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A $50,000 life-insurance sale puts mild-mannered Henry Twinkle on the fast track at Ajax Insurance Company. Now he can marry his girl and climb the corporate ladder -- just as long as the insured party, Gus Fender, enjoys a long life. Unfortunately, it turns out Gus is a racketeer with an army of gat-carrying rivals. So Henry gets an order from his apoplectic boss: keep Gus alive! Lew Ayres, the popular star of the Dr. Kildare films, hones his comedy skills as hapless Henry, plunged into a world of gangsters and molls. Lloyd Nolan, who enjoyed a 50-year career in film and television, portrays Gus with appropriate menace. Olympic wrestler-turned-actor Nat Pendleton (The Thin Man) stands out as one of Gus's dimwitted henchmen. And among the screenwriters is renowned American humorist S.J. Perelman (Monkey Business, Horse Feathers). "Sprightly little screwball yarn" (Leonard Maltin's Classic Movie Guide). Written by
Twinkle, Twinkle, little star quality: VERY little.
The funniest thing in this movie is its title. 'The Golden Fleecing' has a similar premise to Danny Kaye's unfunny comedy 'The Man from the Diner's Club': a gormless hero, on behalf of his employer, extends financial obligation to a gangster, then must imperil himself implausibly in order to undo the damage. But 'Diner's Club', as dire as it was, managed to be much more plausible than 'The Golden Fleecing'.
Lew Ayres was a slightly talented dramatic actor with no flair for comedy; his success in a supporting role in the comedy 'Holiday' was down to Ayres's willingness to give a passive performance for a firm-handed director while allowing much more talented actors to play off him. Here, in 'The Golden Fleecing', Ayres plays a schlub insurance salesman named Henry Twinkle: I guess that this name is meant to be funny, but somehow I'm not laughing. (When I said he was a schlub insurance salesman, I didn't mean he sells schlub insurance: I meant he's a schlub who has a job as an insurance salesman.) Henry is engaged to Lila (the attractive but untalented actress Virginia Grey), and they hope to get married if only Henry sells a few insurance policies.
Henry sells a life-insurance policy to a man named Gus Fender (played by Lloyd Nolan, whose face does indeed resemble a bashed fender). Henry is pleased with the sale ... until he learns that Fender is a gangster, and rival gangsters have put a price on Fender's head. If this were real life, Henry's boss could just cancel the insurance policy on a technicality. But this is a movie, so ... exit credibility, upstage left, while implausibility runs riot.
In order to keep Fender from getting killed, Henry gets involved in some criminal schemes which become increasingly felonious and decreasingly plausible. Meanwhile, Lila can't figure out why Henry is acting so weird, and of course he can't tell her. Listen, sister: when you decided to marry a guy named Twinkle, you should have been prepared.
Part of the problem with 'The Golden Fleecing' is that Fender is so unlikeable, we actually want him to get killed off ... even though this would mean ruination for Henry. Lloyd Nolan was a very talented actor (more so than Ayres) whose unpleasant physiognomy kept him typecast nearly always as crooks or unsympathetic heroes.
There are some good supporting performances here. The trim and muscular Nat Pendleton (a former Olympic athlete) plays a guy named Fatso. Leon Errol plays a character named Uncle Waldo: just the idea of Leon Errol playing somebody named Uncle Waldo is funny, but Errol has little to do in the role. Spencer Charters, Ralph Byrd and the great William Demarest are excellent in small roles. It's nice to see Ralph Byrd playing a role that isn't Dick Tracy. I'll rate this weak movie 4 out of 10.
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