December 13, 2018
The Passionate Plumber – US, 1932
Edward Sedgwick’s The Passionate Plumber is one of the more curious films I’ve ever seen, and in this instance, that is not a compliment. Here’s a movie set in Paris with mainly French characters, yet none of the lead actors actually speaks French. Now before you say that’s because they’re in an American film, consider this: They are surrounded by French speakers speaking nothing but French, yet here are our lead characters, some of them with French names, speaking English and, occasionally, extremely butchered French. It’s odd to say the least. Add to that, the stereotypically exaggerated way in which practically every French man in the film reacts to the film’s hero and the fact that one of the leads is a hot-tempered Spanish woman who screams and breaks things as a way of showing her affection, and you’ve got a movie that probably could not be made today.
But this is a film from 1932, and it is a Buster Keaton film as well, so if you subscribe to the viewpoint of a moral relativist, you’ll argue that it is wrong to judge the film by today’s expectations of logic and our abhorrence of cultural stereotypes. This is a sentiment I partially agree with, having argued that movies that feature Caucasian actors in either blackface or yellowface should not be shunned simply for featuring something that many others featured at the time. Yet, consider for a moment the choices that many of those films made, mainly to have all of its characters speak the same language and have the same level of fluency. In other words, the audience heard them speak perfect English, but we knew they were really speaking faultless Chinese or Spanish. I half-expected The Passionate Plumber to begin much in the way Mel Brooks began To Be or Not to Be, with Anne Bancroft and Mel Brooks quarreling in Polish only to be interrupted by a narrator informing them and us that the film will no longer be in that language. And we can accept English accents as French so long as everyone has one. When only half do, it’s another matter entirely.
The Passionate Plumber finds Buster Keaton playing Elmer E. Tuttle (The E is short for Elmer.), a plumber in Paris who in the film’s early moments is summoned to fix the shower of a wealthy Parisian woman named Patricia Jadine (Irene Purcell). Patricia is trying to evade her on-again, off-again boyfriend, Tony (Gilbert Roland). It seems that Tony is married and Patricia has decided she needs a new start. If only she weren’t so in love with him and so easily drawn back into his arms by his romantic words and sugary promises of a long-term commitment. Eventually, Patricia turns to Elmer for help. His task is simple: Do whatever is takes to keep her from running back to him.
There’s definitely comic potential in this scenario, and those of us familiar with earlier Keaton films can easily predict just who Patricia will end up with in the end, yet the film never truly finds its footing. Far too much time is devoted to a subplot involving Elmer trying to tell a military commander about a night gun he’s invented, and then there’s the unusual amount of time devoted to explaining Tony’s situation. It’s almost as if the film is trying to make him a tragic hero, a man who can’t control his passion for women and because of that flaw can’t see the truly amazing woman in front of him. Normally, I don’t mind such character exploration, yet they forgot one key detail: Tony is the antagonist.
Keaton doesn’t get many truly great comic opportunities here. While I enjoyed the persistent gag involving Elmer’s reluctant habit of slapping most of the French men he angers with a white glove (and on one occasion a bath towel) and the ingenious way he gets out of each ensuing challenge to a dual, I never really laughed aloud at it. In fact, in my notes, I have the words “finally laughed” under the line “You said that yesterday,” yet for the life of me, I can’t remember what it was uttered in response to. I guess it was just that kind of movie. Joining Keaton in his many attempts at zaniness once again is Jimmy Durant, and while I praised his performance in Speak Easily for breathing life into that disaster, here I found him somewhat intolerable, not because he does not bring energy to the film, but because he’s essentially playing the same character – a loud, wise cracking sidekick with a knack for expressing wit and uttering rather horrible jokes. Having seen the shtick once, I was less impressed the second time around.
When Keaton was at his peak, his films were a marvelous combination of slapstick, deadpan, and romance. When Keaton got the girl, it was because he had finally been able to be the person he’d always wanted to be in her eyes. Such early happy endings continue to leave audiences with a deep sense of satisfaction. I remember the feeling I had at the end of College with its final shots of Keaton’s headstone next to his wife’s, signaling that to them it really was till death do us part. The Passionate Plumber fails because it neglects to make Elmer and Patricia a couple we root for. In truth, how can we when the film devotes no time at all to establishing a connection between them? Instead, it appears to be operating on that assumption that far too many films have made: that if a character just hangs around long enough, a woman will realize she loves him eventually. This works in short films, yet when a film has over 70 minutes to build a relationship and elects not to, the happy ending comes across as unearned and, perhaps even more egregious, uninspired.
And that’s a shame because had the film focused more on Elmer and Patricia, it may have worked. Keaton and Purcell certainly have excellent comic timing, and they appear at ease with each other even during the movie’s more “pre-code” moments. I just didn’t buy the ending. A wiser film would have just let Elmer leave the way he came in, having successfully preventing Patricia from belittling herself any longer. She would be ready to move on, and Elmer would be off to his next plumbing gig. Alas, such endings are more associated with Chaplin. Keaton simply had to get the girl. I get it, I do. I’m just a little tired of it, that’s all. (on DVD as part of Warner Brothers’ Buster Keaton at MGM triple feature)