Saturday, May 22, 2021

Review - One A Minute

May 22, 2021
One A Minute – U.S., 1921

In discussing Douglas MacLean’s 1921 film One a Minute, I’m tempted to paraphrase the tag of Billy Crystal’s 61* and ponder history’s rather peculiar judgment that there were only three great silent comedians of the male persuasion – Chaplin, Keaton, and Lloyd. The implication, of course, would be that MacLean deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as those cinematic giants, a suggestion that Kevin Brownlow had no qualms about making in his seminal book The Parade’s Gone By, but which I cannot support beyond the deep affection I have for his performance in One A Minute. See, fate saw to it that MacLean would be easy to forgot. Of the twenty-three feature films he made, only two survive in full. Our loss.
One A Minute, directed by Jack Nelson, features MacLean as Jimmy Knight, a recent graduate of law school returning to his hometown, Centerville, to run his father’s drug store, and if that sentence doesn’t make your head spin, I’m not sure what will. Like so many other trips home in silent films, this one allows two attractive youngers, Jimmy and Miriam Rogers (Marian De Beck) to meet and discover a comradery. Unlike other films, this bond involves an article on Abraham Lincoln and his reputation as a fighter, a quality both of them admire. As luck would have it, they both embark at Centerville, although not entirely at the same time.
After a humorous bit involving Jimmy, a fancy car, and a few local townspeople, Jimmy arrives at his father’s store to find it hemorrhaging customers to a CVS-like competitor able to offer medicine at cheaper prices and keep its shelves fully stocked. In fact, these days, its most loyal customer seems to be Jimmy’s aunt, who according to the intertitles, has never read about a condition she didn’t then discover she had. Soon, he’s cursing the very store he came back to save and remarking to a reporter friend (Victor Potel) how much he wishes someone would just walk in and offer him $1,000 for it. And wouldn’t you know it? Within seconds of uttering those hopeful words, the doors swing open and the owner of his competitor (Andrew Robson) enters offering to buy him out for $2,000. There’s only one problem: He’s Miriam’s father, and when she appears and gazes at Jimmy with a sincere look of admiration, he simply has to play the role of the fighter that she so highly venerates.
Admittedly, little, if any, of what I’ve described thus far is likely to seem all that novel. However, what follows completely defies expectations. (I won’t spoil it except to say that a miracle cure for all that ails you and a quote by P.T. Barnum reverberate throughout the film.) It is as if screen writers Frederick Jackson and Joseph Poland had looked through a crystal ball and seen all of the cinematic clichés that would follow and made it his mission to make the one film that was the exception. And in defying these expectation, they gave MacLean a heck of a role. Admittedly, I was suckered in by the romance and saccharine sweetness of the opening scenes, ones that would have been right up Harold Lloyd’s alley. However, that sentiment changes with the arrival of “Jingo” Pitts, the reporter, another character that goes against stereotypes. Suddenly, MacLean takes on the demeanor of a spoiled rich kid eager to be rid of, yet profit off of his father’s life’s work. When he gets the offer, his expression is of sheer giddiness, akin to a child who’s just gotten his allowance and is now consumed with thoughts of where to waste it.
In fact, the role of Jimmy requires MacLean to take on a kind of split personality. There’s the confident, diligent persona he adopts for Miriam and the local politicians, and then there’s the nervous, almost rueful one we get hints of whenever his fellow townspeople are certain to be looking the other way. This is evident late in the film in one of the best courtroom scenes you’ll ever see in a comedy. In one of its best moments, Jimmy is questioning a witness for the prosecution and with a straight face actually asks how doctors can be so sure that charcoal causes health problems if they’ve never prescribed it. Jimmy then flashes that “million-dollar smile” that MacLean was famous for, so proud of his cleverness, only for it to instantly be replaced by one of embarrassment after he catches a glimpse of the judge’s stern, disapproving look. The judge is impressively played by Carl Stockdale.
The ending, alas, comes out of left field and is a major cop-out. It would have been better for the film to invest in its storyline fully and perhaps end with a newspaper headline declaring the world to be in perfect health. Instead, we get a feel-good message about the power of suggestion that doesn’t gel with what came before. I get it, though. In 1921, we were in more traditional times. Movies were just starting, prohibition was in its second year, and people were already wondering if Hollywood was glamorizing a lifestyle that was anything but Christian. In a way, the ending is a way of reaffirming those values that so many people said movies should uphold. Still, it is the most forgettable part of the film.
And so, I return to my earlier impulse – to put MacLean among the giants. I know it seems premature to make that assertion after just one film, but think about all those times, you just knew. When you watched an actress making her onscreen debut and immediately proclaimed she would win an Academy Award. When you heard a song on the radio and could tell instantly it was destined to hit #1 on the charts. When you watched a college athlete and had no doubt he would be considered a legend one day. Sometimes you can tell. (on DVD from Undercrank Productions)
4 stars
*One A Minute has been meticulously restored and looks incredible. I may have to rethink my views on Quickstarter.
*The courtroom scene features one of the most creative uses of Chinese characters I’ve ever seen.

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