by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved
The film was Laugh and Get Rich, a 1931 production from the tail end of William LeBaron’s three-year reign as production head at RKO — I wondered if the odd title was a pun on Napoleon Hill’s best-selling self-help book Think and Grow Rich, but the book wasn’t published until six years after the film was made — and it was originally shot under the working title Board and Room, which came closer to describing what the film was about even though it was considerably less “sexy” as a box-office draw. The central characters are Joe and Sarah Austin (Hugh Herbert and Edna May Oliver) and their daughter Alice (Dorothy Lee). Joe has been out of work for years and Sarah is after him to search for a job with some degree of seriousness. She’s making the family’s ends meet (or at least come close together) by running a boarding house featuring the usual complement of eccentrics that always seemed to live in boarding houses in classic-era films, notably an artist named Vincentini (George Davis) who paints herds of cows.
The film was produced by Douglas MacLean and directed by Gregory La Cava, who between them wrote the script as well (the writing credits are MacLean for the story, La Cava for the script and Ralph Spence for additional dialogue), and the writing breaks virtually every Hollywood rule of the time about character development and through-lines. It’s the sort of movie in which things just happen, with something of the randomness with which things happen in ordinary life, and though some of the plot lines are pretty sturdy clichés, the assemblage of them is unusual enough that one’s definitely in suspense as to how it will all resolve. Among the leading intrigues in the plot are Alice’s romantic indecision — she’s really in love with poor inventor Larry Owens (Russell Gleason) but her mom wants her to date Bill Hepburn (John Harron) because she thinks the Hepburns are a “good family,” only what Sarah doesn’t know is that Bill Hepburn is actually a crook who kidnaps the man he thinks is the local patriarch, Mr. Pennypacker (Herbert Prior), but is really Joe. Joe is lured by Mr. Phelps, one of Sarah’s boarders, into stealing her cache of cash (it’s inside a hideous-looking lamp) to invest in an oil well, and just when we think he’s been conned out of that money and will never see it again (and Joe has responded to Sarah’s fury by taking a job as a ditch-digger, though as things turned out he only works one day — and Hugh Herbert, who plays his part relatively “straight” without the “woo-woo” mannerisms for which he later became famous, is about as believable as a ditch-digger as Arnold Schwarzenegger would be as a nuclear physicist), he hears from Phelps that their oil well has come in and they’re going to be rich.
Sarah insists on celebrating by going to visit her sister, Cassandra Palfrey (Louise Mackintosh) — just where she got the last name “Palfrey” (presumably from a now-deceased husband) is a bit of a mystery because her and Sarah’s family name is Cranston — only Joe is so put off by the airs surrounding the Palfrey household that he starts a game of golf in the house and smashes one of Cassandra’s (presumably) priceless vases — and Sarah gets into the swing of things and smashes another vase — and they’re just about to leave when Joe gets a telegram that the oil well has dried up and they’re broke again (that was quick!), only their bacon is saved by Larry Owens, who’s invented a whistling valve for inner tubes. Judging from the gags La Cava stages with his demonstration model, it seems like he’s invented the whoopee cushion, but the point of the device is that this way motorists will be warned because the valve will start to whistle when the air pressure in one of their tires gets low, and will know they need either to replace the tube or at least add more air. Larry left this object at Cassandra’s place and one of the wealthy men at her house party decides to make him and the Austins an offer for it, and they’re all arguing over just how high the royalties will be as the movie ends.
Laugh and Get Rich is a bizarre little movie, ostensibly attempting to be a comedy (at least from Oliver’s and especially Herbert’s reputation — though they’re both playing surprisingly dry, which we expect from her but certainly not from him!) but actually surprisingly dark through much of its running time and offering a view of the Depression quite different from the one we got in the Warners movies of the period — indeed, the quiet desperation with which the Austins face living on the edge and the tensions between them over his long-term unemployment make parts of this movie seem contemporary today. There’s another odd connection with this movie: 10 years later at Universal, Herbert made a similar film, There’s One Born Every Minute, in which he’s also a man living on the margins without actually going over, who’s lifted out of poverty by an invention (his own this time), and among the actors playing his children was 10-year-old Elizabeth Taylor, making her screen debut. (Universal fired her when her option ran out, but the following year MGM director Fred M. Wilcox signed her for a small but important supporting role in Lassie Come Home after the first girl in the part, Maria Flynn, was too visibly scared of the canine star in their scenes together to be believable — and MGM put her under long-term contract and launched her superstar career.)