'Alias the Deacon' is based on a 1925 Broadway play, originally filmed silent in 1928. This talkie remake stars radio comedian Bob Burns, who must have seemed a good choice for the role with his southern accent and folksy demeanour. Alas, Burns was no actor. His role here requires him to convey two personalities at once - a respectable naive deacon and a sophisticated card-sharp - and Burns simply isn't up to the demands of the role.
Burns plays travelling confidence trickster Caswell, nicknamed 'Deke' because he disguises himself as a jackleg deacon in a dog's collar and sombre clerical garb. This character is an embodiment of the 'good thief' stereotype that I dislike so much: he's a crook, but we're expected to approve of his criminal behaviour because he only ever seems to rob other crooks who are somewhat less charming than himself. It's been my experience that most con-men rob the easiest marks, not the most deserving ones.
Caswell blows into a small southern town, where he encounters Johnny and Phyllis, an innocent young couple who want to marry but lack the moolah. Of course, the Deacon decides to intervene. But first he needs a suitable mark.
This film is only fitfully amusing. The most sustained humour arrives during a scene between Deke and his victims: crooked fight promoter Stuffy and his pugilist Bull, played respectively by Edward Brophy and Guinn Williams: two character actors whom I've hugely enjoyed elsewhere, but who are not up to their usual high standard here. The Deacon 'accidentally' flashes a huge bankroll, arousing Stuffy to offer him a chance to double it in a friendly game of draw poker. 'Draw poker? What's that?' asks the wide-eyed clergyman, and we know exactly how the chips will fall. But there are a few laughs on the way to the inevitable. Screenwriter Nat Perrin supplies a few wisecracks that weren't in the silent version's dialogue titles.
SPOILERS COMING. A boxing match between the hefty Williams and the rather less hefty Dennis O'Keefe is very well staged by Christy Cabanne, although the ending to the fight is both obvious and implausible. There are several good performances by veteran character performers, and I especially enjoyed a deft turn by Mischa Auer as the town's fastidious barber. Auer ranks very high on my list of favourite character actors. I was also pleased by a brief appearance in a cameo role by veteran character actor Berton Churchill, who starred as the Deacon during this material's original Broadway run. At the end of this movie, of course, the Deacon moves on to the next town full of suckers. I'll rate this movie only 4 out of 10. The biggest flaw is the central performance by Bob Burns, who simply wasn't a good enough actor to convey guile to the audience while expressing naff innocence to the other characters onscreen.
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