Thursday, February 13, 2003

THE CAT'S PAW (1934)

I think this is the first Harold Lloyd movie I've ever seen. I suspect I saw SAFETY LAST, his most famous film, back in my childhood but I don't remember much about it. So I came to this film, one of his few sound features, with a relatively clean slate. It's an interesting story that comes off like GABRIEL OVER THE WHITE HOUSE if it had been written by Preston Stuges and directed by Frank Capra. Lloyd plays Ezekiel Cobb, the son of missionaries who has grown up in China (his father is Samuel S. Hinds, who later worked for Capra as Mr. Bailey in IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE) and is sent back to the States to find a wife--or as the naive Lloyd keeps putting it to shocked people, to find a mother for his children. In his old hometown, he falls in with a group of corrupt politicians who decide to run him for mayor, knowing he'll lose so the crooked incumbent will win again. But after an incident where Lloyd comes to the aid of a child who the mayor stuck in the face, Lloyd becomes popular and actually wins the race. He becomes a true reformer, angering the town's racketeers but getting the respect of the former party boss (George Barbier). The bad guys frame Lloyd and get the town turned against him, but in his last day in office, he takes the law into his own hands, hauls all the crooks in (for a small town, there are a surprisingly large number of criminals rounded up), and threatens to execute them, one by one, unless they confess to their wrongdoing. The film takes a rather dark turn in its last 15 minutes, as we see him apparently go through with some executions, parading the headless bodies around town, with the heads propped up on their chests. It turns out things aren't quite what they seem, but it's still a oddly grotesque and fascistic moment for what is mostly a gentle comedy. Una Merkel is Petunia, a smart cookie who eventually takes a liking to Lloyd. Among the crooks are familiar faces such as Nat Pendleton, Grant Mitchell, and Warren Hymer. Lloyd is quite good in this character-driven part; I wonder if he was an inspiration for Eddie Bracken in his Sturges films. Not a laugh-out-loud kind of movie, but amusing and worth seeing.

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