Studios well knew that the minor was major then – we needed comic proxies, “lesser” stars that could reveal us where we lived. Enter Allen Jenkins, doomed to conceal lissome grace behind pratfalls and black eyes while playing odd man out in any Hollywood mise en scene… My hero’s comically beautiful head tragically made for taking lumps, he was born Alfred McConegal, a living compound myth whose body labored in shipyards before his shadow hit screens.
See him in Jimmy the Gent (1934) and glom genius flirting with James Cagney’s own, a great manic-depression of exploding/imploding rotating choreography. As “Lou,” Jenkins falls backwards into our collective aspiration, the silent prayer that, one-day, we too will be kicked around by some boss. Spasms are synchronized with America’s general lurch, a new and unspoken genre I call the “Job Movie” in which steady work is normal, even funny.
Though I’m not sure whether to laugh or cry.
A whole caterwauling universe has lost its nerve, and Jenkins is there, taking lumps for all the shlumps. Cagney’s titular character plays jazz-drum on Lou’s head; it’s like watching two specimens of thwarted evolution savagely jitterbug for a nation on the bum, entertainment worthy of “The Dirty Thirties.” To me, their dance symbolizes a period of time that produced enormous pain and, through its vital blend of languages and media, lyricism to match that pain.
Jenkins squawks like a dying pig on a kazoo. Amplified thousands of times by the Vitaphone, synchronized sound – “yaps,” “frails,” “pippins,” bromides,” “taxi dancers” – staggering ‘round his dome each time he’s knocked unconscious, like so many drunken stars. My solidarity wells up to meet the poor slob, dodging blows aimed at his beezer, sly Punchinello whose true domain is cloaked in secrecy.
Not to mention his gift for playing rage – the man can give himself a stroke on command. Apoplexy and an outsized melon, as if the zeitgeist imprisoned there might suddenly spew yachts, bassoons, and polar bears.
Allen Jenkins: Lord of Misrule.
by Daniel Riccuito
illustration by Tony Millionaire