Archive for Gregory Ratoff

Gone Wilde

Posted in FILM, literature, Politics, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 3, 2020 by dcairns

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Gregory Ratoff’s OSCAR WILDE starts strikingly, as a documentary almost, with footage of Wilde’s grave in Pere Lachaise, but then we realise that Wilde himself (impersonated by Robert Morley) is providing the voice-over, which takes us out of standard docu terrain.

But things get troublesome fast — in the very first scene after the credits, the audience at the premiere of Lady Windermere’s Fan laugh at straight lines from Wilde’s speech, and worse, greet actual zingers with stony silence or, equally cluelessly, with appreciative applause. One starts to feel that if the filmmakers can’t tell when Wilde is being funny, this could be a bumpy 94 mins.

This confusion by the sound editor and/or director continues apace, and I rapidly surmised that Ratoff simply wasn’t paying attention. Morley delivers the carefully assembled bot mots with typical lipsmacking relish (he’s all swollen up with apothegms), but discusses an offscreen character’s appearance without so much as glancing at her, adding clairvoyance to Wilde’s many talents.

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Morley and John Neville not only lack chemistry, but biology and basic physics, and seem to be acting in different films even when united in the same frame — my eye started scanning for any tell-tale signs of split-screen photography. There’s no honest human interaction until a hysterical and fantastically repulsive-looking actor called Stephen Dartnell enters and he and Morley really tear up the room. It’s a miracle — dramatic life is zapped into the movie as if by defibrillation. A posthumous Shadowplay Award (a solid gold statuette of Perc Helton wearing Mickey Mouse’s shorts and gloves) to Dartnell, a true thespian Lazarus.

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Morley is also good in the quieter moments, whenever he’s not quoting Oscar Wilde. The error here has been to go hire a marvelous type — as with Stephen Fry’s later (mis)casting, whereas Peter Finch playing the same part is just a good actor, which is what’s needed. Morley is a good actor when he remembers his job and stops trying to be the type.

The script is by Jo Eisinger — yes, that one), though he’s adapting various sources including the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations. This is the love that dare not speak its name without inverted commas, and that VO comes oiling again to get us across the trickier scenes without making the mistake of letting anyone write or act them.

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Ken Hughes’ THE TRIALS OF OSCAR WILDE opens at the same moment as the Ratoff film, the first night of Lady Windermere, but correctly shows Wilde as already acquainted with Lord Alfred Douglas (the Ratoff film can be forgiven for dramatic compression, especially as it’s telling the exact same story with half an hour less running-time).

Hughes has the huge advantage of a sexy Wilde and a sexy Bosie (John Fraser), and an authentically swivel-eyed raving lunatic Marquess of Queensberry in the form of his favourite actor, Lionel Jeffries. The tragedy of Wilde required not only Wilde’s hubristic exhibitionism, but the opposition of an unhinged homophobe to break through the protective inhibitions of society. If Oscar’s enemies had been merely normal Victorians, they would have been too repressed to make a scene.

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The effect of Jeffries’ glowering, seething domestic despot intruding into scenes of London nightlife is rather as if a 2001 ape-man had shambled into a drawing room comedy, chewing raw capybara meat. What’s also good is that you feel, somehow, what a deeply UNHAPPY man this Marquess is. He’s in a hell created from his own twisted sense of values.

The world of the film is strikingly conjured by designer Ken Adam and cinematographer Ted Moore (with Nic Roeg as operator), at times a little studio-bound and lacking detail, it’s true, but spectacular in setpieces like the Cafe Royal ~

The bigger budget, Technicolor (for Wilde’s green carnation) and Technirama (for Finch’s portly bay window) give this one unfair advantages over the Ratoff, but it’s the performances that make the real difference. In particular, when Finch finishes a witticism and waits for the laugh, his face says, not “Aren’t I witty?” as Morley’s does, but “Aren’t I adorable?”

In other words, he’s not on the nose, and he’s playing chords rather than a single note.

(Ken Hughes fell prey to the Morley effect in his OF HUMAN BONDAGE, where he cast Fat Bob as the insensitive doctor who gets the hero to expose his club foot in class. Rather than play the thing drily, inhumanly, as in the 1934 version, Morley can’t resist going for gloating sadism. A great screen presence, but one who perhaps needed the guidance of a superior intelligence.)

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Hughes also has the advantage having amassed a bit of a stock company over the preceding few years, several of whom, like Jeffries, turn up here — James Booth is very good value as the blackmailer. The bitter irony is that Ratoff had worked frequently with an actor who would have been a quite incredible choice for Wilde if he’d lived, and if he’d had the nerve to do it: imagine Tyrone Power in the part!

Confused punters who saw both these films when they opened in May 1960 perhaps wondered how it was that Wilde scares off a blackmailer by personating a Scotland Yard detective in one version, and pays off the chap and takes him to dinner in the other.

My late friend Lawrie insisted, obscurely, that Ken Hughes was “the filthiest man I ever met,” which might give him an edge with this material, but of course it’s 1960 and sexual intercourse, qua Larkin, has not yet begun. And the Great British Period movie, and the Hollywood form to which it’s beholden, are alike slaves to good taste. There is nothing so vulgar as good taste.

Both versions are quite happy to fold in apocrypha, though if you’re going to have Queensberry present his cabbage, you have no business correcting his spelling, as both movies do. The fact that he wrote “somdomite” is grimly funny and makes him an even more horrible clown. It also means that the fellow in the Ratoff who immediately reaches for his dictionary would have a lot of trouble finding what he’s looking for. (And he looks in the exact MIDDLE, where he’d be more like to find “marsupial” or “mudlark” — and the designer has seemingly pasted his definition right into the middle of the entry for “soft”. Most odd.)

In both films, the trials are salutary: “Everything gets better when the good actors come on,” as a friend puts it. Ratoff has Ralph Richardson, and Morley rises to meet him. Hughes brings in James Mason in the same role, and Mason plays it with a pretty good Irish accent, distinct from his one in the THE RECKLESS MOMENT — sheer bravura, since Finch isn’t bothering to sound Irish at all. Alexander Knox and Nigel Patrick take the less showy role of Wilde’s lawyer in the respective versions.

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Interesting to note that Richardson the stage actor plays it like a movie star would — he is utterly himself, bringing all his characteristics as an actor to bear on the part, whereas Mason, the movie star, gives a full-on character performance. Both are terrific value and seem very dangerous.

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In the trials, of course, there’s no reason to amplify the drama or shoehorn in epigrams because the actual situations and dialogue are so extraordinary.

The second trial doesn’t bother with guest stars but allows Finch to shine in his big moment, and Nigel Patrick gets a superb moment of acting when he rounds off his closing statement — and then looks in the jury’s eyes and he’s like oh fuck.

Ratoff just shoots coverage at the trial whereas Hughes has cinematic ideas. BUT when Wilde makes his fatal mistake (arguably ALL of his witticisms were mistakes — juries apparently don’t like clever witnesses) and says he didn’t kiss a young man because he was ugly, Ratoff’s actors and editor take off for the moon with an extraordinary bit of overlapping interrogation-and-fluster. Really remarkable. Puts me in mind of the blackmail scene in CROSS OF IRON. The trial transcript is presumably the source for this apparent improv, where it says The witness began several answers almost inarticulately, and none of them he finished. Carson’s repeated sharply: “Why? Why? Why did you add that?”

The emotional highlight might actually be this guy (below), Wilde’s butler (Ian Fleming, no, not that one), with the face of a boiled sheep, tearing up as Wilde is arrested. Everyone else is so stiffly upper-lipped, a burst of actual feeling is very effective. Give him an extra five quid. 

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Morley’s son Wilton (the one who’s not Sheridan) comes toddling in as one of Wilde’s sons (why not have both, since Morley had two? it can’t have been connected to acting talent). He’s an extraordinary-looking creature and his performance puts me in mind of the clockwork doll in DEEP RED. Hughes scores again with a scene of Finch reading The Happy Prince at bedtime — it’s very Hushabye Mountain.

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Again, on “the love that dare not speak its name,” the emotional high point of Wilde’s prosecution, Finch scores over Morley with a devastating performance. Morley feels like he’s been given a note by his director. Just when you need Ratoff to go back to sleep, he perks up and sticks his oar in.

Both versions omit any of the hard labour Wilde was sentenced to, which I think is leaving out something of significance, since it virtually killed the man. Hughes (and Ken Adam) does give us a hellish visiting room with the prisoners cruelly separated from their loved ones by barriers.

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There’s a good, simply-played sequence of Dennis Price (as Robbie) greeting Wilde at the prison gate, and another in Paris, which Ratoff and his script then stomp all over by having Wilde LAUGH INSANELY. But I dig the pull-back from Wilde followed by matching pull-back from his grave.

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John Fraser, inappropriately quiffed, benefits from a more complex Bosie to play — he’s sympathetic in his dealings with his awful dad, and beastly in his bratty bullying of Wilde. And, while Hughes overstresses things in a very Hughesian way (which Ken Russell might have gotten away with) in the aftermath of the trial — Wilde’s grandson has ridiculed the idea of Constance Wilde presenting Oscar with his green carnation at the prison gates  — Hughes has had the sharp idea of excerpting The Ballad of Reading Gaol and applying the “each man kills the thing he loves” to Bosie at the film’s end, which, helped along by Ron Goodwin’s emotive score, ends the thing with some power.

Hughes 4 / Ratoff 2.

OSCAR WILDE stars Mycroft Holmes; Sherlock Holmes; the Supreme Being; Ann Pornick (as a woman); Hector Snipe; Woodrow Wilson; Mr. Grimsdale; Flimnap; George Barbor – Dentist; and Poseidon.

THE TRIALS OF OSCAR WILDE stars Howard Beale; the woman in a dressing gown; Captain Nemo; Professor Jerusalem Webster Stiles; Prof. Joseph Cavor; Prince Alfonso; Mrs. Baines; Julia Martineau; Pvt. Henry Hook; Ned Cotterill; Dr. Watson; Mr. Blunden; and David Livingston, I presume.

Corking Screwballs

Posted in FILM, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 6, 2017 by dcairns

We’re deep in screwball country. Has it been a week already?

Not everything rates a post of its own though. Here’s some I don’t quite have enough to say about.

You can’t launch into BRINGING UP BABY unless you’re bringing something new to the party, and I don’t think I am. I thought I might be able to until I saw it again — some insight into why it flopped in 1939.

You see, as a youngster I had an abortive viewing experience with this one, tuning out after the golf course and restaurant scenes, finding the whole thing annoying. But I’d since viewed most of the later stuff and, correctly, found it very funny. So my theory was that Hepburn’s character is too irritating in the first scenes, which seemed interminable as a result. Audiences, naturally starting at the beginning, may have become irate before the fun really started.

But this time, I felt no annoyance at all. So the opening scenes, less that twenty minutes in reality, sailed by, and also made me laugh a lot. It’s true that we haven’t met the amazing supporting cast yet, who enhance it so much (I’m coming to a new appreciation of Charles Ruggles — along with his brother, Wesley), and MAYBE the ripping of Hepburn’s skirt isn’t quite the right gag for her particular character? But really, quibbles.

Two things are really hard to frame-grab, and for the same reason — Grant-Hepburn by-play, and George playing with Baby. Too fast!

(This thing of getting annoyed by comedy — a friend had it with Laurel & Hardy, where he would get frustrated that they couldn’t solve their simple problems, the solutions were so easy and the accidents so inevitable. As a kid I also got it with the Mr. Muckle scene in IT’S A GIFT, too. The thing that has in common with Grant & Hepburn, I guess, is a character too timid to really forcefully point out what’s wrong with the situation he’s stuck in. Though Grant really tries, bless him.)

So I had a great time with BRINGING UP BABY, but not much to say about it. Apart from the above.

FORSAKING ALL OTHERS is a good W.S. Van Dyke minor screwball with Joan Crawford (who made a surprising number of these) and a trio of wacky male friends, Robert Montgomery, Clark Gable and the excellent Charles Butterworth (like Ruggles, a stand-out in LOVE ME TONIGHT). No prizes for guessing who gets the girl.

A risky plot — Montgomery has to behave like a cad without quite becoming the heavy — Gable spends the whole film not confessing his love — Butterworth is just light relief, droning helpless irrelevancies. Someone mentions a fan dance: “Oh, I saw a girl do that once with electric fans — it was horrible.” It begins with a wedding so there’s a reason for everyone to be drinking and in tuxedos and gowns and ELATED — James Harvey’s favourite word. Montgomery stands Joan up at the altar and runs off with another girl, but realizes it’s a mistake. He’s stuck with Frances Drake, who is a Gail Patrick type Other Girl — worse, she’s the one character in the film who doesn’t know she’s in a screwball comedy. She can’t understand why everyone is so bloody silly — it’s most annoying.

Her sullen effect is magical — she does kind of make you want Montgomery to have a chance with Joan again, even though you want, really, for him to wind up with egg on his face and for Joan to get Clark. Guess what?

A great screwball encapsulation — Gable, back from Spain, embraces Billie Burke and they cry each others’ names in joy. Then he crosses the room without her, throws open his arms — and they do it again. Why not, if it was good the first time?

I LOVE YOU AGAIN is the dream team of William Powell and Myrna Loy. (We also rewatched THE THIN MAN — nothing fresh to report but see here.) This one is an amnesia caper — boring skinflint Powell gets a knock on the head and realizes he’s actually a daring con artist. During his previous fugue state (result of a previous occiputal clonk) he’s married Loy, and she’s had time to become thoroughly bored with the man he previously was. Powell falls in love with her at (sort of) first sight, and has to convince her he’s changed — in the right way. A weird kind of plot — hardboiled comedy hand Maurine Dallas Watkins (author of the original play Chicago, a key work in the tough comedy genre) was involved. Frank McHugh and Edmund Lowe are along for the ride.

DOUBLE WEDDING, from grumpy old Richard Thorpe, is equally good, if less emotional. Businesswoman Loy is attracted to Bohemian Powell but can’t admit it. VERY funny supporting perf from reluctant Boho John Beal, clearly the squarest thing on two legs. “Aw, why do Bohemians have to stay up all night?” he grouches, a petulant child. A shame his talent for ridiculousness wasn’t exploited elsewhere.

THE EX-MRS. BRADFORD pairs William Powell with Jean Arthur, which would work great if what they were given to do suited them. He’s fine, giving a great line reading — “INT-olerable!” — but in this THIN MAN knock-off mystery, she’s required to be manipulative, klutzy, dizzy — all things we don’t really want from the sensible Miss Arthur, whether she can do them or not.

You notice, with the MANY imitations of THE THIN MAN, any variation from the standard pairing tends to be a let-down. Inexplicable, Nick & Nora never fight, never misunderstand each other, and while she’s an heiress not a professional sleuth and so isn’t some improbably detecting genius, there aren’t really any jokes about her being out of her depth, either. Though fights, misunderstandings and struggles with unfamiliar problems are all perfectly sound dramatic fodder, they’re simply surplus to requirements when you have Powell & Loy or this kind of teaming. That, ultimately, is why TEMB disappoints, and why it’s hard to even remember who Powell’s partner is — and she’s only one of the greatest screwball stars of all time.

(All three of the above rely a bit too much on clonking Powell on the head multiple times, but at least in ILYA it’s central to the plot.)

Bingeing on Bill Powell, we rewatched MY MAN GODFREY, which of course we love but which bothered Fiona for the same reason as last time — the screwy family all get redemptive arcs, ESPECIALLY Gail Patrick who you go from despising to kind of loving in one scene. But Lombard is the same spoilt child she was at the beginning. I decided not to let it bother me, because she’s still Lombard. And La Cava films always have some irritation or discomfort at the end — it’s not a flaw, it’s a TRAIT. Rough with the smooth.

If you know La Cava you probably know this and BED OF ROSES, STAGE DOOR, THE HALF-NAKED TRUTH. I recommend FIFTH AVENUE GIRL, SHE MARRIED HER BOSS, UNFINISHED BUSINESS. I still have lots to see, but they’re outside the screwball domain.

THE AMAZING MR WILLIAMS has crime-solver Melvyn Douglas forever standing up Joan Blondell (so he’s a sap). It’s a little annoying but has plenty of invention — not one case to solve but a succession. Near the end, Blondell goes on the case herself and it gives the film just the boost it’s needed, a little like when Theodora actually goes wild in THEODORA GOES WILD. Old movies get virtue points for their moments of feminism — but screwball seems to DEMAND to have a woman throw off the shackles of society and blow a few male minds.

The ultimate glamour shot — Joan’s Deputy Sheriff badge, which she can’t keep from admiring, distracting her from Melvyn on their wedding night.

MURDER IN THE PRIVATE CAR stars Charles Ruggles, that central screwball supporting player, as a “deflector” — rather than detecting crimes after they happen, he deflects them before they happen. It’s nice to see a second banana promoted to a kind of superhero role, schtick intact.

This utter B-picture has charm galore, with the patented Ruggles dither partnered by the more abrasive but still cute Una Merkel, and Mary Carlisle, who is the last surviving Wampas Baby Star (Hello, Mary, you centenarian auto-Googler, you! Who else has spoken Preston Sturges’ words — in HOTEL HAYWIRE — and still walks the earth? Good work!).

Good flakey lines — when a cab driver wants to bail on Ruggles, our hero protests, “No, stick around. I like you. You’re refreshing.”

THE MOON’S OUR HOME is full of eccentricity and invention and disrespectfulness, but maybe because of Dorothy Parker’s input, lacking in charm — Parker was not sufficiently a romantic to really get us to invest in the central couple, who are pretty horrible — bratty writer Henry Fonda and bratty actress Margaret Sullavan (her regular tantrums in the movie don’t suit her style, though they seem to have been a major part of her real-life temperament and her real-life marriage to Hank). But there’s clever stuff including a faux-split-screen where we can see into the couple’s adjoining railway compartments before they’ve met, their dialogue with respective traveling companions bouncing off each other to form a revealing fold-in conversation. Also, as in THE LADY EVE, Fonda is tormented by perfume…

Fiona, a dedicated fumehead, was impressed by the tracking shot following the scent’s progress towards the Fonda nostrils, like something from OUTBREAK.

CAFÉ METROPOLE has skilled farceurs Adolphe Menjou and Gregory Ratoff (who also wrote) but it stars Tyrone Power and Loretta Young — consequently it never quite takes flight. The two, lovely to look at, don’t have the speed, bite or lightness to let the comedy take flight, and together they’re in nearly every scene. Veteran director Edward H. Griffith seems to be encouraging even Menjou to play it slack. There’s one scene, near the end, where suddenly Loretta is in a hysterical rage, and the very funny Helen Westley is involved, and it’s too much, but it’s much closer to the pitch the whole film should have been at. There’s no sensible reason for the sudden frenzy, so it just seems like a lack of control. James Harvey seems to be right about Twentieth Century Fox — they didn’t have the right stars, and so the good films Gregory Ratoff might have made in the screwball style never came together. A shame, because this one has a very nice plot, and Power’s entrance, drunk at his table in the posh restaurant, demanding to be brought a roast eagle, is the right kind of business.

 

IT’S A WONDERFUL WORLD is entertaining if unoriginal — I liked it better than Fiona did. It’s a Hitchcockian chase thriller done in screwball mode, with detective Jimmy Stewart reluctantly paired with poetess Claudette Colbert (and at one point handcuffed together, as in THE 39 STEPS). There’s some quite inventive situations, but somehow they don’t reach critical mass and convince you that you’re watching something you haven’t seen before, and the central relationship doesn’t quite warm up enough, though Ben Hecht restrains his sexism, channeling it into Stewart’s character and then forcing him to overcome it. Which is nice.

 

THE GILDED LILY from the TRUE CONFESSION team of director Wesley Ruggles and writer Claude “Buttercake” Binyon. Curiously likable and engaging despite an almost total absence of funny lines or situations. A good part of this is down to Claudette Colbert being supported by Fred MacMurray and Ray Milland, who give you a nice variety of lightweight, breezy charm. A funny drink-ordering scene, and Colbert’s night-club act, where she simply walks around narrating her inability to remember her song, and her inability to really sing the bits she does remember. As often with Hollywood comedies, this is marred by the fact that the night club audience is supposed to find it implausibly hilarious, and their laughter is so far ahead of ours that it becomes grating and unbelievable. But Colbert — whose appeal Harvey equates to her straightforwardness and honesty — is the right person to do this, for sure.

The same writer-director team brought us TOO MANY HUSBANDS, from a play by that, er, master of screwball, Somerset Maugham. Jean Arthur marries Melvyn Douglas while Fred MacMurray is lost at sea, and the return of husband no. 1 provokes comic chaos. Or at least discomfort. The trio all prove wonderful at evoking different levels of embarrassment, confusion, anger… and then Arthur starts looking like the cat who’s got the cream.

LOTS of gay stuff, along with the expected troilism gags, when the husbands are forced to spend the night together in the frilly spare room (the only decent solution, until this can be straightened out), most of it MacMurray taunting Douglas, but it all gets surprisingly near the knuckle — and what a knuckle! Too bad they can’t sort it out in a satisfactory way — having enjoyed the upsetting of societal norms, we don’t WANT a conventional resolution, but as a comic “problem play” we still require a resolution of some kind. The ending feels like it goes on a scene too long, even though it deserves points for spectacularly doing what the Hays Code specifically prohibits — rendering marriage ridiculous.

Buttercake Binyon, quoted in The Screwball Comedy Films  by Duane Byrge & Robert Milton Miller ~

“Writing for motion pictures is so simple, and the reward is so great, that one wonders why no more than several hundred persons have chosen it over cab-driving as a career. Of course, it is admitted that a cab driver meets more interesting people, but a motion picture writer may work for good pay during the day and pretend to meet interesting people at night.

Everyone knows that in the average picture a boy will meet a girl, and they will fall in love, have a dilly of a spat, then become reconciled. Why doesn’t everybody write it? Is it simply laziness on their part? The weekly pay ranges from over $100 a week to thousands. Just for that: just for putting on paper about the boy and the girl.”

Room Without Service

Posted in FILM, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 17, 2016 by dcairns

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Incredibly, I had never watched ROOM SERVICE (1938), with the Marx Bros and Lucille Ball and Ann Miller… and Fiona couldn’t remember even hearing of it. Everything I hd heard had suggested the film was disappointing and didn’t work. Everything I had heard was quite wrong.

A lot of the criticism was of the “based on a play, and it shows” variety. Well, Jesus, hadn’t these reviewers seen ANIMAL CRACKERS? The weird thing about ROOM SERVICE is, it’s based on a GOOD play — a well-structured farce that’s plausible, jauntily amoral and outrageous, and stuffed with good lines and business. The fact that the play wasn’t written for the Marx Bros is the remarkable thing, but Morrie Ryskind, the Bros’ most faithful scribe, adapted it so you’d never know.

My usual formula has been to talk about everything AROUND the Marx Bros, taking them as read, but this being an exceptional movie — their only film at RKO, also — some analysis is required. The Marx Bros are actually different in this one.

Groucho begins the film slower than we’ve seen him, which is probably a smooth calculation on his part to allow the farce to gather steam. It’s a little disconcerting, though: Groucho loses something slowed down… he loses his aggression. One doesn’t think of Groucho as aggressive because he’s also casual, but minus the ratatatat you realize it’s a vital part of his attitude. Casual attack — destroy the opponent before they have a chance to open their mouth, or establish whether they are in fact an opponent. The good thing is, as the play film progresses, you get used to this new Groucho, and also he starts to accelerate.

The story casts him as a theatrical producer on his uppers, desperately trying to avoid eviction from the White Way Hotel until he can close a deal to get backing for his dubious new production. This involves him in various shady or outright criminal acts, including the only time in his career as rogue that he actually becomes contemptible: bribing a waiter for food with the offer of a part in the show, then smugly announcing his intent to renege as soon as he’s replete with chow. You never dislike Groucho for any of his misdeeds, but this is vile. Fiona: “I wasn’t sure I even disliked him then, because he’s just saying his mood is variable, depending on how full his tummy is.”

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Chico is different too, though it’s subtler. His character is largely the same but he gets more deadpanning. He’s even more low-status than usual, threatened as he is with getting “dispossessed from the sidewalk.” He uses slowness well too — looking at the broken-down old waiter, he says “I could eat him raw,” in a horrifyingly cold way that’s hilarious. A scene where he and Groucho bamboozle a repo man must be the slowest scene they ever played together, and it’s FANTASTIC. ROOM SERVICE has little reputation because it’s so different from the other films — it isn’t anarchic, the motivations are clear and consistent and the Bros aren’t out just to cause chaos, they’re fighting to make a buck. But this is at least as consistent with their true, Paramount nature as their behaviour in the MGM films, where they have to be on the side of the angels.

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Harpo is Harpo, of course, Apart from the ill-hadvised sentiment in LOVE HAPPY (not looking forward to that one), Harpo never changes. But, like his brothers, he doesn’t chase girls in this one. The play just didn’t allow room for it. The difference is in the way Harpo is used — lots of background or edge-of-frame activity where he adds bonus comedy with his activity or reactions. Far more than in any other Marx film, the movie (directed by the seriously neglected William A. Seiter, who also did great work with Laurel & Hardy, Colleen Moore, umm, Wheeler & Woolsey and umm, Zasu Pitts) is happy to let two things happen at once, so that your eye can take in Harpo defying the laws of man and God while your ear appreciates Groucho’s deconstruction of logic and morality.

A word about Zeppo — though he’s not around, Zeppo brokered the deal, acquiring the play and setting it up at RKO in his new role as high-powered agent in exceptionally cool shades. Hooray for Zeppo!

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OK, let’s admit it, Lucille Ball is wasted in this: “Christine” has only plot functions to take care of, no comedy business hardly, and the script makes her complicit in Groucho’s fraudulence without giving her a clear attitude about it. She’s just helping the guy producing the play she hopes to star in and which she has invested her savings in. It’s briefly exciting to see her drag up as a nurse and get fully involved in the play-acting, and so her timing is exploited even if she isn’t getting gags or funny lines. It’s a taster of things to come. (She worked with Seiter again on LOVER COME BACK in 1946. Any good, at all?)

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Ann Miller was fifteen, with a fake birth certificate, and Lucille Ball engineered the younger woman’s entree into movies. OK, that sounds pretty bad. Ball was essentially a prostitute/escort in her early days, according to numerous reports. Miller spent her later years deflecting blame by denouncing Marilyn Monroe (“She was a whore”) and her early days going on dates with Louis B. Mayer with her mother as chaperone, which for some reason sounds worse than if mom wasn’t there. Maybe I have an unjustifiably low opinion of stage mothers. At any rate, Ann’s beau says “I just can’t picture you with a middle-aged man,” prompting me to do a spit-take. Bonus metatextual points for her aying “It’s just like a play!” and wandering in by accident — perhaps looking for her Aunt Minnie?

Miller doesn’t get to dance or show her legs, but hey, Chico and Harpo don’t get their musical interludes, so all is right with the world.

On to the stooges!

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Most screen-time is given to Frank Albertson (no, I didn’t recognise him from PSYCHO) as the naive young playwright. Impossible to believe his magnum opus is any good at all. But his hick doofus act is OK, he doesn’t (quite) wear out his welcome, and he’s the first Marx Bros leading man to justify his existence in comedy terms. Whereas most Marx films make at least a pretence at having them help out the young lovers, here the Bros’ alliance with the young hopeful is purely a marriage of convenience. and one gets the feeling Groucho would cheerfully sell him into sexual slavery if that turned out to be the best way to monetize his gullibility. As it is, there’s a vigorous stripping of the poor schmoe down to his BVD, in a scene which gives us the best idea yet, outside of some of the rougher Margaret Dumont routines, of what a Marx Bros gang-bang would look like. There, I’ve put that image in your heads and I’m leaving it there. I don’t want it. You can keep it.

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Albertson gives us a good “Eureka!” face, while Groucho simply rolls his eyes in the schmuck’s direction to show he thought of it first. The function of this kind of black farce is for Groucho and friends to be capable of any kind of crime, while the plot prevents them doing any major harm while they get what they want. The waiter and the young lovers and Lucille and her husband have to be okay in the end. It all works out far nicer than reality — the world is run by crooks, but fate helps out the little guy. Joe Orton would come along and remove the reassuring aspects. (“The ones that get away with it are the guilty. It’s the innocent who get it in the neck.”)

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McBride (left) and Dunstan (right), who I guess gave his name to hotel comedy DUNSTON CHECKS IN.

Next in line of screen time is villain Donald McBride, a hotel worker who isn’t really trying to do anything bad, just enforce the rules, but he is snarling, growly and obnoxious like most of the best Marx antagonists, so it’s OK to tear him to pieces, which they do. Even his few good qualities — his sanctimonious, but apparently genuine concern at the apparent deaths of two men — are pitilessly used to turn the tables on him. He’s dumb and doesn’t know it, so the only thing making this close to a fair fight is that the rules are on his side, society is on his side, he has the hotel staff to do his bidding, and the plot keeps making things harder for Groucho. Otherwise, no contest.

The constant bellowing of “Jumping butterballs!” is maybe a bit tiresome, but this stooge has his own stooge, called Gribble, and it’s very pleasant to hear him snarl the name. McBride is a skilled, if forceful farceur. He played a lot of cops, always outsmarted by Simon Templar or Charlie Chan or Nick and Nora Charles. You know the type.

Gribble is Cliff Dunstan, in hardly anything else. I liked his boxy head. He gets to be shoved around by Groucho AND Butterball guy, so you have to sympathise.

Alexander Asro also good as Russian waiter, his impassioned cry of “Hollywood!” constituting his biggest laugh. And the biggest laugh involving him is Groucho’s remark that plenty of other famous Russians started out stealing hotel food. “Gregory Ratoff… Ginger Rogervitch…”

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Hotel doctor is screen functionary Charles Halton, playing Dr. Glass (a very good Mai Zetterling film). Small roles for big directors, so you’ll know his face if not his name. Lots of Wyler, plus Ford, Capra, Kazan, Clair, Duvivier, Cukor. Abducted by the Marxes and left bound in the bathroom for much of the action, he nevertheless declares himself on their side when he hears the name of their wealthy backer.

Two good, strange players: (1) Philip Wood, who only played men called Simon, plays Simon Jenkins, the secretive backer’s representative. He explains that the backer wants his name kept out of it because he wants his girlfriend to have a small role in the production — which explains Ann Miller’s otherwise pointless presence in this movie. (2) Philip Loeb, the repo man, of the We Never Sleep company. “It’s nice to meet a man who doesn’t sleep,” remarks Groucho, pleasantly. Both these guys play it slow and gentle, which makes an interesting contrast with the frenetic business and hollering antagonists elsewhere. Lambs to the slaughter.

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There are also some good non-human characters, excluding Harpo. Chico’s stuffed moose head, to whom he is devoted, makes a ready-made cutaway. Strange how stuffed moose heads always look so happy with their lot. “I shot him myself and ate him up to the neck,” claims Chico.

A turkey is delivered by Harpo, and promptly turns animatronic so it can fly around the room while he chases it with a bat. The robot fowl is roughly as convincing as the bats in Hammer films. It puts me in mind of the great bird that snatches D.W. Griffith’s baby in RESCUED FROM AN EAGLE’S NEST. Has there ever been a bad film made with an unconvincing fake bird in it? I don’t think so.

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Finally there’s the love of Harpo’s life, who isn’t a horse this time, but is as disturbing as you could wish for.

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“Of course I like them a little bigger,” says Chico, looking genuinely depressed and sickened by the strange spectacle.