It’s time for another episode of After the Silents, where I examine the careers of silent film personnel in the talkie era. Today’s film is a low-budget turkey but it has more silent veterans than you can shake a stick at. (And stop shaking sticks at people, it’s rude.)
While I have my choice of silent gents, I’m going to choose Ben Alexander. You’ve heard of “that guy” actors who seem to be in everything? Well, for part of the silent era, he was the “that kid” actor who played everyone’s kid brother.
But first, the movie.
The Legion of Missing Men (1937)
Just about every Hollywood Foreign Legion picture owes something to Beau Geste and therein lies the problem. You see, Beau Geste’s plot is spectacularly silly and all of the problems could have been solved with a single honest conversation. You basically have The Remains of the Day sans any self-awareness but with guns. Yay?
In spite of this, Hollywood could not get enough of those Geste boys and this led to some off-brand adaptations. If Beau Geste were a steak dinner, The Legion of Missing Men would be canned stew meat food product with an indeterminate expiration date. And for good measure, we also get some copycat Under Two Flags and counterfeit Morocco scenes complete knockoff Marlene Dietrich! What joy.
But the deep dark secret of most Foreign Legion pictures? They’re awful and I kind of love them.
The film opens with a band of exhausted legionnaires marching through the desert. They may be tired, they may be thirst but by gum their mustaches are waxed and their hair is oiled! Anyway, they are ambushed by Arabs (the film helpfully describes them as “some Arab tribes”) and barely get out alive but a shipment of machine guns is captured.
One of the legionnaires is Bob (Ralph Forbes, veteran of the 1926 Beau Geste), a soldier of fortune who constantly talks about his beloved kid brother, Don. Whenever a grizzled hero waxes poetic about a kid sibling, said sibling is just bound to get into a pickle. Bob also has some comedy relief sidekicks but I refuse to acknowledge that they exist.
Meanwhile, the villain of the thing is introduced. Shiek Ibrahim-Ul-Ahmed (Roy D’Arcy, ex-Erich von Stroheim impersonator) wants to use the captured guns but they are disassembled and apparently the instructions for putting them back together are Ikea-level difficult. There’s also a strange sequence in which the Arab characters say things like, “as many as the fingers on two hands twice.” Seems like this method would be awkward at the supermarket. “Your total is as many dollars as the centipede has legs less the fingers of two hands plus the number of eyes on a cyclops. Paper or plastic?”
I should mention here that the film opens with a ditty entitled Song of the Legionnaires and while the rest of the picture is pretty stingy on incidental music, we do hear that darn song again and again and again. It is sung by a male chorus, it is then sung by Nina (Hala Linda). There’s not much information available on Linda but it seems that she was married to one Richard Gump, who also wrote Song of the Legionnaires. I think it’s probably a good thing that Miss Linda opted not to take her husband’s name, yes?
Nina’s the Jeanie-Weenie of the legionnaires. (If you don’t get the reference, then you clearly have not seen Laurel and Hardy’s Beau Hunks. Stop this film and treat yourself to some Hal Roach Foreign Legion spoof goodness with bonus Jean Harlow. The short starts slow and keeps building its running gag until the delightful payoff. Enjoy yourself, I’ll wait.) Nina likes Bob but he decides that he cannot touch her because his fellow legionnaire, Sergeant Garcia (George Regas), has called dibbed. Nina objects to being treated like the last piece of pizza (“Oh no, I couldn’t possibly, YOU have it!” “No, no, you must have it!”) and says so.
By the way, considerable humor is to be found in the assorted ways that the cast pronounces Garcia’s name. If only there was a Spanish speaker to help but those are clearly not to be found in Southern California.
So then who should show up among the new recruits but Don (Ben Alexander), Bob’s kid brother. It seems that getting into college is haaaard and so Don decided to join the Foreign Legion. (I am not making that up. It is literally his reason for signing on.) The film never explains how the veddy veddy British Forbes is somehow the brother of 100% Yankee Ben. There isn’t even the usual “I raised him in Canada” excuse. Sloppy, sloppy, sloppy.
Anyway, Don falls for Jeanie-Weenie, um, I mean Nina and then gets himself in a spot of trouble, blah, blah, blah, and ends up in major trouble. Bob quietly works behind the scenes to get his brother off the hook but Nina decides that the only solution is to have Shiek Ibrahim-Ul-Ahmed’s men break the kid out and make him go AWOL. Because the Sheik is totally not shooting at the legionnaires and would just do them a favor because he likes them that much.
You guessed it, through Nina’s idiocy, all of the main characters are captured by the Sheik. Don is totally ready to help the Sheik get the captured guns working but then he figures out that (gasp!) these weapons may be turned on the Legion. A real bright one, this Don. It’s probably best that he and Nina not get together as the children produced from the union wouldn’t have two brain cells to rub together.
Will the Foreign Legion be shot down with their own guns? Will Don go back to college? Who will win the love of Jeanie-Weenie? See The Legion of Missing Men to find out! Or, you know, don’t. There’s no need for you to suffer as I have.
Motion Picture Daily sums it all up succinctly in its review of the film:
“The French Foreign Legion is the background for this film, but there is little of consequence in the story it serves. It is the usual tale of brotherly love, not very well acted.”
Fair enough. Now, we all know that the actors in the film were probably capable of better but, hey, this was a Monogram production. Hala Linda is harder to gauge as this was her one and only film appearance. She is clearly supposed to come off as a mysterious, sexy Dietrich type but her character is so incredibly stupid that it just looks like there’s no there there, if you take my meaning.
If you want a moment of squick, the Motion Picture Herald suggested that theater owners market The Legion of Missing Men by listing missing persons in the local area. I’m all for spreading the word on the missing but using their likenesses to sell movie tickets strikes me as incredibly tacky, especially since the goal was not to actually find these people. Good old days, amiright?
This film is predictable, silly and, despite its short running time, incredibly dull. I really liked it a lot. What can I say? It pushes all my bad movie buttons. I think I’ll give this one a watch at my next family gathering as the love of cinematic cheese is genetic.
Availability: You can get a bargain edition on DVD, if you must.
If you were making a movie in the mid- to late-1910s and you needed a kid, who would you call? Ben Alexander, of course! If you’ve watched enough silent films, Alexander’s little face will be a familiar one. Here are just a few of his roles:
He was Bobby Harron’s little brother in Hearts of the World, played an orphan in Little Orphant Annie, befriended outlaw Al Jennings in The Lady of the Dugout and learned the German goosestep in The Little American. Alexander successfully transitioned to juvenile parts in the latter half of the twenties and proved himself in the talkies in All Quiet on the Western Front.
Alexander worked steadily through the 1930s and quit the movies in 1941. He would make a triumphant return to television as Joe Friday’s partner, Sgt. Frank Smith, in Dragnet.
I love to talk about Alexander because he overcame not one, not two but three hurdles that tripped many other performers. First, he managed to transition from child to youth roles. Second, he made it through the talkie transition (though the perils of the talkies have been exaggerated). Third, he transitioned from youth roles to adult roles.
The Legion of Missing Men was definitely in the youth category, though he was getting a bit long in the tooth to play the callow kid. It’s not really the best showcase for his talents but you’ve probably seen him in better film and television roles anyway.
In any case, here’s to Ben Alexander, who entertained us in onesies and in fedoras. Not at the same time. That would have been weird.
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