Archive for Sig Rumann

Marx for Trying

Posted in Comics, FILM, literature, Painting, Radio with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 20, 2022 by dcairns

I was thinking of getting rid of my copy of Moving Pictures by Budd Schulberg — “Will I ever read this?” — when I opened it at random — a fair test — and discovered that Schulberg had attempted to co-write a Marx Bros movie at Paramount in the thirties, where he was the boss’s son.

BUGHOUSE FABLES was the intended title, which I somewhat approve of, since it has the required animal reference. But is it a common phrase or saying like “monkey business,” “horse feathers,” “animal crackers,” and “duck soup”? (Two of these are by now UNcommon phrases or sayings but I’m prepared to believe that in pre-code days they were familiar to the American public.)

BUT I’m wrong — here’s proof, from 1922, that Schulberg’s title WAS extant.

It was supposed to be about the Marxes running an asylum. I’m unsure about this. The results could easily be tasteless, even for the 1930s, and Schulberg says that part of the impetus was to hit back at the censors who had been objecting to MONKEY BUSINESS. Also, surrounding the Bros with lunatics could easily diminish their powers. The possibilities for spot gags would be endless, but we can hardly have Groucho, Chico and Harpo seeming less crazy than everyone else. Presumably we would have a “lunatics taking over the asylum” scenario and there are strong possibilities for annoying headshrinkers (cue Sig Rumann) and wealthy patrons (Margaret Dumont). But I think the Marxes need a sane, generically-consistent story world to interact with, and be the craziest element of. When Groucho is placed in charge of a sanatorium in A DAY AT THE RACES, the most eccentric person he meets apart from his own brothers is rich hypochondriac Dumont.

Schulberg himself sounds pretty uncertain about whether his efforts to write funny were in fact hitting the mark or Marx (atsa some joke, huh boss?)

The same problem is multiplied by a thousand in Salvador Dali’s Marx scenario, GIRAFFES ON HORSEBACK SALAD. Two animals for the price of one. But not a common phrase or saying, except perhaps in the Dali household. It’s understandable that Dali, a Spaniard, may have misunderstood “horse feathers” and “animal crackers” as pieces of surreal word salad, which they sort of are, but they were also pre-existing expressions which the domestic audience understood.

But the title is merely a clue to the full-blown insanity of Dali’s vision. And while that may sound mouth-watering, most commentators have concluded that surrounding the Marx Bros with an UN CHIEN ANDALOU world already chaotic and surreal would render them redundant, with nothing left to disrupt.

This image derives from a graphic novel adaptation, and you can listen to a subsequently-produced audio version here, for money.

Much, much later, Billy Wilder contemplated A NIGHT AT THE UNITED NATIONS. The title here places the project in the later MGM tradition though I doubt Wilder would have filled the movie with songs. The concept of positioning the Brothers in the context of international politics does smack promisingly of DUCK SOUP though. It would be untrue to say that the gags would write themselves — but I believe Wilder could write them. I’d love to see Chico working as a simultaneous translator. And then Harpo taking over.

Wilder never made a film built around an actual movie clown — his comedies are built around thespians with comedic chops. He uses Marilyn Monroe a little bit like a clown, and Jimmy Cagney as an icon whose famous moments he can built jokes around, but mostly his characters are not totally dependent on casting choices. He did try to work with Peter Sellers, twice, but Sellers had neither persona nor, he claimed, personality.

Wilder did also want to make a film with Laurel & Hardy — he got as far as planning an opening showing them sleeping rough in the last two Os of the HOLLYWOOD sign. So clownwork was something he had an interest in. But I suspect the collaborations would have been fraught. Stan liked to be in charge, and Groucho eventually kicked Wilder out of his house after receiving one too many lectures on the right wine to serve with dinner. (This is all from Maurice Zolotow’s semi-reliable Wilder bio.) It would have been like Preston Sturges and Harold Lloyd trying to collaborate, and finding their mutual respect could not overcome their need to be true to their individual comic muses.

Mad Love

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 4, 2017 by dcairns

Of my two recent film-critical acquisitions, James Harvey’s Romantic Comedy wins out over Ed Sikov’s Screwball in style and depth, but in terms of whose taste is closest to mine, Sikov wins out when the topic is Powell & Loy. Harvey’s analysis of what is so great about the couple is spot-on, illuminating, and evokes in the reader the same kind of charmed glaze that their performances as Nick & Nora produce. But he raves about Jack Conway’s LIBELED LADY and describes the same director’s LOVE CRAZY as almost unwatchable. (Jack RED-HEADED WOMAN Conway is the man in charge.)

Sikov has some skepticism towards LIBELED LADY, as did Fiona and I, and he calls LOVE CRAZY wildly underrated — possibly because of Harvey’s dismissal. We took a look. We found it VERY funny.

To begin with, we weren’t quite on its wavelength, perhaps. As Harvey says, we don’t want Nick & Nora to fall out, or to have their relationship tested, except in the sense that we enjoy seeing it rise above all tests, supreme. And so a Powell & Loy film in which they break up and he spends most of the film trying to get his wife back is always going to deprive the audience of one of the joys of this particular screen couple, their teamwork.

But the film works really hard to overcome this. It gives Myrna strong reasons to suspect William of infidelity, so we never lose sympathy with him. And it shows Powell as being so passionately committed to his marriage that, even if we’re not quite sure for much of the film whether he’s perhaps strayed a little, we can root for him to succeed but also get a laugh out of the many indignities he suffers along the way. These include being committed to an insane asylum and having to drag up to get into his own apartment.

The loony bin stuff was a potential worry — would the film be offensive? Yes, is the answer — it’s deeply insulting and obnoxious to the psychiatric profession. Got a problem with that? The scenario (by David Herz & William Ludwig with Charles Lederer adding a polish) has Powell feign madness in order to forestall the divorce, and then being unable to convince the doctors (Vladimir Sokoloff & Sig Rumann as Klugle & Wuthering) that he’s NOT, after all, crazy. This isn’t that implausible — doctors are fairly good at spotting mad people pretending to be sane, but they’re not set up to detect sane people pretending to be mad. And they’re not really any better at spotting liars than the rest of us.

The only inmate we meet in the sanatorium is a kleptomaniac, and the movie organises things fairly sensitively so that the joke is always on the sane people trying to deal with her.

Powell puffs in THE THIN MAN.

So — screwball comedies strike different people differently — they tread on the edge of pure silliness and also cruelty, flirt with progressiveness and sometimes (not too often) duck back into the conservative or retrograde. This one might be worth your while trying, whatever Harvey says. There’s the cunning use of Jack Carson’s status as archery champion (“bow-and-arrower,” as Myrna calls him), which is BRILLIANT.

OK, quick spoiler: the movie seems to think Carson in his undershirt is hilarious, which isn’t quite true, but Carson as a champion athelete living in a swank apartment full of archery paraphernalia IS pretty amusing. Anyway, when Powell is incarcerated by the lunacy board, love rival Jack drops by the sanatarium to mock. Then he wanders off to practice his archery moves. Powell alerts the staff to the strange dude playing with an invisible bow and arrow just outside the fence, and Carson is seized as an escapee.

And there’s Powell’s drag act, which is 100% convincing — and which is used in strange and perverse ways by the movie… the final fade-out may cause levitation of the eyebrows…

A Night Without Casablanca

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 11, 2017 by dcairns

I wrote a little about this one years back (has it been years?) and so left it to nearly the end of my Marxian odyssey this time (for late-comers, I’m writing about those aspects of the Marx Bros films excluding the Marx Bros — what are usually considered the bad bits).

A NIGHT IN CASABLANCA sees the three remaining Bros at United Artists, in 1946, in a largely studio-bound version of North Africa. Plot revolves around Nazi gold and art treasures, then I imagine quite a new McGuffin. It’s probably sensible that the Marx films skipped the war years altogether (if one considers WWII from an American perspective) and refer to the Third Reich fairly obliquely here.

The film is deftly directed by Archie Mayo, with a surprising amount of fluid camera movement. It’s questionable whether a Marx Bros film NEEDS fluid camera movement, but it’s getting it regardless. And despite the limited budget keeping us in a hotel for most of the plot (when the boys escape jail and steal a plane, they crash right back into the jail again, thus saving on further sets) it looks pretty good.

No Margaret Dumont, alas, but Sig Rumann is present and incorrect as Pfferman the German. He’s a Nazi-in-hiding with a giveaway scar on his head (I’m imagining an unfortunate encounter with the Inglourious Basterds) for which he requires the camouflage of a toupee. Harpo is set up as Rusty, his put-upon underling, a role that dates back to A NIGHT AT THE OPERA and Thalberg’s unfortunate attempts to sentimentalize Harpo. Still, it means we can have lots of scenes of Sig being driven to apoplexy by Harpo and later the other brothers. And he keeps his clothes on this time. The sight of his genital cluster swaying within his long johns in A NIGHT AT THE OPERA will follow me to my mausoleum.

Sig comes complete with henchpersons, the oily Kurt and the seductive Bea. Kurt is ably played by actual German Frederick Giermann, and gets a decent sabre duel with Harpo. Giermann is one of countless fugitives from the Nazis who enjoyed a few boom years in Hollywood playing the guys he had fled. His career dries up not long after the war.

Bea is the excellent and lovely Lisette Verea, who seems to be genuinely having a ball, and is particularly good with Groucho. The nice girls in these films are always a bore, but the vamps are generally great value. Better, Verea gets to convert to the side of good, meaning she can get chased offscreen by the Bros at the end. This Romanian vixen was in just two films, the other being the 1933 version of THE GHOST TRAIN, which I bet is aces. ALL versions of THE GHOST TRAIN seem to be thoroughly entertaining.

Frank Tashlin worked on gags for this one, including Harpo’s first scene, leaning against a wall, getting moved on by a policeman (“Say, what do you think you are doing, holding up the building?”), at which point the full-sized building collapses. He may have also devised Groucho’s deleted entrance, in which his small desert hotel blows away in a sandstorm. The movie has obviously suffered quite a bit of this “tightening” — despite which Chico and Harpo’s musical numbers remain intact — numerous scenes fade-out in mid-action, or with characters opening their mouths to begin new quips. Who knows if there was gold in the lost footage? The remaining film has its longeurs, and the inelegance of the cutting does make me wonder if they snipped out the wrong bits.

Chief among the longeurs, of course, are the romantic leads, but the movie gives them short shrift, for which we can be grateful. Their names are Charles Drake and Lois Collier, and they can’t help themselves. And the script doesn’t exactly go out of its way to help them either. Of Mr. Drake, the IMDb says “No change in popularity this week,” which strikes me as beautifully apt. Collier had a much shorter career than her co-star, but most of her characters had names. This pair doesn’t get a lot of screen time — the movie actually seems to forget about them midway, and it’s a surprise when they crash back into the plot. And at least they don’t sing.

Lisette Verea does, briefly, and the number chosen, Who’s Sorry Now?, is a very good one, and it’s nice that it’s by Kalmar & Ruby, who wrote Hooray for Captain Spaulding! and Whatever It Is, I’m Against It, and who are the chief credited writers on DUCK SOUP.

Who else? Perennial bit player Paul Harvey plays Mr. Smythe, who can’t get a room in Groucho’s hotel without showing his marriage license. Mr. Harvey was born in Sandwich, Illinois, which makes me warm to him. Sig Rumann was a Hamburger — perhaps he would have bonded with the Sandwich man also.

There’s an extraordinary-looking thesp called David Hoffman as an Arab spy. And Dan Seymour as the Prefect of Police, his beard dismissed by Groucho as a terrible case of five O’clock shadow. And, we are told, Ruth Roman as a harem girl, but I failed to spot her.

The movie is a big step up from THE BIG STORE, it seems to me, and lets the Brothers be properly anarchic and only incidentally noble. Though the best bits of OPERA and RACES are up there with the best bits of anything else, I can’t help feel that the Marxes made a mistake, essentially, in signing with MGM — this movie liberates them from the Thalberg influence. The studio where they SHOULD have found a home, Warner Bros (the most brazenly Jewish, most leftie, most proletarian, and most casually vulgar studio) threatened to sue over the use of the word CASABLANCA in the title here. Groucho threatened to counter-sue over the use of their word BROTHERS.

Despite someone NEARLY saying “Round up the usual suspects” and a Groucho-Lisette riff on “You know how to whistle, don’t you?” from TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT, there’s little of Bogart here, though Groucho’s tent-like white jacket may be a clown version of Rick’s evening dress. A more actionable version could be imagined, with Groucho running a night club, Chico as a combined Dooley Wilson and Peter Lorre (“Sure I gotta the lettuce o’ transit!”) and Harpo as… hmm, not sure. Paul Henreid could play himself.