(6/10) A bullied college student is injected with an insect serum that gives him superhuman powers, but create as much problems as solutions. Inspired by Philip Wylie’s novel, this heartwarming but derivative 1938 slapstick comedy showcases the forgotten talents of one-time box office magnet Joe E. Brown.
The Gladiator. 1938, USA. Directed by Edward Sedgwick. Written by Charlie Melson, Arthur Sheekman, et.al. Based on novel by Philip Wylie. Starring: Joe E. Brown, June Travis, Robert Kent, Lucien Littlefield, Man Mountain Dean.Produced by David L. Loew. IMDb: 6.3/10. Rotten Tomatoes: N/A. Metacritic: N/A.
When Hugo (Joe E. Brown) is laid off from his job at an orphanage, he re-enrols in college. At the bequest of beautiful coed Iris (June Travis), he tries to join the football team, but gets the living daylights knocked out of him when the other players decide to teach the new guy a lesson, with Iris’ boyfriend Tom (Robert Kent) leading the charge. Meanwhile the dotty Professor Danner (Lucien Littlefield) has made a serum with extractions from grasshoppers and ants that will in theory make a person super-strong. An old friend of Hugo’s, Danner takes care of him after the beating, and when Hugo says before falling asleep that he wished he was stronger, Danner sees his chance at experimenting on a human being.
Waking up the next morning, Hugo accidentally dismantles his room, and confronts Professor Danner who explains what he has done. After getting used to the idea of being a superman (the first Superman comics hit the stands two months prior to the film’s release), Hugo triumphs on the football field, becoming the new star of the team. But when Danner hears what has happened, he gives Hugo a stern warning that he cannot take part in any competitive sports, as he might easily kill someone: “It would look like an accident, but you and I both know it would be muuuuurder!” Now Hugo’s got a dilemma. How can he win the heart of Iris and the respect of his classmates without showing off his super-strength? Things get worse when he refuses to fight Tom and gets branded a coward. Furthermore, its turns out that Iris, who’s been dating him, has been leading him on just in order to convince him to re-join the football team. An ultimatum presents itself as a young boy named Bobby (Dickie Moore) escapes from Hugo’s old orphanage and asks Hugo to adopt him. But for adoptions you need to have enough money to prove hat you can support a child, and Hugo hasn’t a penny to his name. Until he sees an ad in the paper of a reward of 10,000 dollars to anyone who can beat the wrestling champion Man Mountain Dean (Man Mountain Dean). Hugo realises this is easy money for him, but in the middle of the match, the serum suddenly wears off …
The setup for this heart-warming slapstick comedy is the familiar ground of the nerd college student trying to win the girl from the hands of the toughest jock in school, this time enhanced with a little bit of pseudo-SF. The main thing the movie has going for it is lead actor Joe E. Brown, a former circus athlete and vaudeville performer, who was one of America’s most popular film comedians in the mid-thirties. In fact, at one point he was among the ten biggest box-office draws if Hollywood, beating all fellow comedians, including The Marx Brothers and Laurel and hardy. Brown was famous for his “loud yell, his infectious grin and his cavernous mouth”, and his natural athletic ability combined with a knack for physical comedy, meant that many of his movies revolved around sports. On the peak of his career in 1937 he left Warner Bros. and signed on with David A. Loew, a decision which proved disastrous for his career, as the pictures Loew offered him were mostly cheaply produced B movies with bad scripts — The Gladiator is generally regarded as one of the very few good films he made with Loew’s production company, and it was distributed by Columbia. Dave Sindelar at Fantastic Movie Musings explains one of the reasons Brown rises above many of his contemporary slapstick colleagues at the time in his review of The Gladiator: “He was very good at handling the sentimental side of things, giving them a light, honest touch to keep them from being too sickly sweet while remaining very strongly affecting. He also avoids desperation in his comic bits, and generally avoids mugging, which is actually quite a feat considering how easy it would be for him to engage in it with that face of his. Thus, it’s the warmth and sincerity that make this work.”
Lucien Littlefield does a lovable nutty professor, and would actually turn up as a nutty inventor in the George Reeves Superman TV series in the fifties. Littlefield was a veteran who’s career stretched over five decades, and he appeared in close to 300 films or TV series. June Travis is equally good as the sweet Iris. Often a “secondary actress”, Travis only worked in Hollywood for three years, dropping out at the end of 1938 to focus on her family. Robert Kent was used to playing manly leads in B movies, best known perhaps as Sgt. King of the Royal Mounted, and now it’s his turn to play second banana. Kent is believable as the college bully.
The screenplay has multiple cooks, but most notably Arthur Sheekman and Charlie Melson who were known for their work with many of Hollywood’s top comedy talents, including Joe E. Brown, The Marx Brothers, Laurel and Hardy and The Three Stooges. Variety noted in 1938 that the script was basically “a series of gag situations”, but that they were “so deftly developed that their lineage or the fact that they smack familiar is soon forgotten”.
The actual story is a very loose, comedic adaptation of Philip Wylie’s influential 1930 novel Gladiator. Not much of the novel remains, but the idea of a superman forced to hide his ability for the safety of others, and the football connection. The novel is a dark satire about a superman trying and failing to find his place in society, and ends with a brutal sequence in which Hugo Danner rages against the gods during a thunderstorm in a forest, culminating with his death in a lightning strike. The novel begins with a Professor Danner, who, unbeknownst to his wife, injects a superman serum into his own son while still in the womb. Hugo is raised on a farm by his loving mother and father, and can practice is abilities in the solitude of the forest. However, his kindly father instils in him a sense of duty, and warns him not to let other people know about his ability in order not to make him an outcast in society, or have other people take control of his powers for nefarious means, for: “with great power comes great responsibility”. And if this sounds familiar, then yes, the novel is widely regarded as one of the primary inspirations for the Superman comics, even if Jerry Siegel claimed this was not the case.
Philip Wylie was an American pulp author, mainly known for his science fiction stories, but a contributor in a number of genres. Apart from Gladiator, he is best known for his 1933 novel When Worlds Collide, about a small group of select humans preparing a space arc in order to hop planets when a careening planet threatens to smash into the Earth, as well as its sequel After Worlds Collide (1934). When Worlds Collide was famously turned into a film by George Pal in 1951 (review). In the thirties Wylie also worked as a screenwriter, contributing to, among others, Island of Lost Souls (1932, review) and The Invisible Man (1933, review).
Director Edward Sedgwick started out as an actor in 1916 and advanced to the director’s chair in 1920. He is perhaps most revered today in western circles for his movies during the first half of the twenties, featuring stars like Tom Mix and Hoot Gibson. He was also one of the many co-directors of Universal’s legendary 1925 film Phantom of the Opera with Lon Chaney. At MGM he specialised in comedies during the second part of the twenties, and by 1928 he became the designated director for his close friend Buster Keaton after Keaton had signed a contract with the studio, effectively giving up his artistic influence. This would prove disastrous for Keaton’s career. While The Cameraman (1928), which Keaton co-directed, is considered one of his best, the downward spiral at MGM with the advent of the talkies is evident. Sedgwick continued to direct primarily B comedies throughout the thirties, including half a dozen with Joe E. Brown. During the forties Sedgwick was offered few directional duties, despite being on MGM’s payroll, and shared an office with the likewise sidestepped Keaton. At the end of the decade he started working with Red Skelton and is credited with “discovering” Lucille Ball. One of his last directorial efforts was an extended special episode of I Love Lucy (1953), released as a movie.
Sedgwick directs The Gladiator competently on what was a small budget for Columbia, but for a critic who has just watched no-budget clunkers like Ghost Patrol (1936, review) and Torture Ship (1939, review), the budget of The Gladiator doesn’t really feel like a problem. The sets are rather cramped and nondescript, but this is balanced out by a good deal of outdoor shooting and a couple of crowd scenes at a football field and of course the wrestling venue. Being a capable athlete, Joe E. Brown did the entire wrestling match himself against professional wrestler Man Mountain Dean, resulting in hospital treatment for a double hernia, after he had picked up the 300-pound man and spun him in a helicopter move.
The Gladiator was well-received upon its release, as evident from the above quote from Variety, which calls it “goofy, but fun”. An anonymous New York Times critic was absolutely beside theirself, writing “Not since Chaplin have we behold (sic) so unbrokenly successful a pattern of pure cinematic clownery, or one that tickled us so hugely, as the David Loew-Edward Sedgwick productional and directoral (sic) triumph, The Gladiator.” The review concludes: “People who don’t like it may insist that the effect of slapstick is always painful, but the pain The Gladiator leaves you with is the kind you get from laughing too much”.
Modern reviews of The Gladiator are few and far between, possibly because Joe E. Brown is something of a forgotten great among the many legendary comedians of the thirties, and his style is somewhat derivative of other artists. However, those that do remember Brown seem to be of the opinion that his best work has stood the test of time. Hal Erickson at AllMovie gives the film 4/5 stars without elaborating further, and TV Guide rates it at 3/4 stars, calling it a “great comedy […] full of gags, nicely held together by the cast and director Sedgwick“. James L. Neibaur at Cinema Revisited writes that The Gladiator is “charmingly funny without pretension, and remains consistently entertaining throughout its running time”. He adds that it is “also filled with several big comedy scenes providing good laughs”. Dave Sindelar at Fantastic Movie Musings, however, isn’t quite as taken in by the film, writing: “sadly, I didn’t think it was all that funny”. The audience score at Rotten Tomatoes is 50%, and the film’s IMDb rating is 6.3/10, based on a measly 82 votes.
Whatever your opinion of the movie, The Gladiator is one of the first modern superhero pictures, even if there is very little in Hugo’s adventures that would constitute a heroic story arc. But the fact is that while human experiments had been used in abundance on the screen up to this point in history, there had been very few, if any stories in feature films where the guinea pig didn’t end up a “monster” or a victim. This is one of the few films where experiments to enhance a human being doesn’t seem to have any detrimental effects and where the enhanced person doesn’t use their powers to destructive ends.
Of course, in a comedy like this we are not supposed to take the the science bit of the science fiction too seriously. However, I do give the film some kudos for at least attempting to insert some scientific discussion into the proceedings, even if it is all bogus. When Professor Danner explains his theory to a colleague, he notes that ants can lift 50 times their weight and grasshoppers can jump a hundred times their height, which is roughly correct. Danner then asks: “Why not humans?”, whereby the colleague answers: “Because of differences in muscular and nervous energy”. This doesn’t really mean anything, but has enough vague scientific lingo to sound like a serious rebuke. Danner replies that the difference is “purely chemical”, and that if he can reproduce the chemical composition of the ant’s muscles in a human being, he will have created a superhuman. This is all complete bull, of course, as there are no real differences between the muscles of an ant and the muscles of a human being. An ant doesn’t have “stronger” muscles than humans, but because of the laws of physics and geometry, the smaller an animal, the smaller its mass as compared to its surface area. The strength of a muscle, however, depends on its thickness and not on its mass. This means that if you scaled up an ant to human size, it probably wouldn’t be able to lift that much more than a human can, as it’s mass would increase by its cubic volume and it’s muscle strength would only increase by its cross-section’s surface square (there are other factors at play but this is the main reason for an ant’s “super-strength”).
Yes, I just read up on ant physiology in order to review a silly sci-fi comedy.
I personally found the film quite enjoyable, if derivative, and found myself warming up to Joe E. Brown’s sympathetic character, perhaps, as Sindelar points out, because he doesn’t turn the volume of his comedy up to eleven all the time and seems to be more interested in telling the story than in doing endless gags and skits, as all to many of the comedians who came from vaudeville did at this time. It’s competently made, if on the cheaper side and not especially original. I found it rather fun, if not terribly funny. But as is always the case with straight-up comedies, a lot of it’s up to personal taste.
The Gladiator. 1938, USA. Directed by Edward Sedgwick. Written by Charlie Melson, Arthur Sheekman, James Mullhauser, Earle Snell, George Marion Jr. Based on novel Gladiator by Philip Wylie. Starring: Joe E. Brown, June Travis, Robert Kent, Lucien Littlefield, Man Mountain Dean, Dickie Moore, Ethel Wales, Donald Douglas. Music: Victor Young. Cinematography: George Schneiderman. Editing: Robert O’Crandall. Art direction: Arthur S. D’Agostino. Recording director: William R. Fox. Stunts: Chuck Hamilton, Frank Mills, Charles Sullivan. Wardrobe supervisor: Albert Deano. Presenter: G.W. Hedwig. Produced by David L. Loew for David L. Loew Productions.