Thursday, June 28, 2018

See America Thirst a pre-code comedy with Harry Langdon, Slim Summerville

Review by Doug Gibson

Back in California, and that means a trip to UCLA’s Film & Television Archive to view a mostly-lost film. Harry Langdon was the subject again (two years ago I saw and reviewed My Weakness). This time I viewed a version of Harry’s 1930 Universal “buddy-comedy” film, See America Thirst, directed by William James Craft. It’s a thrill for me to see Harry’s hard-to-find films; next on my bucket list will be a trip to the Library of Congress to see the Hal Roach shorts that lack sound discs.

Speaking of sound, one mild disappointment is that the archive’s print lacked any. And the print I viewed was clearly a sound print. There was way too much talking, and no titles that would have clued a silent version. I know that a version of See America Thirst with sound has played film festivals. I don’t know if UCLA has it or it was my fault when I requested the film. Did I choose a silent version?

The print was in very poor shape, muddy, blurry at times with a couple of vertical jumps and rough transitions. But that didn’t bother me, it adds to the excitement of  viewing a film that is virtually lost and appreciation to the archive for preserving it.

So, here’s my synopsis of the film. To help overcome the dialogue loss, I re-read my friend Ed Watz’ recap of the film in my friend Michael Hayde's biography of Langdon with Chuck Harter, The Little Elf. I also received some input from another friend, artist Nicole Arciola, who has seen the sound version of See America Thirst.

Harry and co-star Slim Summerville are hobos on a train. They get kicked off and try to regroup. They see some sheep and find ducks. Later they encounter an inquisitive police officer. Harry tries to hide the duck (similar to a scene in “Tramp Tramp Tramp”) and fails. The cop chases them and the hobos hide in the back of a truck that is carrying bootleg liquor and driven by hoodlums. A pair of other hoodlums in a vehicle chase them. Gunfire ensues. Harry and Slim are oblivious to it all. A carrying bag falls into the back. Alcohol leaks onto both hobos and they get drunk. A grenade in the back goes off and the vehicle explodes on a bridge. Harry and Slim fall into a river. Harry swims with exaggerated speed to the shore. (Reading Watz I learned that Harry said he couldn’t swim and Summerville said he’d better learn fast.) On the shore the pair discover the bag that fell into the back. It is stuffed with a fortune in cash. As Arciola noted to me, Harry says “Money money money” in much the same manner he did in the last film he made, Pistol Packin’ Nitwits.

Now rich, the former hobos are living it up, renting vehicles, dressed to the nines and going to gangster nightclubs. But the money belonged to the Spumoni crime family and the boss wants it back. After telling the hood who lost the money to take a gun and kill himself (which leads to a lame joke from the returning hood that he missed), Spumoni assigns a hired killer to take out Harry and Summerville at the nightclub.
Singing at the nightclub is a beautiful blonde, played by starlet of the era Bessie Love, who is also apparently a hoodlum’s moll. She’s very scantily dressed in the pre-code manner. After her song the killer approaches the pair. Once they are aware they are being hunted, Harry trembles. Ironically, shaking is a trait used by an even more fearsome killer who is hunting the hired killer. Believing that both Harry and Summerville want to kill them, the hoods pay a fortune to Harry and Summerville so THEY WON’T KILL THEM. (During this scene, a sign in the nightclub switches from TAXI, to AMBULANCE, and finally to HEARSE. The humorous sign switch is supposed to indicate the peril facing Harry and Summerville).

What follows is a series of sometimes amusing scenes where Harry and Summerville are catered to by the hoods, encounter “gangster-friendly” lodgings with armored protection for the beds and disguised platters of food that really contain weapons that fire when the covering is removed. One sequence that lasts way too long, losing its comedy value due to the poor pacing, is Summerville discovering cannons that move and jut outside the windows of a high-rise. Harry, sitting on a cannon, almost falls off, then Summerville almost falls off, and they eventually create a sort of bridge that allows them to hop to another floor. Also, the pair romance the beautiful blonde (Bessie Love) who tells then she’s really a law enforcement agent trying to gather evidence against the Spumonis.

As the film nears its climax, the Spumoni leader, vacationing in Florida, meets up with the real killer they think Harry is. As a result, all the gangsters in Chicago, Spumoni and the rival gang, team up to kill Harry and Summerville, who are in an armored vehicle on the street, expecting, with Bessie Love, to see and be protected from a gang fight. Instead all the gangsters head for the vehicle.

It seems all over for Harry and Summerville, except (and sans sound I’m unsure a bit of how this developed) a professor has invented knockout gas that can be sprayed on the bad guys. Harry and Slim manage to do this and leave all the gangsters unconscious on the streets. (Now Ed Watz is no fan of this film, but he acknowledges that a scene in which Harry, who has run out of the gas -- accepts that his finger used as a spray gun has knocked out the bad guys – is well done. Actually, Summerville is on a canopy spraying away. It is a funny “Little Elf” moment in the film.

Another strong moment in the film is when near the end where Harry, expecting to see his beloved Bessie Love, encounters her in the arms of her fiancé, the District Attorney. This is very similar in pathos to the same type of scene in “Three’s  A Crowd.”

The epilogue involves the pair, with ragged clothes after the battle, discovering that the carrying case full of money now has no money; they lost it. In another decent “Little Elf” moment, Harry wags his finger in disapproval at Summerville, and money comes out of his cuffs. It’s discovered that the money is sown into Harry’s clothes. The pair leave still rich. The End.

Watz is correct in his assessment that the 75-minute film is at times poorly paced. Some of the gags are very forced but the last 10 minutes, in my opinion, are very strong. Watz believes the film is one of Harry’s worst performances. I can’t agree or disagree without hearing the sound. Just watching the visual action, Harry seems more expressive than Summerville, who is more of a straight man. Bessie Love is a very attractive presence, but her part is very small for a third-billed leading lady. Reviews that are cited in “The Little Elf” range from acceptable to the reviewers quite liking the film.

The viewer gets the impression that some of the comedy scenes may be based on vaudeville skits that Harry and Summerville maybe performed in the past. At least scenes are played as if they might have been vaudeville skits. Some of the pair’s banter when romancing Bessie Love plays like that as well as scenes such as the boys getting drunk.

The sets and locations in See America Thirst are above average. There are modernistic sets, particularly in the lodgings of the gangsters. The hoods are played for laughs, as is prohibition, which existed when the film was made. Even with a muddy print, Harry looks healthy and young in the film.

Some old hands in the cast include Stanley Fields and Tom Kennedy as well as a very young Walter Brennan.

If you are in Southern California, go to UCLA and see this film, and My Weakness. It’s not at all difficult to make an appointment to see these almost-lost movies, and the staff at the university library is very helpful. 

(The See America First photos used in this review are courtesy of Richard Finegan).

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