Everything But the Boys

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The five Marx Bros: Dicko, Flappo, Groucho, Bono and Beardo.

Continuing what may be a series looking at the non-Marx Bros elements in Marx Bros films. A project which may be on a par with the “definitive cinematic study of Gummo Marx” spoken of in Woody Allen’s STARDUST MEMORIES.

If ANIMAL CRACKERS shows some potentially strong collaborators not quite at their best (Lillian Roth at sea, Margaret Dumont slightly too amused), by the time of A DAY AT THE RACES everything is a lot more polished — maybe too polished. Thalberg threw quality trimmings at the Bros, as if to submerge them, and the results are somtimes jarring. Harpo and Chico (and formerly Zeppo) supplied their own musical interludes, which vary the pace more than I’d like already — the addition of big song and dance numbers not featuring any of the main characters (I refuse to consider Allan Jones a main character) has a serious drag effect.

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Still, Margaret Dumont is by now in her pomp. In ANIMAL CRACKERS she was my age, and was starting to seem worryingly sexy to me. Here, she’s a bit older and again appears a genderless dowager cutout. She’s standing on her dignity more, when not swept off her feet, and more plausibly suggests Groucho’s characterisation of her an an innocent who didn’t understand his jokes. That’s the character, mind you — we have to accept by now that Groucho was greatly exaggerating. The woman had been in comedy for years.

Mrs. Upjohn is an essentially decent person, only a hypochondriac and apt to throw her weight around. Her most unsympathetic qualities are (a) she likes the water ballet and (b) she offers money to support Maureen O’Sullivan’s sanitorium but does not immediately dosh it out. This is one reason we dislike rich people, isn’t it? They COULD give us lots of money, but choose not to.

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O’Sullivan scores points by sulking through the water ballet. Audience identification is complete.

As a cause to strive for, this sanitorium is a dim proposition, mind you. We never see any of the good work it presumably does, and O’Sullivan hires a horse doctor as chief of staff without checking his credentials. I think we’re supposed to care just because Maureen is so damned attractive, and also because she’s being bullied by businessman Douglas Dumbrille and her own business manager, Leonard Ceeley. Both actors are instantly hateful — did they ever play nice guys? Ceeley seems charmless even for a heavy, but comes into his own wonderfully when tormented by Groucho over the telephone. This man does apoplexy on an international level.

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Who else? Ah, Sig Rrrrumann, rrrolling his rrrrs and eyes, pointing his beard with deadly pinpoint accuracy. With Dumont and Rumann sharing the screen, the movie packs more stoogepower than a Republican debate. If the MGM patina of moralism and sentiment deceives us into worrying about who’s in the right, we’d be forced to conclude that Rumann is the film’s hero, campaigning for medical standards like Will Smith in CONCUSSION. No such thing. He is a legitimate target for Groucho, since (a) he’s a stuffed shirt and (b) what his shirt is stuffed with is finest-grade Sig Rumann. I think it’s genetic.

A lot of outrage has been expended over the big musical number with the black folks, which is indeed somewhat patronizing, but only becomes downright insulting when the boys smear axle grease on their faces to merge with the crowd (apart from Harpo, who disguises himself as an inhabitant of Cheron, the Frank Gorshin planet in Star Trek). On a more positive note, the sequence features some great singing and dancing talent, and there’s a teenage Dorothy Dandridge as an extra, somewhere in the throng of happy ethnic stereotypes.

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Wingnut Sam Wood directs, probably the most skilled filmmaker to get his hands on a Marx Bros film since Leo McCarey, and he produces much slicker results. It’s kind of startling to see Groucho look, and then get a cut to what he’s looking at. Unlike ANIMAL CRACKERS, where we peer into a proscenium arch throughout, here the action is photographed from the inside, as Hitchcock would say. Whether the Marxes need or even benefit from this cinematic value is questionable.

The most tiresome aspect of MGM’s high-gloss approach, apart from the diversionary set-pieces, is the need to tie the boys to some noble cause. Groucho has to enlist out of some kind of innate nobility, and his relations with O’Sullivan have to be portrayed as chivalrous. This is all wrong, terribly wrong. ANIMAL CRACKERS had the sense to keep Groucho from interacting with the sympathetic characters at all, because all he could do in character would be abuse them. By surrounding him with stuffed shirts and stooges, the Paramount films gave him free rein to be himself. Buster Keaton departed MGM telling Louis B. Mayer, “You warped my character.” Though the damage is less, the charge is true here also.

 

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16 Responses to “Everything But the Boys”

  1. chris schneider Says:

    The first person who comes to my mind when I think of DAY AT THE RACES, non-Marx Brothers person that is, is someone that you don’t name: singer Ivie Anderson. A superb singer, as her work with Duke Ellington’s band also demonstrates. The song “All God’s Chillun Got Rhythm” is an embarrassment, yes, but she’s so good that one almost forgets this. Of at least *I* almost forget it.

  2. Randy Cook Says:

    This one spawned an anecdote that’s too good to be true (but probably true, given the presence of Groucho, rejoinder-flinger par excellence) : Sam Wood was dissatisfied with the non-performance he felt Groucho was giving him, and angrily threw up his hands.

    Sam: “You can’t make an actor out of clay!”

    Groucho: “Or a director out of Wood”

  3. The climax of “Night at the Opera” is the Marxes being crazy ON PURPOSE to help the young lovers — I think Chico says “Now we really go to work!” That becomes the formula, suggesting they can turn their madness on and off as needed.

    Like a very early Burns and Allen appearance in “Love in Bloom”, where Gracie knowingly fakes trademark loopiness to get out of a traffic ticket. She and George are both borderline villains in that one; think it’s the last time anyone made them unsympathetic.

    Also comparable to Bogart, Cagney and Robinson being made over as proto-Eastwoods, still behaving as gangsters but now carrying badges and turning their violence against lawbreakers.

  4. I much prefer Dorothy Dandridge here — with Harold and Fayard

  5. I first noticed Margaret Dumont getting inappropriately hot when I was in my mid forties. As an adolescent I had lamented that Elsa Lanchester turned into a gargoyle almost immediately after Bride of Frankenstein , but entering middle age found that I’d been mistaken and that she was quite fetching as late as Witness for the Prosecution.

    When I start rethinking Marie Dressler I’m outta here, though.

  6. Randy Cook Says:

    I REALLY hear you, Jeff.

  7. Elsa remained sorta cool well into little-old-ladyhood, but she’s positively sultry in Bluebottles and The Ghost Goes West.

    Dumont’s Day of the Dead teeth are a little alarming — they give the impression of circling right round to the back of her neck — but it’s still a warm smile, and in the early thrities she certainly has some kind of va-va-voom. Wood’s tendency to throw in sudden shock closeups for no reason is disconcerting, though — a giant Margaret Dumont head emoting at you needs preparation to be assimilated smoothly.

  8. Glad to know I’m not the only one strangely turned on by Margaret Dumont. I love what Molly Haskell says about her relation with the Marxes in From Reverence to Rape – especially because I hate Laurel and Hardy as intensely as I love the (first five movies of) the Marxes, she says you can tell the Marxes really love Dumont, while the Hardy and Laurel behave towards their matronly targets like misogynistic infants (I paraphrase).

  9. It feels strange to me that anyone would judge the Marxes or L&H based on political correctness. You either laugh or you don’t. The brothers are wolfish babehounds, indefensible except on the grounds of anarchic liberation. Stan & Ollie are presexual infants so naturally they fear mature women. On the set, I get the impression they collaborated respectfully with their co-stars, whereas the brothers were tomcatting around and you were lucky if you could corral them all in front of a camera at once.

    It’s not an ethical or political thing, it’s a funnybone thing. I like both.

  10. MGM and Thalberg wanted formula, and art built on anarchy wasn’t welcome. What happened to Keaton is the greatest crime in cinema, and that’s INCLUDING Ambersons (he typed, somewhat immoderately).

  11. At least MGM had the vision to believe the Marxes were worth persevering with. I always understood the Paramount films weren’t huge box office — they they made several, so presumably SOMEBODY was buying tickets.

    I also wonder if, had Lon Chaney lived, his star persona would have warped MGM’s character?

  12. revelator60 Says:

    The best book ever written about the Marx Brothers—Joe Adamson’s “Groucho, Harpo, Chico and Sometimes Zeppo: A History of the Marx Brothers and a Satire on the Rest of the World”—goes into fascinating detail about the tortuous genesis of “A Day at the Races.” Over 17 scripts were devised by half a dozen writers, with some drafts involving the Brothers and a noise prevention league. A huge amount of very funny material was created but never used, due to the finicky Thalberg, who requested draft after draft, and the excerpts Adamson gives back up his assertion that the final draft wasn’t the best one. I’d love to read the earlier scripts, though the true Holy Grail of Marxist screenplays seems to be Kalmar and Ruby’s script for “Go West,” which is legendary but seldom seen.

  13. Even at a comparatively ripe age I never got “that way” for Dumont.

    A turning point was “Summer Magic”, a Hayley Mills vehicle from Disney. As a preteen I thought Hayley’s snobby cousin was Hot (Deborah Walley, who went on to play cute sitcom ingenues). Then, revisiting the movie in my thirties, I found myself focusing on Hayley’s mom (Dorothy McGuire). Maureen O’Hara similarly upstaged twin Hayleys on revisiting “Parent Trap.”

    Sex appeal in movies is a weird thing. I have trouble finding Barbara Windsor objectively sexy, but I readily believe the impact she has on all the males in the “Carry On” films. And then there’s “Hollywood Ugly”: ladies who’d draw crowds in the real world playing shrews and ugly ducklings, usually on the strength of an unaltered nose and/or glasses.

  14. Billy Wilder proposed uniting the Marxes late in life for A Night at the United Nations (or was it a Day?) according to Maurice Zolorow’s unreliable bio. It’s a nice idea. And Salvador Dali prepared a scenario of his own which was pure gibberish, suggesting that he hadn’t understood that the Bros’ material contained actual jokes, and its own kind of sense.

    Races apes the structure of Opera a little two closely, if anything, and the negotiating scene with Groucho and Chico is superior in the previous movie.

    Which Marx film shall we look at next? Back to Paramount, I think.

  15. Back in my college days, in early 1970s, the Marx Brothers were pretty popular on campus. Their film showings were always well attended. We had grown up watching them on TV, and now we got their jokes as well as the visual gags. Smoking pot also helped. Also popular at the time were Bogart, Busby Berkeley and the Von Sternberg films with Marlene Dietrich. What always got an unexpected laugh with “A Day at the Races”, was that the actor Leonard Ceeley looked so much like Richard Nixon.
    The “tootsi fruitsi” scene is one of their best. With Groucho, knowing he’s being had, says to the audience “I’m getting a nice tootsi fruitsi right here.” I find this line is still very useful today.
    And I dare you to watch Laurel and Hardy in “The Music Box” with a straight face.

  16. Ah, you lived through the second great heyday of the Marxes, my friend! I guess this may be the third, since TCM has done so much to popularize precodes. I just saw Oliver Stone guve a talk and he said precodes are much of what he watches these days.

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