Archive for William A Seiter

Room Without Service

Posted in FILM, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 17, 2016 by dcairns

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Incredibly, I had never watched ROOM SERVICE (1938), with the Marx Bros and Lucille Ball and Ann Miller… and Fiona couldn’t remember even hearing of it. Everything I hd heard had suggested the film was disappointing and didn’t work. Everything I had heard was quite wrong.

A lot of the criticism was of the “based on a play, and it shows” variety. Well, Jesus, hadn’t these reviewers seen ANIMAL CRACKERS? The weird thing about ROOM SERVICE is, it’s based on a GOOD play — a well-structured farce that’s plausible, jauntily amoral and outrageous, and stuffed with good lines and business. The fact that the play wasn’t written for the Marx Bros is the remarkable thing, but Morrie Ryskind, the Bros’ most faithful scribe, adapted it so you’d never know.

My usual formula has been to talk about everything AROUND the Marx Bros, taking them as read, but this being an exceptional movie — their only film at RKO, also — some analysis is required. The Marx Bros are actually different in this one.

Groucho begins the film slower than we’ve seen him, which is probably a smooth calculation on his part to allow the farce to gather steam. It’s a little disconcerting, though: Groucho loses something slowed down… he loses his aggression. One doesn’t think of Groucho as aggressive because he’s also casual, but minus the ratatatat you realize it’s a vital part of his attitude. Casual attack — destroy the opponent before they have a chance to open their mouth, or establish whether they are in fact an opponent. The good thing is, as the play film progresses, you get used to this new Groucho, and also he starts to accelerate.

The story casts him as a theatrical producer on his uppers, desperately trying to avoid eviction from the White Way Hotel until he can close a deal to get backing for his dubious new production. This involves him in various shady or outright criminal acts, including the only time in his career as rogue that he actually becomes contemptible: bribing a waiter for food with the offer of a part in the show, then smugly announcing his intent to renege as soon as he’s replete with chow. You never dislike Groucho for any of his misdeeds, but this is vile. Fiona: “I wasn’t sure I even disliked him then, because he’s just saying his mood is variable, depending on how full his tummy is.”

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Chico is different too, though it’s subtler. His character is largely the same but he gets more deadpanning. He’s even more low-status than usual, threatened as he is with getting “dispossessed from the sidewalk.” He uses slowness well too — looking at the broken-down old waiter, he says “I could eat him raw,” in a horrifyingly cold way that’s hilarious. A scene where he and Groucho bamboozle a repo man must be the slowest scene they ever played together, and it’s FANTASTIC. ROOM SERVICE has little reputation because it’s so different from the other films — it isn’t anarchic, the motivations are clear and consistent and the Bros aren’t out just to cause chaos, they’re fighting to make a buck. But this is at least as consistent with their true, Paramount nature as their behaviour in the MGM films, where they have to be on the side of the angels.

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Harpo is Harpo, of course, Apart from the ill-hadvised sentiment in LOVE HAPPY (not looking forward to that one), Harpo never changes. But, like his brothers, he doesn’t chase girls in this one. The play just didn’t allow room for it. The difference is in the way Harpo is used — lots of background or edge-of-frame activity where he adds bonus comedy with his activity or reactions. Far more than in any other Marx film, the movie (directed by the seriously neglected William A. Seiter, who also did great work with Laurel & Hardy, Colleen Moore, umm, Wheeler & Woolsey and umm, Zasu Pitts) is happy to let two things happen at once, so that your eye can take in Harpo defying the laws of man and God while your ear appreciates Groucho’s deconstruction of logic and morality.

A word about Zeppo — though he’s not around, Zeppo brokered the deal, acquiring the play and setting it up at RKO in his new role as high-powered agent in exceptionally cool shades. Hooray for Zeppo!

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OK, let’s admit it, Lucille Ball is wasted in this: “Christine” has only plot functions to take care of, no comedy business hardly, and the script makes her complicit in Groucho’s fraudulence without giving her a clear attitude about it. She’s just helping the guy producing the play she hopes to star in and which she has invested her savings in. It’s briefly exciting to see her drag up as a nurse and get fully involved in the play-acting, and so her timing is exploited even if she isn’t getting gags or funny lines. It’s a taster of things to come. (She worked with Seiter again on LOVER COME BACK in 1946. Any good, at all?)

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Ann Miller was fifteen, with a fake birth certificate, and Lucille Ball engineered the younger woman’s entree into movies. OK, that sounds pretty bad. Ball was essentially a prostitute/escort in her early days, according to numerous reports. Miller spent her later years deflecting blame by denouncing Marilyn Monroe (“She was a whore”) and her early days going on dates with Louis B. Mayer with her mother as chaperone, which for some reason sounds worse than if mom wasn’t there. Maybe I have an unjustifiably low opinion of stage mothers. At any rate, Ann’s beau says “I just can’t picture you with a middle-aged man,” prompting me to do a spit-take. Bonus metatextual points for her aying “It’s just like a play!” and wandering in by accident — perhaps looking for her Aunt Minnie?

Miller doesn’t get to dance or show her legs, but hey, Chico and Harpo don’t get their musical interludes, so all is right with the world.

On to the stooges!

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Most screen-time is given to Frank Albertson (no, I didn’t recognise him from PSYCHO) as the naive young playwright. Impossible to believe his magnum opus is any good at all. But his hick doofus act is OK, he doesn’t (quite) wear out his welcome, and he’s the first Marx Bros leading man to justify his existence in comedy terms. Whereas most Marx films make at least a pretence at having them help out the young lovers, here the Bros’ alliance with the young hopeful is purely a marriage of convenience. and one gets the feeling Groucho would cheerfully sell him into sexual slavery if that turned out to be the best way to monetize his gullibility. As it is, there’s a vigorous stripping of the poor schmoe down to his BVD, in a scene which gives us the best idea yet, outside of some of the rougher Margaret Dumont routines, of what a Marx Bros gang-bang would look like. There, I’ve put that image in your heads and I’m leaving it there. I don’t want it. You can keep it.

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Albertson gives us a good “Eureka!” face, while Groucho simply rolls his eyes in the schmuck’s direction to show he thought of it first. The function of this kind of black farce is for Groucho and friends to be capable of any kind of crime, while the plot prevents them doing any major harm while they get what they want. The waiter and the young lovers and Lucille and her husband have to be okay in the end. It all works out far nicer than reality — the world is run by crooks, but fate helps out the little guy. Joe Orton would come along and remove the reassuring aspects. (“The ones that get away with it are the guilty. It’s the innocent who get it in the neck.”)

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McBride (left) and Dunstan (right), who I guess gave his name to hotel comedy DUNSTON CHECKS IN.

Next in line of screen time is villain Donald McBride, a hotel worker who isn’t really trying to do anything bad, just enforce the rules, but he is snarling, growly and obnoxious like most of the best Marx antagonists, so it’s OK to tear him to pieces, which they do. Even his few good qualities — his sanctimonious, but apparently genuine concern at the apparent deaths of two men — are pitilessly used to turn the tables on him. He’s dumb and doesn’t know it, so the only thing making this close to a fair fight is that the rules are on his side, society is on his side, he has the hotel staff to do his bidding, and the plot keeps making things harder for Groucho. Otherwise, no contest.

The constant bellowing of “Jumping butterballs!” is maybe a bit tiresome, but this stooge has his own stooge, called Gribble, and it’s very pleasant to hear him snarl the name. McBride is a skilled, if forceful farceur. He played a lot of cops, always outsmarted by Simon Templar or Charlie Chan or Nick and Nora Charles. You know the type.

Gribble is Cliff Dunstan, in hardly anything else. I liked his boxy head. He gets to be shoved around by Groucho AND Butterball guy, so you have to sympathise.

Alexander Asro also good as Russian waiter, his impassioned cry of “Hollywood!” constituting his biggest laugh. And the biggest laugh involving him is Groucho’s remark that plenty of other famous Russians started out stealing hotel food. “Gregory Ratoff… Ginger Rogervitch…”

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Hotel doctor is screen functionary Charles Halton, playing Dr. Glass (a very good Mai Zetterling film). Small roles for big directors, so you’ll know his face if not his name. Lots of Wyler, plus Ford, Capra, Kazan, Clair, Duvivier, Cukor. Abducted by the Marxes and left bound in the bathroom for much of the action, he nevertheless declares himself on their side when he hears the name of their wealthy backer.

Two good, strange players: (1) Philip Wood, who only played men called Simon, plays Simon Jenkins, the secretive backer’s representative. He explains that the backer wants his name kept out of it because he wants his girlfriend to have a small role in the production — which explains Ann Miller’s otherwise pointless presence in this movie. (2) Philip Loeb, the repo man, of the We Never Sleep company. “It’s nice to meet a man who doesn’t sleep,” remarks Groucho, pleasantly. Both these guys play it slow and gentle, which makes an interesting contrast with the frenetic business and hollering antagonists elsewhere. Lambs to the slaughter.

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There are also some good non-human characters, excluding Harpo. Chico’s stuffed moose head, to whom he is devoted, makes a ready-made cutaway. Strange how stuffed moose heads always look so happy with their lot. “I shot him myself and ate him up to the neck,” claims Chico.

A turkey is delivered by Harpo, and promptly turns animatronic so it can fly around the room while he chases it with a bat. The robot fowl is roughly as convincing as the bats in Hammer films. It puts me in mind of the great bird that snatches D.W. Griffith’s baby in RESCUED FROM AN EAGLE’S NEST. Has there ever been a bad film made with an unconvincing fake bird in it? I don’t think so.

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Finally there’s the love of Harpo’s life, who isn’t a horse this time, but is as disturbing as you could wish for.

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“Of course I like them a little bigger,” says Chico, looking genuinely depressed and sickened by the strange spectacle.

 

 

 

Pre-code Unknown

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 30, 2011 by dcairns

In which I continue my slow spread across the internet. Picture one of those burning maps you’d get in the opening titles of Hollywood war or western pic: that’s me and the internet.

At The Daily Notebook, I contribute to the ongoing process of capsule-reviewing highlights of New York’s Film Forum pre-code series, along with Gina Telaroli, Ben Sachs, Craig Keller, Glenn Kenny, Zach Campbell and Jaime N. Christley. I’ve tackled THE PUBLIC ENEMY, THREE ON A MATCH (above), RED-HEADED WOMAN and CALL HER SAVAGE.

And at Electric Sheep, I chip in to the round-up of this year’s Edinburgh Film Festival, with pieces on TROLLHUNTER and TO HELL AND BACK AGAIN.

Been viewing a lot of pre-codes lately, because Fiona’s been unwell and pre-codes are perfect when you’re doped up on painkillers. Here are capsules of a few more we ran —

TWO ALONE

This is a really beautiful pre-code pastoral (was that even a thing?) in which unloved foster-child Jean Parker falls from juvie home runaway Tom Brown. Memorable nastiness from the foster family, but the movie isn’t overall about making you want the bad guys to suffer horrendous fates, although some of the time you do. In the end, this tender film satisfies you by rewarding the good characters instead.

Notable for Parker’s nude scene and the sympathetic view of pre-marital sex and extra-marital pregnancy, and taking the side of the despised outlaws over the nominal pillars of the community. Elliot Nugent directs, and it’s interesting to see small-town values being repeatedly trashed in these movies.

THE MATCH KING

We had David Wingrove to dinner with the plan to watch the ne plus ultra of Bad Cinema, Baz Luhrman’s emetic epic AUSTRALIA, but even he, who owns a copy of BOXING HELENA and watched WILD ORCHID four times, couldn’t make it through the antipodean hellscape (it’s like being injected into the mind of a ten-year-old with ADHD), and so a nice 80-minute pre-code seemed the ideal antidote.

Warren William — the starving lion — magnificent scoundrel — king of the pre-codes — the other Great Profile — is a Bernie Madoff-like Ponzi schemer who tries to dominate the world, starting with a humble match factory. He saves the family firm with money borrowed on holdings that don’t exist, which means he’ll always owe more money than he can pay back, “until I own everything in the world, and then I’ll only owe money to myself.” On the way to his inevitable fall, Glenda Farrell, Claire Dodd and Lily Damita become notches on his bedpost. Every now and then the screenwriters have WW do something truly rotten on a personal level, in case we find his massive-scale financial chicanery too endearing. “This is like a primer in capitalism,” our dinner guest remarked, awestruck.

HOT SATURDAY

Our new favourite Nancy Carroll is torn between rich playboy Cary Grant and homespun geologist Randolph Scott. Quite a choice. But meanwhile smalltown gossip threatens her future. Chief slanderer and hottie Lilian Bond makes malice seem almost sexy, and this is a useful rebuttal to Leo McCarey’s claim that he taught Cary Grant everything. Grant is stiff in his Mae West and Sternberg movies, but effective for Leisen and Walsh and, in this case, the less celebrated William A. Seiter.

BIG BROWN EYES

Grant again, paired with blonde Joan Bennett, who’s notably abrasive and snappy under Raoul Walsh’s rambunctious purview. She’s a manicurist-turned-crime-reporter (!), he’s a police detective, and they’re hot on the trail of a ring of burglars, fences and baby-killers. Walter Pidgeon makes an assured snake-in-the-grass, and the accidental assassination of a sleeping tot shows how pre-codes could turn reckless tonal inconsistency into some kind of demented virtue. Isn’t this supposed to be a comedy?

ME AND MY GAL

The best and pre-codiest pre-codes overall may be the Warners films, but the Fox films are the rarest, thanks to that library’s largely unexploited status (apart from the legendary Murnau & Borzage at Fox box set). This is Walsh again, and Bennett again (with a now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t beauty spot) and Spencer Tracy, during that part of his career where he played ostensibly lovable louts rather than patrician paterfamilias types. Here he rises through the police force and into Joan’s arms in a sweet, sassy romance that folds in a crime story and some alcoholic Irish shenanigans. Twice, Bennett’s father turns to the camera and invites us all to have a drink. Another character is paralyzed and communicates by blinking, allowing for some THERESE RAQUIN inspired plot twists, and the weirdest scene is cued by Tracy talking about a movie he just saw, “STRANGE INNERTUBE or something,” which leads to a series of internal monologues by himself and Bennett as they cuddle up on their date. Crazy stuff.

Walsh made a quasi-sequel, SAILOR’S LUCK, which has been getting a lot of attention in New York screenings and on the blogosphere, and which we’ll certainly be watching next.