+++ J. D. and Charlie are leaving Oakland in a hurry when their latest penny stock fraud threatens to go south. Accompanied by their dimwitted secretary who is impossible to get rid of, and by her humongous dog who is equally bothersome, they travel deep into the countryside. J. D. is ready to give up his criminal activities and settle down, but Charlie does not want to hear anything about it. By chance, they meet a widowed hotel owner and her young son in the little town of Chesterville, learn about the money bonuses that were recently paid to the many army vets in the area, and they discover that they are not the only people in town who know how to stack the deck. +++
[One of the film’s premises, the bonus money the veterans have received, is taken straight from the day-to-day politics of 1936, namely the Adjusted Compensation Payment Act.]
Country Gentlemen is one of two B-pictures that the comedy duo Olsen & Johnson did for Republic Pictures, Herbert J. Yates’s newly-forged Poverty Row conglomerate. Ole Olsen and Chic Johnson, both trained musicians, had met in Chicago back in 1914 when they were both members of the same band. After the band’s demise, they decided to try their luck as a comic vaudeville duo, and their ensuing Midwest fame eventually led to three film appearances with Warner Brothers, before they had two more film outings for Republic.
This duo had no “straight man”, and their comedy was rather anarchic, so film was not really the best medium for them. They finally reached the height of their fame and their career after their original Hollywood adventure had already ended: with the 1938 Broadway show Hellzapoppin. The show was adapted for the silver screen by Universal, which for Ole & Johnson resulted in three further films with the studio.
While Country Gentlemen is a comedy about two con-men, a lot of room in this very short film is given to Olsen and particularly Johnson engaging in slapstick moments, bad puns, and cheap vaudeville jokes. Joyce Compton, who plays the secretary, also gets to join in at times. Thankfully these vaudeville routines subside a bit after the first act, but they are there throughout the film. This “showcasing” approach to filmmaking is not unusual when comedians get to star in their own films, but it rarely works well.
In regards to the story, when it comes to portraying a con-man Olsen (J. D.) is – compared to Johnson (Charlie) – the better casting choice, because he comes across as suave and sophisticated. He is also the right casting choice for the rueful sinner looking to retire from that game.
But in spite of J. D.’s earnestness and sophistication, the problem with both these characters is that you have a hard time seeing how they could ever have survived on cons – Charlie not being very smart and J. D. not being ruthless enough. And with their criminal teamwork being basically zero, they seem to make money not through cunning plans but simply because their victims are extremely gullible; and they avoid getting caught not by brilliance but by sheer luck.
When the bumbling Charlie gets them into trouble in Chesterville, by meddling in things without knowledge and then by ignoring J. D.’s express desire for an honest life, J. D. tries to get them out of it through an actually nicely played con move (something seen too rarely in this film). But since the two are not communicating with each other, Charlie ruins it all – twice. And the final resolution of the story is completely out of their hands.
The acting is absolutely solid, also in the minor supporting roles, but as I have just pointed out, the writing is mediocre. In a story involving confidence tricksters, you expect intricate plans with twists, turns, and reveals. You get almost none of this here. This film certainly served its purpose back in the day, as I can easily see it amusing people at the cinema for an hour or so; but it is not something anyone needs to check out today – I rate it at 4.5 out of 10.
But, reading up on Olsen & Johnson after seeing this film, I am interested to see some of the films they did later in their careers, films whose plots where set within the entertainment industry, as I could imagine that this might play to their strengths.