Gone West

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Continuing to look at the non-Marxian aspects of the Marx Bros’ films.

The Marx Brothers’ GO WEST is the one where Buster Keaton’s contributions as gag writer really make a difference — the train climax, which manages to be reminiscent of THE GENERAL without recycling any specific gags, is one of the best bits of Hollywood slapstick the 40s produced (see also the hyper-kinetic chases climaxing a couple of W.C. Fields movies, which make up in manic speed what they might lack in finesse).

Buster may have played the brothers at high-stakes bridge, and collaborated successfully with them more than once, but he didn’t care for their casual attitude to movie-making. I guess this led to his otherwise inexplicable preference for Red Skelton, who evidently took his job seriously.

Edward Buzzell directs — he was fresh (or exhausted?) from AT THE CIRCUS, and had a background in pre-codes and would later provide the narrative bread for the Technicolor sandwich which is Busby Berkeley and Esther Williams’ JUPITER’S DARLING NEPTUNE’S DAUGHTER. He manages one truly memorable shot, which you can’t quite believe you’re seeing ~

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A love scene occluded by horseflesh. It feels like an accident, left in the film whimsically, but I guess it’s a joke on censorship or privacy or something. If there were any real sexual chemistry imaginable behind the equine barrier, those readings would make sense. I like the gag, but I’m sort of glad there aren’t more like this. You don’t want the boring bits in Marx Bros films (the plot, the romantic interest, the musical numbers) to strive for zaniness. You would prefer they weren’t there. If they have to be there, you would like the girls to be charming, the songs to be tuneful, and nothing to go on too long. I don’t know what I would wish for the Allan Jones type leading men — a quick death, probably.

Here we have John Carroll and Diana Lewis, who is perky. We also have a couple of bland villains, who do that grating angry thing when annoyed by the Bros, which makes them suitable targets. In DUCK SOUP, the only reason Edgar Kennedy is a worthy target for destruction is the grating way he says “WHAT’S THE IDEA FIGHTIN’ IN FRONT OF MY STAND AND DRIVIN’ MY CUSTOMERS AWAY?” He is actually quite justified, but his tone is so obnoxious he must be systematically dismantled. The Marxes don’t put up with anger. Even Groucho’s “So, you refuse to shake my hand?” is transparently trumped up, a pose, a parody of real outrage.

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Piano interlude — a natural for a saloon sequence. This starts out as the most promising Chico solo ever, with Harpo reacting in extreme excitement to the music, until he feels compelled to throttle a bar girl just to show how happy the melody makes him. Rose McGowan would not approve, but this may be the biggest laugh in a Marxian musical interlude ever, discounting the great Groucho comedy songs. Unfortunately, Harpo then calms down and we have to endure twice as much piano. Chico’s numbers are sort of amusing, but when you’ve seen one you’ve kind of seen them all.

What else? Uncomfortable humour with Indians. This is a lengthy bit that doesn’t really contribute to the story, and also contains the inevitable harp interlude (using a loom as improvised harp). Buzzell gets desperate enough to track in a semi-circle around the offending instrument, the most elegant and imaginative move in the film. Makes me wonder how creative the average Hollywood hack would become if forced to shoot a whole movie full of tedium.

Fiona was impressed by the strong hints of miscegenation, with Harpo obviously drawn to the flirtatious Mini-Hahas. But squaws were always kind of fair game, weren’t they? It’s probably good that Harpo’s rapacious sexuality is tamped down here, since a white guy chasing screaming Indian girls would maybe feel unpleasant. Chasing peroxide cuties in a mansion-house in ANIMAL CRACKERS is something Harpo still somehow gets away with in the modern age, I think

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Oh, there’s also an old-timer, the heroine’s grandfather or something, who must be placated so the plot can work out happily (which we don’t care about). This guy disappears from the movie almost completely, despite being the lynchpin of the whole narrative. He’s glimpsed at the happy ending, but more or less subliminally. A shame, perhaps he could have become a kind of male, rustic Margaret Dumont. He’s meant to be a beloved curmudgeon, but he’s also standing in the path of love, so the Marxes new MGM role as anarchic cupids could have them assaulting his dignity.

Actually Margaret Dumont playing the role, in overalls and stubble, would make EVERYTHING better.

 

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5 Responses to “Gone West”

  1. Red Skelton was a superior physical comedian and even a pantomimist when he felt like it, so Keaton could give him precise visual gags that wouldn’t fly with other comics. Yes, his big clowny style was the opposite of Keaton’s and he frankly preferred to talk as much as possible (and not just on camera). But he could do things like Keaton’s putting-the-bride-to-bed routine.

    The breaking-up-the-car bit was swiped by the movie version of “The Seven Percent Solution”, “Around the World in 80 Days” does it with a steamboat, although there it may have come from Verne’s original.

    Speaking of red: Harpo originally wore a red wig, but switched to blond because movie film at the time recorded it as black. In “Go West” he’s edging back to red, and his character is named Rusty to cue the audience that it’s not just darker.

  2. chris schneider Says:

    GO WEST is not a film that I know. At all. And yet it happens that I stumbled upon a pleasing snippet yesterday involving a non-Marx performer unmentioned by you. Her name is June MacCloy, and she’s a low-voiced blonde chantoosey in a saloon. She sings a torch song, composed by Bronislau Kaper, that’s just inches away from the kind of parody that Fanny Brice would sing in the Ziegfeld Follies. This provokes Groucho into offering romantic advice to his unspeaking drinking companion. “Fan the flame of desire with the bellows of indifference,” Groucho counsels him.

  3. Ah yes, I should have mentioned MacCloy — a regrettable consequence of my writing this piece weeks after viewing the film, which was itself a consequence of… life. But she’s an interesting presence, singing voice maybe deeper than Bacall’s, and the movie’s only interesting baddie. I kind of wanted her to end up with Groucho.

    Harpo is referred to as red0-haired in another movie, I think, where his hair appears white to the camera. Silly, really. It takes someone like the William Wyler of Jezebel to make you “see” a coulour in a b&w movie.

  4. revelator60 Says:

    “But squaws were always kind of fair game, weren’t they?”

    That’s right. White male/female Indian relationships reoccur in Westerns (including pre-Hollywood silent Westerns, which were more pro-Indian), but there are very few with Indian male/white female couples, and even fewer that end with the couple still together.

    Buster’s involvement with Go West, though clear from the train gags, was harder to fully confirm than in At the Circus, where he was photographed with the Marx Brothers and documented in several anecdotes. However, Irving Brecher wrote the following about Go West in his memoir The Wicked Wit of the West:

    “Think of all the antics of the brothers. Now think of them being chased by villains on a train full of passengers…Turned out to be a hell of a couple reels. The special effects stuff was reminiscent of Buster Keaton, who was actually on the set working with Harpo. We shot in the San Fernando valley and that train…well, it took liberties.”

    Speaking of Margaret Dumont, I recently saw her in High Flyers, Wheeler and Woolsey’s last film. It’s only fair at best, but her character (a society matron who thinks she has psychic powers) is wonderfully batty and she’s a joy to watch.

  5. Bookmarked! HAVE to see that. I wish she’d had such a character in a Marx Bros movie. Harpo at a seance! Groucho in some kind of turban!

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