Tue 17 Mar 2015
THE VILLAIN STILL PURSUED HER. RKO, 1940. Anita Louise, Margaret Hamilton, Alan Mowbray, Richard Cromwell, Joyce Compton, Buster Keaton, Billy Gilbert and Hugh Herbert. Screenplay by Elbert Franklin and Ethel LaBlanche. Directed by Edward Cline.
Never really funny but always highly amusing, this is a (mostly) straight-faced filming of William H. Smith’s popular temperance play, The Drunkard, first performed in 1844 and frequently revived for comic effect — as I write this it is still playing in Tulsa Oklahoma in a production that started in 1953, which makes it the second-longest-running play currently on the boards.
The movie version offers a marvelous cast led by one of my favorite character actors, Alan Mowbray (best remembered as the hammy thespian in John Ford’s Wagonmaster and My Darling Clementine) with able support from that eternal juvenile lead Richard Cromwell; Hatchet-faced Margaret Hamilton, sympathetic for once as a dying ol’ widder woman; ditzy Joyce Compton, perfectly cast as Hazel Dalton, wandering lunatic; and Buster Keaton, as her brother William, whose doughty heroics here prompt bittersweet memories of his hey-day in the silents.
The story, in case you’re interested, deals with kind-hearted but weak-willed Edward Middleton, who marries the poor-but-honest daughter of the dying ol’widder woman and is almost immediately led astray by Lawyer Cribbs, who nurses a hatred for his family (“I hated his father, I hate him, and if he should have any children, I shall hate them as well.”) and has some sort of secret buried in the woods — through which our wandering madwoman is wont to ramble.
When our young hero succumbs to Demon Rum and flees to the City to hide his shame, it falls to his friend William to bring him home and save his wife and child from the machinations of villainous Cribbs — and incidentally cure his perambulating sister.
Obviously this is not to be taken seriously, and Director Edward Cline, who worked with some of the great names in Film Comedy, does a fine job of keeping his players earnest and the pace accelerated. But the real show here is Alan Mowbray, who takes this rare (for him) starring role and runs away with it.
It’s somehow fitting to see Mowbray as Cribbs, since he was a member of the Fields/ Barrymore/ Fowler circle, and W. C. Fields himself played an actor playing Cribbs in The Old-Fashioned Way (1934) to hilarious effect. Mowbray wisely chooses not to ape Fields, but puts his own stuffy hauteur into the part, and achieves the considerable feat of creating a classic screen villain who is also a wonderful comic character. Lovers of old weird movies live for films like this.