Films in Focus
By Ed Garea
Sit Tight (WB, 1931) – Director: Lloyd Bacon. Writers: William K. Wells (s/p & dialogue), Rex Taylor (story). Stars: Winnie Lightner, Joe E. Brown, Paul Gregory, Claudia Dell, Lotti Loder, Hobart Bosworth, Frank Hagney, Snitz Edwards, Heinie Conklin, Tom Kennedy, Kalla Pasha, Maurice Black, & Constantine Romanoff. B&W, 74 minutes.
The only thing Sit Tight has going for it to the film buff (and the hardcore wrestling fan) is that it is the first film I came across using professional wrestling as a theme. This is not to say it’s the first film about pro wrestling. There may have been films made prior to 1931 that revolved around the pro game. I write “may have” because, according to the Library of Congress, 75 percent of films made before 1929 are lost forever, while Martin Scorsese’s Film Foundation pegs it at 90 percent.
Otherwise, it’s a weak musical that had all but one of its musical numbers removed before its American release. It was done for the same reason that Side Show had its musical numbers removed (see our review here): the American public was sick and tired of musicals at the time as an alarming number of them had flooded the market now that sound was the norm.
Dr. Winnie O'Neal (Lightner) owns and operates a gymnasium with the help of Jojo Mullins (Brown), who is learning wrestling via correspondence school. Much of Jojo’s duties in the gym consists of peeping at women in various states of undress and flirting shamelessly.
In the same building, Tom Weston (Gregory) works for Walter Dunlap (Bosworth), the father of his girlfriend, Sally (Dell). Sally is badgering Tom to accept a better position in the firm, citing his lack of ambition, but Tom will not accept one until he’s earned it. Miffed, Sally goes to her father, telling him to fire Tom, if for only a short time, until he comes to his senses. However, they both discover that Tom has quit the firm altogether, which prompts Dunlap to lecture his daughter about minding her own business.
On his way out, Tom helps Jojo overcome an attack by Winnie’s ex-husband Olaf (Hagney), a former wrestling champion. Winnie arrives to see the tussle. Impressed, she offers to train Tom as a professional wrestler. When Sally hears of this turn of events, she is beside herself. She hires Mr. Mack (Kennedy) with the aim of having him discourage Tom from his wrestling ambitions. But Mack mistakes Jojo for Tom and begins working him over in the gym’s ring. Mack places a head scissors on Jojo, the pressure of which causes Jojo to hallucinate that he is in a harem, and leads to a somewhat lengthy musical scene set in said harem. Meanwhile, Tom sees Mack throwing Jojo around and enters the ring to throw him around.
Dunlap visits the gym to try and talk Tom into quitting wrestling and return to the firm, but Tom refuses. He tells Dunlap he can’t quit until after the championship match in which he has been booked, knowing that Winnie has staked everything on the outcome.
As Tom is in the dressing room preparing for his championship match with Alexei Romanoff (Romanoff), a man (Cramer) hired by Dunlap enters the dressing room with two cronies to kidnap Tom and take to him to Dunlap’s yacht, which will be headed for Florida.
Winnie, discovering she now has no wrestler, arranges with Mr. White (Black), the promoter, to stage an extra bout until Tom arrives. She talks Jojo into climbing into the ring, promising to marry him if he can last in the ring until Tom arrives. But what Jojo doesn’t know is that his opponent, the Masked Marvel, is actually Olaf under a mask.
Meanwhile, Sally discovers Tom on the yacht and frees him, telling him that he must choose between her and the wrestling profession. Tom tells her that he has given his word to Winnie to wrestle in the championship match and must fulfill that promise before they can discuss anything else.
Just before Tom arrives at the arena, Jojo has managed to win his match. Tom enters the ring to fight Romanoff, whom he defeats. Sally, who has been watching from the sidelines, is so excited that she forgives him, and they embrace. Winnie and Jojo copy Tom and Sally when they kiss as the movie fades out.
Sit Tight is a film that is more interesting for what it is not rather than what it is. As mentioned earlier, the musical sequences (except for a brief song from Winnie) have all been removed prior to the film’s American release. This makes it more reliant upon the physical comedy of Brown, who was Warner’s house comedian. All his following films would feature Brown’s repertoire: excellent physical comedy and a brash personality with a big ego and big mouth with an ear-splitting screech.
With the loss of the music comes the diminution of Lightner’s presence. A genuinely funny actress known for being loud, brash and always quick with the comeback, the loss of music reduces her presence with the audience having to sit through scene after scene of Brown bragging about some supposed gift he has only to see him get creamed before the inevitable victory. However, though she doesn’t get to do too much besides be loud and angry, she does get to do a wonderful dance during Brown’s hallucination as a dancer. The set used for this scene was taken from the earlier 1931 Warner Bros. production of Kismet, starring Dita Parlo.
The lack of music also enlarges the importance of the secondary romance, of which the less said, the better. It’s like the secondary romance in many comedies, a device to give our comedians a rest. However, enlarge it with the removal of the music and it becomes gratingly annoying.
On the plus side, Lloyd Bacon’s direction makes good use of Brown’s physical abilities, and if the songs were left in, it would have been applauded for moving the film along at a nice clip. Constantine Romanoff choreographed the wrestling scenes and did a nice job carrying Tom’s character in the championship bout. Wrestling fans will want to watch those scenes to see how wrestling was conducted back then, somewhat of a culture shock compared to the antics of today.
Sit Tight should stand as a prime example of what happens when a studio monkeys with a completed film prior to release. In removing the majority of the musical numbers, the studio changed the entire tone of the film and left it wholly dependent on the antics of Joe E. Brown, which was obviously not the intent during filming. The secondary romance, now moved to the forefront, is technical and dull, and most of the gags tend to drag. But as the first film built around professional wrestling, it does evoke a vague curiosity.