Thursday, December 1, 2016

“…on the dotted line!”


To the Fisher family, he’s known as “The Show Off.”  Every clan has or knows someone like Aubrey Piper (Ford Sterling), a brash, obnoxious individual with a braying laugh that sets on edge the teeth of any poor soul unfortunate to be within earshot.  Aubrey is only a thirty-dollar-a-week clerk in the offices of the Pennsylvania Railroad—but he likes to pretend he’s a big shot, dressing to the nines and bragging to one and all that he’s always got a “big deal” in the works.  His fiancée is Amy Fisher (Lois Wilson), and she loves him despite his annoyances.  Her family—consisting of Pa (C.W. Goodrich), Ma (Claire McDowell), and brother Joe (Gregory Kelly)—can’t quite fathom what Amy sees in him.

In any other silent comedy, an unpleasant character like Aubrey Piper would be the butt of the jokes…but in The Show Off (1926), he’ll emerge triumphant as the most unlikely of heroes.  Joe is a part-time inventor, and has concocted a special paint impervious to rust (take that, Rustoleum!)—yet he’s been unable to sell any company on his big idea.  He’ll have to make do with a bequest of $1000—before his father passes, he gives Joe the money he and Mrs. F saved to pay the mortgage—to demonstrate his invention…but he winds up spending that money to keep jackass Aubrey out of jail after a traffic mishap.  Aubrey must rely on his special talent of spreading bovine excrement to prevent the Fisher clan from being tossed out on the street.

Paramount’s The Show Off adapted the 1924 stage play written by George Kelly (The Torch-Bearers)—a production that would become his greatest and most commercial success.  It’s been revived several times since then (the last time in 1992, with familiar TV face Boyd “One Day at a Time” Gaines in the Piper role), and in researching its history, I learned that character veteran Lee Tracy was in the original cast (he was Joe), and later took on the title role in a 1950 revival.  I found this interesting because I envisioned this as the perfect part for the actor best known for his portrayals of brash, in-your-face go-getters; it’s a shame no one thought of Lee when they did a second sound version of the film (the first was in 1930 with Men are Like That) in 1934 with another Tracy—Spencer (his first film for MGM).  I’ve seen the 1934 version, and it just doesn’t work.  Sorry, Spence.

I’ve also seen the 1946 Show-Off with Red Skelton, and while I’m a little bit more charitable to that incarnation (the supporting cast, including Eddie “Rochester” Anderson, helps a lot), my preference remains the 1926 original.  I’m guessing I first watched it on The Greatest Cable Channel Known to Mankind™, though the reason why is…well, I’ll get to that in a second.  I have a soft spot for this little underrated comedy, which features former Keystone Kop chief Ford Sterling in one of his most engaging silent comedy turns.

Sterling had an onscreen reputation for “telegraphing” what his character was planning to do before each scene…but by the time he took on The Show Off, he had matured quite a bit as a performer—and that broad acting helps immeasurably him in portraying Aubrey Piper.  Aubrey is that relative you’re always seated next to at any family dinner gathering: a completely clueless boob with an inflated sense of self-worth and a bottomless reservoir of little white fibs about how successful he is.  In Show Off, Aubrey boasts to a starry-eyed Amy that he has “thirty clerks working under him” …prompting her father (C.W. Goodrich reprising his stage role) to remark that those clerks are probably working on the floor below him.

Despite being a pain in the tuchus to his new family, Sterling makes Piper a sympathetic guy in some respects.  Aubrey is a character without malice—he’s just totally oblivious to the misery he creates with his non-stop braggadocio and stretching of the truth.  It will fall to Joe’s girlfriend, Clara (Louise Brooks), to let loose and inform Aubrey how much of an ass he is (she calls him a “four flusher”).  But rather than reform himself, a denouement that would probably be pursued in most films of this type, Piper uses his handicap in social skills to convince a company to invest $50,000 in Joe’s paint invention, mesmerizing a boardroom with a constant stream of ballyhoo.  That’s why I love this movie so much: it establishes the premise that in order to succeed in the business world, you must be a bit of a jerk…and Aubrey has that covered in spades.  His mother-in-law admits defeat at the end of the film with an eyeroll and a remark about “Heaven help us now”—it’s all she can do, seeing as her son-in-law, likable or not, has saved the family from eviction.

As you may have already guessed, the initial reason why I was attracted to The Show Off was Lulu herself.  Louise Brooks doesn’t have a large part, and the character she plays isn’t all that different from similar turns in It’s the Old Army Game (1926) or Love ‘Em and Leave ‘Em (1926)…but she’s so mesmerizing a presence I defy anyone to avert their eyes whenever she’s in a scene.  (Brooksie does have an amusing bit where she pokes fun at Sterling’s story about his automobile accident—Piper claims he tried to avoid hitting a woman and her baby—by mimicking his actions, then laughing fit to beat the band.  A title card reads “Applesauce!”)

I had to refrain from titling this post “Grey Market Cinema” …because even though I purchased it from Finders Keepers, The Show Off has previously been released to VHS (from Kino Video) and DVD—a disc from Image Entertainment in 2012 that is now OOP (it was paired with a 1925 Clara Bow feature, The Plastic Age—which will be appearing in this space soon).  (My esteemed ClassicFlix colleague—and the man who mixes up the butter-like topping at In the Balcony—Cliff Weimer sez I erred when I titled a previous review on The Undead [1957] as grey market, because it did receive a Region 2 release.  He should know—he wrote the liner notes.)  It’s no longer available from Finders Keepers (I snapped this up a few years ago), so you may have to hire some Sherpas and stock up on provisions in your quest to track it down.  (They’re asking an arm-and-a-leg for it on Amazon.)

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