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In autumn of this year director Howard Hawks was honored with a
comprehensive retrospective of his work at the Museum of the Moving
Image in Queens, NY. The festival presented all of Hawks' surviving
features, including the rare, seldom-screened silent ones. When I went
to the museum for my first viewing of Trent's Last Case, the director's
final silent film, I kept my expectations low for several reasons. For
starters, Hawks himself was said to regard it with disdain. 'Trent,'
which was based on a mystery novel published in 1913, was produced as a
silent picture just as talkies were taking over the market. Hawks was
eager to make it with full sound, but, unfortunately, when the story
department honchos at Fox, the director's home studio, arranged to
purchase the property, they secured only the silent film rights -- NOT
the talkie rights. (During this period, when the transition to sound
was upending the rules, such oversights were probably not uncommon.)
Deeply angry, Hawks came to regard the project as an unwelcome chore,
and decided to turn it into a send-up. As far as I'm concerned, that in
itself isn't a deal-breakera send-up with this cast could be great
fun but even so, there were other reasons to approach the film warily.
Hawks' biographer Todd McCarthy, who knows as much about the director
and his work as anyone, trashed Trent's Last Case in his book, and
pronounced it the worst film Hawks ever made. And on top of that,
surviving prints of the film are incomplete: about two reels' worth of
material is missing from the middle section. O joy, a murder mystery
with missing footage!
But I went to see it anyway. And here's my verdict: Trent's Last Case is an oddity, all right, and far from great, but nonetheless surprisingly enjoyable. (Going in with low expectations surely must have helped.) Fans of the novel will need to look elsewhere for a serious adaptation, for this 'Trent' plays like a goofy sketch on the Carol Burnett Show. But what's wrong with that? The material lends itself to comedy. Our story concerns a cruel millionaire named Sigsbee Manderson (played by Donald Crisp), whose beautiful young wife (Marceline Day) is having an affair with Manderson's handsome secretary, Jack Marlowe. Manderson learns of the affair and decides to avenge himself on his wife and her lover by committing suicide, arranging the details to suggest he was murdered by Marlowe. Amateur sleuth Philip Trent (Raymond Griffith) shows up to crack the case, but only muddies the waters, until at last the correct solution is revealed. Frankly, the plot suggests self-parody from the get-go, so it's no surprise the filmmakers chose to play it that way. And incidentally, the chunk of missing footage midway is no great hindrance to following the story. A running gag develops as Trent repeatedly accuses the wrong person of murder, finds that he's mistaken, then accuses someone else. Because of the lost footage, which comprises perhaps ten or fifteen minutes of material, some of these accusations are missing, so the routine is somewhat truncated, but it's not a huge loss.
The actors look like they're having a blast. Donald Crisp, in particular, gives an outrageously hammy, teeth-gnashing, eye-rolling performance which must be seen to be believed. Despite the presence of such estimable players as Edgar Kennedy and Anita Garvin, Crisp steals the show. His spirited emoting stands in sharp contrast with the low-key underplaying of leading man Raymond Griffith. The dapper Mr. Griffith, who starred in several popular light comedies in the mid-20s, specialized in dry, sophisticated humor. He comes off here as something of a straight man to the other characters, for his sleuth is a solemn fellow with a tinge of melancholy. Perhaps the solemnity reflected Raymond Griffith's real-life career situation when the film was made. Due to injured vocal chords Griffith spoke in a husky whisper; he must have known that talkies would end his career, and that Trent's Last Case would most likely mark his final bow as a star of feature films. (As it happens, Griffith would continue to work behind the scenes in Hollywood for many years as a producer.) While 'Trent' doesn't measure up to Griffith's other surviving vehicles, it does provide him with a suitable farewell role and a nicely staged final scene.
Whatever its modest merits, Trent's Last Case made very little impression on audiences on its initial release. In his biography of Hawks, published in 1997, Todd McCarthy flatly states that the film was released only in Europe, not in the United States. Subsequent research has revealed that 'Trent' did indeed play in some regions of the U.S. during the summer of 1929 (specifically in Pennsylvania and Florida), but Fox scarcely bothered to promote it, and in the excitement over talkies the film was quickly forgotten. It did not resurface until a print was discovered in the early 1970s. 'Trent' was screened for the first time in many years at the Pacific Film Archive in 1974, with Hawks in attendance. The aging director was not pleased about the film's rediscovery, and, according to McCarthy, expressed himself in no uncertain terms during the screening, when he stormed the projection booth in mid-show and ordered the projectionist to destroy the print! In a way, I can understand why he was so upset. The loopy, over-the-top style on display was meant to be satirical, but modern viewersespecially ones unfamiliar with the general run of silent filmscould easily (and mistakenly) regard it as unintentionally campy. Even so, Hawks needn't have overreacted. Taken for what it is, this version of Trent's Last Case is entertaining and amusing, a rare treat for movie buffs. I for one am glad the projectionist ignored Hawks' instructions!
If a crew of film buffs arrived at a screening of this movie just after
the opening credits, and then tried to guess the identity of the
director based on content and stylistic clues, they could be forgiven
for deciding Paid to Love must be the work of Ernst Lubitsch. After
all, consider the evidence: this is a romantic comedy set largely in a
mythical kingdom called San Savonand partly in a mythical-looking
Pariswhich concerns a handsome young Crown Prince's love life, or lack
thereof. It would appear the Prince doesn't care much for girls, but
he's obsessed with automobiles, and likes to roll up his sleeves to
work on engines and fan-belts and such, and get his hands dirty. His
father, King Haakon, is a little worried about the boy, so he conspires
with a wealthy American businessman named Roberts to teach his son the
facts of life, so to speak, by arranging for him to get intimately
involved with a woman brought from France for this purpose, all
expenses paid. Roberts has his own reasons for participating in the
scheme: he represents a firm with a financial interest in San Savon,
and believes his board of directors would feel better about their
investment in the kingdom if the Prince showed some interest in the
ladies. (Although it's never bluntly stated, the idea seems to be that
if the Prince demonstrates he's a regular guy, and might actually sire
royal offspring someday, the firm's directors will be reassured about
the future of San Savon.) So, the two older gents go to Paris and find
a suitably sexy young cabaret performer named Gaby to stir the young
man's passions. Their plan backfires, in a rather predictable but
amusing way, when the Prince falls in love with her.
Paid to Love was an early assignment for Howard Hawks, made long before he'd established his directorial style or settled on the kind of material he would come to favor. In later years Hawks was dismissive of the project, declaring simply "It isn't my type of stuff." That may be, but viewed objectively Paid to Love holds up quite well today. It's smoothly made, funny and very typical of its time. George O'Brien, cast somewhat against type, makes an appealing Crown Prince. His introductory scene sets a lighthearted note, when he comes to the aid of the crusty businessman Roberts, who has car trouble and assumes that the Prince is a lowly mechanic. Roberts is played by estimable character actor J. Farrell MacDonald, who has so much screen time in the film's opening scenes you'd think this was designed to be his show. But soon the emphasis properly shifts to O'Brien and leading lady Virginia Valli, who plays Gaby. Their "meet cute" is unusual, and surprisingly erotic. Gaby collapses in a storm outside the cottage where the Prince is staying; he finds her, carries her inside and puts her to bed, off camera. When she awakens the next morning, she discovers that she's naked. For a guy who's shy with women, the Prince works fast! (The sequence is something of a precursor to a similar one involving Jimmy Stewart and Kim Novak in Vertigo, made many years later.) Needless to add, romance quickly blossoms between the two. Valli and O'Brien make an attractive couple, and both actors are adept in navigating the story's shift from comedy to drama in the later scenes. Until recently Valli was unknown to me, but now that I've seen her in several silent features I've come to feel she's unjustly forgotten. Perhaps her strongest claim to fame is that she was the first leading lady of Alfred Hitchcockspeaking of Hitchin his directorial debut, The Pleasure Garden.
Several other characters make an impression, such as King Haakon, played by a dignified old actor who happened to be named Thomas Jefferson. I also enjoyed seeing prolific comedian Hank Mann nicely underplay his part as a servant. But the most notable, striking performance of all is given by William Powell, who plays the Crown Prince's raffish cousin Eric. At this point in his career Powell was often cast as bad eggs, and his Prince Eric is a prime example: he's haughty and mean-spirited, a playboy who is a rotter to women, Gaby in particular. The film's most dramatic sequence is a tense confrontation between Eric and Gaby in her boudoir. Viewers familiar with Powell's urbane Nick Charles from the Thin Man series are likely to be surprised, even shocked, to see his dark side on full display here.
This film was believed to be lost for many years. It re-emerged in the early 1970s, when interest in Howard Hawks' career was growing markedly among critics and buffs. Happily, surviving prints look very good: the cinematography of William O'Connell is first-rate, and the film itself is complete, without the choppy continuity or visible decomposition scars that mar so many silent films. Perhaps because the material held little importance for the director, or because he was still honing his style, Hawks felt free to experiment with the kind of tracking shots and swooping camera movements he would later avoid. According to film historian William K. Everson, however, the director was not especially pleased to learn that Paid to Love had been recovered, and he refused to watch it after its rediscovery. While it may not be "Hawksian," Paid to Love is nonetheless a clever, well-acted, amusing romantic comedy in the Lubitsch vein, a sophisticated late silent feature that's well worth a look. Even Hawks might have liked it.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Film buffs know Edward Everett Horton as Hollywood's funniest
fussbudget, a welcome addition to many a musical or light comedy during
his heyday in the 1930s and '40s. He's one of those beloved character
actors whose first appearance is often greeted with applause at public
screenings of films such as Trouble in Paradise or Shall We Dance,
because we know that when Mr. Horton shows up, things are going to get
funny. Even when he was given hokey or otherwise uninspired material
EEH could rise above it, with that highly expressive face and
wonderful, plummy voice. He almost always gets his laughs, and when the
material is good, he gets BIG laughs.
I'm a longtime Horton fan, but until fairly recently I didn't realize he had a substantial career in silent movies. As it happens, he appeared in a number of silent features, always in featured or leading roles, and during 1927-8 starred in a series of eight two-reel comedies, produced by the one and only Harold Lloyd. Six of these films still exist, and in recent months I've managed to see three of them. Horton comes off surprisingly well, even deprived of his famous voice. (Like other comedians who made a stronger impression with sound, such as W.C. Fields or Eddie Cantor, I've found that I can "hear" Horton when I watch his silent work.) Dad's Choice is a good example of what EEH could do in the field of strictly visual comedy.
Horton plays a hapless young man -- not so young really, even in 1928, but no matter -- who is courting a wealthy young lady. Her father disapproves of the match, and keeps her locked up in a well-guarded mansion, where she is protected by a vigilant bodyguard. (I should add at this point that the print of Dad's Choice I've seen did not have title cards in English, so I had to guess what was happening without any help from the text, but this is how I interpreted the story.) Basically, it's a Romeo-and-Juliet situation, where the young lovers must outwit disapproving elders and elope. But the plot is just a framework for the gags, which emphasize that our hero finds himself thwarted and publicly embarrassed at every turn.
I don't know if producer Harold Lloyd took an active role in the Horton comedies, but he clearly influenced the content. Some of Lloyd's own most memorable routines grew out of social humiliation; witness the "disintegrating tuxedo" sequence in The Freshman. Much of Horton's material in Dad's Choice plays like a Lloyd comedy. The film kicks off with a routine in which EEH repeatedly tries to cross a busy intersection, but the crowd keeps forcing him back, much to the consternation of an irascible traffic cop. (Interestingly, Charlie Chaplin filmed a similar routine for Modern Times several years later, but ultimately cut it.) Later, in a fancy dress shop, Horton tangles with a sour tempered matron played by Josephine Crowell, best remembered as Lloyd's awful mother-in-law in his 1924 feature Hot Water. Here, the lady's lapdog snatches away a gift Horton has purchased for his girlfriend, then hides it under his mistresses' chair, but whenever EEH tries to grab it back, the lady thinks he's being fresh. This rather risqué bit reminded me not only of Lloyd but of Charley Chase, another master of comic embarrassment.
Dad's Choice is a pleasant short that rattles along at a nice clip, and builds to an amusing chase finale. In the last scene a significant matter of mistaken identity is resolved, and our young (or youngish) lovers are wed by one of those stray clergymen who always seemed to turn up in silent comedies just before the fadeout. I wish these Horton comedy shorts were more easily accessible, either as a stand-alone set or as extras with some of EEH's later feature films. They're fun, well produced short comedies that deserve wider exposure.
Fans of the Our Gang series will recall a lively short from 1933 called
The Kid from Borneo, in which Spanky is pursued by Bumbo, a wild man
from a carnival who keeps repeating "Yum-Yum, eat 'em up!" Actually,
the supposed wild man is quite harmless, but Spanky is frightened
nonetheless, and at one point attempts to pacify the fellow by engaging
him in small talk. "How's things down in Borneo?" he asks. "Do you have
Technocracy?" (Slight pause, for expected laughter.) The short was in
heavy rotation on TV when I was a boy, and I'm sure I wasn't the only
baby boomer who was bewildered by that line. Technocracy, as it
happens, was a fad in the early years of the Great Depression, an
ideology that proposed the rule of society by scientists. (And at this
point I'm thinking, hey, why not?) But for those viewers who wish to
know more about the concept, Robert Benchley thoughtfully made this
short film at the height of the Technocracy fad, to bewilder us
The set-up is very much like Benchley's other short comedies in which he, you know, sets out to explain stuff. We're in an auditorium, and on the dais there is a long table of well-dressed dignitaries in evening wear. The emcee tells us that Mr. Benchley is a renowned expert in North American plants and colonial furniture, and is therefore well equipped to discuss Technocracy. Benchley rises, and within moments we know that he's not especially well equipped to discuss anything. Soon he's rambling into weird digressive cul-de-sacs about razor blades, shoes in ancient Rome, etc. etc. In order to clarify matters, he decides to illustrate his points with a chart, and promptly clarifies nothing. Film clips of an industrial nature are shown, and Mr. Benchley narrates, despite the fact that he's uncertain what, exactly, those people in the factory are doing. And so it goes! This short differs from most of Benchley comic lectures in one respect: usually, his on screen listeners sit in polite, if somewhat mystified, silence. But in Your Technocracy and Mine the crowd turns openly hostile at the end, and Mr. Benchley is forced to slip out of the hall, incognito.
If you enjoy Benchley's style of humor -- and I do -- you'll get a kick out of this amusing short. But if you really want to learn anything about Technocracy, you may as well ask Bumbo.
Don't let the title fool you this is no Disney cartoon. Mickey's Tent
Show is in fact an entry in the long-running Mickey McGuire series of
short comedies, produced by Larry Darmour from the late silent days
into the early talkie era: 1927 to 1934 to be exact. Mickey Rooney
starred from the first short to the last as Mickey (Himself) McGuire, a
character created by Fontaine Fox for his popular Toonerville Trolley
comic strip. The role was well suited to the young Mr. Rooney, who was
only six years old when he landed the gig. Mickey McGuire was the
undisputed leader of his own gang, the kind of kid who comes up with
big ideas, and persuades the other kids to carry them out. A born
C.E.O., you might say. He's multi-talented, practically fearless, and
absolutely self-assured at all times. Sure sounds like an ideal role
for Mickey Rooney, doesn't it? The series served as young Mick's movie
I haven't seen many of the Mickey McGuire films, but the ones I've watched look a lot like Hal Roach's Our Gang series, which was already well under way when producer Darmour first hired Rooney to play the lead. The main difference seems to be that while the Our Gang shorts were usually ensemble efforts, the McGuire comedies are focused largely on the central character. Rooney dominates the proceedings, while the other kids don't register all that strongly as individuals. Mickey's Tent Show is one of the last entries, a talkie short produced when the star was a pre-teen, though he looked younger. It's the best Mickey McGuire comedy I've seen to date, at least in part because the other kids -- especially Billy Barty, as Mickey's kid brother -- are given some opportunities of their own. Barty, a midget who was eight years old when this film was made but could pass for an infant (which he did, elsewhere), makes a strong impression in several scenes, and was even allowed to perform the final comic bit, solo, before the fadeout.
The premise is simple, and amusingly enough it's a forerunner to the musicals Rooney would make (again and again) with Judy Garland later on. Mickey and his gang are earning money by helping an auctioneer deliver purchases to buyers. When the auction ends, the man pays them twenty-five cents to haul away the unsold stuff, which turns out to be leftover material from a defunct circus. So, for twenty-five cents the kids find themselves in possession of a full-sized canvas tent, costumes, and a cannon! Naturally, Mickey decides to put on a show, starring himself and his gang. And here's where young Mr. Rooney gets his first experience with one of those shoestring productions he would one day stage with Judy. All the neighborhood kids show up for the event, and find Mickey acting as barker in front of the big top. But there's also a villain on hand, a mean rich kid appropriately named Stinky Davis. Viewers who've seen other McGuire comedies know that Stinky's function in the series is to oppose Mickey at every turn. He distinguishes himself here by trying to shut down the show, first by falsely accusing Mickey and his gang of having stolen the tent they're using. When he's unable to make the charge stick, Davis employs his own gang of kids to disrupt the performance. It's a pleasure when Stinky eventually gets his comeuppance in the finale.
Meanwhile, the show itself is a hoot. First there's a barber shop quartet, followed by a cowboy act featuring two guys in a horse costume. Most memorable of all, there's a sketch that pokes fun at Mae West, then at the peak of her popularity. Believe it or not, our 12 year-old star impersonates the lady in full Diamond Lil regalia. Mickey-as-Mae slinks onto the stage, hand on hip, and addresses a cop with the startling line: "Hello there, dark and handsome. Why doncha come 'round some rainy afternoon, and I'll kinda shine your badge for ya." Then he's joined by Billy Barty and a black kid called Hambone, each dressed as Mae West, for a rendition of the song "Frankie and Johnny." You have to wonder how Rooney felt about this routine in later years, though he did dress up as Carmen Miranda for another drag routine in Babes on Broadway, at the peak of his own popularity in 1941.
At any rate, Mickey's Tent Show is a well paced, agreeable short, which offers a steady supply of moderately amusing gags. Not quite up to the Our Gang level of quality, perhaps, but not far below it, either. At this writing, Mickey Rooney is one of the last living stars of the silent era, and for that matter one of the last stars from the '30s. He comes off quite well in this short. And you haven't lived until you've seen his Mae West impression!
In the years after the 1921 scandal that drove him from the screen and
destroyed his reputation, Roscoe Arbuckle managed to earn a living as a
director for hire. Working under an assumed name, he directed silent
shorts with Lloyd Hamilton, Al St. John, Lupino Lane, etc., and feature
films starring Marion Davies and Eddie Cantor. When talkies came in,
Arbuckle quickly adapted to the new technology and kept on working.
Unfortunately, the short he directed in this period that gets the most
attention nowadays was far from his best: Windy Riley Goes Hollywood is
remembered mainly because Louise Brooks appeared in it, but neither she
nor the director are well represented by that half-hearted effort.
Arbuckle made a number of other talkie shorts which hold up quite well,
and demonstrate that he was a fast learner when it came to using sound
imaginatively, without forgetting what he'd learned in the silent era
about tempo, framing, and moving his camera to best advantage.
Idle Roomers is a funny short built around a pair of stage acrobats, brothers Frank & Alfred Molino. They were seasoned performers, but not actors as such, so the film employs a clever situation that exploits their athletic abilities without calling upon them to "emote." The guys play a pair of vaudeville acrobats (naturally enough) who live in a cheap boarding house. They need a job and are rehearsing a new act, but when their landlady and the other boarders overhear the roughhousing in their room, they assume the brothers are violent lunatics who should be locked up. The landlady calls the local asylum and arranges for two officials to come and examine them. Meanwhile, the guys have arranged for a pair of big-time vaudeville booking agents to come see them perform. When the asylum officials arrive, the brothers mistakenly assume that they're the agents, and immediately go into their new routine, flinging each other around, leaping on tables, diving through space, etc. (And by the way, they're really good!) Of course, they're assumed to be crazy, but everyone humors them. Further complications arise, and things get nuttier.
That's the basic situation, which builds to a neat surprise twist just before the fadeout. Arbuckle keeps things moving briskly, and there isn't a wasted moment. Idle Roomers is a pleasant little comedy that's still amusing today. I only wish it was as widely available as Windy Riley Goes Hollywood!
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Queen High began life as a non-musical play called "A Pair of Sixes,"
which ran on Broadway back in 1914. The story concerns two men who
manage the Eureka Novelty Company, makers of ladies' undergarments. The
partners bicker constantly, and finally settle on a highly unusual
method to resolve their differences: they draw cards, with the
understanding that the man who holds the winning hand shall run the
company on his own for one year, while the loser must act as the
winner's manservant. A wacky idea? Sure, but a dandy premise for a
farce comedy. In 1926 the show returned to Broadway with songs,
retitled "Queen High." This time it starred Charles Ruggles as one of
the two partners -- the one who, much to his dismay, winds up playing
butler to the other. And in 1930 this version (minus most of its songs)
was filmed at Paramount's Astoria Studio, with Ruggles reprising his
stage role opposite Frank Morgan. It's an inspired casting choice, for
these two gifted performers play off each other beautifully. In
support, as Morgan's niece, we find Ginger Rogers, still a teenager,
still a brunette and still a flapper, but recognizably Ginger and
With Ruggles, Morgan, and Rogers in the central roles you can't go far wrong. And indeed, Queen High is quite enjoyable over all, but prospective viewers should be advised that it's very much a filmed play, not unlike the first two Marx Brothers movies produced at the same studio around this time. Aside from one brief sequence on a subway platform and in a train (presumably written for the film), it all looks very much like a stage performance. But seeing as how the material generally holds up well, and the lead players are so charming, what's wrong with watching a filmed play? Anyone who misses seeing the great outdoors on screen will find plenty of Westerns available.
Most of the early scenes take place in the offices of the Eureka Novelty Co., the garter firm co-managed by T. Boggs Johns (Ruggles) and George Nettleton (Morgan). Art Deco buffs will get a kick out of the office's ultra-sleek design, while viewers who appreciate the sight of cute young lingerie models should be ready to hit the Pause button. One of the film's best sequences unfolds in Nettleton's office, a sprightly, seemingly spontaneous musical number called "Brother, Laugh It Off." Ginger introduces the song, then turns it over to several young workers who harmonize while one of the girls goes into a dance. Towards the end of the number, a second girl with a Louise Brooks bob dances on a small table. Watch her closely: that's 17 year-old Eleanor Powell, making her movie debut. And then, in a surprise finale, Morgan and Ruggles finish the song. This delightful scene is worth the price of admission by itself.
Later, at the behest of their lawyer, the feuding partners decide to settle their disagreements with a card game, in the fashion described above. This is another good scene, suspenseful and funny. The second half of the film takes place at Nettleton's estate, where "Boggs" is now unhappily installed as butler. I confess I have mixed feelings about the film's second half; for me, some elements work better than others. On the plus side, there is Ruggles' rendition of a bizarre, outlandish number called "I Love the Girls in My Own Peculiar Way," in which he endeavors to frighten the other servants by boasting in song that he's a serial killer. (Think Sweeney Todd, played for laughs.) On the debit side, there's a low comedy maid played VERY broadly by an actress named Nina Olivette, whose style suggests Martha Raye, but without the finesse. To be charitable, her material isn't the greatest, but nonetheless Olivette's man-hungry shtick wears thin almost instantly. However, she does provide an interesting, real-life trivia note: Olivette's two sons both became actors in later years, Guy and Dean Stockwell. So, for those who care, here's a rare look at their mom!
In any case, and despite a very abrupt ending, Queen High is an amusing, novel treat for fans of early talkie musicals. I'd say the good sequences make up for the aspects that don't hold up so well. And for fans of Charles Ruggles, Frank Morgan, and Ginger Rogers, it's an absolute must.
Singer Helen Kane is best remembered today as the flesh-and-blood
prototype for Betty Boop: she was cute, petite, and plump, a brunette
with short curly hair and a stray spit-curl bang or two dangling over
her eyes. She sang in a nasal, girlish falsetto, punctuated with her
familiar Boop-Boop-a-Doops, and spoke with a pronounced New Yawk
accent. Kane first attracted attention when she appeared in a 1927
Broadway show called "A Night in Spain," and soon became a popular
recording artist. She captured the spirit of her era, the giddy
pinnacle of the Roaring Twenties, and in her songs embodied the
good-hearted, semi-innocent flapper. Kane's rise to prominence happened
to coincide with the birth of the talkies, and she was quickly signed
to appear before the cameras in musical shorts and featured roles in
such early musicals as Sweetie and Pointed Heels.
I enjoy Kane's recordings, including her signature song "I Wanna Be Loved by You," the risqué "He's So Unusual," and the amusing specialty number "Dangerous Nan McGrew." This last-named tune provided the title for the feature film that proved to be Helen's one-and-only starring vehicle, made for Paramount and produced in 1930 at their Astoria Studio in Queens, NY. Although I've long been aware that this film is generally held in low esteem by buffs (which is putting it mildly), I was curious about it, and approached it with an open mind and low expectations, hoping to be pleasantly surprised. Sad to say, Dangerous Nan McGrew's reputation is well earned. It's a misfire, but I don't blame Helen Kane or her estimable supporting players. The film's problems include a weak script, uninspired direction, and the miscasting of a key role.
Helen plays Nan McGrew, who is teamed with "Doc" Foster (Victor Moore) in a two-person medicine show. They've got a horse-drawn wagon, and they're traveling through the snowy regions of Canada. Doc peddles elixir, while Nan sings and performs an Annie Oakley-style shooting routine. Business is poor. When Nan learns that a dangerous killer is on the loose, with a $10,000 bounty on his head, she decides to capture the scoundrel, collect the reward, and upgrade the ragtag medicine show she shares with Foster by trading in their horse for an automobile. That's the gist of the plot, and it's a perfectly serviceable premise. A central problem, however, is that the fugitive is played by -- get this -- Frank Morgan, ridiculously miscast as a tough-talking roughneck. I've always admired Morgan, and have seen him in many varied roles, and know that he was more versatile than people tend to assume, but casting him as a ruthless killer, even in a lightweight musical comedy, is just silly. His performance suggests that he was aware of this incongruity, so he settled on a gruff, over-the-top delivery suitable to the villain in a children's pageant. When Morgan barks lines such as "Listen you, shut up, before I rip ya limb from limb!" you just have to wonder how the other actors kept from cracking up on camera. Sure is a long way from the Emerald City.
There's nothing wrong with Helen Kane's performance, except that her phrasing is hard to understand at times. Admittedly, a little of her act goes a long way. While I know that her style is not for all tastes, I do like her rendition of "I Owe You," her character's love theme. The script defeats everyone else. Victor Moore does what he can with his material, but the laughs are sparse. I've never been a fan of Stu Erwin, and his performance as Helen's dim-witted love interest did nothing to change my mind about him. Director Malcolm St. Clair, whose work was often impressive in the silent era, seemed to be no more excited by this project than the actors; his staging is perfunctory throughout, and the pace is woefully slow much of the time, even by early talkie standards. Still, there's one good reason to see this film: at a Christmas party sequence about two-thirds of the way in, Helen performs the title tune with her characteristic verve, and for a few minutes the movie comes to life. If you were to encounter that sequence excerpted alone, you might think this a movie worth tracking down. But unfortunately, once you've seen that number, you've seen the best that Dangerous Nan McGrew has to offer.
Snappy Sneezer was one of the first talkie shorts made by Charley
Chase, who learned and polished his art as a comedian during the silent
era. What a pleasant surprise to discover that it's also one of
Charley's all-time best comedies, crafted with such offhand skill you
would think he'd been dealing with sound for ages, as well paced and
funny as anything from his mid-'20s peak. Like a lot of early talkies
Snappy Sneezer was also made available in the silent format, to
accommodate theaters that hadn't yet been wired for sound; unlike many
other releases of 1929, this short lends itself well to a silent
edition, since so much of the comedy is visual. But the new technology
permits us to enjoy the nicely delivered banter between Charley and
leading lady Thelma Todd, as well as the grunts and growls uttered by
Anders Randolph as a sourpuss Charley encounters on a streetcar. As a
silent short Snappy Sneezer is fun, but with sound it's a gem.
The premise is simple. Charley and Thelma meet during a train trip, and their flirtation quickly develops into a romance. (Their first scene together, chatting and giggling at the train station, looks improvised and is absolutely charming.) In a happy coincidence they find they live in the same city, so their romance is destined to continue. Thelma, or Mary White as her character is named, would like to introduce the young man to her father, so they agree to meet later at her home. But this wouldn't be a Charley Chase comedy if he didn't suffer some form of public embarrassment. Before he leaves the station Charley must deal with an unfortunate wardrobe malfunction -- which he does, on this rare occasion, with admirable cleverness.
Next, Charley must board a streetcar to go home. What follows is a priceless routine, excerpted as a stand-alone sequence in Robert Youngson's compilation feature Laurel & Hardy's Laughing '20s. On the crowded streetcar, Charley's hay fever kicks in. Despite his best intentions, and no matter what he does, he repeatedly and violently sneezes on a fellow passenger, a grim looking middle-aged man who is not at all pleased to be sneezed on. Admittedly, this gag is kind of gross, but we laugh because it's the sort of thing that happens in the real world, only exaggerated to a nightmare level. What's funny here is that Charley is really trying to be civil and leave the man alone, but no matter where he moves within the car, or what measures he takes to prevent it, he keeps sneezing on the same guy. But wait, there's more! Charley and the middle-aged man, who is so angry he retaliates by mutilating Charley's straw boater, both get off at the same stop. Now the situation escalates, because the man, who is understandably rattled, twice narrowly misses getting hurt. First he's almost hit by a speeding car, then nearly flattened by a heavy object, dropped off a building by careless workers. Charley tries to atone for his unfortunate sneezing episode by saving the man from peril, but only makes matters worse.
At last it's time for Charley to go to Mary White's home and meet her father. Guess who her father turns out to be? We're only half-way through the story, and Snappy Sneezer is already a great short. In the second reel, Charley desperately tries to make good with Mary's dad after getting off to this rather bumpy start. Mr. White has just purchased a new car, so Charley offers to teach Mary to drive. As you'd imagine, things do not go especially well. There are some great gags in the finale, one of which involves the imaginative use of a rubber band; here, Chase demonstrates how a gifted comic talent can get big laughs with a very simple prop.
The only problem with Snappy Sneezer is that it's not readily available for home viewing. On the bright side, many of Charley Chase's silent shorts have made their way to DVD in recent years, and so too have some of the sound shorts he produced for Columbia late in his career, but the Hal Roach talkies remain in limbo at this writing. I hope the situation changes for the better. Snappy Sneezer deserves pride of place in any collection of Chase's best comedies from the sound era.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Horse Shy was one of a series of eight silent short comedies which
starred Edward Everett Horton, released during the 1927-28 season.
Today, Horton is remembered mainly for his amusing character turns in
Hollywood classics of the '30s and '40s, including Trouble in Paradise,
Lost Horizon, Arsenic and Old Lace, and many more. EEH worked in films
right up until his death in 1970, and also appeared in a number of
popular TV series, including "Batman" and "F-Troop." Movie buffs and TV
viewers of the post-war era invariably recognize his warm voice and
idiosyncratic phrasing (you'd never guess the guy grew up in
Brooklyn!), used to splendid effect as narrator of Jay Ward's
"Fractured Fairy Tales" cartoons. Given the strong identification we
have with Horton's voice, it's something of a surprise to learn that he
had a substantial career in silent movies. He appeared in quite a few
of them, as it turns out, usually in lead roles. It must be added that
he always played comic leads, for even in his youth, Mr. Horton was no
matinée idol. But he could rely on his expressive face, and was already
playing flustered, fussy characters in his earliest screen appearances,
like a 1920s version of Clifton Webb or Don Knotts.
This series of silent shorts which showcased Horton was produced by comedian Harold Lloyd, under the auspices of his company, Hollywood Productions. Thus, a lot of personnel familiar from Lloyd's films also turn up in the Horton series, not only in front of the camera (such as actors Gus Leonard, William Gillespie, Wallace Howe, etc.) but also behind it (director J. A. Howe, writer Thomas Crizer, etc.). In any case, the EEH comedies were slickly produced, professional jobs. Horton acquits himself quite well, and thereby joins the ranks of performers with now-familiar voices who were surprisingly successful in silent pictures, alongside Ronald Colman, the Barrymores, W. C. Fields, and, of course, Laurel & Hardy.
Horse Shy tells the story of Eddie Hamilton (i.e. Horton), a man terrified of horses who nonetheless participates in a fox hunt on the grounds of an estate owned by a Colonel Calhoun. It's not entirely clear how Eddie got involved in this event in the first place, but once he meets the colonel's pretty daughter, Jane, who is impressed by good horsemanship, he is determined to put aside his neurotic fears and ride to the hounds with the rest of the sporting gents. But his rival for Jane's affections, a nasty man named Gillroy, is determined to sabotage Eddie's chances, and nearly succeeds. Ultimately, Eddie overcomes all obstacles -- although, in the end, he doesn't quite catch the fox.
That's the gist of it, but we're not here for the plot, we're here for the gags, and happily Horse Shy provides some solid laughs along the way. In his first scene we find that Eddie has difficulty simply dressing himself in a traditional riding habit: the high boots, jodhpurs, etc. Later, he and the leading lady meet cute when he pulls up in his auto and finds Jane on the side of the road, having fallen off her horse. Which, of course, only reinforces Eddie's deeply held conviction that horses are dangerous. He gives her a lift, but is horrified when her horse reappears and follows his car. (There's a funny shot of the horse trotting along behind, as seen in the side mirror of Eddie's car, that anticipates a similar shot in Jurassic Park by some sixty-five years; only this is a sweet-natured horse, not a Tyrannosaurus Rex.) But the most memorable gag of all comes during the climactic fox hunt. Thanks to Gillroy's scheming, Eddie winds up riding a wild horse named Keno. He panics, of course, but hangs on for dear life. When Eddie hits a low-lying branch, a bird's nest lands on him. The mama bird isn't happy about it, and lets him know how she feels. This bit is beautifully filmed and edited, and could be neatly excerpted in one of those Great Moments from Silent Comedy compilations.
All in all, Horse Shy is a cute comedy which offers us a rare look at one of the screen's most lovable players, early in his movie career. Edward Everett Horton needed talkies for his persona to develop fully, but if this short is anything to go by, even without the use of his famous voice he could deftly earn laughs as a distinctive character comedian on the strength of pantomime alone.
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