Slapsticon Notes: PROFESSOR BEWARE (1938)

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Richard M Roberts
Godfather
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Joined: Sun May 31, 2009 6:30 pm

Slapsticon Notes: PROFESSOR BEWARE (1938)

Postby Richard M Roberts » Sat Jun 16, 2018 6:45 am

PROFESSOR BEWARE (Harold Lloyd Corp- Paramount Pictures released June 20, 1938)

Director: Elliot Nugent, Writers: Delmer Daves, Jack Cunningham, Clyde Bruckman, based on a story by Crampton Harris, Francis M. Cockrell, Marian B. Cockrell. Camera: Archie Stout, Editor: Duncan Mansfield.

Cast: Harold Lloyd, Phyllis Welch, Raymond Walburn, Lionel Stander, William Frawley, Thurston Hall, Cora Witherspoon, Sterling Holloway.

In some ways, Harold Lloyd may have been the biggest casualty of the Talkie Era in terms of the major Silent Clowns. After the huge success of his first talkie, WELCOME DANGER (1929), which may have had more to do with audience curiosity in hearing Lloyd speak than the quality of that overlong, less than spectacular comedy, Lloyd’s follow-up, FEET FIRST (1930) showed a marked decline in boxoffice. Lloyd and his Production Staff were definitely aware that something was wrong, and spent two years putting together his next talkie, MOVIE CRAZY(1932) and the hard work showed in what was his strongest sound film to date, yet good reviews and a Paramount publicity splash still amounted to only a fair gross, nothing compared to his silent releases.

Two more years passed as Lloyd and his team went for a different approach, making a more story-based/character-motivated film that did not rely on gags to carry the film, but THE CATS PAW was actually first-refused by Paramount, forcing Lloyd to release it through Fox in 1934, and once-again, despite good reviews (it’s the best Lloyd talkie in this Author’s opinion), the film barely broke even.

Back at Paramount, Lloyd threw up his hands and let the Studio produce his next picture. THE MILKY WAY had Leo McCarey at it’s helm, and a fine supporting cast that included Adolph Menjou, Lionel Stander, Verree Teasdale, William Gargan and George Barbier, and Paramount spared no expense, as it became Lloyd’s most costly picture to date, which may have had something to do with it’s barely breaking even as well, but suffice to say, at this point Harold Lloyd had to be very concerned about the future of his film career.

What was the problem? Well, to begin with, Lloyd was still on paper doing better than most of his former competitors. Chaplin had reduced his output to two films in the last decade, both silents, which had done well despite bucking the talkie trend, but it was becoming obvious that Chaplin could not continue as he was, and it would be a new decade before he would face the microphones in THE GREAT DICTATOR. Buster Keaton was drying out and just beginning his uphill climb back after hitting rock-bottom in 1936, soon to be working only as a writer with not even his Educational Comedies to keep his face before the Public. Harry Langdon was back in the Country after several years abroad, and living at the home of his friend Stan Laurel, rebuilding his career by gag-writing for Laurel and Hardy and making the occasional film appearance. So at least Harold Lloyd was still rich and making his own movies when he wanted to, but somehow, since talkies came in, audiences weren’t flocking to see him the way they had in the 1920’s.

Perhaps part of the problem was that Harold Lloyd was too much in control of his work, but his voice didn’t help, though not particularly unpleasant, it lacked much color and certainly had no eccentricity built into it that could define his character. Lloyd just didn’t sound like the brash go-getter he had played at his silent peak. Then again, Lloyd wasn’t a bright-eyed youngster anymore, and perhaps his inability to grasp that fact immediately made his characterization in talkies more problematic than it should have been. The major problem for Harold Lloyd was that times had definitely changed, the optimism of the Jazz Age had been replaced by the reality of the Depression and could Lloyd have been possibly a bit too well-cushioned from that reality to realize its consequences on his audience? The film Harold Lloyd should have made in the 1930’s was one having to do with his rich spoiled fellow ala WHY WORRY or FOR HEAVENS SAKE being brought low by Wall Street and having to fend for himself, or perhaps Lloyd could have a married bank teller who stopped a run on his financial institution in an even more comic version of AMERICAN MADNESS. But no, Harold Lloyd continued to be the go-getter, even when there was no go-to-be-getting, and the older he got, the stranger his character seemed. In short, Harold Lloyd never grew up.

Which finally brings us to PROFESSOR BEWARE, a film of Lloyds that has been somewhat unfairly dismissed and neglected by everyone. When it was released in 1938, it became the first Harold Lloyd film to suffer a dead loss at the boxoffice, and upon that realization, Lloyd promptly retired from making his own starring vehicles, at least until Preston Sturges got him to return once more for THE SIN OF HAROLD DIBBLEBOCK/MAD WEDNESDAY in 1947. PROFESSOR BEWARE just sort of slipped through the cracks after its release, Lloyd sold it to Paramount to cover his losses and basically washed his hands of it. It was not reissued as part of the large DVD set of Lloyd’s work a few years ago, and apart from one showing on the old American Movie Classics in the 1990’s has not really resurfaced anywhere, its reputation among Lloyd Fans and the Film History Community at large not particularly stellar. The pity there is, that though it is far from a perfect film, it actually comes pretty darn close to figuring out a way to make Harold Lloyd’s comic persona work in a 1930’s milieu.

If Harold Lloyd was not going to allow his character to grow up, then it’s definitely better to make him more of an eccentric like the befuddled professor Lambert who can convince himself that he’s a reincarnated Egyptian reliving the curse put upon him, all the better to send him off on a Frank Capraesque road-trip adventure that will allow him to find himself and romance as well. The plot construction here shows the lessons learned from THE CATS PAW allowing for stronger plotline and character development, but the travelling aspects of the story allow Lloyd the breathing room to throw in some decent gag sequences as well. On Lloyd’s terms, it’s about as good a compromise as you can expect, and considering that, by this point, Lloyd’s crack comedy staff was crumbling, only Clyde Bruckman and Jack Cunningham seem to be left, replaced with a screenplay by Delmer Daves and Direction by Elliot Nugent, neither known for spectacular senses of humor. In any event, this odd grouping appears to have been able to at least retool Harold Lloyd’s persona to become partially palatable to a new generation who didn’t know or dimly remembered Lloyd in his prime.

Unfortunately, it may have been a case of “too little, too late”, reviews of Lloyd’s talkies had begun to refer a bit too much to his “quaint silent comedy style”, and “a brand of entertainment he has set over a long span of years”. Whether Harold Lloyd had grown up or not, he had become a relic in the public’s eyes, and one that they did not particularly feel the need to revisit, and not being terribly comfortable with failure, Lloyd consigned PROFESSOR BEWARE to the dust heap, an unfair move considering it is really one of his better talkies, with another fine cast of solid supporting actors, good production values, and one of Lloyd’s better sound performances. Slapsticon hopes to correct some of this neglect by presenting it to you.


RICHARD M ROBERTS

Richard M Roberts
Godfather
Posts: 2005
Joined: Sun May 31, 2009 6:30 pm

Re: Slapsticon Notes: PROFESSOR BEWARE (1938)

Postby Richard M Roberts » Sun Jun 24, 2018 11:43 pm

And if anyone would like to see the film, here it is:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0TlBshUfLjY&t=3589s


RICHARD M ROBERTS

Chris Snowden
Associate
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Joined: Mon Jun 01, 2009 11:16 am

Re: Slapsticon Notes: PROFESSOR BEWARE (1938)

Postby Chris Snowden » Tue Jun 26, 2018 8:26 pm

Terrific overview and analysis, Richard. I have nothing to add about the film itself, but it is fun to ponder the reasons for Lloyd's relative fall from grace in the 1930s.

I have a couple of theories. First is one you already touched upon, that he was getting too old to play the same character that audiences had been seeing since World War I. Personally, I think he's already too mature-looking as early as The Freshman (in which he does looks like a young man, but not like an 18-year-old college freshman, for Pete's sake). He gets away with it in the silents, but when you see him in Feet First and he's still playing the awkward post-adolescent who's still living at home with Dad, it really gets creaky. You'd think Lloyd would have moved his hairline down with a grease pencil or something, but I guess he felt he could still get away with it. Audiences might have felt differently.

My other theory about his box-office decline has more to do with the box-office itself. At his peak in the mid- and late-1920s, Lloyd was able to command very high rental rates for his pictures, and a percentage as well. The trade magazines are full of complaints from exhibitors, in which again and again they gripe that while the new Lloyd picture filled the house and pleased the audience, there wasn't much profit for the house. The grumbling isn't good-natured, either. I'm thinking that the exhibitors went along with this only as long as Lloyd was packing 'em in; when audiences began cooling to Lloyd after Welcome Danger, the exhibitors may have begun passing on each new Lloyd film, either because the rental rates were still too high or simply because they still felt burned by him.

Tommie Hicks
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Re: Slapsticon Notes: PROFESSOR BEWARE (1938)

Postby Tommie Hicks » Wed Jun 27, 2018 9:35 am

Lloyd also sent men to the larger venues to confirm attendance and pick up the Lloyd money in person which rubbed a lot of exhibitors the wrong way. By reading exhibitor comments (which are great to read) one could get the impression that Johnny Hines' success was due to not being Harold Lloyd. Paraphrasing many exhibitors "Johnny Hines gives us pretty much the same films as Lloyd that are more profitable for us and there's no Paramount man getting in my face and demanding the exorbitant take."

Richard M Roberts
Godfather
Posts: 2005
Joined: Sun May 31, 2009 6:30 pm

Re: Slapsticon Notes: PROFESSOR BEWARE (1938)

Postby Richard M Roberts » Wed Jun 27, 2018 4:46 pm

I think all of the things Chris and Tommie mentioned are valid parts of Lloyd's decline, which happened for a number of complicated reasons, he pushed everyone as his stardom rose, Paramount as well as the exhibitors, and basically made demands only a really huge star could get away with, and the minute that stardom was affected in any way, all parties began to rethink their commitments. Another very telling and interesting aspect of what happened to Lloyd was Paramount's first-refusal refusal on handling THE CATS PAW, which ironically I think is Lloyd's best talkie feature, but when both FEET FIRST and MOVIE CRAZY had done tepidly, the tight percentages Paramount already had when handling a successful Lloyd feature made profits from a less-successful Lloyd feature even more miniscule, remember, in the movie business, breaking even is failure.

Speaking of Johnny Hines, John McElwee at Greenbriar Picture Shows did a great article years ago comparing Hines success at First National to Harry Langdon's, and talked about Hine's reliability and profitability due to keeping his budgets down and his demands fair. You can read them here:

http://greenbriarpictureshows.blogspot. ... t-one.html

http://greenbriarpictureshows.blogspot. ... could.html

It is interesting when you realize that both Langdon and Hines lost their independence in the purge of expensive First National stars that Warner Brothers did when they bought the studio, but Hine's films had still been making money. I always wondered why Hines and his producer C. C. Burr did not return to state-rights distributing after First National dropped Hines, that area had been where Hines and Burr had had big-time success in the first place, but perhaps Hines saw the handwriting on the wall for his persona and the changing nature of the post-talkie movie business and wisely retired a bit more gracefully, he had invested well like Lloyd and kept his hand in the business to the extent of a handful of character roles in major studio features before packing it in completely by the end of the 30's. Very interesting to realize that both pretty much left the industry at the same time and both died around the same time.


RICHARD M ROBERTS


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