A Hidden ‘Poil’: THREE MEN ON A HORSE (Warner Brothers 1936)

Frank McHugh got a rare starring role in the comedy THREE MEN ON A HORSE, based on the hit Broadway play by George Abbott and John Cecil Holmes. McHugh was usually cast as the funny friend of fellow members of “Hollywood’s Irish Mafia “ James Cagney and Pat O’Brien, but here he takes center stage as a meek, hen-pecked type who has an uncanny knack for picking winning horses – as long as he doesn’t bet on them!

Greeting card writer Erwin Trowbridge is beset by a whiney wife, obnoxious brother-in-law, and bullying boss. After a row with wifey brought on by meddling bro-in-law, Erwin leaves his humble Ozone Park, Queens abode and decides to skip work and get sloshed. Stumbling into a seedy hotel bar frequented by Runyonesque gamblers, Erwin gives them a winning pony – then passes out. The three mugs, Patsy, Charlie, and Frankie, bring him up to Patsy’s room to recuperate, hoping the little genius will bring them good luck, not to mention winners.

Patsy, who thinks Erwin’s greeting card verses are sheer poetry, calls boss Carver to demand a raise for the schlep, which results in Erwin’s firing. The gamblers head to the track, but when Patsy returns, he catches Erwin with his dame Mabel in a compromising position. It was all a mistake, but Erwin’s winning well has run dry… seems he can’t pick horses unless he’s riding on the Ozone Park bus! Needless to say, Patsy and the boys accommodate him, leading to further complications with wife Audrey, in-law Clarence, and mean Mr. Carver….

THREE MEN ON A HORSE does suffer from staginess, which is surprising since the director is Mervyn LeRoy , famous for “moving” pictures like LITTLE CAESAR, I AM A FUGITIVE FROM A CHAIN GANG, and QUO VADIS, among others. The exaggerated “New Yawk” accents the actors use (‘Oy-win’ for Erwin, for example) gets a bit annoying at times, as does Carol Hughes’ whiney portrayal of whiney Audrey. The saving grace is a marvelous cast of character actors, all of whom get a chance to shine.

McHugh is great as the spineless Oy-win, I mean Erwin, who finally gets to assert himself at the end. He’s especially good during his drunk scenes… not a stretch for one of “Hollywood’s Irish Mafia”! Joan Blondell , playing Patsy’s “goil” Mabel, is a welcome sight in any movie. Patsy himself is Sam Levene , making his film debut in the role he originated on Broadway. His cohorts are Allen Jenkins (sarcastic Charlie) and Teddy Hart (Frankie), an actor I know little about except he played Crowbar in a few ‘Ma & Pa Kettle’ epics. Old reliable Guy Kibbee is boss Carver, Eddie ‘Rochester’ Anderson gets in on the fun as an elevator operator who plays the ponies, and that “Master of the Slow Burn” Edgar Kennedy gets some good laughs as Harry the bartender.

It’s a minor movie, to be sure, but one that on the whole is enjoyable. It gives McHugh and company a chance to break free of their usual secondary parts and have some fun. Despite a couple of quibbles, THREE MEN ON A HORSE is a comedy “woith” watching!

Pre Code Confidential #7: PLAY-GIRL (Warner Brothers 1932)

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One of the many fun things about Pre-Code films is seeing how they get away with racy dialog without being overly explicit. The risqué double entendres fly freely in PLAY-GIRL, starring Loretta Young as an independent woman who ends up marrying a degenerate gambler, winding up pregnant and husbandless until the conclusion. The story didn’t really matter to me; it was the innuendo-laden script that kept me interested.

That saucy script was written by Maurine Dallas Watkins, who wrote the play “Chicago”, later adapted into the 1942 film ROXIE HART with Ginger Rogers, and then turned into Bob Fosse’s smash Broadway musical CHICAGO, which in turn became the Oscar winning Best Picture of 2002. Ms. Watkins was a former crime reporter for the Chicago Tribune, and based her play on the murder trial of “jazz babies” Beulah Annan and Belva Gaertner. Hollywood beckoned, and she wrote screenplays for UP THE RIVER (the film debuts of both Spencer Tracy and Humphrey Bogart), THE STRANGE LOVE OF MOLLY LOUVAIN, THE STORY OF TEMPLE DRAKE (uncredited), and LIBELED LADY (Tracy again, with Jean Harlow, William Powell, and Myrna Loy).

Pre Code Queen Winnie Lightner
Pre Code Queen Winnie Lightner

Though the plot revolves around Loretta Young’s travails, Pre-Code favorite Winnie Lightener receives top billing as Loretta’s best friend Georgina. Lightner’s bawdy persona made her a star in the 1929 musical GOLD DIGGERS OF BROADWAY, which is now regrettably a lost film. Winnie starred early Technicolor musical comedies like HOLD EVERYTHING (with Joe E. Brown), THE LIFE OF THE PARTY, and GOLD DUST GERTIE (with Olsen & Johnson), but after the Production Code went into place, her career stalled, and by 1934 she retired from the screen to become Mrs. Roy Del Ruth.

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Winnie gets most of the good lines in this one. While sleeping with roommate Loretta, her panties go flying off the clothesline. Loretta asks what she’s going to do, and Winnie replies, “Keep off step ladders”. Later, when Winnie’s at work, bent over on top of a ladder, a customer quips, “I guess you ain’t got just what I want”. Loretta reads a book on merchandising, trying to better herself, and Winnie tells her, “You don’t see Peggy Joyce* reading no merchandise books and she’s a somebody. Her merchandise is the kind that sells on sight!”.

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The girls also have a frenemy named Edna at the department store they work at, Edna. She’s played by another Pre-Code favorite, Dorothy Burgess (HOLD YOUR MAN, STRICTLY PERSONAL, BLACK MOON). Dorothy and Winnie are constantly at each other’s throats, and this bit of dialog is probably the best, when Loretta throws a party at her new apartment:

Winnie: “Ooh, can I see the bedroom?”

Dorothy: “You usually do”.

Winnie: “Well you oughta know, I generally meet you coming out!”

The picture’s no great shakes, but it’s the witty, sexually laced banter that makes it worthwhile. There are plenty of Familiar Faces here, with Guy Kibbee as Winnie’s sugar daddy, Norman Foster as the gambler who Loretta falls in love with, and DRACULA’s Edward  Van Sloan as the department store owner. James Ellison, Noel Madison, George “Gabby” Hayes, Roscoe Karns, and perennial cop Robert Emmett O’Connor appear in small roles. PLAY-GIRL is a fine example of what Pre-Code’s are all about, and though it’s hardly a classic, the dialog alone makes it a film to put on your must-see list.

(*Peggy Hopkins Joyce was an actress known for her many marriages and divorces, love affairs, and extravagant lifestyle. She appeared with W.C. Fields in the all-star comedy INTERNATIONAL HOUSE.)

The Pre-Code Confidential Series:

In Like Flynn: CAPTAIN BLOOD (Warner Brothers 1935)

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Australian Errol Flynn made a splashy Hollywood debut in 1935’s CAPTAIN BLOOD, a big, sprawling epic about pirates of the Caribbean. But this captain’s no Jack Sparrow, he’s a virile man of action who leads his crew from slavery to salvation and wins the hand of beautiful Olivia de Haviland in the process. Director Michael Curtiz was given an almost million dollar budget for this one, and he pulled out all the stops, with large-scale battle scenes and the proverbial cast of thousands.

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It’s the year 1685, and England is going through a rebellion to depose tyrannical King James II. Doctor Peter Blood is summoned by his friend Jeremy Pitt to help some men wounded in battle. They’re interrupted by the King’s men, who arrest and charge them with high treason. The rebels are held for three months under brutal conditions before being sentenced to hang. But King James has a more dastardly idea, and sends Blood and the rebels to the West Indies to be sold into slavery. The men are shipped to Jamaica, where they’re bought by the cruel Colonel Bishop at twenty pounds per man to work in his sugar mill. The impudent Blood almost gets condemned to labor in the mines, but Bishop’s niece Arabella takes a liking to him and buys Blood for herself, for a measly ten pounds. Blood is resentful of the smitten young lass, who also helps him get a position as doctor to the island’s incompetent, gout ridden Governor, while the rest of the rebels suffer torture and whippings courtesy of her sadistic uncle.

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Blood and his men plan an escape, which is suspected by Bishop, who flogs Jeremy. When the good doctor tries to comfort his friend, Bishop intercedes. He’s about to receive the same treatment when cannon fire rings out. The city of Port Royal is under attack by Spanish pirates, and the rebels escape during the battle. They commandeer a Spanish ship, and decide to become pirates themselves, a “brotherhood of buccaneers” beholden to no country. Now-Captain Blood leads his crew of privateers in an onslaught of looting and kidnapping, while the hateful Bishop is appointed new governor, vowing revenge.

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In the pirate stronghold of Tortuga, Blood forms a partnership with devious Frenchman Levasseur. Meanwhile, Arabella returns from a trip to England with envoy Lord Willoughby. Levasseur and his men capture the ship and hold them hostage, with the pirate planning to keep Arabella for himself. Blood and his men arrive and, in a reversal of fortune, he buys Arabella as his slave. Levasseur protests, and the two captains engage in a swordfight won by Blood. When Arabella rebuffs Blood for his pirate ways, he orders the crew to return her to Jamaica, despite the fact that the English fleet is at Port Royal. The ship arrives at the harbor only to discover French warships, and it’s then that Willoughby explains England and France are at war. He offers Blood’s crew a pardon and commission in the Royal Navy, which they scoff at until hearing the scoundrel King James has been deposed, and England’s now ruled by good King William III. Blood and his men raise a captured French flag and sail into Port Royal, engaging the warships in a blazing sea battle. Victorious, Captain Blood wins the heart of fair Arabella, and Willoughby appoints him new governor of Jamaica, much to Bishop’s chagrin!

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Warner Brothers took a huge gamble in casting newcomer Flynn to star in this lavish production, but it paid off and made Flynn a name to be reckoned with in Hollywood. He remained so for the next twenty years, despite his “wicked, wicked ways” as a notorious womanizer, drinker, and secret heroin addict. His costar was fairly new to the screen at the time, too. Nineteen year old Olivia de Haviland had made three films prior to the role of Arabella Bishop, and the teaming of Flynn and de Haviland made sparks fly. The duo did eight films together, including the outstanding THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD in 1938. Errol and Olivia were made for each other onscreen, though the demure de Haviland didn’t approve of Errol’s real-life philandering. She was “the girl who got way”, but they did remain friends through his life.

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CAPTAIN BLOOD features a cast of Hollywood’s best, including that master villain Lionel Atwill as the evil Colonel Bishop. Basil Rathbone portrays Levasseur, and the movie features that great duel between Blood and the Frenchman. This was the first screen swordfight pitting Flynn against Rathbone (both were accomplished fencers), and would be elaborated on in ROBIN HOOD. Ross Alexander (Jeremy) was being groomed for better things at Warners, with featured parts in large films and starring roles in B’s like BRIDES ARE LIKE THAT and HOT MONEY. But the unfortunate Alexander was a closeted homosexual whose first wife (in what was known as “a marriage of convenience” back then) killed herself. Struggling with depression, debt, and a potential gay sex scandal, Alexander committed suicide in 1937, tragically ending what was once a promising career. There are plenty of others from the Familiar Face Brigade onboard, such as Guy Kibbee, Henry Stephenson, Donald Meek, J Carrol Naish, Leonard Mudie, E.E. Clive, and Matthew “Stymie” Beard.

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The rousing score is by Erich Wolfgang Korngold, one of Hollywood’s pioneers in film music. The Romantic composer won an Oscar for THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD, and wrote the film music for ANTHONY ADVERSE, THE SEA HAWK, and KING’S ROW before turning to symphonies and operas in the late forties. Casey Robinson’s screenplay is full of wit and action, and was a write-in candidate for the Oscar that year. Some of Robinson’s other works were DARK VICTORY, NOW VOYAGER, THE SNOWS OF KILAMANJARO, and 1962’s THE SON OF CAPTAIN BLOOD, starring Errol’s own son Sean Flynn. CAPTAIN BLOOD is based on the novel by the prolific Rafael Sabatini, whose historical adventures were popular in the early 20th century. Sabatini’s works were brought to the screen numerous times, with SCARAMOUCHE, THE SEA HAWK, and THE BLACK SWAN among the more well-known titles. There’s action, adventure, and romance galore in this movie, and a charming debut by Errol Flynn. The language, the swordplay, and the sexy screen team of Flynn and de Haviland all combine to make CAPTAIN BLOOD one of the most entertaining swashbucklers to grace the Silver Screen. The only thing that could improve this film is if it were shot in color. Don’t let that stop you from watching, because CAPTAIN BLOOD is just as glorious in black & white, a great Hollywood movie that can be enjoyed over and over again.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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