Saturday, April 26, 2014

Pre-Code Parade: CARNIVAL BOAT (1932)

Naturally, a film called Carnival Boat is about lumberjacks. Albert Rogell's film is an energetic he-man adventure filmed largely on location in timber country. It benefits from the scale of its surroundings but also moves with a thrilling speed for which Rogell has to share credit with film editor John Link. The film's plot is trite melodrama, but Rogell and Link join forces to create severalset-piece action scenes that surge with energy rarely seen in this era. For Rogell Carnival Boat was a follow-up to his RKO hit of the previous year, Suicide Fleet. He reunited that film's romantic leads, William Boyd and Ginger Rogers. Despite Suicide Fleet's success, Boyd's career was on the line, for the stupidest of reasons. The future Hopalong Cassidy happened to share a name with another actor, the latter distinguishing himself with the nickname "Stage." In 1931 William "Stage" Boyd was arrested (along with Pat O'Brien and other actors) when a raid on his pad uncovered prohibited booze, gambling parahernalia and pornographic films. The story goes that some newspapers illustrated coverage of the Boyd raid with photos of our William Boyd, the star of Suicide Fleet. His career suffered, despite the attempted remedy of redubbing him Bill Boyd -- or, in some advertising, Big Bill Boyd. However Carnival Boat fared at the box office, Big Bill was on his way out of RKO. He had a rough few years before landing his Hoppy gig at Paramount in 1935; then he was set for life, eventually getting ownership of the popular western character and making a fortune off licensing as he became an early TV phenom. Still, as with Johnny Mack Brown, Bill Boyd's is arguably a story of failure; given a chance at A picture stardom, he ended up a king of the Bs. Carnival Boat suggests what might have been.

And to be honest, there's little promise in the beefy Boyd as a romantic lead. At age 37 he's almost old enough to be Ginger Rogers's father, and he looks older. Yet Carnival Boat is a kind of coming-of-age story for the Boyd character, who emerges belatedly from his father's long shadow. His father (Hobart Bosworth) faces compulsory retirement from his job as boss of the lumber camp, but seeks vindication of a sort by seeing his boy Buck take over for him, despite the greater ambition of an unscrupulous rival (Fred Kohler). Buck's a more easygoing type than his puritanical if not misogynist pop, and looks forward to the arrival of the title show boat with its cargo of show girls. He has eyes on one in particular, Honey (Rogers) whom he wants to marry. But the old man doesn't want anything to interfere with his vision of Buck's future. Meanwhile, the rival acts like Buck's great pal and stands up for his right to marry Honey, especially if it means Buck leaving the lumber camp. Buck's torn between his need to rebel against his dad and his sense of responsibility to the company. For her part, Honey is no gold-digger -- this isn't a Warner Bros. picture -- but will she stand by her man during his crisis? Finally, if the rival can't get rid of Buck by playing his wingman, he may do so more forcefully, and permanently....

Carnival Boat's virtues have little to do with Bill Boyd. He's far too old for the role and has little chemistry with Rogers. Fortunately, he handles the action well, but Rogell and Link handle it even better. The film's highlight is a furiously-paced chase scene in which Buck has to stop a speeding train whose air brakes have failed on a dangerous slope. Alerted to the danger to his father, Buck boards a high-speed aerial cable-car that seems to fly through the air, delivering him to a point where he can leap onto the out-of-control train. Link cuts rapidly between process shots of Boyd hopping from car to car and long shots of a stuntman running over the top of a real speeding train, until the hero gets to where he can repair the air brake. It's one of the most exhilirating action sequences of the Pre-Code era. Less successful, because more reliant on process shots, is a sequence in which Buck must blow up a logjam, them swim the obstacle-ridden river to rescue the rival who'd finally tried to kill him moments earlier, But Rogell and Link make up for that part's shortcomings with a ferocious climactic fistfight once the rivals have caught their breath. Working with cinematographer Ted McCord, they get as many dynamic angles on the action as possible, selling Boyd and Kohler as epic brutes.

As a bonus, Carnival Boat has effective comic relief in the forms of Edgar Kennedy and Harry Sweet as abusive buddies in the lumber camp. They work a big saw together, more or less -- Sweet takes advantage of a broken handle on his end to let Kennedy do all the work. Sweet also has a knack for getting Kennedy's pipe and other personal items smashed. There's no slow-burn act to Kennedy here; he's quite plausible as a roughneck and his comic timing is still good, punctuating his bits with Sweet by punching his pal in the face. Theirs is more a Fred-and-Barney than Laurel-and-Hardy chemistry -- Sweet's square, squat frame and demeanor are quite Rubble-like -- and their bits never outlast their welcome. I found myself looking forward to their scenes more than those with Boyd and Rogers. There's nothing wrong with Rogers, by the way, and there's nothing wrong with Boyd that Carnival Boat's rousing action can't cure. The whole picture may be less than the sum of its parts, but either way there's still something worth seeing for people who enjoy moving pictures, because this film sure does move.

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