Thursday, November 21, 2013

Mill Creek comedy classics, #67: "The Amazing Adventure" (1936)

The Amazing Adventure stars a young thespian named Cary Grant. Perhaps you've heard of him.

The flick: The Amazing Adventure (Grand National release of a Garrett-Klement Pictures production, 1936) [buy the set]

Current IMDb rating: 6.2

Stop staring at me: Alfred Zeisler; E. Phillips Oppenheim
Director: Alfred Zeisler (Chicago-born actor, director, and producer; this was his most famous directorial effort; also helmed Parole, Inc. and Fear; as an actor, appeared uncredited in The Desert Rats and 5 Fingers; much of his early film work was done in Germany)

Actors of note: Cary Grant (Hitchcock's Notorious, Suspicion, To Catch a Thief, and North By Northwest; repeatedly worked with George Cukor, Leo McCarey, and Howard Hawks; other credits include Arsenic & Old Lace, Gunga Din, Charade, and many more; considered one of the definitive movie stars of the 20th century), Mary Brian (Affairs of Cappy Ricks; almost got the role of Scarlett O'Hara but lost out to Vivien Leigh), Henry Kendall (East of Shanghai; appeared in a movie called Helter Skelter, but not the one about Charles Manson), Leon M. Lion (Hitchcock's Number 17), John Turnbull (Hitchcock's The 39 Steps; also appeared in The Scarlet Pimpernel, The Private Life of Henry VIII, etc.), Quentin McPhearson (Hitchcock's The 39 Steps), Peter Gawthorne (Kind Hearts and Coronets, Goodbye, Mr. Chips), Alfred Wellesley (The Scarlet Pimpernel), Andreas Malandrinos (Roman Polanski's The Fearless Vampire Killers; The Beatles' Help!)

Other notables: The movie is based on the 1919 novel The Curious Quest of Mr. Ernest Bliss  [aka The Amazing Quest of Mr. Ernest Bliss] by prolific English author E. Phillips Oppenheim, who churned out over 100 novels (mostly thrillers and romances) and 37 collections of short stories between 1887 and 1941. At least 30 movies were based on Oppenheim's work, this very film being the last of them. This same novel had already been made into a movie in 1920 with Henry Edwards (Oliver Twist) both directing and playing the lead role.

The many disapproving scowls of Peter Gawthorne.
The gist of it: The setting is London. Wealthy layabout Ernest Bliss (Grant) can't eat or sleep, so he goes to see eminent diagnostician Sir James Alroyd (Gawthorne), who is sick and tired of hearing the complaints of the idle rich. The doctor tells Bliss that what he really needs is to live on his own, without using any of the money he inherited from his father, for a year. Alroyd then curtly dismisses Bliss and refuses to shake his hand. Insulted, Bliss bets the highly dubious Alroyd that he can survive a year without help. If Bliss wins, Alroyd must apologize and shake Bliss's hand. If Alroyd wins, Bliss will pay for the £50,000 clinic Alroyd wants to build. After leaving his luxurious flat in the care of his butler Clowes (McPhearson), Bliss sets out with only a five-pound note in his pocket.

After some struggle to land a job, Bliss does find employment, first as an oven salesman, then a chauffeur. He secretly invests in both of these businesses to save them (plus a restaurant he likes), but since he himself doesn't benefit directly, he's technically not breaking his bet. Along the way, he meets and falls in love with a young woman named Frances Clayton (Brian), who adores Bliss but won't marry him because she needs money and security and truly believes Bliss is penniless. Meanwhile, Clowes has allowed a crook named Dorrington (Lion) and his gun-toting thug sidekick to move into Bliss's posh flat, drink Bliss's expensive wine, and smoke Bliss's rare cigars. When Dorrington discovers there's a London chauffeur who looks just like the missing Mr. Bliss, he hatches a scheme: he'll force the driver to "impersonate" Bliss and withdraw money from his bank account. Bliss outwits them, though, and they wind up with nothing except a few blows to the noggin.

But more serious trouble arises when Frances's sister falls ill, and Frances becomes so desperate for money that she decides to marry businessman Mr. Masters, (Turnbull) even though she truly loves Bliss. But if Bliss uses his money to win back Frances, he'll forfeit the bet and prove Alroyd was right. With only a few days to go before the year passes, Bliss must decide which is more important: Frances or the bet he's spent nearly a year of his life trying to win.

Cary Grant proves he can sell ovens.
My take: Okay, think for a moment about this basic premise: a rich young man who's never had to work for anything makes a $1 million bet that he can survive on his own for a year without his old man's money. (Fifty-thousand pounds in 1936 is about $1.3 million in US dollars today.) You'd probably cast some comedian from Saturday Night Live or a popular sitcom actor as Ernest Bliss, get Morgan Freeman to play the no-nonsense doctor, and structure the script as a series of vignettes in which the clueless overgrown rich kid fumbles through several jobs but eventually does learn to cope in the real world while wooing a smart, skeptical woman who initially thinks he's a moron but eventually admires his sincerity and tenacity. That's what the 2013 version of this would be, and the end result would probably play a lot like a combination of Billy Madison, Trading Places, Life Stinks, and that Russell Brand remake of Arthur.

But The Amazing Adventure isn't really like that at all. First of all, it's a British movie from the 1930s, so it's as dry as a good cooking sherry. Apart from one semi-slapstick-y bout of fisticuffs between Bliss and the crooks, this is quite a polite, talky, well-behaved movie. More surprisingly, the script takes its gimmicky premise kind of seriously. Cold, standoffish Mary Brian even plays her role a bit somberly, as if she's in a drama. In fact, this isn't so much and out-and-out comedy as it is a romance yarn with some occasional comic relief. It's not boring or draggy, but it's not nearly as fun as I thought it was going to be.

What this movie has going for it is a terrific lead performance by Cary Grant, who instantly makes Bliss a compelling, full-dimensional character instead of the cartoon he could have been. Grant was only four years into his movie career, but he'd already been in about 25 films by the time he made this one and was clearly capable of carrying a movie all by himself. He basically has to do so here. Mary Brian gives him no help. It's not surprising that she missed out on the role of Scarlett O'Hara, but why was she ever in the running in the first place? There are a few nice turns by British character actors in the supporting roles, but really, Grant's the whole show here. Visually, I appreciated the opportunity to examine some vintage British architecture, technology, and decor, especially grouchy Peter Gawthorne's very stylish office, which looks nothing like any medical facility I've ever seen. I wouldn't want to live in 1930s London, necessarily, but I'd sure like to visit. Imagine a world where you could smoke in a doctor's waiting room and where Guinness could advertise its dry stout with the slogan, "Guinness is good for you."

Is it funny: Fitfully so, yeah. I've already mentioned the goofy fight scene, which is made slightly funnier by the fact that Bliss realizes that his own property is getting trashed and tries (unsuccessfully) to save it. But generally, the humor quotient in this movie is filled by a witty remark every now and again to keep the proceedings from getting too heavy. I suppose the funniest sustained sequence is the one in which chauffeur Bliss accompanies Frances and her lecherous wolf of a boss, Mr. Montague (Wellesley) on a "business trip" and makes sure that the old perv doesn't get the chance to act on his ulterior motives. Bonus points for a nice use of caviar, Cary Grant.

My grade: B

P.S. - Is there racism in this movie? Eh, not really. Greek actor Andreas Malandrinos plays a stereotypical Italian waiter named Giuseppe, who talks with a "that's a spicy meatball"-type accent in a few scenes. But that's all.

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