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Fantasia Obscura: ‘A Connecticut Yankee’

There are some fantasy, science fiction, and horror films that not every fan has caught. Not every film ever made has been seen by the audience that lives for such fare. Some of these deserve another look, because sometimes not every film should remain obscure.

Sometimes, it’s hard not to take a shine to someone who never met a man they didn’t like…

A Connecticut Yankee (1931)
Distributed by: Fox Film Corporation
Directed by: David Butler

There are two artists that any history of American comedy must cover to be considered authoritative: Mark Twain, and Will Rogers.

Rogers was a phenomenon with a high recognition factor, regularly getting more ‘likes’ than most of today’s influencers can generate, at a time when computers hadn’t been more than just glorified adding machines. His self-effacing down-home folksy delivery of biting social observations as an outsider looking in, interspersed with Old West rope tricks, made him in high demand in a career that covered vaudeville, newspaper syndication, and radio.

So of course Hollywood would come a-callin’ for him, which is how Fox Films (four years before they merged with Daryl Zanuck’s Twentieth Century Pictures) put one of the hottest stars of the day into an adapted classic…

This adaptation of Mark Twain’s 1889 novel is set in the present day, at a time when being the radio business meant that you provided both hardware and content. We watch as Hank Martin (Rogers) hosts a music program on his station WRCO, broadcasting out of Hartsdale in the western half of Connecticut. We assume from his accent that this is the far western part of Connecticut, ‘round ‘bouts Tulsa way…

Hank’s dealership gets a call from a customer up in the hills, who demands they replace a battery for their set right away. Hank’s assistant is scared of going up in the hills to deliver the battery, so Hank takes it up there himself, to the only customer of his that pays in cash.

We soon get a sense as to why Hank’s assistant is scared as the butler (Mitchell Harris) escorts Hank into the house with scenes that owe a small debt to Lewis Carrol:

The young woman who flees (Maureen O’Sullivan) is the object of affection for the guy in the armor (Frank Albertson). The woman fears the guy’s mother (Myrna Loy), who shows up and gives Hank a right terrible fright. This makes him anxious to deliver the battery to his client and skedaddle right quick.

Soon enough, he makes the delivery to the owner of the place, an inventor (William Farnum) who claims that he has fine-tuned his radio to pick up voices from the past echoing through the ether. During the demo he gives Hank, a conversation from the court of King Arthur gets picked up. This gives Hank the willies, but when he tries to leave a suit of armor falls on him, and faster than you can say, “It was during a misunderstanding conducted with crowbars with a fellow we used to call Hercules,” Hank’s in a whole new place…

“It’s only a model…”

Hanks gets seized by Sir Sagramore (Harris), who’s convinced that he’s bested a demon, and shows off his prize to King Arthur (Farnum). Hank tries to impress the locals with his lighter, which convinces a conniving Merlin (Brandon Hurst) to advise Arthur to burn him at the stake.

While waiting for his turn as guest of honor at the barbecue, Hank makes friends with fellow prisoner Emile le Poulet (Albertson), a page whose crime is that he wants a relationship with Arthur’s daughter, Princess Alisande (O’Sullivan). Much as in the original novel, Hank uses his handy pocket almanac to check that there’s going to be an eclipse, coinciding with the time he’s due to die, and uses that to scare Arthur into freeing him and Emile.

In gratitude, Arthur offers Hank a place in court, and Hank is knighted “Sir Boss,” as Hank says he envisages the job the King gives him to be a lot like Mussolini’s-

Boy, did THAT not age well…

Unlike Il Duce, Hank actually looks to be making the trains run on time, as he brings automation and other modern practices to Camelot. Which he’s going to rely on, as Merlin has decided to throw in with Morgan Le Fay (Loy) to bring down Arthur.

Their schemes run into a problem, though, as Hank has been so successful in bringing change to Camelot that they’re able to respond with excessive force…

Excessive is probably the best word to describe Butler’s approach to Twain’s story. There is so much going on so hard here, they not only throw in the kitchen sink but most of the house as well. The changes our “Nutmeg Magician” makes here to that time are so great they overwhelm the realm. They’re certainly a lot more impactful than those done in in the 1949 musical version the Bing Crosby starred in, as well as most other adaptations, yet these impacts of Hank’s are much closer to those found in the original work.

This proved to be a good choice, as it compliments Rogers’ performance. His droll observations and snappy one-liners needed a film that could keep up with him, and was tailor-made to his performing style. (They even included his rope tricks, which he uses in a duel with Sir Sagrmore.) It’s essentially a one person show as we watch Will Rogers re-tell Mark Twain’s story, and Rogers moves this along with gusto.

Even if Fox Films could have roped him in, they were wise to just let Rogers be Rogers. This was a talkie that was set up like a silent film, with no score and overly large facial expressions and gestures used by the cast as they emoted. Having Will Rogers take the lead and carry the film himself made the most sense, and having someone with experience before live audiences keeps the film fresh for modern viewers. (It also made a lot of business sense; even though the film had a budget of $750,000, around $25 million in today’s currency, it still turned a profit for the studio during the worst days of the Great Depression.)

Will Rogers once said, “The movies are the only business where you can go out front and applaud yourself.” If anyone deserved the applause for this film then or now, it was him…

 

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