. . . Baby Face Harrington

. . .

The Weeds of Crime:
The Harrington Gambit Baby Face Harrington

Butterworth in party hat
"Watch me. I'm going to be dynamic. Hey hey!"
Baby Face Harrington was also based on a play -- but that play had died under another name after four performances ten years earlier, happily freeing the adaptation of filial obligations. A bare hour of film doesn't require a professional three-act structure; it can manage very well on a few gag sequences -- even fewer when taken at Charles Butterworth's molto adagio tempo.

I've never particularly welcomed Butterworth's appearance in a film. He seemed to hobble progress: the camera positioned itself, eager for amusement, waited, faltered, and finally, baffled, moved on. Now I understand the deadlock: Butterworth is as out of place in someone else's movie as a Larry Eigner lyric would be in a paragraph of a techno-thriller, as out of place as an inventor in a Restoration court.

Like his friend Robert Benchley, Butterworth didn't offer a collection of jokes but a critique of consciousness. Where Benchley is driven and betrayed by articulation's social component, Butterworth drifts and dogpaddles into wistfully meditative isolation. Refusing to let go of anything and unable to maintain focus to any conclusion, he clings to blooming buzzing confusion, the material world looming in and out of the fog as idealized promise and as incomprehensible threat. He's certain that a speeding train will let him pass once he's signaled a left turn, and yet he's possibly the only man ever to be physically menaced by Donald Meek.

BROAD FOREHEAD: The Cunning of a Wolf
"This fella says I got a split personality."
"Oh, you mean a sissy."
"No; it's a term used by psychiatrists."
As you might imagine, this approach to comedy requires a bit of patience. The first set piece of Baby Face Harrington -- a tediously botched "trick with eggs" -- is a static and unamusing nothing by its bare self. The leisurely, seemingly improvised, lead in and build up and reaction are the good stuff, although if this was anyone else's vehicle they would've had to be trimmed. What captivates isn't the painfully executed performance but the forever unfulfilled promise:
"I also imitate birds. Purposefully."
Similarly, any movie might take pleasure in the sight of Una Merkel with a gun; the scene only becomes Butterworthy as she dreamily begins to use it to smooth her beloved's hair.

Although director Raoul Walsh didn't find this assignment worth mentioning in memoirs or interviews, he soldiers manfully through slow parts good and bad, and although cinematographer Oliver T. Marsh may have thought it a bit of a let-down compared to his other MGM jobs that year (A Tale of Two Cities, David Copperfield, and Lubitsch's The Merry Widow), he provides an appropriately dim look, especially striking in the movie's most extended sequence, a suicide attempt:

Trying the rope Philosophy

Suicide is always good for a laugh, but the best way to end a comedy is with a sex joke; ending in marriage is merely a special case. (Heck, the only funny moment in Some Like It Hot is its final sex joke, and that was apparently enough to make it the best comedy ever.) And Baby Face Harrington won my heart with a last smut as peculiarly satisfying as Sherlock Jr.'s or The Sin of Harold Diddlebock's: Butterworth's reward is to be permitted an honorable (rather than shameful) retreat from frighteningly unreliable community into the cozily shared confusion of eros. Something to remember on New Year's Eve....

"Would you care to dance?"
"If you do."
"Well, I do if you do."
"Well, I do if you -- Willie, do you know you haven't kissed me yet?"
"... In front of all these people?"
"I will if you will."
"....... Let's go home."
+ + +

A sissy in a mutally adoring marriage who's threatened by masculine hostility and a job crisis can solve all his problems by joining a bunch of gangsters....

Public-minded citizens may wonder at the effect of such a message. Who knows how many crimes were incited and souls degraded before Hollywood finally got around to acknowledging a possible downside to that formula, twenty years later?


Copyright to contributed work and quoted correspondence remains with the original authors.
Public domain work remains in the public domain.
All other material: Copyright 2015 Ray Davis.