Thursday, January 10, 2013

Medicine Man (1930)

Extremely odd, at least in reflection of Jack Benny’s persona, about a young put upon girl who is romanced by a patent medicine salesman in a backwater town in the early 1930’s. It’s a dark little tale that most people assume in a comedy because it has Benny in it, but it’s not.

As the slippery snake oil salesman of the title Benny is scary good. It’s a performance that doesn’t seem all that remarkable until you realize how far removed it is from the Jack Benny of radio and TV. Here is a smooth character who can handle anything and turn it to his advantage. He’s the sort of guy who wouldn’t have butter melt in his mouth. It’s such an obvious operator that the supposed happy ending, which has the girl and Benny going off in wedded bliss has darker overtones- as does the whole ending.

Not to put too fine a point on it, this is dark dark film. The Depression is clearly in full bloom. Anyone in authority, the girl’s father and the older gentleman who wants to marry her are abusive louts. There seems to be no hope for tomorrow, with even the way out of the darkness being a kind of lesser of several evils.

To be honest the film isn’t that good. It’s a bit stilted by today’s standards and it’s a weird mix of darkness and light that is kind of similar to Dennis Potter’s Pennies From Heaven where you gets bursts of light into dark reality. Actually I’m kind of curious if Potter had seen the film prior to creating Pennies.

So if it isn’t all that good why am I writing it up for Unseen?

Simply put, it’s because of Jack Benny. Benny operating outside of his comfort zone, Benny being a romantic lead and slime, Benny showing us how good he really was. Groucho Marx said that the only person they ever considered letting join the Marx Brothers was Benny because he was so good at anything he did. Groucho had said that most people never understood just how great a performer Benny was really. Here’s proof. (By the way the only reason that Benny didn’t join the Marxs is that his mother wouldn’t let him go with them).

Worth a look for the curious. The film can be had in bargain bins for about a buck and the occasional Turner Classic’s screening

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