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Teeming with personal gusto and a two-fisted approach to filmmaking, William "Wild Bill" Wellman has become as legendary as his films, among them Wings (1927), The Public Enemy (1931) and Beau Geste (1939). Smashing the image of Old Hollywood as a film factory, Wellman created films that were rugged, engaging and defiantly original. The Boob (1926) offers fans a rare glimpse at Wellman's silent cinema, when he was enthusiastically carving out that larger-than-life persona, with films that were as diverse and they were robust.
Character actor George K. Arthur stars as Peter Good, a painfully shy, lovestruck lad who dreams of winning the heart of his beloved Amy (Gertrude Olmsted). When he discovers his small town sweetheart is running with a fast crowd, including a city slicker named Harry (Antonio D'Algy), Peter vows to crack the ring of bootleggers that threaten to spoil fair Amy's innocence. Enlisting the aid of Cactus Jim, a grizzled Westerner with a thirst for rotgut (portrayed by prolific comedian Charles Murray), Peter dons an ill-fitting hat and oversized neckerchief and strikes a variety of William S. Hart poses as he stumbles into the midst of Jazz Age organized crime. The trail leads to a Prohibition speakeasy disguised as a library: The Booklovers' Club, where hooch is served literally in great volumes, such as Gunga Gin. There, the bumbling youth encounters a true undercover government agent (Joan Crawford), stirs the nest of bootlegging hornets and sets in motion a slapstick race to apprehend the girl of his dreams and her would-be corruptor.
Arthur, born in Scotland in 1899, began his career as a Shakespearean actor but quickly realized his comic calling after moving to the U.S. in 1922. His expression of wholesome innocence, punctuated with moments of dumfounded surprise, made him perfectly suited to the downhome shenanigans of The Boob. A year prior to The Boob, Arthur had co-starred with actor Karl Dane in Lights of Old Broadway (1925). In 1927, they began appearing together in comedy shorts, forming a partnership that would last well into the sound era.
Throughout her career, Crawford struggled to find serious and suitable roles in Hollywood, and considered her appearance as the slightly sultry government agent in The Boob a step on the wrong professional path. In Crawford's words, the film "strengthened my ambitions...That was a rut, and I became rut allergic with a vengeance after I made it! I was never cut out for slapstick." Admittedly, The Boob, with its folksy charm and ribald humor, was not the kind of foundation upon which a serious actress could build. That same year, Crawford had co-starred with childlike comedian Harry Langdon in Tramp, Tramp, Tramp (1926) and probably feared being typecast as "straight woman" to a series of semi-adolescent comedians.
The film's strongest point is its well-timed clashes between wholesome Americana and jazzy Modernity. In one such moment, Peter storms -- guns blazing William S. Hart-style -- into The Booklovers' Club, and declares, "I'm lookin' for bootleggers!" A bubbly party girl replies, "Oh, dearie! So are we!" and the cowboy is promptly set upon by a pack of thrill-craving flappers. A gang of thugs ("bookworms" in scholarly caps and gowns, in keeping with the Club's theme) heave Peter through a plate glass window, leaving him to adopt a Remington-esque weary cowboy pose and ride his trusted horse into the night.
The Boob reveals director Wellman at his most fun-loving, as he spoofs the conventions of the worn-out melodrama, while paying homage to the early Westerns that had inspired him.Wellman appears to be toying with the many visual and thematic possibilities of cinema. Though his later films would be characterized by stylistic terseness, The Boob finds the director gleefully experimenting with camera effects. An inebriated dog staggers to the floor in exaggerated slow motion. A painting of the Old West comes alive as an aging cowboy recounts his past adventures. Wellman places the camera on a moving swing to convey the dizzying thrill of romance experienced by a pair of young lovers. In The Boob's greatest flight of fancy -- worthy of a Georges Melies or Winsor McCay -- Peter dreams of soaring through the sky in an airborne roadster, while battling an unending flow of Harrys that crawl from beneath the car's hood.
This carefree attitude does allow The Boob to amble onto the thin ice, as in the characterization of Ham Bunn, a sleepy-eyed, African-American child who aids Peter's crime-busting crusade. Though there is nothing patently offensive in Ham Bunn's actions, he exemplifies the subtle dehumanization of minorities that Hollywood too often engaged in -- underscored by the fact that the actor's name is not even listed in the credits.
Director: William Wellman
Screenplay: Kenneth B. Clarke
From a story by George Scarborough and Annette Westbay
Cinematography: William H. Daniels
Production Design: Cedric Gibbons and Ben Carre
Music: Arthur Barrow
Cast: George K. Arthur (Peter Good), Gertrude Olmsted (Amy), Antonio D'Algy (Harry), Charles Murray (Cactus Jim), Joan Crawford (Jane).
by Bret Wood