Friday, August 2, 2013

Mill Creek comedy classics #44: "The Villain Still Pursued Her" (1940)

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)

Walter Tetley voiced Sherman.
Actors of note:
  • Anita Louise (The Little Princess, Marie Antoinette)
  • Alan Mowbray (founding member of the Screen Actor's Guild; appeared in The King and I, My Man Godfrey, Hitchcock's The Man Who Knew Too Much, etc.)
  • Richard Cromwell (Jezebel; secretly gay but briefly married to Angela Lansbury in the mid-'40s; they stayed friends after the divorce)
  • Buster Keaton (legendary comic actor/director famed for The General, Sherlock Jr., The Cameraman, much more; known as the "Great Stone Face" for his deadpan demeanor)
  • Diane Fisher (Shirley Temple's The Blue Bird)
  • Charles Judels (voice of Stromboli and the Coachman in Pinocchio; appeared in Ninotchka, The Great Ziegfeld, etc.)
  • Walter Tetley (voice of Mr. Peabody's boy, Sherman, on Rocky & Bullwinkle and Walter Lantz's Andy Panda; famed comedic radio actor whose voice never broke either due to a medical condition or castration, depending on whom you believe)

Buster Keaton addresses the audience directly.

The gist of it: In a quaint, gas-lit theater, a smarmy emcee (Gilbert) takes the stage to introduce the film. He encourages the spectators to applaud the heroes and hiss the villains. The audience hisses him instead, so he makes a quick getaway as the movie-within-a-movie begins. It turns out to be a ridiculously old-fashioned melodrama in which the actors frequently make asides to the audience.

The ludicrous plot concerns innocent maiden Mary Wilson (Anita Louise), whose late father has left her and her aging mother (Hamilton) with a mortgage they cannot pay off. Evil, scheming lawyer Silas Cribbs (Mowbray) wants to foreclose on them and take carnal advantage of attractive Mary, but the mortgage is held by the film's morally upright hero, Edward Middleton (Cromwell), who has inherited it from his late father and would not dream of evicting the Wilsons. In fact, he and Mary fall instantly in love when they meet and are married shortly thereafter. But Cribbs has a few more tricks up his sleeve!

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.
My take: In 1844, playwright and reformed alcoholic William H. Smith, possibly in collaboration wtih Unitarian minister John Pierpont, debuted his five-act play The Drunkard; or, The Fallen Saved. Now almost totally forgotten, this temperance (or anti-alcohol) play was one of the longest-running and most popular stage dramas in American history. Nearly a century after its debut, it began a 36-year run at the Theater Mart in Los Angeles, finally closing in 1969. Imagine that! A play written well before the Civil War was still running the year we put a man on the moon!

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) that 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."

Alan Mowbray plays a treacherous lawyer in The Villain Still Pursued Her.

Is it funny: Indubitably! For my money -- and I was the one who plunked down a ten spot for this Mill Creek set -- The Villain Still Pursued Her is hands-down the funniest of the 44 movies I have thus reviewed in this series. And it gets many of its laughs without traditional jokes! Sure, there are occasional funny captions, like the one at the beginning that informs us that the film is neither fictional nor based on true events, and jokey intertitles, such as the one that helpfully informs a mother in the audience that her baby carriage is leaking in the lobby. (The fact that the movie stops dead for these little intrusions reminded me a bit of Woody Allen's 1966 spy spoof What's Up, Tiger Lily?) And, yes, the movie contains a pie fight and occasional bits of out-and-out slapstick, as when the villainous Cribbs kicks a small child in the behind just for the hell of it.

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 (naturally) 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.