A Battleship In Il Trovatore

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A NIGHT AT THE OPERA — the first Thalberg reinvention of the Marx Bros. It lives on its excellent Groucho introduction, the contract scene, and the stateroom scene, and it has plenty of other nice one-liners and moments to sustain it. But I’m carrying on looking at the non-Marx Bros bits in Marx Bros movies.

Andrew Sarris is probably accurate when he writes, of the Bros, “They were a welcome relief not only from the badness of their own movies but also from the badness of most of the movies around them.” (But he’s dead wrong when he cites “Groucho’s bad habit of doing double and triple takes after every bon mot to give his audience a chance to laugh.” Groucho’s reactions to Chico’s inanities are simply part of the performance of the scenes, and are funny in themselves. Groucho is crtainly never surprised by his own jokes.)

So, on to the badness. Zeppo is gone, to be replaced by Allan Jones, whose singing has, I suppose, some plot significance but which I can take or leave alone, with a preference for the latter. He does have the admirable ability of seeming to disappear entirely during the comedy scenes, despite occupying equal screen space to, say, Harpo. Where Harpo has presence, Jones has absence, his finest quality. He doesn’t get in the way except when required to hold up a scene. And when he holds up a scene, boy does he hold it up. “Can we please get on?” is the cry.

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Jones is paired with Kitty Carlisle, who sang about marijuana in MURDER AT THE VANITIES the year before, but always insisted she thought it was a girl’s name. The harshest thing I can say about her is that’s probably the truth. She is fetching, but unfortunately the one she usually fetches is Allan Jones.

The fact that both of these leaden leads are credited above Margaret Dumont is tantamount to a war crime, but Dumont’s treatment is otherwise flawed anyway. After scene one, she is never charmed by Groucho. To have Margaret realize once and for all that Groucho is a moth-eaten scam artist is to deprive us of the central joke of Margaret Dumont in Marx Bros movies, her very foundation. So although she’s great in her first scene, and great throughout, after the opening she has a lot less to work with.

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There’s always Sig Rumann, that great schnook, here playing a Groucho love rival, so he’s a stooge who thinks he’s a smart guy — ripe for destruction. I could probably have used more mistreatment of the bearded one, though maybe less of him jiggling about in his undergarments. (When I was a child and saw drawings of men in their long johns in Disney comics, I always thought they were naked and just abnormally pallid and strangely genderless, like Action Man figurines. But Rumann has junk moving about, visibly. If the fledgling Hays Office can’t protect us from the outline of Sig Rumann’s swaying scrotum, what is the point of having them?)

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Speaking of beards, other figures falling prey to the Bros are the World’s Greatest Aviators, described by Groucho as either “three men with beards or one man with three beards.” They are treated unkindly. “World’s greatest aviators but you notice they’re traveling by sea,” remarks Groucho, before they are bound, gagged, shaved, and their beards absconded with, never to be returned.

The World’s Greatest Aviators who, like Harpo, never speak, sadly did not go on to their own film series. A pity, since the actors are Jay Eaton, Leon White and Rolph Sedan, and “comedy team Eaton-White-Sedan”” has a nice ring to it.

I was on the point of taking the scene where the Bros go all Black Lodge and speak a gibberish language which is actually English in reverse, and re-reversing it to find out what they’re really saying, when I realised of course that somebody would already have done this, and of course they have —

Good bit with Robert Emmett O’Connor, the cop — the Bros (and Allan Jones, I think) keep moving from room to room and back again to escape him unseen, and each time they move some furniture with them. The not preternaturally bright policeman struggles to understand what’s going on. Like David Bowie during his Berlin period, living on red peppers and cocaine and imagining the furniture moving about the room when he’s not looking, or like the hero of Guy de Maupassant’s paranoiac comedy horror story Who Knows?, O’Connor is driven to distraction by this to-him-inexplicable phenomenon. While the film has its fair share of MGM-imposed moralism, it’s reassuring to see that making a cop think he’s coming down with dementia praecox is still viewed as an inarguable social virtue.

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Sam Wood directs, pinned between Thalberg on one side and the Marxs on the other, which must be like playing superego to HAL 9000 and the Tasmanian Devil. His work here and in A DAY AT THE RACES has none of the fluidity he could bring to a film under less fraught conditions, and with William Cameron Menzies helping out. Horrific wingnut, yes, “But what a genius!”

Walter King as Lasspari the singer is another of the Marxes’ more charmless opponents, introdued flogging Harpo, Playing Harpo as a cute disabled waif is just wrong (see LOVE HAPPY for sentiment run amuck), and the weirdness is amplified when Kitty Carlisle’s objections to this brutality are supposed to establish her as sympathetic. But then Harpo is summoned back into Lasspari’s dressing room and the sounds of whipping continue, and Kitty can’t be bothered making any objection. She’s set up as self-centered and cowardly instead of righteous and noble. I have a good idea for improving her boring first scene with Jones — keep playing the sound of Harpo getting his hide flayed off in the background. It definitely improves things.

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11 Responses to “A Battleship In Il Trovatore”

  1. It wasn’t Kitty who sang about pot , but Gertrude Michaels

  2. Damn, one less reason to be interested in Kitty.

  3. Don’t sell Kitty short!

  4. The musical number so long, Channel 4 showed it with an ad break in the middle! And they only had two or three ad breaks in the whole movie…

  5. The key to the MGM Marx films is that their comedy is Harnessed for Good. Anarchy for its own sake is fleeting at best. The stateroom scene is part of smuggling Allen Jones to America; the furniture moving scene is about avoiding arrest; the finale is intentionally comic sabotage.

    Makes me think of “Mystery Science Theater 3000”. In the middle of a cheesy movie involving savage Amazons, the host and his robots meet two genuine Amazons — now soccer moms in a minivan. “We still enslave men,” one explains. “But only for charity.”

  6. Yes, the inconsistent part is Dumont and Rumann, who don’t always deserve the treatment meted out. This was consistent in the nihilistic Paramount films, but clashes with the more caring, sharing anarchy at MGM. In this one, Sig is a bit of a crook, after Margaret’s money, but he’s certainly no worse than Groucho. In Races he’s a perfectly honest doctor, just a bit of a stuffed shirt and tactically he needs to be neutralized so Groucho can go on practicing medicine illegally…

  7. chris schneider Says:

    Forgive me for stating the obvious, but … there’s no battleship in IL TROVATORE. Wonder whose idea it was to place it there. Deliberate or accidental surrealism? Adding it is, after all, roughly like adding a chorus-line to the last scene of GREED.

  8. Oh, they knew what they were doing — Harpon goes mad backstage and the backdrop rises to reveal a new and unsuitable piece of scenic art, causing Rumann to exclaim, well, the title of this piece.

  9. Kitty and Alan’s song on the dockside as they believe they have to be parted, is really nice. She had to fight the studio to get them to use her voice, which she had pre-recorded. When she heard someone else’s on the playback, she refused to leave her dressing room. In later years, as she continued to do recitals, this song would always be requested.

  10. Yeah, that was alright, and it’s tied into plot in a couple of useful ways. Although you could chuck the plot and I’d be just as happy, if not more so.

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