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Friends of Mr. Sweeney, Edward Ludwig's compact yet breezy 1934 adaptation of Elmer Davis's novel, could be called a forerunner of the modern buddy comedy: Charles Ruggles plays Asaph Holliday, a writer for a conservative political journal who used to be a firebrand but is now just a wispy scribe who's all too easily pushed around by his boss (played by a stern, square Berton Churchill). Then his old college pal, Wynn Rixey, breezes into town -- or, rather, struts into town, with his big, square shoulders and stocky legs: Rixey is played by Eugene Pallette, and he's shocked that his formerly fearless friend has been reduced to a cautious shadow of his former self. Asaph is too shy even to properly court his game, shapely secretary, Miss Beulah Boyd, played by the game, shapely Ann Dvorak.
Rixey's arrival on the scene, and his subsequent bullying encouragement, inspires Asaph to reclaim some of his old moxie: He stands up to a crooked politician (William Davidson) and suitably impresses the bright-eyed Miss Boyd. But the real charm of Friends of Mr. Sweeney lies not in the specifics of the plot, but in the complementary, interlocking charms of its three chief actors, beginning with Ruggles.
Ruggles almost missed out on an acting career entirely: At first he intended to follow in the footsteps of his father, a pharmaceuticals salesman. But after realizing he wasn't suited for the job, he segued into theater work, appearing in stock company stage productions and early silents. His career blossomed in the '30s, particularly with his role as big-game hunter Major Applegate in Bringing Up Baby (1938). But even in a more modest, lesser-known picture like Friends of Mr. Sweeney, it's easy to see how he delighted audiences with his low-key demeanor, his fluttery comic timing and his ability to turn a blink of befuddlement into a compact existential reverie. (The New York Times' review of the movie, written at the time of its release, describes Ruggles' character, and his performance, this way: "In his secret heart Asaph is a courageous champion of truth, but in his daily life he functions like a spectacled jellyfish.") Ruggles' career spanned some 60 years: He had a recurring role in the 1960s TV series The Beverly Hillbillies, and in the mid-1970s provided the voice of Aesop in the "Aesop & Son" segments of the Rocky and Bullwinkle show.
Ann Dvorak has what appears at first to be the smallest, most seemingly insignificant role in Friends of Mr. Sweeney. Early in the picture, she shimmies out of "inappropriate" office-wear and into a more acceptable frock, in full view of the delightfully embarrassed Asaph, and you might begin to wonder if she's there just for window dressing. But Dvorak's charm is sly and slow-burning. She may be best known for her role as Francesca 'Cesca' Camonte in the 1932 Scarface, but she also played, memorably, a woman who discards an upright, proper life for one of debauchery and disreputability in Mervyn LeRoy's pre-Code 1932 sizzler Three on a Match. In Friends of Mr. Sweeney, Dvorak can steal a scene by doing little more than fluttering her magnificent doe-like eyes, and though she's not a born wisecracker, her line delivery shows an understated flintiness -- her Miss Boyd is a character who's confident of her place in the world. There's some evidence that Dvorak herself had some of that same chutzpah: In the mid-1930s, she sued the studio that held her contract, Warner Bros., for relegating her to bland roles in uninspired movies. After leaving the studio in 1936, she continued to act in films, though her later career never lived up to its early spark.
The real scene-stealer in Friends of Mr. Sweeney is the superb Kansas-born character actor Eugene Pallette. Just a year after appearing in this picture, Pallette would play one of his signature roles, as the impatient papa in the 1936 My Man Godfrey. But his role in Friends of Mr. Sweeney is robust, which means there's even more of Eugene Pallette to love. We get lots of chances to delight in his frog-pond rasp of a voice, and in the way his perpetually annoyed-looking eyebrows almost meet, like two caterpillars with a grudge. Built like a human cube, he has the ability to fill out a suit as if he were made of nothing but husky right angles. And he has a marvelous moment where, entering an office building late one night after hours of drinking and carousing, he mistakes a fire-alarm buzzer for an elevator button. He proceeds to press it, repeatedly and with great gusto, oblivious to the dozens of fire trucks that rush almost instantaneously to the site. When Eugene Pallette wants to take a ride in an elevator, it had better do his bidding.
Producer: Samuel Bischoff (uncredited)
Director: Edward Ludwig
Screenplay: Warren Duff, Sidney Sutherland (screenplay); Elmer Davis (novel); F. Hugh Herbert, Erwin Gelsey (additional dialogue)
Cinematography: Ira Morgan
Art Direction: Robert M. Haas
Film Editing: Thomas Pratt
Cast: Charlie Ruggles (Asaph 'Ace' Holliday), Ann Dvorak (Miss Beulah Boyd), Eugene Pallette (Wynn Rixey), Robert Barrat (Alex (Credits)/Alexis Romanoff), Berton Churchill (Franklyn P. Brumbaugh), Dorothy Burgess (Millie Seagrove), Dorothy Tree (Countess Olga Andrei Misitalsky), Harry Tyler (Mike, the Safecracker), Harry Beresford (Claude), William Davidson (Stephen Prime).
BW-69m. Closed Captioning.
by Stephanie Zacharek
(Stephanie is the chief movie critic for Movieline - www.movieline.com)
Ann Dvorak: Hollywood's Forgotten Rebel (http://www.anndvorak.com/cms/)
The New York Times