In Tay Garnett’s riveting pre-code HER MAN, there’s a cameo by perennial bit-player Franklin Pangborn which may raise eyebrows. Pangborn is beloved of Preston Sturges fans and lovers of 30s and 40s movies generally for his finely-honed fruit characterisations, playing “the pansy” as comic foil, swelling more than a scene or two with his arch antics. It’s not exactly a politically-correct take on homosexuality, and of course it’s strictly coded so as not to offend the censors — Pangborn never, or almost never, has any visible other half with whom a homosexual act could ever occur, even off-camera — he’s “the only gay in the village” so that his persona exists only as a series of caricatured mannerisms. Nevertheless, everybody seems to love Franklin P, gay or straight.
What’s startling about HER MAN is that Pangborn isn’t playing it camp. “A pre-gay Pangborn” is how one amateur reviewer referred to his appearance here, and it’s a touch disconcerting to see that all-too-familiar actor suddenly disporting with unrecognizable attributes. I got the same uncanny valley feel from seeing Mischa Auer without his mellifluous Russian accent in something called SINISTER HANDS (1931), playing “Swami Yomurda.” I know these guys are comic specialists and what we see is schtick, not reality, but somehow I don’t want to see them any other way.
But this seems to be a one-off, for in EXIT SMILING (1926), the Pangborn we know and adore is present and correct, albeit silent.
Pangborn plays the butch leading man in a company of strolling players, who is naturally enough effeminate and sissified off-stage. All the familiar tropes are here — the narrowing eyes, the toss of the head, the near-perpetual air of grande-dame outrage. The following line occurs when the leading lady accidentally tumbles into his berth on the sleeper train.
The movie’s real good too. Said leading lady is the great Beatrice Lillie, playing a role surely planned for Gloria Swanson (who excelled as a similar stage-struck drudge in STAGE-STRUCK), this being an MGM production. As good (and game!) as Swanson is, I don’t believe she could be as funny as Lillie, who is a true comedian’s comedienne, or vice-versa. I began to appreciate the brilliant things she was doing with her costumes. It soon seemed there would be a bit of amusing costume-work in every scene, from an apron that won’t stay on to a hat adorned with a pom-pom she’s just used as powder puff to apply her makeup, to a boa which she slings round her neck only to have it spontaneously unloop itself and slide down her back, affixing itself somehow to her skirt, to dangle like a skunk tail.
This all seems like it’s going to climax with the scene where she drags up as the villain in a melodrama — twirling a moustache that comes off in her hand — but the film has a further comic set-piece up its sleeve, when she plays the vamp, and that one’s really good.
Lillie had a strange career — all the high points are decades apart. Her silent career went nowhere after this. She made a pre-code musical, ARE YOU THERE? which is now apparently lost save its soundtrack, and she starred in ON APPROVAL, forming a superb one-off double-act with an unexpectedly hilarious Clive Brook (who also directed). And then came THOROUGLY MODERN MILLIE.
While Lillie loses something by not being able to use her precise vocals, her odd, sculptural appearance (midway between a novelty pepperpot and one of those figures who emerge from clockfaces to signal rain) and eloquent movements are all the equipment she needs to get laughs, and she may provoke a tear too. The material (story by Marc Connelly) is straightforward stuff and leading man Jack Pickford is a hair too rodent-like, but Samuel Taylor frames crisply and indulges in sweeping, formal camera moves, some of which bizarrely suggest Dario Argento in their precision. (I suppose I’m unduly influenced by an early tracking shot approaching a stage curtain and ending on a single eye peeping through a gap in the drapes.)
Taylor is mainly remembered for supposedly adding the credit “additional dialogue by Sam Taylor” to his film of Shakepeare’s TAMING OF THE SHREW. A shame, because he had strong comic and visual sense, even if he lacked the more common kind.
EXIT SMILING is, happily, available to buy and would make a fine gift for the cinephile in your life: Exit Smiling The bittersweet ending is remarkable.