Chronically unfunny “comedian” George K. Arthur plays a boob (in the bumpkin sense, not the anatomical one) who loses his best girl to a smooth bootlegger. Chaos ensues but the main draw is a very young Joan Crawford as the federal agent on the case.
Stop giggling, you!
The Boob is a minor comedy from the mid-twenties but it is historically significant for two reasons. First, it’s an early appearance of Joan Crawford and the last of her second banana roles to be released before her rapid rise to stardom. (It was made when she was just another wannabe but shelved and released once her career was just catching fire.) Second, it’s the picture that got William Wellman fired from MGM.
Wellman had signed with the fledgling company and had been working as an assistant director and fix-it man. That is, he would go into unfinished and troubled pictures and complete them. He replaced Robert Vignola on The Way of a Girl and Josef von Sternberg on The Exquisite Sinner.
Wellman replaced Vignola one more time when a bumpkin comedy called The Boob showed signs of trouble. This was more than just a patch-up of a nearly complete film. Wellman was viewed as a replacement director and was credited accordingly. Um, thanks?
Peter Good (George K. Arthur) is a country boy who has lost his sweetheart to Harry Benson (Tony D’Algy). Amy (Gertrude Olmstead) is completely taken with the city slicker and they plan to marry that night after a romantic dinner at a hot new club.
Peter goes to his only friends for support and this is our first hint that something is very wrong with the film. Cactus (Charles Murray) is a typical clichéd cowboy but Peter’s other friend is a little African-American boy named Ham Bunn.
I’m sorry, I needed to take a break to yell at the screen. I’m okay now.
The young actor who plays Ham is uncredited but the character has all the stereotyped mannerisms a viewer can expect from a character in a film like this. There is also a little terrier named Benzine who hangs around with the trio. You know a film’s in trouble when even the dog isn’t cute.
Anyway, Cactus outfits Peter with cowboy gear to impress Amy. When this fails, our hero decides to become a government agent and take down bootleggers because obviously. He rides out of town, stopping to give a ride to a little old lady. Cactus and Ham both decide to follow their friend.
After hearing this description, how much time do you think elapsed? How many movie minutes did it take to show this story on the screen? Ten minutes? Fifteen? Nope. This tiny wisp of plot took thirty minutes, fully half of The Boob’s runtime, to unfurl on the screen.
Amy and Harry are having a romantic dinner but our heroine doesn’t seem to notice that everyone around her is positively blotto. The hot new restaurant is also a hot new speakeasy and it’s being investigated by Federal Agent Jane (Joan Crawford) and her crack team of investigators.
Sounds good, right? The movie seems to have picked up, hasn’t it? Well, too bad! We get more Peter Good antics, aren’t we happy?
Peter stumbles into the speakeasy because he sees some French Apache dancers and takes the performance for a real assault. He gets thrown out, decides there is nothing more to see and wanders off again. Later, he reunites with Ham and runs into Jane in a graveyard. For some reason, she thinks he is a real agent but then he wanders off again. And later than that, he runs into Harry and Amy in the midst of a bootleg operation but everyone gets away. Oh, it’s a real humdinger, this plot.
The Boob is one of those pictures where a lot of stuff happens but nothing actually gets accomplished. Instead of an actual story or funny gags, we are simply shown a tedious string of skits that don’t fit together very well. The Boob is only an hour long but feels twice that length.
So The Boob’s biggest issue is pacing but the script is not far behind. You see, absolutely nothing Peter does impacts the story in any way. If he had stayed home and cried into his milk Jane would still have arrested Benson and Amy would have seen the error of her ways. So what was the point of the film? Easy. There wasn’t one.
The worst of it is that The Boob gives us glimpses of a much better film involving Jane and her band of federal agents chasing down bootleggers and wearing fabulous satin hats. I would watch the heck out of a movie like that. Instead, we’re trapped with Peter, Cactus and poor little Ham. I am tempted to call Amnesty International.
In theory, a talented cast might have saved the film. If the leading part had been played by a good comedian or a leading man with a good sense of humor, the film might not have been so painful. Alas, the main cast of The Boob proved to be no asset.
There are times when I find George K. Arthur annoying but there are other times when I find him intolerable. He’s not funny, he’s not cute and he’s not even bad in a unique way. He’s just… there. I usually like weird little men in silent films (Andy Clyde, Lupino Lane and Clyde Cook, for example) but I can’t warm to Arthur. He’s not as bad as Larry Semon (who is?) but he is still annoying as heck in a part that was clearly written for Charles Ray.
Gertrude Olmstead is as bland as ever. She played a very similar role in The Monster, which was no masterpiece but at least she had a better leading man (Johnny Arthur, no relation) and Lon Chaney chewing scenery as a mad scientist. In this film, she just sort of stands around and/or screams.
Charles Murray’s Cactus is overdone and, like everything else in this film, not very funny. Poor little Ham Bunn is played by a cute kid but he’s undone by stereotypes. In the end, the only performer who escapes this mess unscathed is Joan Crawford. Her time in the film probably totals five minutes (which may be why she was such a success in this turkey) but you can see at once that there is a star in the making. She’s fresh, charming and looks fantastic in her silky duds. I do wish she had looked up at the camera once in a while but you can’t have everything.
William Wellman’s behavior on the job did not sit well with Joan Crawford. While Gertrude Olmstead was the star and had to be treated with some respect, Crawford stated that Wellman grabbed her breasts and derriere when he wasn’t ignoring her entirely. Wellman’s attitude makes this story credible as he dismissed Crawford as a humorless starlet with a reputation as a slut (his word) in an interview with Crawford biographer Lawrence Quirk.
(You can read details of this in Joan Crawford: The Essential Biography by Lawrence Quirk and William Schoell. The book has mixed reviews but it does contain interviews with Crawford and others that are not found elsewhere.)
Veteran Charles Murray, on the other hand, was both kind and encouraging to Crawford, telling her that any dud role she had to take as a contract player would give her much-needed experience.
(Crawford also claimed that Olmstead was threatened by her presence in the film, complaining that there was no need to have Jane played by a pretty actress when an ugly one would do. I believe Crawford as Olmstead did seem to have a bit of an attitude. She claimed that she was replaced as the leading lady of Ben-Hur because at 5’2” she was too tall to play opposite Ramon Novarro, who was 5’6”. The petite barracuda May McAvoy, who took over the part, delivered a very nasty little burn to Olmstead by saying that she had to delay starting work on Ben-Hur because the costumes made for Olmstead were far, far too big for her. Go get her, May!)
The Boob was made in the middle of the Ben-Hur disaster that threatened to destroy MGM, as well as the madness that was The Merry Widow. Irving Thalberg and Louis B. Mayer could not be expected to be in the best humor. However, even if everything had been champagne and flowers, I doubt that Wellman’s career at MGM could have survived this film. MGM shelved it for a year and when it was released, it was savaged by reviewers and described as a piece of junk and the worst movie MGM had made in its young life.
After seeing The Boob, I have to say that I agree with Thalberg and Mayer, as well as the contemporary film critics. Everything, absolutely everything is wrong with this picture. Joan Crawford’s all too brief appearances elevate the film somewhat but then the whole thing comes crashing down again without her. The pacing is abysmal, none of the jokes are funny and George K. Arthur is himself, which is to say aggressively unfunny.
This is easily the worst movie I have ever seen from Wellman and it boggles the mind that he was able to create an elaborate production like Wings just a few pictures later. My opinion? The uninspired screenplay and dull cast were just as eye-glazing and mind-numbing to Wellman as they proved to be to audiences. In short, he was assigned a dud, knew it and phoned in his direction. I can’t really say that I blame him.
This movie is for Joan Crawford fanatics and William Wellman completists. Everyone else is advised to steer well clear.
Movies Silently’s Score:★
Where can I see it?
If you must, you can catch this film on DVD with the Warner Archive release. It features a nice score (too nice for this picture) by Arthur Barrow.