Friday, September 20, 2002

Two Comic Trifles with Nat Pendleton

Pendleton was a wrestler who sustained a decent career in the movies as a comic sidekick. I just happened to watch these two fiilms right in a row recently; other than having Pendleton and being comedies, they have little else in common.

BABY FACE HARRINGTON (1935)--This was probably one of supporting actor Charles Butterworth's few leading roles, albeit in a fairly short, second-feature movie. It's essentially the story of one eventful day in the life of a mild-mannered husband (married to Una Merkel): first, he gets fired when he asks for a raise; then, he loses the money he withdrew from the bank to pay off his mortgage, and he wrongly accuses a relative (Donald Meek) of stealing it. Thrown in jail overnight for stealing money from Meek, he gets involved in a breakout masterminded by a real thief, Nat Pendleton. Of course, you see it coming a mile away that he'll wind up a hero. I liked Butterworth in a Roland Young-type part in FORSAKING ALL OTHERS, but he doesn't quite have what it takes to do a strong comic lead. But there is a wonderfully dry and somewhat dark bit near the end where he decides to kill himself by hanging, and winds up in a long, humorous conversation with Pendleton over kinds of knots. Merkel, of course, is good as usual.

IT'S A WONDERFUL WORLD (1939)--I saw this way back in the late 80's, before TCM, when TNT was showing old movies,with ads. I didn't like it then, but I decided, what with Jimmy Stewart and Claudette Colbert and TCM's adless presentation, to give it another chance. No dice. It's a screwball mystery--Stewart is a man who's on his way to jail as an accessory in a murder case; he escapes in order to try and catch the real killer and save not just himself but his boss, who is about to be executed. Colbert is a whacky poet he meets along the way--he carjacks her, then can't get rid of her as she vows to help him. I like Colbert here, but Stewart is not up to his usual high standard. The supporting cast is solid, including Pendleton, Guy Kibbee, and Cecil Cunningham, but I couldn't recommend this except to diehard fans of screwball.

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