Thursday, May 18, 2017

Buried Treasures: Feel My Pulse (1928)

Pampered heiress Barbara Manning (Bebe Daniels) has spent her entire life cooped up indoors due to the dictates of her father’s will—Babs’ old man appears to have been a germophobe, and insisted his only daughter be brought up in the same fashion by her Uncle Edgar (George Irving) until she’s twenty-one.  With the arrival of the big two-one, her Uncle Wilburforce (Melbourne MacDowell) from Texas—Texas, that is—shows up to squirrel her away to a ranch on the Lone Star State.  But Barbara is convinced she’s got a bad ticker (angina pectoris), and fears that Wilburforce’s prescribed regimen of excitement, adventure…and romance might be the death of her.

William Powell, Bebe Daniels
Remembering that she’s the owner of a sanitarium on Manning Island—located twenty miles off the mainland—Barbara hies herself in that direction, mistaking Wallace Roberts (Richard Arlen) for a taxi driver and demanding that Wally ferry her to her destination.  What our young debutante does not know is that the hospice’s caretaker, Sylvester Zilch (Charles Sellon), has allowed bootlegger Phil Todd (William Powell) to set up his base of operations there (Zilch gets a kickback of four cents per case of booze) …and that the last thing Todd and his goons need is Barbara poking around in their bidness.  So the Todd mob goes through the motions of pretending to be the staff (Boss Phil is the doctor, and his henchies patients) with hilarious results.

Daniels in She's a Sheik (1927)
My experience watching Ducks and Drakes (1921) back in April (DVR’d from The Greatest Cable Channel Known to Mankind™) was such an enjoyable one that in the process of purchasing a buttload of Alpha Video DVDs from, one of the discs I slipped into the cart was Feel My Pulse (1928), an uproarious farce featuring Drakes star Bebe Daniels and leading men Richard Arlen and William Powell.  This high wattage trio had previously appeared in She’s a Sheik (1927), a comedy directed by Clarence Badger (Hands Up!) and one that I would love to see but it’s apparently lost.  (Daniels and Powell also worked in the earlier Dangerous Money [1924] and Senorita [1927]—Senorita is considered by some to be one of Bebe’s finest feature comedies.)

I’m not as familiar with Bebe’s oeuvre as I should be, save her work alongside Harold Lloyd in his early one- and two-reel comedies and her later appearances with husband Ben Lyon on the BBC’s long-running radio/TV hit Life with the Lyons.  But every new Daniels feature I check off is unquestionably a treat, and Feel My Pulse is my favorite vehicle yet.  Granted, there’s a little bit of contrivance involved in the plot (have you ever met anyone sequestered from society—father’s will or no?) but then again it is a comedy (not a documentary), and Bebe demonstrates that she was amazingly adept at physical slapstick with funny sequences involving her leaping out of Arlen’s car to retrieve her valued valise of medications (Arlen’s character refuses to believe she’s an invalid after witnessing her “sprinting exhibition”) and bobbing up and down like a yoyo out of one of the sanitarium windows.

My favorite scene of Bebe’s in the film is her encounter with “Thirsty McGulp” (Heinie Conklin)—I plan to use that as an alias the next chance I get, by the way—a member of Powell’s mob who has quite a fondness for the bottle.  He offers some of his “medicine” to Daniels, and she reciprocates with some of her own…and before you know it, the duo are completely in their cups and singing Sweet Adeline.  (Bebe notes in a title card that she didn’t see Thirsty’s “two brothers” join the party, which made me laugh out loud.)  Daniels’ character is a bit naïve (Arlen describes her in writing as “attractive, but they come no dumber”) and much of her advanced vocabulary on the title cards prompts Dick to observe that she’s “a loose leaf from Webster’s Dictionary.”  (The very witty titles come courtesy of George Marion, Jr.; Nicholas T. Barrows and Keene Thompson receive screenplay credit from a story by Howard Emmett Rogers.)

Richard Arlen
Before he demonstrated with screen wife Myrna Loy that intoxication can be fun in the Thin Man movies, Bill Powell was a superb villain in silent films (he was the baddie in 1927’s Nevada, which I covered here back in September of last year) and he doesn’t disappoint in Feel My Pulse (you can just see the dollar signs register in his eyeballs when he learns from Sellon that Bebe’s worth 30 million dollars).  Arlen is aces as Bebe’s love interest (he’s Powell’s number-two man…and yet he is not what he seems—I can say no more), and I gave out with a hearty chuckle when I saw Charles Sellon’s name in the credits (Sellon plays the memorable blind man in W.C. Fields’ It’s a Gift—“Open the door for Mr. Muckle!”).  Pulse is short and sweet at 62 minutes, and I was gobsmacked to learn that the movie was neither a commercial nor critical success at the time of its release (with so many of Daniels’ movies having been sacrificed to the ravages of time it’s since been reappraised…and well it should be).

Feel My Pulse was an early effort from Gregory La Cava, who would later go on to direct Powell to a Best Actor Oscar nomination in the screwball comedy classic My Man Godfrey (1936).  I purchased my copy of Pulse from and was not disappointed; it’s also available from my other favorite vintage silent store of cherce, Grapevine Video (my CMBA colleague Fritzi at Movies Silently says Grapevine’s print is “fairly rough”), where it’s been paired with a Billy West comedy, Lines Busy (1921).  If you’re carefully counting out change so as to make it to the end of the month, it’s also available for viewing at YouTube.  This one is a lot of fun.


Caftan Woman said...

It's a lot of fun? I'm always up for a lot of fun. Thanks.

Scott said...

The title alone makes me smile.

It always amazed me how the advent of sound completely changed William Powell's image. Some actors didn't make the transition at all, of course, some were brought to Hollywood solely because of sound, and some plodded along with little noticeable alteration to their personas (Alan Hale played Little John in both the 1922 and 1938 Robin Hoods), but I can't think of many who not only prospered with sound, but went from invariably villainous to uniformly heroic, even lovable, roles.

Maybe Wallace Beery was the working class analog to that phenomenon.

have you ever met anyone sequestered from society

Now that you mention it, no, but if they're sequestered from society, how would you meet them? Was there some telegraph version of Tinder back then?

Eric said...

CINEVENT CLASSIC FILM CONVENTION 2017 in Columbus, Ohio will have a 16mm screening of Feel My Pulse Friday night, May 26th, right after the hard-to-see Where's Charley? w. Ray Bolger. David Drazin will be on piano.

Ivan G Shreve Jr said...

Eric burst in with a late-breaking bulletin:

CINEVENT CLASSIC FILM CONVENTION 2017 in Columbus, Ohio will have a 16mm screening of Feel My Pulse Friday night, May 26th, right after the hard-to-see Where's Charley? w. Ray Bolger. David Drazin will be on piano.

Thanks for the heads-up, Br'er Eric. Wish I could be there!

rnigma said...

"Life with the Lyons" always struck me as the British counterpart to Ozzie & Harriet.

Ivan G Shreve Jr said...

rnigma observed:

"Life with the Lyons" always struck me as the British counterpart to Ozzie & Harriet.

Same here!

Eric said...

The screening at Cinevent in Columbus, Ohio was a great success. Today, Grapevine Video announced they have upgraded Feel My Pulse with an improved quality print available on DVD or Blu-ray.

cc Will said...

Agreed that sound transformed William Powell into a romantic leading man and a great comedic actor, but with him able to carry off any type of role with excellence. From the silent films of his that I have seen, he was an outstanding villain. In Feel my Pulse, his menacing was great. His amusing and charming personality seemed to come through in many of his most despicable roles, making him, while not yet considered a star, very popular. She's the Sheik and Seniorita sounded like really superb movies. It sounds like Powell and Daniels were a very good comedic team. The public, apparently, loved them.