him a chance to double it in a quick game of draw poker. 'Draw poker ... what's that?' asks the Deacon innocently. During the game, the Deacon can barely conceal his excitement as he realises he's got two pair. Naturally, this encourages Sparks to double up his wager. At the call, the Deacon reveals his two pair: a pair of kings, and another pair of kings. Four of a kind!
Tom Kennedy, a very underrated comic actor, is very funny as Sparks's boxer, who gets into a fixed boxing match with Ralph Graves as an earnest young man who needs money to buy furniture so he can get married and settle down with the pallid June Marlowe. Myrtle Stedman is slightly amusing as the proprietress of a rural hotel, who falls for the Deacon's schemes. The brief exterior sequences are well-photographed.
The casting of Jean Hersholt in the lead role is intriguing. In real life, Hersholt was one of the most saintly men in Hollywood, active in many charities. Onscreen, due to his unpleasant looks, he tended to play extremely unsavoury villains. Here, Hersholt has the appearance and demeanour of a priest while actually playing a dishonest man, yet the role is written so as to make Hersholt's thief sympathetic. Possibly by coincidence, immediately after this film, Hersholt starred as another crooked deacon in '13 Washington Square'.
I usually dislike movies in which the audience are encouraged to sympathise with a thief, but 'Alias the Deacon' is more charming with it than is usual for that subgenre. I'll rate this comedy 6 points out of 10, mostly for the performances of Hersholt, Kennedy and Sparks. Warren Hymer would have fit right in.
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