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Buster Keaton, Polly Moran, Jimmy Durante, Gilbert Roland. Dir: Edward Sedgwick

This is my favorite Buster Keaton talkie and I expect to be spending the next few paragraphs telling you why. Before I say all that though, I will tell you what’s wrong with it and why people who don’t like Buster’s talkies just chalk it up to another bad film. I will also endeavor to tell you why it’s not as good as it should be.

But first I will mention the plot. Buster is a plumber and an inventor. He gets called in to fix Irene Purcell’s shower. Purcell is in a bad relationship with Roland who is also in a bad relationship with a violent woman who yells in Spanish. Purcell wants Keaton to keep her away from Roland. Things happen and then it’s over. This movie contains the funniest duel ever written, and we all know how funny duels are.

What’s wrong with it: It was not a big budget film, even by comedy standards of the day. The writing isn’t consistent. Gilbert Roland was not very good in it. Neither was the violent woman who yells in Spanish.

Why this happened: Buster was on the fast-track to becoming a has-been. Part of the reason for that was because of his arguments with the studio to let him write, produce, or direct his films the way he did when they signed him in the first place. They promised him creative control but they lied. As time wore on he had less and less input while MGM, who controlled their stars like pets, gave him scripts and told him he had to do them as written. His personal life went into a spin, with his marriage on the rocks and then over, and he became a raging alcoholic. It is said that his treatment by the studios strongly contributed to his personal problems. At this point, MGM just wasn’t interested in doing anything beyond fulfilling his contract anymore. They basically ran his career into the ground.

Buster’s talkie critics don’t ever cite specific reasons why they don’t like his talkies, they just say they don’t, often exhibiting a tone that indicates it’s Buster’s fault these films weren’t funny. Even if he had played the studio game the way MGM wanted him to, they still wouldn’t have been as good as the ones over which he had control. The studio liked to have complete control. Ironically, or perhaps not, if a film failed, they blamed the star, rather than taking responsibility themselves.

I cannot give you any good reasons as to why Gilbert Roland and the violent woman who yells in Spanish are so bad. I guess they just don’t have all that much talent, though I have seen Roland be competent in other films.

Now, let me tell you why I like it so much, and why one of the things I listed as what’s wrong with it suits me just fine. I like that the writing isn’t consistent. The thing that’s inconsistent about it is that Buster’s character is a nincompoop in one scene, protector in the next, and then smart and sarcastic in the next. Why do I like this? Because it’s the only film I know of in which he was sarcastic. And he’s good at it. The last scene is pretty amazing. The inconsistency gives him the opportunity to show his buffoon side, which is hilarious, and it also makes him a very believable romantic lead.

There are so many hilarious situations in The Passionate Plumber that I can’t see why anyone would completely disregard or hate the movie. If someone had never seen a Buster Keaton movie at all before and they saw this, they wouldn’t sit there with the “His silents are better” bias. They would just laugh. Because it’s funny.

Please don’t deprive yourself of this movie. Give it a chance. I don’t think you will be disappointed.

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4 thoughts on “The Passionate Plumber (1932)

  1. I regard Buster’s MGM features with mixed emotions, but at least, unlike those dreadful Our Gang shorts the studio produced, they have some good moments. Clearly, Keaton does his very best to do an end run around the screenwriters and sneak some spunk into the nincompoop characters – and I agree, those smart/sarcastic moments in “The Passionate Plumber” make it funnier than the other MGM talkies. Now just why there was never a Buster – Marie Dressler – Charlotte Greenwood starring trifecta, possibly with Marion Davies thrown in for good measure and balance, that we’ll never know.

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  2. Pingback: The Villain Still Pursued Her (1940) | My Classic Movies

  3. Keaton displays some nonverbal sarcasm in THE GENERAL (1927) when his air-head girlfriend is feeding inconsequential amounts of wood to the train engine’s fire pit; Keaton picks up a coin-sized piece of debris from the floor and offers it to her to throw in the fire and she accepts it, not realizing he’s just being sarcastic.

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  4. Excellent point. I can think of several instances in his silent films, including the one you mentioned, in which we see his sarcastic streak. I didn’t say so, but I was referring specifically to his talkies though, where he is primarily always a buffoon. Thanks for pointing that out!

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