A Very Honorable Guy (1934) DVD Review: A Lighter Look at Dark Humor

Few men will lay their life on the line, but Joe E. Brown is one of 'em in this Vitaphone rarity.
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Eighty years ago, a man's reputation meant everything - whether he was a high society snob who looked down at the struggling day-to-day plight of the common people, or he was, in fact, one of those very subculture individuals who was just trying to get by. In the instance of the 1934 Vitaphone comedy A Very Honorable Guy, a luckless, hapless schmuck by the handle of "Feet" Samuels (played with a rather honorable amount of gusto by comedian Joe E. Brown) is so worried about his own reputation amongst the venerable sea of ruffians and conmen, that he would rather die than go back on his word. And he gets a chance to do just that in this, an unarguable precursor to the black comedy film genre made before the term had even been assigned the following year by André Breton.

Much like James Garner's iconic Jim Rockford, Feet is a good guy thrust into one bad situation after another - to wit he can never truly catch a break. And things start to get worse when local loan shark The Brain (Alan Dinehart) sends his two faithful goons (Arthur Vinton and Harold Huber - and you have no idea how happy seeing the latter's name in the opening credits made me, believe me) to trick Feet into getting a pal of his to open up his front door so that they can beat some sense into the fellow (who is late on paying his debt back). This lands poor Feet in the clink, where someone snitches his last fifteen cents. Even an honest attempt to borrow a nickel from a cellmate (the great Clarence Muse) so he can use the phone results in no one winning.

But the worst is yet to come when The Brain is "kind" enough to bail Feet out - under the stipulation that him back the $500 it cost to spring him. Or else. Talk about the agony of the Feet, eh?

(Sorry.)

Soon, Feet begins to assess his decidedly bleak situation. His brief overnight stay in the jail was the final straw in an already-delicate relationship with a chorus girl named Hortense (Alice White) who longs to be showered with material goods like that of the important women in the world. Hortense has since taken up with a peculiar physician (Robert Barrat), much to the delight of her mother, Toodles (Irene Franklin). And with no income other than the three dollars his shifty pickpocket of a roommate (Hobart Cavanaugh) picked up from hocking Feet's own gold watch, the possibility of paying The Brain back - and thus, going on living in-general - seems inevitably unlikely. Downright impossible, even.

So, when he sees a hunk of beef on the hook in a restaurant, the idea of a lifetime (pun) comes to him: he'll sell his body to science for a thousand dollars under the condition his fresh, unmangled, done-in-by-his-own-hand corpse be delivered unto the buyer within 30 days. In fact, The Brain even underwrites his contract - thus ensuring things will get done. But just as soon as Feet literally signs his life away, his luck begins to change. He's finally starting to win at the tables. Hortense wants him back. Why, even that life-altering event known as marriage is soon popping up on the horizon! Everybody begins to respect this former nobody for being A Very Honorable Guy - but what exactly will happen once his newfound thirty day lease on life is up?

Three Stooges regular Bud Jamison has a small part as a waiter here and Lloyd Bacon directs in this silly offbeat comedy from yesteryear based on a work by noted author Damon Runyon that is positively screaming for a remake. The all-but-obscured oddity makes its home video debut courtesy of the Warner Archive Collection, who have once again solidified their own reputation in the preservation of forgotten classics. Pleasantly enough, A Very Honorable Guy receives a nice transfer overall, with a very crisp picture and a clear mono soundtrack. The film's very silly original theatrical trailer (wherein frames are placed every which way but up by what is said to be a hysterical projectionist who is still recovering from an advance screening of the movie!) is included as the sole but very welcomed special feature for this Manufactured-on-Demand DVD release.

In short: I recommend A Very Honorable Guy. In fact, I'd even stake my own reputation on it. And should that not suffice, take note that this will probably be your only chance ever to hear character hoodlum Harold Huber try speaking in a "feminie" voice if nothing else.

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