February 2, 2016
In 1931 the vaudeville circuit was dying out, and Hollywood was poaching its performers and routines. Needing content for the new sound technology, studios would string together comedies around a collection of old stage bits. Anarchic, chaotic, and scattershot, these films will do anything for a laugh, and they occasionally get them. The Warner Archive has just released three of these pre-code sketch films on DVD, all from 1931: Gold Dust Gertie, Her Majesty Love, and Fifty Million Frenchmen. They feature actors who cut their teeth in vaudeville, including the comedy duo Olsen & Johnson, one-liner artist Winnie Lightner, and W.C. Fields, who made his sound film debut in Her Majesty Love.
Fifty Million Frenchmen (1931)is a showcase for the antics of Ole Olsen and Chic Johnson, who had been working as a duo since the late teens. Their act didn’t really have a straight man, with wiry neurotic Olsen facing off against the rotund giggling softie of Jonhson.They were known for their boundary dissolving stage shows which strung clotheslines from balcony to balcony to dry their wash, had cows falling from the ceiling, and dubbed Hitler into Yiddish. This kind of madcap deconstruction wouldn’t show up on film until Hellzapoppin’ in 1941, but there some evidence of their insanity in Fifty Million Frenchmen. Originally intended to feature Cole Porter’s songs from the Broadway show, these were cut after the audience rebelled against the glut of musicals released after the coming of sound. Director Lloyd Bacon strings the gags along a slender thread of plot – in a Paris bar Michael Cummings (John Halliday) bets Jack Forbes (William Gaxton) that he can’t win the love of blonde bombshell LuLu (Claudia Dell) without using any of his family’s money. Jack wins if he successfully woos LuLu only on what he can earn doing odd jobs. Cummings hires Olsen & Johnson to watch Forbes – to make sure he follows the rules of the bet.
This is the excuse for a series of sketches: like when Johnson mixes a cocktail inside a passed out fat drunk’s mouth, or when both Olsen and Johnson model women’s underwear in the hopes of selling them to an American tourist. Forbes gets a job as a tour guide for English speakers, and one of the best recurring gags involves a woman (Helen Broderick) who hires his services, looking to be “shocked, you know, insulted.” She is nonplussed when he passes her a photo of a nearly-nude strongman, and when Forbes asks her where she’d like to start the tour she responds, “From the bottom, you’re only young twice.” There is also a Bela Lugosi sighting as a short-lived magic act whose routine is usurped and botched by the incompetent trio of Forbes, Olsen & Johnson, who cause a near riot. The latter duo ends up in a Keystone Cops chase through the Paris streets, over the tops of cars and through newly laid tar, in which the chase bogs down into slow motion.
Olsen & Johnson also appear in Gold Dust Gertie (1931), but the name above the title is Winnie Lightner, a wiseass who specialized in sassy gold digger roles, most famously in Gold Diggers of Broadway (1929). The opening of the film shows her marrying both Olsen and Johnson, and the film kicks off by her pursuit of their alimony payments. And the only way to get those bums to pay is to get them raises at their bathing suit company (whose conservative “Carrie Nations Fit” is not selling). So Lightner insinuates herself into the company, woos the ancient president Arnold (Claude Gillingwater), and convinces him to produce a more contemporary, risque style of suit. Along the way she runs into a few more ex-husbands from whom she’s still chiseling cash. A money-grubbing dynamo, she is getting what she can while the getting’s good. Lightner has a wonderfully expressive face, one that can flip you off with a sneer. In 1931 Picture Play magazine called her “the only feminine star of rough house comedy”.
My favorite gag in Gold Dust Gertie, also directed by the industrious Lloyd Bacon, is a moment of bedroom farce. At one point the president invites Lightner, Olsen, and Johnson onto his ship. He has already declared his love for Lightner, unaware that she has already married and divorced every guest on his yacht. Eventually Olsen & Johnson bully their way into her stateroom, hoping to blackmail her with the news of yet another of her ex-husbands, but she neatly twirls them around her little finger with some flirtation and a bottle of booze. But then the president knocks on the door, and Olsen & Johnson are thrust outside the porthole window (after some requisite pottery smashing), getting thrashed by the waves while Lightner continues her seduction of the president. It is a perfectly tuned and timed bit of humiliation, and one of her multiple triumphs of male manipulation.
Her Majesty, Love, is the most polished film of the three, directed with a roving energy by William Dieterle. This was the second feature Dieterle directed in Hollywood after being imported from Germany (the first: The Last Flight (1931)). It is an adaptation of the German film Ihre Majestät die Liebe, directed by Joe May earlier in ’31. It takes place in Berlin and follows Fred von Wellingen (Ben Lyon), heir to his family’s ball bearing factory fortune. Instead of cultivating the board of directors’ favor, he spends his time in a nightclub, becoming smitten with bartender Lia (Marilyn Miller). His family forbids their marriage, and will only give him the reigns to the company if he agrees to break off their union.
The central drama is stilted, but there are pleasures at the margins. Dieterle and his DP Robert Kurrle use a circling camera in the nightclub sequences, creating an air of drunken revelry, where everything is spinning in a joyful blur. This is Broadway star Marilyn Miller’s third and final film appearance (she would die in 1937 from a botched nasal surgery), and you get an inkling of what made her so beloved on the stage. She has a relaxed, insouciant charm that makes it believable that her father in the film is played by W.C. Fields. Fields plays a barber and indulgent father who is a born entertainer. At Fred and Lia’s engagement dinner, he can’t sit still for a few seconds before he’s catapulting with his spoon or juggling dishes to the gasps of his table mates. It is his first sound feature, and his movie voice is not fully formed, that plummy nasal whine not fully ripened. And yet he is the clear star of the movie, despite his truncated screen time. One wishes for Fred to disappear and for Lia and her father to put on a show of their own.