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.
|Sam Levene, Allen Jenkins, TeddyHart, |
and Frank McHugh
|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.)