Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Film Review: Fit For A King

"Fit For A King"  *** (out of ****)

Joe E. Brown makes headlines in "Fit For A King" (1937).

Born Joseph Evans Brown in 1891, Joe E. Brown left his childhood home in Holgate, Ohio at the age of nine to join the circus with a tumblers act. As he got older he became a baseball player and allegedly declined an opportunity to play professional baseball with the New York Yankees, so he could start a career as an entertainer on the vaudeville circuit.

Joe E. Brown would incorporate his athletic ability and love of sports into his comedies, not unlike the better known comedian Buster Keaton, who was also known for his athletic ability and being capable of doing his own stunts.

Mr. Brown would usually play an "all-American" character. The kind of guy that followed the American dream, liked to watch baseball, had plenty of get rich schemes, a "go-getter" attitude and wanted to get married to a pretty girl. In many ways this "everyday guy" persona was comparable to Harold Lloyd. The best way to describe the comedy style of Joe E. Brown would be to say it was a mix of Buster Keaton meets Harold Lloyd. But, was Joe E. Brown as good as a comedian as those men? The general public of today, who probably don't know who Joe E. Brown was, would say no. However, in his day, Joe E. Brown was quite popular. Today unfortunately he is forgotten. To some it wouldn't matter but to us old-timers, those who love Hollywood movies from the 1930s & 40s, every now and then it is nice to watch a comedy starring Joe E. Brown.

"Fit For A King" unfortunately does not show Joe E. Brown at the top of his game. The best comedies starring Mr. Brown were released in the early 1930s by Warner Brothers. By the time "Fit For A King" was released Mr. Brown was no longer at Warner Brothers. RKO released "Fit For A King" and kept it on what would have to be considered a "B" movie budget.

Mr. Brown plays Virgil Jones, who has given himself the nickname "Scoops". He is the nephew of the New York Blade newspaper's publisher. Through this connection he has been given a job at the paper in the attempt of learning the business. The newspaper's editor, Hardwick (Russell Hicks) doesn't believe Virgil has the brains and ability to be a newspaper man. Instead Hardwick gives Virgil assignments such as getting his lunch.

But, Virgil is eager to learn the business and become a great reporter. If he is just given a chance Virgil is sure through his determination and hard work he can become a reporter. His opportunity arrives when Hardwick learns there have been failed assassination attempts made on the British Archduke Julio (Harry Davenport), who has been visiting in New York. Initially Hardwick doesn't think much of the story since he cannot figure out when anyone would want to assassinate the Archduke, so he gives the story to Virgil. However, Hardwick comes to regret the decision once he learns a rival newspaper has put their best reporter, Briggs (Paul Kelly) on the assignment. By this time it is too late as the story has taken Virgil to Paris.

When in Paris Virgil meets Jane Hamilton (Helen Mack), a small town girl from Nebreska who is on vacation. What Virgil doesn't realize is she is really a princess and the assassination attempts have not been for Archduke Julio, with whom she is traveling, but for her. The question is, is Virgil smart enough to figure all of this out or will Briggs beat him to the story.

"Fit For A King" has a modest running time of 73 minutes. It is too short. One can tell there has been much left out as sometimes it is confusing figuring out what everyone's motivations are. The movie does not make everything abundantly clear.

"Fit For A King" wants to be something of a slapstick comedy mixed with romance. In the hands of Harold Lloyd it may work. Lloyd had a team of good gag writers working for him however. Joe E. Brown isn't as lucky. The movie was written by Richard Flournoy who is best known (?) for writing the Blondie movie series. Mr. Flournoy doesn't take advantage of Joe E. Brown's talents and incorporate them into his story.

For a man with a good athletic ability there is nothing physical for Mr. Brown to do in the movie. The best gag involves Virgil arrested on a ship and put in the brig. At this particular time there are choppy waves, causing the ship to sway left to right. Virgil glides side to side in the brig where fate would have it there is water pouring into one of the portholes in the brig which will not close shut. It is one of the few times in the movie Mr. Brown is able to engage in any slapstick comedy.

Even in this sequence though other opportunities for humor are missed. The sequence is shot in a long shot. There is no music and strangely no dialogue. Imagine how much funnier the sequence would play with music behind it, close-ups of the water splashing into Virgil's face as he yells (his wide-mouth yell was one of Mr. Brown's trademarks) for someone to help him. Instead what we have is a static shot with everything in frame. We don't even get to see Virgil's facial expressions.

The movie was directed by Edward Sedgwick who worked often with Buster Keaton at MGM. Mr. Sedgwick directed Mr. Keaton in "The Cameraman" (1928), which "Fit For A King" resembles very little. That movie should have been the inspiration for this Joe E. Brown vehicle. Mr. Sedgwick would work with Mr, Brown on a total on five comedies including "Riding On Air" (1937) and "Gladiator" (1938).

One would have thought Mr. Sedgwick  would have known how to properly film a comedy. "For For A King" does nothing visual. The camera merely keeps everything in frame, brightly lit. No one, the cinematographer or the director wanted to raise the level of production here from average, at times even slightly below, to something more arresting.

You may want to write this all off by saying both Mr. Brown and Mr. Sedgwick were at the end of their careers. Mr. Brown would continue acting in movies and television shows for roughly another 30 years but the quality of his movies greatly declined around this time. The only big break he received was when Billy Wilder cast him in the comedy "Some Like It Hot" (1959), which may have helped introduce Mr. Brown to a whole new generation of audiences.

Besides missing comedy opportunities the acting is not exceptional either. Helen Mack, who did have some choice moments in her career, such as roles in "His Girl Friday" (1940) and the Harold Lloyd comedy "The Milky Way" (1936) doesn't have much of a presence and is not believable in the romance aspect of the movie.

The only performance in the movie worth anything is the one given by Joe E. Brown, whom depsite the quality of the script gives the movie everything he has.

If I seem somewhat critical of "Fit For A King" you may ask, why the three star rating? You have to put things into perspective. If "Fit For A King" is not a great comedy or one of Mr. Brown's better comedies, it is an improvement on the movies Mr. Brown was starring in at this time. For that reason it is worth seeing. If you are going to watch later Joe E. Brown comedies, this one, while a mid-range comedy, is one of the better ones.

Those interested in seeing Mr. Brown in better comedies should watch "Local Boy Makes Good" (1932), "You Said A Mouthful" (1932) and "A Very Honorable Guy" (1934). Watch "Fit For A King" after you have watched those.