The Rittenhouse Affair

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Otto Preminger: “Everything I know about camera blocking, I learned from ANIMAL CRACKERS. How to get the actors through a door, how to make them stand still so we can see them. How to make them go away again (yelling works for this).”

It had been an age since we’d watched ANIMAL CRACKERS, which is the most primitive Marx Bros film apart from of course THE COCONUTS, which is positively primordial. My love of Lillian Roth made me want to see this again — I became a fan back in the early days of Shadowplay, when this blog was in short trousers, so to speak, but I haven’t looked at her turn in this film in detail — my memory told me she wasn’t a very strong actress, though, and her musical number, like all the romantic numbers in Marx Bros films, was kind of a drag.

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In short, I may be the first person in eighty years to watch ANIMAL CRACKERS for Lillian Roth.

She’s not a very good actress, but she’s a very cute actress, It’s like watching a tiny child doing a school play. They say acting is reacting, in which case she does a lot of acting here, but she’s not really responding to the other actors, she’s responding, I somehow feel, to the lines in the script. It makes sense that she was a child actor — she uses a kind of artifice which would be acceptable in a kid, since we’re always a little impressed by kids acting at all, and a kid has a kind of built-in authenticity, like a dog or a very old person. We believe them, unless absolutely forced not to by the worst kind of ineptitude. We can tell they really are a child, a dog or an old person, actually performing for us.

She’s also the most improbably society girl outside of Jean Harlow in PLATINUM BLONDE, her astonishing Boston-by-way-of-everywhere vowels creating a funhouse mirror with the English language.

Her song is a dull one, and of course we don’t need relief from the comedy in a Marx Bros film, and we get plenty of it anyway, via the plot scenes. The fancy art deco set also functions as a kind of relief, since manoeuvering from one corner of it to another eats up a certain amount of screen time during which we can admire the woodwork.

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The other actors aren’t seen quite at their best. Margaret Dumont smiles too much, like she actually gets the jokes. She found more dignified ways to react later. Robert Greig, the archetypal, platonic ideal of the butler, is required to be a bit more nimble and excitable than his constitution can bear. Louis Sorin as the art expert is probably the best foil, although one appreciates Zeppo — pretty much his entire role is to be abused by Groucho, and anybody who comes in for plenty of Groucho abuse is worth having around.

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Censored lyrics —

(Mrs. Rittenhouse) You are the only white man to cover every acre.

(Spaulding) I think I’ll try and make her.

I see Hollywood is obliging us with a new film called ANIMAL CRACKERS, with Sylvester Stallone. Based on his appearance at the Oscars, he ought to make a superb Mrs. Rittenhouse.

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9 Responses to “The Rittenhouse Affair”

  1. Lillian Roth is also terrific in DeMille’s indescribably wonderful Madam Satan.

    Towards the end of her life she appeared in Harold Rome’s musical version of I Can Get It For You Wholesale with Elliot Gould, Harold Lang and a promising comic ingénue named Barbra Streisand.

  2. revelator60 Says:

    This also has the great scene of Harpo and Chico cheating outrageously at cards (I’m following their example the next time I get bored at a game), followed by the weird scene of them punching Mrs. Rittenhouse (or rather Dumont’s stunt double?) in the stomach. The brothers’ later films treated her more gently.

  3. Groucho always claimed that Dumont never got their sense of humour, but I swear you can see her genuinely laughing at one of his jokes in this movie.

  4. Simon Louvish looked into Dumont’s previous career, which was all comedy, and concluded that Groucho was just making a good yarn — she knew exactly what was going on.

    The stomach-punching routine is reprised in A Day at the Races, and is even more shocking in an MGM context. Doesn’t seem to be a stunt double, they have worked out how to stage it so she’s not at risk, it seems. The gag exploits the camera’s inability to see the blow connect, so that Harpo can pull his punches and Dumont sells it with her ass movements.

  5. Fee here – Margie Dumont was the greatest ‘straight wo/man’ who ever lived.

  6. I taped this as a teenager and edited out all the songs and watched it a million times so now every time Roth sings I feel like I’m seeing the director’s cut. I love your ‘Boston by way of everywhere’ line and the summation of kid actor authenticity. To me she just seems like she doesn’t quite get how to be a foil, i.e. wallpaper for the Marxes to bounce off of. And her leading man – who must be a great artist because he can copy a Bogarde – is such a drip. I’m sure she, insecure alcoholic that she was, wanted to let the audience know she was too good for this shit. I still love her, and after watching now it’s to MADAME SATAN I turn and not MONKEY BIZ

  7. I need to rewatch Madame Satan. I remember the first half being interminable but the Mitchell Leisen fashion parade of part two is a joy.

  8. right – the first part is a slog straight out of some silent film morality play with down homespun malarkey fin to make even John Ford groan, but it just makes the second half all the wilder, (and you can always FF-ahead)

  9. Might end up doing that, but I’ll try my best not to, so as to get the Full Experience.

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