Wednesday, April 6, 2011

The Cat's Paw (1934)

Harold Lloyd as Ezekial Cobb and Una Merkal as Pet
The Cat's Paw is a remarkably watchable early talkie from veteran silent star Harold Lloyd, but Lloyd has little to do with what makes it special. After reviewing the initial script, Lloyd decided that his standard array of gags and pitfalls would be out of place, and so left them out. He was right--turning The Cat's Paw into a slapstick would have ruined it--but as a straight actor, even a comic one, Lloyd has little to add to a well thought out and clever script like this one, and his performance comes across as a bit lackluster. Fortunately, he's not the only one in the film: the exquisite Una Merkel is on hand to save the day, and easily overshadows him. "Say, why don't you get a new line?" Merkel advises Lloyd in one of their first meetings, "Or better still, don't try to be funny."

Merkel is a truly first rate comic, and as such was usually slotted into supporting roles, filling out her early resume with such films as 42nd Street and Broadway Melody of 1936. Although she appeared in over a hundred films across her forty-five year career, it's a rare treat to see her as a leading lady, and her chemistry with Lloyd is excellent. You'd never notice her alongside such dazzling co-stars as Ginger Rogers and Eleanor Powell, but Merkel is extremely pretty--and The Cat's Paw proves that she can make a whiny, nasal voice every bit as endearing as Lloyd's ever-present horn-rimmed glasses.

Lloyd plays Ezekial Cobb, the son of an American missionary working in China. After spending his formative years abroad, he returns to America in search of a mother for his future children. He finds a likely enough prospect at his boarding house in San Francisco, a cigarette girl called Pet (named Petunia, but she'd slap 'em down if they called her that).  Cobb's plans are disrupted when, through an outlandish series of events, he is elected mayor of Stockport. The party leaders that nominated him never expected him to win--after all, the purpose of a reform candidate is not to be elected--but after his surprise win, they assume he'll be an easy enough puppet to manipulate. However, Cobb's upright Chinese upbringing combined with his hopeless naivite make him a force to be reckoned with, even as Cobb realizes that California may need a missionary far more than China.

One of the highlights of the film comes when Pet takes Cobb to a shady nightclub featuring a strip tease act. Cobb admires the dancer when she starts her number, modestly attired, and even points her out to Pet as an example of the kind of woman he'd like to marry (to Pet's great amusement). Of course, his admiration turns to shock and bewilderment as the dancer pulls him into the act, making it appear as though pieces of her clothing keep falling off due to his bumbling attempts at chivalry. All the while, Pet looks on in delight.

The script is exceptionally well-written, often using small details to move the plot forward and elicit audience sympathy. While the romance between Cobb and Pet the cigarette girl takes up a relatively small amount of screen time, we get to watch its progress through the growing collection of unopened packs of cigarettes Cobb keeps in his office. He doesn't smoke, but he'll use any excuse to stop and buy some more. The humor is fresh and unexpected. When the police show up to arrest a gangster while he is in the bath, he urges them not to rush him out of the tub, saying, "Well, you want me to come clean, don't you?"

Considering that The Cat's Paw is served with a heavy dose of Chinese stereotypes, it is refreshingly un-racist. Although many of the characters are disparaging of Cobb's ties to Chinese culture, over the course of the film they must learn that this influence is his greatest strength. Racist insults are hurled about pretty freely, but the moral compass of the film condemns them, and by and large the Chinese characters are far more sympathetic than the Caucasians. In a wry play on a common stereotype, Cobb complains that it is hard meeting women in America, because, after living in China for twenty years, American women all look alike to him.

The most troublesome aspect of this film for modern viewers is not its views on Chinese-Americans, but the sympathetic view the film takes towards less than savory methods of police interrogation. In Cobb's shining moment in his term as mayor, he arrests every known crook in town with no evidence, and then uses their own unnatural fear of Cobb's Chinese associations to terrorize them into confessing under threat of immediate beheading. It's a genuinely terrifying moment, as the camera zooms in on one face after another, playing up their fear. The sequence is disturbing to our modern sensibilities on a number of levels, but then, if we hold all the films of the past to the same political standards required today, we wouldn't have a lot left to watch. It's all in good fun, and for a just cause--the suspects are all known villains, Cobb assures us. Rest assured, no one is getting beheaded, but it looks like the jails will get a bit crowded.
The Cat's Paw is not a great film, but it is a good one, and Una Merkel's performance more than justifies its continued interest today. Don't judge Lloyd too harshly based on this film if you haven't yet seen Safety Last! or Grandma's Boy. He really is one of the funniest men in the movies, even if it isn't evident here.

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