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Step Lively, Jeeves!
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suppliedTitle,Step Lively, Jeeves!

Step Lively, Jeeves!

Arthur Treacher was something of a special case in Hollywood, one of those character actors who carved out a niche for himself that virtually assured his career longevity. Of course, that's exactly what these busy supporting players of the studio era did; they presented a highly reliable character shorthand that was always instantly recognizable to audiences--think Marjorie Main, Thelma Ritter, Walter Brennan. But while actors like that had a range and some flexibility in their personas, Treacher made his career almost exclusively on a more specific comedic stereotype: the haughty, snobby manservant who was more pompous, condescending, and disapproving--more "British"--than the uppercrust he served.

It seemed natural, then, that Treacher should be tapped to bring one of the most famous "gentlemen's gentleman" of all time to the screen, P.G. Wodehouse's popular creation, Jeeves, whose very name has become synonymous with the profession. The British-born author (1881-1975) enjoyed huge popular success in his long career, and his writing, particularly the 35 short stories and 11 novels about Jeeves and his rather dim-witted master, the foppish Bertie Wooster, continue to be read widely all these years after his death. Wodehouse also had 15 stage works to his credit, either solely or in partnership with other writers, and was a talented lyricist who wrote lyrics for about 250 songs in close to 30 musical comedies. He worked with Cole Porter on the 1934 musical Anything Goes and frequently collaborated with other composers, such as Jerome Kern, for whom he provided the lyrics for the hit song "Bill" in Kern's 1927 musical Show Boat. His stories, novels, and plays have been the basis for many movies, including the Fred Astaire musical A Damsel in Distress (1937), for which Wodehouse came to Hollywood to write the screenplay.

With such an impressive resume, Wodehouse would have been the logical choice to adapt his own work to the screen, but this is not the path 20th Century Fox chose when it acquired the rights to the Jeeves and Wooster stories. The studio planned to star Treacher in a series of comedies about the characters, but the notion became, according to Brian Taves in P.G. Wodehouse and Hollywood: Screenwriting, Satires and Adaptations (McFarland, 2006), "one of the worst executed ideas under Sol Wurtzel's Fox 'B' unit, an effort that fully justified the aphorism about Fox B's, 'from bad to Wurtzel.'" The first film in the series, Thank You, Jeeves! (1936), at least included the very essential Wooster character, played acceptably enough by David Niven on loan from Samuel Goldwyn, but there the resemblance to Wodehouse's work pretty much ended. On the page, Jeeves is a solid, fairly imperturbable sort, always ready and able to bail his boss out of one unfortunate situation after another in an ingenious manner. The screen version is more Treacher than Jeeves, peevish and impatient with none of what Taves calls "Jeeves's trademark Machiavellian cleverness," coming off instead as "simply an annoyingly starched and stuffy, standard-issue English servant." Wodehouse himself found Treacher's performance "awful" with a "supercilious manner" that was all wrong for the character. Nevertheless, perhaps out of a great fondness for Wodehouse, the picture got surprisingly kind reviews from many critics.

Emboldened by these good notices, Fox moved ahead with a sequel, Step Lively, Jeeves! (1937), this time going so far as to jettison completely Wodehouse's conception--and one of his two main characters. In this one, the valet, displaying both his own snootiness and his boss's chronic perplexity, is conned into believing he's the heir to Sir Francis Drake's forgotten legacy of land grants and royalties in the new world (a racket Variety claimed was actually practiced in America for years). Sans Bertie (who never appears on screen, Niven being unavailable to recreate the role), Jeeves goes to America with the conmen hoping to collect enough money to quit his job as Wooster's valet--a highly unlikely scenario in Wodehouse's world, however long-suffering his Jeeves may have been. Treacher is actually off screen for much of the movie while the story deals with former moll Babe Ross and the plot's romantic angle involving reporter Patricia Westley and the wealthy Gerry Townsend. Naturally, everything comes to a climax at a big would-be society party where Jeeves, waking from a thoroughly uncharacteristic naiveté, discovers the swindle.

Although it offers none of the pleasures of Wodehouse's stories, Step Lively, Jeeves! has its antic moments, as long as audiences put out of their minds any prior familiarity with the source material. Nevertheless, this second entry was as overtrashed as the first one had been overpraised. In one of the kinder reviews, Frank S. Nugent of the New York Times called it a "slight little comedy, frisky and dull by turns" but with "an amusing cast," concluding with a moment to wonder "why the Jeeves stories should be so screamingly funny in print and so mild on the screen." The film was released in April 1937; by that summer, Fox had pulled the plug on the series and Jeeves was seen no more on American screens.

The immortal manservant, with his proper character back in place and his dim master in tow, finally got more like the treatment he deserved in some British television adaptations, one in the late 1960s and a successful series in the 1990s with Stephen Fry as Jeeves and Hugh Laurie (best known to American TV audiences from the medical show House) as Bertie Wooster. In 1975, Andrew Lloyd Webber based a musical on the stories. Not much of a success, it was rewritten and remounted in 1996, making it to Broadway as By Jeeves.

As for Treacher, the failure of the Jeeves movies didn't put much of a damper on his career. He continued to play his familiar type in movies and on the small screen, making his last feature appearance as the constable in Mary Poppins (1964). A few years later, he took the job as announcer on Merv Griffin's daytime talk show, introducing the host daily in his terribly British way: "And now, here's the dear boy himself, Merrrr-vin." In his final years, he became something of a household name, at least to consumers on the East Coast and in the Midwest, by lending his name to a chain of seafood eateries called Arthur Treacher's Fish and Chips. He died in 1975 at the age of 81.

Director: Eugene Forde
Producer: John Stone
Screenplay: Frank Fenton and Lynn Root, original story by Frances Hyland
Cinematography: Daniel B. Clark
Editing: Fred Allen
Art Direction: Duncan Cramer
Original Music: Samuel Kaylin (uncredited)
Cast: Arthur Treacher (Jeeves), Patricia Ellis (Patricia Westley), Robert Kent (Gerry Townsend), Alan Dinehart (Cedric Cromwell), George Givot (Prince Boris Caminov), Helen Flint (Babe)

By Rob Nixon