Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Night of Terror #24: 'The Cat's-Paw'

A quick confession: It's October 24th (actually early on the 25th, but whatever), and I'm starting to feel a little burned out on horror movies. I've been watching a lot more than I've been writing about, and it's gotten a bit overwhelming. So tonight I decided to look for a movie that wasn't quite horror, but would still be appropriate for the blog. And I landed on one of the all-time great "Gearshift Movies," Harold Lloyd's The Cat's-Paw.

Now, just stay with me on this. Harold Lloyd, of course, is a silent-and-early-talkies era comedian, famous for his wild and often dangerous stunts. This movie, though, is much different from what Harold Lloyd is famous for today. For one, no stunts, save for an early scene involving a traffic jam, and that's pretty pedestrian (pun! pun!) compared to stunts found in other Lloyd films. Two: It's a "talkie." Unlike Chaplin or Keaton, Lloyd took to talkies like a dog to a crotch, and I for one think he's got a great voice. Three: Unlike any other Harold Lloyd movie I've ever seen, The Cat's-Paw goes COMPLETELY FUCKING BONKERS at the end. How bonkers? I'll get to that in a minute. The plot is pure Capra, with a naive young man (played perfectly by Lloyd) who was raised in China coming to America to find a wife only to get embroiled in a sham election, when the town's racketeers and scoundrels put him up as a dummy candidate for mayor of the city of Stockport to keep their man in office.

I don't want to say too much, because I think the best way to see this movie is to have no idea where it's headed. This is a bit of a catch-22, though, because if you think this is the sweet, Capraesque romantic comedy it appears to be, why would you be watching it on Halloween? So I'm going to try and have it both ways. If you're an open-minded and cool individual, the type who likes watching obscure screwball comedies from the 30s, stop reading after this paragraph and come back after you get a hold of The Cat's-Paw. Batshit gear shifts aside, you won't regret it - this is a excellently crafted comedy. It doesn't have that manic quality that more famous screwballs like My Man Godfrey and stuff like that have, instead opting for a gentler, quieter brand of comedy, but it's still a delight. Funny, clever, and unfortunately for us, the political themes of corruption and broken democracy will probably still be resonant to most modern-day viewers. OK, cool kids who haven't seen the movie yet, this is your last warning: SPOILERS TO FOLLOW:

So disappointed if you haven't seen the movie and are still reading, but that's OK. You could show me the most exciting tennis match ever played and I'd probably rather watch Get Smart instead. Anyway, as you might have guessed from the plot synopsis a couple paragraphs above, Lloyd ends up, shucks upon shucks, winning the election. And in an even bigger surprise, he doesn't play by the rules of the game, instead opting to throw the bums out and bring his common sense governance to the office of mayor. The lowlifes of the city aren't happy about this, so they arrange a frame-up to make it look like he's involved in dirty political business as well, and he gets publicly disgraced with only 24 hours to clear his name before the governor replaces him with a new mayor. Got it? So far, the plot is still standard-issue political romantic comedy, albeit having actually come out several years before Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.

Here's where the movie goes completely off the rails: Instead of clearing his name in a typical and acceptable American fashion, Mayor Lloyd has every gangster, racketeer, and lowlife in the city arrested and brought to an underground dungeon in Chinatown. He's got a bunch of scary-looking shirtless Chinese guys down there helping him keep everybody in line, but most of them aren't scared, they figure he's just trying to frighten them. He offers everybody in the dungeon an ultimatum: Inspired by an ancient Chinese folk story, Lloyd says that the criminals can either sign full confessions and face conviction for their crimes, or be beheaded. By the way, this is all played completely straight in the movie, right up to the point where the unlucky contestant number 1 is dragged into a back room and we hear him get his head CHOPPED THE FUCK OFF. As if that weren't enough, two of Lloyd's stormtroopers cart the guy's body in front of the other thugs with his head resting in a bowl that's sitting on his chest. Let me make something clear: After roughly 80 minutes of good-natured comedy with a traditional dose of pathos, the entire sequence in the dungeon is an exercise in slow, creeping dread, as the audience (and the captive audience in the movie) begins to wonder if maybe this mayor guy is serious, and is actually going to cut off some heads. The scene culminates in the decapitation I just described, and I can't overstate the shock value inherent in seeing a scene like that play out in a movie like this. No matter what mitigating factors happen after this scene, the shock value of the initial events is undiminished. This is crazy stuff, and I've never seen anything else like it.

No, The Cat's-Paw is not a horror movie, but it does have one of the creepiest sequences I've ever seen in a movie, and one thing that makes it so creepy is that it really does come out of nowhere. I highly recommend The Cat's-Paw, both as a traditional bit of old Hollywood entertainment, and an insane display of unexpected terror. If that's not Halloween-appropriate, what is?

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