Archive for Marx Bros

Where Men Are Empty Overcoats (Business Without Monkeys)

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

vlcsnap-2016-03-30-08h37m53s189

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.

vlcsnap-2016-03-30-08h36m24s62

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.

vlcsnap-2016-03-30-08h38m25s238

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.

vlcsnap-2016-03-30-08h38m53s25

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.

vlcsnap-2016-03-30-08h34m27s181

 

The Wedding Marx

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

vlcsnap-2014-09-05-17h20m55s209

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.

vlcsnap-2014-09-05-17h39m47s22

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?)

vlcsnap-2014-09-05-17h26m38s67

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.

vlcsnap-2014-09-05-17h27m27s28

 The Marx Brothers Silver Screen Collection

Pretty Polygraph

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

vlcsnap-2013-07-28-12h20m24s111

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.

vlcsnap-2013-07-28-12h22m29s119

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.

vlcsnap-2013-07-28-12h23m01s174

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.

vlcsnap-2013-07-28-12h21m21s206

vlcsnap-2013-07-28-12h21m27s226

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

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 680 other followers