Friday, August 9, 2013

Mill Creek comedy classics #47: "Meet the Mayor" (1932)

Meet Frank Fay and his huge, terrifying face in Meet the Mayor... or A Fool's Advice, whatever.

The flick: A Fool's Advice (Warner Brothers, 1932); later released as Meet the Mayor (Times Exchange, 1938) [buy the set]

Current IMDb rating: 6.0

Director: Ralph Ceder (second-unit director on a couple of W.C Fields films, The Bank Dick and Never Give a Sucker an Even Break; his own directorial credits include Keep 'Em Flying and some 1920s silent shorts starring Stan Laurel for producer Hal Roach)

The delectable Ruth Hall
Actors of note:
  • Frank Fay (famously egotistical, hard-drinking vaudeville comic whose rocky four-year marriage to Barbara Stanwyck may have inspired A Star is Born; film career never amounted to much, though he made a cameo in Nothing Sacred; had Broadway comeback in the 1940s starring in Harvey)
  • Nat Pendleton (burly former Olympic wrestler who played Inspector Guild in a couple of Thin Man movies; worked onscreen with the Marx Brothers and Abbott & Costello)
  • Edward J. Nugent (42nd Street)
  • Ruth Hall (uncredited bit parts in Easter Parade and How to Marry a Millionaire; lots of 1930s "B" movies)
  • Berton Churchill (Stagecoach, I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang)
  • Hale Hamilton (also in I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, plus The Most Dangerous Game, The Champ, and lots of forgotten '30s "B" movies)
  • George Meeker (one of Hollywood's go-to "guys you love to hate"; appeared in Gone with the Wind, Casablanca, The Ox-Bow Incident, Yankee Doodle Dandy, etc.; MST3K fans will know him as sleazeball mobster Charles Blake in I Accuse My Parents.)

The gist of it: Wisecracking Spencer Brown (Fay) is an elevator operator by day and inventor by night. He's working on a revolutionary new sound recording device with his pal Harry (Meeker, uncharacteristically playing a nice guy), and they both feel that the gadget will make them millionaires. Spencer is known and (generally) loved throughout his small hometown* for offering help and advice to all of its residents... whether he's been asked to do so or not.

One person who needs Spencer's help is kindly old Mayor Sloan (Churchill), who is seeking reelection but is facing an uphill battle against slick businessman George Diamond (Hamilton). This upstart challenger has brought in a bunch of pinstripe-suited New York thugs (led by Pendleton) to manage his campaign for him and is secretly planning to run a railroad right through the town once he's elected. The mayor's pretty niece, Norma (Hall), asks Spencer to campaign on her uncle's behalf, and Spencer is only too eager to help, since he's sweet on the lass and wants to impress her. Little does he know that she's engaged to Harry! Plus, Diamond's thugs are after Spencer because he made a speech at a rally for Mayor Sloan.

So our boy has his work cut out for him: foil the scheming Mr. Diamond, avoid getting his ass kicked, and woo the fair Norma, all while keeping that elevator going up and down. How many of these goals can he accomplish in a 63-minute movie?
*It sounds like they're saying "Culipatawney," but I wouldn't bet money on it.

Google results for "sad clown."
My take: Frank Fay once declared himself the world's greatest comedian, and he strides through Meet the Mayor like he's already earned the title just by showing up. He was about 40 when he made this flick and had been in showbiz since he was 4, so he probably figured he didn't have much left to prove. He does the very same "aggressively kooky small town eccentric" bit that Joe E. Brown was trying to put across in Riding on Air, and for about the first half of this film, he was really getting on my nerves. I was kind of rooting for Mr. Diamond's goons to take Spencer Brown in a back alley and beat the crap out of him.

The movie is clearly a vehicle for Frank Fay, and the script goes out of its way—sometimes way out of its way—to allow time for the comedian to do some of his vaudeville routines. Some work better than others, which we'll get to in the next section, and Ralph Ceder's direction is pedestrian at best and clumsy at worst. One particular plot point involving the recording device is handled in such a corny, contrived manner (and trust me, you'll know when it happens) that I was rolling my eyes in disbelief.

But Meet the Mayor takes an unexpected turn in the home stretch and becomes rather downbeat and poignant. The film's story was written by Fay, and I'm guessing he wanted to emulate Charlie Chaplin and mix comedy with pathos because he turns Spencer Brown into a tragicomic figure, the archetypal "crying clown." Actually, this does help the movie a bit. Fay's character is far too pleased with himself at the beginning of the movie, and I actually cared a little bit more about him once he'd suffered some romantic setbacks.

Speaking of which, this film's leading lady, Ruth Hall, had a pretty typical career for a second-tier starlet—big roles in little movies, little roles in big movies, then obscurity. Meet the Mayor doesn't give her much of an opportunity to showcase her comedic or dramatic talents (if any), but she has a very appealing on-camera presence and is quite sexy in that inimitable 1930s way. Honestly, neither Frank Fay nor George Meeker (who can apparently become a nice guy simply by shaving off his mustache) is good enough for her. Hollywood should have tried a little harder to make Ruth into a star.

Is it funny: I'll be honest, folks. It took me quite a while to warm up to Frank Fay's particular brand of comedy. It might have helped if I didn't have to look at him smirking and snickering all the damned time. Maybe that's why he never made it in movies but was (I guess) a hit on radio. Even so, his material is not as strong as he seems to think it is. An extended monologue about the "string savers" in his family, for instance, goes nowhere of particular interest, and when he starts pestering Mr. Diamond's chauffeur, I was completely on the chauffeur's side.

On the other hand, I did eventually come to enjoy a bit in which Spencer Brown makes a completely nonsensical, rambling campaign speech and elicits cheap applause from the befuddled audience by merely saying words like "economic conditions," "constituents," and "America." (The fact that he has to look at a cheat sheet to remember the name of his own country is a nice touch.) But some of the movie's best bits have little or nothing to do with Frank Fay. Near the beginning of the film, for instance, a group of old men comment on the fact that the mayoral challenger has just entered a hotel lobby.
First Man: (to the second man, excited) George Diamond! 
Second Man: (to the third man, more excited) George Diamond! 
Third Man: (to the fourth man, even more exited) George Diamond! 
Fourth Man: (to the third man, slightly annoyed) What of it?
And I liked a bit when Mayor Sloan gives Spencer a big introduction but doesn't mention the young man's name until the very end, so several other people on the stage think the politician is talking about them instead and begin prepping themselves to make speeches, only to be disappointed when Spencer's name is called. When two of your movie's funnier moments don't require your star, that's not a great sign.

My grade: B- (just barely)

P.S. - No overt or even hidden racism in the film. In one scene, though, a female elevator passenger asks Spencer what's playing at a local movie theater, and he replies, "Hmmmm... nothing much. Mexican picture." This elicits a disappointed "oh" from the dowager-type woman. Why these two should disparage Mexican cinema is beyond my comprehension. Maybe he means a western set in Mexico?