Monday, November 24, 2008

THE GUV'NOR (1935)

Here's another classic-era film for our current economic times. Set in England during the Depression, the film begins with Barsec the banker (Frank Cellier) assuring a woman that her money is safe in his bank; moments later, we see him tell his friend Dubois that the bank will fail in a matter of weeks. However, based on a secret report, he knows that an old ironworks belonging to the Granville family, thought to be tapped out, still has rich, hidden veins of ore for mining. The Granvilles owe the bank a great deal of money, and his plan is to get them to sell the property on the cheap to Dubois (and Barsec as a secret investor). The family can keep their house, Barsec can let the bank fail, and he and Dubois will make boatloads of money. But Barsec needs a patsy, someone he can install as a figurehead president so he can get his plan going and leave his "sinking ship." Enter a pair of hobos who just happen to bum a meal at the Granville residence, where the young lady of the house is very nice to them. Later that day, they are arrested for vagrancy. One of the bums (George Arliss) says his name is Rothschild, which is the family name of one of the richest banking families in the world. The police are very amused and, though he's not actually related to the family, he is given 2,000 pounds from a family charity and sent on his way. You can see where this is going: Barsec crosses paths with Rothschild, thinks he's the real thing (if a bit eccentric), and gets him to take over the bank presidency. But Rothschild is no fool and when he figures out Barsec's plot, he tries to spoil it.

This is a charming little film, though frankly, I'll watch anything with George Arliss. His movies tend to fall into two camps: the big "important" biographical pictures and the light comedies in which he's a meddling grandfather figure who helps facilitate a romance between two young people. In this comedy, there is a romance, between Miss Granville (Viola Keats) and the banker's son (Patric Knowles, looking young and strikingly handsome in one of his earliest roles), but it's backburner stuff and Arliss never really gets involved. Gene Gerrard (at right with Arliss) does a nice job as a hobo buddy of Arliss' who helps him out with the shenanigans. The film is well-paced until the last 15 minutes or so when the plot slows down and becomes unnecessarily convoluted as it heads for the inevitable happy ending. A viewer at IMDb notes a similarity between this and TRADING PLACES, though to me, it feels more like a Capraesque take on BEING THERE, with everyone reacting to Arliss as though he's practically royalty, despite his appearance, which remains rather scruffy throughout (though Gerrard takes to his new life and cleans up nicely). There may a bit of in-jokiness about Arliss' character being named Rothschild, as just the year before, he played a real Rothschild in THE HOUSE OF ROTHSCHILD. There's a very funny moment involving Arliss being offered a drink called a "white lady," which he assumes is something other than a drink. Despite a somewhat weak ending, a satisfying film. [TCM]

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