When digging deep enough in the Hollywood vaults, you eventually get to quickie movies like Baby Face Harrington, where there are no major stars. Instead, the entire roster of this hour-long 1935 movie is jam-packed with character actors. Released by MGM and directed by Raoul Walsh of all people, the movie provides starring roles for some of our favorite below-the-title actors, including the incomparable Una Merkel, Eugene Pallette, Donald Meek and Charles Butterworth.
Butterworth is best known (if anyone still knows him) for comedy bit parts in musicals and even had roles in dramas like Magnificent Obsession (also 1935). Here, he plays the title character, Willie Harrington, a timid man who bumbles his way into becoming “Public Enemy No. 2” and unknowingly helps police chase a mobster (Nat Pendleton).
Merkel stars as his wife Millicent, who is always pushing him to be more assertive, and Harvey Stephens plays Ronald, a friend who tries to break up the marriage. Pallette plays Millicent’s uncle, who happens to be a police lieutenant. Meek gets to play a scam artist real-estate agent who insists on charging Willie, even after he admits his robbery was a mistake.
The script tries to play on some of the crime movie tropes audiences were familiar with by 1935, which is fitting since Walsh had a hand in developing some of the cliches. It was based on a 1925 play by Edgar Selwyn and William LeBaron, but the final film’s script credits are surprising. Nunnally Johnson, who would go on to write and direct several classics at Fox, co-wrote with Edwin H. Knopf. Charles Lederer, who co-wrote His Girl Friday, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Ocean’s 11 and other classics, was credited with dialogue.
Baby Face Harrington is built around Butterworth’s style of humor, which was very droll and self-deprecating. He’s all about wordplay and finding ways to give the right answers to the wrong questions. Unlike the snappy A-list stars of the day though, his humor is very slow. In fact, for a move that’s only 62 minutes long, it takes awhile to get to the main plot, thanks to a rather overlong introduction. Sure, it helps you get familiar with the characters, but in a comedy like this, we want to see the roller coaster launch as soon as possible.
The Warner Archive Collection’s new DVD release of the film shows it has been kept in remarkably good condition for such an obscure film. It’s a little rough in some spots, but the dialogue is clear and the picture is good overall. As far as features go, WAC did find the trailer, which includes a hilarious scene of Butterworth getting his fingerprints done. This was not in the film – I’m not sure if it was deleted or made just for the trailer, although the latter seems more likely since the studios often included footage made just for trailers.
Overall, this is a tough film to recommend. The best part is Una Merkel, although those hoping she gets snappy one-liners will be disappointed. Fans of Raoul Walsh’s filmography will also be a little surprised, since there is very little action or many of the themes he touched on in his more famous films.
Thanks to Warner Archive for providing this disc to review!