(director/writer: Sam Taylor; screenwriter: story by Clarence Budington Kelland; cinematographer: Walter Lundin; editor: Bernard Burton; music: Alfred Newman; cast: Una Merkel (Petunia Pratt), Harold Lloyd (Ezekiel Cobb), Nat Pendleton (Strozzi), George Barbier (Jake Mayo), Alan Dinehart (Mayor Morgan), J. Farrell MacDonald (Shigley), Frank Sheridan (Police Commissioner), Grace Bradley (Dolores Dace), Fred Warren (Tien Wang). Warren Hymer (Spike Slattery), Edwin Maxwell (District Attorney Neal), David Jack Holt (Ezekiel as a boy), Charles Sellon (Dr. Junius P. Withers), Samuel S. Hinds (Mr. Cobb); Runtime: 101; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Harold Lloyd; Fox Films; 1934)

Though one of Lloyd’s weaker comedies, it’s still striking as a curio.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A strange comedy for Harold Lloyd, one that moves away from his usual slapstick and makes him a character comic in a farce that stridently veers into Frank Capra political turf. Writer-director Sam Taylor(“Safety Last”/”Why Worry?”/”Girl Shy”) adapts a story by Clarence Budington Kelland, marking the first time Lloyd paid for an outside property. It offers too much melodrama over comedy to satisfy the comedian’s fanbase. Also the dated film reveals racist Chinese attitudes by referring to them as Chinks, and it has a politically incorrect satire finale over dishing out justice in a fascist-like manner when the system is corrupt and fails to work, as the beheading of gangsters by a giant sword is suggested by the weird new reform mayor played by Harold Lloyd as a way to rid the city of organized crime. Though one of Lloyd’s weaker comedies, it’s still striking as a curio and worth seeing.

In 1914, the young Ezekiel Cobb (David Jack Holt) lives with his missionary parents in China, and after twenty years, in 1934, the naive missionary Ezekiel (Harold Lloyd) returns to his hometown of Stockport, California on a mission to bring back to China an American wife so that he will replace his father (Samuel S. Hinds) as a family man. Through miscommunication Ezekiel fails to meet his father’s sponsor, Dr. Junius P. Withers (Charles Sellon), and the next day learns that he suddenly dies. In the meantime, Ezekiel is befriended by the wily Irish political boss Jack Mayo (George Barbier) during an accidental street meeting in Stockport and moves into a boarding house upon the politician’s suggestion. Withers death causes a problem for the conniving Irishman campaign manager, as he’s the reform candidate the machine secretly sponsors because he’s a perennial loser and they are backing the corrupt Mayor Morgan (Alan Dinehart). Jack decides to run the ‘fish out of water’ Ezekiel as a last-minute reform candidate and views him as a patsy who can’t possibly win the election that’s only 2 days away. Ezekiel is viewed as the sap needed by the ‘machine’ to put on a good show to convince the public that a real election is taking place. After accepting the nomination when Jack assures the rube he won’t win, Ezekiel takes the boardinghouse-residing fast-talking cigarette counter-girl Petunia Pratt (Una Merkel) to a nightclub. Ezekiel gets a favorable press for acting like a regular guy at the club and then in the street knocking out the mayor after he bullies a newsboy. Surprisingly, because of the good press, Ezekiel wins and decides to end all the city corruption, as he confers with his father’s friend, the wise Chinese antique dealer Tien Wang (Fred Warren), and has every known hood arrested by Mayo, now the honest police commissioner, and they are brought to the cellar of Wang’s shop to await execution without trial as recommended by the ancient Chinese philosopher/warrior, Ling Po, whose proverbs say when there’s no other way to get justice and the criminals don’t confess to their crimes it’s time to do the unexpected to get results. Tien Wang uses a magic trick to fool the hoods into thinking there’s actually a beheading or two going on and after believing that, they readily confess.

Though this is Lloyd’s most serious and adult comedy, too much of it just wasn’t funny and shamefully his talent for perfect comical timing is hardly put to use. Nevertheless, I give Lloyd credit for trying something different. Upon its theater release it got mostly good reviews, but did poorly at the box office. If you’re wondering about the odd title, a cat’s paw describes one who is used as a tool by another and that was lifted from an ancient Chinese fable ‘of a monkey tricking a cat into reaching into a hot fire for some chestnuts.’