Dance hall Romeos and an irresponsible father create comic complications in the life of a nickel-per-whirl taxi dancer.Dance hall Romeos and an irresponsible father create comic complications in the life of a nickel-per-whirl taxi dancer.Dance hall Romeos and an irresponsible father create comic complications in the life of a nickel-per-whirl taxi dancer.
The Nickel-Hopper is the best known of Mabel's later films, with a leading role tailored to fit the sympathetic image the Roach staff had shaped for her. As in her previous vehicle, Raggedy Rose, Mabel's character is a downtrodden, woebegone working girl, a "taxi dancer" named Paddy who pairs off with clumsy men at the Happy Hour Dancing Academy for two-and-a-half-cents a dance (which makes that bluesy lament of later days, "Ten Cents a Dance," sound like a boast). We're told that Paddy "has been chasing the bluebird of happiness all her life-- but never got close enough to pull a tail feather." She still lives with her parents and her kid brother, but while her mom and the little boy are pleasant enough her father is an awful man, a selfish loafer who lives off his wife and daughter's earnings. Pa also makes a point of chasing off any suitors who might lure Paddy away. The family scenes are more harrowing than funny, but nonetheless this role suits the older Mabel and engages our sympathy. A thirty-something son or daughter still living with parents is an emotional minefield situation many viewers can relate to, and we root for Paddy to stand up to her infantile father.
The funniest scenes in the picture all take place at the dance hall, and this is where we meet two uncredited supporting players whose presence gives this comedy a real boost: where else can you find Oliver Hardy and Boris Karloff in the same movie? (Well, aside from the French-language version of Pardon Us, and that elusive title is not likely to pop up on TCM any time soon.) Hardy is the very first character we meet in the opening scene, a jazz drummer at the Happy Hour club who attacks his drum kit with crazed abandon. Meanwhile, Paddy fends off various oafs who step on her toes or yank her about the dance floor, but one of these guys, a tall fellow with a gaunt face, is more lecherous than the rest. He's a cad, in fact, who grins while he squeezes Paddy roughly. The cad is Boris Karloff, 39 years-old and menacing in a way that's quite different from the Karloff we're accustomed to! Boris has a couple of scenes before our leading lady manages to get rid of him in a clever and appropriate fashion. Eventually a proper young man takes an interest in her, and although Pa once again tries to chase the fellow away, love wins out (after a few more complications) and Paddy is rescued from her life of drudgery.
The ending is abrupt, and a little on the surreal side. In fact the first time I saw The Nickel-Hopper I thought the final twist would turn out to be a dream of some sort. I don't know if footage is missing from the last reel, but the conclusion may leave you startled and a bit confused. Even so, this film stands as one of Mabel's most enjoyable and representative comedies from her final years before the cameras. It's said that she was suffering from pneumonia during much of the time she was at the Roach Studio, but if so there is little sign of it on screen, although I believe a stand-in doubled for her in long shots during some of the more strenuous dance sequences. In any case, there's greater emphasis here on Mabel's eloquent facial expressions than on physical slapstick, in keeping with the Roach Studio house style. Despite the dysfunctional family material that makes some of the early scenes a little painful, The Nickel-Hopper is essentially a sweet, whimsical comedy that offers a good sample of its legendary star's appeal.
- Sep 17, 2006