Monday 5 January 2009

Swing Your Lady (1938)

Humphrey Bogart looks chipper when he bounces out of the car and into the hotel in Mussel City, MO. Frank McHugh, Allen Jenkins and Nat Pendleton don't look too happy though, following on behind, and Bogie was hiding plenty. He saw this as the worst film he ever made, which it isn't (watch The Return of Doctor X for something notably worse), but it's the least Bogart of all the Bogart films I've seen, and I'm most of the way through them. It may not be a casting disaster on the scale of John Wayne as Genghis Khan or Kate Hepburn as Mary, Queen of Scots but it's certainly not one of the department's proudest moments. While the role of Ed Hatch really should have been played by someone like Lee Tracy, there's a far better candidate than Bogart in the same film: Frank McHugh would have done a much better job.

I'm pretty sure Bogie knew that too and was cursing every line he had to say. It wouldn't surprise me if they put an extra camera behind him so that if he hated it too much they could show the other view instead and forget about take 27. Lines like 'Joe Skopopolous, the ponderous pachyderm of grunt and groan, the Wrestling Hercules, is the next heavyweight champion of the world,' are bad enough, but the ultimate embarrassing Bogart moment of all time is when he gets pinned to the ground by Louise Fazenda who won't let him up until he says, 'Hootie Owl'. He probably spent the rest of his life clocking anyone who muttered those words in his presence.

Anyway, Ed Hatch is a promoter and Joe 'Hercules' Skopapoulos is the wrestler he's promoting throughout the little towns of Missouri. He ends up looking for an opponent in Plunkett City, population 749, most of whom seem to be sat on the porch outside the hardware store playing hillbilly music. And this is hillbilly music like you haven't seen on film before. It's so down home they don't even have duelling banjos, they have duelling saw players, along with every other strange instrument you can think of that could remotely join in a hillbilly song without it sounding like it should be on the Dr Demento show. Then again, with the unique instruments, fiddlers fiddling their beards and songs like Hillbilly from 10th Avenue, maybe they should.

Of course the opponent he finds isn't quite the opponent he expects. This one's a blacksmith, but she's also a girl called Sadie Horn. He discovers her by accident when his car gets stuck in a mudhole and she lifts it out without any help and realises he's been gifted with a spectacle. While he hides the choice of opponent from Joe, because he's a dumb cluck who can't understand words when they're spelled out aloud and he's liable to do something stupid, Joe has already met Sadie and he's already fallen for her too, one night when he takes refuge from the rain inside her blacksmith's forge.

She's a big girl, admittedly, one played by veteran actress Louise Fazenda, and she steals the whole show here. She had a habit of doing that, as far back as 1913 when she was playing in slapstick comedies, one reel westerns and even things like Poor Jake's Demise with Lon Chaney, which I'm going to have to search out now that it's no longer lost. Watching her be the prize in a wrestling match between Nat Pendleton in full on dumb mode and a wild hillbilly played by Daniel Boone Savage may seem like a bizarre situation to us, but probably not to her given her long and varied career. She has a ball with the hillbilly dialect, throwing out epithets like 'well, shuck my corn', 'chisel my tombstone' and 'I'll snatch you bald headed' seemingly at least twice per line of dialogue.

Make no mistake, this is not a good film. It's a cheap piece of exploitation garbage aimed firmly at the hillbilly market, based on a play (featuring Frank McHugh's brother, among others) but with breaks for old time country good time songs and associated shenanigans, and a guest spot as Ed Hatch's dumb girlfriend for Penny Singleton, who is fine really in her singing and dancing though she's as out of place in this film as Bogie is. It's a jigsaw box with a collection of jigsaw pieces from different jigsaws with different pictures on them, and no matter how you work it the pieces aren't going to fit with each other. This even continued to the screening: who could have honestly thought this would work as the other half of a double bill with Boris Karloff's The Invisible Menace?

What saves it from being completely worthless is the fact that it has an enviable cast who know it's nonsense, and with the exception of Bogart, have fun with it. Fazenda is wonderful, but Frank McHugh is fun too. Allen Jenkins doesn't have enough to do. Nat Pendleton played every level of dumb in his long career, but this one went a little too over the top. He does get to show his wrestling chops, which are admirable but hardly surprising since he was an Olympic silver medal winner. Penny Singleton is still annoying but a little less so than she was last time I saw this film in 2005. It made enough of an impact on me then as a unique bit of film that I wrote about it here: This time out it still has impact, admittedly for all the wrong reasons, so I wrote about it again.

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