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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 <firstname.lastname@example.org>
THE PASSIONATE PLUMBER (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1932), a Buster Keaton production directed by Edward Sedgwick, stars Buster Keaton in his second "farce" comedy, the first being PARLOR, BEDROOM AND BATH (MGM, 1931). With screen adaptation by Laurence E. Johnson, and uncredited material lifted from the play "Her Cardboard Lover" by Jacques Deval, THE PASSIONATE PLUMBER, its new title, certainly improves over Keaton's previous screen sound efforts for MGM (1930-33). Though not quite a cinematic masterpiece as one could have hoped for, it's basic flaws tend to be placed on certain gag and story material as being undeveloped with resolutions left unresolved. Overlooking these minor aspects, the finished product generally blends in nicely with its basic comedy premise, even for Keaton.
Set in Paris, France, with the Arch of Triumph captured in full view for its opening, the story introduces Julius J. (J. for Julius) McCracken (Jimmy Durante) coming to Paul Le Maire's (Paul Porcasi) shop in need of a plumber for his employer to fix a leak in the shower. Julius gets Elmer E. (E. for Elmer) Tuttle (Buster Keaton wearing beret), an American from Yonkers, working on his latest experiment, a spot shooting pistol. After these strangers get introduced, next scene has Elmer escorted into the mansion of socialite Patricia Alden (Irene Purcell) where he goes to work on her shower. In the meantime, plot development introduces Alhine (Polly Moran), the household maid whom McCracken is crazy about, and how much Miss Alden is crazy about Tony Lagorce (Gilbert Roland), a handsome gigolo, whose Spanish speaking wife, Nina (Mona Maris), refuses to grant him a divorce. Unaware to Miss Alden, Tony is actually carrying on a romance with Nina, using Patricia as his excuse for a wife, too, refusing to grant him a divorce. Hoping to make Tony jealous, Patricia hires Elmer as her lover decoy, or better yet, her passionate plumber, resulting to a series of mishaps for all concerned.
Previously filmed at the tail-end of the silent era as THE CARDBOARD LOVER (MGM, 1928) starring Marion Davies,and Nils Asther, and remade again as HER CARDBOARD LOVER (MGM, 1942) starring Norma Shearer and Robert Taylor, the Keaton carnation proves most interesting due to how its writers revamped a sophisticated comedy to fit with the opposite comedic talents of deadpan Keaton and over zealous Durante. Though their characters start off as complete strangers, only minutes into the story does it give the impression of they being lifelong pals. Even before the store comes to the halfway mark is it forgotten that Keaton's character is a plumber. It's a wonder if he ever got to finish fixing the shower and make up the bill for his time?
Of the several comedy highlights, including Keaton's gambling mishap at the Casino de Paris and the gigolo's attempt of keeping his two mistresses from getting together, the best known and/or most admired happens to be the dueling sequence between Keaton and Roland, with Durante in amiable support. Though it has its moments, it's obvious how this burlesque style pistol dueling would be recycled by future comedians as Bob Hope, Danny Kaye, or even one of the Three Stooges as prime examples. Keaton's frequent glove slapping Frenchmen to duels and correcting those who constantly mispronounce his last name, along with Mona Maris' constant Spanish speaking outbursts (done more favorably by Mexican actress Lupe Velez in later years) to Mexican born Gilbert Roland in saying in her accented English, "If you could only speak Spanish," are agreeable run-on gags. It's also a wonder how Velez might have handled such similar scenes had she been selected to play the spitfiring wife instead of Maris?
Others featured in the cast are Maude Eburne (Aunt Charlotte); Henry Armetta, Jean Del Val and Edward Brophy (Keaton's frequent co-star during his MGM years) in a cameo appearance as the man outside the beauty parlor. Irene Purcell, a not so well known actress with so few movies to her credit, makes an acceptable foil for Keaton's buffoonery. Closely resembling Joan Blondell in physical appearance and Genevieve Tobin in both mannerism and speech, she takes part in some good scenes involving Keaton, one where she gets served breakfast in bed (in the silent film tradition with limited dialog), and another where she constantly tries losing him so she can have a secret meeting with her lover. Polly Moran, better known for her screen partnership opposite Marie Dressler, has some funny bits here, too, few and far between, but mostly with Durante.
As much as Keaton and Durante are as compatible as Stan Laurel and Harpo Marx, MGM would pair them again in SPEAK EASILY (1932) and WHAT, NO BEER! (1933) before ending their screen partnership. Virturally forgotten over the years, this and other Keaton MGM comedies can be seen and studied whenever broadcast on cable television's Turner Classic Movies. Keaton's Elmer may not be the greatest plumber in Paris, but certainly is passionate, in a funny sort of way. (***)
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