Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Dumb Dicks (RKO Pathé, 1931)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film Charles and I watched last night was an download of a 1931 RKO Pathé comedy short called Dumb Dicks, a truly weird 19-minute movie that from the start of it — an establishing shot of the nameplate of the Lafayette National Bank (“Lafayette isn’t a nation,” Charles joked) followed by the sounds of gunfire coming from a criminal gang in a number of cars firing so many shots so rapidly and in so many different directions it seems like they’re there less to rob the bank than to assault it, and just when you’re wondering how a scene so brutal got into a film both the genre classification and the credits themselves claimed was a comedy, suddenly we see a white car parked in front of the bank and our two “heroes,” private detectives Benny Rubin and Harry Gribbon (like Laurel and Hardy, the stars of this comedy are using their own names for the names of their characters), sleeping through the whole thing. At one point an errant shot wakes up Rubin, but Gribbon quickly convinces him it’s just an automobile backfiring and he goes back to sleep — until it dawns on his pathetic excuse for a consciousness that people are actually firing machine-gun bullets in his general direction and they’d better do something, fast. They switch on their radio, which is tuned to the police frequency, and thus learn that there’s a robbery in progress at the Lafayette National Bank. So they turn to the nearest passer-by and ask where the Lafayette National Bank is — and only then do they learn that they’ve been parked in front of it, asleep, all this time.

They invade the bank with their own gun and, naturally, both the bank customers and the real police think they’re part of the robbery, though they talk themselves out of being arrested by promising to catch the real crooks and recover the $100,000 that’s been stolen. They trace the gang to a lavish (or at least as lavish as a Pathé Comedy production budget could make it) house in the country owned by Jabez (Ivan Linow), head of the gang, and knowing that Jabez is a sucker for fortune-tellers they decide to disguise themselves as such and affect Turkish accents (even though they have no idea what a Turkish accent sounds like) and Turkish drag — only Jabez decides that their false whiskers would look better if he switches them. From then on the film is an elaborate chase through the house, which comes complete with secret panels and trick entrances and exits, with Benny and Harry thinking they’ve trapped the crooks only to find that they’re the ones who are trapped (there’s a deliciously funny sequence in which Benny thinks he’s tied up the crooks, and Harry says, “Yes, but you’ve tied me up with them!”), until after 19 minutes of all the complications writer Ewart Adamson (he’s just credited with “story,” which usually means someone else wrote the actual script, but he’s the only writer listed) and whichever gag people worked on this film could think of, credibly if not brilliantly directed by Ralph Cedar, the actual police show up, rescue Our Heroes from the gang, take back the money and absolve our dumb dicks of any guilt for the theft.

The intent of supervisor Lew Lipton and his crew seems to have been to take two Jewish-ethnic humorists and see if they could be turned into a Jewish version of Laurel and Hardy, and while one could readily imagine this film being funnier if the real Laurel and Hardy were in it (let’s face it, they could do a lot more variations on stupidity gags than Rubin and Gribbon could!), this one’s quite good and shows signs that its makers had studied the masters and, shall we say, appropriated material: one scene blatantly ripped off the sequence in Buster Keaton’s The Navigator in which he arms a toy cannon to fire it at the baddies, only his foot is caught up in the pull-cord for the cannon and it always seems to arrange itself so it’s aimed at him instead of the bad guys (a sequence that got even funnier when Keaton recycled it himself in The General with a full-sized cannon!).