Relatively few films from Fox Pictures (before they became Twentieth Century Fox) are readily available: Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans is the big one. The modest caper Black Sheep wouldn't be high on the list for reissue: stars Edmund Lowe and Claire Trevor aren't too well-remembered, though he's in Dinner at Eight and she's in Stagecoach. Despite a large cast of supporting players, rotund character man Eugene Pallette is the only other really familiar figure, though founding Keystone Kop Ford Sterling has a good bit as a ship's detective.
We're on a transatlantic liner, see, and there are warnings posted about professional gamblers: The Lady Eve territory, before Sturges thought of it. Lowe is such a gambler, but he's a swell guy really. Trevor plays an actress, which is no stretch, and the two have real chemistry. He has a debonair manner and a mellifluous voice—and a drunk scene, as usual. Trevor could play hard and brassy later, but here she's pure vanilla ice cream, smooth and cool and sweet. Her reaction shots are priceless too, punctuating the witty banter.
Immortal journeyman Allan Dwan also wrote the story, and has fun gliding his camera around the deck to the tunes provided by aspiring genius/madman Oscar Levant. We're in that popular thirties staple, the drama where the supporting players almost overwhelm the main storyline, but everything somehow maintains balance—the form climaxed with Casablanca, I think.
Lowe and Trevor decide to help out a young chap (Tom Brown) who's being fleeced by card sharps Pallette and Jed Prouty, and also blackmailed by a kleptomaniac adventuress (Adrienne Ames, very sleek). The plot takes a turn when Lowe realizes that Brown is his long-estranged son, who doesn't know him. What we have here is a gender-inversion of an old melodramatic staple: a male Madame X.
Dwan is one of these guys almost genetically engineered to defeat auteurism, having made swashbucklers, war pics, romances and farces across his unbelievably long and busy career. No theme or obsession or particular world-view unifies his oeuvre: I think his defining trait is just a love of yarn-spinning.
Being as this is 1935, pre-Code sin is out of the question, but all the characters are a little shady and the script's prevarications about just how crooked they might all be don't get in the way of enjoying a spot of blackmail, burglary, gambling, drunkenness and raucous practical joking from Huge Euge (Pallette never seemed more repulsive: frequently the movies allowed him a soft center, but here his loud obnoxiousness is much to the fore, barely disguised by a tissue-thin veneer of southern courtliness).
Lowe and Trevor are so delightful together you long for a whole season of Thin Man type romps for them to connive through. Sometimes film history just misses a trick.