Review by Cullen Gallagher
Posted on 25 February 2008
Source bootleg DVD
Baby Face Harrington is certainly a curiosity amongst the wealth of 1930s B-gems that have yet to be released on either VHS or DVD and show almost no sign of being released on any of the up-and-coming home video formats in the near future. A comedy produced at MGM studios in 1935, this film is the product of a bygone era: televisions were not yet a permanent staple of living rooms across the country; the anti-trust act that would force Hollywood studios to dismantle their monopoly over both production and exhibition was still fourteen years away; and even though the country was still struggling with an economic depression, movie houses were packing spectators and studios were producing more movies than can be imagined today (compare MGM’s 1935 output of 119 movies with their 2007 output of 27 which includes straight-to-video and television-only releases). The sheer enormity of 1930s Hollywood cinema, with numbers well surpassing the thousands, raises a huge problem when it comes to periodization and canonization: who gets remembered and who gets forgotten? While the Cary Grants and Katherine Hepburns continue to garner new box sets (and deservingly so), the majority of the faces that passed in front of moviegoers’ eyes are resigned to slightly obsessive cinephiles and late-night TCM broadcasts.
What makes Baby Face Harrington stand out is not its clever satirizing of gangster movies, nor its status as a mid-period film of director Raoul Walsh, nor its cast that reads like a “Who’s Who” list of underappreciated character actors, but that its very premise is about the elevation of these “character actors” to star status: the foregrounding of what is normally merely background ephemera. The very nature of character actors, particularly in 30’s Hollywood, is that they carry over certain traits from film to film: more than merely playing stock roles, through the multitudes of narratives they enact they inevitably create their own unique personae. Through gestures, vocal inflections, clever idiosyncrasies, and an uncanny continuity over films of varying authors, these character actors provide a worthy point of contention over the auteur theory as to who is responsible for their performance.
The narrative revolves around Charles Butterworth, a virtually forgotten comedic actor whose running gag was to always be a fish-out-of-water in the modern world. Particularly before the Production Code of 1934 went into effect and sexual mores were loosening up on-screen, Butterworth could be counted on to be completely befuddled by modern gender roles: often married, his character nonetheless always had to be reminded of their husbandly vows (a running gag in Roy Del Ruth’s Bulldog Drummond Strikes Back is that Butterworth is continually being pulled out of bed on his wedding night to solve a mystery, much to the dismay of his new wife). But it is more than just sex that leaves Butterworth dumbfounded, but all social conventions: conversation, work, leisure, law and order, you name it and he’s confused. In many ways, he seems to be stuck in a state of permanent nostalgia for an overly romanticized and simplified childhood (much like Wes Anderson’s characters), which is epitomized by his ordering of graham crackers and milk at a nightclub in My Weakness.
All of these traits inform his portrayal of Willie Harrington, a prototype for Willy Loman, whose social inabilities are threatening to destroy his upper-middle class existence. The affinities with Death of a Salesman go far beyond the protagonists sharing the same first name: at the core of both films is the desire for an upward mobility and social acceptance that lies just beyond the character’s grasp. The film and the play also exhibit similar distopic views on Capitalist society and its emphasis on materialism as a sign of a person’s worth. Finally, both Willy Harrington and Willy Loman fail to achieve any real sense of the personal transformation they feel is necessary in order to prove their social worth (Harrington is redeemed in the eyes of the town and his wife, but he is well aware that is a fluke and not the result of any change he was able to enact, while Loman commits suicide in a moment of desperation).
The film opens with Harrington attending a party his wife, Millie, determined to make a good impression on the guests (reminiscent of Loman’s mantra about the importance of being “well-liked”). When Harrington’s attempt at performing an on-stage trick fails, his wife begins to lose faith in him. His subsequent attempt to obtain a raise at his job results in his getting fired (much like how Loman was fired when he asked to work close to home). In order to pay off the mortgage and fix up the house Harrington decides to cash in his insurance policy (Loman similarly sees his insurance policy as the answer to all his financial questions, though admittedly he obtains the money not by cashing in the policy but by committing suicide). The first plot twist occurs when Harrington loses the policy money and believing a Mr. Skinner (Donald Meek) has stolen it, decides to take it back at gunpoint. After the hold-up, Harrington discovers his mistake: the policy money was in his car the whole time. Ashamed, he turns himself in to the police and winds up in jail.
Sensationalizing the story, newspapers dub Harrington “Baby Face,” credit him as being part of a notorious gang belonging to Rocky Bannister, and diagnosis him as suffering from a split personality similar to Jekyll and Hyde. The irony to this diagnosis – and what is one of the main themes of the film, and one of Butterworth’s constant traits – is that Harrington is incapable of any transformation whatsoever. Even when robbing Mr. Skinner, Harrington is unable to play the part of the criminal: he continually apologizes to his victim, and even admits that his gun isn’t loaded. Stuck in the cell with one of Bannister’s cohorts, one of the highlights of the film is the casual pedestrian nature of Harrington’s introduction: “I robbed a man. I stuck him up, clipped him for 2 g’s.” He speaks such stylized lines without any affectation or irony: complete earnestness, even with the most ridiculous lines, is a Butterworth trademark.
In a classic screwball twist, Harrington’s attempted suicide turns into his capturing Rocky Bannister, reinstating his role as a respected citizen and cherished husband. The film ends with Harrington trying to explain to his wife that his was an inadvertent heroism, that this new image of him is merely a fiction, and that he hasn’t been able to transform from the scatterbrained, semi-oblivious self he used to be. In short, the film ends where it begins: with Harrington unable to speak up. Whereas in the opening party all the guests were too busy talking to hear what Harrington had to say, here they are too busy lauding him to hear him tell his story as it actually happened. Even in success, Harrington/Butterworth is out of touch with the world around him: permanently marginalized, and always in the background even when he’s in the spotlight. Harrington’s inability to become the star of the show, even when he’s being celebrated as the town hero, seems indicative of the placement of the character actor who may always be in the frame but is never in control of the master narrative (that duty is left up to the “star”).
Baby Face Harrington is far from lacking in memorable comedic moments, and much of the film’s strength comes from the indelible charm of its actors and their on-screen rapport. Willie and Millie’s breakfast conversation about Rocky Bannister is textbook screwball dialogue: Millie suggests they purchase a pistol, Willie retorts (without irony) that Rocky has probably already got one, and Millie clarifies that it is for protection. Cognitive confusion permeates the script, particularly because Butterworth is a master at delivering confusion absolutely straight-faced. Stanley Fields and Nat Pendleton, both staples of the 1930s (each made over 100 films during the decade), parody the gangster roles which made them famous, and Eugene Pallette graces the soundtrack with his contrabass bullfrog voice, more singular and inimitable than most star players. But above all, it is Butterworth who is most remarkable, proving that those bit players in the background, normally resigned to providing comedy relief, are able to carry a narrative on their own, and that far from playing the same character indefinitely, each film offers a new opportunity to refine and deepen their characterizations.