the REEL WORLD: 1934

Friends of Mr. Sweeney

A bespectacled Charlie Ruggles plays Nathan "Asaph" Holliday, a meek writer who has spent 20 years working for The Balance, a very conservative publication run by Franklyn Brumbaugh, a corrupt womanizer. It soon becomes obvious that Asaph hates his boss and his work, but he feels such a strong sense of duty to the job that he could never imagine writing a story that he believes in, let alone fighting to get it published. Suddenly his old university friend, Wynn Rixey (Eugene Pallette, a big, burly, gruff-voiced man -- you may recognize him from Mr. Smith Goes to Washington), arrives in town and is appalled to find his formerly raucous, partying friend transformed into such a spineless sycophant.

Meanwhile, Asaph has started dating Beulah Boyd (Ann Dvorak), a woman from the office. (There's a particularly nice little scene where he stands in front of her apartment door, trying to summon up the courage to knock, and an unidentified man breezes past, recognizes what is happening, knocks hard on the door, and is gone, barely breaking stride.) Asaph, Beulah, Rixey, and Rixey's date Millie end up going out for a wild evening on the town, and try to get in to an exclusive party. After being turned away, Asaph overhears people getting in by saying they are "friends of Mr. Sweeney" (whoever Mr. Sweeney is), repeats this to the doorman, and is ushered in quickly. The four are treated to free-flowing booze, and Asaph, becoming more and more bold, decides to do a bit of illegal gambling to pay the bill. There's the old gag of the naïve guy's not realizing the dealer means "thousand" when he says "five" or "ten"; here it is carried off with suspense and panache.

There is a wild and hilarious scene near the end where Asaph et al. find themselves in the locked-up office building of The Balance while the building is being burgled and Brumbaugh is trying to have his way with a woman. Rixey, drunk beyond words, keeps pressing what he thinks is the call button for the elevator -- it's actually a fire alarm, and dozens of fire trucks scream onto the scene. Upstairs, Asaph catches Brumbaugh, and shamelessly declares that he is going to publish an exposé of the political deal that Brumbaugh was trying to keep quiet. The transformation from milquetoast to confident hero is complete.

This film is a wonderful bit of fun. Ruggles is perfectly cast, his metamorphosis is utterly believable, and many of the supporting characters are marvelously over the top. I don't think Friends of Mr. Sweeney is available on video (I saw it at the Eastman House), so keep an eye out for it on late night TV.

It Happened One Night

This film, starring Claudette Colbert as a spoiled heiress and Clark Gable as a gruff reporter, cleaned up at the 1935 Oscars: Best Picture, Best Actor for Gable, Best Actress for Colbert, Best Director for Frank Capra, and Best Writing, Adaptation, for Robert Riskin. It's a near-perfect example of a screwball romantic comedy. Tim Dirks's review describes it as "a reversal of the Cinderella story, a modern tale with light-hearted sex appeal in which courtship and love triumph over class conflicts, socio-economic differences, and verbal battles of wit."

Ellie Andrews (Colbert) has, to spite her father, nominally married a worthless playboy, and jumps off her father's yacht to run away and join him. To stay anonymous, she boards a night bus from Miami to New York, and on it meets Peter Warne (Gable), a reporter who has just been fired for drinking on the job. He needs one big story to get his job back, and when he figures out who Ellie is, he decides to write it about her.

Ellie and Peter's first interactions are acid at best. He pegs her as a selfish, spoiled brat, and she dismisses him as a boor of no social standing. When her bag and money are stolen, however, he begins to look after her, much to her dismay -- he figures that the more he helps her on her journey, the better his news story will be. As they travel, however, the two realize they are increasingly attracted to each other, even as they continue their fierce verbal sparring.

There is a wonderful scene where they are stranded by the side of the road, and Peter tries to give Ellie a lesson in hitchhiking, only to be completely outdone by her. Lots more happens that I won't get into, except to say that there's an autogyro right at the end (Mr. Burns from The Simpsons would feel right at home). This film crackles with intelligence, wit, romance, social commentary, and even a bit of raciness.


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Emily Way (emily@vex.net)
Last updated October 19, 1998