Monday, July 07, 2014

Bette Davis Month Bonus: 'The Working Man' (1933)

The inherent creepiness of George Arliss is just one thing that prevents The Working Man from being the charming comedy it's clearly aiming for. Really, Arliss' creepiness only exacerbates the problems with the plot, which features the main characters rather callously deceiving each other for dubious ends, and then just shrugging it off and laughing about it. The convoluted set-up finds Arliss' shoe magnate Reeves passing himself off as a harmless old man as he befriends the irresponsible young heirs to his late rival's company. His own business has been taken over by his ruthless nephew, so he decides to work behind the scenes to build up the competition. But then he takes a liking to the flighty young people (Bette Davis plays the daughter), and through another convoluted set of circumstances, manages to get himself appointed as the trustee to their inheritance so that he can mold them into upstanding citizens.

Got all that? That doesn't even take into account Davis' character's work undercover at Reeves' company (where she falls in love with the unscrupulous nephew) or the underhanded dealings of the manager at Reeves' rival's factory. The 78-minute movie has a dizzying array of plot twists, but it's all treated as completely inconsequential. Arliss gives Reeves a condescending paternal manner that makes him feel like the movie's villain, even though he's meant to be the level-headed voice of reason. The poor kids just want to cut loose and have some fun after their father has died and left them his fortune, but Reeves tricks them into becoming boring businesspeople.

The Working Man is ostensibly a comedy, but it's more off-putting than funny, and by the end it's just exhausting. When Reeves reveals his deception to the two young people, they don't even get mad, despite the fact that he's manipulated them and held their rightful inheritance hostage. Davis does a decent job of playing the silly, flighty girl, but this isn't a challenging role for her, and the movie really belongs to Arliss -- which is, for the most part, to its detriment.

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