Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Film Reviews: Top Speed, Sit Tight & 6-Day Bike Rider

"Top Speed" *** (out of ****)

Happy Birthday Joe E. Brown!

Since today marks the sadly neglected and forgotten comic's birthday I felt it would be fitting to dedicate today's reviews to him.

Whenever I speak to friends, family or other film lovers not familiar with Joe E. Brown, I like to describe him as a combination of Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton. By that I mean, like Lloyd, Brown had an "everyman" appeal to him. He was suppose to be the good natured all-American boy. He loved baseball, cars, money and most importantly, good looking girls. Like Keaton however Brown was also very athletic. A majority of his films centered around sports. In the case of "Top Speed" (1930) it is boating.

But unfortunately Brown's films haven't become a large part of the American film culture. His films are largely forgotten. I wouldn't be surprised if some readers have never heard of Joe E. Brown or any of his films. If there is one movie he is perhaps best known for it surely is Billy Wilder's "Some Like Hot It" (1959) where Brown delivers the film's famous ending line.

Though I normally enjoy discussing the work of the great forgotten comics of the 1920s-40s I haven't spent enough time on Brown. I have reviewed the work of Harry Langdon and comedy teams such as Wheeler & Woolsey and Olsen & Johnson. The only Joe E. Brown movie I reviewed was "Painted Faces" (1929) and that wasn't even a comedy! It's a sappy courtroom melodrama.

"Top Speed" doesn't rank among Brown's best efforts such as "You Said A Mouthful" (1932), "Local Boy Makes Good" (1931) and "A Very Honorable Guy" (1934) but it is passable entertainment. It is also a very suggestive comedy with plenty of sexual innuendos. Keep in mind, it is a pre-code comedy.

Joe E. Brown plays Elmer Peters. He along with a friend, Gerald Brooks (Jack Whiting, who reminds me of a cross between a young George Murphy and Rudy Vallee). They are two working class clerks at a broker's firm. They decided to go on a spending spree for one day only and check into a swanky hotel.

Here is where we are suppose to relate to Brown. He is a working class guy who dreams of being rich and successful and mingling with beautiful women. But Elmer has a problem with the truth. Mainly he doesn't like to tell it. This gets Elmer and Gerald into trouble when they meet two girls; Virginia (Bernice Claire) and Babs (Laura Lee). Elmer keeps bragging how rich they are. They do business deals with J.P. Morgan and Rockefeller. Gerald is starting to fall in love with Virginia and Elmer's lies keep digging him further and further into a hole.

When the boys first meet the girls it is because of a car accident. The ladies have driven their car into a tree. Elmer and Gerald come to their rescue, helping them escape from their car. In an example of the film's risque humor, as Elmer carries Babs in his arms, Virginia ask Babs how does she feel, to which Elmer replies, "just fine".

Another, longer, comedic set-piece, has Elmer hiding in Babs' bedroom. Her roommates walk in, now Elmer must hide, since it wouldn't be decent for Elmer to be found there. So he hides under her bed. The two roommates decide they want to undress and change into bathing suits. From under the bed Elmer has a wide open view. Another moment has Elmer looking in Babs' bedroom while she is changing into her nightgown. Elmer can see her silhouette.

Virginia's father, (Edwin Maxwell) is preparing for a motorboat race. Due to Elmer's lies, Virginia thinks Gerald is an expect driver. Her father now wants to have Gerald drive his boat. But, a rival racer wants Gerald to take a bribe and lose the race. He has found out Gerald's and Elmer's secret and will expose who they are if Gerald doesn't do as he says.

"Top Speed" was originally designed as a full blown musical but due to a backlash to musicals in America several songs were cut from the final print (though only in America. In Europe the longer version was shown). Because of this it seems the film was intended as a love story revolving around Gerald and Virginia. They are suppose to be our leads with Babs and Elmer has comic relief. For me this doesn't work. The best Joe E. Brown movies are the ones which completely center on him. If this was made later in Brown's career, he would have been the one driving the motor boat.

The film has been too heavily edited. As a result the big boat scene almost feels anti-climatic. Too many bits and pieces are missing.

The other major member of the cast is Frank McHugh as Tad Jordan, resident drunk and small time inventor. McHugh appeared with Brown in a couple of movies including "Going Wild" (1930), "Elmer the Great" (1933) and "Son Of A Sailor" (1933) but he also appeared in movies like "Footlight Parade" (1933) and the Oscar winner, "Going My Way" (1944).

The film was based on a Harry Ruby/ Bert Kalmar stage musical and was directed by Mervyn LeRoy, a very good studio director. Even if you don't know his name you have probably seen some of his movies such as "Little Caesar" (1931) and "I Am A Fugitive From A Chain Gang" (1932). He also directed some other Brown comedies; "Broadminded" (1931) and "Local Boy Makes Good".

Of the songs which have remained the most interesting one is "Knock Knees", introducing a new dance steps where you well, knock knees. It is pretty risque too with the female dancers lifting their skirts high enough so we can see their knees as they knock them together. It actually reminds me of the Con Conrad song "Lets Knock Knees" heard in "The Gay Divorcee" (1934) sung by a very young Betty Grable and Edward Everett Horton.

"Top Speed" is somewhat fun and fast moving and a good example of what Hollywood was getting away with before the production code. Plus if you are a Joe E. Brown fan you should see it.

"Sit Tight" ** (out of ****)

As I explained with "Top Speed" a Joe E. Brown comedy only works when it centers on Joe E. Brown. If the movie doesn't give him any slapstick routines to perform, quite frankly, what is the point of watching it? That is what is wrong with "Sit Tight" (1931).

"Sit Tight" is actually billed as a Winnie Lightner comedy, she gets billing above Brown (!). My hunch is Brown was thrown in as an added bonus. The film doesn't seem tailor-made for Brown's style of comedy. Too much of it doesn't involve him.

The film has Lightner play Dr. Winnie O' Neil. She is in charge of a health club. Jojo (Brown) a fellow doctor and employee is in love with her. But she doesn't want to get married. She was once before, to a wrestler, and never wants to get married again. He cheated on her and she doesn't want to go through that experience again.

One day O'Neil meets Tom Weston (Paul Gregory). He is currently unemployed after his girlfriend, Sally Dunlap (Claudia Dell) tried to use her influence to get her father to give Tom a promotion. He agrees but Tom wants to be able to earn it. As a result he quits. After O'Neil sees him she offers him a job as a wrestler, with her as his manager.

Brown's part in the movie is again, as a liar. He brags about what kind of great wrestler he is. He has given himself the nickname "Jojo the Tiger". He is a master wrestler, who strangely always gets beat up. He says he will train Tom.

Sally doesn't like Tom wrestling. She feels it is beneath him and if he continues to wrestle she wants nothing to do with him. What will Tom do?

Winnie Lightner never really had much of a film career. She was in one other Brown comedy, "Hold Everything" (1930) and the Olsen & Johnson comedy "Gold Dust Gertie" (1931). She is somewhat amusing but I can't figure out why she was given top billing.

The movie works best when it gives Brown something to do. The beginning moments with him treating guest at the health club are funny and his wrestling match is also. But everything else in the movie feels flat.

The movie was directed by Lloyd Bacon. Another very good studio director. He directed Brown in "You Said A Mouthful", "Sons O' Gun" (1936) and "A Very Honorable Guy". He was also behind the great musical "42nd Street" (1933) and the Olsen & Johnson comedy "50 Million Frenchmen" (1931, which I have reviewed).

"Sit Tight" is not a funny comedy and is not a good showcase for Brown's humor. Only watch this one if you are a devoted Brown fan and want to see every film he has appeared in.

"6-Day Bike Rider" * 1/2 (out of ****)

Despite Lloyd Bacon directing this, Frank McHugh appearing in it and a script by Earl Baldwin, who wrote "A Very Honorable Guy", the Abbott & Costello comedy "Africa Screams" (1949) and "Gold Diggers in Paris" (1938). "Six-Day Bike Rider" (1934) is the worst Joe E. Brown comedy I have seen. And I have seen 20 of his comedies made in the 1930s.

Brown is Wilfred Simpson who is in love with Phyllis (Maxine Doyle). They live in a small community but when a cyclist, Harry St. Clair (Gordon Westcott) comes into town with a travelling show, Wilfred is afraid Harry is trying to steal Phyllis away from him. As a result Wilfred, along with a friend, Clinton (McHugh) join a six day cycling event, which Harry is also in, in order to impress Phyllis.

All of the humor in this film is dead. I didn't laugh once watching this movie. The big cycling event is given too much time. They must spend more than 25 minutes on it. I suppose I could have dealt with that, but, there are no real jokes in the sequence. Brown should be overcoming several obstacles. He does. The film makes some minor attempts, but, not enough in my opinion. They shouldn't have devoted so much time to it. It really slows the movie down. It doesn't build any suspense and a lot of the jokes are flat.

I'm sorry I saw this movie. Thank God there are so many other more entertaining Joe E. Brown comedies to watch which will show you Brown was a very funny comedian. He should not be forgotten. There is a lot to enjoy when watching one of his movies, though "6-Day Bike Rider" isn't of those movies.