Monday, January 18, 2016

The Cat’s-Paw (Harold Lloyd Productions, Fox Film Corporation, 1934)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

After Steamboat Bill, Jr. TCM showed a really weird and different movie: The Cat’s Paw (the American Film Institute Catalog insists on hyphenating the last two words of the title but I don’t recall seeing them so in the actual credits), a 1934 film by Harold Lloyd (the director of record was Sam Taylor but Lloyd, like Chaplin, was the auteur) based on a story by Clarence Budington Kelland, who also wrote the sources for the 1932 Buster Keaton/Jimmy Durante farce Speak Easily and the 1936 film Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Frank Capra’s classic with Gary Cooper and Jean Arthur (recently remade with Adam Sandler and Winona Ryder — that’s its own comment, I think). Kelland was a specialist in fish-out-of-water tales about naïve innocents suddenly thrust either into untold riches (Mr. Deeds), the illusion of untold riches (Speak Easily) or in this case, political power. Lloyd plays Ezekiel Cobb, Jr., the son of a missionary in China who has lived his entire life from early boyhood to his current young-adult status in a remote Chinese village without telephones, radio or any English speakers. He comes back to his home town of Stockdale with the intent of finding a white wife so he can start a family and continue the family tradition of Chinese missionary work, and he stumbles across a crooked political leader, Jake Mayo (George Barbier), who drafts him to run a hopeless campaign for mayor as part of a phony “reform” party — replacing a candidate who died just two days before the election! As you might expect, Lloyd actually wins the election — thanks to an incident (anticipating the plot of Kid Galahad by five years) in which he punches out the corrupt machine candidate for mayor after the corrupt machine candidate shoved a crippled newsboy to the ground — and attempts to run a genuinely honest administration, thereby opening himself to a frame-up from the gangsters he’s shut out of the public trough. The film is filled with racist dialogue — the word “Chink” is heard quite a lot on the soundtrack, probably one reason why this movie is almost never shown today — though to Lloyd’s credit most of the time the joke is on the racists; but what makes this film astonishing is the bizarre worm-turning ending. Sure he will be thrown out of office the next day due to the success of the frame-up against him, Lloyd has the police round up every known gangster in the city and bring them to the basement of a Chinese antique store where the owner has the actual sword used thousands of years before by a Chinese emperor who beheaded all the country’s bandits. He stages an elaborate charade to make the crooks think he’s going to behead them similarly — and there’s a shocking scene in which a (supposedly) beheaded crook is actually brought in on a stretcher and has the desired effect on the others. Not surprisingly, there’s a gimmick involved — the antique-store owner was previously a stage magician and worked this out as an illusion — but still the frank acceptance of a fascist solution to the problem of urban crime (at a time when Hitler had just taken power and Mussolini still had a lot of American admirers) and the flat-out statement à la today’s TV show Law and Order that due-process rules are nothing more than a way for criminals to evade responsibility and punishment for their crimes make this a quite unusual movie even now. — 9/9/02


Last night’s “feature” was The Cat’s-Paw, a 1934 film starring Harold Lloyd and made by his own production company but an outlier among his films in many ways. First, instead of being released through Paramount (as were most of Lloyd’s self-produced films once he left Pathé in 1927), it was put out by the Fox Film Corporation pre-20th Century merger. Second, it’s a considerably darker film than most of his movies, and indeed it anticipates the basic plot of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington by five years —though the year before The Cat’s-Paw was made, an independent producer/director named William Berke (who later turned up as a “B” director at RKO in the 1940’s and made several of the later films in the Falcon detective series) had done a film for Imperial Pictures called Corruption which features the basic plot device of this one: an innocent (in both senses) character is picked by a phony “reform” movement to run for mayor of a graft-ridden city, with the intent that he will be defeated and the big-city machine which runs both the government and the ostensible “reformers” will be able to continue to loot the city unscathed — only the patsy accidentally wins and takes the idea of “reform” all too seriously for his sponsors. Third, it has almost no slapstick — Lloyd takes exactly one pratfall in this film — and instead its mood is so dark it almost counts as black comedy. The film opens in a small village in China, where young Ezekiel Cobb (played as a boy by Daniel Holt and given a pair of round-rimmed glasses — actually just empty frames — to let us know he’s going to grow up to be Harold Lloyd) arrives to join his father (Samuel S. Hinds), a missionary. He’s given a book in Chinese by a poet named Ling Po, whose aphorisms he keeps quoting through the entire movie even though when he’s first presented the book he can’t read it because it’s in Chinese (and there’s a nice little gag that it turns out he’s holding the book upside-down).

The time flashes forward from 1914 to 1934 — represented by one year’s calendar dissolving into another (why don’t the Lifetime producers do that instead of putting in those silly titles: “Twenty Years Later”?) — and 20 years later the grown Ezekiel Cobb travels to his home town, “Stockport,” to contact the head of the church for which his father worked. The idea is he will stay in Stockport just long enough to meet, fall in love with and get to marry a white woman, so he can return to China with her and continue his family’s missionary business. Only he’s so naïve about big-city ways (not only has he not been out of China in 20 years, he hasn’t been out of that tiny village so phenomena like telephones, radio and cars are still completely new to him) he ends up in an altercation with a cab driver, who says his ride will be “two bucks,” to which he replies, “I don’t have any bucks. Can I pay you in dollars?” The driver says it will be three dollars, though later thinks better of it and gives Cobb back the extra dollar. Cobb has a box full of valuable gold coins from China which he gives for safekeeping to virtually the first person he meets and befriends, political boss Jake Mayo (George Barbier), head of the phony “reform” movement. Though I’d assumed the box would feature prominently at the end as the plot resolved itself, it’s never heard from again and instead, with the minister Cobb had come to see running as the “reform” candidate for mayor and then dropping dead just two days before the election, Mayo hits on the idea of having Cobb replace him because Cobb is such a naïf he won’t stand a chance of being elected. Cobb, whose whole purpose there is to marry and then skedaddle back to China as soon as he’s hitched, is just fine with the idea of losing. He ends up at a boardinghouse and meets a cigar-counter staffer, Pet Pratt (Una Merkel), to whom he’s attracted, only he makes a ridiculously sexist speech about how he thinks he’s going to have a hard time finding a wife in the U.S. because American women are not properly subservient to men the way Chinese women are. He’s taken to a nightclub and instantly falls for the singer in their floor show, Dolores Doce (Grace Bradley), because she’s singing a song called “I’m Just That Way” by Harry Akst (composer of “Am I Blue?”) and Roy Turk that does express the deference he feels women should have towards men — even though, as we already know, she’s not really like that at all: she’s a paid vamp in the service of the political machine.

Outside the club Cobb sees the machine’s mayor, Ed Morgan (played by the marvelously slimy villain of Supernatural and A Study in Scarlet, Alan Dinehart) push a newsboy, and is so angered he hauls off and hits Morgan. The papers get pictures and play up the story, and all of a sudden Cobb goes from being doomed “cat’s-paw” to Mayor-elect. Once in office he starts vetoing the carefully crafted bills the machine has pushed through the City Council to award lucrative city contracts to “protected” companies, and he demands the resignation of police commissioner Moriarty (Frank Sheridan) — naturally I joked, thinking of Professor Moriarty in the Sherlock Holmes stories, that he had to ask for Moriarty’s resignation once he found out he was on the other side — and appoints Mayo to replace him on the it-takes-a-thief-to-catch-a-thief principle. Only the machine strikes back by having Dolores demand a favor from Cobb — he’s to put an envelope containing her personal papers in his safe-deposit box — and when the district attorney (another Morgan stooge) demands that the box be opened, there is the envelope, which contains shares of stock in the non-corrupt public transit company to which Cobb gave the city’s contract after vetoing the award to Morgan’s company. Cobb is indicted for corruption and the state’s governor announces he’s going to use his power under the state constitution to remove Cobb as mayor — so Cobb hatches a plan to fight back by ordering the police to “arrest” every gangster and grafter in Stockport and hold them illegally in the basement of his friend, Chinese merchant Tien Wang (Fred Warren). There he will threaten them with beheading, using a Chinese ceremonial sword once wielded by a local official in ancient China who did the same thing — illegally executing all the crooks in town and then offering the Emperor his own head as punishment. Of course he doesn’t really kill anybody — though he does wheel two apparently headless corpses through the basement just to show the crooks what he has in store for them, they’re actually a trick made up by Tien Wang, who in his previous career was internationally famous Chinese stage magician Chang — but he does panic the crooks into writing and signing confessions of their misdeeds. In the final tag scene, Cobb and Pet (short for “Petunia,” a name she couldn’t stand) are getting married but arguing where they will live, with he insisting that he still has work to do in Stockport and she saying they have to go back to China immediately.

The Cat’s-Paw is hardly the sort of film one associates with Harold Lloyd today — though late in life Lloyd disgustedly told an interview, “I made only six thrill pictures, and those are the only ones anybody remembers!” — even though Lloyd was the only one of the major male silent comedians to make a fully successful transition from silent to sound and continue his career without a break. (Chaplin didn’t try — though his 1930’s films City Lights and Modern Times are less silents than what Eisenstein called “sound films,” as distinct from talkies: movies which avoided dialogue but used carefully crafted music and sound effects to tell their stories and heighten their emotional content — while Keaton and Langdon both lost their independence around the same time sound came in and were done in by personal problems as well.) The Cat’s-Paw seems strongly premonitory of Frank Capra’s social dramas (most of which hadn’t been made yet even though 1934 was also the year Capra established himself as a star director with It Happened One Night) and even has a direct Capra connection: it’s based on a novel of the same name by Clarence Budington Kelland, who also wrote “Opera Hat,” the story on which Capra and writer Robert Riskin based Mr. Deeds Goes to Town. The Cat’s Paw was both written and directed by Sam Taylor, the infamous filmmaker who not only directed the Douglas Fairbanks-Mary Pickford The Taming of the Shrew but got his name on the writing credits as well: “By William Shakespeare. Additional dialogue by Sam Taylor.” (Alexander Walker pointed out that the film wasn’t based on the original play but on David Garrick’s rewrite, Katharine and Petruchio, so it probably had some of Garrick’s “additional dialogue,” too.) According to, Taylor had help both writing and directing this film — in the writing department from Clyde Bruckman, longtime gag man for both Lloyd and Keaton; and in the directing department from Lloyd himself — but it’s still a quite capable piece of filmmaking, full of marvelously atmospheric shots that almost approach film noir and one scene in particular that had both Charles and I shaking our heads. It occurs about 1 hour and 20 minutes into a 1 hour, 42-minute movie, and it’s a montage of the various gangsters and crooks in town getting pulled in by Lloyd’s semi-authorized vigilantes: just after we’ve seen a glimpse of a wild party with the gangsters and suitably “loose” women, we see another shot in the back room of a gym, with one of the gangsters pinched as he’s giving a wrestler a massage, and the hint is unmistakable that Lloyd’s dragnet is busting straight and Queer gangsters alike.

The Cat’s-Paw is one of Lloyd’s most unusual films but also one of his best, and he settled on it as story material after he’d spent two fruitless years looking for material as good as his immediately previous film, Movie Crazy. He stumbled on Kelland’s The Cat’s-Paw when the writer had only got as far as chapter one, and offered to buy the rights if Kelland would take suggestions on how to work out the later chapters to make the character more suitable for Harold Lloyd. When he got the completed story he called his usual gag men together to do their normal function — to spot places in the script where Lloyd could do his famous slapstick and thrill-comedy sequences — but ultimately the gag men weren’t able to find any “holes” in the script to insert Lloyd’s typical funny business, so he took director Taylor’s suggestion and shot the film relatively “straight,” getting its humor from character and situations rather than elaborate physical gags. The Cat’s-Paw suffers from some of the usual racial stereotypes, including the portrayal of Chinese characters by Anglo actors and a wretched whiny Black shoe-shine boy who gets caught up in the dragnet and keeps pouting (there’s no other word for it!) that he doesn’t belong there — he was just shining the shoes of a gangster when he got pinched — but for the most part it’s a surprisingly glum movie. It also contains one of Una Merkel’s best performances, quietly authoritative in the manner of Jean Arthur from Capra’s later masterpieces. The Cat’s-Paw is a forgotten little gem and an illustration that Lloyd wasn’t just a guy who hung off the sides of buildings; indeed, with his face having fattened a bit from his glory days in the silent era, there are some odd close-ups in which he looks remarkably like the young Bob Hope (suggesting that Hope would have been a good choice to remake this) — and its delightful cynicism towards politics and elections came oddly at the end of a night when we’d just been watching the Democratic Presidential candidates debate! — 1/18/16