Sunday, July 31, 2016

Pre-Code Parade: BROADMINDED (1931)

You can see the first hints of the road-trip comedy in Mervyn LeRoy's film, which offers Joe E. Brown as a dubious chaperone to a wastrel friend on a cross-country trip to California. But most of the action takes place at the end of the trip, and overall Warner Bros. hasn't yet figured out how to best exploit Brown's slapstick athleticism; here he's pretty much a guy with a big mouth, a figure whose clowning borders on the pathological. He's the guy who shows up at the young people's "baby party" and takes the act to extremes, arriving in a pram and really, really getting into the role more than anyone else. The story is conventional stuff, having both Brown and his sidekick (William "Buster" Collier) fall for California girls but having their romances complicated by the arrival of an old flame from the east, for Collier, and the reappearance, for Brown, of an enemy made on the road. This enemy gives Broadminded its main interest today, for he is Bela Lugosi, six months after the release of Dracula.

For Lugosi this movie represents a road ultimately not taken. It's an attempt by Warners to try him out as an all-purpose ethnic, in the role of a tourist from the country of "South America." That role requires Lugosi to be very different from Dracula. He must be loud, he must talk relatively fast, and when Brown really annoys him, as when the comic sprays ink on Bela's dessert, the offended man gives chase at a vigorous, elbow-churning pace. It's not really a great performance, but it belies any notion that Lugosi's Dracula represents the limits of his English or his acting style. He's not exactly convincing as a Latin American, especially by today's standards, but if you pay attention you can hear how he's modulating his accent slightly to fit the part. But if Broadminded gives us a rare glimpse of a non-typecast Lugosi, LeRoy clearly appreciates Bela's essential gifts. The most Lugosian moment in the film comes when Brown's party are dining in a restaurant booth and Brown recounts his dealings with his Latin antagonist, not realizing that the man himself has just been seated in the next booth. Lugosi hears Brown's boasting and, recognizing the hated voice, gets up and peers over the partition behind him at Brown. Naturally, this is the last place Brown expected to see Lugosi, and his reaction to seeing Bela's face is an easy gag. But then LeRoy holds a shot of Lugosi peering over the partition, now with only half his face showing, most importantly those eyes. If more directors found ways to exploit Lugosi's most obvious gifts without relegating him to what was quickly becoming a ghetto for horror films, we might think of Broadminded as a different kind of milestone in a very different career.

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