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.
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.
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.