Recently Rated Movies #59: "Turtle?" "No... Tuttle!"

The Passionate Plumber
Director: Edward Sedgwick // 1932

Cinema 4 Rating: 6

An interesting thing happened amongst the pillars of reticence in my mind when I was first approaching MGM's initial attempt to turn two comic geniuses, Buster Keaton and Jimmy Durante, into a new comedy team in the early 1930s: I started to enjoy it.

I approached
The Passionate Plumber with such reticence because I had not only heard and read many disparaging things about this pairing over the years, but had also heard ill tidings about this movie in particular. Also, I had something called silentkeatonitis: an affliction, far more common than one might think, acquired by anyone raised solely on the Great Stoneface's masterpieces. Over the years, except for
The Villain Still Pursued Her, Sunset Blvd., Chaplin's Limelight and his '60s work, I have largely avoided most Keaton efforts outside of the silent days, preferring to let that period of excellence go untainted by the lesser efforts.

Naturally, by doing this, I am lying to myself. I am cutting a man's life in twain by refusing to acknowledge that he did anything worthwhile after 1928, even when he continued to work in the movies up until his death almost forty years later. Certainly, he was not happy throughout much of this generally rote work, far from the free-flowing creative atmosphere he had once experienced. And yet, despite how unsatisfying it must have been, he
was still working in the movies, something most of us will never really get a chance to do. [Somewhat removed from this piece, and possibly a topic for another time, is an expansion of this theme; I have friends that did extra work in several films, but never really made it in Hollywood, and yet, I am completely jealous of the fact that they at least took their shot at it. And my buddies currently making a go of it, no matter what level they ultimately achieve, are idols of great esteem to me, for simply being in the game as long as they have.]

It is mainly my need to see everything he has done that has driven me to now seek out the middle period Keaton work. TCM was nice enough to put up a viewing of
The Passionate Plumber, and as I stated above, I was more than reluctant to watch it. The opening scene with Durante seeking out Keaton's help seemed to signal that thre was not much to be gained by even watching any further, so clunky is the setup. But something I noticed in Keaton's demeanor kept me hanging about, promising me that perhaps I was misreading those initial signals. There seemed to be something of his old resolve about him, even if none of the physical scenes really carry through into that epic realm of sweet silliness which his silent films seemed to attain so effortlessly. The dueling scene never quite achieves its ultimate point; neither does the gambling sequence or the car chase scene. They are promising more than they could possibly deliver, and yet, something -- in fact, just Keaton's amazing charisma itself -- keeps one hanging about waiting for some sort of a payoff, much in the manner that his character doesn't give up on eventually winning the girl.

And what a girl she is! I've never heard of the perky blonde Irene Purcell before seeing her name in the credits for this film, but what a doll! It's hard to describe the feeling of suddenly crushing on a girl who was my age twenty years before I was born and dead eight years after that point, but then again, I still have thing for Louise Brooks, Myrna Loy, Lillian Roth (in
Animal Crackers) and Simone Simon. (And don't even get me started on Miss Fay Wray...) Ms. Purcell, who apparently did not stay in films for very long, has a marvelous time playing the most conflicted of society girls. She hires Buster to keep her away from the philandering creep (played by Gilbert Roland) with whom she purports to be in love, and then spends most of the film trying to get into the arms of said creep, yelling at poor Buster the entire way, against her own wishes. Purcell has to constantly switch emotions on a dime, and deal with the slapstick and pratfalls occurring about her due to Buster's interference. And that dress! Apparently not held back by anything approaching a support system, her breasts heave about much in the way of the famous John Belushi-Steve Martin grandmother sketch, only Miss Purcell is about 400 times more attractive than Belushi in uni-browed drag. Pre-code never looked so good. Well, she certainly had her more famours competitors, but Ms. Purcell gives it a good run for her money.

Durante comes off less well in his solo bits -- still figuring out his appeal on screen at that early point in his film career, I suppose -- in fact, he's a little annoying, which I found strange since I usually adore him unreservedly. But he actually works well with Keaton, especially when they hand out the many throwaway gags that pepper the film throughout. Keaton running down the stairs, stopping on a rug and sliding flat on his back draws Durante to jump into the frame to give an umpire's call and signal of "Safe!", a bit surely infused with some of the non sequitur attitude that launched a thousand Bug Bunny gags. The image of the odd pair cloaked all in black to duel Roland is amusing simply as an image; the chaos of the duel as they confuse a dozen French swells is merely the icing. And a fun phone call to a Gallic operator by the non-French speaking Buster and the French-mangling Jimmy had me rewinding a couple of times.

It's farce (an acquired taste for many), it's fast (73 minutes) and it's far funnier than I expected. If you are tripping through Keaton's oeuvre film by film, this is not the point to abandon ship. It's no great shakes as comedy, especially given the overall solo record of the pair, but for a dozen or so solid laughs and an extremely energetic cast, you could do a lot worse.

And Buster would eventually...


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