Archive for Virginia O’Brien

The chances of anything coming from MGM are a million to one, he says

Posted in Fashion, FILM, literature, MUSIC, Politics, Radio with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on January 28, 2017 by dcairns


HULLABALOO (1940) is an odd thing. To be clear, we were only watching it for Virginia O’Brien’s debut.

Here’s the story with Virginia: when she first sang on stage she got stage fright, but carried on singing. The audience was comvulsed in hysterics at the sight of this frozen rigid, erect young girl with her eyes wide in panic, belting out her song like a song-belting machine. She liked the laughter, and incorporated the big eyes and stiff stance into her act.

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(In DUBARRY WAS A LADY, Red Skelton asks “Are you sure?” and Gene Kelly says “As sure as she’s alive!” and Red retorts “Aw, you’ll have to give me better proof than THAT!” and all the while Ginny is standing right there, and walks off mechanically as if she hasn’t registered any of it.)

But the plot in this one, though thin and constantly supplanted by random novelty acts, is interesting — it’s MGM’s response to Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds broadcast. Here, a radio novice performs a play about invaders from Jupiter and panics America. This film followed pretty swiftly on the heels of the real incident, and came out a year before the first product of the Hollywood contract Welles won with his little stunt.

How does MGM re-imagine, or de-imagine the story? Well, the whole thing must be an innocent misunderstanding. The radio performer is a talented but innocent, lovable fellow who certainly didn’t mean to start a rumpus, and certainly wasn’t attempting to prove anything. He should be played by someone cuddly, muddleheaded and appealing. Someone like… Frank Morgan!

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Interesting to see Frank Morgan co-starring here with Dan Dailey before THE MORTAL STORM and with Billie Burke after THE WIZARD OF OZ. And Morgan is pretty enjoyable  doing his schtick. It’s just pretty weird to think this was somebody’s idea of Orson Welles.

One conceit of the plot is that F.M. radio relies on F.M. being a man of a thousand voices, which the actor wasn’t. So they dub him a lot whenever he does his impressions, except occasionally — he seems to be doing Charles Boyer without the aid of a man hidden behind a curtain (EVERY film we see lately seems to have a Charles Boyer impression, and we haven’t even been looking at Pepe le Pew cartoons… YET). Since all the celebrities — Gable, Lamar, Rooney — are from the MGM stable, I assumed they were providing their own vocals, but NO — impersonators, apart from an audio clip from BOOM TOWN that allows Morgan to lip-sync to Gable, Colbert and Tracy in a clip from BOOM TOWN, thus forcing the paying audience of HULLABALOO to sit through an ad for another MGM release.

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Mad genius costume designer Dolly Tree outfits Ann Morriss as Dan Dailey’s castrating fiancee with a set of scissors hanging from her throat.

You can tell it’s an MGM film also because the comedy punches down — we’re meant to laugh at a carny who has to give away all his prizes, and a love-starved widow, and a butler who doesn’t get paid, etc. Tenor Charles Holland gets to sing two songs, but the first is Carry Me Back to Ole Virginny, because he’s black, and the second, though it’s Vesti La Giubba from I Pagliacci, he has to sing dressed as a bellhop, in case we forgot he’s black.

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Horseshoe Shuffle

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , on January 3, 2017 by dcairns

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THE HARVEY GIRLS is like the ultimate film of entertainment, with memorable songs, lovely actors (and John Hodiak, a cartoon wolf), elegant dance and camera moves, sumptuous colours, and a huge amount of good-natured fun.

I’m really glad to be discovering George Sidney at this belated stage of my life — I had seen some of his work before, but had given no thought to him. One of the not-so-good things about the auteurist approach is it could cause one to miss out on a good Sidney or Charles Walters film as one concentrates on a lesser work by Minnelli or Donen. Now, those latter gentlemen are more significant artists, but the other exponents of the Freed Unit style are no slouches.

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One moment I want to dwell on, amid countless terrific movements and moments. Virginia O’Brien gets one number of her own, shortly before she disappears from the film almost completely (she’d gotten pregnant, and she actually wears a smithy’s apron during her big song to disguise a little bump).

During her song, Virginia, who has dialled down the googly-eyed zombie act she first found fame with, and might have been moving on to more substantial and less gimmicky roles had parenthood not diverted her, prepares a horseshoe for applying to a hoof. The shoe is deposited in the fire, and after a rare cut (the sequence consists of only a few, very long, shots) it’s extracted with tongs and beaten with a hammer. Sparks and glowing makes it clear that this is now a real red-hot piece of iron.

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Then Virginia picks it up with her bare hands. Sings a line or two. And drops it in a barrel of water, which emits an explosive hiss of steam.

The mystery/joke of O’Brien’s asbestos fingers forced us to rewind to see what the trick was. And it’s a very simple one — Virginia hangs up the glowing shoe, steps screen right, forcing a small reframing, and while the shoe is offscreen, evidently some property man with tongs of his own or real asbestos fingers, grabs it and substitutes for it a fake shoe painted red to simulate glowing. He achieves this during a two-second moment when the shoe isn’t on camera. the horseshoe is still swinging when the camera re/discovers it. The jet of steam from the barrel is a practical special effect.

It’s a lot of trouble for a joke that doesn’t make any sense — what are we to make of Virginia’s superhuman flame-retardant properties? Is she a Shadrach or Johnny Storm of the Wild West? In a way, it’s not even a joke about that, but about the deceptive nature of the continuous take, about MGM and George Sidney’s ability to pull the wool over our eyes and make us smile at our inability to see what’s in front of us.

The Big Nothing

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 4, 2016 by dcairns

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It’s all here in this image — the Marx Bros are behind bars. Everything is cluttered and unclear, with too many elements poorly organized, and a big empty space in the upper right. The title is slapped on top of Groucho. They can’t even find room for Harpo. This film is in trouble already.

THE BIG STORE is the second Marx Brothers film I suddenly realized existed, that I had never seen. The title came to me as I was nodding off one night, and in the morning I IMDb’d it and learned that yes, there was such a film. How can one Marx Bros fan, married to another Marx Bros fan, be so slack on such things? It’s not as if there anywhere near enough Marx Bros films in the world.

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The supporting cast: mannequins. The leading lady has no head, and nothing below the waist. Margaret Dumont is a man. Dumbrille is a bust.

Sadly, TBS is no ROOM SERVICE. It’s the last film from the Bros’ MGM period, and is a very sloppy piece of writing. Again, the studio throws in big sets and lavish musical numbers, which were never really essential — though it helps to have a glossy backdrop for the boys to demolish, I guess. But the script is pretty bad, with few memorable lines, tons of padding, and lots of downright bad visual comedy — and this from the director credited with Buster Keaton’s COLLEGE and STEAMBOAT BILL JNR.

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Groucho this time is a detective, (as he would be again in LOVE HAPPY) Wolf J. Flywheel , Chico is Ravelli and Harpo is Whacky. The recycling of names may suggest desperation (how hard can it be to come up with Grouchoesque names? Julius T. Hambone; Housely Q. Pinochle; Webster V. Grift; Morton P. Fingersmith; I’m not even trying here), and the plotting certainly does. Having selected a department store as setting, the army of writers struggle to integrate musical numbers, suspense, and comedy. The bland hero this time (Tony Martin) is a singer/songwriter who just wants to sell the store he’s inherited so he can open a conservatory, a project mooted in scene one and then basically forgotten about. A bunch of kids have been trained to play piano like Chico, a decent gag, and they’re all excited about the new conservatory: “New conservatory, new conseravatory,” they rhubarb unconvincingly. We’ll never see them again either.

Margaret Dumont is a beloved aunt, with no real role in the plot, but Groucho can romance her and annoy villain Douglas Dumbrille, which is of course essential. Dumbrille is repeating his shitheel role from A DAY AT THE RACES, but the movie has him spend an inordinate amount of time flying through the air, replace by a stand-in (or dangle-in). This movie has more wirework than a Shaw Bros wuxia. Dumbrille is joined by various colourless stooges, of which the best is Bradley Page, underplaying briskly. But he has no reason to be in the movie. The stooges multiply like rabbits, but unlike rabbits they never seem to do anything useful.

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Dumbrille’s plot to cover up his cooking of the store’s books soon involves plans for kidnapping and murder: he even hints that he’ll off Margaret Dumont after marrying her. This is all de trop. It’s not really in keeping with the world of the department store.

Neither are the songs. Groucho gets the uninspired “Sing as you sell,” which affords pleasing bits for novelty acts Six Hits and a Miss, the Four Dreamers (no MGM Marx film is apparently complete without an embarrassing reference to cotton fields redolent with ante bellum slavery nostalgia) and best by far, Virginia O’Brien, the deadpan comedy singer. Tony Martin croons a ballad and then a bit of faux Gerswhin nonsense called Tenement Symphony, performed by orchestra and choir in the store as part of… what? The “ceremony” that accompanies his selling of the store. MGM musicals shouldn’t NEED lame naturalistic excuses for characters to burst into song.

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Marion “blonde menace” Martin plays vamp, very briefly, but her vamp act consists of pretending to be a snooty music journalist. Are we outsmarting a vamp or deposing a snob? Does robbing a snob of dignity count when they’re only pretending to be a snob? And why bring her in for one skit only to forget about her?

Nat Perrin is credited with the story: he had a hand in HELLZAPOPPIN and contributed dialogue to DUCK SOUP, so I’m disinclined to blame him too much. but this is shoddy work by someone, probably a whole heap of someones. Writing visual gags for Harpo can’t be too hard, since he’s allowed to violate the laws of God and man, but he needs a sensible set of surroundings whose reality he can disrupt. Every time the movie requires him to do something, it throws in props that have no reason to be there. The usual deadly harp solo is performed in an eighteenth century room with mannequins in period garb: why does this room exist? When vases are smashed in a bit of slapstick, Dumbrille refers to them as “priceless antiques.” Why were they in a store? Why is there a moose head? Is it Chico’s from ROOM SERVICE, the one he “ate up to the neck”? What are THESE?

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A few cameos of interest (discounting the physiognomic startle effect attendant on any appearance by Dewey Robinson). Clara Blandick, Auntie Em, from THE WIZARD OF OZ, turns up as a Tony Martin fan (believable). Silent star/director King Baggot is in there somewhere. Come to think of it, “King Baggot” would make a good name for a Groucho character. And the movie ends with Charles Lane, so good in TWENTIETH CENTURY, repossessing Groucho’s ancient car, a “gag” which never actually develops beyond the fact of a car being repossessed: not a gag at all, then.

Songwriter/producer Sid Kuller is probably a bad influence on the script, as is Ray Golden, another songwriter, and Hal Fimberg is the future creator of Derek Flint, so he doesn’t seem like the right kind of guy to have on a Marx picture. The IMDb says George Oppenheimer made uncredited contributions, and he had worked on the two best MGM Marx films, RACES and OPERA, but he was about to help end Garbo’s career with TWO-FACED WOMAN the following year.

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The movie has more writers than it has Marx Brothers, which would be fine if they were fighting on the same side, but every MGM movie with the Bros. is something of a battlefield in which Thalberg’s idea of classy entertainment and Mayer’s idea of family values comes up against the very spirit of what the Marx Bros should be all about — chaos. In this movie, depressingly, MGM wins.