Sunday, July 7, 2013

Mill Creek comedy classics #35: "The Nut Farm" (1935)

The Nut Farm's title has both a literal and a figurative meaning... which the script brings up many, many times.

The flick: The Nut Farm (Monogram Pictures, 1935) [buy the set]

Current IMDb rating: 5.8

Director: Melville W. Brown (directed an Amos n' Andy vehicle called Check and Double Check; died three years after this movie of a heart attack at age 50)

Actors of note
  • Betty Alden (uncredited bit part in Captains Courageous)
  • Florence Roberts (Babes in Toyland, The Life of Emil Zola)

The gist of it: Bob and Helen Bent (Apfel and Alden) decide to sell Bob's business for $40,000 (the equivalent today of $680K) and move to California, where they stay at the home of Helen's mother (Roberts) and her brother, Willie Barton (Ford), an "assistant director" who hasn't worked in six weeks. Bob and Helen have different plans for the forty g's. Bob wants to buy a 50-acre nut arm, but Helen wants to give the money over to smooth-talking Hollywood hustler Hamilton T. Holland (Page) who swears he can turn Helen into a movie star if she'll just finance her own starring vehicle.

Willie, who knows Holland's a fake, tries to talk Bob and Helen out of it. But they sign their money over to Holland anyway, and Mr. Sliscomb (Charters) -- Willie's landlord and future father-in-law -- puts in an additional ten grand. Willie agrees to direct the production, a terrible desert romance called Scorching Passions, to see that things don't get too far out of hand. However, the resulting picture is a disaster, and it looks like Bob, Helen, and Sliscomb have lost their money. The day is saved when Willie overhears one patron say that Scorching Passions is funnier than most comedies, which gives the young director an idea so crazy it just might work!

Isn't it cool? The highlight of the movie.
My take: The words "Monogram Pictures" do not exactly fill me with confidence at the beginning of a movie. Thus far in this series, Monogram has produced some of the films I've liked the least, and the closest thing they've gotten to an endorsement from me was a generous grade of B- awarded to The Gang's All Here, namely because that movie had a positive Asian-American character and also featured the guy who did the voice of Lampwick in Pinocchio. This one, The Nut Farm, got off to a good start because it was the first of the Monogram films I've seen to feature the company's fanciful animated logo, in which a plane and a zeppelin soar over a très moderne art-deco city while state-of-the-art trains pull the words "Monogram" and "Pictures" onto the railroad tracks.

The film is a letdown from there, though. Like Hollywood and Vine and The Groom Wore Spurs, it's a behind-the-scenes Hollywood satire, but all three movies could have been a lot sharper and, to put it bluntly, nastier. Bradley Page's character is an obvious crook with his honeyed tone of voice and gift for insincere flattery, but he's not a shameless, tasteless, brilliant-in-his-own way conniver like Zero Mostel's Max Bailystock. Likewise, Betty Alden -- who never really did make it in Hollywood after all -- is mildly diverting as a deluded housewife who thinks she's Hollywood's next big thing, but this character could have been played much more broadly and crazily. Wallace Ford is back as the hero, and just like he demonstrated in Money Means Nothing, his comedic arsenal largely consists of dry wisecracks and a few self-satisfied smirks. Seemingly, every movie in this collection needs at least one curmudgeon who loses his temper on a regular basis, but Oscar Apfel's would-be nut farmer, Bob Bent, is one of the milder examples of the species. Ditto Spencer Charters as the semi-obligatory "dotty old-timer" character.

The movie sets up its conclusion well in advance of the actual ending of the picture. Yeah, we get it. Scorching Passions is "so bad it's good" and could be marketed as a comedy. But first we have to endure several interminable and unfunny contract-signing sequences which spoil the movie's momentum. The credits say this thing was based on a stage play. I hope the live version was a little... uh, livelier than this. Incidentally, Melville W. Brown's IMDb biography claims he was a member of Charlie Chaplin's stock company in the late 1910s, but I could find no confirmation of this. I did, however, find this ancient issue of Variety which apparently deemed it noteworthy that Brown was "finishing the first Al St. John comedy at the Astra studio in Glendale." I can find no record of any such film ever being completed or released.

Is it funny: Sort of, from time to time. I liked Lorin Raker and Arnold Gray as Hamilton Holland's sleazeball cronies, two unemployable creeps passing themselves off as a "writer" and an "actor" respectively. And Bradley Page has a few nice moments as Holland himself, a gentlemen thief with an excuse for every occasion. Watch the deft way he handles it when Helen shows up at his office the very moment the furniture is being repossessed. But certain surefire comic set pieces, like a sequence in which Raker reads his script to the potential backers while Charters makes constant corrections and criticisms, just don't have the oomph they should have. And, really, we should have gotten to see more of Scorching Passions. I mentioned Max Bialystock earlier, and in his case, we in the audience do get to watch a good-sized chunk of his anti-masterpiece, Springtime for Hitler: A Gay Romp with Adolf and Eva at Berchtesgarden, so we know what the audience is laughing at.

My grade: C+

P.S. - No stereotypes here. Move along, folks.