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The Passionate Plumber

The Passionate Plumber(1932)

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teaser The Passionate Plumber (1932)

The early 1930s were not happy years for Buster Keaton. In addition to serious marital difficulties and a worsening drinking problem, he found himself under contract to MGM making films he believed were totally wrong for him. Only a short time before, Keaton had been one of the leading lights of the silent film era, a brilliant comic artist who took slapstick to inventive new cinematic heights and had almost complete control of his work. Metro, however, was not in the business of giving its stars free rein, especially not in the shaky years of the early Depression, and the films they assigned Keaton - along with his deteriorating personal life - put a big nail into the coffin of his career. He described the situation in a section of his autobiography called "The Chapter I Hate to Write."

"If they had known I was still essentially a slapstick comedian they would not have bought for me the sort of stories they did. These purchases included two Broadway farces: Parlor, Bedroom, and Bath [1931] and Her Cardboard Lover- MGM renamed it The Passionate Plumber [1932] - which was nothing compared to the names the critics called our movie version."

Certainly this is not up to the standards of such Keaton masterworks as Sherlock, Jr. (1924), The General (1927), or Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928). Nevertheless, it did respectable business and many consider it a pleasant if minor footnote to what had been up to that time a remarkable career. Buster plays an American plumber living and working in Paris used as a decoy lover by a wealthy girl who wants to make her real lover jealous. Compared to the other sound films Keaton made at the studio during this time, it has a lot of peppy charm and some very funny scenes, including a few in which Keaton gets to show the physical prowess that made him such a formidable screen presence in the 1920s.

Keaton was cast in the role originally played on stage by Leslie Howard, the suave British star best known for his role as Ashley Wilkes in Gone with the Wind (1939). The story underwent considerable reworking to suit Keaton's persona, especially after the urging of MGM's Paris exchange manager, who found the star's previous release, Sidewalks of New York (1931), "very weak" and cabled studio head Louis B. Mayer to "make particular effort have Passionate Plumber dialogue most humorous possible." In addition to paying $33,000 for the rights to the story, records indicate the studio also spent about $15,000 to buy an additional "three scenes for Keaton."

Part of the picture's appeal lies in its supporting cast, including rowdy former vaudevillian and Mack Sennett silent star Polly Moran and sexy Latin lover Gilbert Roland, under the direction of Edward Sedgwick, who had collaborated so well with Keaton on a few of his best silent pictures, notably The Cameraman (1928). This was also the first movie in which Buster was teamed with Jimmy Durante, a situation Keaton was not happy with. Besides sensing there was no way to ever mesh their two very different talents and approaches, Keaton was certain their pictures together were being used to build up Durante's career at the expense of his own. Keaton also found his co-star personally irritating, particularly Durante's habit of good-naturedly but roughly punctuating all his conversations by punching Keaton in the arms and chest.

In those days, many pictures were shot in several languages for foreign markets, and Keaton was particularly adept at reproducing his dialogue phonetically for the non-English versions. The Passionate Plumber was also released as a French movie, co-directed (with Sedgwick) by Claude Autant-Lara, who went on to a long career in his country's cinema but achieved his biggest notoriety when in 1989 he was forced to stand down as the representative of France's far-right National Front in the European Parliament after saying reports of the Nazi gas chambers were a "string of lies."

Shot in only 19 days, this was the last of Keaton's MGM pictures to be completed on time. As his personal life continued to take negative turns and he became more and more bitter and resentful of his career misfortunes, he became increasingly difficult and undependable. A decade later, the property on which the movie was based turned out to have less-than positive associations for another great Metro star. Remade under its original title, Her Cardboard Lover (1942), the picture did poor business and got tepid reviews, prompting its star, Norma Shearer, once the queen of the MGM lot, to retire for good at the age of 40 after more than 20 years in motion pictures.

Director: Edward Sedgwick
Screenplay: Laurence E. Johnson, Ralph Spence, based on the plays Her Cardboard Lover by Frederick Lonsdale and Dans sa candeur naive by Jacques Deval
Cinematography: Norbert Brodine
Editing: William S. Gray
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons
Cast: Buster Keaton (Elmer E. Tuttle), Jimmy Durante (Julius J. McCracken), Irene Purcell (Patricia Alden), Polly Moran (Albine), Gilbert Roland (Tony Lagorce).

by Rob Nixon

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