Sunday, October 11, 2009

Sutton impact

Sorry about the shut down on the blog yesterday…honest to my grandma, I had planned to post something of minimal importance but I haven’t been sleeping all that well lately and what I thought was going to be a brief nap at 10:00am turned into a power slumber that had me rubbing my eyes at 5:30pm, wondering where the hell the rest of the day had gone.

But before succumbing to narcolepsy, I managed to catch TCM’s showing of The Boy Friends comedy short The Knockout (1932) earlier…and I have to say I was a bit underwhelmed. The Hal Roach-produced comedy series—which starred former Our Gangers Mickey Daniels and Mary Kornman, as well as Grady Sutton, Gertie Messenger, stuntman extraordinaire David Sharpe, Dorothy Granger and others—only lasted a couple of years, and while there were some first-rate two-reelers in this bunch (High Gear, Air-Tight, Mama Loves Papa) there were also some real clinkers, a distinction for which Knockout clearly qualifies.

Daniels and Kornman were among the earliest of the child stars in the silent days of Our Gang, and while Mickey was very engaging as a kid he sort of grew out of it—becoming a freakish-looking adult who apparently suffered from a severe case of arrested development. (Kornman went sort of the same way; she had a remarkably sophisticated poise about her as a child but as she entered into adulthood it was as if she had stepped into a time machine and regressed back to the mind of an eight-year-old—not that this didn’t have its appeal, you understand…sometimes she’s the only saving grace of the poorer Boy Friends shorts.) This is sort of why Knockout isn’t a very good comedy; Daniels plays an obnoxious freshman with little redeeming social qualities—and he wears out his welcome within the first two minutes of this short, leaving you no one to root for. The plot is that he accidentally delivers a KO to the reigning freshman boxing champion (Eddie Morgan) after receiving a buss from Mary, and he’s forced to defend the honor of the frosh by stepping into the ring to take the champ’s place. This is easier said than done, especially since he’s made an enemy out of his sophomore opponent, who’s played by future director Gordon Douglas.

So with Daniels failing to gain any sympathy and Kornman’s antics barely registering a chuckle, the only redeeming factor in Knockout is Grady Sutton, who manages to grab a few laughs despite being saddled with nothing to do. (His high point comes at the beginning, when he’s doing this indescribable dance fraught with most un-Sutton-like gyrations.) Many years back, I used to joke that Shemp Howard was in practically every feature film made in the 1930s because he kept popping up in the darndest places. I no longer believe this—but I’m not entirely unconvinced that this doesn’t apply to Grady. It seems every movie I’ve watched on TCM of late features a cameo from this first-rate character actor.

Sutton is probably best-known to movie buffs for his supporting performance as Og Oggilby, the future son-in-law of Egbert Sousé (W.C. Fields) in The Great Man’s classic comedy The Bank Dick (1940). Sutton was one of Fields’ favorite performers to work with, and the comedian would often flex his muscle at the studio to make sure he got Sutton—even when the studio heads weren’t completely onboard with Fields’ casting decisions. (Sutton appears in three other Fields vehicles: the 1932 two-reeler The Pharmacist; Man on the Flying Trapeze [1935]—my personal favorite: he plays Fields’ brother-in-law, a man so lazy he takes naps after meals; and You Can't Cheat an Honest Man [1939].) In the Boy Friends comedies, he was usually cast as “Alabam”—a slow-talking, wide-eyed Southern innocent who only had to open his mouth and emote in that molasses-thick accent to get the audience chuckling. After his Boy Friends stint, Sutton found himself in a similar series at R-K-O entitled The Blondes and the Redheads, in which he co-starred in two-reelers alongside June Brewster and Carol Tevis—frequently supervised under the auspices of neophyte director George Stevens.

What prompted this blog entry was a viewing of Dr. Socrates (1935) last night; TCM’s Essentials series spotlighted the classic I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932; nearly seventy-five years later this film still packs a wallop!) and the channel continued with a slew of Paul Muni films, including Juarez (1939) and The Last Angry Man (1959). (Unfortunately, I missed the tail-end of Socrates when recording it last night due to a major miscalculation on how much room I had on a DVD—but that’s a gripe for another day.) Grady has a small but funny role in Socrates as a grocery clerk who’s a bit confused when Muni’s housekeeper (Helen Lowell) gives him an order that sounds as if the old dame’s giving him the double-talk. I also watched My Man Godfrey (1936) this past Thursday…and son of a gun; he’s in that, too—as Carole Lombard’s reluctant “fiancé”.

Grady Sutton—he’s everywhere!

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Steve W. said...

My DVR cut off the last minute or so of The Knockout. The last I saw Mickey was still running around the ring looking for someone else to fight. Could you fill in the ending please? It would be much appreciated.

Ivan G. Shreve, Jr. said...

(Warning: spoiler)

Mickey keeps looking for an opponent until finally some big bruiser enters the ring and knocks Mickey out for a loop. But another kiss from Mary brings Mickey around, and he tears into le bruiser like a hot knife through butter. At this point, various students enter the ring to try to stop Mickey, who's throwing punches like a dervish. Finally, someone turns out the lights in the venue and when the lights come back on, Mickey finds himself bussing Alabam, who he's mistaken for Mary. "Well, fan my brow!" is Alabam's only comment, as the screen wipes to "The End" (accompanied by Daniels' patented "donkey laugh").

Personally, I think this one would have been a lot funnier if someone in the gang had to play Pop Goes the Weasel on a violin.

Rick Brooks said...

I have to admit that, while I somehow missed the first few minutes of "The Knockout," I enjoyed it quite a bit, partly because of Sutton, but also BECAUSE of the awkwardness Mickey shows here. Just seeing him ham it up with those goofy faces was enough to draw me in. It's interesting you use the phrase "arrested development" because for a second or two I actually thought maybe there.was something wrong with him.

I suppose his shtick might wear off quickly, but if TCM's gonna be showing more of these, I'm-a gonna be watching 'em. Thanks for the heads-up on this one.

Steve W. said...

Thanks for the fill-in.