‘Side Show’ (1931)

Roy Del Ruth directed lots of peppy throwaways in the early ’30s, keeping the Warner Brothers machine scrappy but honest thanks to his long training in two-reel comedies. The same year he made the first screen version of The Maltese Falcon, he turned out Side Show, a meaningless, predictable, and energetic time-filler that served as a vehicle for vaudeville and Broadway star Winnie Lightner, a gangly, spunky comedienne whose big-hearted, loud-mouthed character won’t be pushed around. She’s a typical Warner working girl of the early Depression.

Pat (Lightner) works for the traveling circus of the perpetually drunk and broke Colonel Gowdy (Guy Kibbee), “the hand that shook the hand of Buffalo Bill”. Since this is a pre-Code picture, she’s frankly shacked up with a sponger (Donald Cook). When Pat’s bright-eyed kid sister (Evalyn Knapp) shows up to spend summer with the circus, can you guess what’s going to happen an hour before our heroine figures it out? Oh well, there’s a happy ending, but none of it matters. This is really a series of ramshackle sketches in which Lightner does one or two songs (one as a Hawaiian princess), dives into a water tank while on fire, dresses up as a squawking cannibal in one of the more openly racist gags of the period, and wastes screen time in a huge, undercranked free-for-all. Second-billed Charles Butterworth also takes up lots of space as a hapless, nonsense-spouting goof whose job is unclear.

Amid all this, Del Ruth tosses in eye-catching set-ups, including one apparent glide through a ferris wheel as the camera seems to pass under it. That high dive is well handled too. At just over an hour, the whole thing’s got that Warners energy in spades, and needs it. Lightner’s likable, and Del Ruth must have thought so too, and the feeling must have been mutual, because they married in 1934 after four pictures together. If we had to pick Del Ruth’s greatest achievement, we’ll lay our money on the Doris Day picture On Moonlight Bay (1951), where his pace, intelligence, and visual charm had plenty to work with.

RATING 4 / 10