Monday 5 November 2012

Marjorie Beebe in 'The Cowcatcher's Daughter' (1931)

Below is the last part of the trilogy on the great Mack Sennett comedienne, Marjorie Beebe. It took me a while to watch the comedy staple, ‘Cowcatcher’s Daughter’ but it was totally worth the wait. The short was filled with hilarious Precode antics, lots of misbehaving and riddled with Miss Beebe’s genius touch. The following is Ian’s review:

                     Cowcatcher’s Daughter- The Review. The Acme to Zenith (A to Z) of Misbehaving 
For my third, and for the moment final, piece on Marjorie Beebe I have singled out Cowcatcher’s Daughter (Babe Stafford 1931) for special attention. There are a number of reasons for this. Firstly it was the swansong of Beebe’s most regular role, Marge Martin, the misbehaving daughter of Andy Clyde’s Pop Martin, so she was at her most outrageous. Secondly it was a reprise of her old Fox triumph we have spoken of before, The Farmer’s Daughter (Arthur Rosson 1928), so it would have meant something special to her. Thirdly it’s a wonderful romp named for and written around her. And it could almost have been written to order for a site called Let’s Misbehave. If you want a logline for Cowcatcher’s Daughter try “Marjorie Beebe Misbehaves”.

But there’s another reason. Cowcatcher is a rather exquisite example of a very old form, an  antic dance in aspic, a tale that had been told since the days of troubadors and Meistersingers. It’s a Harlequinade. The story of Harlequin and Columbine crystallized in commedia dell’ arte and passed into the English speaking world at the Restoration, eventually becoming pantomime which gave many a Brit such as I his or her first introduction to traditional storytelling. Harlequin is a prankster and a shapeshifter who sets his cap at the lovely Columbine. She is set to wed Fool, her crabby old father Pantaloon’s man. Harlequin has to outsmart Pantaloon.

As soon as Andy Clyde, a wonderful actor with a career that lasted into television Westerns of the 1960s, but at the time only in early middle age, perfected his old man routine through innovative experiments in make-up, supported by costume, attitude and delivery, Mack Sennett was ready to make Harlequinades.  For Clyde, knowingly or not, had recreated old Pantaloon, and since his origins lay in Scottish music hall I suspect he knew all about Harlequinades. Of course nothing that came out of the madcap mayhem of Mack Sennett’s studios was entirely set in aspic; Sennett was a Janus figure looking back on centuries of popular entertainment while looking forward to the boundless new possibilities of cinema, and by this stage sound cinema.

And there was one huge difference from the Harlequinades of old- Marjorie Beebe herself. She turned the Harlequinade upside down. She was the prankster now not Harlequin. And given her bravura acting she was something of a shapeshifter as well, essentially playing different characters when with Harlequin, now an oh so handsome itinerant cattle inspector, Fool, her father’s dolt of a foreman and Marge’s fiancé, and Pantaloon, already introduced. Marjorie Beebe, hidden away in these obscure two reel shorts, has not been given credit for what she did to the old story. This Americanized Harlequinade, transformed into that quintessentially American form the Western, starred a girl who was constantly prepared to take the men on at their own game while never losing sight of her femininity.

Incidentally Cowcatcher’s Daughter provides one of the few examples I know of the word “cowcatcher” being used to describe a man rather than those devices placed on the front of American trains to push cows off the track. The film was shot on location in the beautiful San Fernando Valley which gives it a much more open and expansive feel than most Mack Sennett shorts. Given it was made only a very few years after the coming of sound it’s really rather an impressive technical achievement apart from anything else. It’s easy to forget just how innovative generally Mack Sennett and his behind the scenes crew (which included William Hornbeck) were.

I described Marjorie Beebe’s antics before as 24 carat misbehavior. They certainly encompass a lot more than Columbine would once have done, which was basically just to flirt with a handsome stranger behind her fiancé’s back- and anyway in Beebe’s case she does it in front of him as well! Clyde is not even aware of this fellow when the show opens, but he’s still hopping mad with his disorderly daughter. In a previous Marge Martin romp, Campus Crushes (Mack Sennett 1930), she had fooled around at college. Now she has upped sticks entirely and joined a circus as a trick rider. She does so well that the circus folk put her on their posters and, unfortunately for her, one falls into her old father’s hands. The hapless foreman is sent to retrieve her- if he fails, warns Clyde, there will be no marriage. So he finds her, and gets treated to plenty of delicious sass on the long journey home.              
MARGE:  There are a lot of things I don’t like, Jim. One of them’s school and the rest are you.
JIM: Me! Why my old Ma said I had more in my head than all the other boys put together. Now how do you suppose she found that out?
                      MARGE: With a fine comb?

 Respect for one’s elders, let alone one’s apparent future husband, is certainly not on the menu. He puts her on the back of his own horse so she can’t gallop away from him, and facing the horse’s tail in disgrace. Unfortunately for him that only makes matters worse when Harlequin, now known as Mr Thornby the cattle inspector, drives up behind them in a new-fangled open top car- this is a contemporary horse opera, set when it was made. Future marriage vows and engagements are of as little moment to Marge as respect, and she sets about shamelessly flirting with the handsome intruder until the horse gets spooked by the car and careers away at full speed to the Martin ranch. Marge Martin will arrive home decked out in all her cowgirl clobber from her big hat to her ornate boots, and halfway down a rather strange almost fetishy looking belt or corset cinching in her waist; the sexy trick rider has been displaying her curves and her charm in equal measure to her adoring circus-going public.
Her currently less than adoring father is waiting for her on the veranda. It’s time for Marge Martin to come down off her high horse. As the title implies this little Harlequinade centers on the tussles between father and daughter, Pantaloon and Columbine. The two younger men are slightly sidelined, both as far as the script goes and the acting talent on show. Beebe bats for Mr Thornby and Clyde for the foreman but who will win the day? Really though the film is about how outrageously Beebe can behave and whether Clyde is still enough of a father to control her- he certainly isn’t going to get any help from the foolish fiancé of a foreman, the latest in a long line of sops trying to woo Marjorie Beebe.
As far as the former goes this is misbehaving Ms Beebe at her best. Apart from running away to that circus she also sneaks out of the ranch at night to go nude swimming. What few clothes she has at the lakeside get stolen and she has to return home as dawn is breaking naked save for hat and boots. She walks behind a barred fence. There is a gap ahead. We wait. As she comes to the gap, and almost playing with the audience, she closes an obscured gate and walks on.

She also continues to flirt outrageously with the cattle inspector. And there is a fifth star to this Harlequinade as filtered through pantomime, her horse Trixie. The beast adds a further delightful element to the proceedings. Wicked Marge has trained Trixie not only to remove her fiancé’s hat and throw it down the well but also to push the poor fellow down after it. There is also a delightful scene between Marge and Trixie when they “talk” about love. Trixie it emerges has fallen big time for an Arabian stallion at the circus, and the lustful prancing of the filly as its memory is stirred would I suspect have raised eyebrows a few years on when the Hays Code set about its business.

As for Clyde his Pop Martin is only superficially an old-fashioned disciplinarian. He is essentially a more amiable old buzzard than the malevolent Pantaloon, perhaps the first of a Western staple that would resonate down the years with the likes of Walter Brennan and my personal favourite of the breed, Edgar Buchanan. Sternness does not come easy to him as played by Andy Clyde with an engaging mix of irritability and absent-mindedness. It requires concentration and fixity of purpose which he has not generally displayed in previous shorts in the series. Equally though Pantaloon was never faced with such a provocative daughter. And he did save up his hard-earned money to send her away to finishing school.

 So from the start he has promised himself, and anyone else who cares to listen, that his precious daughter would be getting her bottom spanked just as soon as he caught her. And, given a certain amount of prevarication and further provocation from Beebe herself, she does. She is frogmarched into the house and put over the paternal knee. Pop is determined to carry out his promise and for a minute or two Marge Martin is made to squirm for her misdeeds. Clyde at last wears the pants as he gets to the bottom of his daughter’s misbehavior. Marjorie Beebe is in her element playing this uppity girl getting her comeuppance, but she has still has tricks to play as she works to bring her spanking to a premature conclusion. It’s a little war of attrition.
                                  POP MARTIN: (mopping his brow) This job’s getting too much  for me. I’ll be glad when Jim takes you off my hands.
                                  MARGE: Don’t exert yourself, Pop.

But Jim the foreman is a complete dolt and Clyde loses patience with him. The irrepressible Beebe has won the day and proved herself to be beyond parental control. Now Clyde’s priority is to get her married- to anyone who cares to volunteer. So the match with Mr Thornby is struck. Now Marge Martin goes all coy. She’s still having fun playing these men off each other. A travelling preacher man turns up with a wedding licence just like an old pantomime Fairy Godmother- and with Beebe still in her cowgirl clothes.

                               MARGE: But Pop I wanted a trousseau
                              POP: I thought you wanted a husband.

                             MARGE (all girlish and mischievous again) What’s the rush?

This is Marjorie Beebe at her madcap best playing a character whose similarity to the actress playing her was possibly more than coincidental. Made right in the middle of her annus mirabilis of 1931 Cowcatcher’s Daughter is a short film with long antecedents.