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Don’t Tell Everything (Hal Roach, 1927)

Don't Tell Everything screenshotDon’t Tell Everything (Hal Roach, 1927)
Directed by Leo McCarey
Starring Max Davidson and Spec O’Donnell

Story time: I first saw Don’t Tell Everything (1927) theatrically at an LGBT silent film festival ages ago. The festival lineup was a pretty mixed bag, but I remember thinking that this was a good two-reel ethnic comedy. Not so good that I didn’t immediately forget every detail about it, but I did come away with the impression that it was the best film screened that day. Flash forward ten or eleven years and a print turns up on the market. I think: hey, why not?

The vague recollection I had of this picture was much better than the actual product.

The Doodlebaums are throwing a house party and the Ginsbergs – Asher (Spec O’Donnell) and his Papa (Max Davidson) – are invited. After “some little inexpensive thing” goes wrong with his car, Papa entrusts it to a doofy looking but conveniently located mechanic (Jesse De Vorska). Asher generally makes an ass of himself at the party, much to the embarrassment of Papa. Papa is desperately trying to woo the rich widow Finkelheimer (Lillian Elliott). “Who is that brat,” she asks him. “In all my life I never saw him before,” he replies.

After the party, Papa returns to the mechanic to retrieve his car. We’ve previously cut back to the mechanic once and have seen that he’s completely disassembled the machine, but now it looks perfect. As Papa starts cranking it, the mechanic slinks off, and the car begins to fall apart. Eventually, the whole thing washes down the storm drain.

Jump forward a couple weeks. Papa and Finkelheimer are married. To maintain the lie, Papa has thrown Asher out. Incidentally, I’m not entirely clear how old Asher is. He acts likes a young child, but looks like and I assume is supposed to be a teenager. Anyway, Asher writes to his father to say that if he can’t live at home as his son, then he’ll become a girl and accept the job of their maid. Asher doesn’t wait for an answer.

On the street, Finkelheimer spots him as he nears their building. Girl-Asher is pretty noticeable with his bleached-blonde hair, short skirt, rayon pantyhose, and trampy walk. Suspicious, Finkelheimer follows at a distance. She enters just in time to hear the tail end of his intimate conversation with Papa: “Your wife won’t get wise to us – she’s too dumb”. Papa tries to play it off and Finkelheimer pretends to believe him. She steps outside as the other two go into the bedroom, where Papa helps Asher undress. Finkelheimer sneaks back in and peers through the transom, where she sees Papa on the floor marveling at how smooth Asher’s legs are.

Finkelheimer storms out, saying that she’s going to get a lawyer. Asher, feeling guilty, chases after her to explain. He’s only wearing a slip right now, remember. He quickly amasses a crowd of gawkers, including a cop (Budd Fine) who tries to arrest him. Asher flees, jumps in a barrel, and is submerged neck-deep in black paint. Once the coast is clear, he stumbles back to Papa, who strips him down and puts him in the bath.

Finkelheimer returns with the threatened lawyer (James Finlayson), who tries to assure her that it must just be big misunderstanding. He opens the door to the bathroom to see Papa scrubbing Asher’s chest. Papa’s excuse that “the maid needed a bath – awful” does not placate Finkelheimer this time.

At last, Papa confesses to everything and all three are reconciled surprisingly quickly. There’s a knock at the door, which Finkelheimer answers. Sheepishly, she returns to Papa to tell him that “I didn’t dare tell you – I also got a son”. Enter the mechanic that destroyed Papa’s car.

The biggest problem with Don’t Tell Everything is that it never commits to the gimmick. The Asher in drag story never goes anywhere, and the scenes with Finkelheimer catching Papa in flagrante with the supposed maid are just breezed right over. Conversely, it runs standard comedy tropes into the ground. The party scene is essentially one joke repeated a dozen times. Literally the same joke. It isn’t even a very strong joke – one man is trying to perform a magic trick with a glass of punch while Asher keeps breaking the glass with his slingshot. And that’s stretched out to nearly four minutes.

I don’t know what I initially saw in this film. The others screened that day must have been truly atrocious. I would not recommend it now.

My rating: I don’t like it.