the catfish eaters
by Douglas Messerli
Wanda Tuchock, Gregory LaCava, and Eugene Thackrey (screenplay), Gregory LaCava (director) Bed of Roses / 1933
Maurine Watkins (screenplay), William A. Seiter (director) Professional Sweetheart / 1933
Vito Russo quotes a RKO studio release of the same year for another of his roles, this for Professional Sweetheart:
Call Franklin Pangborn a sissy offstage and he’ll plant five hard
knuckles on your proboscis. But call him a sissy on the stage or
screen and he’ll pat you on the back and call you “pall”....for
Pangborn is famous for his portrayals of “sissified” characters
....those chaps generally known as Adelbert, who go in for the
arched eyebrows and a mincing walk...and in RKO’s Professional
Sweetheart, he plays a typical role...that of a male dressmaker who
flutters about...adding to the general hilarity of the uproarious
Strangely, one of Evan’s central male beaus in this tough comedy, New Orleans publisher Stephen Paige (John Halliday)—best remembered today as Katherine Hepburn’s father Seth Lord in The Philadelphia Story (1940)—who Evans encounters on the boat that might have taken her from prison to New Orleans, might be best described as a “woman hater.” When she finally arrives in New Orleans, she looks him up pretending to be a West Virginia news reporter, in truth seeking an eligible bachelor to prey upon, knowing that such a smooth-speaking, straight-thinking, respectable man is the easiest to push into a comprising situation which, with any luck, will keep her in room, board, and fashionable rags for a long time to come.
He admits immediately that that when told a woman reporter was waiting to meet him, he expected a “fat frumpy sort of thing,” and quickly sizes up her “interview” as being less interested in his career than in his personal being. Being the kind of man who openly supports the legal restrictions of prohibition, he sports of fully stocked bar which, with a little of her natural-born chicanery permits the double-crossing man-hater to get him drunk and before he can even wake up from what knocked him out, convince him that he owes her and his entire society an explanation for a night-long affair that never happened.
Paige perceives her money-grubbing tactics immediately for what they are and calmly swallows his pride along with the stomach pill with which his butler provides him. “How much do you want?” he calmly inquires, to which quite expectedly Evans, taking up her various well-learned rhetorical poses, answers: “I just want you?”
“Well you can’t have me. I’m a respectable citizen. At least I was a respectable citizen until you tricked me into doing something I didn’t want to do.” As she threatens suicide and terrifying racket to announce to the world just how wronged she has been, he quietly tells his butler to “Tell Henry to get the car ready. We’re going out to look at apartments.”
While Paige traps her in a closed relationship based on his complete knowledge of just who she is and his needs for filling his stomach and satisfying his occasional sexual desires, Dan has unintentionally captured the heart that she and her friend Minnie never knew she even had. Ensconced in an elegant apartment overlooking what appears to be the French Quarter, Evans becomes so stir crazy that she truly imagines herself joining up to serve her life on a barge in the arms of the lean stargazer eating nightly meals of catfish.
Strangely, Paige is even amused by her “ridiculous” love and is willing to let her go if only she tells Dan everything about herself, a request she simply cannot fulfill for fear of losing the one man whose kisses finally reveal to her what love is all about.
Trapped between two extremes, Evans goes to work in the department store from whence the selfish Paige, eager to amuse himself through her has he has in the past, tries to woo her back. It doesn’t work, of course, and inevitably Dan finds her, and asks her all over again whether she’s be willing to roll down the river with him—with which such silly plot never cease until we hear the heroine say yes.
The original critics and audiences evidently could not quite forgive Bennett’s Evans for her double-dealings, but adored Pert Kelton’s courser man-handling character Minnie who definitely wore the pants in her marriage to the Boll-weevil terminator, Ogelthorpe.
Los Angeles, October 11, 2021
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (October 2021).