Thursday, November 28, 2019
Thank You, Jeeves (1936)
P.G. Wodehouse is regarded as the greatest comic writer of all time. This is no mere exaggeration either. His books epitomise the quick and breezy, fluffy, easygoing reading experience, together with some of the funniest jokes and uses of wordplay the English language ever conceived! Even writers like Douglas Adams considered him in another league altogether. Over the years there have been many attempts at adapting Wodehouse's famous characters to the screen, both big and small. These have been met with mixed success, as a lot of what makes his books so funny is the language used in the narration. That's one of the biggest obstacles when taking a story from book to film. Such is the case for today's effort, 1936's Thank You, Jeeves...
Bored socialite Bertie Wooster is in desperate need for some adventure, to which his faithful butler Jeeves staunchly warns against, having been in too many scrapes due to Bertie's desires. An adventure comes to them however in the form of a mysterious young woman, pursued by a gang of criminals. The girl, Marjorie, pretends to be chummy with Bertie to hide from her pursuers, but as soon as the coast is clear, she dashes away without a word. A dejected Bertie decides to let Jeeves take him to a nice cosy bed and breakfast in the country, but as luck would have it, Marjorie is there too, and Bertie decides to get to the bottom of the whole affair...
Thank You, Jeeves was loathed by Wodehouse, on the grounds that it doesn't use a single word of his book, instead using a totally new story. This would be bad enough, but the adaption's entire approach is just wrong! Let's go over all the ways...
Firstly, it'd be best to discuss how Thank You, Jeeves fares as a movie unto itself. It might be a rubbish adaption, but is it still a good movie if you ignore all of that? Hmmm, not really. It's alright, and by no means terrible, but it's not that great. The story is pretty weak, with not much substance to it. It's not bad enough that I'd recommend you avoid like the plague, but there's much better out there from this time.
The biggest deviation from the books is in the characters. They are all wrong, acting nothing like their literary counterparts. Instead of being an eternally calm and quiet adviser, Jeeves is instead loud and boisterous, and unlikeably grumpy at times. Bertie meanwhile is a little better, but he's less of a hapless dope (and never once puts his foot in his mouth!), and is more of an adventurous playboy.
The story is a spy caper, which feels at odds with the usual kind of stories in the Jeeves canon. They'd usually revolve around Bertie trying to help his friends, deal with hostile aunts, or getting himself out of undesirable situations (like accidental engagements). I can totally see Wodehouse writing a humorous espionage story, but not with these characters! It just feels ill-fitting.
Thank You, Jeeves if only 57 minutes long, so it's got that going for it. It's decently paced, although the two leads will often disappear for large stretches. There are some decently amusing scenes here. The big setpiece is the final battle. It didn't exactly inspire enthusiasm in me, but at least I could see what was going on Then the final section came, and it's just a total mess. A dozen people all on camera at the same time, flailing around and hooping, all a big blur. Still, it's an ok climax. Who doesn't love a good brawl!
There are a few token efforts to give the dialogue a 'Wodehouseian' flair, but these come with mixed success. The best is one near the end-"It's beginning to filter through the old Wooster brain that you government chaps are not government chaps at all.". Now that sounds like something our Bertie would say!
The acting is alright, although the two leads are disappointing. David Niven is long since proven to be a brilliant and lovable actor. Here though, not so much. He's good, but not that impressive. I put this down to the direction, and perhaps it being fairly early in his career.
Arthur Treacher meanwhile is annoying! If this is how he plays all his roles, I don't look forward to seeing what else he's in! He's a bombastic nuisance, who I wanted to shut up in just about every scene he's in. Even when he does get Wodehouse-style lines, such as "I am rather sensitive in that portion of my anatomy", he bellows it too much to be convincing. It's not only the writing that contributes to the heroes feeling nothing like the book originals, it's also due to the actors!
Virginia Field is neat as the clever Marjorie, getting a decent amount of screentime. The villains are alright with what they're given, but all blend together.
One of the movie's high points in African-American comedy actor Willie Best, who delivers some much needed spirit to the film, as well as musicality! I really dug his sax tunes, and he's a genuinely nice presence. His character is likeable, gets plenty to do, and even takes care of a few bad 'uns during the climax, rather than just running and hiding like a stereotypical 'fraidy cat. He may have been frightened, but he sure wasn't just quivering in a corner! I also appreciate how the characters in this 1936 film don't hesitate to help a black guy out, invite him in their car, play music with him, etc. Not once is anything made of his skin colour, nor do the leads treat him as an inferior.
The only problem with his character is one you may have guessed already. I said he gets plenty to do. I also didn't say he never upstages the other characters. He most certainly does, and in a film that's already only 57 minutes long! This is supposed to be a Jeeves and Wooster film, guys!
Thank you Jeeves feels like a movie that took a lot of effort into being lazy. It could've easily taken from an existing Jeeves book, with no effort required. Even without the narrative-only lines, it still would have been a hilarious film. Instead they put actual effort into avoiding the easy solution, and tried to come up with their own story with their own characters. It's clear they only cared about name value, and wanted to exploit the Wodehouse name for cash. Well you dopes woulda made loads more cash if you'd actually adapted his stories! Geez, why aren't I the Hollywood businessman?...