+++ Bob and Helen, a middle-aged couple from Newark, become convinced that sunny California would be a nice place to live. They have relatives there (Helen’s mother and younger brother Willie); and Bob has just received an offer of 40.000 dollars to sell his company. But right from the very first scene the viewer realises that husband and wife have very different Californian dreams. Bob wants to buy farmland and wants to settle down, hoping to earn a comfortable living without too much hard work. Helen, on the other hand, dreams of Hollywood, of meeting movie stars (namely Gary Cooper) and maybe even becoming an actress herself. After all, her little brother Willie is supposedly working as an assistant director.
Bob is in for quite a shock when he comes to California. His puritan work-ethic clashes with his brother-in-law’s life-style. Not only does “the kid” have to sit around all day – unpaid – waiting for a call from the studio about a new project. A call which might never come. He is also lying in bed all morning – since he has nothing else to do and does not dare leave the house so that he won’t miss the call if and when it comes. Moreover, Willie spends money far too easily (including the money the couple send to the mother each month) and there are unpaid bills.
While Bob is travelling the countryside looking for a suitable farm to buy, Helen is ensnared by a dodgy film producer by the name of Holland. Willie, who knows the guy is a conman, tries to warn her, but to no avail. And so Helen drags everyone into Holland’s scheme… +++
The Nut Farm is a charming little B-film from Monogram Pictures that has not too much substance to offer, but has good performances and a decent plot. The dialogue seems sub-par, but the conman’s eloquence makes up for this in part. The screenplay was written by George Waggner, based on a play by the same name by John C. Brownell. It was directed by Melville W. Brown, who seems to have worked on stage more than on film sets. So it might be possible that he had directed the original play at one point, but I could find no information about that. Brown died rather young in 1938, so The Nut Farm is one of the last films of his career.
The cast, while good, reflects the fact that this is a B-picture. The role of Willie’s and Helen’s mother is played by character actress Florence Roberts, a stage actress born in 1861. The bulk of her film work falls into the final 10 years of her life, 1930 to 1940. Oscar Apfel and Betty Alden are convincing as the naive East Coast couple, Bob and Helen, but their characters are so different that it is difficult to see how they could have ever got married. Interestingly, Apfel had begun his career as a character actor after his directing career, instead of the other way around as is the more common way. Unfortunately, he had mostly uncredited roles after 1935 and died in 1938, aged 60. Betty Alden was married to character actor Edwin Maxwell, but she apparently did not have much of a career herself. She has less than 10 entries on imdb, and most of them are for uncredited appearances.
Joan Gale, who plays Willie’s girlfriend Agatha, has a similarly slim filmography. She is probably best known for being one of the four Gale sisters (Joan, Jean, Juna, and Jane), two sets of twins. Agatha’s father is played by character actor Spencer Charters. His role is intended as comic relief, but it feels shoehorned in, and his dialogue is mostly poorly written.
Wallace Ford (Willie) is undoubtedly the star of the film. Known for 1932’s Freaks, he was constantly working throughout the ‘30s, often being the leading man including in The Nut Farm and Money Means Nothing. He is the only one getting an above-title billing in The Nut Farm. Ford plays Willie as a very likeable man, but there is an oddity in the fact that Willie is absent for large parts of the first act – as is Bob. The first act belongs to Helen and the conmen. And the latter are the secret stars of the film: Bradley Page as crooked producer Hamilton T. Holland; Lorin Raker as the corrupt writer Biddleford; and Arnold Gray as Eustace Van Norton, an unemployed actor who is also in on Holland’s scheme. Gray, who died tragically young in 1936, has very little to do in this film. He looks great, but he looks like the kind of man who would have been a leading man in the silent film era – so perhaps it is fitting that in 1935 he plays an actor who has seemingly fallen on hard times. Raker’s Biddleford is more prominent, but only slightly so. The character has a lot of potential (as has the actor), but not much use is made of that. Raker has the accountant/clerk looks that destined him to be a character actor, but unfortunately his long filmography consists chiefly of uncredited appearances. The focus of the first act is Page’s Hamilton T. Holland, the brain behind the scheme. Holland’s eloquence and the way in which he can simply switch on his charm are the main elements that make the film enjoyable. And Page plays the character with enough nuance to always let us see that he is “fake”. A man with this charm and talent should have been a staple in screwball and crime comedies, but while he appeared in many films in his mysteriously short film career, he never really made it to the top of the cast list.
And so, with the conman and his scheme being at the centre of the film, the “lead” character of Willie becomes a bit of an afterthought and only comes into play once Willie decides to fight back against Holland. Because this seems to be the moral of this film: the only way to not get shafted in Hollywood is to con the conmen.
First and foremost, The Nut Farm shines a merciless light on Hollywood and contrasts it with the naive image harboured by outsiders like Helen. There are a number of digs at the industry, including Willie’s uncertain job prospects, or the fact that actors and writers have to wait tables. The film also describes what we would today refer to as Hollywood accounting. And there is also the idea that someone should work for free, being “amply repaid by this marvellous opportunity” (a. k. a. “exposure”, in modern parlance).
It is certainly interesting to see such a self-referential story as early as 1935. And it must mean that audiences back then were already knowledgeable enough about the pitfalls of Hollywood to be able to understand and enjoy the jokes. Everything around Holland is make-belief, a façade. Even his office and film equipment are props to him. And it is very tempting to see his name as a short form for Hollywoodland, Hollywood’s former full name.
One of the most direct real-life references occurs when Willie warns his sister about Holland, saying about him that “he’s got a studio on Poverty Row.” A cheeky comment considering that Monogram were themselves a Poverty Row studio.
The performances, especially by Page and Ford, are very enjoyable, but for me it is the self-referential Hollywood satire that makes this brief 65-minute film worth checking out. And so I would recommend it to anyone interested in Hollywood itself. Rating: 6.5 to 7.0 out of 10.