Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Country Gentlemen (Republic, 1936)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I dredged up something I’d downloaded from last August: Country Gentlemen, a 1936 film from Republic that starred the vaudeville comedy team of Ole Olsen and Chic Johnson, helpfully identified with their photos in the film’s opening credits so we can tell which one is which. The American Film Institute Catalog identifies this as their first film — which it wasn’t: they’d made three for Warner Bros. in 1930-31 (Oh! Sailor Behave, Fifty Million Frenchmen and Gold Dust Gertie) — though it’s a considerably better movie than Gold Dust Gertie, the only one of their Warners films I’ve actually seen. In 1938 Olsen and Johnson would break through to a much bigger audience with their Broadway hit Hellzapoppin’, which was essentially a nonpolitical live version of the later TV show Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In, and they would make four films for Universal in the early to mid-1940’s (Hellzapoppin’, Crazy House, Ghost Catchers and See My Lawyer) that would be well worth reviving as a two-DVD boxed set.

 Country Gentlemen is a surprisingly dark comedy that casts Olsen and Johnson as a couple of swindlers, J. D. Hamilton and Charlie Williams, who in the opening scene are forced to flee New York City ahead of the police, who are about to arrest them and shut down their phony gold-mining operation. At one point Hamilton tells Williams their gold-mine bonds aren’t going to be worth anything until 50 million years; then he says they won’t be worth anything until 15 million years, and Williams said, “That’s a relief. I thought you said 50 million years.” They drive cross-country with their former secretary, Gertie (Joyce Compton), and Gertie’s dog Snuffy (played by “Prince, the Great Dane” — I joked that in his next movie he was billed as “the dog formerly known as Prince”), stowing away in their convertible, and they end up on the outskirts of Los Angeles in a town called Chesterville, whose main attraction for the con artists is a large veterans’ hospital with a lot of veterans who have just received their bonus checks, which Our Anti-Heroes are predictably anxious to relieve them of.

They also meet widow Louise Heath (Lila Lee, mother of A Chorus Line writer James Kirkwood, Jr.) and her son Billy (Sammy McKim), and they start drilling an oil well outside of town, never expecting actually to strike oil — though of course they do, and while they’ve sold the entire oil well to the veterans, their gold bonds also turn out to be for a genuinely valuable and productive mine — thereby providing a predictably happy ending for a comedy that otherwise is surprisingly dark, notably in the scenes towards the end in which the angry veterans, sure that Hamilton and Williams have stolen all their money, advance on them in an angry mob and actually string them up to poles, ready to lynch them, until one of the veterans throws a stick of dynamite down the supposedly dry-hole oil well, causing it to gusher. The film steals from a lot of other comedians, including Laurel and Hardy (when I saw Gold Dust Gertie one of my reflections was how much funnier that film would have been with Laurel and Hardy in it — though Country Gentlemen wouldn’t have worked with Stan and Ollie because the characters needed to be sharp, not stupid) and the Marx Brothers, but it’s still quite charming and amusing, and Lila Lee turns in a sensitive, sympathetic performance as the decent woman caught up in the stars’ schemes that makes one wonder why her career went downhill so fast when sound came in.