16 March 2004 | F Gwynplaine MacIntyre
Weak drama, one good comedy scene
'The Expert' is based on a play titled 'Minick', and the name change is probably down to the fact that Chic Sale plays the leading role. For many years, Sale was a vaudeville monologist who did rural material about hicks and hillbillies. More importantly, Sale was also the author of a book called 'The Specialist', consisting entirely of cornpone jokes about outhouses. This book was a tremendous best-seller in the 1920s and '30s, to such an extent that its success eclipsed Chic Sale's career as a performer, and - in an era when many Americans still used outhouses - it became fairly prevalent to refer to an outhouse as a 'Chic Sale' ... in much the same way that, a few years later when Don Ameche starred in a film about Alexander Graham Bell, people thought it was funny to call a telephone an 'Ameche'.
Warner Brothers must have named this movie 'The Expert' so that its title would evoke Chic Sale's best-seller 'The Specialist', misleading audiences to believe that this film is a comedy. It's not; it's a sensitive character study.
John Minick (Sale) is a small-town man who's getting on in years. His son Fred and daughter-in-law Nettie prevail on Minick to live with them in Chicago. But there really isn't much room for him, what with Nettie's baby, and there isn't much money either. Minick has his life's savings: not much money, but he's able to keep his pride so long as his finances don't require him to live off Fred's meagre salary. Down the street there's a residence for old men who have nowhere else to live. Minick finds himself spending most of his time there, to socialise with men his own age and to give Fred and Nettie some privacy. It's clear that, if Minick outlives his life's savings, his only real option is the old-men's home. This being 1932, a year when many banks failed, it's quite understandable that Minick keeps his life's savings at home.
Next-door over to Fred and Nettie live the Crowleys, a married couple who have adopted a boy named Dickie Foster. (Why did the orphan's name have to be Foster? I kept expecting jokes about him being a 'Foster' son.) The Crowleys are a couple of Fagins, who are raising Dickie to share their criminal ways. Old Minick befriends young Dickie, and tries to be a good influence on him.
Then, one day, Minick discovers that his life's savings have vanished. Has young Dickie betrayed the old man? If not, who stole the money? Either way: with Minick's savings gone, the old-men's home beckons...
This is an engrossing story and a serious one, not at all the sort of material we expect from playwright George S. Kaufman. Apart from some wisecracking dialogue, the comedy in 'The Expert' is largely confined to one set-piece scene, in which Minick antagonises the stuffy women of a civic organisation with his views on child-rearing.
Chic Sale acquits himself well in both the dramatic and comedic aspects of his role. There are good performances from Elizabeth Patterson and Walter Catlett, and an unfortunate 'yassuh' performance from black actress Louise Beavers, who was typecast in such roles. In the important role of Dickie Foster, child actor Dickie Moore is in over his depth. I once interviewed Dick (formerly Dickie) Moore well into his adult years, when he was running a public-relations firm in New York City. He spoke to me in detail about his many experiences as a child actor working with some of Hollywood's biggest directors and actors. Much as I'm grateful for his kindness, I was never impressed with Moore's performances on screen ... and 'The Expert' features Dickie Moore at his twee worst. I can't rate this movie higher than 5 out of 10.