Thursday, April 6, 2017

On the Grapevine: You’d Be Surprised (1926)

Throwing a little soiree on his houseboat, District Attorney White (Earle Williams) has some startling news for those in attendance: a valuable diamond necklace has been stolen, and White knows that the guilty party is one of his guests.  He’s going to give the thief a sporting chance by placing the necklace case on the floor and dimming the lights—that way the bandit can return the jewelry with a minimum amount of embarrassment and social ostracizing.  Out go the lights…and when they’re turned back on, White is lying on the floor, really most sincerely dead.  (Murdered!  And someone’s responsible!)

Raymond Griffith
White had the foresight to notify the gendarmes before his ill-conceived stunt, and soon Inspector Brown (Tom McGuire) arrives with the city’s finest protectors & servers in tow.  But because of White’s murder, they’re going to have to call in the coroner on this one.  That man is Green (no, his name is Green—not his complexion), portrayed by silk-hatted comedian Raymond Griffith, who’s pressed into service to reveal the culprit.  Green’s going to have to work fast, though: he’s got tickets to the theatre, and the curtain goes up in an hour!

The names of the characters in You’d Be Surprised (1926)—Green, Brown, White, a valet named Grey (Granville Redmond)—telegraph to the audience that we’re in for an interesting round of the board game Clue…with the funster talked about previously in this space in features like Open All Night (1924) and Paths to Paradise (1925) in charge of the investigation in this most curious comedy.  I say “curious” because from a critical stand point, Surprised has almost as many admirers as it does detractors.  At the time of its release, the comedy was highly praised by critics like The New York Times’ Mordaunt Hall, who wrote “Although there is a lot of nonsense in this current effort, it is pictured in a clever fashion and Mr. Griffith is in his element in this type of comedy.”

Film historian Leonard Maltin has a dissenting opinion, noting “The key to this film's failure is perhaps its cold-bloodedness,” adding “it disappoints because of its claustrophobic setting and lack of comic action.”  But speaking for myself, I’m going to buck Lenny on You’d Be Surprised—I enjoyed the movie, though I will hasten to add that I like both Paths to Paradise and Hands Up! (1926) a lot more.  Griffith’s antics as the super-suave coroner In Surprised convulsed me from the moment he arrives on the scene (though I couldn’t quite figure out how he got there so quickly—the cops were called in for a jewel robbery, and only got the murder as a bonus); his Green enters from the back of the boat, and noticing the large crowd (comprised of cops and party guests) awaiting his arrival at the front asks one individual: “What time does the parade start?”

Dorothy Sebastian, Griffith
Raymond’s leading lady in Surprised is Dorothy Sebastian, who more than a few of you will remember as Buster Keaton’s co-star in Spite Marriage (1929).  (Well, that’s how I remember her anyway.)  Her character in the film has been fingered as the individual responsible for the murder, and Griffith’s unwavering belief in her innocence reminded me of Peter Sellers’ Inspector Clouseau in A Shot in the Dark (1964), who will not entertain thoughts of Elke Sommers’ possible guilt at any moment in the film.  Surprised also played at times like a Monty Python sketch of which I am most fond: an Agatha Christie parody (“Now, alduce me to introlow myslef…”) of a locked-room mystery that quickly develops a high body count.

I call vehicles like You’d Be Surprised “who-turned-out-the-lights” movies, and while I certainly didn’t plan it this way, Surprised is the third of these such films I’ve watched within the span of a week.  Earlier, I caught a 1933 film (I grabbed this from Epix [Vault] on Demand, by the way) entitled Tomorrow at Seven which features Frank McHugh and Allen Jenkins as a pair of incompetent detectives investigating a murder.  (Produced by independent Jefferson Pictures and released through RKO; apparently, Warner Bros. had nothing for McHugh or Jenkins to do that week.)  I followed this up with The Gorilla (1939), another murder comedy with three inept investigators: Al, Harry, and Jimmy—the Ritz Brothers.  (Don’t think I can’t hear you judging me out there.)

Character great Roscoe Karns has a small role as a party guest, and Columbia comedy shorts stalwart Monte Collins can also be glimpsed as the milkman on the "coroner's grand jury."
You’d Be Surprised is notable for a story and screenplay by Jules Furthman (The Big Sleep, Rio Bravo) and title cards co-written by Robert Benchley, who was the drama critic for Life at that point in his career.  Not everything works in Surprised: the scenes in which Griffith’s Green confers with Redmond’s valet didn’t quite work for me (the valet is a deaf-mute…or is he?) though others think they’re among the comedic highlights of the film.  But Raymond can’t help but be funny, and a few of the more amusing gags rely on the device of comic repetition (a “coroner’s grand jury” keeps declaring suspects “Guilty!” before hearing the evidence), which I have mentioned being a fan of in the past (“It’s nice to be back among the magnolias again!”).

In Kevin Brownlow’s classic The Parade’s Gone By, veteran comedy director Edward Sutherland (he worked with Ray on 1925’s A Regular Fellow) had this to say about the underrated comedian: “His big failing as a comedian, which I pointed out to him, was that he didn't know the difference between comedy, travesty, farce, or light comedy. He'd mix it all up. And he would never be the butt of any joke. Now the success of almost all great comedians comes from being the butt of jokes. Griffith was too vain for this. He would get himself into a problem, and then he'd want to think himself out of it. This worked well for a few pictures, but it wasn't a solid basis.”  I think Sutherland makes some good points, but it doesn’t keep me from appreciating the man’s talent…and as stated previously, because so many of Griffith’s feature films appear not to have survived we may be missing out on a great deal.  (I have an eye out for Changing Husbands [1924] and The Night Club [1925] next.)

“I really love watching him work,” declares my Facebook compadre Christopher Snowden on a Raymond Griffith thread at the Silent Comedy Mafia bulletin board.  “I love that he's distinctive, I love the sly looks, the confidence, the resourcefulness, the moral ambiguity.  I love that he's a rascal, even when he's on the right side of the law.”  I couldn’t have said it better myself.  You'd Be Surprised is available on DVD from Grapevine Video (I bought a copy back in December of 2012), and is well worth the purchase.

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