Three Men on a Horse seems to be a fairly well regarded film but I found it on the whole, a bit puzzling. Not really for anything contained within the film itself but for the things it made me think about while I was watching it. The movie is an adaptation of a popular play and stars Frank McHugh, in a rare starring role as the hapless Erwin Trowbridge, a simple man with a knack of picking winning racehorses. The only problem being that he does it for fun and doesn’t believe in betting. When he falls in with some gamblers they try to befriend him in order to make their fortunes. This snappy premise is ably milked by the talented cast of character actors to showcase their considerable, and usually overlooked wares. And in the middle of it all, in a secondary role is one Joan Blondell, who at this point in her career definitely is not a character actor, and whose presence is, well…a bit odd.
From the beginning you can tell that the movie is essentially a filmed stage play. The sets are sparsely decorated and large, the cast is small, the script is dialogue heavy, there is virtually no location work and much of the action happens off screen. Of course there is nothing wrong with this approach, and despite the fact that the production screams “B-picture” the basic set up allows the experienced cast to flex their acting muscles in ways that I’d imagine many of them had rarely had the opportunity to do.
Despite all this, as the dialogue went whizzing by between the fast talking characters, all I could think was that in the last few years my mind had really become subconsciously attuned to Pre-Code movies. The dialogue in Three Men on a Horse is sharp and frequently amusing, but I think I’ve just become accustomed to there being a bit more bite in my ‘30s wordplay. It made me realize that the Hays Code for the most part really delayed the progress of movies as a form of entertainment to be enjoyed by adults. A lot of people hear so much about Pre-Code movies that when they finally see some examples they are vaguely disappointed by a perceived lack of scandal or overt sexuality. For me this is missing the point. Early sound films are so enjoyable because of their sense of freedom. The lack of any heavy censorship wasn’t a free pass to push taste boundaries, rather it made sure that dialogue could be written to not only better reflect life but to represent the viewers’ and the writers’ often varied tastes.
In contrast, late '30s movies like Three Men on a Horse seemed to develop a ‘wise guy’ patter that gives the impression of street level talk in its pitch, speed and rhythm, but in actual fact ends up saying nothing. Of course, this in itself was all part of Hollywood’s ‘re-branding’ in the post-Depression years, as the studio product got slicker and the stars became vehicles to push the glamour and prestige of film making. The point is, despite the witty script, it gets to a point where it’s just a group of men loudly talking at each other. In 1931, it would have been a different story. Perhaps not as well filmed and acted, but certainly a different story.
The cast in itself is mostly excellent. Frank McHugh is mesmerizing in the lead, tripping through the movie in a sort of naïve daze. His bleary eyed look gives the impression of a man out of step with the world and who has to put up with suburbia and a nagging wife in order to have a hobby that gives him enjoyment. The gamblers, played by Allen Jenkins, Teddy Hart and Sam Levene are impressive in that typical Warners way and hugely energetic but sadly hampered by really stagey accents. In fact everyone in the movie seems to have a really annoying thick Brooklyn accent of the ’I’ll moider ya’ and ‘you goys got a noive' variety. In fact Sam Levene’s accent as the dimmest of the three hoodlums doesn’t just verge on caricature, it practically throws caricature off the cliff then sets fire to it. Now, if all this is meant as some warped parody of the Warner Brothers gangster cycle then all is well and good, but I really doubt that was the intention. It may be a result of the script’s stage bound beginnings giving it a sense of heightened reality, but for a mostly stage bound movie it just becomes distracting. At times (and especially in the bar scenes) it really is as if the director Mervyn LeRoy just decided to do a performance of the play and film it for posterity.
Of course all this criticism is overlooking the good points of the film. The rest of the cast is really excellent, with Edgar Kennedy restraining the slow burn as a bartender, Carol Hughes (a childhood favourite of mine for her turn as Dale Arden in Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe) as Mc Hugh’s eternally crying wife, Guy Kibbee as McHugh’s blustering boss and a brief, funny appearance from a pre-Jack Benny Eddie Anderson. As noted, it’s an excellent cast, but the approach just doesn’t work as a film and the accents are exactly what you hear in modern dramas when they do some awful pastiche of 1930s Broadway. Which brings us to Joan Blondell…
Unfortunately Joan Blondell succumbs to the theatrics of the play and sports a heavy, heavy Brooklyn accent, a la Judy Holliday in Born Yesterday but with none of the subtlety and charm. The accent is so thick that her character, the girlfriend of gambler Teddy Hart who has pretensions of a quiet life in the suburbs, can't avoid becoming caricature rather than character. Strangely enough I’ve just listened to a Lux Radio Theater production of She Loves Me Not from 1937 where she does exactly the same accent and it’s equally distracting and ridiculous (kind of like a lower pitched and more worldly wise Dorothy Lee). So the accent must have been her idea and a favourite to boot. Anyway, accent aside she really doesn’t do enough to merit her second from top billing, which begs the question, what was she doing in the picture in the first place? It’s clearly a B picture populated with character actors in featured roles, so why is she, the biggest star in the film, reduced to a minor supporting part?
Part of the answer may be down to Joan’s own lack of ambition and her then recent marriage to Dick Powell. She was known to just want to keep working and looking after her family rather than play studio politics so it’s likely that she was offered the script and chose to do it based on the strength of the writing and relative fame of the play. However, her appearance in the movie could also be a sign that her star was beginning to slip. Her screen appearances in 1936 give some hints as to this, despite three pictures teaming her with Dick Powell. In Sons O’ Guns she is lumbered with (and smothered by) Joe E. Brown as a leading man, and while Bullets for Ballots gives her a choice role with Edward G. Robinson, it is really just as the featured female lead in a 100% Robinson movie.
This was a pattern she would fall into more often than not in the years to come: the bright dependable leading lady to be paired up with A-list featured male stars (with Errol Flynn in The Perfect Specimen, Leslie Howard in Stand In and Bing Crosby in East Side of Heaven to name a few). In the late ‘30s and beyond there seemed to fewer and fewer opportunities for an equal pairing with her co-stars, with Dick Powell and Pat O’Brien being notable exceptions. Three Men on a Horse, silly accent aside may be one of the first indications that Joan was an actress to be slotted in to brighten up a movie, rather than a featured star in her own right. Of course, Joan being Joan, she didn’t fight it, choosing rather to get on with the work at hand. Perhaps if, like Bette Davis and Myrna Loy she had stood up against the quality of her parts it would have made a difference to her career. On the other hand, perhaps the example of the then fading Kay Francis at Warners was enough to make anyone forget such ideas.
I don’t know, but I can’t help but think that Joan Blondell is wasted in Three Men on a Horse, though ultimately she lends some class and real star power to a pretty cheap B-picture (Paul Harvey even fluffs a line and it stays in the film!). It’s not a perfect movie by any means but it is entertaining (in a 1936 sort of way) and features a generous spotlight on a number of actors more used to smaller roles. For my tastes however, it raises too many problems to make it a classic. And those accents…ugh. Did people in Brooklyn ever speak like that?