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aka A Natural Born Salesman

D: Ray Enright / 69m

Cast: Joe E. Brown, June Travis, Guy Kibbee, Dick Foran, Carol Hughes, Gene Lockhart, Olin Howland, Joseph Crehan, Charles C. Wilson

Alexander Botts (Brown) is a self-professed natural born salesman. Looking to impress his girlfriend, Sally (Hughes), and win her hand in marriage, Botts takes a job with the Earthworm Tractor Company as a master salesman and mechanic (even though he has no experience with tractors at all). Sent to the midwest town of Cypress City, Botts is tasked with selling tractors to an old, intransigent lumberman called Johnson (Kibbee). Even with the aid of Johnson’s daughter, Mabel (Travis), Botts finds the old man a hard sell, and his efforts to impress the lumberman usually end in calamity. A stroke of luck keeps Botts in his job, and he becomes even more determined to clinch the deal, but one more disaster ruins his chances, both with the old man, and with Mabel. Chastened, Botts heads home to seek solace with Sally, but that idea doesn’t work out either. Still in danger of losing his job, Botts returns to Cypress City intending to make one last effort to change Johnson’s mind, and win back Mabel…

Based on the character created by William Hazlett Upson in a series of stories for The Saturday Evening Post, Earthworm Tractors trades heavily on Joe E. Brown’s ebullient screen persona, and a number of slapstick action sequences based around Botts’ misuse of an Earthworm Tractor (often with Johnson as an unwilling passenger). It’s something of a curio now, an off-centre comedy with the requisite romantic elements, that looks and feels more like a silent movie given an audio upgrade than a movie released in 1936. But while it has the perfunctory quality inherent in so many low budget B-movies of the Thirties – all the characters are recognisable staples of the genre, the camerawork, editing and score are all adequate without standing out – there’s an energy to the movie that keeps the viewer entertained as each one of Botts’ plans comes to an ignoble, and often destructive end. Working from a script by Richard Macaulay, Joe Traub and Hugh Cummings, Enright and his star keep things moving with impressive dexterity, imbuing even the most pedestrian of scenes with a comic sheen that highlights Brown’s skills as a comic actor, and his director’s deft understanding of what constitutes effectiv physical comedy.

Brown is irrepressible as Botts (even when he’s down, a contradiction that works when it shouldn’t), and his infectious smile goes a long way towards keeping the viewer rooting for him throughout. Of the rest of the cast, Kibbee is notable for another variation on his grouchy old man routine, though Travis and Hughes are, frankly, too bland to make much of an impact. However, the acting isn’t the movie’s focal point. Rather it’s the impressive-for-a-low-budget-movie stunt sequences involving the Earthworm Tractor. The finale – which takes place in a quarry that’s primed with explosives that will inevitably be set off – sees Botts, Johnson and the Earthworm Tractor having to negotiate each detonation and a rickety old wooden bridge before reaching safety, and it’s this sequence that is the movie’s highlight. Along the way there are numerous examples of clever ideas that have been used cleverly, such as the couple of occasions where Botts is thrown bodily from Johnson’s premises and onto the ground, only for him to land on a carefully placed mattresss on the third occasion. Little moments such as that one help make the movie resonate much more with the viewer, and though some of those moments are almost thrown away (though deliberately), the ones that are included help make the movie as silly and as entertaining as it is.

Rating: 7/10 – a slapstick comedy with romantic overtones and a quiet sense of irony regarding its capitalist message, Earthworm Tractors is still very definitely a Thirties movie, but one that’s flecked with nice touches and occasional, surreal moments; Brown is the main star, but the likes of Lockhart and Crehan boost the supporting cast thanks to their efforts, and Enright orchestrates it all with a dexterity and prowess that belies his reputation as a journeyman director.

NOTE: Alas, there’s no trailer available for Earthworm Tractors.