Friday, April 17, 2009

You Said a Mouthful (Warners/First National, 1932)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

You Said a Mouthful is a Joe E. Brown comedy from Warner Bros. (in “First National” drag — apparently the use of both trade names was a condition of the U.S. government’s antitrust division for approving the 1928 merger of Warners and First National — that they had at least to maintain the fiction of being two separate entities: an especially fascinating factoid in an era in which antitrust seems to have gone the way of the dodo about 30 years ago when Ronald Reagan, former Warners contract player who hated antitrust because he believed it had been what did in the studio system, became president!) recently shown on TCM as part of a day-long tribute to Ginger Rogers that focused on some of her most obscure early credits.

Directed (unusually energetically) by all-purpose Warners hack Lloyd Bacon from a script by Robert Lord and Bolton Mallory from a story by William B. Dover, You Said a Mouthful was a typical Brown vehicle in which, as Joe Holt, a shipping clerk for the Armstrong Rubber Goods and Swimming Wear company, he devises a material from which he can make a bathing suit that will render its wearer unsinkable and thereby cut the rate of people drowning in oceans, lakes and pools. Needless to say, his boss isn’t interested in it and his co-workers keep playing practical jokes on him, so he’s only too glad to escape when he receives word (which at first he thinks is just another rib) that he’s inherited a fortune from a recently deceased aunt in California. Alas, when he gets there he finds (apparently, to paraphrase Dorothy Parker, none of the writers ever outlined this story to a friend and said, “Stop me if you’ve heard this before”) that the “inheritance” is a bunch of worthless shares of stocks in companies that have long since gone bankrupt and $105 in cash, of which the attorneys handling the estate (Bernstein, Bernstein, Bernstein and Jones — one wonders if their offices adjoin those of Hungerdunger, Hungerdunger, Hungerdunger, Hungerdunger and McCormack from the Marx Brothers’ Animal Crackers) take $100 as their fee. Joe also finds that his aunt’s will has obliged him to care for Sam Wellington (Farina from the “Our Gang” series at Hal Roach, later known on TV as “The Little Rascals”), the young Black son of her former servant.

The two apply for jobs on the steamer from Los Angeles to Catalina Island (which played itself in this film; a quarter-century later it would play the Salton Sea in The Monster That Challenged the World!), where Holt is paged by Alice Brandon (Ginger Rogers), daughter of Tom Brandon (Walter Walker), a wealthy man who sponsors an annual swimming race from Catalina to the mainland. Alice has mistaken Holt for another person of the same name, an Australian long-distance swimmer whom the Brandons are sponsoring in the big race. The favorite is Ed Dover (Preston Foster, billed as “Preston S. Foster” here), the typical movie egomaniac hunk — and of course we know where this is going: though Our Hero’s previous experience as a swimmer has been confined to bathtubs, nonetheless he’s going to swim in the race and win both the race and Alice’s hand against Ed, his rival. It’s also clear that the writers have deposited that unsinkable bathing suit Holt has invented into the Screenwriters’ Cliché Bank to be withdrawn as needed — though the twist is that, thinking she’s doing him a favor, Alice sneaks into Joe’s room and substitutes a normal swimsuit for Holt’s invention, so he goes out thinking he’s unsinkable but really isn’t.

The movie ends the way you’d expect it to, but what makes it special is the writers’ firmly tongue-in-cheek attitude towards their material, their obvious awareness that not only is the expected outcome utterly impossible but that their audience knows that, too, so they can play around with the situation and riff on the sheer unlikeliness of it all as part of their plot — and by far the best gag in the movie is the sequence in which Joe gets an unfair advantage (not that we mind!) by hitching a tow from a swordfish (mistakenly identified in the American Film Institute Catalog as a shark) and speeding through about half the course far faster than any unaided human, no matter how well trained, could do. It’s not much of a Ginger Rogers credit — she’s there and she’s recognizable, and that’s about all that can be said for her acting here — but it’s a fun movie anyway.