Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Grey Market Cinema: A Connecticut Yankee (1931)

I had originally planned to watch one of the many films in M-G-M’s Andy Hardy series this morning, the 1942 romp The Courtship of Andy Hardy—but since I apparently have difficulty delineating the difference between 8:15am and 8:45am, I came in one half-hour late…so I was forced to fall back on Plan B. But this only works if you have a Plan B at the ready, and since I had not prepared for such a contingency plan I was forced to wing it. Since the last Grey Market Cinema post I did was almost a year ago, I decided to watch one of the many bootleg collector’s DVDs present in the dusty Thrilling Days of Yesteryear archives, the 1931 Will Rogers comedy A Connecticut Yankee. (Warning: There are spoilers ahead.)

(By the way, Courtship was part of a mini-birthday tribute offered up by Turner Classic Movies to Mickey Rooney, who turns 89 today. Many happy returns to the Mickster, and also to my esteemed blogging colleague Rick “Who am I kidding—I can’t turn off my TV!” Brooks, who is celebrating his wedding anniversary with Mrs. Brooks high above Cultureshark Tower today as well.)

Hank Martin (Will Rogers) is a radio/electronics repairman (he also owns a radio station, WRCO) who delivers a battery to an address accommodating a spooky old house and a slightly dotty scientist (William Farnum) convinced that he can summon voices from the past provided he has the right equipment. A thunderstorm outside causes a suit of armor to fall on Martin, and when he awakens he finds himself in days of old when knighthood was in flower and King Arthur (also Farnum) ruled Britain. Arthur and the inhabitants of his kingdom are convinced Hank is some sort of “demon” due to his strange manner of speaking and dress, and the treacherous Merlin the Magician (Brandon Hurst) convinces His Highness that the “demon” should be destroyed. Fortunately for Hank, an eclipse takes place on the date and time of his execution and he’s able to convince Arthur and his people that his “magic” is so powerful he’s capable of “blotting out the sun.” Arthur pleads for the stranger to restore the sunlight, and when the eclipse is over knights Hank “Sir Boss,” in turn making him a powerful advisor to the King.

Hank soon revolutionizes life at the castle by bringing modern conveniences to Camelot, but the disloyal Merlin and nasty Sir Sagramor (Mitchell Harris) are still carrying a grudge towards the intruder. When word reaches the King that his evil sister, Queen Morgan le Fay (Myrna Loy), has vowed to keep his daughter Alisande (Maureen O’Sullivan) prisoner in her castle, Hank is dragooned into rescuing Alisande after emerging as the victor of a duel between he and Sagramor. Hank convinces Arthur to assist him in the rescue, and when Merlin and Sagramor get word to the Queen that the two men are on their way, she has them both captured and thrown into her dungeon. She attempts to seduce Hank (she’s taken a shine to him) and agrees to grant him his fondest wish—but when Martin pleads for the release of Arthur, Alisande and the other prisoners she summons her guards to seize him. Hank is able to rescue Arthur and Alisande from their imprisonment and with the help of his friend Clarence (Frank Albertson), defeats Morgan and her men before once again being hit in the back of the head with a suit of armor and returning to his proper Connecticut time period.

The merging of Mark Twain’s classic time-traveling fantasy tale with the comedic stylings of America’s beloved folk humorist would seem to be a match made in heaven—and for most of Yankee’s eighty-four minute running time (the IMDb clocks it at ninety-five minutes, while Maltin’s Movie Guide times it at seventy-eight) the film is a perfect vehicle for Rogers’ charming screen personality. The script is filled with funny ideas and topical wisecracks; my favorite (this is clearly a pre-Code picture) is when Rogers’ character asks Sagramor: “Canst telleth me where in the Helleth I am?” There’s also an amusing sequence where Sir Boss proudly shows off the factory he’s built in the castle to Arthur and Merlin:

SIR BOSS: Yes, sir—we’re gettin’ the supply here…then I’ll create the demand…all you got to do is to persuade people that they need things that they’ve been happy without all their lives…

ARTHUR: And by what magic will thou do this?

SIR BOSS: Ah, by a special magic…called advertising

ARTHUR: Advertising…hmm…is the potent charm…?

SIR BOSS: Potent? Ah…say, it makes you spend money you haven’t got for things you don’t want!

Other nifty gags include Martin’s response to Arthur when he’s been accused of being a powerful magician (“I’m just a Democrat…”) and the jousting sequence, in which the challenged Sir Boss saddles up in cowboy regalia and defeats Sir Sagramor thanks to his lasso (he even takes a brief moment to show the King how it’s done). Some of Rogers’ one-liners, however, are a bit too provocative (and pungent) for modern audiences; Sir Boss walks in on a meeting between Arthur and his knights and observes: “I didn’t know you and the Ku Klux were having a conference.”

I feel that I must warn you that the climax of Yankee is a bit on the ludicrous side; it involves gyrocopters, Model T automobiles, tanks and machine guns (I was expecting Graham Chapman to emerge wearing his Colonel’s uniform and announcing that he was stopping the film because it’s getting silly), something scenarists Owen Davis and William H. Conselman should have considered trimming back a bit. The film’s success is mainly due to the force that is Will Rogers; I like how Rogers was allowed to participate in one of the traditional conventions of comedy in the beginning of the picture (namely the-old-dark-house routine) even though scared reaction comedy is clearly not his meat. The cast is very impressive: with major kudos going out to Loy for her mesmerizingly seductive portrayal of le Fay (I only wish the equally tantalizing O’Sullivan were in the picture more)—she’s rarely been sexier and watching her try to seduce the reluctant Rogers provides quite a few belly laughs. Yankee was directed by David Butler, who was one of Rogers’ particular favorites; the two men also worked on Down to Earth (1932), Handy Andy (1934) and my favorite Will Rogers film, Doubting Thomas (1935).

I purchased Yankee from Vintage Film, a wonderful online store that showcases a number of classic movies not yet available on DVD—I’ve made multiple purchases in the past and have yet to be disappointed...I was even fortunate to score a free DVD just for filling out a survey some time back (which will no doubt be the focus of another Grey Market Cinema post in the future). Though the quality of Yankee is hardly what one could call pristine, it’s more than watchable and in many respects we’re indeed fortunate to have this print—most of the original negatives of Will Rogers’ films were lost in the infamous 20th Century-Fox studio fire of 1937. At any rate, it wouldn’t hurt to stop by and browse around—and if you do, tell them I sent you. (It won’t help me any, but it gets my name out and about.)

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