Saturday, January 19, 2019

Pre-Code Parade: THE FALL GUY (1930)

The Depression already seems to loom over this June 1930 release from Radio Pictures, but when you realize that The Fall Guy began life as a play in 1925 you're reminded, as some films from the Depression strove to remind people, that lots of people had it tough long before the stock market crashed. Tim Whelan's adaptation of the play by George Abbott and future character actor James Gleason, directed by Leslie Pearce, doesn't do much to open up a play that presumably had a single set, the Quinn family apartment. Four adults live here: recently-fired Johnny (Jack Mulhall), his wife Bertha (Mae Clarke), his sister Lottie (Wynne Gibson) and Bertha's brother Dan (Ned Sparks). Johnny's unemployment puts the household in jeopardy; its small savings run out fast and the repo man keeps coming back after Dan's saxophone. Johnny wants to work (unlike Dan) but is picky about the job he takes and gets especially prickly when "Bert" tries to find one for him. He falls into the orbit of Nifty Herman (Thomas E. Jackson), a shifty character with connections to the mysterious drug store magnate known only as Kilpapa. Nifty promises to help Johnny land a managerial position in the Kilpapa chain if he proves his reliability in a variety of odd jobs, including the stewardship of a humble-looking suitcase. Bertha doesn't trust Nifty and doesn't want Johnny associating with him, but he tires of her nagging and takes the suitcase, determined to reaffirm his manhood as head of the household. Finding out about it, Bertha says it's me or the suitcase, and Johnny meekly tries to return it to Nifty. Failing at that, he tries to hide it back at the house, only for Sis to trip over it while the family is entertaining her boyfriend, who proves to be a federal agent on Nifty's trail. Johnny is horrified to find that the suitcase contains heroin instead of the high-class hooch he assumed was inside, and with genuine remorse, and to save his skin, he convinces the cops to let him try to smooth-talk Nifty into spilling the beans on Kilpapa, their real target....

Fall Guy has an unlikely finish -- to spoil things, Nifty confides in Johnny, with the rest of the cast listening in the next room, that Kilpapa is only an alias of his -- but it's a modestly entertaining slice of life at the brink of the Depression, strongly conscious of the pressures of poverty from the threat of dispossession to the hell of incompatible people living together. To prove the last point, the highlight of the picture is the improbable comedy relief turn by dyspeptic character actor Ned Sparks as Johnny's no-account brother-in-law. Dan is the sort of character we imagine today living in his parents' basement. While his spiritual descendants might play the guitar or practice rapping today, Dan has been learning the saxophone on the installment plan for a year to little audible effect. He boasts of becoming the breadwinner once he lands a gig with a jazz band, but until then he's the household moocher, never venturing out except to hit the pool hall. He looks forward to having guests over, he tells one, because Bertha always serves bigger portions then, especially of his favorite food, mashed potatoes. He is defiantly deadbeat, almost joyously so, the sort of ingrate who gripes when Bertha can't afford sperm oil for his sax, then says, "I guess I'll just spit on it." Wikipedia tells us that years later Sparks, by then typed as a sourpuss, once defied people to find a picture of him smiling. He smiles a lot here, sporting a giant, Stan Laurel-like, smugly idiotic grin as he congratulates himself for seemingly putting something over on somebody. Sparks was nearly 50 here, yet he nails the character's arrested development so convincingly that you can almost imagine him being a generation younger. It's only appropriate that he's the butt of the film's final gag, after all the domestic sturm und drang are done, when the long-suffering repo man finally manages to snatch away that evil saxophone, no doubt to the audience's applause.

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