Archive for Murder at the Vanities

A Battleship In Il Trovatore

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , on April 22, 2016 by dcairns


A NIGHT AT THE OPERA — the first Thalberg reinvention of the Marx Bros. It lives on its excellent Groucho introduction, the contract scene, and the stateroom scene, and it has plenty of other nice one-liners and moments to sustain it. But I’m carrying on looking at the non-Marx Bros bits in Marx Bros movies.

Andrew Sarris is probably accurate when he writes, of the Bros, “They were a welcome relief not only from the badness of their own movies but also from the badness of most of the movies around them.” (But he’s dead wrong when he cites “Groucho’s bad habit of doing double and triple takes after every bon mot to give his audience a chance to laugh.” Groucho’s reactions to Chico’s inanities are simply part of the performance of the scenes, and are funny in themselves. Groucho is crtainly never surprised by his own jokes.)

So, on to the badness. Zeppo is gone, to be replaced by Allan Jones, whose singing has, I suppose, some plot significance but which I can take or leave alone, with a preference for the latter. He does have the admirable ability of seeming to disappear entirely during the comedy scenes, despite occupying equal screen space to, say, Harpo. Where Harpo has presence, Jones has absence, his finest quality. He doesn’t get in the way except when required to hold up a scene. And when he holds up a scene, boy does he hold it up. “Can we please get on?” is the cry.


Jones is paired with Kitty Carlisle, who sang about marijuana in MURDER AT THE VANITIES the year before, but always insisted she thought it was a girl’s name. The harshest thing I can say about her is that’s probably the truth. She is fetching, but unfortunately the one she usually fetches is Allan Jones.

The fact that both of these leaden leads are credited above Margaret Dumont is tantamount to a war crime, but Dumont’s treatment is otherwise flawed anyway. After scene one, she is never charmed by Groucho. To have Margaret realize once and for all that Groucho is a moth-eaten scam artist is to deprive us of the central joke of Margaret Dumont in Marx Bros movies, her very foundation. So although she’s great in her first scene, and great throughout, after the opening she has a lot less to work with.


There’s always Sig Rumann, that great schnook, here playing a Groucho love rival, so he’s a stooge who thinks he’s a smart guy — ripe for destruction. I could probably have used more mistreatment of the bearded one, though maybe less of him jiggling about in his undergarments. (When I was a child and saw drawings of men in their long johns in Disney comics, I always thought they were naked and just abnormally pallid and strangely genderless, like Action Man figurines. But Rumann has junk moving about, visibly. If the fledgling Hays Office can’t protect us from the outline of Sig Rumann’s swaying scrotum, what is the point of having them?)


Speaking of beards, other figures falling prey to the Bros are the World’s Greatest Aviators, described by Groucho as either “three men with beards or one man with three beards.” They are treated unkindly. “World’s greatest aviators but you notice they’re traveling by sea,” remarks Groucho, before they are bound, gagged, shaved, and their beards absconded with, never to be returned.

The World’s Greatest Aviators who, like Harpo, never speak, sadly did not go on to their own film series. A pity, since the actors are Jay Eaton, Leon White and Rolph Sedan, and “comedy team Eaton-White-Sedan”” has a nice ring to it.

I was on the point of taking the scene where the Bros go all Black Lodge and speak a gibberish language which is actually English in reverse, and re-reversing it to find out what they’re really saying, when I realised of course that somebody would already have done this, and of course they have —

Good bit with Robert Emmett O’Connor, the cop — the Bros (and Allan Jones, I think) keep moving from room to room and back again to escape him unseen, and each time they move some furniture with them. The not preternaturally bright policeman struggles to understand what’s going on. Like David Bowie during his Berlin period, living on red peppers and cocaine and imagining the furniture moving about the room when he’s not looking, or like the hero of Guy de Maupassant’s paranoiac comedy horror story Who Knows?, O’Connor is driven to distraction by this to-him-inexplicable phenomenon. While the film has its fair share of MGM-imposed moralism, it’s reassuring to see that making a cop think he’s coming down with dementia praecox is still viewed as an inarguable social virtue.


Sam Wood directs, pinned between Thalberg on one side and the Marxs on the other, which must be like playing superego to HAL 9000 and the Tasmanian Devil. His work here and in A DAY AT THE RACES has none of the fluidity he could bring to a film under less fraught conditions, and with William Cameron Menzies helping out. Horrific wingnut, yes, “But what a genius!”

Walter King as Lasspari the singer is another of the Marxes’ more charmless opponents, introdued flogging Harpo, Playing Harpo as a cute disabled waif is just wrong (see LOVE HAPPY for sentiment run amuck), and the weirdness is amplified when Kitty Carlisle’s objections to this brutality are supposed to establish her as sympathetic. But then Harpo is summoned back into Lasspari’s dressing room and the sounds of whipping continue, and Kitty can’t be bothered making any objection. She’s set up as self-centered and cowardly instead of righteous and noble. I have a good idea for improving her boring first scene with Jones — keep playing the sound of Harpo getting his hide flayed off in the background. It definitely improves things.




Ants In Your Plants

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 4, 2010 by dcairns

THE BIG BROADCAST OF 1937 is one of those uneven-by-design revue movies — with minimal plot and mismatched stars — of which poor Mitchell Leisen handled several. MURDER AT THE VANITIES is a kind of demented masterpiece, and there are definitely high spots amid the floating debris of THE BIG BROADCAST OF 1938, including a touching rendition of “Thanks for the Memories,” (featuring Bob Hope, not usually Mr. Sentiment), a slapstick dance number by Martha Raye, and various comedic stylings by WC Fields, who plays pool and steps on a fellow human being’s head, but TBBO37 is lumbered by a script which unites disjointedness with witlessness, although there’s one good line: “Talking to her is like shaking hands with an empty glove.”

The empty glove is Gracie Allen, for whose comedy I’ve always had something of a blind spot. Her characterisation of kooky idiot-woman who gets everything wrong seems somehow… lacking in nuance. George Burns as a younger man just doesn’t make any sense to me. And he seems like a thug. Actually, all the men in this movie are louts, from venal agent Ray Milland (a Leisen favourite, which sometimes seems reasonable and sometimes, like here, inexplicable), snide radio producer Jack Benny, and egotistical singer Frank Forest.

Forest at least gets a good musical number, allowing Leisen to indulge his enthusiasm for mood lighting and all things South of the Border. He’s not the most coherent dance director, tending to pile together overlapping layers of dancers, all doing different things, the ones in the foreground too close to comfortably follow with the eye or the camera, but the designs and compositions here are sumptuous kitsch.

In fact, it’s best to ignore the slender plot and the weak comedy and savour the guest numbers — Benny Goodman and his band get a zippy number with animated wipes that dance to the music, while Leopold Stokowski and his band receive more solemn treatment, with Leisen lighting the conductor like Franchot Tone in PHANTOM LADY, all looming hands.

Leisen’s cameraman is Theodor “Mr Sparkle” Sparkuhl, and the two together create some marvelous effects, whenever there’s no plot or acting to get in the way. And Leisen contrives a walk-on, as Arkansan comedy turn Bob Burns hunts for Stokowski to demonstrate his musical bazooka (don’t ask). “Did you ever -” he begins to asks the brisk director. “Sure, lots of times,” snaps Leisen, and is off.

Here’s more musical malarkey to give you an idea of the skills Leisen brings to this somewhat unpromising material —

Carl Brisson, Master of Nuance

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , on February 25, 2009 by dcairns

The many faces of Danish songster Carl Brisson, as seen in Alfred Hitchcock’s THE MANXMAN ~













He is a happy chappie. I mock, and quite unfairly, for in fact Mr. Brisson has plenty of range. He just tends to play joyousness with a certain bouncing-on-the-couch dementedness. It’s easy to see why he didn’t work with Hitch again after this film — his yumping yiminy accent (as heard in MURDER AT THE VANITIES) would make him hard to cast, and he was probably sick of having his love interest abscond with other, sallower and pudgier men  — yet it’s equally easy to see his appeal. A bit like Frank Borzage’s main man Charles Farrell, Brisson is strapping, hearty and handsome, in marked contrast to the anaemic circus geeks, choleric bachelors and dyspeptic couch potatoes who made up most of British cinema’s leading players.

The tendency, which continued well into the ’40s and ’50s, was to cast successful stage actors in lead roles, regardless of whether they had pleasing physiognomies, athletic builds, or the ability to play cinematically. On the plus side, this meant that marvellous screen presences like Roger Livesey and Alec Guinness would get major roles which a more glamour-centric industry might have denied them. On the minus side, we got a veritable gallery of goats, feebs and bloaters uglifying our screens with their oiled hair and overbites. It’s incredible to think, at this distance, that all of the actors below were once considered leading man material ~






Again with the exaggerations! But it’s kind of true.