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Lowbrow second feature with interesting black sidekick
About 34 minutes of this movie's deteriorated nitrate print were located in the Library of Congress, where they'd been mistakenly stored with footage of an unrelated movie with a similar title. I've viewed the surviving fragments: "Red Hot Romance" is a lowbrow comedy that appears to have possessed some good points, but it's definitely no masterpiece.
SPOILERS THROUGHOUT. British stage actor Basil Sydney plays go-getting young Rowland Stone, who expects to inherit the Anglo-American Insurance Company (and its considerable assets) from his late father. But the will stipulates that Rowland must sell insurance at a profit for one year, until April first: if he fails to do so, or if he costs the insurance company a loss, then the wealth goes to the Washingtom Home for the Feeble-Minded.
Rowland is sweet on Anna Mae Byrd, despite a rival for her affections named Conwell (geddit?). Anna Mae's father Colonel Cassius Byrd has just been appointed U.S. consul to the nation of Bunkonia, which is apparently in Latin America: the natives wear sombreros, the capital city is Santo Grafto, the prison is El Juggo and the national motto is "Vivo a Tauro". Colonel Byrd plans to take Anna Mae with him to Bunkonia, which means Rowland can't possibly stay with her and fulfil the terms of his father's will. But Rowland's black manservant Thomas Snow (a black man named Snow, haha) has a brainstorm: since no insurance business exists in Bunkonia, Rowland can go there and have a monopoly on insuring everyone.
Now, here's where it gets weird for a bad reason. The ruler of Bunkonia is cried Caramba the Thirteenth. But some of the surviving title cards identify him as the king, while others call him El Presidente. This appears to be a genuine error in the script, not down to my imperfect comprehension of an incomplete artefact. Anyroad, Rowland goes to Bunkonia, accompanied by loyal Snow, and he quickly insures Caramba and most of Caramba's councillors (all except Snitz Edwards). But now...
Along comes a revolution, led by Enrico de Castanet. (Gotta love these authentic Spanish names.) Rowland, Snow, Conwell and the Byrds are all caught in the crossfire ... and Rowland is also in jeopardy for another reason: if Caramba and his cabinet are killed, Rowland's father's insurance company will have to pay off on the policies, and Rowland will lose his inheritance.
This is a "thrill" comedy, similar in tone and surrealism to Harold Lloyd's "Why Worry?". Produced by the husband-wife team of John Emerson and Anita Loos, "Red Hot Romance" (cop that generic title) was made on a low budget, but director Victor Fleming expertly uses elaborate exterior locations to give this movie an expensive look. I laughed at a brief animation sequence, depicting Thomas Snow's vision of New York City as an insurance agent's nightmare, with a thousand fatalities daily.
There are plenty of Latino stereotypes here. Two white actors (Tom Wilson and Lillian Leighton) perform in blackface as Negro characters. As Thomas Snow, Tom Wilson walks in a splay-footed shuffling gait, and his dialogue titles are in "darky" dialect. Is he just one more minstrel-show stereotype? Not quite. I was pleasantly surprised that his character in this movie is brave, resourceful and intelligent: genuinely useful to the proceedings. At the film's climax, he summons help: a regiment of U.S. Navy troops, all of them black. (And apparently played by genuine African-Americans.) I'm delighted to see a movie from 1922 depicting black men as valiant soldiers rather than eye-rolling cowards ... still, I must point out an error here. In 1922, there were black troops in the segregated U.S. Army and Marine Corps, but all the black servicemen in the Navy were kitchen, galley and mess-hall staff, not combat troops. Well, this movie makes no attempt at accuracy anyway.
I've seen enough bits and bobs of "Red Hot Romance" to accept that it's neither better nor worse than a lot of other Hollywood comedies from the same period: it's no classic, but it's better than negligible. It was apparently intended as a second-feature programmer. The African-American characters depicted here (played by white actors) are arguably more positive than the blacks in Victor Fleming's "Gone with the Wind" 17 years later. I hope a complete version of 'Red Hot Romance' surfaces. I shan't rate this movie, since I've seen only pieces of it.
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