1 October 2002 | F Gwynplaine MacIntyre
Crude version of once-famous play
George S. Kaufman was a phenomenally successful playwright who wrote comedies in tandem with several different collaborators, most notably Moss Hart and Edna Ferber. His 1925 Broadway play "The Butter and Egg Man" was unusual, in that Kaufman reportedly wrote it by himself without any collaborators ... although there are rumours that Herman Mankiewicz was an uncredited co-author. "Butter and egg man" was a term invented by speakeasy hostess Texas Guinan, referring to a small-town sucker who comes to New York with a big wad of cash.
The 1928 movie "The Butter and Egg Man" is a faithful silent-film adaptation of Kaufman's play. Jack Mulhall plays the hayseed Peter Jones, whose bankroll seems to surpass his IQ. Jones attracts the attention of Joe Lehman (Sam Hardy), a crooked Broadway producer right out of the Max Bialystock school ... except that Kaufman thought of this long before Mel Brooks, of course. Lehman's assistant Jack McClure is hilariously played by William Demarest, already displaying in this silent film several of the physical tics that would stand him in good stead during his long sound-film career. Lehman and McClure con Jones out of his savings, and use the money to bankroll a show which is supposed to flop anyway. Of course, he turns the tables in a clever and unexpected way.
Most of Kaufman's comedies featured "the Jean Dixon role": a prominent supporting role for a middle-aged woman, suspicious of male authority and ever ready with a wisecrack. (Stage actress Jean Dixon played such roles in the Broadway productions of several Kaufman plays.) In this film, the "Jean Dixon" role is the crooked producer's wife Fanny, played by Gertrude Astor... a fairly mediocre actress, who is here extremely unconvincing in her big scene, which requires her character to be drunk.
Greta Nissen, very beautiful, plays a virginal actress (is that an oxymoron?) named Mary Martin ... several years before a real actress by that name became famous on Broadway. "The Butter and Egg Man" is one of Kaufman's weaker plays; this film version is poorly paced and only fitfully funny. Kaufman's wisecrack wit plays much better in a sound movie than with silent-film intertitles.