Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Laughing Gas, by P.G. Wodehouse

Before my Vacation From HellTM I had a presentiment of its awfulness, so the day before we left I got two P.G. Wodehouse books from the library to see me through. One was Mike and Psmith, the first of the Psmith books, and the other was Laughing Gas. I knew I had to get it when even the back cover made me laugh out loud. That's not even something Wodehouse wrote, but a synopsis penned by a publishing house underling. If the material is funny enough that it can pass through such as filter and still elicit a laugh, it's got to be, as a Wodehouse character would say, ripping stuff.

And the material definitely is ripping stuff. Wodehouse spent a great deal of his career in show business, beginning in the theatre before making his move across the Atlantic to the theater. According to a biography of him I read a few years ago, Wodehouse by Robert McCrum, he was quite successful in both places, writing the book for many musicals I never heard of but which McCrum assures me were well-received in their day. Even back then, Hollywood was in the habit of stealing everything they could from the stage, so Wodehouse was hired as a studio writer and moved west. Neither side was satisfied with the deal and it wasn't too long before he was back in New York. But because of this long involvement with the stage, and especially the disappointment of the movie industry, Wodehouse writes excellent actor characters, and movie actors best of all.

Reginald John Peter “Reggie” Swithin, third Earl of Havershot, is in his late 20s and has a face like a gorilla. As titular head of the family, it befalls him to travel to Hollywood and rescue an alcoholic cousin, Egremont “Eggy” Mannering, from an engagement the family is sure to be undesirable, seeing how it is probably with an actress. On the train west from Chicago, Reggie meets a screen starlet, April June, with whom he promptly falls in love as she charms the pants off of him, obviously (to everyone save Reggie) trying to become the wife of an earl. Reaching California, Reggie learns that Eggy isn't engaged to an actress, but to a press secretary, Ann Bannister, who Reggie met once on holiday in France and to whom he was briefly engaged until he accidentally put a cigar out on the back of her neck (moving in for a kiss while forgetting he was smoking). Ann is the press secretary for April June's current co-star, a child actor named Joey Cooley, subtitled the Idol of American Motherhood.

Reggie and Joey meet at the dentist office the next day, and while both are under gas for tooth extractions, their souls are switched. Joey is ecstatic to find out that Reggie had a boxing Blue from Oxford, for he's been keeping a notebook of all the actors, directors, agents, and writers in Hollywood that he wants to “poke in the snoot” when he's big enough. He sets off on a terrorizing rampage of Hollywood, punching all and sundry in the nose, while Reggie is stuck in the highly-regimented life of a valuable child actor. Nearly a prisoner in the house of a studio executive, Reggie is constantly shocked when every domestic he meets is really an aspiring actor wanting to audition. The English butler and the Filipino manservant are both just Americans in character, awaiting the moment to open up a monologue before the studio chief. The driver makes Reggie sit through a recitation of “Gunga Din.” Eventually he's kidnapped as a publicity stunt for April June to rescue him, and his kidnappers pitch a story idea to him.

Like all Wodehouse books, everything ends up all right in the end. Eggy is scared off the drink and becomes engaged to a woman he meets. Reggie and Joey switch bodies back, and Reggie ends up engaged to Ann while Joey gets run out of Hollywood and gets to go home to Chillicothe, Ohio. There was so much comic material in the premise, however, that it seemed a waste to have most of the action take place in the executive's house. I kept looking forward to the scene where Reggie-cum-Joey goes to the studio lot to work on his picture, but it never came. I guess the 260-280 page length of the standard Wodehouse novel put the cabosh on that. All told, though, another fine work by Wodehouse, and some of the best stage-based characters of his I've read yet.

Rating: 5.5 out of 7 giant inflatable monkeys.

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