The Boob (1926)

The main thing I have to say about this silent movie directed by William A Wellman is that, while it’s no great classic, it isn’t nearly as bad as Wellman himself made out. It’s also very interesting to watch for fans of his great silent movie Wings, as, even though this is a slapstick comedy, several elements of this film show the way forward to his First World War masterpiece, made the  following year. The Boob has been released on DVD as part of the Warner Archive series (although it was made by MGM) and I’ve been lucky enough to see it, thanks to a kind friend.

Gertrude Olmstead and Tony d'Algy in the swing

The similarities with Wings are noticeable at the start of the film, which focuses on Peter, an innocent young farm boy (George K Arthur) living in an isolated rural area. He is in love with the glamorous Amy (Gertrude Olmstead) – who, however, is attracted by a more sophisticated and slightly older man, bootlegger Harry (Tony d’Algy). This is very much the same situation as at the start of Wings, and there is even a scene with Amy rocking dreamily in a large swing with Harry, just as Jobyna Ralston and Richard Arlen do in a tracking shot near the start of the more famous movie. The camera follows the movement of the swing here too. Porch swings like this were clearly evocative of romance and glamour to Wellman – and so was long hair, I’m guessing, since Amy has the same long hairstyle as Sylvia (Ralston) in Wings.

Infuriated by Amy’s disdainful behaviour towards him, Peter vows to prove himself by tracking down bootleggers and showing what Harry is really like. He borrows a wildly outsize costume from an annoying comic character, Cactus Jim (Charles Murray), along with a gun and a horse, and heads off to become a man. I won’t bother to recount the whole plot, but, although I don’t find Cactus Jim’s brand of humour very funny, there are some very enjoyable comic scenes not featuring him, especially one where Harry takes Amy to a club known as ‘The Booklovers’ . This is laid out like a library with leather-backed books, except that, as the jokey titles on the spines suggest, the various books all contain hidden bottles of various types of booze!

There are also a couple of experimental scenes such as one where a picture on the wall comes to life, and a dream sequence involving a flying bed –  Wellman having fun and showing his imagination. Perhaps the most characteristically Wellmanesque scene, though, is one where Peter gives an elderly woman walking through the countryside a lift on his horse, walking alongside as she rides. At first I assumed this would be a silly joke with her stealing the horse from the gormless youngster – but far from it. The poignant twist is that she is going to a Home for Impoverished Women. As Peter stands and stares sadly at the scene unfolding before him, it is all very close to the twilight world of Beggars of Life, and Wellman’s later Depression era movies. This is a comedy and there is a happy ending for the woman, who is later rescued to ride off with Cactus Jim on his horse – but the scene still has a haunting quality.

George K Arthur and Joan Crawford in 'The Boob'

The film is probably mainly known among fans of Joan Crawford, who has a small part as a prohibition agent, wearing glamorous flapper-style dresses as her disguise. This is a small example of Wellman showing women working alongside men in responsible jobs, as he does time and again in his early films. However, Crawford didn’t think much of the film and is only in it for a few minutes – anyone interested in knowing more about her part can take a look at the detailed review of the movie at The Films of Joan Crawford website.

A child actor who has quite a major part by comparison, but sadly went uncredited, is a young African-American boy whose character has the joke name Ham Bunn – he and a scene-stealing dog accompany Peter on many of his travels. As with Blue Washington’s character  in Wellman’s Beggars of Life, Ham is brave and a true friend, and isn’t portrayed in a particularly stereotyped way as far as I can see, except that the inter-title cards giving his speech are in dialect. And, of course, the fact that he is unnamed in the cast list speaks for itself.

I wouldn’t want to start claiming this is any kind of great film, but I’d say it’s definitely worth a look for fans of both Wellman and Joan Crawford. Oh, and if you’re wondering about the title, it means a village idiot type – which our hero isn’t any more by the end.

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12 thoughts on “The Boob (1926)

  1. Glad to see you posting again. I did love the blog which included Beggars of Life. It’s astonishingly unusual to have a black actor in a serious role at the time: OxBow Incident which cannot leave out the black hero has a white man in black face.

    Let me add: I hate the title. It grates. Allow me to suggest the bad press partly comes from that title. In the US it has the most awful connotations (sexual as well).

    Ellen

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    • Thanks, Ellen, I don’t like the title either, and it has those connotations in the UK too – although the title they chose over here, ‘The Yokel’, is hardly appealing either! It’s not really a very good film, though I fear I may have made it sound better than it is by dwelling on the best bits:)

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  2. Sounds like an odd film in Wellman’s filmography though this was still early in his career. I love seeing well-known actors in early roles before they became famous which is a reason in itself to watch this for Crawford. Interesting point on some of the similarity to WINGS considering how different the films really are. According to IMDB this film was released in England under the title “THE YOKEL.” Will have to check this out. Another good one Judy!

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    • Thanks for mentioning the English title, John. I like seeing small roles for well-known actors before they became famous, too, especially when they play roles they might not have taken on later – this reminds me that I recently saw ‘The Bad Sister’ with a very young Bogart as a conman, smooth, handsome and well-spoken, and Bette Davis as a dowdy younger sister! I think I’ll be writing shorter pieces on that and one or two other early 30s movies in the next week or so.

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  3. Judy: I think the characterization of Ham Bunn comes close to crossing the line so to speak, and would be raised along with the on-screen treatment of other minorities during this period as questionable. But I found it tame enough. I completely agree with your reference point to WINGS, both in th eopening scene and later. It does seem easy enough to see that the film was made by Wellman by whomever -yourself of course first and foremost – knows his subsequent work. This isn’t a great film by any stretch, but as you rightly note it’s far better than its detractors’ arguments. Wellman’s breezy and comedic transcription of melodrama must have been a refreshing and welcome change at the time of release.

    Typically, your exhaustive treatment brings yet another rarity to the table with exquisite vigour.

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    • Thank you, Sam, too kind as ever – I can see the portrayal of Ham could be taken as a bit patronising, but I wasn’t sure how much was down to him being a child, and how much to him being black – in any case, I accept that some of the treatment could be questionable. Glad to hear that you thought the Wellman hand was apparent at times and spotted the Wings touches too. I do agree it certainly isn’t a great film, but one that is worth watching for a Wellman fan – and I’m so thankful I was able to do so!

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  4. Pingback: Monday Morning Diary (February 15) « Wonders in the Dark

  5. Very nice write up, I didn’t even make it through the entire movie. But now I was trying to find out about the music playing when the painting came to life, it sounded like the bonanza theme, slightly different, and now i wonder if that inspired the bonanza theme. if it did, no one notes it. is this something you could find out, what that music was.

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    • I’m afraid I don’t have any information on the soundtrack, Ana, but thanks for the nice comment. If I do find anything out on this I’ll let you know.

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  6. The young Afro-American child was a good actor. What a shame no one can give his name and the fact he went without credit isn’t surprising given the times.

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