Archive for Edward Buzzell

Newshounds

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 25, 2017 by dcairns

“Whatever made Eddie Buzzell think he could direct?” mused Groucho Marx, a thought captured by the eager pen of Steve Stoliar in his essential memoir Raised Eyebrows. Like it had been bothering Groucho for thirty-plus years since making AT THE CIRCUS and GO WEST and he finally had to give voice to it.

I’ve been more inclined to give Mr. Buzzell a pass — he did some OK films with some nice shots in them. But looking at the original LIBELED LADY, which Buzzell remade as EASY TO WED, does make me feel a bit less charitable. Neither film is great, both have enjoyable moments, but Buzzell’s tends to miss the joke a lot of the time.

(You can expect a lot of late-thirties / forties stuff for a while as James Harvey’s book Romantic Comedy causes me to look up films that have passed me by.)

Sleeves by Dolly Tree.

Of course, Jack Conway doesn’t have a huge directorial reputation either, but he knew his business, I reckon. And he has the unbeatable William Powell and Myrna Loy to work with instead of Esther Williams and Van Johnson, and Jean Harlow and Spencer Tracy in place of Lucille Ball and Keenan Wynn. And best of all, he doesn’t have Ben Blue anywhere his version. Hate is a very tiring emotion, so somebody please name a film in which Ben Blue wasn’t a repulsive, unfunny bore so I can let go of this hate for him which is eating my soul.

“I didn’t think Spencer Tracy could do this kind of fast-talking newspaper thing,” said Fiona early on.

“Well, he can talk fast. I don’t know how funny he’s going to be,” I pondered.

“Oh he’s not FUNNY,” clarified Fiona.

But he’s not too bad. Outclassed by Wm. Powell, of course.

“I*am* too funny!”

Buzzell got the help of Buster Keaton for his main bit of visual comedy in EASY TO WED, as he had done for GO WEST. Conway and Powell work it out alone, and their gags aren’t as smart but Powell’s playing is a joy. The main fun in this, though, apart from Dolly Tree’s outlandish costumes (she mainly runs amuck on Harlow) is Loy, introduced with her back to the camera but instantly recognizable, and instantly FUN. Esther Williams could certainly be fun, but being a swimmer rather than an actress, she wasn’t as resourceful at finding the fun.

On paper, everyone in this story is kind of awful. Spencer Tracy stands Harlow up at the altar then makes her marry Powell for business purposes. Powell is trying to frame Loy on an adultery rap to kill off her libel suit against his newspaper. Loy ought to be sympathetic, but she and dad Walter Connolly (Cecil Kellaway in the remake) are terribly rude to Powell, BEFORE they know what a rat he is.

As you’ve never seen them before

What we have is the offspring of the hardboiled newspaper comedy and the screwball — unlike in THE FRONT PAGE and its offspring, nothing is really at stake here (the wellbeing of a muckraking newspaper doesn’t count) but the abrasiveness owes more to Hecht & McCarthy’s acerbic spirit than to the usual romantic comedy. In fact, Maurine Dallas Watkins, one of the writers, wrote CHICAGO — she has a bigger claim to inventing the newspaper comedy than anyone else. As the movie gets away from the newsroom and into the haunts of the wealthy, it does introduce a little more sweetness, but as the rich folks have been introduced as pretty tough, deceitful and boorish, we carry a lot of that sour feeling with us.

In both versions, the jilted bride is harshly treated and seems the most blameless figure. There are the usual dumb blonde jokes — when Powell marries Loy while still married to Harlow, her keen legal mind pounces: “That’s arson!” But her being dumb or common doesn’t justify any of the loutish treatment she gets from Tracy and Powell. It’s a colossal relief when Myrna is nice to her (as Harvey points out, Loy is always sympathetic to other women, always projects a sense of companionship rather than judgement). Sympathy may be the enemy of drama, as Alexander Mackendrick warned, but if you build a drama without any bonds of sympathy between the characters… you’re David Mamet.

Loy – instantly recognizable ESPECIALLY when incognito.

What I’m saying is that this is a rare case where I disagree with James Harvey, who likes this film more than we did. But the good news is, the original CHICAGO is playing at Bo’ness. THAT one I like!

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Elephants, at your age

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

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Continuing our journey through the films of the Marx Bros, while ignoring, as much as possible, the Marx Bros.

AT THE CIRCUS is rather good — I have historically undervalued it. It seems to be somehow slightly less memorable than A NIGHT AT THE OPERA and A DAY AT THE RACES, the first two MGM Marx vehicles, without being any weaker in entertainment terms. There are some very good quips, the slapstick (to which Buster Keaton contributed his gag-writing skills) is often hilarious, Groucho gets one splendid number (Lydia the Tattooed Lady) and a couple of terrific set-piece scenes.

As the movie opens, we have the usual agonizing Wait for Groucho, during which romantic pseudo-leads Kenny Baker and Florence Rice make googly eyes and sing a dull song. As is standard, she is slightly more appealing than him. Kenny Baker lacks his famous namesake’s charisma and novelty size, but he has a squeaky Mickey Mouse voice which some might enjoy, I guess.

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Then there’s the usual gruff businessman villain, a Scooby Doo stock figure without charisma, but James Burke does have some really good moments when he’s being attacked by a gorilla in the climax.

About that gorilla — Fiona pointed out that MGM are drawing upon their earlier hit(s), THE UNHOLY THREE. They don’t have a female impersonator hawking mute parrots, but they have a “midget” and a strongman and a mighty jungle beast.

Jerry Maren/Marenghi plays Little Professor Atom (watch his best scene here), looking like a ten-year-old boy if it were not for his dapper pencil mustache. The same year he would join the Lollipop Guild as a munchkin in THE WIZARD OF OZ. The scene in his room, with miniature furniture (Antic Hay!) and endless cigars emerging from Chico’s vest is one of the film’s highlights. One of those great scenes where Chico’s stupidity assumes almost diabolical proportions.

Jerry is still alive! Well, he was only 19 in 1939.

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Goliath the strongman is Nat Pendleton, one of Shadowplay‘s favourite heavies, typecast as surly ruffian types. Here he’s initially unrecognizable in a Harpoesque wig and twirly moustache — he at least looks more like a strongman than that sagging hambone in FREAKS. (Sad to see none of the FREAKS ensemble turning up here — Koo Koo would have fitted right into a Marx Bros pic. But there is an appearance by a seal who looks a little like Prince Randian.) Pendleton’s brand of grating menace makes him an ideal Marxian antagonist: Chico and Harpo get another standout scene as they attempt to search his room while he’s sleeping in it. This heavy is a heavy sleeper. This one fizzles out at the very end, but not before building to ridiculous excess.

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Gibraltar the ape is another Shadowplay fave, make-up artist and part-time gorilla impersonator Charles Gemora, last seen gluing eyelids to Marlon Brando a few days back. Gibraltar makes the climax of the film the triumph it is (along with Fritz Feld’s irascible conductor, complete with pointy beard for Groucho to mock). He seems not so much dangerous as high-spirited, having a rare old time terrifying people on the flying trapeze, behaving not so much like a jungle beast as like a short Philipino makeup artist who’s just put on a gorilla costume and is having the time of his life.

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Rounding out the team of baddies is vamp Peerless Pauline, played by husky-voiced Eve Arden, who has a nice human fly act with Groucho, walking on the ceiling. In the MGM films, Groucho’s horndoggery is dialled down, so he can only flirt with vamps and with Margaret Dumont. Somehow he’s always had a Spider Sense that allows him to detect who the leading lady, so he can restrain his wolfishness when she’s around. (LOVE HAPPY, dismal as it is, at least allows him to resume his moth-eaten lechery with Marilyn Monroe as letch-magnet.)

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In shameless and senseless emulation of A DAY AT THE RACES, this movie also features a big production number where a lot of black people appear from nowhere to put on a show. But I quite like the Swingali number — director Edward Buzzell throws in some Dutch tilts for added vigour. The lyric “Is he man or maestro?” harkens back to DUCK SOUP. And he’s more resourceful at filming harp solos, which makes the Harpo interlude about 8% less dull than usual.

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Then there’s Dumont, an essential part of the team — more important than the discarded Zeppo, it seems. Giant crane shot at her party — Rosalind Russell supposedly said you can’t do comedy on big sets but Mags makes a chump out of her here. Amidst all the cruelty, it seems a shame that, after her Mrs. Dewksbury has shed her pretensions and settled down to enjoy the big top entertainment (there’s more damn SINGING in this circus than I recall being usual under the big top), she still has to be fired out of a cannon and swung on the trapeze in her bloomers. Overkill! She’s already loosened up. How loose do you want her?

Great image of the orchestra drifting out to sea makes the film’s ending even better — maybe the best Marxian fadeout?

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What happens after that fadeout? First violin leads a mutiny against the conductor while the brass section resorts to cannibalism?

Gone West

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , on June 3, 2016 by dcairns

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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.