26 June 2009 | wmorrow59
The new technology of sound films proved to be a career-booster for silent clown Lloyd Hamilton, who'd suffered from various personal and professional difficulties during the last days of the silent era. The good news for Ham was that he had a decent speaking voice, low and a bit raspy, that suited his Born Loser screen persona. In some of his early talkies, such as Don't Be Nervous, he came close to capturing the spirit of his silent work and used sound cleverly. Toot Sweet! is something of a disappointment however, for although the basic premise is very much the sort of thing Ham did in his silent comedies, the result, after a promising opening sequence, is strangely flat and unsatisfying. Ultimately this film is a good example of a style of comedy that worked in silent cinema but didn't properly translate to the brave new world of talkies.
The story is simple: Ham is interested in a girl named Marie and wants to impress her. First he buys a car—a used one, quite battered, with fenders that flap in the breeze—and then he takes her out to a swanky nightclub. The bulk of the film is set in the club, which features attractive Art Deco décor and a swinging jazz band. But in the course of this disastrous date Ham realizes that Marie isn't the nice girl he thought she was: she only went out with him to make her real boyfriend jealous. The boyfriend is an Apache dancer at the club, and when she sees him kissing his dance partner she becomes enraged and smashes up the place, while poor Ham is stuck with the bill.
This could have been a perfectly good silent comedy. Ham plays his familiar role just as he did in pre-sound days, with the same eccentric walk and droll facial expressions, but we soon become aware that the dialog is getting in his way. At times Ham and the supporting players deliver their lines with that acute self-consciousness one finds in these early talkies, while at other moments their words sound mumbled, as if the actors kept forgetting they were being recorded. (And who knows? Perhaps they did.) There are some amusing bits, as when Ham and Marie are repeatedly thwarted in their attempts to dance at the club: each time they get up from their seats they find that the tune is ending, or the band was only warming up, etc., and they must sit again. The verbal jokes Ham delivers aren't so hot, however. Example: when a singer finishes performing a number, Marie instructs Ham to give him a tip. Ham advises the man to have his tonsils removed to improve his voice. Oh well . . .
Perhaps the biggest problem is that behavior which might have seemed acceptable in the semi-unreal world of silent comedy just doesn't play well in talkies. We're supposed to find Marie amusingly fiery and hot-tempered, but when she loses it and starts destroying the nightclub she comes off as flat-out crazy, and when Ham makes no attempt to restrain her we wonder what's wrong with him. And yet, in a silent short I think this would have worked.
Lloyd Hamilton went on to make some decent sound shorts in the early '30s. (After that, unfortunately, he was overwhelmed by personal problems.) Toot Sweet! isn't so good, but then again, a lot of great comedians were still struggling with the microphone in 1929, and Ham shouldn't be judged too harshly for this early misstep.