This lightweight vehicle proved to be the last comedy Douglas Fairbanks would produce before turning exclusively to swashbuckler roles. Viewers familiar with Doug only as Zorro or D'Artagnan may be surprised to find him in a contemporary farce, playing the sort of zany young millionaire we associate more strongly with Harold Lloyd or Buster Keaton. And indeed, the opening sequence of this movie is right out of a Keaton comedy, as Doug, playing wealthy inventor Charlie Jackson, goes through his morning ritual of awakening, bathing, and dressing with the help of several bizarre gadgets of his own devising. This is pure silent comedy and a fun intro, amusingly summed up with a title reading: "Maybe necessity is the mother of invention -- but the father of these is a nut." And Charlie Jackson is definitely eccentric and woefully accident prone, but basically a good sort. The object of Charlie's affection is Estrell, a well-meaning young lady who has taken an interest in slum children. Estrell believes that taking poor kids into "refined" homes for an hour or two of play each day will make them better citizens. (The filmmakers express reservations about Estrell's theory in a mildly sarcastic title card, but however naive she may be, we're given to understand that Estrell, like Charlie, has a good heart.) The plot revolves around Charlie's increasingly desperate attempts to interest wealthy patrons in Estrell's idea, while also thwarting the attentions of a villainous gambler who feigns interest in order to have his way with the girl.
There are a number of comic high points, including another Keatonesque moment when Doug, who has lost his clothes in public and is stripped down to his underwear, manages to cover himself with a "suit" sliced out of a billboard advertising a men's clothing store. There are also some amusing moments involving wax dummies stolen from a museum, a suspenseful sequence in which Doug crawls through the pipes of a building's heating system, and a funny gag during a fistfight in the lobby of a movie theater. But perhaps the most memorable bit is one that occurs during a party sequence, early on. Doug gives a performance for his guests which consists of ducking behind a screen and re-emerging dressed as various famous historical personalities such as Napoleon, Abraham Lincoln, General Grant, etc. Actually the stunt is faked, and this is revealed when the screen is accidentally knocked over and we see several startled actors standing by, already in costume for their roles. But there's one we haven't seen before, a Charlie Chaplin impersonator who goes into a brief imitation of the comedian before he is hustled off the stage. There has been some controversy over whether this impersonator might actually have been played by Chaplin (a close friend of Doug's off-camera), cleverly disguised in a Tramp outfit that doesn't look quite right; that is, the man himself playing a second-rate imitator. Several film historians have questioned whether this really is Chaplin, and it would seem that it is not, though the very notion of such a gag is an appealing one.
Over all I'd say The Nut is a pleasant and amusing light comedy, well worth a look for silent film buffs. For me, the main drawback is the personality of Doug's character: with his combination of high enthusiasm and ineptitude, Charlie Jackson gets a little exasperating after a while, and requires more patience from the viewer than similar characters played by Keaton or Lloyd. Even so, he redeems himself in the finale, ties up all the loose plot strands, wins the girl, and leaves us satisfied at the fade-out. What more can we ask of a movie hero?
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