Very different from his roles up to this point, Harold Lloyd plays the part of Ezekiel Cobb, a naive young man who’s been raised in China by his missionary parents. He returns to the United States to seek a wife – much of the humor in the early part of the movie deals with the ‘fish out of water’ nature of his character, as contemporary American slang is a foreign language to him. Along the say, he is enlisted by the corrupt political machine of the fictional city of Stockport, led by the corrupt Jake Mayo (played by George Barbier) to run as the ‘reform’ candidate, where he’s expected to be the “cats paw” of the party leadership – and expected to lose. Unexpectedly, he wins and starts a campaign to live up to his promise to clean up the town of the corrupt political machine that runs things behind the scenes.
Ezekiel Cobb is quite sincere and begins his reform efforts with Jake Mayo – a man who’s so honest about being dishonest that Cobb believes that, at his core, Mayo is honest, and Ezekiel Cobb appoints him as police commissioner. Mayo from that point on becomes Cobb’s right-hand man, after seeing the value of a man of honest principles.
The other corrupt politicians, however, are not about to take things lying down. They fight back by framing Ezekiel Cobb, with the Governor preparing to remove Cobb from office the next days. Ezekiel Cobb turns the tables on them, with the help of his friends in the local Chinese community. Ezekiel Cobb orders the police to round up all of the known corrupt politicians and gangsters in town, detaining them in the “cellar of Tien Wang”. The collection of the various criminals is one of the funniest parts of the film, in a series of funny vignettes – my favorite example is where a police officer is about to pull a criminal out of his bathtub – “Wait a minute! You want me to come clean, don’t ya?” Ezekiel Cobb tells the criminals that since his attempts to use Western methods have not worked, he will use the methods of the ancient Chinese: either the criminals sign written confessions, or they will be executed.
Ezekiel Cobb and his Chinese friends take one of the crooks away into a back room; all of the others try to convince each other that this is only a bluff, but Mayo thinks otherwise. Soon the man is carried out, with his head in a bowl. The criminals still refuse to confess, so Ezekiel Cobb then takes Morgan, the leader of the corrupt political machine, to the back room. Where the audience can see that it’s an elaborate magician’s trick, done with the aid of “The Great Chang”, a famous Chinese magician who’s touring America.
This works, and the various criminals fall over each other to confess – another very funny scene. The town is cleansed, and the movie ends with Ezekiel Cobb marrying Petunia Pratt (played very well by Una Merkel), who he fell in love with early in the picture and has been attempting to court throughout the picture. Petunia (“Pet” for short) is a no-nonsense, practical woman who is slow at first to respond to his advances. She’s also a delight to watch throughout the film and manages to convince her new husband that, rather than stay in Stockport, they will return to their missionary work in China.