Sunday, December 27, 2009

Film Review: Painted Faces

"Painted Faces" ** (out of ****)

For a long time I've wanted to write about comic Joe E. Brown. I know the name may not mean much to some of my readers (though he does deliver the famous ending line in Billy Wilder's "Some Like It Hot" (1958), "nobody's perfect") but as you may know by now, I have a great appreciation for comedy and love to discuss the comics which time has forgotten. In the past I've written about Harry Langdon, the comedy teams of Wheeler & Woolsey and Olsen & Johnson but I never wrote about Brown. Even back in April of this year, when I dedicated the entire month to reviewing classic comedies I neglected Brown.

The problem was not that Brown didn't appear in any movies which I enjoyed and felt were worth writing about but I simply didn't feel like going back and rewatching his movies. I have seen so many and wanted to discover some new titles. I haven't seen any Joe E. Brown comedies in the past couple of months but recently was given this movie as a Christmas present. I looked forward to seeing it but ultimately was disappointed by the movie. At the rate I was going I would never write about Joe E. Brown. So I'll just write about this one.

Brown actually got his start in the business by joining the circus. He ran away from home at the age of 10, supposedly with the blessing of his parents, and started a tumbling act. He later moved on to vaudeville where he started to incorporate comedy into his act. By the time he entered films he considered himself a comic.

The Brown persona can best be described as a mix between Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton. Like Lloyd, Brown had an "everyman" appeal. He was very "American". He had a go-getter attitude. He was persistent, he believed in himself and followed the rule, with hard work you can accomplish anything. He loved women, cars and most of all sports, especially baseball (how American is that?). And that leads us to Keaton. Brown was quite an athlete. Like Keaton he was very good at stunts. Many of his comedies involved sports giving Brown the opportunity to show off his skills. In one of his best comedies, "Local Boy Makes Good" (1931) he joins the track team for instance. "You Said A Mouthful" (1932), another candidate for one of his best, involves water sports.

Sadly none of that is on display in "Painted Faces" (1929). In fact the movie isn't even a comedy. I don't mean to say it isn't funny, I seriously mean it isn't a comedy. It "wants" to be a sentimental weeper, a tear-jerker. But in the end it merely feels like the movie is jerking us around.

"Painted Faces" is one of those primitive early talkies. In the first few minutes of the film the sound isn't even synchronized properly. It involves characters locked into one room, so as to limit movement, and a lot of them speaking loudly so the microphone will pick up their voices. But these crude methods aren't what bothers me about the film. The problem is the story and the screenplay.

The film is about a murder trial. A vaudeville entertainer, Roderick (Lester Cole) has been murdered in his dressing room. The main suspect is Buddy Barton (Barton Hepburn) who was seen coming out of the dressing room with a gun. Though Buddy says he didn't do it, but merely found the gun in the dressing room and picked it up. But no one believes his story. His motives seem plain enough. Buddy was part of a double act with Babe Barnes (Dorothy Gulliver). Roderick was known to make the moves on Babe which upset Buddy very much since he was in love with her.

The majority of the film is not about the actual trial but what happens in the jury room as the jury tries to reach a verdict. Eleven of the jurist think the man is guilty but one holds out, a Dutch immigrant, Hermann (Brown). He is convinced the man didn't commit the murder because there were no eye witnesses. This infuriates the rest of the jurist who feel it is an open and shut case and simply want to go home. The film takes place a few days before Christmas, as everyone is eager to go on with their holiday shopping. All the characters begin to insult Hermann, throwing out anti-immigrant remarks like "what do you expect from a foreigner". They feel because he is a foreigner he is dumb and doesn't understand the law or the case. To them it is all so simple.

Finally when they stop harassing Hermann he begins to tell them a story of his days in the circus, he was a clown. He raised a young girl, Nancy (Helen Foster) after her father, a fellow circus performer died. He has managed to raise enough money to send the girl away to school but when she comes back she is now a beautiful woman and Hermann seems to have fallen in love with her. But he is too embarrassed to admit such a thing. She has fallen in love with another man, a singer. But Hermann knows the singer has a reputation as being a ladies man. He wants to warns Nancy about the man but doesn't want to make it obvious that he is only doing so because he loves her.

I really can't reveal any more of the plot without spoiling the entire thing. Great tragedy ensues confirming Hermann's greatest fears.

At the end of Hermann's story the rest of the jury wonders what his story has to do with the case and why he is so convinced Buddy is not guilty. Then Hermann drops a bombshell.

I suppose this could have been a very moving, emotional film but the film is so poorly structured and written. And the ending simply asks us to accept too much. I understand that some movies require us to stretch our imaginations a bit, dinosaurs coming to life, aliens attacking the world...ect. And I'm always willing to go along for the ride but "Painted Faces" isn't that kind of movie. It is suppose to be more human and that is why it is hard to accept what it is telling us. The ending is too contrived, too manipulative. It simply wouldn't happen in real life. It is suppose to be an emotional shocker (and it does shock us) but it is a false note. It clearly feels like a plot device used to trigger our feelings.

The structure of the film is off as well. The movie waste too much time until Hermann tells his story. The jury simply insults Hermann and repeatedly take a vote but no one wants Hermann to explain why he feels the way he does. I would have liked more of a deliberation. Wasn't anyone on the jury the slightest bit interested why Hermann feels the way he does?

And I haven't even mentioned Brown's Dutch accent. It sounds pretty phony. In fact I've heard Brown use it in other movies for comedic effect.

Some readers might be saying to themselves this movie sounds an awful lot like the classic court room drama "12 Angry Men" (1957). And you're right. But "Painted Faces" is nowhere near as good as the Sidney Lumet film. At least there they are deliberating. They are arguing, expressing ideas. There are richer characters in that movie. Hermann would be our Henry Fonda character but honestly isn't as interesting or insightful.

The film was directed by Albert S. Rogell, who only other film I know of his "The Black Cat" (1941), not to be confused with the 1934 film of the same title which is based on the Edgar Allen Poe story. The script was by Frederic and Fanny Hatton from a story by Frances Hyland, who wrote the somewhat clever "The Thirteenth Guest" (1932).

Unfortunately this isn't the best movie to use as an introduction into Joe E. Brown's career. First because it is a bad movie and secondly because it isn't even a comedy. Though I would imagine no matter how bad the movie is there are probably a few people who would want to see this as a curiosity piece. If you are familiar with Brown this would be a change of pace. It is a pretty rare movie, to my knowledge is not shown on TV, so if you are a bit adventurous it could catch your interest.

However, if you are not familiar with Brown I wouldn't start with this movie. Watch "You Said A Mouthful" and "Local Boy Makes Good". You might also enjoy "A Very Honorable Guy" (1934) based on a story by Damon Runyon (of "Guys & Dolls" fame) and "Earthworm Tractors" (1936).

If you enjoy classic comedy I honestly think there should be something about Brown for you to enjoy. Some of the movies may be heard to come by, but a few are available on DVD, mostly his later "B" movies. His earlier stuff sometimes is shown on TCM. These are better, funnier films.