Thursday, October 4, 2012

Three of a Kind (Invincible, 1936)

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

The film was Three of a Kind, a 1936 comedy from Maury Cohen’s Invincible Pictures (a sister company of Chesterfield, which had a different production head — George Batcheller — but similar personnel otherwise), an unusually good independent company because both it and Chesterfield had a distribution deal with Universal and therefore they got to shoot at the Universal City lot. The advantage of that is they at least had a major-studio infrastructure behind them and were able to take advantage of Universal’s state-of-the-art production facilities and shoot on Universal’s standing sets, a particular advantage in a movie like this because most of it takes place in an upper-class resort hotel and deals with the clash between people who have money and people who don’t but want others to think they do.

It begins at the Penfield Peerless Laundry company — remember in 1936 washing machines were still a relative novelty and many people who could afford it sent their dirty clothes out to be washed elsewhere and then delivered back to them clean — whose rather befuddled owner, F. Thorndyke Penfield (Richard Carle), is about to attend the company’s employee of the year ceremony when he gets distracted from that task by the appearance in his office of his daughter Barbara (Evalyn Knapp), who insists that she’s going to marry her boyfriend Rodney Randall (Bradley Page) and fund his proposed subdivision development from her own money (presumably inherited from her dead mother — at least that’s how these things usually worked in 1930’s movies) even if dad doesn’t like it and refuses to throw open the Penfield Peerless Laundry fortune to her. At first where we think screenwriter Arthur T. Horman is taking this is that Randall is a decent, hard-working guy trying to make a success of himself and we’re going to be rooting for the two lovebirds to overcome daddy’s resistance — especially when we see him get on the phone and call around to his friends in the financial community to have all Barbara’s funds frozen — but soon enough she places a call to Randall at the swanky Royal Valley resort hotel, and the moment we see Bradley Page on screen, tall, with an angular face, a “roo” moustache, a ridiculously loud smoking jacket and enough grease on his hair to lube a battleship engine, we know instantly that everything Barbara’s dad has had to say about him is true: he really is a male gold-digger and Barbara would be much better off without him. Then we meet the man she obviously does belong with: Jerry Bassett (Chick Chandler), a driver for Penfield’s laundry company, who’s still bitter because he invented a flat-rate pricing system that made the company a lot more money, only Penfield’s assistant Fash (Harry Bradley) took credit for it and all Jerry got out of the deal was a 20 percent pay cut and a longer route.

As it turns out, Jerry is about to win the employee of the year award, which comes with a trophy and his choice of $1,000 in cash or $1,100 worth of shares in the Penfield company — and much to Penfield’s shock, he takes the money and quits, using it to put into practice a theory he’s outlined to his co-worker “Beef” Smith (Pat West) while they were on the road together in Penfield’s truck: the way to become rich is to put on a convincing front so people think you’re already rich and are willing to invest money with you. In order to do that he goes to a tailor (Billy Gilbert — who has a minor part in this film and co-starred with Shemp Howard and Maxie Rosenbloom in another film called Three of a Kind eight years later for PRC; the tiny studio that could was attempting to assemble their own Three Stooges, but it didn’t work) and orders expensive shirts and well-tailored suits, and he sends “Beef” to buy him a fancy car. Blocked by her dad from accessing any money, Barbara Penfield decides to sell her fancy car to a used-car lot owned by “Doc” Adams (John Dilson) — only Adams takes her out for a test drive in an old clunker he wants her to accept as part of the deal, and while that’s happening an old prison friend of Adams’, con man “Col.” Cornelius (Berton Churchill), comes to the car lot to visit Adams and, while awaiting his return, sells Barbara’s car to “Beef” Smith on Jerry’s behalf, pocketing 400 ill-gotten dollars with which Cornelius and his daughter Prudence (Patricia Farr), who can’t remember whether they’re supposed to be posing as Southern planters or dispossessed Russian aristocrats this week, high-tail it to the Royal Valley Hotel to look for further suckers.

Barbara’s car — the one Adams palmed off on her in exchange for some cash and her diamond ring after her own car disappeared — breaks down, and she fruitlessly tries to hitchhike (apparently she never saw It Happened One Night, because it never occurs to her to lift her dress and show her leg) until who should come along but … take a guess. Take a wild guess. O.K., it’s Jerry, picking Barbara up in what we know — but he doesn’t — is rightfully her car (when she says that it’s awfully similar to one that was just stolen from her, he says, “There are a lot of these cars on the road”), where he plans to hang out at the Royal Valley so he can meet a rich pigeon who’ll give him a job running something. Jerry notices the “B.P.” initials on Barbara’s luggage and to maintain her incognito she quickly improvises a false name, “Beatrice Payne,” and he bluffs his way into a room at the Royal Valley. He overhears her tell the desk clerk that she’s really Barbara Penfield, and Jerry warns her against maintaining such a deception and offers to cover for her! The reversals fly thick and heavy in Horman’s script as old man Penfield also shows up at the Royal Valley, and “Col.” Cornelius finds Randall’s notes on all the actual millionaires staying there and mistakenly thinks Randall has money. It gets even crazier when old man Penfield mistakes Randall for Bassett, and vice versa, and actually offers Randall $2,000 to romance his daughter and win her away from the fortune-hunter — while in the meantime Prudence Cornelius is vamping Randall in hopes of winning some of his (nonexistent) fortune for her dad.

In the middle of all this intrigue a policeman, Cogarty (Lew Kelly), shows up at the Royal Valley in search of con artist “Bigamy Benny,” who makes a specialty of dating young daughters of rich men to try to extract their fathers’ fortunes, and like old man Penfield he mistakes Jerry for Randall, who really is “Bigamy Benny.” It all leads up to the preposterous scene that gives the film its title — the “three of a kind” are Jerry, Randall and Cornelius — in which Randall gives Jerry the $2,000 he got from Penfield and Randall plans to offer Penfield an option to buy Cornelius’ (nonexistent) plantation, with the idea that Randall will use his cut to finance his (nonexistent) subdivision and hire Jerry to run it. Meanwhile, Penfield offers Randall a substantial bonus if he’ll elope with Barbara to make sure she stays out of the clutches of the horrible fortune-hunter — only Randall elopes with Prudence instead, and Jerry tries to get Barbara to marry him, but the police arrest him just as they’re about to drive off in Barbara’s car and Barbara, finding her old gloves in its glove compartment, realizes it is her car and naturally thinks Jerry stole it. Meanwhile the police arrest the hotel manager, Grimwood (Bryant Washburn), thinking he is “Bigamy Benny.” Eventually, however, it all sorts out properly and Barbara lays down the law to her dad — she’s going to marry Jerry and he’s going to make him the company’s vice-president and accept him as his son-in-law — while Cogarty, who didn’t recognize Cornelius in his “Southern” persona, pounces on him as soon as he tries to flee the hotel in his “Oscar, Grand Duke of All the Russias” identity.

Three of a Kind is a fun movie but also a disappointing one, mainly because with some sharper writing and direction (the director is Phil Rosen, not at his late-Monogram worst but not at his The Phantom Broadcast/Dangerous Corner best either) and an “A”-list cast (the people I thought of who should have played this in 1936 were Carole Lombard as Barbara, Cary Grant as Jerry and W. C. Fields as Cornelius) this could have been a screamingly funny film and a screwball-comedy classic instead of a pleasant, amusing time-filler. Indeed, there’s a lot of uncertainty about the running time: lists 68 minutes and the American Film Institute Catalog (whose authors didn’t get to see the film but published a long, detailed synopsis from a dialogue continuity deposited with the copyright office) reported various running times of 76, 74-75 and 65 minutes, while the print we were watching (an download) ran 71 minutes. As it stands, Three of a Kind is acceptable entertainment with a provocative premise that should have generated a better movie, but as with some other films from the classic era one can enjoy it for what it is even while lamenting what it could have been if a major studio had taken it on and lavished “A”-list talent on it! When it was over Charles made a pun on the studio name and said, “It was a very vincible picture, but it was fun,” and as it turned out Invincible didn’t turn out to be as, well, invincible as its name suggested; it went out of business while Three of a Kind was in release and the rights for the rest of the theatrical run were picked up by another indie with big ambitions, Grand National.