Sunday 6 January 2008

The Nitwits (1935) George Stevens

I like the credits, that unroll on a player piano roll, angled and dotted like a really long cross stitch work scrolling down the screen. In fact the film looks pretty good generally, courtesy of director George Stevens who would quickly go onto far better material than this and cinematographer Edward Cronjager. Even the editor wakes up partway through, going from static predictability to frenetic transitions in the first dance scene, but then he goes back to sleep again. Maybe there were more than one editor or maybe the one was schizophrenic.

We're both at and outside the Lake Publishing Company which publishes songs. Inside, we have Hale Hamilton as the owner, Winfield Lake, and Betty Grable as his delightful secretary, Mary Roberts, so delightful that the married Lake can't keep his roaming hands away from her. Outside we have Bert Wheeler and Robert Woolsey as the nitwits of the title. They run a tobacconist stall together and Woolsey invents on the side, coming up with an electric chair device that forces people to tell the truth. Wheeler is also engaged to Mary Roberts and only needs money to get married, the hope is that he can earn enough by writing a song to sell to Lake.

Amazingly the song is a good one, especially as we first hear it sung by Woolsey. In fact it's the only song in the three Wheeler & Woolsey movies I've seen thus far that is actually enjoyable. It's a murder ballad called 'The Black Widow's Gonna Get You If You Don't Watch Out', and is sung in a Cab Calloway sort of style. Unfortunately the inspiration for it is a real criminal who is trying to extort money from Lake and murders him, just as circumstances suggest to Woolsey that Wheeler is about to do it and to the cops that Mary did it.

Much of the comedy is as dumb as you'd expect from this pair, but some is surprisingly funny and the story is a whole lot better than the last couple I've seen. The murder and the consequences are mildly ingenious, though there's plenty of stereotypical setup and it's really not difficult to work out whodunit.

The stereotypes run deep though, with Willie Best in the cast, at least credited under his real name this time instead of Sleep 'n' Eat. However the moment he arrives, he's cheating at dice and that sort of cringeworthy behaviour returns late in the film. It's one thing to know that Hollywood was racist in the thirties but it's another to have that reinforced to the nth by seeing films where black men literally do nothing but laze around, play craps and get scared by anything and everything.

1 comment:

Craig Clarke said...

Thanks for the review. I recorded this one off TCM (last month?) and for some reason I've been putting off watching it (probably because of my poor track record with their later films), but I'll now have to set apart some time for it.