28 January 2017 | wmorrow59
Crazy Eddie to the rescue
Like a lot of baby boomers I grew up with Bullwinkle, Rocky the Flying Squirrel, and the rest of the Jay Ward Saturday morning cartoon gang. That means I also grew up with Edward Everett Horton, peerless narrator of "Fractured Fairy Tales." I loved his warm, plummy voice, long before I learned to match that voice with his puckish face on TV sitcoms such as F Troop, or in old movies. Once I was familiar with him, EEH quickly became one of my favorite comic character actors; his presence in a TV episode or a flick was enough to inspire me to tune in, and, whatever the quality of the material, he was almost always amusing; at his best, he was delightfully funny.
It's only comparatively recently that I learned Horton had a substantial career in silent movies. You'd think he would be at a disadvantage without that wonderful voice, but you'd be only partly correct: with his highly expressive face and limber body, he comes off surprisingly well in the silent medium. I've seen him in the feature Helen's Babies (1924) opposite Clara Bow and Baby Peggy, and in a prominent supporting role in La Bohème with Lillian Gish. Better still, in the late '20s Horton starred in his own series of two-reel comedies produced by the great Harold Lloyd. I've seen several of these shorts, and they're generally quite enjoyable. EEH is the center of attention, and is granted plenty of opportunities to show off his chops as a physical comedian.
Behind the Counter, one of the series, was shown recently as part of a silent comedy festival at the Museum of Modern Art in NYC. The print shown on that occasion had titles cards in a language other than English (Czech, I believe), but the story was easy enough to follow, and EEH and his supporting players conveyed a great deal without having to rely on words. The setting is a department store where Eddie seeks a job, although a haughty supervisor who appears to be Chief Floorwalker attempts to block his way. However, using a Harold Lloyd–style ruse, Eddie manages to finagle an interview with the manager. He lands a job, and also meets and flirts with the manager's daughter.
Once he's an official employee, Eddie tries out his idiosyncratic sales methods. When a lady is uncertain about purchasing a hat, he flamboyantly models it for her, complete with scarf. A little boy seems unimpressed with a miniature tricycle, so Eddie happily pedals it around the store's showroom. Less happily, he also gets involved with some firecrackers that go off accidentally. Meanwhile, we learn that the haughty supervisor is in cahoots with a gang of crooks who plan to rob the store that very evening. Eddie is leaving with the boss's daughter when she suddenly realizes she left her bracelet behind. They return to the store to look for it, along with her chauffeur, but accidentally lock themselves in. When the crooks arrive, Eddie and his companions initially assume the place is haunted. Eventually, they figure out what's happening, and our hero turns the tables on the crooks.
That's basically the plot. For me, the first half worked best; the tone is lively, and Horton is spirited and appealing. The second half, while still fun, depends too heavily on over-familiar Haunted House gags relocated to a department store. For instance, when a cat who hangs out in the place slips under a sheet, Eddie and his companions react to the "ghost" with fearful trembling. (You've seen that one, right?) But there is an especially funny, startling gag in the second half: a mannequin head which resembles the boss's daughter falls onto a hot radiator. Edie, who can only see the face from a distance across a counter, thinks it's his girlfriend, and converses with her. To his horror, the face expands like a balloon from the heat, then melts. Now THAT's a funny sight gag!
Behind the Counter is a cute short, well produced and briskly paced. Horton comes off nicely, or as well as one could wish deprived of his distinctive voice. I hope this short becomes more widely available, along with his other two-reel comedies, in restored versions. Until then, I'll just have to imagine the witty things the characters were saying to each other.