"The blind man, lest he stumble in darkness, welcomes the guiding footsteps even of an ass"
Watching the talking picture career of Harold Lloyd is rather like watching the German army retreat across Europe. Here is a still-powerful force, often displaying incredible skill, professionalism and innovation, yet utterly doomed. The films running from Welcome Danger (1929) through Professor Beware (1938) are Lloyd's war against obsolescence. Like Chaplin, he had the resources to wage such a war, and his efforts were often brilliant, perhaps no more so than here, where he breaks with his familiar screen persona. While critics and biographers often rank his previous film, Movie Crazy (1932) or his next one, The Milky Way (1936) as his best talkies, I find The Cat's-Paw his most fascinating sound film. In many ways it's a product of a very specific moment in movie history, and in others it seems decades ahead of its time.
Lloyd seems safe in his ranking as the "third genius" of American silent comedy, while Chaplin and Keaton still vie for the top spot in posterity. He seemed to have made a safe transition to sound with Welcome Danger, which he post-synched and reshot on the fly, but stumbled with his next films, Feet First (in part a do-over of his definitive climbing act from Safety Last) and Movie Crazy. History's verdict is that Depression audiences repudiated Lloyd's brash but naive go-getter persona, and the man himself seemed to agree. As his own producer, he decided to do a more detailed script than usual, based on a magazine story he'd purchased. For the first time in ages, he would not be "Harold" on screen.
Instead, he is Ezekiel Cobb, the son of China-based American missionaries. While his parents spread the gospel in the Middle Kingdom, Ezekiel immersed himself in Chinese culture. When he is sent to America to find a bride, he is, in manner, more Chinese than American, polite to a fault and prone to quote his favorite poet, Ling Po. He is also out of touch with modern society. He doesn't know how to use a telephone, doesn't understand slang (even the meaning of "two bucks") and is confused when he hears his name being broadcast from a car radio.
Ezekiel goes to Stockport, where he's supposed to stay with Rev. Junius P. Withers, who dies before Ezekiel can introduce himself. Withers was the perennial mayoral candidate of the city's Good Government League. As one leader puts it, "he was the best candidate we ever had. He never had a chance." To clarify: he was the best because he never had a chance. The GGL is a kind of dummy organization secretly patronized by Mayor Ed Morgan, the corrupt political boss of Stockport. It exists to present the semblance of a competitive election, lending legitimacy to Morgan's regime, which has presumably shut out real competition. When GGL leader Jake Mayo discovers Ezekiel and learns that he's a protege of Withers, the League decides that young Cobb is an ideal losing candidate. Mayo explains Cobb's background to a skeptical colleague:
"Say, what is this missionary racket?"Mayo: "Sort of cleaning up a joint, you know.""Oh, the old reform gag, eh?"
Lloyd has made a perfectly modern film for 1934, embracing the decade's irreverent, hard-boiled sensibility. As this is the last "pre-Code" year, he allows himself to cavort clumsily on a nightclub stage with a stripper and a band of scantily-clad chorines. This actually wins over a crowd inclined to despise a reformer. Better yet, he gets into a fight with the drunken mayor after the chief executive knocks down a newsboy. All this impresses his fellow boarder Pet Pratt (Una Merkel), who runs a hotel cigar and newsstand. Pet's not her real name, but "They call me Pet because they know I'd slap 'em down if they used my right name." So I'm not telling. She's the one who first warns Ezekiel that he's being used as a "cat's paw" by Mayo and Morgan. But as with Mayo, Pet's initial contempt for the guileless Cobb is tempered by an instinctual respect for his inherent honesty.
Publicity over the incidents at the nightclub leads to an upset victory for Ezekiel, who didn't want to win. Assured initially that he had no chance to win, he didn't understand why he wasn't supposed to until everyone's anger clues him in. He never expected to serve, but he's shamed by Pet into accepting the victory. Once he does this, he can't help but be his own man. He eventually makes a real ally of Mayo (who has the virtue of being honest about his own dishonesty), but has the rest of the Stockport political establishment against him. Undeterred, he vetoes pork-barrel spending, cuts salaries and fires corrupt officials. He's fearless in the face of threats from Morgan's goon Strozzi (Nat Pendleton), who's scared off by the coincidental display of an ancient Chinese sword. Ezekiel makes a mental note of this.
Morgan uses the stripper and a corrupt district attorney to manipulate Ezekiel into a career-killing scandal that guarantees his removal from office by the governor. Notified that he has 24 hours left as mayor, Cobb resolves to take drastic action to ensure that "the rulership of this city [will] not revert to these gangsters and racketeers." Repudiated by the GGL, Ezekiel declares himself "my own political organization, a party of one." Conceding that "I'm destroyed," he vows to destroy his enemies in return. With Mayo's help, he pulls off one part coup d'etat, one part coup de theatre in a last-ditch effort to terrorize the Morgan machine into submission.
The Cat's-Paw blends two popular motifs of early 1930s cinema. Ezekiel Cobb is a kind of "cinderella man" of the kind introduced in Frank Capra's Platinum Blonde and perfected in Capra's Mr. Deeds Goes to Town. The cinderella man is an ordinary (albeit usually mildly eccentric) person elevated into prominence by a media establishment that seeks to exploit him, first by making a fool of him, then by ruining him through scandal if he starts to rock the boat in any way. Cinderella men and wisecracking women are also prominent features of screwball comedy, which was on the way to defining itself in 1934 with films like Twentieth Century and It Happened One Night.
In its political aspect, Lloyd's film (directed by Sam Taylor) is part or parody of the "fascist" tendency in films like the messianic Gabriel Over the White House and Cecil B. DeMille's elusive This Day and Age. Ezekiel Cobb comes to think of himself as a dictator and instructs his police chief to disregard the law while rounding up the criminal element. When told that habeus corpus writs will spring the arrested men from jail, he orders them confined in Chinatown instead, where the courts presumably can't reach and Cobb will be able to deal with his enemies with maximum ruthlessness. It probably goes too far to call The Cat's-Paw itself a fascist movie. It is a comedy, and as such is probably self-consciously aping the extreme measures of other films without necessarily endorsing them for real-world use.
More than a "cinderella man," however, Ezekiel Cobb will strike modern viewers as a character type better known as a "fish out of water," the stranger who is always underestimated for lacking proper sophistication, yet prevails over the slickers because of some native virtue. Given the popularity of this kind of character and story in the 1980s, it's not unreasonable to say that The Cat's-Paw was as much as fifty years ahead of its time. Its portrayal of Chinese culture may seem backward, and its overuse of American actors in Chinese roles definitely is, but the presentation of that culture is always respectful, as if Lloyd were atoning for his awful portrayal of Chinatown crime in Welcome Danger. As 1934 was around the peak of Charlie Chan's popularity, it probably isn't surprising to see a China-bred American portrayed as a pillar of unshakable virtue. Arguably, were a comedian to remake The Cat's-Paw today, the depiction of Chinese culture might be more offensive. If the film were remade, Ezekiel would almost certainly know kung fu. This might have seemed like a natural direction for a physical comedian to take in Lloyd's time, but from all I've seen martial arts were identified almost exclusively with Japan (judo, ju-jitsu) in those days.
The film benefits from a snappy screenplay full of hard-boiled wisecracking, vintage romantic cynicism and possibly record usage of the word "chink." It has an adorable romantic lead in Una Merkel, whose southern accent makes her seem almost as alien in Stockport as Cobb.
Best of all, Lloyd gives a thoroughly focused performance, rendering Ezekiel Cobb a real character rather than a thin mask for Lloyd's usual clowning. With help from his writers, Lloyd conveys that Cobb is an essentially alien personality, as much prejudiced in his own way as he is naive. His sexism may not have seemed so offensive then, but given Una Merkel's sympathetic performance as a wise woman, Ezekiel's attitude is clearly meant to look stupid. "Why is it that all American girls are so lacking in individuality?" he asks Pet tactlessly, "They all look alike: big eyed, pasty faced and, well, one exactly like the other....They seem to lack that sense of inferiority that woman should have in the presence of a man." This is just before he makes an ass of himself with the stripper. Likewise, his lurch toward dictatorship is meant to be distressing. It terrifies Mayo, at least, and the suspense of the last act is based on whether or not he follows through on his threats. Ezekiel Cobb is neither simply laughable or simply lovable. In his effort to overcome his own outdated image, Harold Lloyd puts something authentically strange on screen. But it didn't stop his decline, perhaps because it was too strange. So it was on to the next battlefield, and then another, and then it was exile until Howard Hughes and Preston Sturges summoned him to his Waterloo. But The Cat's-Paw was a victory of a kind that's worth remembering.