Archive for Groucho Marx

Cocoa Without the Nuts

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

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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 ~

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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.

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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).

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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.

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Bellhop straining not to laugh. Take One?

Big news here is Margaret Dumont and Kay Francis.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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.

 

Where Men Are Empty Overcoats (Business Without Monkeys)

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on March 30, 2016 by dcairns

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Like HORSE FEATHERS, MONKEY BUSINESS has no Margaret Dumont, but it does have Thelma Todd and it is one of the Marx Bros’ best films. While even the sublime DUCK SOUP spends long minutes (about four, maybe?) setting up its insubstantial plot (“and waiting for Groucho is agony”), this one gets to the brothers after a few seconds of stuffed-shirt exposition, and then we have to wait twenty minutes for anything resembling a plot at all to show its bashful face. This makes my life hard since I have sworn to write about the Marx Bros films while avoiding mentioning the Marx Bros, and this film has precious little non-Marxian action to speak of.

Fortunately it has Zeppo, who is an honorary non-Marx Bros on account of not being funny. While most of his roles cast him as a secretary or son to Groucho (which speaks of some kind of CHINATOWNesque family relations), here he’s an equal partner as stowaway, which means we can’t have the fun of Groucho mistreating him shamefully at every turn. Indeed Groucho and Chico get on pretty well too, partners in crime rather than competitors as is often the case. Even half of the brothers being hired as bodyguards and half as hitmen doesn’t cause any internecine disagreeableness.

That’s the plot out the way, but I was going to say that this film has Zeppo’s one funny moment on screen, swearing with a completely straight face that he is Maurice Chevalier, despire all evidence to the contrary. Apart from his unobtrusive good timing with Groucho, this may be the one bit of genetic evidence we have that Zeppo wasn’t swapped at birth. Of course, Zeppo could have been a great comedian but he never had anything to work with — no schtick of his own, and no gags — so we’ll never know.

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Kudos to Davison Clark as the customs official in one of Fiona’s favourite scenes (the others all involve Thelma Todd). Clark was able to jump from Marx Bros madness (he’s a finance minister in DUCK SOUP too) to the more rarified insanity of Von Sternberg melos, signifying a flexible, tolerant spirit.

The IMDb doesn’t seem to have identified the stuntman who does the great fall on the ship’s deck, but I wonder if he’s there because he’s also doubling for Chico? I can’t believe this is really Chico. If I were Chico, I wouldn’t be Chico for this shot.

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The movie has two rival gangsters, who aren’t very interesting, and two romantic interests, or three if we count the calf Harpo befriends in the final scene.

Speaking of the climax, this guy’s terrible, I think. He knows he’s in a comedy and is playing up to it. The best Marxian stooges are able to project an air of obliviousness so powerful that, in Margaret Dumont’s case, Grouch was able to claim it as genuine.

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Ruth Hall is cute, though her extremely tight marcel wave crenellations did give Fiona eyestrain. She gets a perfunctory romance with Zeppo, which fortunately wastes little screen time. Hall married cinematographer Lee Garmes and lived to be 93, and I say good for her.

Thelma Todd — beautiful, funny, tragic — is a delight as always, and seems to be enjoying the hell out of her scenes with Groucho They both independently announce their desire to ha-cha-cha-cha, so they are evidently soul-mates. Too bad she’s not in on the climax, but as she’s married to the bad guy there’s some uncertainty about what to do with her, I think. I want her to have a happy ending. I want her to ha-cha-cha-cha.

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