Archive for An American Tragedy

Duck Without Soup

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 15, 2017 by dcairns

In conclusion — we have reached the end of my examination of the films of the Marx Bros excluding the Marx Bros. In this regard, DUCK SOUP, by general agreement the best Marx Bros film, at first seems to offer slim pickings — it has no romantic interest, no songs not either about or involving Groucho, no instrumental interludes, and practically no plot. Nevertheless I shall not fail you.

“Waiting for Groucho is agony,” wrote one reviewer, complaining about the amount of business required to prepare for the star’s eventual entrance. But here at Shadowplay we wallow in that agony and exult in that business.

First proudly waves the flag of Freedonia. While the Ruritanian/Graustarkian kingdom’s descent into Marxian dictatorship suggests a satire of current events in Europe, viewers are continually reminded of how American Freedonia is, “Freedonian” was an early synonym for “American,” the nation has its president and, we are told  its House of Representatives, Groucho will pass through a variety of American military uniforms, and Harpo will shamelessly parody Paul Revere’s ride (with the William Tell Overture as backing/alibi). I suggest that the film is not a parody of Nazism or Fascism, but a crumbling democracy. it feels very now, with an insult comedian in the Oval Office, out to rob the country blind and create chaos for the sheer pleasure of it. Groucho makes that seem liberating, and perhaps offers a clue as to why some people support Trump — as a big fuck you to the smooth Ambassador Trentinos of the world.

Would love to know where the stock shot of Freedonia was taken. Apparently the later view of Sylvania is in Andalusia, making Trentino an Andalusian Dog (and Dali would later write his own Marx Bros treatment, GIRAFFES ON HORSEBACK SALAD).

A second wipe takes us inside a boardroom where Mrs. Teasdale forces the Great Bearded Men of Freedonia to accept Rufus T. Firefly as their president in exchange for bailing out the bankrupt nation etc etc. Mrs. T. is the mighty Margaret Dumont in one of her supreme roles. Frequently she’s cast as someone who has an inexplicable faith in Groucho’s character. In ANIMAL CRACKERS he’s supposedly a great off-white hunter, though we have our doubts, but at least there’s some basis for her admiration. In A DAY AT THE RACES Groucho is an imposter horse doctor offering quack remedies to a hypochondriac, so her dependency on him is explicable, her tendency to overlook his misbehaviour almost pitiable understandable. But here there’s no possible explanation for why she should think Firefly suitable leadership material. one presumes she’s just lonely since the death of Chester (a newspaper article tells us her late husband was Chester V. Teasdale, which does sound like a Groucho character. And she does urge him to follow in CVT’s footsteps).

Rosalind Russell is supposed to have said “You can’t play comedy on big sets,” but Leo McCarey pays her no mind. This huge room is stuffed with about twelve beard guys milling about, several of them importuning the fiery widow Teasdale, but she has an iron will and an iron won’t. The main desperate minister here seems to be a monocled fellow called Edwin Maxwell, who gets rubbished by Groucho later.

Groucho’s pen-pal T.S. Eliot had this to say on the subject of Mr. Maxwell:

No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be;

Am an attendant lord, one that will do

To swell a progress, start a scene or two,

Advise the prince; no doubt, an easy tool,

Deferential, glad to be of use,

Politic, cautious, and meticulous;

Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse;

At times, indeed, almost ridiculous—

Almost, at times, the Fool.

Groucho has this to say: “You get awfully tiresome after a while.”

Edwin Maxwell, we salute you!

And so we’re on to scene 2 — what the Freedonia Gazette terms a “mammoth reception” (“One morning I shot a mammoth in my reception”) in a seemingly vast set that’s mostly glass painting. It looks midway between a Trumpian palace and a Busby Berkeley nightclub. Here we’re going to be kept in a holding pattern while Ambassador Trentino, Vera Marcal and Bob Roland shuffle on and off, with Groucho as our eventual reward for patience. These are all solid supporting characters, but they only become entertaining once Groucho has his teeth in them.

The oily ambassador “bears a startling resemblence to Louis Calhern” because he’s played by Louis Calhern, the walking fontanelle himself, back when he had hair on his unusually thin skull. Calhern is in calhoots with Marcal, the luscious Raquel Torres, a minor starlet of the exotic brand, best-known otherwise for 1930s THE SEA BAT, where she’s menaced by a plastic manta ray while the sound man tries and fails to capture decipherable dialogue by the raging surf.

Bob Roland is Zeppo, and I guess bringing him on first makes sense, as a kind of aperitif for the funny brothers. Poor Herbert! As part of the film’s ruthless efficiency, he has even less to do than usual, and the movie seems to have made up his mind to retire from acting and become an agent. From playing Groucho’s son in HORSE FEATHERS, here he’s demoted back to secretary, as in ANIMAL CRACKERS, but without any long dictation scenes to pad his screen time. (Just a brief letter to Firefly’s dentist and his secretarial duties are finished.)

I guess the few lines sung here do set up the sense that this is going to be an appalling operetta-film, thus giving Groucho something well worth disrupting.

The amazing transforming jacket.

No explanation is ever offered for why Groucho has his own personal fire pole to get him into the mammoth reception. but once he’s in, it’s all about him, so I can’t talk about it. Maybe I can talk about his suit, which transmogrifies utterly, twice — from a tail coat to a kind of smoking jacket with gloves sticking from the pocket, then back to a tail coat. This doesn’t seem like a joke, exactly, though later one, at the climax, Groucho will cycle through a dizzying series of military uniforms, and that IS a joke, but it’s not as blatantly a continuity error.

I suspect Raquel Torres is late with her line here, or else Groucho is forgetting she HAS a line, because he utters a low, non-specific vowel sound after saying “Here’s another one I picked up in a dance hall.” A kind of “Uh-” sound. Evidently a retake was considered beyond the bounds of possibility. We know Groucho was rather intolerant of retakes.

I grow old, I grow old, I will wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.

Come to think of it, J. Alfred Prufrock would make a pretty good name for a Groucho character.

Groucho’s costume undergoes a further shift when he exits the building, his shirt now untucked. Was Groucho just waging a quiet little war on the continuity girl?

Ever noticed this bizarre structure outside the palace, just before Harpo motors up? It’s part matte painting and all strange, a wall with a gate leading outside, but the outside seems to have a roof over it. A truly Marxian, or Escheresque construction.

Harpo wears his topper here, as it’s an official occasion, whereas he will switch to deerstalker in his next scene, where he’s revealed as a spy. But already he pauses in his duties to snap a picture of Groucho in the best Alexi de Sadesky manner.

Fiona was charmed by the fact that the ceremonial sidecar is decorated with tassels and a flag.

Sylvania! Their flag has a big Gothic S in the middle, to match Freedonia’s F, and while that F is set inside a star, Sylvania favours a stripe motif.

Now we meet Leonid Kinskey, giving a performance almost unseemly in its fervor, as the Sylvanian agitator. Really he has no reason to be here save a tiny amount of necessary exposition and a certain atmospheric value, setting this up as a serious scene of espionage before Chico and Harpo come it to destroy another illusion. LK is best known for CASABLANCA, which means he really ought to have been in A NIGHT IN CASABLANCA.

Trentino’s secretary is the only one of the film’s blonde’s identified by the IMDb — she’s Verna Hillie.

The seat of Louis Calhern’s pants bears mute witness to the attentions of Harpo’s glue-stick on multiple takes. The costume department really seems to be asleep on the job, what with Groucho’s morphing suit and this tacky trouser adhesion. Tiny grunt of pain from Louis as he pulls rat trap from fingertips during fadeout. Seems to rhyme with Groucho’s “Uh-” earlier. I should assemble all these sounds together, maybe they’ll spell out the key to the location of the secret war code and plans.

To the Chamber of Deputies! Did Groucho’s walnut-laden desk inspire the nutty office in Berolucci’s THE CONFORMIST? After all, it’s another portrait of 1930s fascism with a surrealist slant. I dig how Zeppo seems to impressed by his boss here, watching hypnotized as Firefly bores the deputies silly with his silly game. And then we have more from Edwin Maxwell, who storms out in a minute and a huff. The IMDb claims that Edward Arnold appears in this film as a politician, but I haven’t seen him. Is it possible someone mistook the similarly bull-necked Maxwell for E.A.?

But Edgar Kennedy is sure in it! A Leo McCarey alumnus, he plays a bellowing oaf/lemonade salesman, mercilessly targeted by Harpo and Chico. McCarey’s fingerprints are all over this — it’s a tit-for-tat routine straight out of Laurel & Hardy, with endless hat exchanges also straight out of Laurel & Hardy. But, as befits the Marxes, it’s more malicious. The only reason Kennedy doesn’t totally deserve our sympathy here is that he’s loud. Braying, abrasive jackasses exist to be taken down by the Marxes, just as stuffed shirts do.

Slightly awkward script construction results in us fading out on the incineration of the Kennedy chapeau, and then fading back up on the same scene, a little later, where Groucho recruits Chico. A strong supporting performance from Chico’s dog, Pastrami, which scratches itself luxuriantly in almost every shot.

Note: minutes later, we will meet a second dog, the dog that lives inside Harpo’s chest, like the Xenomorph within John Hurt. Simple economics would dictate that this might as well be the same dog, but it isn’t. Either the special effect was filmed on a different day and a different dog was sent by Canine Central Casting, or McCarey purposely requested a different dog. “Chico’s dog is outside at the peanut stand. This dog is inside Harpo’s chest. It CAN’T be the same dog. That would make no sense!”

Zeppo gets one of the biggest laughs of his career by entering after Harpo exits, wearing half a straw hat. (1) Delightful to imagine the offscreen action of Harpo scissoring through the headgear at lightning speed while Zeppo is wearing it, without Zeppo noticing. (2) There’s a major theme of hat destruction in this movie, from the plumed helmets of the marching guards, to two Kennedy hats, two various Groucho hats (“This is the last straw.”)

Mrs Teasdale’s garden party is the biggest real exterior, shot in Pasadena. Prize-winning insolence from Groucho: stealing a donut is cheeky, but dunking it in someone else’s coffee is supreme.

I’ve just read a nice appreciation of Edgar Kennedy by Donald Phelps, Edgar Kennedy: The Bull of the Woods in The Film Comedy Reader. Phelps ably captures the Kennedy persona with the phrase “roaring buffoon” but errs slightly when he says we never see any of Kennedy’s lemonade customers. There’s the guy into whose pocket Harpo’s hand somehow strays, during the first altercation. In the second altercation, business is booming, with a queue of grotesque peasant types driven away by Harpo paddling in the lemonade. The men have hobo clown beards. I love Harpo’s joyous look to camera during the fade-out. Did they intend for us to see that? I hope so.

We were watching with Marvelous Mary, BTW — we had a dictators’ double bill of this and THE GREAT DICTATOR. Mary remarked that she admired “the hoor’s dresses,” a slightly back-handed compliment for Raquel Torres. She has been poured into her glittery gown, but some of her has spilled. This is the kind of non-Bros scene we can tolerate, because it’s all about swiftly setting up the next opportunity for Groucho to be outrageous, plus it has Dumont.

Groucho eating crackers in bed — the crackers literally splayed out all over the sheets — under the Great Seal of Freedonia. His end of the phone conversation is intercut with a DRAMATIC TRACK-IN on Margaret, a very surprising bit of technique. It’s the kind of shot you expect when Christian Bayle as Batman is saying something bad-ass. Mrs. Teasdale has never looked so full of moment.

Firefly joins Teasdale, then Trentino and Marcal join them, and we’re back to the kind of laundry-line composition Marx films are full of. Though arguably inelegant, it does allow us to get the gags and the reactions all at once. Either Groucho demanded this kind of blocking, or his directors saw the effectiveness of it, or he exhausted them until all they could think of was turning the camera on and hoping to God the minimal number of brothers turned up for the scene.

Trentino is seen plotting with four flunkies. They look suspiciously like the politicians humiliated by Groucho earlier, but there’s no Davison Clark so I don’t think it’s intentional.

The budget wouldn’t stretch to a belt for Raquel Torres’ robe. McCarey evidently ruled that making it easier for her to keep the garment closed would work against the very concept of “production values.”

This next reel or so offers little except Margaret Dumont, cruelly treated (though in this movie everything’s her fault) and the Marxes, at one point fusing/dividing to form a trio of Grouchos. So we pass on to the trial, only noting that we’re skipping over the radio and the mirror sequence, the artistic climax of the Marxes’ adventures onscreen. Also Chico’s “Who are you gonna believe, me or your own eyes?” which has become a defining lines of the Trump administration.

The Freedonia Gazette notes Chicolini’s arrest, noting also the following stories of the day: “Mayor and Aide in Train Wreck,” “Woman Driver Gets Jail Term,” “Foreign Radio Artists Arrive” and “War Games are Nearing Finish” — that last one will shortly be proved very wrong.

Another big set — quite a bit of this one is real, but again, the top half seems to be a painting.

Charles Middleton, the Emperor Ming, now appears as a prosecutor. Freedonia does look quite a bit like Mongo, all art-deco neo-classicism. I choose to interpret Middletons’ casting as another jab at Von Sternberg’s AN AMERICAN TRAGEDY, previously ridiculed in HORSE FEATHERS — Middleton played a lawyer in it. Groucho, apparently. disliked that Sternberg as heartily as nearly everyone else did. Sternberg was in the habit of intoning “Beware the Ides of Marx” whenever he passed behind Groucho in the Paramount commissary. Nobody gets to pun at Groucho.

Middleton is a great foil because he’s a stiff, stuffy, dignified, not very good actor. Ideal cannon fodder. It would be kind of perfect if Edward Arnold WAS lurking in this movie somewhere.

A sea of unfriendly faces/ludicrous Freedonian peasants.

War! I’m not aware of another occasion where Charles Middleton sings. He’s actually quite good at it. FLASH GORDON ought to have been a musical. This is the number that famously restores Woody Allen’s will to live in HANNAH AND HER SISTERS, the nicest tribute by one comedian to another I can imagine (and a lot more successful than Preston Sturges’ roping-in of Walt Disney and Pluto to make a case for entertainment in SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS.

When the Marxes get the whole courtroom putting their hands on the floor and kicking their legs in the air, not everyone is very good at it. But its cool the way everyone keeps freezing as the Bros go into their various bits. The Mannequin Challenge is invented!

“Oh how we’d cry for Firefly if Firefly should die,” is a slightly embarrassing show of emotion from Zeppo, a very funny show of proud simpering from Groucho, but I only just noticed (after fifty-plus viewings) Chico’s reaction — bewildered contempt, or contemptuous bewilderment. Either way, perfect. “Ah! You craze!”

Followed by tableau vivant of Marxes as heroes of the Revolution, and a special effect clock tower that lights up. Then the aforementioned Paul Revere spoof, and Harpo taking his rapacious instincts very nearly too far with a sexy blonde who turns out to be, implausibly enough, Edgar Kennedy’s wife. the weird Bohemian/American/period/modern mix is at its most boggling here. Kennedy, the Mitteleuropean lemonade salesman with the peroxide blonde wife in the medieval house with the 30s bathroom. Harpo goes into a Von Stroheimesque Threatening Slow Advance, but fortunately Kennedy’s arrival turns things back into bedroom farce, or in this case, bathroom farce. Kennedy’s signature gesture, rubbing his bald head and face in disbelief, becomes even more appropriate when he’s in the tub.

Harpo and his horse now shack up with a brunette, who seems a good match for him, since she communicates with a musical toot. But it turns out that horselover Harpo prefers his steed’s company in the sack, a gag which evidently defused the risk of offense at the time, which is odd when you think of it. I guess sleeping with a tooting tootsie is sexy, sleeping with a horse is just ridiculous.

Freedonia’s military HQ. Zeppo brings a message from the front. Groucho seems to indicate that he can’t actually read — another bit of contemporary relevance, though we saw Groucho WRITE earlier.

Huge cannonshells, like those fired by Big Bertha in THE GREAT DICTATOR, keep flying through the window until Groucho thinks to pull the blind. War is hell.

Dumont, dressed like Mata Hari, calls Groucho from her cottage, which is perpetually exploding. Seriously: when they filmed a shot of a miniature cottage exploding, they apparently forgot to get any shots of it NOT exploding. You can see why Salvador Dali liked the Marxes, can’t you? There’s a man who would LOVE to live in an exploding cottage. Strangely, the cottage seems to be equipped with the exact same radio left behind at headquarters, though Mrs. Teasdale called the Bros by phone.

Zeppo liked working out. For the only time in movies, he gets to show it here.

The film’s reckless lack of continuity now builds to a frenzy. Harp gets locked in a cupboard with ammo. He petulantly discards a cigarette, the explosives go off like firecrackers, and he is already pounding at the door to be released — no moment of realisation, no moment of even standing up and approaching the door, he’s just THERE. His brothers, believing the enemy is attacking from the rear, barricade him in, the only moment one actually feels sorry for Harpo despite all the later Thalberg-era attempts at pathos.

The rest of the war is mostly stock footage from WWI, some of it rear projected. This sets up the insane “Help is on the way!” montage, when Firefly is promised rescue by: the fire brigade; a swarm of motorcycle cops; marathon runners; a rowing race; swimmers; baboons; elephants; more baboons; even more elephants; porpoises.

Groucho gets a large amphora thing stuck on his head. Harpo paints his features on it: the Groucho golem is born.

Moments later, Harpo blows the jug up with dynamite, and when he’s freed from within, Groucho is inexplicably sporting a noose around his neck — evidently the trailing vestiges of a deleted gag. Presumably Harpo and/or Chico tried to release their boss by hoisting him aloft with a rope. I would like to see that, but EVERYTHING is being sacrificed to furious pace here.

In the nick of time, when all seems lost, Trentino for some reason sticks his head through the door so he can lose. He’s the Sylvanian ambassador but for some reason he’s on the battlefield, in uniform, and for some reason his capture spells victory for Freedonia. The boys start pelting him with hard fruits. For Heaven’s sake, don’t they realize his skull is only tissue-thin? If you held a candle behind his head the whole thing would glow like a thumb pressing an illuminated switch. A satsuma hurled by muscleman Zeppo could penetrate his brow like a meteor cratering a moonscape. (Poor Calhern takes several direct hits.)

Dumont sings, the boys start pelting HER (with surprising chivalry, they all aim to the right of where she’s standing) ~world’s hastiest fade-out. As conclusions go, it makes VERTIGO look measured. It makes MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL look drawn-out. Audiences must have looked pretty startled when the lights came up. Like a dream interrupted.

 

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(Horse) Without Feathers

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 9, 2017 by dcairns

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As regular Shadowplayers may recall, I’ve been reviewing the films of the Marx Bros and writing about those aspects of them which do not involve the Marx Bros. Picture a Richard J. Anobile book that’s been mutilated by some scissor-wielding schoolboy.

I already wrote about HORSE FEATHERS once, before starting on this scheme. Here we go again. We haven’t watched this one as often as, say, DUCK SOUP — of course, the reason is plain: no Margaret Dumont. Or maybe the reason is related to what Fiona said at the end: “That was really shambolic!” “Even by their standards!” I added.

Perhaps it’s the unusual spliciness of the print, the lack of any real romantic subplot, the slenderness of the main plot… but the wear and tear is not unique to this movie, the minimal love interest should be a boon, and the best Marx films are not known for labouring over narrative. Anyhow, the film is composed mainly of classic scenes — the ending is a bit rocky, but Groucho has a signature song, the “Swordfish” routine is classic Chico-Groucho crosstalk, there’s a great farce bit, and the canoe sequence is a joy. No more of that.

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We begin with a scary cartoon horse which rides out of a college building and then vanishes, a laughing wraith. The rest of the movie is less frightening. Fiona commented on the crudeness of the caricatures that follow, but they’re both simple and highly identifiable. I like ’em.

First up is Reginald Barlow as the retiring college president, a testosterone-free pillar of patrician dignity, about to be destroyed by the incoming Quincy Addams Wagstaff. Surprising to learn that this embodiment of effete academicism was a hero of three wars. A perennial bit player, his career does boast a few characters with names, one of them quite Marxian: Otto K. Bullwinkle in IF I HAD A MILLION. Fiona was much more wide awake than I during this screening, and spotted that, after being apparently annihilated by Groucho’s opening salvo, the unflappable ex-prez retires to his seat and quietly reads a book all through Groucho’s big number.

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Barlow is the only beardless professor at Huxley College, it seems. Nice the way the staff all get mesmerised by Groucho’s song into playing the role of a minstrel chorus. Similar to the way Bugs Bunny, leaping onto Elmer Fudd’s back, convinces him instantly that he’s a donkey (and Bugs was in large part modelled on Groucho).

Zeppo appears, to no particular effect this time, though we note his strong singing voice. But I’d rather hear Groucho’s quavering warble. Casting Zeppo as Groucho’s son (“Hello, old-timer!”) is an amusing idea, and using Z. as a sort of romantic interest substitute (sex pablum) is economical. Young Z. also delivers the expositional info-dump about football that sets the “narrative” in motion. We’re off!

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Oh, before we leave — the Marxes’ career sometimes looks like one long, successful attempt to prove wrong that thing Rosalind Russell supposedly said — “You can’t do comedy on big sets.” Here, there are no grand art deco constructs, except the opening scene, which is no more impressive than it needs to be. Cost-cutting at Paramount?

Director/traffic cop Norman Z. McLeod begins each sequence with a sign so we know where we are. Probably Pauline Kael would attribute this rigorous visual storytelling to the uncredited script contribution by Herman J. Mankiewicz. Next up is the Elm Street speakeasy where villain David Landau is recruiting two professional ball players for the rival college’s team. Since I started thinking about this stuff I’ve noticed how grating and uncharismatic the bad guys in Marx films tend to be. I’m now ready to launch my Unified Theory: since the Marx Bros’ characters are themselves larcenous, lustful and conniving, it’s necessary for the baddies to distinguish themselves by adding to those qualities a positive charmlessness. The overall message of every Marx Bros film can be taken to be that villainy is fine if accomplished with wit and panache.

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The field of Marxian antagonists is crowded with displeasing performers. Why, Louis “the walking fontanelle” Calhern stands out in such company as uniquely compelling and gracious. Still, among this throng of snarling plug-uglies and decaying louts who lack even a moustache to twirl, David Landau as Jennings stands out as uniquely unpleasant. His signature role, completed the same year as H.F., is the brutal warden in I AM A FUGITIVE FROM A CHAIN GANG. What a face. I’d say it’s the kind of face you’d like to hit, only I think we’d all be afraid of losing our fist in its putty-like recesses.

I used to be convinced this was Martin Landau’s dad. I think I just assumed there couldn’t be two Landaus. It only just struck me to check. I say it for the record: they are no relation. So shaken am I by this revelation, I had to look up Osgood Perkins to make sure of him. It’s OK: he was indeed Anthony’s poppa.

With Landau are Nat Pendleton, another charmer, and James Pierce, the most handsome of the bunch but equally lacking in the mystery quality known as Appeal. He was married to the daughter of Edgar Rice Burroughs, it seems, but despite this never got to insinuate his hulking frame into the role of Tarzan (see comments). His best role, going by the name alone, is Griswell Henchman in something called THE LIGHTNING EXPRESS. I like to think this is not a mere description, but the actual character’s birth name.

Pendleton (OK, I checked: not the father of Austin Pendleton) was a wrestling champ, but his uncle was an actor for Griffith. He also co-wrote one movie, DECEPTION, made this same year, and also co-starring Thelma Todd, who we’re about to meet. Inexplicably, he failed to write himself the lead role. Nat, of course, got second helpings of the Marx treatment as the strongman in AT THE CIRCUS. His swan song was opposite Abbot & Costello, cementing his stooge status, and twenty years later he was fatally attacked by his own heart two days after I was born, so I can say with confidence that I am not his reincarnation.

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Also among those gathered: Vince Barnett, a very funny man with nothing to do. Harpo is about to appear, baffling a series of characters who all look like the same actor, but aren’t. This clone effect is enhanced when director McLeod incompetently cuts around a payphone customer, making it seem like he’s two different guys. The payphone man is regular bit-player Sid Saylor, the hobo harpo hands a cup of coffee to is an authentic Forgotten Man — history, and the IMDb, do not record his identity.

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Theresa Harris sighting! Playing a maid, as usual, although this time she has a name, Laura. Of her ninety listed roles on the IMDb, thirty-four are explicitly identified as maids, but I imagine characters with names like “Clementine” and “Bessie Mae” MIGHT also be maids. Still, my heart is always brightened by a Theresa Harris appearance.

Then we finally get La Todd. Thelma wears a series of racy costumes in this, starting with the negligee in which she entertains Zeppo for the unavoidable crooning display. He feeds her lomticks of toast while literally singing “I Love You” — this HKalmar/Ruby tune is the film’s endlessly reprised bit, performed by each brother in turn. Is it OK to discuss Zeppo here? I sometimes consider him an honorary non-Marx Brother, so it should be fair play to talk about him in these Marxless articles.

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Fiona suggests that Thelma’s beauty spot vanishes from scene to scene, like the cartoon horse at the beginning. Let’s see if she’s right.

Thelma had memorably gone hotcha! with Groucho in MONKEY BUSINESS and it’s a pleasure to have her back. An interesting career, alternating between low comedy with the Marxes and Laurel & Hardy and Charley Chase and a short-lived comedy pairing of her own with Patsy Kelly, and substantial roles in “straight” films. Thelma was tragically short-lived herself, her carbon monoxide death a subject of wild speculation to this day. Husband Roland West, director of THE BAT WHISPERS, is one named suspect. How she found time to get married and run “Thelma Todd’s Sidewalk Café” is a mystery too: 119 films in ten years.

Harpo, as a dog-catcher with a horse, is surrounded by animals, regularly producing cute specimens as mute punchlines to some remark by Chico. His horse has no name and the IMDb is uninformative on the subject. McLeod and his editor are almost in too much of a hurry to let us register the parrot and monkey on Harpo’s cart. Ben Taggart, a Central casting traffic cop, plays a traffic cop bamboozled by Harpo. McLeod should have considered making a Hitchcockian cameo in the role.

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Harpo also eats flowers, like Leos Carax’s recurring character, Merde. There may be a connection. Also: oatmeal from the horse’s feedbag (sprinkled with salt) and a zip-up banana.

Groucho’s desk is covered with walnuts, and I belatedly realize this may actually be the influence for the walnut-bedecked office in Bertolucci’s THE CONFORMIST. After all, both are 1930s tales of academia and corruption with a surrealistic edge. Flanking Groucho are E.H. Calvert (also a prolific director) and Edward LeSaint, swiftly disposed of, then we get Harpo burning books and then bringing in a seal, whose barking, wiggling presence immediately turns Groucho, Harpo and Chico into seals too. Suggestible fellows.

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Also worthy of remark: Wagstaff’s secretary, played woodenly by Sheila Bromley, delivering possibly the worst line readings of anyone in a Marxian film (“He’s waxing wrath”). And it doesn’t matter at all. Sheila turned into a perfectly good character actor. Her last role is Alan Rudolph’s disgraceful early exploitation film, BARN OF THE NAKED DEAD, in which they spell her name wrong. A shame.

Robert Greig turns up as a bearded tutor. The butler from SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS, he’s also the butler in ANIMAL CRACKERS. That was a proper role, whereas Greig is more suited to playing archetypes — butlers who embody their profession. He doesn’t suit his beard, that’s for sure. And I don’t like the pseudo-medical gibberish he’s spouting — if Groucho is going to denounce it as gibberish, it should feel like it actually has some abstruse meaning. We most recently saw Greig in John Cromwell’s SON OF FURY, playing a judge, and while a judge is not a butler, it proved to be within his range.

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Harpo produces a drawing of a horse. We’ve already seen him kiss his own horse, so the theme of Harpo as horselover, which climaxes in DUCK SOUP, is clearly established. Harpo later produces a piece of pin-up art showing a hefty vaudevillian lady, and there’s a suggestion that horses and women are interchangeable for Harpo, especially as he keeps sitting on women in class.

Harpo’s candle burning at both ends is, I think, my favourite Harpo prop. It fulfills all the requirements — it is funny in itself, it’s a punchline to someone else’s remark, it’s impossible that it could be stored in his raincoat (which is inexplicably tattered throughout), and for good measure it is in itself almost impossible.

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Thelma is back, minus her beauty spot. Fiona was right! “I keep thinking her tits are going to fall out of that dress,” she says, and again, she is right, though it doesn’t seem to quite happen on camera.

Through the miracle of bad continuity, Groucho’s chin is suddenly on Thelma’s shoulder, something the Red Queen does to Alice in Through the Looking Glass.

At other times, the continuity is perfect, pretty much proving that Mcleod is using multiple cameras, common during early sound pictures and a sensible idea when dealing with the disruptive Marxes — “It was a miracle if you could get all of them on a set at the same time,” recalled Buster Keaton.

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Chico’s grabbiness here is a LITTLE disturbing. On the whole, the Bros’ skirt-chasing hasn’t dated too badly — we don’t worry about what Harpo would do if he caught a girl. But Thelma’s decolletage is so exposing, and her performance relatively convincing by the standards of these things, so all the lunging feels a little unpleasant. Easier to pull off with Margaret Dumont.

Chico’s rendition of “Everyone Says I Love You” hits on the theme of insect life and exploits it thoroughly, before moving on to the adventures of “Christopher Columbo.” Good lyrics. Thelma’s reactions turn this into probably Chico’s most welcome, least interruptive musical number.

Mcleod’s “blocking” is functional, letting us see the Marxes, which is all that really matters, but it’s neither elegant nor convincing. He’s rather fond of the “washing line” composition, and sets things up so that Landau suddenly gets suspicious of Chico’s behaviour despite being positioned so he can’t see any of it.

Harpo’s harp solo is, as usual, a full stop, a grinding gear change the film struggles to survive.

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As a hormonal teen I was fascinated (yet frustrated) by the second appearance of Thelma’s negligee (the film IS cheap — customarily, the leading lady is entitled to a fresh outfit for every scene). Anyway, the lower half seems to be translucent, with no hint of underwear. But no hint of anything else, either. However, her mole has returned to her face, like a tiny black homing pigeon.

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Slightly stilted performance by a duck. I wasn’t immediately convinced. But this makes this not only the only Paramount film to justify its title with actual appearances by the title animal, but one that looks forward to a later title too. At the end of this brilliant sequence (in which Groucho refers to Paramount’s AN AMERICAN TRAGEDY while canoeing through probably the same body of water featured in Sternberg’s drama), the duck is somehow inside the canoe, but I bet only Fiona spotted it, so rushed is the fade-out. Theory: the Marxes probably broke character the second a scene was finished, leaving the editor no spare footage for optical transitions. Or else Thelma couldn’t swim…

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In the water, Thelma seems to be wearing lacy sleeves, which she was NOT wearing before falling in. Continuity in the Marx Bros universe is not only outrageously poor, it is often INEXPLICABLY poor.

Has her mole washed off?

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Another animal: Harpo’s surprise piglet. Harpo’s hat, which formerly said DOG-CATCHER on the front, has now been reversed and his new job title, KIDNAPPER, is listed.

Pendleton and Pierce’s bijou apartment seems all wrong. I couldn’t work out why. It’s an astonishingly shoddy-looking set, and maybe the in-character presence of sporting trophies is contributing to the air of it being assembled from whatever was lying loose in the property store. But I think the truly bum note is struck by the presence of SIX BOOKS on a shelf. I find it easier to believe in Harpo carrying as lit candle and a steaming cup of coffee inside his coat than in these thugs reading.

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Big football finish, about which I have nothing to say. We disbar all sporting activity here at Shadowplay. But I do like Thelma’s vamp outfit. MONKEY BUSINESS forgets she exists, and HORSE FEATHERS nearly does too, but at least she’s part of the crowd, and then gets to appear in the coda, which comes out of left field, to use what I believe is an old footballing expression.

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This coda, one realises only later (thanks to Shadowplayer Matthew Hahn) is supposed to fool us into thinking Thelma is marrying Zeppo, until the other brothers/father/strangers barge in. But McLeod, that genius, stages the action with the groom completely eclipsed, so the gag looks like G, H and C are marrying T right from the start. It’s possible Zeppo was occupied elsewhere that day, as we are told the brothers frequently were. But his presence for the film’s closing shot would seem to be essential…

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Three men piling on top of Thelma SHOULD be a bit disturbing as a final fade-out, but through the miracle of Marxian anarchy, somehow it’s fine.

 

 

 

 

Messing About in Boats

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 25, 2008 by dcairns

“You know, I haven’t been out in a boat since I saw AN AMERICAN TRAGEDY.” ~ Groucho Marx, HORSE FEATHERS.

Irving Pichel, left, plays a strong D.A. with a strange M.O.

Now, thanks to a marvellous man in in Kentucky, I too have seen Josef Von Sternberg’s 1931 film, which I have been simply ulceratingto get my hands on since around the time I saw my last Sternberg-Dietrich. And it’s a pretty good copy, too, recorded off what seems to be The Love Channel(the word LOVE appears in the bottom corner of the screen occasionally, and I don’t think Sternberg put it there, although ANYTHING’S POSSIBLE WITH THAT GUY).

The film had something of a chequered history, what with Murnau and Carl Mayer ripping off a chunk of the plot for SUNRISE (based on this and NOSFERATU, a case could be made for calling Murnau the cinema’s most brilliant plagiarist), Eisenstein writing a screenplay for Chaplin to produce (it never happened) and then Sternberg, on a break from Marlene Dietrich projects, making his film at Paramount, who were then promptly sued by the book’s author, Theodore Dreiser. Read all about it HERE.

Sternberg claims in his dryly hilarious autobiography Fun In A Chinese Laundry that Dreiser, upset that the film misrepresented the book, pointed out several outrageous changes in the movie, which Sternberg then showed to the court were actually faithful reproductions of scenes in the original novel. It seems quite possible.

Plotting a course…for MURDER!

Without having read any Dreiser (which, in a pre-Internet world might well disqualify me from writing anything at all about the movie, but hey, aren’t you lucky?), I get the impression that a great amount of incident has been retained from the book, which a more conventional, less faithful adaptation would have discarded. This results in an odd structure and odd pacing, with leading man Phillips Holmes (why “Phillips”, plural? Does he contain multitudes?) in particular barrelling through some amazingly on-the-nose lines. Long sentences are reeled off without pause, one after the other: people don’t make statements, they produce arguments followed by evidence, counter-arguments and conclusions, and whenever one speech ends, another character will barge in with some more. It’s quite a curious effect, and different from any of the familiar brands of “clunkiness” one might expect to find in an early talkie. Sternberg was a tireless experimenter, particularly with the properties of the new soundtrack, and was always finding new ways to make dialogue sound weird. Dietrich was a great help in this, of course, with her bizarre stresses and rhythms, and one only needs to look at SHANGHAI EXPRESS, where the entire cast was drilled to speak in the rhythms of a train engine, to see Sternberg’s peculiar mind at work.

Compare with SCARFACE, also shot by Lee Garmes. Hawks was always stealing from Sternberg! (Compare UNDERWORLD and RIO BRAVO opening scenes.)

One result of the compression of a fat book (I may not have read any Dreiser but I’ve held them in my hands and winced) into a tight 95 minutes is a certain brusqueness to the characterisation. People are always telling each other flat out what they feel, so subtext has no foothold and any actual acting is rendered redundant, since everything is already being expressed verbally.

Holmes makes the most of this by being as flat as possible, announcing his involvement in a hit-and-run accident to his mother as if he was giving her a recipe for crumbly nut roast while in a bit of a hurry. It makes for a fascinating viewing experience, and renders his character’s attraction to the opposite sex quite mysterious. Fiona, who found Holmes quite winning as a helpless sap in Howard Hawks’ THE CRIMINAL CODE, lost all patience with him here: “Why do all the women fancy him? He’s a BORING BASTARD! And he’s CRAP.”

“Women love a crap, boring bastard,” I told her.

Trees are important in this movie. See how many of them YOU can spot.

Not for nothing is Sternberg renowned as a great director of women, and the two contrasting female leads are radiantly photographed and allowed to be more interesting, although the script murders any real feeling of energy or depth. Sylvia Sydney uses her breathtaking smile to great advantage, though, and is so inherently adorable that she creates audience sympathy without any assistance from the film.

And Frances Dee is much more seductive than I’ve previously seen her. Hard to believe it’s the same actress in I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE. I guess that’s the effects of the Production Code for you. Also, a sign of Miss Dee’s versatility, and Sternberg’s famed ability to bring out the best, or baddest, in a female performer.

My favourite actors further down the cast list were Irving Pichel as the sneering D.A. (Pichel was also a director himself, but his immoderately reptilian performance here suggests a man not in full control of his faculties) and Charles Middleton as Holmes’ defense counsel, the Emperor Ming. I love the fact that most of Holmes’ cross-examination takes place while he’s sitting in a boat in the middle of the courtroom. I love the fact that his lawyer is Ming the Merciless. And I especially love how the two lawyers square off for a bout of fisticuffs in mid-trial, as if to settle the defendant’s guilt with bare-knuckle violence. The most powerful legal argument in the world: face-punching.

Ming for the defense.

Throughout the story, Sternberg provides helpful intertitles, silent movie fashion, to cover the narrative ellipses, some of which may come from the necessary book-to-film compression: “Summer”, “Late Autumn” etc, until the film starts to feel like a bunch of Ozu movies bolted together. But this is another opportunity for Sternberg to emphasise part of the film’s imagery: water. And trees again.

I love all the strangeness of early talkies. Early soundies are great too — where they have music and FX but people still communicate by intertitles. And I go into raptures over PART-TALKIES, where a silent movie suddenly starts chattering away to itself, then randomly STOPS. Beautiful.

Of course, Sternberg being the perverse individualist he was (read his book, it’s like a Rosetta Stone for the films, an illuminating — yet still mysterious — experience unlike any film autobiography I’ve ever encountered) is obviously responsible for a lot of the film’s strange power. It’s not just a function of the film’s age. The strangest thing perhaps is that it DOES have power. The slow plod of the unfolding narrative, the hinged wooden movements of the characters, the utter lack of sympathy engendered for the protagonist, none of these things prevent it having a weird magic. Apart from some scenes of luminously lovely cinematography (from the mighty Lee Garmes, who shot three of Sternberg’s Dietrich movies), there’s also the really soul-freezing moment when the sentence is read out in court and Holmes reacts to the news of his impending execution…