Saturday, January 4, 2014

DVR Diary: THE BOOB (1926)

Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer was pretty well situated as well as silent comedy was concerned. The company distributed Buster Keaton's early features through Battling Butler and got him back in 1928 as a contract player. Starting in 1927, M-G-M distributed Hal Roach's short subjects starring Laurel & Hardy, Charley Chase, Our Gang, etc. At the same time, the studio attempted homegrown comedy. One of its would-be comedy stars was George K. Arthur, a sad-faced Englishman who often teamed up with tall Swede Karl Dane in buddy pictures. Arthur plays the title character in The Boob, directed by William A. Wellman a year before he hit the big time with Wings. A picture with that title could have been anything. "Boob" was H. L. Mencken's default term of disdain for the average American, who in turn more likely identified the word with Rube Goldberg's comic strip Boob McNutt. As a title for a movie The Boob is generic to the point of vagueness; it may as well have been called The Numbskull or The Moron. But to be specific, Arthur plays Peter Good, a rustic wimp losing his girl to the newcomer from the city, a slicker who's opened a roadhouse called "The Booklovers." To win the girl back, he resolves to become a hero by hunting down bootleggers, this being the time of Prohibition. His hope is that the city-slicker newcomer will be one of the bootleggers. He's encouraged in his ambition by his mentor, Cactus Jim (Charles Murray), who inspires him with tall tales of his youthful Indian fighting, and his sidekick Ham Bunn (played by an uncredited and apparently unknown young black actor). Peter's quest takes him to The Booklovers, which proves indeed to be a speakeasy with a library gimmick and has already been infiltrated by a crack Prohibition agent (20 year old Joan Crawford). Whatever her plans are, Peter comes in guns blazing in Tom Mix regalia, yelling, "I'm looking for bootleggers!" The decadent customers answer, "Oh dearie! So are we!" More or less assisted by Ham Bunn and the sozzled Cactus Jim, who salvages bottles of hooch abandoned during Peter's raid and holes up in a hollow tree, Peter eventually tracks down his rival the bootlegger, proving his manhood in a brawl in the back of a speeding car. And while the film teases that Jane the Prohibition agent will win his heart, having been the only person in the story not to think him a boob, it's still his good old girlfriend (top-billed Gertrude Olmstead) he longs for, and wins.

Low comedy was arguably the highest form of silent cinema, the sight gag its height of craftsmanship. The Boob is a semi-slapstick picture with little of the pictorial genius typical of the great silent clowns. Arthur is an unimpressive clown easily upstaged by Keystone veteran Murray. Since the star isn't really very funny, Wellman brings in another Keystone vet, Hank Mann, for some gags at The Booklovers that have nothing to do with the main story. Mann's best known as Chaplin's opponent in the City Lights boxing match but proves himself quite a competent comedian in his own right as a diner compelled by his fat girlfriend not to eat olives (or are they grapes?) with his fingers. Desperate to look respectable, Mann struggles to impale the things on his fork and later manages to scoop one onto a celery stalk, only to fall tragically short of getting it in his mouth. He's in the film for no more than five minutes, but Mann still may be the best thing in it

Throughout The Boob's 64 minutes, Wellman tries a variety of sight gags, with hit-and-miss results. He has Ham Bunn's dog Benzine lick spilled liquor from one of Cactus Jim's broken bottles and tries to sell the animal's inebriation by having him do nothing in particular, but in slow motion. Cactus Jim exhorts Peter to brave deeds by recounting his own adventures, illustrated by a lithograph on his wall. Wellman transforms the picture into a moving picture of a Hickok-like Cactus fighting off a tribe of Indians single-handedly as Peter watches like a movie-theater spectator, but there's nothing actually funny about the scene. At The Booklovers, the floor show includes remote-control strippers. They come out in hoop skirts, but by touching a button a stagehand lifts the girls' outfits to the ceiling. This makes no sense unless the girls were on wires like marionettes throughout their performance. It may have been done with air currents, however, since the stagehand teases Hank Mann's fat girlfriend by turning on the air as she leaves until her own skirts nearly lift heavenward. After the climactic car chase ends with a wreck, an injured Peter reenacts the chase in a dream. As the car races through the sky, Peter repeatedly flings the villain earthward, only to see him reappear to resume the fight. Eventually Peter's girlfriend, who was driving, faints and flops all the way out of the car, leaving our hero to careen to his doom, except that he wakes up. These bits are interesting without really being very funny. Nor does Wellman do much with a pathos angle that develops when Peter aids an impoverished old lady who later nurses him after the car crashes into her old-folks' home. The old lady seems to be in the picture only because comedy was supposed to have pathos in it back then. Overall, The Boob demonstrates (as M-G-M would again once it took creative control of Keaton's career) how hard it was for an otherwise super-efficient studio with plenty of talent on hand (Crawford is wasted in a merely functional role) to equal the output of the lone-wolf auteurs of silent comedy. Posterity has separated the wheat from the chaff; while the vast majority of the films of Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd, Langdon etc. survive, many if not most of the studio comedies are lost. At least The Boob survives to represent the others that didn't make history's cut, and to make clear how exceptional the truly great comedies really were.

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