Wednesday, December 7, 2016

B-Western Wednesdays: Heart of the Rio Grande (1942)

You might recall my mentioning earlier that Rancho Yesteryear was the beneficiary of a Starz/Encore/Movieplex “freeview” over the Thanksgiving holidays, and this allowed me to grab some goodies from both their respective On Demand outlets (for the record, I adore how Movieplex allows their movies to play all the way through—just like those on The Greatest Cable Channel Known to Mankind™’s On Demand—because I’m kind of anal when it comes to closing credits) and the channels themselves.  I tried my darndest to grab The Lone Star Trail (1943) from Encore Westerns On Demand, but it vanished before my suckass Windstream connection could download it.  (Bill Crider got to see it, and mentioned in a recent comment that he may get around to reviewing it one of these days; I suggest we start picketing his blog immediately until he acquiesces to our demands…though I cannot stress enough the importance of staying on the sidewalk because he has a thing about people in his yard.)

While I was denied a dandy Johnny Mack Brown-Tex Ritter oater, I did grab a couple of Buster Crabbe-Fuzzy St. John PRC B’s and a slew of Republic-Columbia programmers starring “America’s favorite singing cowboy,” Gene Autry hizzownself.  (Including 1940’s Melody Ranch, which was reviewed back on the blog in 2011.)  So, don’t be surprised to see a few of Gene’s moon pitchers turn up in this Wednesday space in the future—including today’s entry, Heart of the Rio Grande (1942).

You’ll find when you watch enough B-Westerns that there’s usually a wealthy bidnessman character out to screw over the townsfolk until the hero steps in to put a smackdown on those shenanigans.  Heart has such a rich character, but he’s surprisingly benign when it comes to making life miserable for the disadvantaged; in this movie, Randolph Lane’s (Pierre Watkin—billed as “Pierre Watkins”) only vice is that he’s been a little delinquent in the parenting department—which is why his daughter Connie (Edith Fellows) is spoiled rotten.  The students at the private school Connie attends will be spending two months at the Smoke River Dude Ranch—accompanied by chaperone Alice Bennett (Fay McKenzie)—and Connie would rather make other plans.  Father Randolph exercises his parental veto and Connie is soon on a train heading West.

The Smoke River Dude Ranch is technically a horse ranch—but mismanagement from ex-foreman Hap Callahan (William Haade) has necessitated that owner “Skipper” Forbes (Sarah Padden) open the place up to tourists to pay the bills.  Hap never stops pissing and moaning about this…though it probably has more to do with the fact that Skipper has hired a new foreman in Gene Autry.  Gene and loyal sidekick “Frog” Millhouse (Smiley Burnette) meet Ms. Bennett and her charges at the depot (Frog immediately falls—literally—for Alice), just in time to see Connie continue on to San Francisco.  Autry and his horse Champion catch up to the Frisco Express, and he pulls her off the train because…damn it, she’s there to have fun.

Connie behaves…how should I put this?  Well, I’ll spell it out in case there are any kids in the room: she’s a proper P-I-L-L.  She steals a truck from the ranch to make another desperate bid for freedom but the vehicle has no brakes, and she ends up crashing it in a ditch.  (She insists on walking all the way back to Smoke River even though Gene offers her the use of Champion.)  Later, she marks up her back with lipstick to look as though she’s being whipped during her stay (she sends the photos to her father, and believe me, they will come back to bite her in the derriere).  When Gene gives Connie a lecture on doing things for others without expecting anything in return, the girl gets the bright idea to tamper with the cinch on Hap’s saddle so he’ll lose a riding contest with Autry.  (Connie apologizes when Hap is seriously hurt, and when Hap draws a gun on Gene during an exchange of fisticuffs, Autry tells him to hit the road.)

Eventually, Connie begins to understand that being a rich bitch will not win friends and influence people (well…maybe not in good ways), and she starts to enjoy herself at Smoke River.  Then her old man turns up, wanting to know why his daughter is being abused (those damn pictures!) …and Gene finds himself having to teach Papa Lane a lesson as well.

If you’ve expressed concern that all these teachable moments Gene must impart adversely affects his duties at the ranch…allow me to assuage your fears.  Gene likes nothing more than being a scold; there’s even a scene where he speechifies to some of the ranch hands (played by the Jimmy Wakely Trio, including Wakely and Johnny “Ten Little Bottles” Bond) that they should be spending their hard-working wages on war bonds instead of liquor and card games…because damn it, there’s a war on.  Gene’s tendency to be a bit bossy is one of the reasons why I prefer Roy Rogers’ movie western output—I’m not saying Roy wasn’t guilty of a little preaching now and then, but he seemed to conceal it better.

That having been said, I got a kick out of Heart of the Rio Grande.  I know, I’m on the record as affirming that my preference for Autry movies are the more adult ones he made at Columbia (with serials veteran John English directing), but Heart is a great little oater, and I think it’s due to the fact that the character played by Edith Fellows (whom you may remember from those Five Little Peppers movies) is more than just a one-dimensional brat.  Fellows really makes Connie unlikable in the early frames of the movie…and yet when she realizes what an unpleasant person she’s been, her conversion to regular gal is quite realistic.  (She and Gene become great pals—he even teaches her some roping tricks!)

I know you’re going to wonder if I’ve developed a fever—but the other kiddie thesp in Heart, Joe Strauch, Jr., also didn’t cause me to retch violently like I usually do (see She Who Shall Not Be Named).  Strauch has some amusing moments as Frog Millhouse’s younger brother Tadpole (that’s a joke, son!—he’s even decked out in the same “Frog” clothing, just a Mini-Me version)—a role he initiated in the Autry oater Under Fiesta Stars (1941) and continued in three additional Autry vehicles after that (Strauch also appeared in Beneath Western Skies [1944] with Smiley and Bob Livingston).  Strauch’s main movie fame was as George “Spanky” McFarland’s double in the Our Gang comedies—he even appears onscreen (as “Tubby”) in the Our Gang short Fightin’ Fools (1941).  When I was watching Heart of the Rio Grande, I heard what I thought was one of the female students refer to Frog as Tadpole’s father and had to run it back to make sure I hadn’t heard incorrectly.  (As it turns out, I did.  Frog is a bachelor, so that family arrangement would have been very interesting.)

Heart of the Rio Grande gets a few extra points for integrating the musical numbers much better than your usual Gene Autry outing; Gene performs Deep in the Heart of Texas (the movie’s original title was to have been Heart of Texas) and one of my favorites, I’ll Wait for You, while the Wakely Trio tackle a Johnny Bond composition in Cimarron.  Even Fellows is allowed a number (I’ve previously joked that she was Columbia’s answer to Deanna Durbin…though this is a Republic release) in Rainbow in the Night.  Directed by longtime film editor William Morgan (who helmed quite a few of Gene’s Republics, including Home in Wyomin’ that same year) and scripted by Lillie Hayward & Winston Miller (from Newlin B. Wildes’ story “Sure, Money Folks, But—“), Heart of the Rio Grande is a lovely little B-oater.  It’s available for purchase (I love how Gene’s westerns have been painstakingly restored) or for rent at your friendly neighborhood ClassicFlix.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Grey Market Cinema: Night World (1932)

The best way to describe the pre-Code motion picture Night World (1932) is that it’s “Grand Hotel in a speakeasy.”  That speakeasy is owned and operated by ‘Happy’ MacDonald (Boris Karloff), a charmingly sinister host with clear ties to unsavory underworld elements.  His wife Jill (Dorothy Revier) is having a little clandestine what-have-you with Klauss (Russell Hopton), the man choreographing the dance routines for the chorus girl contingent at “Happy’s Club.”  Then again, everyone who frequents the joint is having an adulterous assignation of one kind or another—at one point in the action, a female patron signals Happy that he needs to ixnay on the matter of whether or not she was a regular presence at the discothèque while her better half was away on business.

The main tale told in Night World belongs to wealthy young Michael Rand (Lew Ayres) …ever since the murder trial of his mother (Hedda Hopper)—Mother Rand shot and killed Pa Rand in the apartment of his “mistress,” Edith Blair (Dorothy Peterson)—Mike has been curious to prove that copious amounts of alcohol can take a toll on one’s liver.  (And this is Prohibition-era hooch, friends—it’s a wonder Michael hasn’t gone blind by now.)  Rand runs into Edith at Happy’s during the evening, and she tells him that whatever he may think of her she wants him to know that his father loved him and that his ma is just a little “cold around the heart,” to quote a favorite film noir.  (Mrs. Rand later turns up at the club, long enough to tell her son that she never wanted him and that she married his pop for his money.  She seems nice.)  But salvation for Michael arrives in the form of Ruth Taylor (Mae Clarke), a chorus girl who’s fallen head-over-heels for the young souse…she’ll just have to fend off the amorous advances of Ed Powell (George Raft) before those crazy kids can wind up happy-ever-after.

Here’s one tiny thing that brought a smile to my lips when I watched the copy of Night World that I purchased from Finders Keepers not too long ago: for a brief moment onscreen, the “American Movie Classics” logo flashed briefly, and I waded into some nostalgia clean up to my neck—thinking about all the hours I enjoyed watching the once-proud classic film channel before they became obsessed with zombies and meth dealers.  (My parents still watch a lot of AMC, no doubt because the commercials that plague their movie offerings are a godsend to their weak bladders.)

Night World has been on my classic movie radar for quite some time now…and I’m not going to mince words: I loved every minute (fifty-six in total) of this fascinating curio.  To be honest, the film had me at Boris Karloff; I’ll pretty much commit to watching anything he’s in, and I relished seeing him tackle a role admittedly out of his wheelhouse.  Other people who have viewed World have commented that he’s every bit as evil here as he is in his better-known “monster” performances…but I enjoyed Karloff’s Happy MacDonald, a jovial sort who greets everyone who walks into his establishment with a “Hiya, big shot!”  (He’s a little miscast—the way he was in Scarface [1932]—but I can overlook it.)  I kind of felt sorry for Hap, being saddled with Mrs. Mac; sure, Happy has a quick temper (he lays Michael out like carpet with one punch when Rand gets a bit boisterous) and he could use an upgrade with regards to the people with whom he associates…but then again, he’s running a speakeasy—not a daycare center.  (And not only is Jill MacDonald stepping out on her husband…she doesn’t even have the good taste to do it with someone not quite as loathsome as Krauss, who sadistically orders the chorus girls to stick around after closing so they can rehearse some new routines.)

Karloff’s fellow Frankenstein player Mae Clarke gave the best performance in the film; I really fell in love with her character, particularly in the scene where she removes a bearskin (complete with bear head) from Rand after he’s finished sleeping it off.  (Rand’s reaction to waking up staring straight at that bear head is hilarious.)  It’s not too hard to see why Raft’s Ed Powell has eyes for her (he prods her to go out with him and when she explains that it’s too late to go stepping George responds “My apartment’s never closed”) and while I’m not unconvinced that the romantic high-note between Ruth and Michael that ends the film will go anywhere Clarke is able to make the scenes they share sparkle (I wasn’t all that impressed with Lew, to be honest).  Clarke also gets the lead in one of the movie’s musical numbers, Who’s Your Little Who-zis?; she started her show business career as a dancer in Atlantic City, and Night World demonstrates she remembered her terpsichorean skills with the same ease as riding a bike.  As my friend and fellow CMBA member Cliff Aliperti notes in his review of the film, “Her Ruth Taylor of Night World seems to be the very showgirl that Waterloo Bridge's Myra had claimed to be.” (Who-zis also brought about a sly smile…Dean Martin & Jerry Lewis perform the same tune in 1953’s The Stooge.)

Night World is a splendid showcase for TDOY fave Clarence Muse, who portrays philosophical doorman Tim Washington—a role that might be interpreted by some as a demeaning stereotype, but Muse infuses the character with a dignity that rises above scads of the kinds of parts African-American thespians had to sadly settle for in that less-than-enlightened era.  World features a fascinating give-and-take between Tim and cop-on-the-beat Ryan (played by A Night at the Opera’s Robert Emmett O’Connor), in which Tim explains to his policeman friend that the nightlife in Happy’s establishment isn’t necessarily a bowl of cherries.  “Most all of them folks is starvin’ for something, and it ain't just food.  They comes in here and eats and dances and hugs themselves up to a woman.  For a while they thinks they happy.   Then they comes out, and the old world is just as cold and empty as it was before.  That's real starvin', Mr. Ryan.”  The supporting cast in Night World is nothing short of sensational, with familiar faces like Bert Roach (as the “Schenectady” drunk), Louise Beavers, Billy Bletcher, In the Balcony mascot Byron Foulger, Harry Woods, Jack La Rue, Florence Lake, and Geneva Mitchell.

“The general mood and ambiance supplied by Happy's Club,” writes Cliff, is “the true star of Night World.”  I heartily concur, and I’ve tried to keep mum by revealing only a few small details about the movie…because I couldn’t sleep at night if I thought I spoiled any of its elements to someone who hasn’t had the opportunity to sit down with this delightful film.  (It was directed by former silent film star Hobart Henley—the idea for the movie was purportedly his as well—and if those dance routines in the film look vaguely familiar, it’s because staged by some guy who answered to “Busby Berkeley.”)  “The rest of the film’s a good mix of goofy fun and sly romance,” opines Danny Reid of fame.  “It has a lot of everything that got forbidden a few years later, and it has both a big heart and a wicked, nasty sense of humor.”

Monday, December 5, 2016

Gilder-Shreve’s Bad Day

As days go…I’ve experienced better.  It started last night, when I had just finished putting the finishing touches on this blog post excuse.  The indispensable Internets stopped working for your humble narrator, and he quickly surmised—due to the inclement weather (not that I’m complaining—we need the rain)—that Windstream was apparently experiencing an outage.  (For those of you who reside in a rural area where your Internet needs depend on Windstream…you have my unceasing empathy.  They really are terrible.)

I couldn’t immediately see to the problem upon rising early this morning because I had an appointment to see my endocrinologist and that necessitated getting out the door before 7am.  (My appointment was at 8:15, and Mumsie is a stickler for being early.)  The good news is that the doctor was effusive in his praise for my progress on the diabetes front; my A1C level was waaaaay down, and overall, I’m managing it like a bitch.  (There was no celebratory donut, sadly enough.)  Having returned from the docs (and a side trip to Kroger Nation for a case of water and a bag of ice), I fired up the laptop…and learned to my disappointment the outage was still raging on.

I would rather cut off a pinky finger than deal with the Windstream people.  For starters, you must negotiate one of those automated customer service deals…and this one is a real hoot, because the voice informs you: “I understand complete sentences, so speak to me like a real person.”  Unfortunately, they leave out the “stupid” between “real” and “person”; I had to repeat my phone number three times before Mr. Automated Service Rep acknowledged my existence.  Then, after going through that charade, you get to speak to a real person who makes the automated guy look like a member of MENSA.  Now, I’m very sympathetic to the fact that the real people are only making $7-8 an hour to read from a manual…but I knew the trouble had to be on their end, and this jadrool kept telling me it was on mine.  He tells me that someone from “Internal” will call me back, and that could take anywhere from 24-48 hours.

I actually resorted to cleaning up my room while waiting for the Internet to return. My mother was delighted.
After lunch—about 12:30 my time—I decided to call Windstream again because I was growing more and more agitated.  (We give these people an arm-and-a-leg for shitty service—the least they could do is make sure the lights stay on.)  I danced the Automated Polka again, and this time there’s a message informing me that, yes, there is an outage in my area.  “Who’s the nut case now, Ray?  Who’s the nut case now?”  They said it would be up and running at 2pm (it was more like 2:45), which now brings everyone up-to-date.  Without further ado, the “my dog ate my homework” post:

In retrospect, I was certain that the first regular Thrilling Days of Yesteryear feature to bite the dust would B-Western Wednesdays.

I had every intention of getting a book read this week.  I really did.  I did not anticipate, however, that I would spend a good deal of the time I normally set aside for this purpose on other pursuits.  For example, I am in the process of trying to whip a movie database into shape.  I own a lot of movies, and I like to keep track of what I have because…well, there’s been a time or two where I have made DVD purchases and then learned to my chagrin I already have a copy in the dusty TDOY archives.  I don’t do this too often (otherwise I would start to wonder if I should see my doctor about the early onslaught of senile dementia) …but if I had a nickel for every time I’ve burned a DVR’d movie to disc that I already own—or by that same token, didn’t DVR a movie because I thought I already owned it—I would be the proud owner of many nickels.  I’ve also got some Radio Spirits and ClassicFlix assignments in my inbox that will need to be completed before the ‘rents and I get away for a little R&R over the holidays.

The book that I planned to crack open—Hold That Joan, by my Facebook chum Ben Ohmart—never received the crack-opening it was due.  As the deadline to have a book read and the post completed got nearer and nearer, I considered calling an audible: I bought—on an impulse buy—a cute little Kindle book entitled F in Exams: The Very Best Totally Wrong Test Answers and I devoured that in the time it takes my father to go once around the DISH channel lineup looking for a show about cops arresting people.  I cannot emphasize enough the word “cute” when describing this book, put together by Richard Benson.  In a nutshell, it’s a tome that lists questions that originally appeared on tests and the hi-larious responses from the test takers who, because they did not know the answer, did what I did on so many examinations in my high school and college days—baffle them with bovine excrement as opposed to dazzling them with brilliance.  The problem with the content in F in Exams is that none of these answers are really all that funny; oftentimes one is left with the impression that someone had a copy of Joe Miller’s joke book in their back pocket during the test.

Here’s an example:

I remember a broadcast of The Jack Benny Program where Jack tells announcer Don Wilson that he has an agreement with Abbott & Costello: “We leave them alone, and they leave us alone.”  So, I decided to scrap a review of F in Exams…which necessitated deciding between continuing to read books and writing about them on the blog…or just spending that time continuing to watch and write about movies.

To no one’s surprise, throwing the book review feature under the bus didn’t require a great deal of soul-searching.  (I really enjoy watching movies more.)

I will say this: I have not completely abandoned the book review feature of this blog.  It’s just that it will not be appearing with the regularity as the other fine features you’ve come to know and love here at TDOY.  If I’m reading a book and decide to do a little write-up in a blog post, fine.  If I’m reading a book and I decide it’s not worth mentioning, also fine.  If I just don’t feel like reading…well, that’s okay as well.  (To be honest, while I’m not in the habit of giving out tips…if it were my money, I’d bet on this last one.)

What will replace the book review feature, I hear people asking?  Well, at this point I haven’t really decided.  There are movies I watch that I’d like to write about…except they really don’t fit into the admittedly narrow parameters here on the blog, and as such, I’m thinking about allotting Mondays to give them a fair hearing.  Andrew “Grover” Leal has been pestering the dickens out of me to resurrect Doris Day(s), so there’s another option.  Which reminds me that it’s been a while since I did anything TV-related on the blog (one of the reasons I made a concerted effort to participate in the recent Classic TV Blog Association Blogathon—that, and because I thought it would be tremendous fun).  Whatever I ultimately decide, I hope the relegation of book reports to semi-regular status doesn’t disappoint too many of you among the TDOY faithful.  Tomorrow, I’ll resume with the regular blog content and Overlooked Films on Tuesdays.  (I just hope there’s not another rain delay.)

Friday, December 2, 2016

Forgotten Noir Fridays: Hi-Jacked (1950)

Some days…it just doesn’t pay to be a Good Samaritan.  Truck driver Joe Harper (Jim Davis) learns this fairly quickly; he stops his run to help a motorist (David Bruce) whose auto is stuck in a ditch…and winds up being drygulched by the driver’s confederates.  You see, it was all a set-up; the driver and his goons are members of a hijacking racket preying on trucks filled with bodacious booty.  How do I know this?  Well, an unseen narrator explains after the opening credits of Hi-Jacked (1950) that these scofflaws are responsible for why the food we eat, the liquor we drink, the clothes we buy, etc. is so friggin’ expensive—crime does not pay so much as it costs.  (What’s worse, Narrator Guy kind of intimates it’s our fault.)

To add insult to injury, Joe is getting static about the hijacking from the insurance investigator (George Eldredge) looking into the matter…only because Harper’s an ex-con (he did a stretch in the pen on an embezzlement rap).  But Joe is innocent; the individual responsible is traffic manager Stephen Clark (Ralph Sanford), who tips off a fence named Hagen (Paul Cavanagh) about shipments…and Hagen passes the information on to his underlings.  When Joe is victimized by the hijacking gang a second time, things really look bleak; he makes the decision to bust the operation wide open at the risk of violating his parole.

Jim Davis is a great example of one of those actors who got better with time.  Most people remember him from the TV series Dallas, as John Ross “Jock” Ewing, Sr., the family patriarch, and he also appeared on the western anthology Stories of the Century (1954-55) and the adventure series Rescue 8 (1958-60).  Davis could be stiff and wooden at times—which is why he made a lot of B-pictures, particularly those of the Western variety—but he gradually became a solid character veteran, as witnessed by his turn as the doomed Senator George Hammond in one of my absolute favorite movies, The Parallax View (1974).

Davis has a Ben Johnson-like quality to him (Johnson is another thespian who I always enjoy watching despite his acting limitations), and his appearance here in Hi-Jacked makes this run-of-the-mill programmer worth a look-see.  It’s a product from the Robert L. Lippert stable, which means you’re going to see a plethora of familiar faces like Marcia Mae Jones (billed here as “Marsha Jones”; she plays Davis’ wife) and Margia Dean (a waitress).  Of course, it wouldn’t be a Lippert film without the studio’s “good luck charm,” the incomparable Sid Melton.  (I can understand why you’re groaning, folks.)

Melton plays one of the hijack gang members, a dweeb named “Gerard” (an Arnold Stang influence, no doubt) who prefers to be addressed by his nickname, “Killer.”  He’s anything but—and there’s an amusing running gag where he keeps pestering the hijack leader (Bruce) to let him have a gun.  I think Sid was hysterical on Green Acres (his shtick on The Danny Thomas Show got stale quickly in those “lost” episodes they showed on Cozi TV a while back) and when a Lippert film is in danger of talking itself to death, his antics can be a respite.  But when the movie is actually entertaining, Melton is little more than a handicap.  What’s more, Hi-Jacked also features TDOY fave Iris Adrian as Davis’ sassy waitress friend, and there’s really not room enough for two people providing comic relief in this one.  (I really liked Adrian’s character a lot.  I’d watch her in a TV series any day of the week.)

I’m a big fan of Marcia Mae (you’ll learn the reason why if you read my write-up on Arson, Inc.) but she doesn’t get much to do here; she and Jim have been estranged since he was sent up, but once she learns of the effort he’s making to stay on the straight-and-narrow she reconciles with him, which I found sweet.  (The two of them swap some spit at the end of Hi-Jacked in a most satisfying wrap-up, too.)  Scripted by Orville H. Hampton and Fred Myton (from a story by Myton and Raymond L. Schrock), Hi-Jacked has the distinctive stamp of Sam Newfield (director) and Sigmund Neufeld (producer)—the brothers put a little more effort into this one, with some first-rate action in the form of exciting fist fights and an equally swell climax.

Most of the Kit Parker Films versions of these Lippert vehicles come from sparkly prints but Hi-Jacked seems to have been through the projector sprockets a few too many times.  That pin prick of a nitpick aside, I really enjoyed Hi-Jacked: it doesn’t inspire to anything beyond a simple time passer, and it succeeds admirably.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

“…on the dotted line!”

To the Fisher family, he’s known as “The Show Off.”  Every clan has or knows someone like Aubrey Piper (Ford Sterling), a brash, obnoxious individual with a braying laugh that sets on edge the teeth of any poor soul unfortunate to be within earshot.  Aubrey is only a thirty-dollar-a-week clerk in the offices of the Pennsylvania Railroad—but he likes to pretend he’s a big shot, dressing to the nines and bragging to one and all that he’s always got a “big deal” in the works.  His fiancée is Amy Fisher (Lois Wilson), and she loves him despite his annoyances.  Her family—consisting of Pa (C.W. Goodrich), Ma (Claire McDowell), and brother Joe (Gregory Kelly)—can’t quite fathom what Amy sees in him.

In any other silent comedy, an unpleasant character like Aubrey Piper would be the butt of the jokes…but in The Show Off (1926), he’ll emerge triumphant as the most unlikely of heroes.  Joe is a part-time inventor, and has concocted a special paint impervious to rust (take that, Rustoleum!)—yet he’s been unable to sell any company on his big idea.  He’ll have to make do with a bequest of $1000—before his father passes, he gives Joe the money he and Mrs. F saved to pay the mortgage—to demonstrate his invention…but he winds up spending that money to keep jackass Aubrey out of jail after a traffic mishap.  Aubrey must rely on his special talent of spreading bovine excrement to prevent the Fisher clan from being tossed out on the street.

Paramount’s The Show Off adapted the 1924 stage play written by George Kelly (The Torch-Bearers)—a production that would become his greatest and most commercial success.  It’s been revived several times since then (the last time in 1992, with familiar TV face Boyd “One Day at a Time” Gaines in the Piper role), and in researching its history, I learned that character veteran Lee Tracy was in the original cast (he was Joe), and later took on the title role in a 1950 revival.  I found this interesting because I envisioned this as the perfect part for the actor best known for his portrayals of brash, in-your-face go-getters; it’s a shame no one thought of Lee when they did a second sound version of the film (the first was in 1930 with Men are Like That) in 1934 with another Tracy—Spencer (his first film for MGM).  I’ve seen the 1934 version, and it just doesn’t work.  Sorry, Spence.

I’ve also seen the 1946 Show-Off with Red Skelton, and while I’m a little bit more charitable to that incarnation (the supporting cast, including Eddie “Rochester” Anderson, helps a lot), my preference remains the 1926 original.  I’m guessing I first watched it on The Greatest Cable Channel Known to Mankind™, though the reason why is…well, I’ll get to that in a second.  I have a soft spot for this little underrated comedy, which features former Keystone Kop chief Ford Sterling in one of his most engaging silent comedy turns.

Sterling had an onscreen reputation for “telegraphing” what his character was planning to do before each scene…but by the time he took on The Show Off, he had matured quite a bit as a performer—and that broad acting helps immeasurably him in portraying Aubrey Piper.  Aubrey is that relative you’re always seated next to at any family dinner gathering: a completely clueless boob with an inflated sense of self-worth and a bottomless reservoir of little white fibs about how successful he is.  In Show Off, Aubrey boasts to a starry-eyed Amy that he has “thirty clerks working under him” …prompting her father (C.W. Goodrich reprising his stage role) to remark that those clerks are probably working on the floor below him.

Despite being a pain in the tuchus to his new family, Sterling makes Piper a sympathetic guy in some respects.  Aubrey is a character without malice—he’s just totally oblivious to the misery he creates with his non-stop braggadocio and stretching of the truth.  It will fall to Joe’s girlfriend, Clara (Louise Brooks), to let loose and inform Aubrey how much of an ass he is (she calls him a “four flusher”).  But rather than reform himself, a denouement that would probably be pursued in most films of this type, Piper uses his handicap in social skills to convince a company to invest $50,000 in Joe’s paint invention, mesmerizing a boardroom with a constant stream of ballyhoo.  That’s why I love this movie so much: it establishes the premise that in order to succeed in the business world, you must be a bit of a jerk…and Aubrey has that covered in spades.  His mother-in-law admits defeat at the end of the film with an eyeroll and a remark about “Heaven help us now”—it’s all she can do, seeing as her son-in-law, likable or not, has saved the family from eviction.

As you may have already guessed, the initial reason why I was attracted to The Show Off was Lulu herself.  Louise Brooks doesn’t have a large part, and the character she plays isn’t all that different from similar turns in It’s the Old Army Game (1926) or Love ‘Em and Leave ‘Em (1926)…but she’s so mesmerizing a presence I defy anyone to avert their eyes whenever she’s in a scene.  (Brooksie does have an amusing bit where she pokes fun at Sterling’s story about his automobile accident—Piper claims he tried to avoid hitting a woman and her baby—by mimicking his actions, then laughing fit to beat the band.  A title card reads “Applesauce!”)

I had to refrain from titling this post “Grey Market Cinema” …because even though I purchased it from Finders Keepers, The Show Off has previously been released to VHS (from Kino Video) and DVD—a disc from Image Entertainment in 2012 that is now OOP (it was paired with a 1925 Clara Bow feature, The Plastic Age—which will be appearing in this space soon).  (My esteemed ClassicFlix colleague—and the man who mixes up the butter-like topping at In the Balcony—Cliff Weimer sez I erred when I titled a previous review on The Undead [1957] as grey market, because it did receive a Region 2 release.  He should know—he wrote the liner notes.)  It’s no longer available from Finders Keepers (I snapped this up a few years ago), so you may have to hire some Sherpas and stock up on provisions in your quest to track it down.  (They’re asking an arm-and-a-leg for it on Amazon.)