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William Powell - 8/9
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,High Pressure

High Pressure

Censorship under Hollywood's Production Code took its first big bites out of movie content in 1934, and most pictures made before then are so cautious about "adult" material that they would have passed anyway. There are plenty of exceptions to this rule, though, and some of them start pushing the celluloid envelope in their opening moments. High Pressure, a 1932 comedy directed by Mervyn LeRoy, is such a treat. First come the ethnic jokes, as a Jewish businessman searches for an elusive PR man named Gar Evans in an Irish speakeasy. "Hey," says Mr. Ginsburg to Mike Donahey, his associate, "looking for a needle in a haystack is nothing compared to looking for a goy in a gin mill." Then come the drunk jokes, when they find their man passed out on the floor. "If that's [drinking] a little," says Mr. Ginsburg, "I'd hate to see him drunk." And a close-up shows Gar in a condition blotto enough to make Shakes the Clown go on the wagon.

Gags like these are just warm-ups for the picture's main business. Ginsburg knows a great German inventor who can make artificial rubber out of - brace yourself - sewage. "Sewage?" asks Gar when he hears about the invention. "Tons and tons of it, Gar!" Mike answers. "Get yourself into that picture!" As a hustler and promoter, Gar worries that "there's no romance in sewage," but soon he sees the possibilities: a fancy office, a bustling staff, and millions to be made by selling stock in a hot new product. Ginsburg pays for the office and the staff, Gar names the outfit - The Golden Gate Artificial Rubber Company - and they're off and running. When a dopey delivery man named Gus Vanderbilt shows up on an errand, Gar puts him on the board of directors, since the name Vanderbilt adds a touch of class to the company stationery. Investors scramble to buy stock, but competitors start to smell a rat, threatening to bring in the law if Gar and Ginsburg don't start making rubber instead of just talking about it. They can't do that until the great German inventor shows up to decipher his cryptic formula, and Ginsburg is the only one who's ever seen him. There's also the problem of Francine Dale, the girlfriend who loves Gar but can't take any more of his wild schemes. She's running away with a South American millionaire, and without her Gar may wind up back on the speakeasy floor.

All of this is entertaining, and it's even more fun to imagine Production Code censors fainting from shock at the very idea of a movie about sewage, even though the stuff remains mercifully off-screen. High Pressure earns its title from the high-voltage energy of its acting, directing, and dialogue; the cast punches out repartee at a speed anticipating the Howard Hawks of Bringing Up Baby (1938) and His Girl Friday (1940), and while the filmmaking is never fancy, the camerawork and editing keep things constantly in motion, unspooling the story in a snappy 73 minutes with few pauses for breath along the way. Reviews were good in most of the United States, with New York Times critic Mordaunt Hall calling it "brightly written and constantly amusing." Variety praised the "speedy treatment" of a "somewhat different theme in the racketeer style," but complained that Gar, "the leading racket guy," is allowed "to grow too righteous" in the second half.

Joseph Jackson's screenplay is efficiently structured, pivoting around searches - for Gar in the beginning, for Francine and the inventor in the middle, and for a desperately needed stock certificate at the end. It's based on Hot Money, a stage comedy that played on Broadway the same year Warner Bros. produced High Pressure, which contains a couple of gags aimed at the studio and the still-new phenomenon of talking pictures. William Powell was born to play semi-debauched gents like Gar, and Evelyn Brent smolders just the right amount as Francine, the long-suffering woman in his life. Powell and Brent had teamed up in five previous films, including Josef von Sternberg's silent masterpiece The Last Command in 1928, but this was their last picture together. The rest of the cast is terrific in the fine tradition of Warner Bros. character acting. George Sidney is hardly a household name, but he had solid experience in the ethnic-comedy line - appearing in a long list of "Cohens and Kellys" pictures, among other things - and he plays Ginsburg to perfection. Evalyn Knapp is fine as a secretary who has to keep her wedding plans a secret or lose her hard-won job, and Harry Beresford is over-the-top weird as the great German scientist, who bought his chemistry degree from a diploma mill in a bathroom for $17.50. And special kudos go to the inimitable Guy Kibbee as balding Clifford Gray, a drunk who gets to be the company president because he's good at looking important when there's a cigar in his mouth and a toupee on his head. LeRoy's work is especially impressive when you realize that he released six pictures in 1932, starting with High Pressure and ending with I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, a formidable classic. He didn't direct Powell again until Mister Roberts, co-directed by John Ford, in 1955.

The Golden Gate Artificial Rubber Company is pretty much a fraud, but one reason it temporarily thrives is that it has jobs to offer. Getting a job was no joke in 1932, when the Great Depression was at its deepest, and this aspect of High Pressure makes it freshly relevant in our own financially troubled time. It's also pertinent that the entire plot hinges on a total scam - when the great German scientist turns out to be a great world-class lunatic, Gar and company come close to hard time in prison - and present-day viewers can choose which recent financial scandal this reminds them of most. Slightly sick humor makes its appearance on this level of the story too; when the services of a top executive are needed, a character cheerfully reports that "bank presidents have been committing suicide so fast it's hard to find one!" Depression moviegoers found irreverent farces a good way to forget their troubles for an hour or two, and High Pressure can do the same for us today.

Director: Mervyn LeRoy
Screenplay: Joseph Jackson; based on the play Hot Money by Aben Kandel
Cinematographer: Robert Kurrle
Film Editing: Ralph Dawson
Art Direction: Anton Grot
With: William Powell (Gar Evans), Evelyn Brent (Francine Dale), George Sidney (Colonel Ginsburg), John Wray (Jimmy Moore), Evalyn Knapp (Helen Wilson), Guy Kibbee (Clifford Gray), Frank McHugh (Mike Donahey), Oscar Apfel (Mr. Hackett), Ben Alexander (Geoffrey Weston), Harold Waldrige (Gus Vanderbilt), Charles Middleton (Mr. Banks), Harry Beresford (Rudolph Pfeiffer)
BW-74m. Closed Captioning.

by David Sterritt VIEW TCMDb ENTRY

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