While Warner Brothers' 1932 Chic Sale feature Stranger in Town is pretty run-of-the-mill entertainment it is worth talking about for offering an interesting look at small town business during the Great Depression.
This is one of Warners' tight and fast pre-code era films filled with familiar faces and clocking in at just a hair over an hour. As a comedy it's a bit of a flop, unless you're a big Chic Sale fan, but as a dramatic tale of business pitting a big chain versus the little guy with the Depression as natural backdrop Stranger in Town is worthwhile.
We first meet Ulysses Crickle as a young man talking with J. Farrell MacDonald, who's as quickly left behind as this 19th century setting. Crickle founds and names the town of Boilsville, Arkansas, because he has a boil on his backside, though later he tells a more glamorous tale involving Indians who were going to boil him alive. Many years pass and Boilsville is developed and populated. Chic Sale's Crickle develops as well, he's soon made up as his typical elderly rural character.
Crickle spars some with Noah Beery's Hilliker, Boilsville's Constable, while wearing his own hat as town Postmaster, but his main gig in Boilsville is as proprietor of the local grocery where he serves locals including the giggly Mrs. Petrick (Maude Eburne). Mrs. Petrick does her best to work her womanly charms on old-timer Crickle, but that part of the story just sort of dies without resolution.
Word comes to Crickle that his granddaughter, Marian, is returning to town and just that quick a train pulls in with Ann Dvorak playing the part. Dvorak has David Manners in tow, his Jerry being the Stranger of the title. While Manners is about as exciting as a blank sheet of paper, the arrival of Jerry is where Stranger in Town begins to get interesting as he soon reveals to Marian that he's here on business to open the 439th branch of the XYZ Cut-Rate Grocery Store.
While Jerry added the cut-rate part himself, the faceless corporation is actually called XYZ Grocery and as you might imagine intends to put a price squeeze on Old Man Crickle's business. Crickle insists that "friendship means more than cut prices," but as this is a speedy 66 minute tale pretty much all of Boilsville have become XYZ customers overnight. Crickle's getting crushed, despite Marian's coming on board to organize the old shop and rechristen it Crickle's Modern Grocery.
The arrival of the big grocery chain in Boilsville made me wonder what the typical Depression era American grocery store was like and I found my answers inside David E. Kyvig's excellent Daily Life in the United States, 1920-1940.
The 1910's and 20's saw a change in the way Americans shopped for their groceries, moving from small independent food stores to the bigger chains which carried a greater assortment of products. In 1916, Clarence Saunders of Memphis had opened a self-service grocery store. This probably isn't what it sounds like to you. Prior to Saunders' innovation customers would enter their small local grocery, stand at the counter, and tell the clerk what they needed. The grocery clerk would leave the customer at the counter and run about the store gathering the requested goods. The self-service model made the clerk stationery and left the customers to work their way through the store gathering their desired groceries to check out at the counter when they were all through shopping. As Kyvig writes these new self-service stores "accepted a smaller profit margin on its products and sought to prosper on the basis of high volume sales" (117). By the 1930's the chains would extend their dominance "by offering 'loss-leaders' to attract shoppers into the store ... they sharply undercut smaller food stores" (118).
This is exactly what happens in Stranger in Town. When customers abandon Crickle's Modern Grocery solely over price he tries to fight back by pulling out a small telescope to check prices across the way at XYZ. On the spot Crickle begins selling at a loss to keep his customers from heading across the street, despite Marian's explaining that he'd never be able to keep it up. Crickle makes the mistake of thinking he can undercut the bigger company, but Marian explains that XYZ is actually making a profit at their lower prices because they're buying in bulk at a cost less than Crickle pays for the same goods himself.
Sure enough, Crickle's price cutting and unpaid credit soon drives him under. Things get so bad that he has to face the back to back whoppers of being relieved of his Postmaster's job in favor of his nemesis, Hilliker, and losing Marian when she presents her new husband, Jerry, the man whose management of the XYZ had ruined Crickle's place as the best, and only, grocery in town.
At this point Crickle's only friend in Boilsville, the town he himself had founded, is Jed (John Larkin). Most of Jed's lines are along the typical lines given to black actors during the period, and I don't want to excuse that, but I will say that Crickle is such a buffoon that the pair come off as more equal than you'll typically see on screen at this time.
General misfortune provides opportunity and a second wind for Crickle when both the local cannery closes and the banks fail and wipe out everybody's savings. Crickle creates an ingenius plan which does bring back his customers, but Crickle's Modern Grocery comes under threat once more with the arrival of another stranger, Brice of XYZ management (Lyle Talbot), who not only exerts pressure on Crickle but manages to drive a wedge between Marian and Jerry as well.
The New York Times liked both Chic Sale and Stranger in Town commenting that "the spirit of Mack Sennett pervades the placid town of Boilsville" and that the movie "has its share of pleasant moments." The Times scolds Stranger for "the occasional period when nothing very much was happening," but beyond Crickle's interactions with Mrs. Petrick I felt as though most of the story eventually rewarded us. Of the main players the Times comments that Sale's "characterization is excellent where he is allowed to follow it"; that David Manners "is just a bit more at home in something in a New York Penthouse than Boilsville"; and of Noah Beery that "he is very good indeed." Not much is said of Ann Dvorak, so I'll add that her part doesn't call for much but she gets the job done. Stranger in Town is a Chic Sale movie though.
Charles 'Chic' Sale was born in Huron, South Dakota, August 25, 1885. Yes, that old codger you see in the screen shots on this page was only 47 at the time Stranger in Town was filmed. In fact, he looks pretty good for his age--that's him way up above wearing the cowboy hat in the first photo.
As was the fate of many a top vaudevillian, Chic Sale goes underappreciated today, what with only a couple of dozen film appearances left for us to remember him by. Sale was still a working movie actor when he died of pneumonia November 7, 1936, just 51 years old, and so the newspapers would carry many details of his life in the obituaries that week.
United Press coverage of Sale's passing traced his showbiz start to amateur entertainment of a fraternity house while attending business school at the University of Illinois. From there Sale went to work in a photograph gallery where he took the initiative to create a series of character photos of himself which would get him hired by Gus Sun, manager of a small town vaudeville circuit. He debuted in Bellefontaine, Ohio in 1908 and quickly became very popular on the Keith and Orpheum Vaudeville circuits.
Sale married concert violinist Marie Bishop in 1912 and they'd tour together for three seasons before Bishop retired. Sale would appear on stages and a few times on screen throughout the late teens into the 1920's. In the mid-1920's he'd have his greatest theatrical success, Gay Paree, which would run for four years across America including two long runs on Broadway at the Shubert and Winter Garden Theaters.
In 1929 Sale, with the help of two newspapermen, published The Specialist, a humorous book about his character Lem Putt, an outhouse builder. The Specialist was a huge success and continues to be in print to this day.
Sale would head west on the Vaudeville circuit and liked it well enough to stay. He relocated to Los Angeles in 1932, where he'd enter the final phase of his life and career as a movie actor.
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- "Chic Sale, Postmaster." The New York Times. 7 July 1932.
- Kyvig, David E. Daily Life in the United States, 1920-1940 Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2004.
- "Son at Davis Mournes Death of 'Chic' Sale." Woodland Daily Democrat. 9 November 1936: 4.