Archive for Groucho Marx

The Big Nothing

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 4, 2016 by dcairns


It’s all here in this image — the Marx Bros are behind bars. Everything is cluttered and unclear, with too many elements poorly organized, and a big empty space in the upper right. The title is slapped on top of Groucho. They can’t even find room for Harpo. This film is in trouble already.

THE BIG STORE is the second Marx Brothers film I suddenly realized existed, that I had never seen. The title came to me as I was nodding off one night, and in the morning I IMDb’d it and learned that yes, there was such a film. How can one Marx Bros fan, married to another Marx Bros fan, be so slack on such things? It’s not as if there anywhere near enough Marx Bros films in the world.


The supporting cast: mannequins. The leading lady has no head, and nothing below the waist. Margaret Dumont is a man. Dumbrille is a bust.

Sadly, TBS is no ROOM SERVICE. It’s the last film from the Bros’ MGM period, and is a very sloppy piece of writing. Again, the studio throws in big sets and lavish musical numbers, which were never really essential — though it helps to have a glossy backdrop for the boys to demolish, I guess. But the script is pretty bad, with few memorable lines, tons of padding, and lots of downright bad visual comedy — and this from the director credited with Buster Keaton’s COLLEGE and STEAMBOAT BILL JNR.


Groucho this time is a detective, (as he would be again in LOVE HAPPY) Wolf J. Flywheel , Chico is Ravelli and Harpo is Whacky. The recycling of names may suggest desperation (how hard can it be to come up with Grouchoesque names? Julius T. Hambone; Housely Q. Pinochle; Webster V. Grift; Morton P. Fingersmith; I’m not even trying here), and the plotting certainly does. Having selected a department store as setting, the army of writers struggle to integrate musical numbers, suspense, and comedy. The bland hero this time (Tony Martin) is a singer/songwriter who just wants to sell the store he’s inherited so he can open a conservatory, a project mooted in scene one and then basically forgotten about. A bunch of kids have been trained to play piano like Chico, a decent gag, and they’re all excited about the new conservatory: “New conservatory, new conseravatory,” they rhubarb unconvincingly. We’ll never see them again either.

Margaret Dumont is a beloved aunt, with no real role in the plot, but Groucho can romance her and annoy villain Douglas Dumbrille, which is of course essential. Dumbrille is repeating his shitheel role from A DAY AT THE RACES, but the movie has him spend an inordinate amount of time flying through the air, replace by a stand-in (or dangle-in). This movie has more wirework than a Shaw Bros wuxia. Dumbrille is joined by various colourless stooges, of which the best is Bradley Page, underplaying briskly. But he has no reason to be in the movie. The stooges multiply like rabbits, but unlike rabbits they never seem to do anything useful.


Dumbrille’s plot to cover up his cooking of the store’s books soon involves plans for kidnapping and murder: he even hints that he’ll off Margaret Dumont after marrying her. This is all de trop. It’s not really in keeping with the world of the department store.

Neither are the songs. Groucho gets the uninspired “Sing as you sell,” which affords pleasing bits for novelty acts Six Hits and a Miss, the Four Dreamers (no MGM Marx film is apparently complete without an embarrassing reference to cotton fields redolent with ante bellum slavery nostalgia) and best by far, Virginia O’Brien, the deadpan comedy singer. Tony Martin croons a ballad and then a bit of faux Gerswhin nonsense called Tenement Symphony, performed by orchestra and choir in the store as part of… what? The “ceremony” that accompanies his selling of the store. MGM musicals shouldn’t NEED lame naturalistic excuses for characters to burst into song.


Marion “blonde menace” Martin plays vamp, very briefly, but her vamp act consists of pretending to be a snooty music journalist. Are we outsmarting a vamp or deposing a snob? Does robbing a snob of dignity count when they’re only pretending to be a snob? And why bring her in for one skit only to forget about her?

Nat Perrin is credited with the story: he had a hand in HELLZAPOPPIN and contributed dialogue to DUCK SOUP, so I’m disinclined to blame him too much. but this is shoddy work by someone, probably a whole heap of someones. Writing visual gags for Harpo can’t be too hard, since he’s allowed to violate the laws of God and man, but he needs a sensible set of surroundings whose reality he can disrupt. Every time the movie requires him to do something, it throws in props that have no reason to be there. The usual deadly harp solo is performed in an eighteenth century room with mannequins in period garb: why does this room exist? When vases are smashed in a bit of slapstick, Dumbrille refers to them as “priceless antiques.” Why were they in a store? Why is there a moose head? Is it Chico’s from ROOM SERVICE, the one he “ate up to the neck”? What are THESE?


A few cameos of interest (discounting the physiognomic startle effect attendant on any appearance by Dewey Robinson). Clara Blandick, Auntie Em, from THE WIZARD OF OZ, turns up as a Tony Martin fan (believable). Silent star/director King Baggot is in there somewhere. Come to think of it, “King Baggot” would make a good name for a Groucho character. And the movie ends with Charles Lane, so good in TWENTIETH CENTURY, repossessing Groucho’s ancient car, a “gag” which never actually develops beyond the fact of a car being repossessed: not a gag at all, then.

Songwriter/producer Sid Kuller is probably a bad influence on the script, as is Ray Golden, another songwriter, and Hal Fimberg is the future creator of Derek Flint, so he doesn’t seem like the right kind of guy to have on a Marx picture. The IMDb says George Oppenheimer made uncredited contributions, and he had worked on the two best MGM Marx films, RACES and OPERA, but he was about to help end Garbo’s career with TWO-FACED WOMAN the following year.


The movie has more writers than it has Marx Brothers, which would be fine if they were fighting on the same side, but every MGM movie with the Bros. is something of a battlefield in which Thalberg’s idea of classy entertainment and Mayer’s idea of family values comes up against the very spirit of what the Marx Bros should be all about — chaos. In this movie, depressingly, MGM wins.

Room Without Service

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


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.”


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.


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!


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?)


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!


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.


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.”)


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…”


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.


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.


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.


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




Cocoa Without the Nuts

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 13, 2016 by dcairns


THE COCOANUTS, the Marx Bros’ first film. As is my custom, I’ll be looking at anything I can find of interest APART from the Marx Bros.

Like the dancing bellhops, above, and the Floridian beach musical number which opens the film, or better yet, the title sequence ~


It seems entirely appropriate that the Marxes’ debut opens in negative, as it’s going to reverse a lot of filmic conventions. The director is the gifted Robert Florey (with back-up from Joseph “who he” Santley), and he does his best to keep things moving despite the fact that this is a VERY earl talkie. His scheme is generally to hold a wide shot until breaking point, then perform a brief tracking movement to enliven the frame, then hold on the resulting fresh composition until breaking point, then do it again. It’s not exactly Eisenstein, or Sam Raimi, but it staves off rigor mortis.


Still, this time round the movie seemed lively enough. I first became aware of the movie’s problematic status via Leslie Halliwell’s column in the TV Times, where he cited this film as the movie he got the most requests for. He apologised for its absence from Channel 4’s (at that time) lively film schedule, saying there just wasn’t a decent print of it available. Eventually he yielded and screened an indecent print, which had super-crackly sound and variable picture. I still enjoyed the movie, but it seemed a world away from the subsequent Paramount classics.

I next saw THE COCOANUTS on VHS, a fuzzy release even for a tape, and can remember only laughing at one bit, Harpo’s repeated slow rise from the dinner table with sour expression (this had us on the floor all over again this time round).


Seeing the movie once more, with some bits of it looking and sounding almost pristine, a few key scenes dropping off into crackling blotchiness, I was able to appreciate it a lot more. ANIMAL CRACKERS is really a clone of the set-up here, with the aspiring architect replaced by an aspiring painter, the stolen jewels replaced by a stolen painting. The plot in this one makes more sense — that’s not necessarily a good thing, though.

The young lovers in Marx movies are always terrible, even if the actors involved aren’t terrible. Here, they’re terrible.

Oscar Shaw, gap-toothed and anglicized, might have made a pleasing foil for the brothers if he’d been cast as a chump/villain, and he gamely partakes of a good bit of pickpocketry with Harpo, but you can’t root for the guy. I know it takes ages to become an architect, but he’s about twenty years too old for his role, and shows it. As his rich girlfriend, Mary Eaton (GLORIFYING THE AMERICAN GIRL) is pretty weak and colourless. She can’t seem to differentiate the sad, solo version of her song (basically the film’s only melody, repeated ad infinitum, Irving Berlin apparently working to rule) from the happy duet.

Cyril Ring as Yates is first in the long tradition of grating, low-charisma baddies the Marxes can humiliate with impunity. Nobody’s a match for Louis “the walking Fontanelle” Calhern as Ambassador Trentino in DUCK SOUP, but the oily Ring is quite adequate. Bill Ruysdael is a hackneyed Irish cop, briefly coming into his demented own during the “I want my shirt” aria.


Bellhop straining not to laugh. Take One?

Big news here is Margaret Dumont and Kay Francis.


Dumont plays maybe her least sympathetic role, used more as a barrier to true love than as a target for Groucho. There IS some prime material here, more than a hint of pleasures to come, but you can’t help but compare it to later outings and find it less sustained and outrageous. Weirdly, I didn’t fancy her in this one, where she’s my age (ulp). Is it ANIMAL CRACKERS where she seems suddenly cute? Maybe because Mrs. Rittenhouse is a nicer character, and Margaret’s natural warmth and unexpected girlishness can come out more. Here, she wields a mean lorgnette and looks down her prow at people and does all the expected grande dame business — and then Groucho hits on her and the magic starts.

Suddenly realized that Groucho’s characters are divided between low-status bums like his failing hotelier here (played with suitable hotelier-than-thou attitude) and his horse doctor in A DAY AT THE RACES, and his exalted explorer Captain Spaulding in ANIMAL CRACKERS and his glorious leader Rufus T. Firefly in DUCK SOUP. The respected characters prove unexpectedly funnier, because it’s more incongruous and inexplicable that he should enjoy such status with a painted-on moustache, and because Dumont has to somehow fail to understand his insults when the plot requires her to adore him. It’s only really when Groucho is a heroic figure that he can enjoy the myth of Dumont not understanding that she’s in a comedy. Here, Mrs. Potter knows damn well that Hammer (an unsuitably bland name for a Groucho character) is a nogoodnik, and she knows when she’s been insulted.

Margaret actually stumbles over one line, an un-heard of thing, but neither of her two directors apparently could be bothered with a retake.


Kay Francis lisps appealingly and her liltingly tilting eyebrows, which seem to put her forehead in quotation marks, are a surprising attribute for a fiendish adventuress, the kind of role she didn’t often get to play. She’s a really horrible character, in fact, but such an agreeable presence that one tends to root for her over the heroes. There’s a slight sense that she’s too good for this material, and too genuinely dignified to support Harpo’s leg, which he very badly wants her to do, but because it’s a Marx Bros film and not, say, a Wheeler & Woolsey film, you don’t need to feel bad for her. I like Wheeler & Woolsey, but there’s a definite hierarchy, isn’t there?

Great props in this film. To avoid paper crackle ruining the sound, all the letters and documents are soaking wet. This adds great joy to their appearance, and should be revived as a technique even if it isn’t needed anymore. The blueprint in the “Why a duck?” scene is a particular stand-out, drooping like a flannel from Groucho’s fingers.


It’s amazing the thing doesn’t disintegrate in his hands. What is it, oilskin? I’m determined to make a wet document film before I die.

The two-headed director’s best touches — inventing Busby Berkeley with an aerial shot of dancers making floral patterns, and filming the bedroom farce bit from outside, set walls split-screening the action. A necessary solution to an inherently theatrical problem. Getting cinematic — i.e. editing — nearly destroys the coherence of the action.


On Channel 4 or on VHS, it would never have been apparent how radiantly lovely the last silvery images of the film are, the Paramount soft-focus glow in full effect. And then, cluelessly, the directors put their heads together and decide to finish on the awful young lovers instead of the brothers. I’m not making that mistake.