5 January 2005 | F Gwynplaine MacIntyre
The first time I saw the movie 'Guys and Dolls', with its chorus line of phony Damon Runyon gangsters, I noticed that one character didn't fit in with the rest of the mob: a petty crook named Society Max, played by a runty little actor named George E Stone. His part was undersized (like the actor himself), yet he seemed to be in a completely different movie from everyone else. 'Where'd they find this guy?' I wondered. 'Couldn't they have found someone who fit in with the rest of the cast?' But I noticed Stone, and as I learnt more about this actor I understood why he didn't fit in: because George E Stone was the genuine article in a crowd full of fakes. In real life, Stone was a drinking buddy of Damon Runyon and more than a few gangsters. If Stone's screen portrayals of petty crooks didn't fit the Hollywood template, that's because he based his performances on reality, instead of reinforcing cinema stereotypes.
'The Big Brain', a low-budget second feature, gives Stone a rare chance at a leading role, though he's playing a little man in the figurative sense as well as the literal one. Max Werner (Stone) is a runty egotist who fancies he's catnip to the ladies. A confidence trickster named Sam Ryan is impressed with Werner's nerve, and gives him a job as a bonds salesman ... selling fake bonds. Werner decides he likes being a crook, but the bond racket is getting too hot for him, so he scarpers to England (courtesy of some unconvincing RKO set design and stock shots), and starts swindling the milords and the miladies. But then Werner meets a pretty woman who seems to be attracted to him. Does she actually see something in this guy, or has she got a cute angle that he's too obtuse to notice?
George E Stone's sheer talent and personality go a considerable way towards putting this over, but he's seriously undercut by the fact that the English characters in this movie are all very implausible stereotypes of the 'I say, old boy' variety ... despite the presence of a couple of genuine Brits in the cast. The movie's pacing is poor, the direction is weak, and some camera set-ups are downright annoying. The script is more than slightly amusing, but the ending manages to be both contrived and obvious. SPOILER: The lady who seems to love Werner is really just a decoy to get him arrested. Robert Emmett O'Connor (the second-team William Frawley), who played sour-faced detectives in several other movies, repeats that turn here ... and his presence is welcome, even though O'Connor doesn't do anything here that he didn't do better in 'A Night at the Opera'. Lucien Littlefield is amusing in a supporting role. Littlefield was a sorely underrated performer, who was so protean that most viewers don't realise his wide range of portrayals were all the same actor. Phillips Holmes gives his usual neurasthenic effeminate performance. Fans of Fay Wray will see nothing special here. Mostly from the pleasure I got in seeing George E Stone play a lead role, I'll rate this weak movie 6 points out of 10.