The beloved character actor James Gleason had a second career as a playwright; he starred in several of his own plays on Broadway before becoming a film actor. One of Gleason's plays, the farce 'Is Zat So?' was a huge box-office hit: if Gleason had carefully invested his royalties from this one play, he might never have had to work again. But he squandered the profits, eventually giving up on writing altogether and concentrating his talents on a long series of memorable roles as a film actor. 'Dumbbells in Ermine' was co-written by James Gleason, but so far as I can tell it's not based on any of his playscripts: he appears to have adapted a play written by other hands. He's also good in a supporting role here as Mike, the brassy trainer of Jerry Malone, the film's prizefighter hero.
Robert Armstrong plays the fighter, giving a performance very similar to the one he gave as a broken-nosed boxer in 'Be Yourself'. He falls in love with the well-bred Faith Corey (Barbara Kent), but Faith's extremely religious parents are preparing her for missionary work in the Congo.
SPOILERS COMING SOON. None of the characters in this movie are especially interesting, and there are too many subplots. In this movie, all the subplots are neatly tied up and solved by Faith's kindly old grandmother ... which is implausible enough by itself, but made much worse by the fact that the granny is played by Beryl Mercer. The late film historian William K. Everson once agreed with me that Beryl Mercer was the single most annoying performer in the entire history of Hollywood movies. (We also agreed that Sterling Holloway and Chester Clute were tied for second place.) This so-called actress, this baggage of whines is totally unbelievable as the font of all maternal wisdom, which is how she's cast in this movie. Mercer is painful enough in small supporting roles with only a few lines of dialogue: here, she plays one of the main roles, with a disproportionate amount of the movie's dialogue, and her whining voice is more excruciating than usual. Even Andy Devine's voice sounds more pleasant than Beryl Mercer's.
I'll rate 'Dumbbells in Ermine' (with its almost totally irrelevant title) 2 points out of 10. James Gleason was probably right to phase out his scriptwriting career in favour of his superb performances as an actor.
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