Saturday, June 22, 2013

Mill Creek comedy classics #16: "His Double Life" (1933)

Former silent movie star Lilian Gish has something to say to Roland Young in His Double Life.

The flick: His Double Life (Paramount release of an Eddie Dowling Pictures production, 1933) [buy the set]

Current IMDb rating: 6.2

Director: Arthur Hopkins (a few scattered film and TV credits; mostly known as a Broadway director, producer, and playwright from 1912 to 1948; his play Burlesque was performed three times on TV and ran twice on Broadway.)

Actors of note:
  • Lilian Gish (The Night of the Hunter, The Birth of a Nation, Intolerance, a 75-year film career)
  • Roland Young (The Philadelphia Story, played the title role Topper and Topper Returns)
  • Montagu Love (The Adventures of Robin Hood, Gunga Din)
  • Lumsden Hare (at least three Hitchcock films: Rebecca, Suspicion, and The Paradine Case)
  • Lucy Beaumont (The Crowd, The Devil-Doll)
  • Roland Hogue (Broadway actor from 1917 to 1943)

The gist of it: Extremely reclusive artist Priam Farrel (Young) is England's greatest living painter, but no one knows what he looks like, not even his own cousin Duncan (Love). Trying to dodge a woman who wants to marry him, Farrel hides out in an obscure address with his valet, Henry Leek (Hogue), who quickly takes ill and dies. The attending physician assumes Leek is Farrel, and soon the news of the great artist's death spreads around the world. No one believes the real Farrel's story, and he becomes a penniless outcast, mocked wherever he goes.

Luckily, Henry Leek had been corresponding through a matrimonial service with sweet, uncomplicated Alice (Gish), who takes an immediate liking to Farrel and doesn't care who he is. Priam and Alice begin a cozy and blissful life together, but trouble arises when the artist goes back to painting in order to supplement the couple's modest income and his new canvases fall into the hands of a knowledgeable art dealer (Hare). Soon, our publicity-shy hero finds himself at the center of a very public trial over his identity.

Lovely Lillian Gish
My take: Initially, His Double Life has a problem similar to the one that plagued Lost Honeymoon. Specifically, it's another extremely contrived and unlikely romantic comedy with the tragic death of a perfectly nice person at its center. Nobody in this movie, not even long-time employer Priam or romantic pen pal Alice, thinks to mourn the real Henry Leek, an extremely dedicated servant who is still thinking of his boss's needs as he dies horribly from double pneumonia.

It should be some consolation that Leek is buried in Westminster Abbey, but this fact drives Priam mad with frustration and misplaced envy. He attends his own funeral and breaks down weeping -- not for Leek but for himself! Later in the film, an awful woman (Beaumont) and her idiotic twin sons, both curates, show up at Alice and Priam's cottage claiming to be Henry's long-abandoned family. But they're greedy opportunists trying to claim a reward, and they misidentify Priam as their paterfamilias. Luckily, in probably the movie's funniest scene, sensible Alice is able to frighten them away with a completely farcical story about her husband being insane, abusive, and worst of all, broke.

A silent star in only her second talkie, Lillian Gish is easily the best thing about His Double Life. Her character, Alice, is completely unflappable and keeps her wits even when Priam is panicking. She's not stoic or serious; she just accepts life as it comes and doesn't waste her energy worrying about things beyond her control. These qualities make her an excellent role model for men and women alike. Frankly, Priam is lucky to have her. Without her, the artist is just kind of a selfish, unlikable jerk.

Incidentally, apart from an obscure silent film in 1919, this was Arthur Hopkins' one big venture into movies. Truthfully, it's not bad from a directing standpoint. The opening shot, in fact, is rather tricky by 1933 standards. The film begins at an exhibition of Priam's paintings, and in one long, unbroken take, the camera crosses the room and catches fragments of various conversations as attendees gossip and speculate about the AWOL artist. Alice herself attends this event, and it's one of the movie's better running gags that she's the only one unimpressed by Priam's work. From what we see of his paintings, they're nothing special, just some slightly blurry landscapes. We have to take it on faith that he's a genius.

Is it funny: Not at first, no. In the early scenes, I didn't find Priam as endearing as I think he's intended to be, and the sight of poor Henry Leek on his deathbed -- a bit too convincingly played -- did not inspire great fits of laughter from me. Also, the film's gimmicky, high-concept plot requires a large leap of faith on the part of the viewer. But once Priam and Alice meet, the film lightens up considerably and becomes much more enjoyable. Most of my amusement came from Lillian Gish's utter nonchalance at the incredible circumstances in which she finds herself. She alone seems to realize that this is all a very trivial matter that could be easily sorted out.

Apart from Gish's scenes, much of the humor in His Double Life is of the bone-dry, oh-so-reserved British variety. A lot of the gags revolve around characters simply repeating phrases over and over like mindless automatons, such as a scene in which the jury at Priam's trial keep saying, "I see, I see" in perfect unison. This kind of joke is mildly amusing at best, and it certainly loses its charm over the course of an entire motion picture.

Other attempts at humor must not translate terribly well from 1930s England to 2010s America, like a moment when Priam imagines that all the people in the courtroom are wearing identical white masks. Monty Python fans, though, are likely to perk up for the appearance of some traditional English bobbies, wearing those high-crowned helmets and saying, "What's all this?" just the way they're supposed to.

My grade: B

P.S. - Nothing even close to a negative racial stereotype here. But we're not out of the woods yet, folks. There are still 84 movies left to go.