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Swing Your Lady (1938)

I've heard that this was Humphrey Bogart's least favourite of all his films, and it's easy to see why. Most people know him as a tough leading man, as Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon, Rick Blaine in Casablanca or Philip Marlowe in The Big Sleep, and these are his most defining roles, but it took quite some time for his studio Warner Brothers to find that out. Previously he'd proved notable as a gangster in The Petrified Forest, so a gangster he became in a whole bunch of supporting roles. On occasion he'd get the lead, but mostly he was the support for James Cagney or Edward G Robinson in films like Angels with Dirty Faces or The Roaring Twenties.

On occasion, Warners tried him out in a different sort of part, which is how he got to appear in a dismal horror picture called The Return of Doctor X. This is certainly the strangest looking part he's ever played, as he was freakily made up like Lon Chaney's Phantom of the Opera with a Bride of Frankenstein hair stripe, yet the strangest choice of film for him has to be Swing Your Lady. It's hard to define it succinctly but a good try would be a hillbilly wrestling musical comedy. Yes, this is the same Humphrey Bogart you know, but you've never seen him quite like this before!

It's impossible to reconcile the Sam Spade who deals with the gunsel Wilmer in The Maltese Falcon with the palm of his hand, telling him, 'When you're slapped, you'll take it and like it', with the wrestling promoter Ed Hatch who gets held down by a female blacksmith who won't let him up until he says 'Hootie Owl!', so it's best to sit back and enjoy the inanity of it.

Hatch manages the wrestler Joe 'Hercules' Skopapoulos, and to establish his name the entourage is touring the small towns of the Ozarks, fighting local talent. When they get to Plunkett City, Missouri (population 749), this opposition looks like being Sadie Horn, that female blacksmith who rescues Hatch by singlehandedly lifting his car out of the mud. But Joe falls for Sadie and ends up fighting her boyfriend Noah instead who has been courting her ever since her husband wandered off possum hunting eleven years ago.

In and amongst all this there's a liberal sprinkling of hillbilly music courtesy of the Weaver Brothers variety act, playing everything from saw to rake to autoharp on porches and at square dances. There's even an early bit part from Ronald Reagan as a sports reporter who is sent to cover the match. This is so early in his career, he's almost unrecognisable.

I've got to know many of these actors over the last few months. I've now seen all of Bogart's greatest roles with the single exception of his Oscar winning performance in The African Queen. This is certainly the least likely of the last 24 Bogarts I've seen, though he attempts the comedy with energy. And at least he didn't sing!

The wrestler Joe Skopapoulos is played by Nat Pendleton, who is always a joy to see in a supporting role. This is the 18th Pendleton I've seen, from Blonde Crazy in 1931 to Scared to Death in 1947 and, while he never showed a lot of versatility, he was always a welcome addition to the cast. He was also a successful wrestler in real life, having won a silver medal at the 1920 Olympics in Antwerp after losing only a single match on a dubious points decision. He also played a former wrestler in the decent Myrna Loy/Spencer Tracy film Reckless three years earlier.

Louise Fazenda is the blacksmith lady and she's obviously having a great time in her 253rd of 255 films, with plenty of hillbilly outbursts like 'Well, shuck my corn!' and 'I'll be hung to door!' and 'I'll snatch you bald!' She was a slapstick star as far back as 1913, a year before even Charlie Chaplin appeared on the scene. When future Chaplin co-star Mabel Normand complained to director Mack Sennett about wanting to appear in classier films, Sennett would always reply, 'I'll send for Fazenda.' I've only seen her once before, as far as I can tell, in a supporting role in a Philo Vance mystery, The Casino Murder Case, but I'll certainly look out for her in the future. She makes this film!

Unfortunately Daniel Boone Savage, who plays her on screen beau who gets to fight Pendleton in the ring, never made another film. I wonder though if he made a lasting impression on Hacksaw Jim Duggan who appeared much later in the wrestling industry with a very similar outfit of dungarees, beard and trademark 2 x 4. The fight is well choreographed though never loses sight of the fact that it's taking place in a comedy film.

I know the rest of the Skopapoulos entourage too: Allen Jenkins as Bogart's assistant, and Frank McHugh as Joe's trainer.

I've seen Allen Jenkins play alongside Bogart before in The Amazing Dr Clitterhouse and Brother Orchid, two interesting Edward G Robinson vehicles, and also the pre-code Three on a Match, which was the earliest I've ever seen both Bogart and Jenkins. Like Pendleton, he's another capable supporting actor who never disappoints, even if he rarely got the opportunity to do much in particular.

Frank McHugh also played alongside Bogart in the gangster classic The Roaring Twenties and alongside both Cagney and Robinson in many films during the 1930s. I've also enjoyed his acting in films like the originator of the waxwork horrors, The Mystery of the Wax Museum, with Lionel Atwill and Fay Wray; and Ernest B Schoedsack's last giant ape movie, Mighty Joe Young, alongside the subgenre's mainstay Robert Armstrong.

There's plenty here to enjoy, if you don't mind hillbilly humour on the level of a fiddle player sawing on his beard instead of his fiddle. Everyone in the cast is a seasoned professional and they mostly have great fun here. The exceptions are Penny Singleton, as Hatch's girlfriend who is used mostly as a hillbilly singer from New York and is more than a little annoying, and Bogart himself, who saw this as the worst film he ever made. When it comes down to it, that's hardly surprising.

Hey Bogie? Say 'Hootie Owl!'


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