Archive for A Night at the Opera

The Sunday Intertitle: The Gag Man

Posted in FILM, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 22, 2018 by dcairns

This is, I think, the only funny intertitle in THE GENERAL, the only one that even attempts to be funny. And even then, it’s just alliteration, not some kind of wisecrack.

It’s a shock to see Keystone films after watching mature Keaton or Chaplin, because at Keystone they tried to cram gags into every title. I think the idea was to take what had been filmed and punch it up with another layer of comedy. Whereas Buster and Charlie knew what they’d got was good enough. Harold Lloyd would do funny titles — “When the man with the mansion met the miss with a mission…” — really witty ones. And they seem to be more intimately connected to the story — that one, from FOR HEAVEN’S SAKE, was going to supply the movie’s original title.

Keaton does gag titles in his shorts, but again, they’re plot-based, as with the boat’s name in THE BOAT. “Damfino.” “Well I don’t know either.”

Weirdly, the writing credit on THE GENERAL names directors Buster and Clyde Bruckman, but adds, “Adapted by Al Boasberg and Charles Smith.” Smith was an actor, who plays the heroine’s dad in the film. And Boasberg was a joke writer from vaudeville who had helped shape the personae of everyone from Jack Benny to Milton Berle and Burns & Allen. Keaton referred to him as an example of how that kind of verbal humour wasn’t needed on his films, and the credit seems likely to be a compensation to Boasberg for not having any of his work used. The straightforward, purely functional titles of the film could be entrusted to a minor actor with, I suspect, Keaton more or less dictating ~

 

Smith.

Boasberg’s trumped-up credit reminds me of H.M. “Beany” Walker, who got writing credit on all the Laurel & Hardy shorts, despite the fact that the story was already in place when he came on, and so he’d write a dialogue script full of one-liners which the boys basically ignored. Those titles at the start of many L&H talkies would end up being his major contribution.

But it’s nice Boasberg got a credit because his name goes unmentioned on a lot of films he DID contribute to — notably A NIGHT AT THE OPERA, where he seems to have originated the legendary stateroom scene, a scene dependent on his speciality — verbal quips which not only fit the situation, but the speaker’s unique comic personality.

Info from Ben Schwartz’s amazing bio essay, The Gag Man, available in The Film Comedy Reader.

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A Night Without Casablanca

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 11, 2017 by dcairns

I wrote a little about this one years back (has it been years?) and so left it to nearly the end of my Marxian odyssey this time (for late-comers, I’m writing about those aspects of the Marx Bros films excluding the Marx Bros — what are usually considered the bad bits).

A NIGHT IN CASABLANCA sees the three remaining Bros at United Artists, in 1946, in a largely studio-bound version of North Africa. Plot revolves around Nazi gold and art treasures, then I imagine quite a new McGuffin. It’s probably sensible that the Marx films skipped the war years altogether (if one considers WWII from an American perspective) and refer to the Third Reich fairly obliquely here.

The film is deftly directed by Archie Mayo, with a surprising amount of fluid camera movement. It’s questionable whether a Marx Bros film NEEDS fluid camera movement, but it’s getting it regardless. And despite the limited budget keeping us in a hotel for most of the plot (when the boys escape jail and steal a plane, they crash right back into the jail again, thus saving on further sets) it looks pretty good.

No Margaret Dumont, alas, but Sig Rumann is present and incorrect as Pfferman the German. He’s a Nazi-in-hiding with a giveaway scar on his head (I’m imagining an unfortunate encounter with the Inglourious Basterds) for which he requires the camouflage of a toupee. Harpo is set up as Rusty, his put-upon underling, a role that dates back to A NIGHT AT THE OPERA and Thalberg’s unfortunate attempts to sentimentalize Harpo. Still, it means we can have lots of scenes of Sig being driven to apoplexy by Harpo and later the other brothers. And he keeps his clothes on this time. The sight of his genital cluster swaying within his long johns in A NIGHT AT THE OPERA will follow me to my mausoleum.

Sig comes complete with henchpersons, the oily Kurt and the seductive Bea. Kurt is ably played by actual German Frederick Giermann, and gets a decent sabre duel with Harpo. Giermann is one of countless fugitives from the Nazis who enjoyed a few boom years in Hollywood playing the guys he had fled. His career dries up not long after the war.

Bea is the excellent and lovely Lisette Verea, who seems to be genuinely having a ball, and is particularly good with Groucho. The nice girls in these films are always a bore, but the vamps are generally great value. Better, Verea gets to convert to the side of good, meaning she can get chased offscreen by the Bros at the end. This Romanian vixen was in just two films, the other being the 1933 version of THE GHOST TRAIN, which I bet is aces. ALL versions of THE GHOST TRAIN seem to be thoroughly entertaining.

Frank Tashlin worked on gags for this one, including Harpo’s first scene, leaning against a wall, getting moved on by a policeman (“Say, what do you think you are doing, holding up the building?”), at which point the full-sized building collapses. He may have also devised Groucho’s deleted entrance, in which his small desert hotel blows away in a sandstorm. The movie has obviously suffered quite a bit of this “tightening” — despite which Chico and Harpo’s musical numbers remain intact — numerous scenes fade-out in mid-action, or with characters opening their mouths to begin new quips. Who knows if there was gold in the lost footage? The remaining film has its longeurs, and the inelegance of the cutting does make me wonder if they snipped out the wrong bits.

Chief among the longeurs, of course, are the romantic leads, but the movie gives them short shrift, for which we can be grateful. Their names are Charles Drake and Lois Collier, and they can’t help themselves. And the script doesn’t exactly go out of its way to help them either. Of Mr. Drake, the IMDb says “No change in popularity this week,” which strikes me as beautifully apt. Collier had a much shorter career than her co-star, but most of her characters had names. This pair doesn’t get a lot of screen time — the movie actually seems to forget about them midway, and it’s a surprise when they crash back into the plot. And at least they don’t sing.

Lisette Verea does, briefly, and the number chosen, Who’s Sorry Now?, is a very good one, and it’s nice that it’s by Kalmar & Ruby, who wrote Hooray for Captain Spaulding! and Whatever It Is, I’m Against It, and who are the chief credited writers on DUCK SOUP.

Who else? Perennial bit player Paul Harvey plays Mr. Smythe, who can’t get a room in Groucho’s hotel without showing his marriage license. Mr. Harvey was born in Sandwich, Illinois, which makes me warm to him. Sig Rumann was a Hamburger — perhaps he would have bonded with the Sandwich man also.

There’s an extraordinary-looking thesp called David Hoffman as an Arab spy. And Dan Seymour as the Prefect of Police, his beard dismissed by Groucho as a terrible case of five O’clock shadow. And, we are told, Ruth Roman as a harem girl, but I failed to spot her.

The movie is a big step up from THE BIG STORE, it seems to me, and lets the Brothers be properly anarchic and only incidentally noble. Though the best bits of OPERA and RACES are up there with the best bits of anything else, I can’t help feel that the Marxes made a mistake, essentially, in signing with MGM — this movie liberates them from the Thalberg influence. The studio where they SHOULD have found a home, Warner Bros (the most brazenly Jewish, most leftie, most proletarian, and most casually vulgar studio) threatened to sue over the use of the word CASABLANCA in the title here. Groucho threatened to counter-sue over the use of their word BROTHERS.

Despite someone NEARLY saying “Round up the usual suspects” and a Groucho-Lisette riff on “You know how to whistle, don’t you?” from TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT, there’s little of Bogart here, though Groucho’s tent-like white jacket may be a clown version of Rick’s evening dress. A more actionable version could be imagined, with Groucho running a night club, Chico as a combined Dooley Wilson and Peter Lorre (“Sure I gotta the lettuce o’ transit!”) and Harpo as… hmm, not sure. Paul Henreid could play himself.

A Battleship In Il Trovatore

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , on April 22, 2016 by dcairns

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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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