Friday, May 20, 2016
Professor Beware was Lloyd's final independently-produced feature, and marked his retirement from film acting (with the exception of his return in Preston Sturges' nostalgic The Sin of Harold Diddlebock a decade later). Lloyd plays Dean Lambert, a timid Egyptologist who becomes convinced he is the victim of an ancient curse, and sets off on a cross-country chase from Los Angeles to New York in order to join an expedition departing to Egypt, where he hopes to find the missing tablet that will remove the curse.
This picaresque plot provides an excuse for lots of fun if loosely-connected sequences built around the professor's misadventures on his cross-country journey, peppered with a colorful cast of character actors such as Raymond Walburn, Lionel Stander, William Frawley, Thurston Hall, Cora Witherspoon, Sterling Holloway, and many other familiar faces. There is also a pleasant romantic plot involving Harold and a young heiress (Phyllis Welch) on the run that, as others have pointed out, bears more than a passing resemblance to It Happened One Night.
Often cited as a highlight of the film is the extended chase scene in which Lloyd and his traveling hobo companions (Raymond Walburn and Lionel Stander) have to keep running along the top of a moving train headed toward a low tunnel. Perhaps in 1938, when there was such a dearth of good visual comedy on the screen, this sequence would have seemed like a welcome throwback to the best of silent comedy, but seen today, it feels rather clumsy and is marred by the overuse of unconvincing back-projection.
Much more satisfying is the action-packed climax, in which a newly-invigorated Harold finds the courage to rescue the heiress from her father's yacht. The scene is like a throwback to the ending of his silent comedies such as For Heaven's Sake and Speedy. Harold rounds up a gang of various tough guys by taunting them and egging them on to give chase, which they do -- following him right on to the yacht and unwittingly acting as Harold's personal army as they engage in an all-out brawl with the yacht's crew. It's a well-timed and expertly-constructed sequence that demonstrates Lloyd's still-considerable skills for physical comedy even at this late point in his career.
Other highlights include a sequence with Harold hiding a stolen chicken under his coat and being forced to engage in some amateur ventriloquism to assuage the sheriff's suspicions, and a memorable sight gag of a frost-bitten Harold emerging from a refrigerated train car in which he has just spent the past several hours traveling across the state.
Overall, however, Professor Beware is far from Lloyd's best work. Too often the pacing lags between set-pieces, some scenes (particularly the clothes-changing sequence with William Frawley) go on too long, and Lloyd himself is just a bit long-in-the-tooth to be playing the overeager young professor getting worked up over superstitions around an ancient curse. But it's hard to dislike the pleasant, silly humor of it all, and there are still enough flashes of brilliance, particularly in the exciting climax, to make it a worthwhile and enjoyable effort from a master comedian.