Sunday, April 12, 2015

On the Big Screen: THE CRUISE OF THE JASPER B (1926)

In the mid-1920s Cecil B DeMille became a sort of movie mogul as the mastermind behind the Producers Distribution Corporation, which later merged with the more established Pathe company. DeMille's biggest hit as an independent was his own Jesus picture The King of Kings but his company released pictures from many hands, in all genres. DeMille as a comedy producer sounds like an unlikely proposition but The Cruise of the Jasper B. allowed him to tap, at whatever remove from the actual creators, into his inner Mack Sennett. Director James W. Horne filmed an adaptation by three writers (including future director Tay Garnett) of a novel by humorist Don Marquis. Best known now for his whimsical "archy & mehitabel" pieces, allegedly written by a cockroach jumping on his typewriter keyboard, Marquis wrote Jasper B in 1916 as a kind of mock epic, and Horne's film is even more mockingly epic. It mocks the conventions of melodrama and adventure by taking them way, way over the top, into the realm of the absurd.

Swaggering in his pirate shorts, star Rod LaRocque (who'd go on to play perhaps the most smart-assed version ever of The Shadow in the movie International Crime) looks like a parody of Douglas Fairbanks in The Black Pirate, which came out nine months before Jasper B. A prologue establishes the storied history of the Cleggett dynasty as the original Jeremaiah Cleggett wins a wife by rescuing her from scurvy ravishers. Since then, the heir to the line comes of age and into his fortune when he takes the old pirate vessel Jasper B onto the open sea to be married on it. By the eighth generation, however, the Cleggett line has grown decadent and bankrupt. The present Jerry Cleggett, whose exact likeness to his distant ancestor raises suspicions of inbreeding, will sleep through the auctioning off of his estate if not for the dedication of his manservant Wiggins (Jack Ackroyd). The beleaguered man must dress in front of prospective buyers, including plenty of women. He insists that they turn their backs, but the ladies whip out their trusty mirrors in the meantime, supposedly to adjust their lipstick. Rarely since the 1920s has the Hollywood male been so subject to the female gaze, but LaRocque is a good sport and unashamed. His performance requires comic timing worthy of the great clowns, especially early on as his bath goods and wardrobe are being snatched from him every time he turns his back. It's starting out as the worst day of Jerry's life, but his salvaging of his ancestor's original pirate costume augurs a change in fortunes.

And just across the way, the ink hasn't dried yet on a revised last will that bestows a fortune on the dying man's niece Agatha Fairhaven (Mildred "First Mrs. Charlie Chaplin" Harris) while virtually disinheriting the hateful Reginald Maltravers (Snitz Edwards). A maid taunts Reginald by waving the new will at him until the wind blows it out of her hand, after the runty villain jumps for it in vain, the will blows through a bathroom window to plaster itself, ink side down, on the bathing Agatha's naked back. Now it's not enough for Reginald to rip the paper text to shreds. To win his fortune, he must scrub the fatal backwards lines off Agatha's body. And so the chase begins, the villain pursuing with a loofah, until Agatha seeks shelter with Jerry Cleggett. It's love virtually at first sight under fire, and the dramatic title cards give an idea of the sensibility at play here:

Agatha: "Don't let him wash my back!"
Jerry: "NEVER!"

Jerry subdues the despicable Reginald and orders Wiggins to "soak" him. The loyal manservant misunderstands this as a command to "croak" the offender, but fortunately lacks the killer instinct. Instead, Maltravers plays dead in hope of escape and gets stuffed into a coffin-like crate which the men then dump out a window. But like Dracula aboard the Demeter the un-dead villain rides the roof of the Cleggett car, somehow unconfiscated, to where the old Jasper B is moored so Jerry can come into his own before the boat is turned into a floating chop house. They barely make it to the boat as Wiggins abandons the driver's seat to investigate the roof and the brake slips. A crash landing luckily leaves everyone unscathed, and Wiggins rejoices that they're at least rid of the accursed box until the thing slides down the hill to cut his legs out from under him.

Meanwhile, gangsters are robbing a mail truck to steal a priceless tapestry stored a in a crate that farcically resembles Reginald Maltravers' quasi-coffin. You can see where this is headed, but you probably don't know how far it's going. You can probably guess that Maltravers will end up leading the gangsters in a raid on the Jasper B. But while this storm gathers the wheels of government keep turning. The driver of the mail truck appeals to the local constable for assistance. "It's a federal matter," that official answers before taking him to the police. "It's a federal matter," the police agree before taking it up with the militia. "It's a federal matter!" an officer affirms before consulting the Navy. An admiral reviews the information up to this point and is about to deliver an opinion when everyone in the frame draws close to hear exactly what they, and by now you, expect. This gradual escalation features some of the best use of title cards I've ever seen in a silent film, and this extra beat of anticipation as everyone cocks their ears is a stroke of genius. And when the admiral (or his card) screams silently "IT'S A FEDERAL MATTER!" it's the cue for the film, already screwy, to go howling mad.

For as a federal matter the theft of the tapestry brings the full military power of the United States to bear against the Jasper B. In a sequence that may have inspired scenes from Duck Soup, infantry, air and naval power and even those newfangled tanks are mobilized against the pirate ship and its crew of three. A montage of stock footage and special effects portrays an apocalyptic assault on the plucky boat. Shelled by naval guns and land artillery, carpet bombed from the air, the ship somehow remains intact as Jerry battles Maltravers and the gangsters, though the villain himself is blown out of his clothes by one lucky shot even as our hero chastises him. Now that's a climax!

I wasn't surprised to learn that James W. Horne's subsequent career was split between slapstick and serials. Immediately after Jasper B. Buster Keaton recruited him to do the directing chores for College. He later directed Laurel & Hardy in Way Out West and some other films before ending his career in the Columbia serial department. You can see the knack for thrills and the comedy timing in Jasper B., which for all I know (which is little) of the man's work is his masterpiece. It definitely proves again that silent comedy had more going for it than the canonical clowns, yet it was a film I hadn't heard of before it was announced as part of this weekend's Jazz Age film program at the Madison Theater. The definitive work of genre criticism, Walter Kerr's The Silent Clowns, had nothing to say about it. That just goes to show how deep the talent pool was in those days, and how much possibly this good remains to be discovered once we look past the big names of comedy.


dfordoom said...

"DeMille as a comedy producer sounds like an unlikely proposition"

I actually love DeMille's comedies as a director. They're quite different from what we usually think of in terms of silent comedies. They're witty and sophisticated and he did have a real sense of fun. Male and Female is my favourite of his comedies - it's definitely worth checking out.

Samuel Wilson said...

Thanks for the reminder of that side of DeMille, but it clearly wasn't that style of comedy, from the days when Cecil B. could pass for a sophisticate, that I was thinking of when I found Jasper B. an unlikely though delightful product of his studio.