Friday, November 28, 2014

Pre-Code Parade: SIT TIGHT (1931)

When I was writing about Gold Dust Gertie last time I suggested that star Winnie Lightner was prepared to deal with the challenge of co-starring with Olson and Johnson because she'd held her own with Joe E. Brown already. I wrote that before watching Sit Tight, another Lloyd Bacon film, in which Lightner tends to recede into the background while Brown dominates the action. Lightner gets top billing but Brown's face tends to be more prominent in the advertising -- or at least his cartoonish features, exaggerated further by actual cartooning, attract your eye more. Lightner may have been sabotaged by Warner Bros.' decision to cut nearly all the songs out of this erstwhile musical comedy. As it is, she sings the only song that made the cut, but it's not exactly a highlight. Also, Lightner is playing something other than her gold digger archetype this time. She's more or less an honest woman -- an entrepreneur, in fact -- a doctor, no less! She is "Dr. O'Neill," the proprietor of a health spa, and the opening scenes when we see her running her business are her most dominant moments in the picture. While the place is full of pretty girls, the principle customers are out-of-shape men, old or fat or both. They look pretty hopeless, but the good doctor motivates them by telling them how attractive they'll become. She gets their money by appealing to their vanity without having to marry any of them.

In fact, Winnie is the pursued rather than the pursuer in Sit Tight. Brown is her suitor and assistant Jojo, self-styled "the Terrible." He's an aspiring wrestler, having learned all the holds from a correspondence course. Presumably he practised on the dummy he brings into the ring for an exhibition, after which he challenges the crowd, promising money to anyone who can pin him. Brown was an athlete and shows a wiry frame when stripped to the waist but here, unlike in his later baseball pictures, he has to play a bumbler. He's too small to throw the big men, and he's more of a coward than someone as physically gifted as Brown was should be. The comedian does most of his own stunts, taking some decent bumps in the ring and performing most impressively in chase scenes. At one point, he hurdles three massage tables and their occupants, and it's unmistakably Brown because he's running toward the camera. You get the sense that Brown is what M-G-M hoped Buster Keaton would be in sound pictures: a physical dynamo who also looked and talked funny. The talking funny was clearly very important for Brown and Warners: he does his signature yell (the precursor, for those with long memories, of the Hippo Hurricane Holler) on any pretext, even though it's probably the least amusing thing he does in retrospect.  Otherwise he specializes in brag and bluster, though this is one of the pictures where his character can't back them up.

Jojo may pine for Winnie O'Neill, but he has a roving eye. He's very much a Pre-Code comedy hero in the way he ogles and sometimes manhandles pretty women, and Sit Tight is very much a Pre-Code comedy in the opportunities it gives Brown to run amok among attractive, scantily clad girls. It's quite ribald when Brown, passing himself off as a doctor, repeatedly checks a female patient's breathing, her towel slipping down further with each breath at his urging. Yet for all he ogles others, his heart, or his subconscious, belongs to Winnie. In the ring, as he's choked out by Tom Kennedy, he dreams of himself as a sultan surrounded by slave girls, but the main attraction of the harem is Winnie the hootchie-kootchie dancer. The husky Winnie is no one's idea of a hootchie-kootchie dancer but Jojo's, and his idealization of her redeems his sometimes-wandering eye. Back in reality, he redeems himself by going into the ring against a Masked Marvel, actually an enemy from earlier in the picture, solely to stall for time. In the romantic plot with which comedies like these are almost always saddled, the handsome young collegiate wrestling prodigy has been kidnapped prior to the big match on which Winnie has staked the future of her spa. That forces her to match Jojo with someone to keep the crowd happy, and while much of his match is him running away from his foe, Brown gets in some nice drop kicks and cannonballs on his way to an unlikely victory. Again, Lightner may have been the star, and may have had more to do in earlier, more musical cuts of the picture, but Brown has much more to do in the film we have today, and he seems like the star by default. If anything, the notorious wild men Olson and Johnson were more deferential toward Lightner months later than Brown was earlier in 1931. It simply shows that he was ready for solo stardom, while Lightner's time on top was already starting to run out.

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