Elmer Tuttle, a plumber in Paris, is enlisted by beautiful Patricia Alden to help her make her lover Tony Lagorce jealous. Tony, however, is two-timing Patricia with Nina Estrados. Elmer, with the help of his friend Julius, hopes to use the high-society contacts he's made with Patricia to find a market for his new invention, a pistol with a range-finding light. But Elmer's attempts to interest a military leader are mistaken for assassination attempts, and with Tony and half the male uppercrust of France challenging Elmer to duels, he is in hot water not even his plumbing skills can drain away. Written by
Jim Beaver <email@example.com>
Now that was actually good -- I could stand to watch a lot more of those!
The last thirty seconds or so form a too-convenient "eh?--what?" conclusion, the initial set-up is slow, and Jimmy Durante seems to have wandered into a rather pointless supporting role from another movie altogether; but for the first time in talkies we have Buster back as of old -- alert, expressive, and ever-so-slightly bemused as his life unexpectedly intersects with that of a flighty socialite who is the target of a cad -- and the return is worth celebration. It will take all his trademark patience, agility and ingenuity to fulfil the contract to protect his new 'employer' both from her would-be seducer and from her own weaker moments... but "Maybe some day you'll be glad I was here," he tells her with a touching stubbornness, and true to his word it is he who contrives the final confrontation.
In a sense this is just as much farce as was "Parlor, Bedroom and Bath": but the script is better, the supporting cast is much better, and Keaton himself more than holds his own where both dialogue and speaking glances are concerned. He may be playing another 'Elmer', but his character here is a far cry from the pathetic buffoon of his first speaking role in "Free and Easy"; Elmer Tuttle, plumber and inventor, may be out of his element in Miss Patricia's social circles, but he is full of resource and determination, and no helpless puppet. The result, predictably, is far more effective -- when Reggie Irving's head nestles on a concerned female bosom, it is through mere ineptitude, but when Buster here avails himself of the same proffered rest in the aftermath of the duel, it is a visible decision to take full advantage of the opportunity! And as ever with Keaton, many of the most hilarious moments are unspoken. His ever-helpful provision of ammunition to the incensed ladies as events catch up with Tony, a scene which had me in stitches; his attempt to conceal a ridiculously fluffy lap-dog in his pocket, with the whole surreal episode the supremely logical culmination of many earlier plot twists, a set-up worthy of any of his silent features; the arrival of Aunt Charlotte, and his inspired solution to the crisis; and of course the whole duel sequence.
The entire production, from script to sight-gags, is somewhat reminiscent of the classic "Carry On" comedies of the 1960s -- and as a longstanding fan of the latter I mean that as nothing more than a thoroughly-going recommendation. It's very easy to mentally substitute Sid James into the Durante role (arguably an improvement...), Joan Sims as Patricia, and Hattie Jacques as Aunt Charlotte, and oddly enough Buster seems entirely at home in such company. But what I hadn't realised is that the actual duel sequence in the Scarlet Pimpernel spoof "Carry On Don't Lose Your Head" -- including the hero's famous offer "You have the swords, I'll have the pistols" -- is a direct homage to this film; Buster, of course, did it all first.
"The Passionate Plumber" is a true sound comedy, adapted from a stage property, but in addition it's a genuine Keaton movie in ways that "Speak Easily" or "Parlor, Bedroom and Bath", for example, are not. The MGM talkies tend to treat physical comedy as the lowest form of humour, utilising pratfalls, entanglements with scenery and general bumbling to milk the audience for routine, predictable laughs. In this film, for the first time since "Doughboys" and with more consistent results, we see the return of Keaton's own unexpected inventiveness, with the 'Aunt Charlotte' scene as perhaps the most memorable example: in a standard farce, Elmer would be hiding in a creaking cupboard or frantically climbing out of a window at this point, but it wouldn't get one-half the laugh that Keaton's straight-faced expedient does, not to mention the inspired improvisation that follows.
For once, we have Buster back in problem-solving mode, overcoming obstacles and pitting his wits against the world, and it's enough to bring a whole extra sparkle for this viewer at least. He has, of course, fallen in unspoken love with the leading lady -- but that certainly doesn't mean he's going to allow her, or anyone else, to walk all over him! Competent, coherent characters always seem to suit his style better than witless stumblers, producing superior comic results, and this film simply reinforces the point; it isn't a run-of-the-mill MGM picture, and it's distinctly funnier for it.
Keaton himself apparently didn't feel that either the film or the role were right for him. As in, famously, the case of "The High Sign" -- which he actually suppressed from initial release as substandard -- I honestly believe that in this case he was wrong: much of the film depends entirely on his interpretation, many of the laughs derive directly from his reactions and timing, and the material provides opportunity for the full range of his talents. And above all, it had me laughing by the end with the sort of helpless delight I haven't experienced from any of his other sound productions...
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