Saturday, April 4, 2015

Pre-Code Capsules: THE TENDERFOOT (1932)

The interesting thing about Joe E. Brown as a comedy star is that you can never be certain how dumb his character's going to be. Brown's persona was neither the pathetic incompetent of silent days nor the verbal warrior of early talkies. His characters were often athletes or otherwise displayed some form of physical prowess, often accompanied by a naive arrogance that set him up for a temporary fall. Sometimes he could be more naive than arrogant, but you can never be as sure about him going in as you could be about his rivals. In Ray Enright's Tenderfoot Brown arrives in New York City braying like an idiot, playing a Texan with a big bankroll. At the station he's instantly beset by the big-city types who know a sucker when they see him. One tries to butter him up by calling him Colonel. How'd you know I was a colonel? Brown asks. Why, I just guessed, is the answer. Well, guess where I'm going he says, blowing the predator off. He runs a mini gauntlet of these types, from low-level gold diggers to a panhandler who can't take up Brown's offer of a free meal because he can't leave his "station" at the station. Brown may look and sound like a yokel -- his accent is more generic Yokel than authentic Texan -- but he's no fool, or so it seems. He seems a bit crazy, though, thinking he recognizes a junkman's horse as an animal he raised years ago. And when he goes crazy over Ginger Rogers his cunning fails him. She's no gold-digger but the long suffering secretary of a hack theatrical producer looking for an angel for his latest flop. The promise of proximity to her persuades him to buy 49% of the production, virtually wiping out his bankroll but leaving him with no authority. Brown may be cunning and he may be the best shot in his county of Texas but he has no taste in drama. His show has a disastrous preview in Syracuse -- how bad it really is is left to our imagination -- but he doubles down on it by buying out his senior partners, seeing that as the only way to keep an increasingly disgruntled and infatuated Ginger employed. We see him repeat to a new potential investor the same pitch he was given, and you'd think from that that he's acquired a sense of showmanship that can save Her Golden Sin, especially when he casts Ginger as the leading lady, but The Tenderfoot turns out to be a distant ancestor of The Producers, as the show succeeds only as an unintentional comedy when our hero has to dress his cast in Shakespearean costumes when those prove the only ones available.

Since we're denied the expected climax of the show's Broadway premiere, and because the main plot fell well short of feature length, Enright gives us an extended epilogue in which Brown must rescue Ginger from Broadway extortionists who kidnap her to induce him into paying $1,000 per ticket for a "benefit" event. This last reel makes up for any slapstick deficit in the main story as Brown goes full cowboy, raiding a tenement building (and bumping into an unbilled, malevolent Nat Pendleton along the way) and getting the drop on the extortionists. A brilliant little bit sums up Brown's appeal. He's just subdued a gangster who tried to jump him from behind and has the whole gang at bay before his two guns. He orders Ginger to get into a waiting getaway car while he boasts of his abilities. However, he's lost track of the layout of the room. Still talking, still boasting, he opens a door behind him. We see that it opens not into the hall but into a closet. Enright holds the moment so Brown's mistake can sink in for everyone, while Brown keeps up the rodomontade. Once everyone realizes what's going to happen the simple action becomes one of the best gags in the picture. He escapes, of course, and the ultimate climax is a slapstick montage of Brown's gunmanship and ropemanship wreaking havoc on the crooks. After that, Brown and Ginger go to Texas and have profoundly ugly children. Brown eschews his trademark yell in favor of presumably Texan whoops and hollers but remains a loveble bigmouth. He's not as smart as he thinks -- he uses "Ejaculations!" as a pretentious greeting, mistakes a swishy line of chorus cowboys for fellow Texans, and has never heard of matzoh balls -- but he's still smarter than most of the saps who star in slapstick, and his comparative independence from pathos makes Brown a perfect slapstick star for the Pre-Code era.

No comments: