Black Sheep is a delightful trifle from Allan Dwan, who was one of those classical Hollywood directors, like Raoul Walsh, who seemed capable of making interesting films in just about any genre. This is a cruise ship film — a mixture of romance, comedy, family melodrama, and upper class crime. Edmund Lowe is the suave gambler who teams up with the wise-cracking Claire Trevor to save a young fool who has fallen prey to both a manipulative gold-digger and a pair of crude, poker-playing oil men named Belcher and Schmelling. The cruise ship is impossibly ornate — a Platonic fantasy of a luxury liner — and half the fun of the film is the posh setting and glamorous evening wear. The characters combine and recombine in ever-shifting configurations, plotting and counter-plotting against each other and trading witty zingers. It almost feels like a Rogers-Astaire musical, lighter than air.
“Don’t snap at me — I’m not your wife.”
The real revelation for me was Claire Trevor, whom I’ve only seen playing femme fatales in film noirs before. Here she reminded me of Ginger Rogers with her snappy wit and All-American blonde beauty. She’s coquettish and cynical at the same time — a worldly young woman who still has a playful sense of fun and is still looking for the right partner. Edmund Lowe is perhaps not quite up to her level as an actor, but he looks good in a tux. As is so often the case in classical Hollywood films, the character actors are all topnotch, starting with Eugene Pallette as the obnoxious Col. Belcher. There’s a funny running non sequitur involving an extremely drunk plutocrat haplessly searching for someone named Bob Broder. There’s a scowling detective in a bowler keeping an eye on Lowe. The camera keeps us close to the characters as they develop their schemes against each other.
“There’s no kick in buying things. The real thrill comes from stealing them.”
“Don’t tell me a horse jilted you.”
“Yes, and a girl kicked me.”
“No, I don’t like work. I’d rather be a policeman.”
“Dames are like the measles — annoying but curable.”
“We’ll take you.”
“Uh-uh. I’m going to take you.”
“I’m not a gigolo. I have to pay what I owe you.”