Silent-film comedian Snub Pollard gave hilarious performances in some Hal Roach short comedies, yet Pollard never managed to develop a character who could sustain a feature- length film. Even some of his short films contain a split-level structure, with the story abruptly changing direction midway through the movie. One of Pollard's best shorts, 'At the Ringside', is a good example of this: the first half of the movie is an imitation of Charlie Chaplin's 'Easy Street', then the second half deals with a boxing match.
'Before the Public', running roughly 2,000 feet, appears to be as close as Pollard ever got to starring in a feature film ... and, as with 'At the Ringside', this is really two different stories in one film.
Back when movies were silent, cinemas often employed singers to provide musical accompaniment to magic-lantern slides or to the silent films. Oliver Hardy, in fact, got his start in movies by singing behind the projection screen at a cinema in his native Georgia. 'Before the Public' starts out with Pollard as a small-town rube who is similarly employed. He stands next to the screen in his local cinema, singing to accompany the images on magic- lantern slides. We can't hear Snub's voice in this silent movie, but his facial acrobatics (and the cinema audience's reactions) make it clear that he's a terrible singer. The audiences routinely bring fruit and vegetables into the picture-show, to throw at Snub. An amusing gag reveals that there's a greengrocer's stall next-door over to the picture palace ... and Snub keeps it well-stocked with the produce that the audiences throw at him!
Along comes one of those publicity gimmicks that were so widespread during silent-movie days: a popularity contest, with the winner receiving a trip to Hollywood and a screen test. Well, Snub is definitely the most UN-popular person in town, but all the townspeople are so eager to get rid of Snub that they rig the contest in his favour, so that he'll win the trip.
Amazingly, Snub becomes a Hollywood star. (Rather ironic, this, since Pollard was never more than a second-rank film comedian in real life.) I was pleased that this movie's script avoids that cliché which I really dislike: the one about the dead-earnest idiot who wants to be a serious dramatic actor, but who is so inept with it that he becomes a comedy star by mistake. Apparently, Pollard's character has actually become a movie star by his own efforts. Now he comes back home in triumph, exhibiting his starring movie at the same small-town cinema where he was once a humble target for groceries.
Unfortunately, this is the point where 'Before the Public' becomes an entirely different movie, as we see the film within the film. It's a western. The good news is that Pollard's usual sidekicks Noah Young (as the villain) and Marie Mosquini (as the heroine) are on hand. The bad news is that Pollard's cowboy movie is just one more lame collection of cowboy clichés, all quite predictable and most of them unfunny.
The great Jimmy Finlayson is in 'Before the Public', but is sadly given very little to do.
Mostly out of fondness for Snub Pollard and respect for his career -- he made a graceful segue into small supporting roles, lasting well into the sound era -- I'll rate this effort 6 out of 10.
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