The first chatter of the production comes from a November 1930 newspaper article which reported that famed stage, recording, and film comedian, Eddie Cantor, had sold his story of “Mr. Lemon of Orange” to Fox Films Corporation. This does not mean that Cantor wrote the actual narrative as the storyline had originated from an unpublished play of the same name by Jack Hayes (copyrighted on April 5th, 1930). The story went on to state that since Cantor worked for United Artists, the deal with Fox seemed to be a strange one as the chain of Fox Theaters had been trying to buy U.A. films at “unsatisfactory prices”, but, “Hollywood observers think differently for Fox Film and Fox West Coast theaters are wholly separate organizations”. It seems Cantor needed some help with the dialog because by the time of the films’ release, the name of Edwin Burke would also be added to that credit.
On December 7th, this tidbit appeared in the New York Times: “El Brendel will play two roles in his first starring picture, “Mr. Lemon of Orange.” The Swedish comic will impersonate Wilbur Lemon and Popskull McGee. It has not been revealed whether he will use his familiar Swedish accent for both roles or introduce another of the foreign accents at which he is said to be proficient”. This is interesting as “Just Imagine”, released about a week before the article appeared, is certainly Brendel’s first starring role. Also of note is the early first names of the main characters in the film, these would be changed sometime before the picture was released to theaters.
Production started on December 17th, 1930 and wrapped up in late January 1931. The film was copyrighted on February 14th and released to the public on March 22nd, 1931. I have yet to find any information about any lavish premier for the movie. It is known that El was not a fan of the party scene in Hollywood and disliked attending opening night festivities, but seeing as this was a starring role in a film, he might have made an exception for this one. That’s if Fox did anything special.
Since I haven’t seen it, I turn to the glorious AFI Catalog as to what takes place:
Oscar Lemon (El Brendel), a bumbling Swedish immigrant fond of practical jokes, lives in Orange, New Jersey with his adoring sister, Hilda Blake (Ruth Warren), his less hospitable brother-in-law (William Collier, Sr.) and their daughter June (Joan Castle). Oscar is fired from his job at a toy shop for taking too much pleasure in amusing his juvenile customers with gag tricks.
Meanwhile, gangster Silent McGee (also El Brendel), a dead ringer for Lemon and a master of disguise, plans with his henchman, Smithy, to steal a truckload of liquor belonging to rival gang leader Pierre La Rue. During the heist, Oscar passes the crime scene and is mistaken for McGee, the first of many such mix-ups. Moments later, La Rue's limousine is showered with bullets, and his sister, the lovely Julie La Rue (Fifi D’Orsay), vows to avenge her brother's death.
Julie and Tony, La Rue's right-hand man, encounter Oscar walking down the street and believe that he is McGee disguised as a Swede. Julie lures Oscar to the Golden Slipper, a speakeasy where she sings, and tries to seduce him into revealing the whereabouts of the truck before bumping him off. Failing to procure the information, Julie tries to coerce a now drunken Oscar into a phone booth, the appointed place for the hit.
Instead, Oscar wanders into the ladies' dressing room, where he swallows a miniature harmonica and subsequently squeaks whenever squeezed. Julie finally extorts with kisses and pleas the truck's whereabouts that Oscar, who saw after it broke down near his home earlier, innocently reveals. Jerry, June's boyfriend and a junior reporter, arrives at the Golden Slipper and warns Oscar about the gangsters' error in identification.
Oscar, finally realizing what is going on, tries to disguise himself and then escapes through a trapdoor in the phone booth only to learn that Julie has been taken hostage by McGee's men pending McGee's return. Oscar, now consciously assuming his disguise as McGee, rescues Julie with Jerry's help, just as the real McGee arrives. After a riotous chase, the doubles meet on the Blakes's front porch for a final duel. The police arrive and offer Oscar a $10,000 reward for McGee's capture, and Julie, relieved that Oscar is not really McGee, squeezes her brave Swede, whose swallowed harmonica squeaks one last time.
The film was directed by John G. Blystone who had a long Hollywood career starting out as an actor for the Nestor Film Company before moving behind the megaphone at the L-KO Kompany, handling comedies for Hank Mann and Alice Howell. He continued working in this genre and in 1923 was listed as director, although who knows how much work he did in that role, for Buster Keaton’s classic silent, “Our Hospitality”. He would go on to direct two more Brendel films after this one, both in 1933, “Hot Pepper” and “My Lips Betray” and spent much of the late 20’s and early 30’s in that position at Fox/20th Century Fox. He left the company in mid-’36 and bounced around for a bit working, it’s seems, wherever he could find a job. The last two films he would helm were by Laurel and Hardy, “Swiss Miss” and “Block Heads” in 1938. Blystone passed away of a heart attack on August 6th, 1938 at age 45.
Period reviews of “Mr. Lemon…” were fairly positive. The Film Daily (March 29, 1931) said it was “A good pop number that would please the crowd. It has double appeal in its unique plot, furnishing gangster thrills along with Brendel’s individual style of humor” and “Brendel springs a surprise with the capable way he handles the gangster part which is so different from his comedy role of a dumb Swede”. Motion Picture Herald (March 7, 1931) echoed the same praise for El and singled out “William Collier, Jr. (their mistake not mine), as a henpecked husband of Brendel’s sister, does swell work and is responsible for a lot of chuckles”. A review in the Hartford Courant (March 22, 1931) singled out a particular scene as a standout, “Brendel is plenty amusing as Mr. Lemon and he is funnier when he tries to find out why the rival gang is taking such intense interest in him”.
On the flip side, New York Times critic, Mordaunt Hall, in his March 28th, 1931 column was not appreciative, “El Brendel, of all players, is to be seen at the Roxy in a dual role in a round of foolishness known as “Mr. Lemon of Orange.” A good deal of jocularity in this offering is not what could be called fresh, but, as it so often happens, the audience at a first showing of the film yesterday afternoon seemed to relish the old stuff, if laughter in any criterion”. Another analysis from an unnamed New York Times reviewer was published in the April 5th, 1931 paper and was even less kind, “This film story in other hands might have been quite effective, but as it is presented here, with Mr. Brendel just doing his best, it is not especially witty, although it should be said that it did arouse a good deal of laughter from the audience at the opening performance.”
Even those two negative evaluations did single out the audience’s postive reaction to the movie and it certainly may have been a public favorite. “The Barometer” section of The Exhibitors’ Forum (August 18, 1931), which polled movie theaters owner’s to provide actual spectator reactions had two upbeat assessments. George G. Baker of the Strand in Britton, South Dakota said of the film “A light comedy that pleased” while W.P. Brown of the Nifty in Waterville, Washington was even more enthusiastic, “Good. Attendance record for the year in hot weather.”
Fox also tried to sell a few copies of sheet music with the films’ James F. Hanley penned theme song, “My Racket Is You”, which was used in the opening, the closing credits, and sung by Fifi D’Orsay in a night club sequence. Even El has a bash at it, warbling a few lines along with a Swedish folk song, “No Maiden I Should E’er Refuse”. Also rearing its head again is the unpublished Brendel penned tune “Hinky Dee (Wishing Song)”. As with the “Movietone Follies of 1930” it appears here as an instrumental (in both domestic and foreign releases), the tune also shows up as a vocal version in 1929’s “Hot For Paris” but unless a print or the Movietone discs turn up for that picture, we may never hear it.
As I stated at this beginning, this is near the top of the list of films I would LOVE to see, but unlike most films on people’s “grail” list (like Lon Chaney’s “London After Midnight” or Erich Von Stroheim’s uncut “Greed”, for example) which are lost, I know right where a print is. A complete “35 mm. nitrate single system work print” is sitting in the vaults of the UCLA Film & Television Archive, but its status as of April 23rd, 2004 is “Archival copy. Not available for viewing. Contact the Research and Study Center for further information. Reserved for preservation.” I am hoping one day that when I do travel to California for some further research on El I can set up some kind of screening that would allow me to see this treasure………..fingers crossed.