Archive for Marx Bros

The Wedding Marx

Posted in FILM, Sport with tags , , , , , , , , , on September 6, 2014 by dcairns

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For our anniversary, Fiona and I ate out and then decided to astonish the world by watching a movie. Yes, a year already. It seems to be lasting. Of course, we’d been together for twenty years before we got hitched. It’s a good system: a lot more marriages would last until death us do part if the couples waited until they were nearly dead before making it legal.

We considered various movies to watch for this special occasion — things that got us both interested in movies in the first place, like KING KONG and Ray Harryhausen, classic science fiction like FORBIDDEN PLANET and THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN, classic horror like FRANKENSTEIN etc. But in the end we plumped for the Marx Bros, and the one I proposed was HORSE FEATHERS (1932), just because we’d never watched it together. It’s the Paramount one without Margaret Dumont, which was why Fiona always chose a different one.

But HORSE FEATHERS is very good, even if it doesn’t have the Grande Dame herself. It has Thelma Todd, and it had been so long since I’d seen it that this time I recognised a lot more people, like Robert Greig, the butler from SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS, partially eclipsed by his beard, and Vince Barnett standing at a bar with no lines (somebody thought another comedian might come in handy), and Theresa Harris (as a maid, of course) and Nat Pendleton.

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If the faces hadn’t previously registered, the dialogue was mostly etched in memory. Groucho’s address to the college, his address to the class, the password routine, And Groucho’s perfect response to a threatened musical interlude from Chico, stepping up to the camera and telling us: “I’ve got to stay here, but there’s no reason you folks shouldn’t go out in the lobby until this thing blows over.” I actually like Chico’s recitals, it’s Harpo’s that make me tired.

Just watched a documentary on clowns produced by the estimable Lobster Films. It tells the story, at one point, of Harpo’s trip to the USSR. His baggage containing various pistols, daggers, prop bombs and sticks of dynamite (all part of the act) he was detained and interrogated by the Soviet police, a scenario for a play if ever I heard one (to be entitled So You Won’t Talk, Huh?)

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HORSE FEATHERS has a big slapstick football game climax. I hate sport. I am to sport what Richard Dawkins is to religion. And while I admire Keaton’s COLLEGE and Lloyd’s THE FRESHMAN, I don’t like the way the bookworm turns and beats the jocks at their own game. It isn’t realistic, and it’s a betrayal of their identity. So, although it isn’t so very funny, I quite like the way the Marxes just destroy the whole concept of a rues-based competitive sport, racing to the touch-line by chariot and producing a whole series of balls to raise their score.

Marx Bros films usually fizzle out, being predicated upon nothing and defying narrative structure, but this one has a good, if arbitrary ending, with all three brothers (Zeppo may be there, but he’s wisely framed out) marrying Thelma and then aggressively clambering aboard her as the Wedding March blasts out, applying to the rules of matrimony the same freeform approach taken to football.

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 The Marx Brothers Silver Screen Collection

Pretty Polygraph

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on July 29, 2013 by dcairns

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Wheeler and Woolsey electrocute Betty Grable in THE NITWITS. Actually, the sparks are from a home-made invention which forces the victim to tell the truth.

An interesting thing about the real life lie detector — it incorporates something called the systolic blood pressure test, invented by William Moulton Marston. This blood pressure measurement helps determine whether or not the testee is telling pork pies. Marston, in addition to being a psychologist and intrepid troilist, was also the creator of Wonder Woman, who has a lie detector of her own, her lassoo which forces snagged perpetrators to confess their sins. It’s not often that parallel careers and interests (Marston’s kinky side emerges vividly in his comic book writing) influence each other so clearly.

But never mind that. THE NITWITS is an RKO Wheeler & Woolsey comedy from 1935, directed by George Stevens. Although W&W betray more of a Marx Bros influence (while looking forward to Abbot & Costello), Stevens’ handling of the mock-thriller storyline often recalls his experience as a cinematographer on Laurel & Hardy shorts. But then he pulls out a lot of suave proto- noir effects for the last act.

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Whodunnit? Fred Keating is such an interesting performer one figures it must be him, but the movie also features Erik Rhodes, so it keeps you guessing.

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The wisecracks are pretty basic stuff (including one Groucho swipe) but the visual comedy is often excellent, with the boys visiting Grable at the prison wearing stilts so they can speak to her at a high window (they end up serenading a hoosegow full of felons, who join in as chorus) and a hectic climax with Willie Best and his stereotyped friends fleeing a fake spook, and some fairly inventive slapstick. Searching the list of credited and uncredited writers, I find the name of Al Boasberg, “the funniest guy in Hollywood,” who wrote gags for Keaton on THE GENERAL — I think he’s likely the fellow responsible for the best business in this one.

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This was Stevens’ last silly comedy vehicle — evidently somebody noticed it was better than it needed to be.

Max, Mon Amour

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on February 24, 2012 by dcairns

OK, so 7 YEARS BAD LUCK is an American film, but its writer-director-producer-star is Max Linder, who’s as French as you can get. He’s as French as the two men pushing a piano across a zebra crossing we saw yesterday. And they were very French.

Actually, having enjoyed the film hugely, I find I’d rather sample images than say too much about it…

Of course it introduces a version of the Mirror Scene, later borrowed by Leo McCarey for Charley Chase and then the Marx Brothers. The estimable David Kalat points out, in a DVD extra in the box set Becoming Charley Chase, that Chaplin did the first known screen version of two identical characters meeting and one thinking the other might be his reflection… then Charley Chase directed a Billy West short in which that shameless Chaplin imitator repeated the gag. But Linder’s is the first to use an actual empty mirror frame to provide real justification for the confusion.

Max sees his end approaching.

Frizotto the dog pays the price for jeopardising Max’s romantic plans.

The film starts out slow and purposeful, taking its time to milk the mirror gag for suspense (even though nothing’s really at stake in this version, you still bate your breath waiting for a slip-up by Max’s doppelganger) — then it goes hell for leather into a variety of loosely connected sequences, mainly revolving around Max trying to ride a train without a ticket. It’s not a masterpiece of structure by any means, and a chase into a zoo is thrown in to provide some kind of spurious climax… I’m glad of it, though, because it leads to some delirious images and gags —

Max, inexplicably, has no fear of lions, and lions love Max, so he gets into their cage to escape his pursuers (les cops). One intrepid flic dons medieval armour to go after Max, but by the time he’s inside the cage, our hero has slipped away. More chasing, and a brief cutaway to the cop’s armour lying empty on the floor of the lion cage. He’s been eaten!!?

“I’m just crazy about the back of your neck.”

There’s also a hair-raising moment of Max striking a match on his lioness friend’s ear. Now, the ears of all cats are very sensitive, and lions have a way of letting you know they’re annoyed — Harold Lloyd nearly lost another set of fingers that way shooting THE SIN OF HAROLD DIDDLEBOCK.

Every Which Way…

Max is delightful — it’s really hard to process the fact that he and his wife committed suicide just five years later.

It’s standard to say that Max’s high comedy elegance influenced Chaplin, whose masterstroke was to give that dapper quality to a homeless street scoundrel. And Max’s influence also lives on in the wonderful Pierre Etaix, right down to the gap-toothed smile. But when you come down to it, Max is just Max, a one-off, and an original.

Below: Max and manservant; Charley and James Finlayson; Groucho and Harpo and Chico.

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