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23 September 2016

Three Men on a Horse: Time to Remember This Forgotten Classic Comedy

Classic comedies are usually notable for performances by comedy stars — when you see that a movie stars the Marx Brothers or W.C. Fields or even Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCsrthy, you know it’s going to be funny. But some comic gems can slip through the cracks when their leading players are no longer well known.
 Three Men on a Horse is an irresistible “worm turns” comedy, adapted from a Broadway hit by the incredibly prolific George Abbott and John Cecil Holm. It’s a tale deeply influenced by the New York tales of Damon Runyon. The protagonist is Erwin Trowbridge (Frank McHugh), a mild-mannered fellow whose hobby is calculating what horses will win what races — he doesn’t bet, he just makes predictions. To him this is a way of killing time on the way to and from the office where he’s employed writing greeting cards, like a crossword puzzle. He’s a happy suburban husband, careful with his budget, hard working, and devoted to his pretty but rather silly wife.  
Distraught after a breakfast-time argument with his wife and pompous, interfering brother-in-law (Carol Hughes and Paul Harvey, both superb), Erwin abandons his daily routine and stops at a bar to get drunk instead of going to the office. And there he meets three down on their luck gamblers, played by the always excellent Allen Jenkins and, from the original Broadway cast, Sam Levene and Teddy Hart.

Frank McHugh
Levene became better known in later years, appearing frequently in films and television from the 1940’s through the 1960’s. This was his film debut; he was already a Broadway star, and you can see why. He’s just terrific as Patsy, the charismatic leader of the trio of gamblers. Teddy Hart, who plays the high-strung, squeaky voiced Frankie, the third horseplayer, was a very well-known comedian, diminutive and bouncy; he was the brother of songwriter Lorenz Hart. He was hilarious.
Sam Levene, Allen Jenkins, TeddyHart,
and Frank McHugh

Jenkins is the laid-back, cynical Charley. These three shady characters are assisted by Patsy’s devoted girlfriend Mabel, played wonderful Joan Blondell, whom we first meet after she has dutifully pawned her entire wardrobe to provide Patsy with betting money; luckily, as a burlesque queen, she’s used to being scantily clad.
The gamblers, naturally, are very interested in Erwin’s system, and by following his predictions all afternoon they recover their recent losses and more. They become very friendly towards Erwin, who, not being used to drinking at all, much less all day, passes out cold. But his new gambler friends are enthralled. And as Erwin sleeps it off overnight — to the huge dismay of his wife and employer, who have no idea where he is — Patsy and the gang discover his notebook full of poems intended for an upcoming line of Mother’s Day cards, and are awed by Erwin’s talent, leading to a marvelous moment where Patsy reverently reads some of the poems to the others in an oldtime New York accent you could cut with a knife.
Joan Blondell as Mabel and Sam Levene as Patsy

Erwin is almost powerless to resist his new friends, and obligingly shares his predictions if they promise to deliver his poems to his boss. After some complications — Erwin’s wife, brother-in-law, and boss all eventually show up — a pretty good system seems to be established. But Patsy becomes irrationally jealous of Erwin and Mabel, even though there’s no cause. And, prodded by the ever-suspicious Charley, the gamblers eventually insist that Erwin place a bet himself, although he assures them that if he does, his knack for picking winners will disappear. But they force the issue — and that breaks his streak. Everybody loses on the next race, and the gamblers blame Erwin. But he has finally had enough, and in a once-in-a-lifetime fury, knocks down not only Patsy but his obnoxious brother-in-law, as well.
This is a delightful comedy, based, as all great comedy is, on conflicting worldviews and points of view; Erwin and Patsy and his gang are both doing the right thing by their own lights. Director Mervyn LeRoy was always good at exploring character — think of Tugboat Annie, or Waterloo Bridge, or Random Harvest. Here half the gags are based on these disparate people learning to understand each other. Making this approach seem fresh, the expert ensemble cast is a joy to behold from the first moment to the last.

(This will be shown on TCM on Monday, Sept. 26 at 3:45 p.m.)

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