Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Mill Creek comedy classics #19: "False Pretenses" (1935)

The pretenses may be false but those gams are 100% genuine in 1935's False Pretenses.

The flick: False Pretenses (Chesterfield Motion Pictures, 1935) [buy the set]

Current IMDb rating: 5.3

Director: Charles Lamont (seven of the Abbott and Costello Meet... movies; five Ma and Pa Kettle movies)

Actors of note
  • Irene Ware (The Raven, Gold Diggers of 1937)
  • Edward Gargan (My Man Godfrey, Bringing Up Baby)
  • Russell Hopton ('G' Men, Zombies on Broadway)
  • Ernest Wood (San Quentin, International House)

The gist of it: Waitress Mary Beekman (Ware) has always dreamed of better things, but seems unlikely to escape her humble station in life. After her loutish ex-boyfriend Mike (Gargan) causes a scene at the restaurant where she works, Mary is fired and then has the bad luck of losing her last paycheck when it blows out of her purse. Chasing after it, she meets Kenneth Alden (Blackmer), a once-wealthy jet setter who has run out of money and is in debt up to his ascot. Seizing this opportunity, Mary convinces Kenneth to help her pull off a harebrained, high-risk scheme. She's pretty and refined, and he still knows a lot of rich folks, right? So all Ken has to do is introduce Mary to a bunch of his society friends, acting as if she's an old acquaintance who's been shut away in a convent for a few years. One of these rich suckers is bound to marry her, and after the vows are exchanged, Mary will give Ken a share of the profits.

After some training by Miss Milgrim (Beaumont), Mary has two very likely prospects: one she likes a lot (Hopton) and one she doesn't (Wood) but who will do in a pinch. Complications arise when Clarissa (Compson), who has designs on Ken, gets suspicious of this little scheme and tries to sabotage it, enlisting the services of Mike to prove who Mary really is. Meanwhile, a few of Ken's buddies find out he has some kind of surefire investment up his sleeve, and he starts selling "shares" in Miss Mary Beekman.

Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder in The Producers.
My take: A charmingly cynical romantic comedy which plays like a cross between The Producers (1968) and My Fair Lady (1964), False Pretenses is a good example of why I've generally preferred the comedies of the 1930s to those of the 1940s. The ones from the '40s have the specter of World War II looming over them and generally have a strong underpinning of sentimentality and/or patriotism. In the '30s comedies, however, the characters are just allowed to be sneaky, shallow, and greedy without suffering any moral judgment from the filmmakers. Entertainment is the only goal of these pictures.

Living up to the title of their film, the characters of False Pretenses are a cheerfully dishonest bunch. Pretty much everyone is trying to take advantage of someone else at one time or another. And they all own up to to their faults without much prompting. The most important lesson of False Pretenses is that the so-called "upper class" is just as corrupt and silly as the rest of society. Money doesn't bestow any sense of honor or virtue upon you. In recent years, of course, people like Donald Trump and Paris Hilton have been teaching us that on a regular basis, but we as a society once felt that the rich were somehow superior human beings. A clever proverb of unknown origin states that "the upper crust is a bunch of crumbs held together by dough." False Pretenses plays like a feature-length adaptation of that saying.

Is it funny: Yes, I'd say so, though I can't really remember laughing too often. I mostly smiled and chuckled quietly through this one. Ware and Blackmer are nicely congenial in the leading roles. Ware, in particular, is a cutie who has no false modesty about her assets or her talents. And why should she? As The Producers reminds us, "When you've got it, flaunt it!"

Further benefiting this slight, featherweight comedy are some standouts in the supporting cast. I particularly enjoyed Herbert Clifton as Bleven (the name, you will note, is very similar to my own), a gleefully slimy manservant who affects an attitude of great sophistication but will swipe anything not nailed down, given half a chance. And I got a kick out of big, dumb Edward Gargan as an easily-confused lug who prefers speaking with his fists. When he's dissatisfied with the beer he's served, for instance, getting into a physical altercation with the polite, reasonable waiter is Gargan's first resort, his Plan A. Characters like these (and a few other assorted cads, drunks, and phonies) make False Pretenses quite enjoyable, if not exactly essential viewing.

My grade: B+

P.S - False Pretenses is delightfully stereotype-free.