|Alan Mowbray plays a Snidely Whiplash-type fiend in The Villain Still Pursued Her.|
The flick: The Villain Still Pursued Her (RKO release of a Franklin-Blank production, 1940) [buy the set]
Current IMDb rating: 5.4
Director: Edward F. Cline (Peck's Bad Boy With the Circus)
|Buster Keaton addresses the audience directly.|
On the day of the wedding, the dastardly fiend dares teetotaler Edward to take a sip of the demon rum, knowing it will set him on the path to becoming a hopeless alcoholic. Eight years later, we see that Cribbs' plan is working perfectly. Even though Edward has a young daughter with Mary, he spends all of his time in the local saloon and has become a drunken disgrace to his family. To avoid bringing further shame upon the Middleton name, Edward flees to New York City where he becomes a homeless vagrant. Mary, meanwhile, takes in sewing jobs to earn a few meager pennies to feed herself and her daughter. Luckily, the Middletons have a friend in trustworthy William Dalton (Keaton), whose loony sister Hazel (Compton) had previously been a victim of Silas Cribbs. Dalton vows to save Edward from the clutches of alcohol with the help of noted philanthropist Frederick Healy (Herbert) and bring the villainous Cribbs to justice.
|The work being mocked.|
Obviously, such a familiar icon of American popular culture is likely to be parodied, and The Drunkard made an especially inviting target because it was so (literally and figuratively) sober, preachy, and humorless. While the Ned Flanders of the world kept Smith's play running for decades upon decades, noted alcohol enthusiast W.C. Fields spoofed The Drunkard in his 1934 film The Old Fashioned Way. But a straight-faced adaptation of the original play was produced the very next year by B-movie kingpin Louis Weiss. (Yes, this is the same Louis Weiss who produced The Bride and the Beast, a movie I wrote about not three days ago.) Finally, in 1940, the definitive parody of The Drunkard appeared in the form of The Villain Still Pursued Her, which takes Smith's play apart and reassembles it into an absurd, off-the-wall comedy.
This film beautifully illustrates Roger Ebert's golden rule: "A movie is not what it is about, but how it is about it." The Drunkard and The Villain Still Pursued Her are about the exact same thing, right down to the character names, but they approach the subject matter in diametrically opposed ways. Smith wanted his words to move people and make them see the evils of drink. Edward F. Cline's film, on the other hand, aims only to make us laugh. This was only seven years after the repeal of Prohibition, and the country probably wanted and needed to laugh at the prudes and buzzkills who railed against liquor. It is difficult to describe this film to you because 90% of the humor comes from the stiffness and deliberate artificiality of the performances and the script: the florid dialogue, the blatant sentimentality, the ham-handed exposition, and the shameless over-emoting of the cast.
The nearest latter-day equivalent to which I can compare The Villain Still Pursued Her is Airplane! (1980). Fans of that film may know that Jim Abrahms and the Zucker Brothers based their comedy on a serious Alex Haley-written drama called Zero Hour! (1957) with Dana Andrews and Sterling Hayden. The Airplane! writers simply took the plot of the Haley film and peppered it with silly, Mad-style jokes, turning it into a farce. Crucially, though, the characters in Airplane! do not seem to realize that they are in a comedy. In fact, they take themselves and their situation very seriously... which only makes the movie funnier! Well, The Villain Still Pursued Her basically does to The Drunkard what Airplane! did to Zero Hour! And in both cases, you don't really have to be familiar with the original to enjoy the parody. You just have to know the basic conventions of the genre (melodrama, disaster film, etc.) which is being parodied.
The Villain Still Pursued Her would be a good movie to pair with W.C. Fields' 1933 short, The Fatal Glass of Beer, or perhaps a few episodes of The Dudley Do-Right Show (1969-1970) or even the Adam West version of Batman (1966-1968), which took a similarly deadpan parodic approach to its "serious" subject matter. Chuck Jones' classic cartoon The Dover Boys of Pimento University (1947) has a very similar tone as well. The Villain's audience participation gimmick, meanwhile, reminded me of The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975), which also features an impossibly wholesome couple who are led astray by the treachery of sinful people. What a wonderful coincidence that The Villain's advertising tagline, "Don't miss it, hiss it!" echoes Rocky Horror's famous refrain, "Don't dream it, be it!"
Between 1914 and 1937, by the way, there were at least six short films (generally comedic in nature) which were either called The Villain Still Pursued Her or And the Villain Still Pursued Her. So the film's total commitment to cliches starts with its own title! The music, too, consists of very, very familiar melodies. "Hearts and Flowers," the universally-acknowledged anthem of mock sympathy (as detailed on this very blog), is very prominently featured on the soundtrack, alongside such chestnuts as "Little Brown Jug," "Auld Lang Syne," and "My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean."
*Yes, I know those are the first words of "James K. Polk" by They Might Be Giants.
|Alan Mowbray plays a treacherous lawyer in The Villain Still Pursued Her.|
But most of the film's humor comes from its deliberately stilted tone and exaggerated bad acting. This kind of comedy is very subjective, and it is likely that many viewers will be bewildered by this film and wonder what's supposed to be so funny. As for me, I was hooked from the very first scene, in which Margaret Hamilton (fresh from playing the Wicked Witch of the West) sits in her rocking chair, smiling beatifically and totally unaware that she's mere inches away from crushing the tail of her pet cat. Hamilton's character even gets a laugh while she's off camera, when... ah, but let's not spoil it. Let's just say she lands with a thud on the floor at a particularly odd juncture in the plot.
Obviously, the most famous person in the cast -- and the reason many people will want to see this film -- is Buster Keaton. Buster was about 45 years old when he made this one, and his silent movie glory days were behind him, but he's still very amusing in what is essentially a supporting role. The movie has some fun with the fact that Buster's been given a thankless, second-tier part. The actor repeatedly looks directly into the camera and carefully says the name of his character -- William Dalton -- so that we'll remember it, but the guy he's playing is such a dullard that even Buster forgets the name for a moment. And when poor William Dalton gets lost in a crowded scene, Buster makes sure to contort himself so that his face can be clearly seen on camera.
While I'm doling out accolades, let me say a few good words about the always-delightful Joyce Compton, who plays a character who has lost her marbles and strides through scenes like some wacked-out combination of Ophelia and Betty Boop. If the movie truly "belongs" to anyone, it's Alan Mowbray, who is given the juicy title role as a lustful, deceitful, greedy rapscallion complete with a black cape, a black hat, and (of course) a black mustache and hams it up outrageously. While everyone else in the film is prim and upright to the nth degree, Mowbray's character is so thrilled to be a bad guy that he can hardly contain his glee. So proud is he of his villainy that he will gladly explain his evil schemes with just the slightest coaxing to anyone willing to listen.
Meanwhile, Hugh Herbert's character, Fredrerick Healy, is revered as a saintly benefactor of the downtrodden and a tireless crusader against alcohol, but he's clearly a man of the world whose methods of "rehabilitation" are dubious at best. Keaton, Herbert, and the entire cast of The Villain Still Pursued Her seem to be having a grand old time making this movie. And I hope that the moviegoers of 1940 managed to sneak a few flasks into the theater, so they could imbibe while watching the film... just as audiences of a later generation would toke up during screenings of Reefer Madness (1936) or Cheech and Chong's Up in Smoke (1978).
My grade: A- (my favorite film so far in this collection)
P.S. - The film remains stereotype-free for 95% of its running time. But then -- alas! -- Silas Cribbs proves to have a Negro manservant, played by an actor in deliberately-terrible blackface makeup. The servant only appears for a few seconds near the end of the film, and the whole point of his scene is to parody such cliched characters. But a man in blackface is a man in blackface, no matter the intent.