Monday, April 05, 2010

Movie Monday - Hook, Line and Sinker

No relation to the 1969 Jerry Lewis movie of the same name, "Hook, Line and Sinker" was an early talkie comedy from 1930 starring the vaudeville team of Woolsey and Wheeler. They were apparently fairly popular in their day, though they're mostly forgotten now, with pretty good reason.

They're not funny, and neither is the movie.

The movie opens with the scene above, unusual for a comedy of the time. There's no merry music, just a motorcycle with its siren going. The cop pulls over two guys on a tandem bicycle, Wilbur Boswell and Addington Ganzy (Wheeler and Woolsey). As the opening scene unfolds, we get a sense of how the entire movie will play out--Boswell is the innocent moron, while Ganzy makes a lot of wisecracks, with l-o-o-o-n-g pauses between lines to allow for the gales of laughter that will supposedly ensue from each joke. As they talk the cop out of a ticket and into an insurance policy, lovely Mary Marsh (Dorothy Lee) pulls up and joins the conversation.

Mary is running away from an arranged marriage to her mother's lawyer, because she suspects the lawyer is just after her mother's money. She has a hotel that she plans to run to prove her independence. Wilbur immediately falls in love with Mary, and Ganzy is brought on board by the irresistible lure of money, so the boys decide to give up the insurance game and become hoteliers.

Unfortunately, the Hotel Ritz de la Riviera is a dump, with an ancient, grumpy bellman and an inept house detective. The detective is played by Hugh Herbert, whose low-key portrayal here is miles away from the fluttery, stammering persona he would become famous for later in his career.

So anyway, Ganzy comes up with a brainstorm: he calls a newspaper to give them the exclusive scoop that the hotel is the new secret favorite of the wealthy celebrity crowd, who love its beautiful views and its ultra-secure safe for storing their valuables. And soon the hotel is booked solid. The hotel is a success! Wilbur and Mary are blissfully happy and make goo-goo eyes at each other.

But there's a fly in the ointment. Several of the guests are crooks who have read the newspaper and figure there's lots of money to be made by plundering the jewels from the safe. What's more, the lawyer Mary's mother has engaged her to is actually a smuggler who has a ton of contraband stashed away in the hotel's basement.

Which leads to such hilarity as gangster moll "The Duchess" trying to seduce the safe combination out of Wilbur by holding him at gunpoint and forcing him to kiss her, a trick Wilbur then tries on love-of-his-life Mary.

High-larious, isn't it? The Duchess has more success with Ganzy. By the way, if Ganzy looks a little familiar, it's because the glasses-and-cigar look calls to mind George Burns in his later career.

Otherwise Woolsey's character operates much like Groucho Marx's characters: a wisecracker who insults everyone around him, waggles a cigar for emphasis and romances a wealthy society matron (Jobyna Howland, a large, flouncy woman without the dignified bearing of Margaret Dumont).

Unlike the Harold Lloyd comedies I wrote about the last two weeks, the story here is a hopeless muddle, an excuse for a series of skits that don't fit together at all. It all builds up to a climax in which two rival gangs have a shoot-out in the lobby with our heroes caught in the middle. And these are really heavily armed gangs. Not only do they have pistols and Thompson submachine guns, but also dynamite, grenades and a freaking tripod-mounted WWI machine gun.

If Wilbur's face looks a little odd through the smoke, it's because he's got a half-eaten apple shoved in his mouth. Why the apple? Who knows? It appears in his hand halfway through the climax with no explanation. The entire final sequence is like that, looking as if a lot of material was left on the cutting room floor. What's left is choppy, badly timed and incomprehensible.

Like the rest of the movie. Sure, part of it may be explained away by changing tastes in comedy, and another part excused by the fact that talkies were still new, resulting the sorts of technical problems that plague pretty much all movies from the period--stilted performances, slow timing, little to no incidental music.

But contrast this film to "Animal Crackers," starring the Marx Brothers, which came out the same year. Both films feature famous vaudeville acts, both films revolve around doings at a hotel catering to the rich and famous, and both films suffer from technical complications surrounding the early talkies. But there's no comparison. "Animal Crackers" is a classic, the two Harold Lloyd films I covered previously are hidden gems, and "Hook, Line and Sinker" is a stinker.

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