Naval officer Scott 'Scotty' McClenehan (Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.) is trapped with his men in a submarine that has collided with another vessel...and the sub is making its way to the bottom, with the crew rapidly running out of air. Scotty suggests to his fellow sailors that each of them beat a hasty retreat via the torpedo tubes, but eventually that's going to leave one man behind with no one to pull the lever. CPO Steve Stevens (David Landau) tries to convince McClenehan to let him stay because the younger Scotty has more to live for...but Scotty saps him unconscious and shoves him into the tube, determined to be the one to go down with the ship, as it were.
Because Scotty's death would mean we'd wind up with a shorter picture, McClenehan is rescued by a team of divers...but his actions have caught the attention of the public, media and other branches of the powers-that-be. Proclaimed a hero, he's treated to ticker-tape parades, pressed upon to make speeches, and feted at banquets and receptions and the like. McClenehan is a rather unassuming sort, and he's a little uncomfortable at both all the attention and the direction his life has taken rather suddenly. Egging on all this 'ballyhoo' is a man named Joseph 'Joe' Craig Chaplin (Walter Catlett), who has appointed himself Scotty's press agent/manager and handles his 'program' in dealing with his fame.
McClenehan's desire just to slink out of public view is ineffectual (he describes his celebrity experience as 'walking a tightrope on roller skates'); his dream job of being an engineer with a gyroscope company sours because his boss (Oscar Apfel) has hired him purely for the goodwill and publicity (not to mention the new customers) it will afford his business. Even his whirlwind marriage to his best gal pal, Janet Porter (Mary Brian), can't escape the attention of the press-they turn it into a public spectacle (via newsreels and magazine articles), which results in a great deal of friction between the newlyweds, who constantly bicker and quarrel.
Scotty's salvation comes in the form of a Danish sailor (Ivan Linow) who's saved a dog from drowning and is now threatening to take over his role in the spotlight. Given an ultimatum by his boss to participate in a foolhardy stunt that will (in theory) keep his celebrity going, Scotty quits his job and tries to reconcile with Janet, who has walked out on him. The young couple have quite a bit of work to do before the rift in their relationship is repaired...and McClenehan also encounters another life-or-death situation that could very well land him in the 'hero business' all over again.
Authoress Mary McCall used the inspiration of Charles Lindbergh's sudden explosion of fame (leaving out the subsequent tragic moments in the aviator's life) as the basis for her 1932 novel The Goldfish Bowl, which was adapted as the 1932 film It's Tough to Be Famous (by Robert Lord). Directed by Alfred E. Green, Famous has been described by some critics as a satirical comedy-drama...though in all honesty, the only bit I thought truly comic in the picture was its denouement and a throwaway gag involving McClenehan's fellow officer Sanford (Terrance Ray), who tells his chum that he's now 'America's Sweetheart' (an in-joke referencing Doug, Jr.'s one-time stepmom, Mary Pickford). But I do find Famous an interesting film, with much of its content quite relevant when examined through a 21st century prism.
Scotty's initial reaction to his newfound hero worship is a bit of bewildered bemusement; he and Sanford enjoy laughing at a radiogram he's received from a Jewish father announcing he's named his son 'Scott McClenehan Goldfarb.' He wants nothing more than to retire from the Navy and pursue an engineering career. But he's helplessly swept aboard a runaway celebrity train, and simultaneously embraces it (he does seem to enjoy the parades and adoring crowds) and shuns it (he's barely able, for example, to conceal his distaste for a song, 'Scotty Boy,' that's been written about his exploits-the tune is even performed during a benefit by Broadway veteran Clarence Nordstrom). McClenehan just wants a little peace and quiet and time to think, and gets that opportunity only when spending time with Janet, his friend from childhood.
In his autobiography The Salad Days, Fairbanks relates that he wasn't particularly fond of It's Tough to Be Famous-but having seen the movie I think it's a good role for him; plus there's an irony in that the actor would later become a decorated naval officer in World War II, so he must have recognized some verisimilitude. What I appreciated most about Famous was the rapport Fairbanks enjoys with his female co-star, Mary Brian-whom I last saw in the ClassicFlix-reviewed I Escaped From the Gestapo (1943). Brian nicely demonstrates why she was dubbed 'The Sweetest Girl in Pictures' with a wonderful performance as Doug's soulmate...who's just as flummoxed by his sudden fame as he is. Of course, I can't leave out the great Walter Catlett, who shines in a tailor-made part as Fairbanks' fast-talking manager.
The movie tells its story quickly and cleanly at seventy-nine minutes, and I've left out a nice little bit that wraps up the film at the end because it really does tie everything together, and humorously at that. By the way-J. Carrol Naish is listed in the opening cast credits, but his scenes were apparently snipped at the last minute. (Did he still get paid?)
Ivan G. Shreve, Jr is the associate editor at ClassicFlix...because he's the only one who'll associate with the editor. He blogs about classic film, vintage TV and old-time radio at Thrilling Days of Yesteryear. 'Where's That Been?' is a regular review column that highlights overlooked or under appreciated films from the golden age.