True as a (Razor) Blade of Steel
With lots of other mid-century faces, Joel McCrae is forgotten. So are Frances Dee, his wife of nearly sixty years, and even more once-famous Will Rogers. Only a year after Frankenstein, uncredited Boris Karloff might ring a bell with today’s under-fifties from among a winning cast in also consigned to oblivion prolific director David Butler’s 1932 Business and Pleasure, not even listed in most film guides.
Like immensely popular humorist Rogers, McCrae was as easy on horseback as on-screen and is now being brought back to the public -- not a young one, to judge by the audience at the Museum of Modern Art -- in April-May “Acteurism: Joel McCrea,” three showings each week (except the first) of the actor’s earlier, 1932-43 work (though excluding Sullivan’s Travels, about film fluff as against Sullivan’s projected serious O Brother, Where Art Thou?).
The name in BP is Rogers, three years before his Alaska plane-crash death. His homespun Earl Tinker is loud, uncouth, insistent on his lack of high schooling and high culture, a stereotype Babbitt parody until his American honesty and goodness win out in contrast to literary playwrights, supercilious sophisticates, unscrupulous rivals and clueless or killer foreigners. Since such non-Anglos are fake Hollywood Arabs (whose inland Damascus is here a seaport) and venal accented spy Madame Momora (Jetta Goudal), post-9/11 climate will give these comic baddies a different reception from then.
McCrae’s pedantic snob Lawrence Ogle is an accessory, a handsome 6’4” cinema American hero, thick but decent. His The Pastoral Scene is a critical stage success, giving him leave to lord it over lowbrow California movies. He will change his tune to “God bless the movies, America’s greatest institution!” when the play proves a financial flop but a studio offers $10,000 for screen rights.
Tinker’s Tempered Steel razor blades facing upstart competition from the Straight Blades Company, Earl is headed for French-mandate Syria to learn the secret of Damascus steel (the term actually refers to surface ornamentation and not the metal) and rescue his company’s bearish stock. The voyage is disguised as a pleasure trip in company with wife Jane and daughter Olivia, “Honey” and ”Baby” (Dorothy Peterson, Peggy Ross).
Scripted from a stage adaptation of a Booth Tarkington novel, the dialogue at first rings pure cornball but soon grows on the viewer-listener, particularly with the realization that for all his social clumsiness Tinker is meant to embody the very best of naïve corn-fed Americana.
Spunky Livia defends her father against stuck-up Ogle’s rude disparaging but, in stagey complications, needs his aid. Earl loves his cranky wife who does not even yet fully appreciate his virtues, but he is flattered by the attentions of femme fatale “psychic” Momora, who is in truth being paid by a business rival to snare the Oklahoman’s secrets and plans.
All comes to a head at a patently unrealistic desert oasis, where stone-faced Sheikh Ali Ben Joseph (Karloff) is cruel, gullible and, celluloid foreigner that he is, in the end dazzled by greenbacks. Not able to resist a still-valid barb at Congress, heavyweight FDR-backer Rogers saves the day with his native wit and wisdom while Ogle and the women fan him against the heat. The reward is his wife’s presumed reformation and recognition of his sterling American qualities, a presumably wiser son-in-law-to-be in Ogle, and the audience’s chuckles at predictable, old-fashioned, tried-and-true-blue enjoyable comedy.
(Released by Fox Corporation; not rated by MPAA.)