1 October 2005 | F Gwynplaine MacIntyre
Oakie dopey, Olive oily.
I once had dinner with film actress Victoria Horne at the Players Club in Gramercy Park, years after the death of her husband Jack Oakie. Although she had a long and impressive career in her own right, Horne was much more interested in talking about her husband's life and career. She was deeply gratified that I had so much interest in his films. My cultural references are mostly British and Australian; very few of Jack Oakie's movies have been widely shown in those countries -- 'The Great Dictator' being an exception -- and he is largely unknown in the Commonwealth.
In his film roles, Oakie tended to rely on a blowhard personality and dialogue rather than a physical performance. Here, in 'The Social Lion', his role is far more physical than usual, and he takes advantage of the opportunity. Oakie plays Marco Perkins, who aspires to be a pro athlete. The tubby Oakie is manifestly unfit for that career, but that's nothing unusual for this actor: Oakie generally played characters with unrealistic aspirations. In the boxing ring, Marco tells each opponent in turn that their bootlaces are untied. Amazingly, this trick always works ... until Marco squares off against a pug wearing boots with zip fasteners.
Eventually, Marco falls for Gloria Staunton, a posh society girl whom Marco meets at the polo club. (I kept expecting a joke about Marco Polo.) What is it about Jack Oakie and songwriting? In several of his films -- 'Sitting Pretty', 'June Moon', 'Tin Pan Alley' -- Oakie was cast as an aspiring songwriter, always with more confidence in his own talent than any actual talent. In 'The Social Lion', it turns out that Marco the would-be athlete is also a would-be songwriter. Telling Gloria that she inspires him to write a love song, he proceeds to sing it to her. Naturally, it's not very good, but Gloria seems to like it. Gloria is very well-played by the very sexy Olive Borden, who almost convinced me that she was genuinely attracted to Oakie's schlub character. The blonde Virginia Bruce is also very sexy in a brief appearance as one of Gloria's snobby friends.
SPOILERS COMING. It turns out that Gloria was only pretending to like Marco so that she and her high-society friends could take the mickey out of him. But good-girl Cynthia Brown (played by dull Mary Brian) was in love with him all along. Skeets Gallagher, whom I usually find deeply annoying, is in his usual mode here as Oakie's brash manager. I'll rate 'The Social Lion' 6 out of 10, purely on the strength of Oakie's energetic performance and Olive Borden's sex appeal.