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'The Golden Fleecing' (1940)

Gaggle of gagsters miss it by that much.

The Golden Fleecing

Director: Leslie Fenton
Cast: Lew Ayres, Lloyd Nolan
Distributor: Warner Archive
Rated: Not rated
Year: 1940
USDVD release date: 2012-12-6

Lew Ayres tries his hand at slapstick comedy as a timid schmoe whose role would be better suited to Buster Keaton or Red Skelton. He's an insurance salesman who sells a big policy to a gangster (Lloyd Nolan) who might be knocked off at any minute, so now he has to find the guy and cancel the policy, only now the thug and his gang want Ayres to turn the guy in for the reward and hand it over to them, only--oh, that's only the beginning.

This Warner Archive release quotes Leonard Maltin's assessment of the film as a "sprightly little screwball yarn". Well, it's sprightly and screwball and follows an original series of frantic complications, but we regret to report it's never terribly hilarious, and our numbskull sure has a tiresome relationship with his fiancée (Rita Johnson). The best bit is the scene where he tries to get arrested for speeding. Such character actors as Leon Errol, Nat Pendleton and William Demarest hang around the edges, making this film as populous and complex as a Preston Sturges romp (with a Harold Lloyd moment near the end), and indeed the scene where the newly-rich chump (don't ask) goes on a spending spree may remind some viewers of the much funnier Christmas in July.

The script is by major American humorist S.J. Perelman and his wife Laura (novelist Nathaniel West's sister), and one Marion Parsonnet. It's not surprising, therefore, to find a ridiculous plot of slang-hurling gangsters, for Perelman loved absurdity and parodic dialogue. They were working from a story credited to Lynn Root, Frank Fenton (brother of Leslie Fenton, who directed this picture), and John Fante. The team of Root and Fenton wrote a lot of minor screwballs and comic-accented B mysteries, including the Saint and Falcon series. Fenton later wrote well-received novels, and his friend Fante also became a celebrated author of novels about Los Angeles.

Wikipedia's entry on Fenton handily quotes from Carey McWilliams' 1946 survey Southern California Country in which he states "I can think of only four novels that suggest what Southern California is really like". He names West's Day of the Locust, Fante's Ask the Dust, and Fenton's A Place in the Sun. (The other is Mark Lee Luther's The Boosters.) Not shabby, but with all this glittering literary pedigree, this particular movie is still a throwaway on which everyone was basically punching a clock. Perhaps the difference from Sturges, who needed only one of himself, is that this impressive gang didn't imagine they were trying to make anything great here--so they didn't.


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