While my closing night party hangover abates, I’ll fulfill my weekly intertitular obligations by reproducing what I wrote for the Film Festival’s Gregory La Cava retrospective screening of FEEL MY PULSE. It would be nice to think my blurb helped fill Cinema 3 for the screening of a rare private collector’s print with live piano accompaniment by Forrester Pike — but then I’d have to take responsibility for my blurb putting people off GABRIEL OVER THE WHITE HOUSE —
Gregory La Cava’s background as a cartoonist was never more evident than in this riotous romantic comedy – not even in his broad WC Fields vehicles. The first image under the titles is an animation of a doctor applying the stethoscope to a disembodied, but vigorously beating heart, but some of the later live-action is even more cartoony.
Bebe Daniels, top comedienne of the twenties and thirties (and later a beloved radio and TV star in the UK) plays a dotty heiress raised by doctors in a sterile environment, becoming a complete hypochondriac. But when she accidentally takes a rest cure in a “sanatorium” that’s really a bootleggers’ den, the stage is set for slapstick, romance, danger, and a miracle cure.
Handsome Richard Arlen fulfils heart-throb duties, and William Powell, a few years before his fame as a suave comic lead in The Thin Man, is the leader of the bootleggers, in a sly and seedy comic performance of laid back stubbly malevolence that capitalizes on his underused rodental qualities.
In an age of daredevil stunts and vigorous knockabout, Daniels milks considerable comic value from a character for whom a short walk represents life-threatening exertion. That she actually enjoys robust good health is obvious to everyone except herself and her doctors.
A lot of the humour is carried by the witty intertitles, along with knowing performances by the stars and a rogue’s gallery of plug-uglies, but La Cava’s meticulous framing subtly enhances the humour of every moment. His deadpan compositions simply invite funny things to happen within them – except during a brief interlude of film noir, when the gloves come off, the lights go out, and the bad guys start acting genuinely bad…
The middle section, where the bootleggers pretend to be nervous wreck sanatorium inmates, is fine farce, but the chaotic finish, a full-scale gang war, is among the most frenetic action sequences in Hollywood comedy history. Daniels’ flailing, long-legged movement when she finally abandons her invalid lifestyle is all the more exhilarating and hilarious for having been suppressed so long, and inventive gags follow so fast upon each others’ heels as to leave the viewer gasping with laughter, astonishment and sheer breathlessness.
Quite a different kind of screen comedy than Chaplin or Keaton’s, Feel My Pulse exemplifies a tradition of slapstick that uses romantic leads rather than clowns, and which is all-too rarely revived or discussed today. The opportunity to enjoy it on the big screen with an audience should not be missed.