Broadminded (1931) DVD Review: Pre-Code Comedy with…Wait, Bela Lugosi?!

As any halfway decent stand-up artist can attest to (or at least should be perfectly aware of), the element of timing means everything in the field of comedy. The same also applies to the food and beverage industry, of course. And most probably definitely surgery too, I suppose – but I’m probably going to go way outside of my personal everyday comfort zone if I keep thinking about that. Actually, the subject of being outside of one’s personal everyday comfort zone happens to be entirely relevant with the subject of this review, 1931’s Joe E. Brown Vitaphone comedy Broadminded – wherein the fine art of timing also comes into play.

One of five recent Joe E. Brown obscurities rescued from the vaults by the Warner Archive Collection, the pre-Code Broadminded begins with a disturbing look at high society: a giant gathering of young wealthy snobby folk throwing a bizarre party where everyone is dressed up as babies – and which borders on being too fetishistic for just about anyone’s personal everyday comfort zone.

Fortunately, that unsettling segment is called to a halt and – thankfully – the fuzz arrests just about everyone there. Everyone, that is, save for a recently-engaged playboy Jack (William Collier, Jr.) and his cousin Ossie (Joe E. Brown, who gets the rare distinction of being one of comedy’s few heroes to drunkenly navigate a horse-driven, milk-delivery truck throughout the darkened streets of New York whilst clad in a baby outfit). But Jack’s father (Holmes Herbert) disapproves of his son’s womanizing and unruly behavior, so he sends him off to California (where such things as women and weird fetishes surely don’t exist) with his “well-mannered” cousin Ossie – who apparently doesn’t get hangovers – appointed as his chaperone. What could possibly go wrong, right?

Well, en route, Ossie’s slightly-impish behavior manages to rile up the well-groomed feathers of a temperamental South American fellow. And here’s where Broadminded sets itself apart from other forgotten comedies, be they Joe E. Brown vehicles or not: the casting of a recently-appointed horror icon named Bela Lugosi. Filmed after the sensational premiere of the immortal Dracula that same year – and released several months after that – Broadminded not only gives us a glimpse of Lugosi immediately after his short-lived rise to the top had reached its zenith (wherein he received more female fan letters for being a spooky vampire than Clark Gable did for being Clark Gable), but it also shows us how the still-not-quite-fluent-in-English Hungarian horror star could handle a joke.

According to some resources, Lugosi was quite the practical joker in real life. If that were the case, it would certainly account for the ecstatic gleam that is present inside Bela’s hypnotic eyes throughout his scenes in Broadminded. He was not only doing something he loved doing, but it was well outside of the perimeters of what recorded history has defined as his own personal everyday comfort zone. And when you also take note of the fact that the ill-fated Mr. Lugosi shares a romantic interest on-screen in the guise of another doomed performer – the lovely Thelma Todd – it makes Broadminded all the more fascinating to watch. Why, with Ms. Todd as his gal, it almost escalates Lugosi to a previously unforeseen plateau of greatness, where he can now somehow share a view with Todd’s regular comedic beaus: Laurel & Hardy and The Marx Brothers.

(I know that might be a bit odd for you to picture, but I think Bela might just have a nice fat cigar waiting for me somewhere someday for pointing that one out here.)

Oddly enough, the rest of Broadminded doesn’t offer quite what you’d expect considering the writers – Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby – were the very same songwriting/screenwriting talent behind four of The Marx Brothers’ best films (note co-star Grayce Hampton portraying a decidedly Margaret Dumont-esque role – one that is sadly never fully realized here; perhaps a lot of rewriting/editing took place?). This certainly isn’t one of star Joe E. Brown’s best, that’s for sure. Nevertheless, the “real” comic star of the film does his best to deliver a laugh – and whether he’s being chased down the halls of a posh hotel in his underwear by a crazed Lugosi, uttering a snarky quip out of his large mouth, or wooing the ladies with outrageous stories about his encounter with a deadly gorilla, Brown is most definitely game throughout. Director Mervyn LeRoy later went on to helm Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo and the creepy cult classic The Bad Seed.

Interestingly, the film’s two lead (blonde) actresses – One Munson (as Collier’s love-interest) and the undeniably cute Marjorie White – would later unfortunate, abrupt ends along with co-star, Thelma Todd. In fact, it appears that Margaret Livingston – who plays Collier’s bride-to-be in the beginning of the film – was the only young female lead spared of whatever curse the casting of Bela Lugosi as a comedic foil have inadvertently caused here, and lived to the reasonably ripe age of 84.

Wild theories about horror icons and comedy stars lounging it up in Heaven and bizarre speculations about curses aside, Broadminded deserves a nice long look by anyone who has ever taken an interest in Joe E. Brown, Bela Lugosi, Thelma Todd, or just doomed Hollywood starlets of the ’30s in-general. The Warner Archive presents in its original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.37:1 with an as-clear-as-can-be-for-a-1931-Vitaphone-comedy mono soundtrack, and the image quality of the movie itself looks quite beautiful here. An original theatrical trailer – which, for some reason, makes no mention of co-star Lugosi whatsoever, despite his recent success in Dracula – is included as the MOD disc’s sole (but nevertheless greatly appreciated) extra.

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Luigi Bastardo

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