Archive for Marx Bros

Happy Without Love

Posted in Dance, FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 2, 2016 by dcairns

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So, for some time I’ve been writing about the Marx Bros films, writing around the Bros themselves and focussing on supporting players, scenery etc. For The Late Show, this left me several options — I could write about A NIGHT IN CASABLANCA, the last film in which all three brothers appeared in the same frame, or about THE STORY OF MANKIND, the last film to feature all three brothers (albeit in separate scenes: blame anti-genius Irwin Allen for that bright idea). But I’m choosing to focus on LOVE HAPPY, which features Harpo, Chico and Groucho in that order, and allows the brothers to interact in pairs (although Groucho is never actually in the same shot as Chico, suspiciously enough).

As a Marx film, this one suits my purposes admirably, crammed as it is with other items of (slight) interest. The behind-the-scenes credits are interesting in themselves. For starters, it calls itself a Mary Pickford Production, though how hands-on was she? The director is David Miller, who had a long career with really only one distinguished film that I can see — but SUDDEN FEAR is a pretty good one to be remembered for, although Joan Crawford and Jack Palance are about as different from the Marx Bros as you could ask. Co-writer is Frank Tashlin, and though the film isn’t good enough to be called wholly Tashlinesque, there are a great many sequences that harken forward to his later work.

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Tashlin’s cowriter is Mac Benoff (me neither) but the IMDb ascribes no less than four uncredited subsidiary hacks to the project, including William “News on the March” Alland and no less than Ben Hecht. This can’t explain the scenario’s lacklustre qualities, unless Hecht was rewritten by Alland, but it does explain its incoherence (Chico affects not to know Harpo, then greets him as an old friend). Songwriter Ann Ronnell was probably responsible more for the musical content, while Harry D’Abadie D’Arrast had been an assistant to Chaplin so maybe they figured he’d be good at visual gags. And hey, it’s also Harry’s last screen credit. A last Film twice over. Harpo is credited with the idea.

Choreography is by Billy Daniels, longterm partner of Mitchell Leisen, and it’s pretty good. Which leads us to Vera-Ellen, Miss Turnstiles herself, who deserves to rank quite high among Marx Bros leading ladies, not for the acting scenes which are indifferently written and impossible to excel in, but her dancing is great and the Sadie Thompson number, in particular, passes muster as a decent musical interlude, something Marxian romps hadn’t exactly excelled in. Of course, one would prefer NO musical interludes if that led to more high-quality Marxian hi-jinks, but those are a touch thin on the ground here so one will take any entertainment one can get.

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The supporting cast is unusually strong. True, nominal leading man Paul Valentine is nothing much, but we get Ilona Massey, AKA Elsa Von Frankenstein as vamp, “wearing the pants of the dreaded cat woman,” as Groucho’s VO puts it. She has two henchmen, Alphonse and Hannibal, but her thick accent renders the latter as “Honeybar.” The former is Raymond Burr, bringing a welcome touch of film noir to come. A few years of henching and he’ll be set to be a mob boss in an Anthony Mann B-picture.

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Marion Hutton, Melville Cooper and Leon Belasco provide supporting comic action, and Burt Lancaster’s old circus sidekick Nick Cravat doubles Harpo in the numerous acrobatic stunt sequences. Eric Blore shows up for no reason and all too briefly. The filmmakers seem to have the idea that the Marxes need supporting clowns, when what they really need is second and third bananas. The absence of Margaret Dumont is felt. An apoplectic heavy like Sig Rumann or Louis Calhern (the walking fontanelle) would have gone a long way. Even the uncharismatic, grating bad guys of the MGM films would have been very useful.

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Best known of the supporting attractions is Marilyn Monroe, whose character comes from nowhere and vanishes whence she came, and exists only to give Groucho someone worth leering at and quipping over. Supposedly the producers gave Groucho his pick of three hopefuls for the role. “Are you kidding?” he is said to have said, implying that Marilyn was the shoe-in. In terms of looks and what Billy Wilder would call “flesh impact” (or Fleischeffekt), this is certainly true. Acting-wise, without a John Huston to support her, she seems a little uncertain in some line readings, but what the hell. Monroe and Groucho on-screen together is the movie’s raison d’être,

There are other highlights, though. I’ll post my favourite scene later.

An early bit with Burr and his fellow henchie roughing up Cooper is weirdly disturbing and unfunny — Frank Tashlin seems to have believed people getting beaten up by thugs was inherently amusing — see also HOLLYWOOD OR BUST. The protracted but intermittently interesting rooftop climax features a smoking billboard — shades of ARTISTS AND MODELS. Tashlin’s brushwork can also be detected in the surreal, cartoony use made of neon signs by Harpo, who at once point evinces the ability to teleport whenever the illumination blinks off. Salvador Dali wrote an unfilmed treatment for the Marxes, GIRAFFES ON HORSEBACK SALAD, which is a lot of ill-judged nonsense and proves he really didn’t understand what was going on in their films. Unable to follow the comic logic (which is pretty language-based, and Dali’s English was worse than Chico’s), he saw only chaos. That’s kind of what bits of this climax are like. Proper comedy cohesion is lacking.

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Harpo as Godzilla is an intriguing thought, though.

Still, while long stretches of this unfondly-remembered pic are eye-rollingly dull and unfunny, bits were a lot better than we remembered. With low enough expectations, the film can be pleasing. It’s like the logical next step down from THE BIG STORE, I guess. It’s like A NIGHT IN CASABLANCA never happened.

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.