September 13, 2018
Parlor, Bedroom, and Bath – 1931, US
To illustrate one of my difficulties with Edward Sedgwick’s Parlor, Bedroom, and Bath, I will ask you consider an alternative version of Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s 11. In this version, the film is essentially the same right up until the scene in which Danny Ocean lays out his plan in front of his ten cohorts. Then for some inexplicable reason, the film jump ahead in time. The gang of thieves - sans Danny, of course - is now in front of Caesar’s Palace watching the fountains dance, Tess has rediscovered her feelings for her ex-husband, and it seems everything will end happily ever after. Now, regardless of whatever came next in the film, wouldn’t you feel a tad bit cheated? If your answer is yes, you know precisely how I felt watching Parlor, Bedroom, and Bath.
The film has a somewhat promising premise: A wealthy man named Jeff (Reginald Denny) must find a husband for his fiancée’s older sister, Angie (Dorothy Christy), or else Angie is doomed to remain single forever, an option, it must be said, that she doesn’t seem to have much of an objection to. Jeff resolves to solve the problem by the end of the week, and as luck would have it (luck for Jeff, that is), he just happens to hit a pedestrian who a moment earlier had fallen head over heels in love with Angie at first glance. Talk about a coincidence.
The pedestrian is Reginald Irving, sign tagger (Buster Keaton). Jeff arranges for him to be taken care of at Angie’s home. He also concocts an elaborate plan to give Reginald the reputations of being both a ladies man and a man of means. Reginald is neither, of course, In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if he’d never been kissed in his life. No matter, Jeff arranges for Reginald to be visited by a string of women, each one acting more grief-stricken than the last and each promising to wait for him. Keaton’s reactions were priceless during this scene.
And strangely enough it works. Soon, Angie develops a soft spot for him, reasoning that anyone who is being pursued by that many suitors must be something really special. Thus begins a series of hilarious madcap events, all designed to get Angie not only to like Reginald but also to want to marry him in no time flat. Just kidding. Such scenes actually do not exist. No, instead the film flashes forward, and the next thing we know Reginald’s engaged to Angie (just who popped the question is unclear) and coping with a guilty conscience. To which I have only this to say: What a wasted opportunity.
Hard to believe, but the film gets even more problematic from there, for in its last thirty minutes, it begins to resemble one of Pedro Almadovar’s lesser-quality sex comedies. In these scenes, we get someone’s version of humor – not mine clearly and if I can read Keaton’s body language correctly, not his either. In the finale, Keaton thinks one thing, and a young woman believes another. Now, normally there’s nothing necessarily wrong with most cinematic situations that fit that description, yet in this case, the man thinks a seduction is fake, while a woman (actually more than one) thinks she is in danger of being sexually assaulted. I suppose we are meant to laugh when Reginald tries to wrap his arm around the woman as she screams and begs him to leave her be, but I couldn’t. The sequence made me sick to my stomach, and this is despite the frequent slapstick sequences scattered throughout the scene. I was reminded of a scene in The Naked Gun in which a woman thinks Frank Drebin is going to assault her with an intimate piece of a statue that broke off. What separates the two scenes however is this: Drebin suddenly become aware of how it looks and seeks to smooth things over, while Reginald just moves on to his next unintended target. I just didn’t find it funny.
There are a few daring pre-Code moments in the film that will make jaws drop. One of these involves Angie ending an engagement because of “specifications in a bathing suit,” which brought to mind an episode of Seinfeld. There are also a few flashes of shoulders sprinkled throughout the film, and these must have been considered scandalous back in the day. I also enjoyed some of the film’s witty dialogue. For example, in one scene, Reginald asks the driver of a hay truck who’s given him and a young lady a lift how much he owes him. The driver replies, “Do you think $2 would be too much?” Reginald answers yes.
However, these moments are few and far between. The film is neither amusing enough to sustain interest, nor risqué enough to be bold. Worst of all, it gives Buster Keaton little to do until the very last scene, when he is finally able to break loose and showcase his array of comedic talents. To me, it was too little, too late. I would much rather have seen an extra half an hour of Reginald’s attempts to woo Angie. In addition to this being rather whimsical, it would also have explained why the two of them like each other in the first place and perhaps removed the stigma that Angie gets of being a stuck-up money-obsessed snob for whom no man will ever be good enough. We never get to see another side of her, and that is to the detriment of the film. After all, it’s hard to root for someone when someone else seems like such a better choice. (on DVD as part of Warner Archive’s Buster Keaton at MGM)