Produced by the Christie Film Company
Director by Scott Sidney
Premiered October 10, 1926
Cast: Harrison Ford (Henry Williams), Phyllis Haver (Sally Morgan) Hobart Bosworth (Jud Morgan), Chester Conklin (Mort), Mack Swain (Jerome Underwood), Paul Nicholson (Bob Wells), Vera Steadman (Harriet Underwood), Charles Gerrard (Oswald), Clarence Burton (Andy McNab)
"The Nervous Wreck" is a very good comedy - and it offers up a stellar cast - Harrison Ford, Phyllis Haver, Hobart Bosworth, Mack Swain and Chester Conklin - no shortage of talent there. It was also based on a successful stage play of the same name by Owen Davis. Davis' play was based on a popular 1923 book entitled "The Wreck" by E.J. Rath. All the ingredients are there, so why did it get mixed reviews at best when it was released in 1926?
Here's the story. Henry Williams (Ford) has come to Arizona basically to die. He's a pill-popping hypochondriac who says he won't live until October. He arrives at Jud Morgan's ranch to get some water, and Jud suggests he stay and join them in a meal. Jud's daughter is a great cook, takes a liking to Henry, and prepares a delicious meal, which, although Henry says he can't eat, he devours ravenously. Sally has taken a liking to Henry, but, unfortunately, she is engaged to the local sheriff, Bob Wells, a tough cowboy who's the best shot around. He obviously does NOT take a liking to Henry, especially when he sees Sally giving so much attention to the newcomer. However, Sally becomes very disenchanted with Wells when she overhears him tell her father, "You know, Jud. I wouldn't give a plugged dime for a gal who can't cook. Of course love is all right . . . but, after all, cookin' is what makes a wife."
Later she asks Henry if, when he meets the "right girl," would "she have to be . . . only a cook?" His response: "I'm never going to marry! But if I did . . . I'd marry a wife and hire a cook!" This, of course, is exactly what Sally wanted to hear, so she now devises a plan to go away with Henry.
Without consulting Henry first, she tells her father that she needs to go to Tuscon to get a dress and other things for her impending wedding to Wells, and Henry is going to take her in his flivver. However, Henry agrees, but they run out of gas out in the middle of the desert. Along come Jerome Underwood (Swain), his daughter, Harriet (Steadman), and her fiancé, Oswald (Gerrard), in their chauffeur-driven limousine. Underwood is also a hypochondriac, and Henry assumes he will not only be able to borrow some gas from them but that he and Underwood will bond as "brother sufferers." However, both Underwood and Oswald are very rude, pushing him away and denying any loan of gas. As Henry angrily derides them, he has a wrench in his hand with the handle turned outward. Underwood and his companions think this is a gun. Henry takes advantage of their misunderstanding to take gas from them. Sally siphons the gas but accidentally walks away with gas still pouring out on the ground. To add insult to injury, Henry orders Underwood to crank his flivver for him and then chases him down the road in his car. Finally, he hands Underwood the "gun," and, when Underwood realizes he was duped, he is furious.
Further down the road, Henry and Sally stop at a very large Spanish style home, the center of a large ranch. Foreman Andy McNab (Burton) and his sidekick, Mort (Conklin), are beside themselves because the "boss" is on his way, and McNab fired the only cook they had. When Henry and Sally stop for something to eat, McNab decides he's going to force them to stay and serve as cooks at least until the boss leaves. So, he hides their car in the barn and takes one wheel off as extra protection. He tells them he will return the car after they have performed this service and the boss leaves. Henry reacts furiously, but Sally convinces him this is the best thing to do since they need to hide out for awhile because she knows Wells is no doubt on their trail. Not surprisingly, who is the boss McNab is referring to?? Why, Underwood, of course! At this point, the comedy picks up considerable speed!
Sally removes Henry's glasses and combs his hair differently so Underwood won't recognize him, which he doesn't as Henry goes through serving dinner - annoying Underwood in every possible way as he does this. Underwood calls Wells about the robbery, and Wells says he'll be right out. Jud calls Wells to tell him Sally left a note that she was eloping with Henry. Wells tells Jud to meet him at the Underwood ranch. When Sally and Henry realize Wells is on his way, they are frantic to get their car and get out of there. Of course, by the time everyone arrives at the ranch, there's much comedy to be had before their troubles come to an end.
At the beginning of the commentary, it was noted that this is a very good comedy, and it is. It's certainly not in the league of "The General" (1926) or "The Gold Rush" (1925) but it has enough good gags, snappy lines, funny situations and a great cast to carry them over to keep the viewer happily entertained for 73 minutes. The Harrison's Reports reviewer observed, "The first third does not contain very many comedy situations, but the other two are full of them." (1). This is a valid observation, but it is necessary for the setup for the rest of the film. Besides, the interplay between Ford and Haver gives us plenty of reason to stay interested through the first third. In one scene, she leans sexily against Henry's flivver as he tries to inflate a tire. Sheriff Wells arrives and isn't pleased that Sally is spending time with this stranger. At one point, Henry hurts his thumb, and Sally rushes over to take his hand, kiss his thumb, and then lean back prettily as if to say, "All better now?" Wells observes this with a menacing scowl.
The scene in the desert when Sally and Henry are out of gas and the Underwoods arrive is excellent comedy. One of the most hilarious moments is when Henry holds his "gun" on the Underwoods while Sally siphons gas from their car. She inserts the tube in their gas tank and then sucks on the tube to get the gas flowing before putting the tube in the bucket. Suddenly, we see her spewing a rather large amount of gas from her mouth. She continues to purse her lips, run her tongue on her lips and generally repulse at the taste in her mouth. This is reminiscent of the scene from Buster Keaton's "The Balloonatic" (192?) when she takes a sip of the scalding hot coffee, spews it and a billow of smoke from her mouth, and then waves her hand over her open mouth to cool her tongue. No one was better at expressiveness in these comedic situations. As a matter of fact, one can't help but laugh when Sally and Henry both realizes the rude Underwoods have mistaken Henry's wrench for a gun. We see a close-up of Sally light up, swing her head from side to side as if to say, "Nah, nah, nah, nah, nah!" and then wave her fingers under her chin while making a face. Funny!!
Of course, Mack Swain and his pomposity, wide-eyed surprise and bouncing girth always bring humor to a situation - and he does to this one, too. One should not overlook Charles K. Gerrard in favor of the more well-known stars, either. As Harriet Underwood's fiancé, Oswald," he does a commendable job. He's mildly threatening yet sufficiently obnoxious to fit the part. Later in the film when Henry poses as hired help at the Underwood's ranch, it is Oswald who recognizes him first. Oswald also tries to stop Henry from getting away from the ranch, but Henry bests him in a fight, puts him in a wheelbarrow with the help of Mort, and tosses him into the henhouse with locked door. We see Oswald passed out on the straw floor, a hen perched on his chest and then an egg lying there when the hen gets up to leave. (Note: Instead of Oswald, Gerrard's character is identified as Reggie De Vere on the IMdB and in the American Film Institute Catalog of Feature Films. Grapevine also uses Reggie De Vere on the cover of its DVD - Oswald was apparently a name change from the book and play for the movie.)
Chester Conklin, as Mort, can also be depended upon to provide some good comic relief. In the kitchen, Mort is obviously enamored with Sally, turns and twists shyly like a little kid, takes his hat off and slaps his chaps, then tells her, "Kid, you're the onions! I'm for you!" The comic byplay as he tries to get his arms around her and get a kiss is pleasantly reminiscent of the shenanigans in the Keystone shorts. When he gets too aggressive, Henry hits him over the head with his pill bag. Mort goes back to the bunkhouse, takes out a large bottle of liniment and pours it over his head!
Later, Oswald is in the kitchen, also obviously taken with Sally. This scene provides a comic moment in allowing Mort to run back to the bunkhouse, get his bottle of liniment, come back and give it to Oswald with the admonition, "That's for what's soon goin' to be ailin' you." Funny moment, but nothing ever progresses with Oswald's attentions on Sally. We fully expected Harriet would have walked in on him or Mort would have taken a physically aggressive stance for Sally, but we simply move to the next scene, and this interlude is forgotten.
There is a significant amount of footage taken up with Henry serving the Underwoods dinner, and it does, admittedly, not live up to its potential. He is trying to get fired so he and Sally can leave, so he provides "gruel" for Underwood and a dog biscuit, supposedly for his health. This may be the most significant weakness in the film. Henry's mistreatment of Underwood comes across more as meanness rather than humorous. His character would have elicited more laughs if the annoyance he caused Underwood was a result of ignorance about serving and his successes were a result of dumb luck ('a la much of Keaton's comedy). He's a very aggressive character in the film which seems to run contrary to the frail, sickly character he is supposed to be.
The comedy picks back up, though, when Wells shows up sending Sally and Henry into a panic. It is also enjoyable watching Underwood, Harriet and Oswald give Sheriff Wells three different versions of the robbery - Underwood naming six bandits, Harriet claiming one to be very handsome and romantic, and Oswald claiming heroics at fighting them off. The pace continues to quicken when Sally walks in the room without knowing Wells is there (his back is turned to her). Henry tries every means possible to mime that Wells is sitting there in front of her, but she can't quite understand. When she approaches Wells from behind, Henry runs, leaping across the top of the table, and throws a blanket on top of her.
Henry's ongoing search for the tire that McNab hid is humorous, especially when he and Mort decide to use a wagon wheel in place of the lost tire. The first wagon wheel collapses under the weight of the car. Then Mort comes back with a very thick and heavy wagon wheel, obviously used for heavy loads. The car is quite comical with this wheel on it, and we head toward the end of the film with Henry and Sally driving very fast around mountainside roads with precarious drop-offs, Wells, the Underwoods and Morgan all in pursuit. All the while, the wagon wheel axle keeps going in and out teasing us as to whether the wheel is going to actually come off and send them tumbling down the mountainside - a thrillingly photographed and very realistic sequence!
Ford is very much an underrated star from a historical standpoint. Fortunately, we do have several of his films available today so that silent movie fans who may not be familiar with him can see what a solid, dependable and capable actor he was. He was a favorite of Marie Prevost and made six films with her including "Up in Mabel's Room" (1926), "The Girl in the Pullman" (1927), "Blonde for a Night" (1928) and "Rush Hour" (1928), all of which are available for home viewing today. Fans can also see him today with Constance Talmadge in "A Pair of Silk Stockings" (1918) and "The Primitive Lover" (1922); with Bessie Love in "Rubber Tires" (1926); with Marion Davies in "Janice Meredith" (1924); with Pauline Garon in "The Average Woman" (1924); and in support of many of the other great female stars of the day. Ford was born in 1884, so he was about 42 years old when he made "The Nervous Wreck," although he certainly photographs much younger. After years on the stage, he came in to films in 1915, made his final film in 1932, and went back to the theater after that. Unfortunately, he was struck by a car while walking in the early 1950's and never recovered fully from his injuries. He spent the last years of his life in the Motion Picture and Television Country House and Hospital in Woodland Hills, Ca., passing away in 1957.
Phyllis Haver is a delight in all of her films, and one cannot imagine a more perfect actress for the role of Roxie Hart in "Chicago" than Haver - a film in which she gave a bravura performance shortly after making "The Nervous Wreck." She followed "Chicago" with a superb performance in "The Battle of the Sexes" that same year, which is also available on DVD. When Haver performed alongside Buster Keaton in his 1923 short "The Balloonatic," she proved to be possibly the best leading lady he ever had. In all she did, it seemed her comic timing was perfect, and her reactions to situations or incidents priceless! Silent movies required a controlled expressiveness, and the only other actress in the silent era who could match Haver's perkiness, charming smile, inviting eyes and subtle sexiness would be Clara Bow. The two brought the same kind of vibrancy to the screen, charming her way through each film. She began with Sennett, but moved to features in the early 1920's. In addition to the above named films, she can be seen in "Don Juan," "Three Bad Men," "Up in Mabel's Room," "Fig Leaves" and "What Price Glory" all from 1926, but unfortunately not in the leading lady role in any of them. She is a pure delight with Rod La Roque in "The Fighting Eagle" (1927) - a must-see film, and can be seen with Cullen Landis in "The Fighting Coward" (1924). She left the movies when she married William Seeman in 1929, a marriage that ended in divorce in 1945. She didn't remarry, but retired to Sharon, CT. It is unfortunate her memory is tainted by the suspicion she committed suicide in 1960 at age 61 from an overdose of barbiturates, although the suicide is unconfirmed.
The support of such stalwart stars as Hobard Bosworth, Mack Swain and Chester Conklin make Ford and Haver shine even brighter. They provide a much-welcomed addition to the enjoyment of this film.
Christie Brothers produced the film, and they turned out some excellent comedy shorts and features during the silent era. Often compared to the Hal Roach films, Christie comedies were much more refined than the Keystones and relied more on situations rather than slapstick and grotesque characterizations. However, comparing the two, Roach's product would certainly be considered the better, especially with such outstanding stars as Laurel & Hardy, Charlie Chase, Our Gang and others. And Christie, like Roach, would pull in a star for a single film now and then that would bring a name to the production, but not a long-term contract. "The Nervous Wreck" lives up to Christie's reputation for an above average product, but with some weaknesses - which is no doubt why "The Nervous Wreck" received mixed reviews when it came out.
Harrison's Reports said, "Very good comedy. . . Mr. Harrison Ford is good as the hero, and Phyllis Haver as the heroine. Chester Conklin does good acting. Hobart Bosworth is good, too. . . Good for any theatre, big or small, vaudeville houses included. In small towns it should suit on Sunday just as much as it should on Saturday or any other day. Children should enjoy it immensely." (2) Photoplay also offered praise. "Owen Davis' famous stage play was a New York hit. And the delightful screen version of this play will play havoc with every town it is shown in." (3) Picture Play was a bit more reserved. "'The Nervous Wreck' is worth seeing if you like farce, but it won't leave you a wreck from laughing too much." (4)
Less than stellar reviews came from Variety and, as one would expect, the difficult to please New York Times. "The picture needs gags," said Variety. "It is woefully shy of 'em . . . There's too much of the two-reeler about it, and without the punch of a good twin-spool comedy. Scattered giggles was the best this film could extract from a matinee audience at the Strand. . . It's pretty tedious watching Ford take pill after pill in the title role with Chester Conklin limited and Mack Swain on the receiving end of much debris. . . the "Wreck" must needs be classed as a weakling. For the second string theatres, it should be a bet, with the entertainment value increasing as the seating capacities grow smaller in the neighborhoods." (5) - while the New York Times said, "The best that can be said of this strained comedy is that occasionally the audience tittered, chuckled and laughed . . . . . it is a very dull screen contribution. . . Nothing in it is in the least impressive except the presence of Harrison Ford who figures as Henry Williams, the hypochondriac, who is devoted to the pills prescribed for him. . . Phyllis Haver is attractive as the vivacious heroine. She, too, does what is asked of her. Mack Swain . . .is another player who can usually be relied upon for good work. Here, however, he is not cast in a particularly interesting role. . . The comedy sadly needs more real humor and at least a satisfactory story." (6)
As silent movie fans know so well from vintage negative reviews of "The General," it's best for today's audiences to judge for themselves - and today's audiences can do that thanks to Grapevine Video. This reviewer remembers seeing it available in 16mm years ago, but now we can watch it on DVD with a new, original organ score by David Knudtson. Grapevine's print is good with mostly good contrast and sharpness. If you're a fan of Christie Comedies, you'll love this entry. If you're not familiar with them - or you're don't know how good Harrison Ford and Phyllis Haver are on the screen, especially together - get this DVD - then sit back and laugh.
1. "The Nervous Wreck" review." Harrison's
Reports. October 23, 1926
3. "The Nervous Wreck" review. Photoplay magazine. November 1926.
4. "The Nervous Wreck" review. Picture Play magazine. January 1927.
5. "The Nervous Wreck" review." Variety, October 20, 1926.
6. "The Nervous Wreck" review. The New York Times, October 12, 1926 12, 1926)
Copyright 2014 by Tim Lussier. All rights reserved.
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