Archive for Zeppo Marx

Room Without Service

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


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.”


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.


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!


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?)


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!


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.


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.”)


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…”


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.


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.


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.


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




Where Men Are Empty Overcoats (Business Without Monkeys)

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


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.


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.


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.


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.



The Rittenhouse Affair

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , on March 2, 2016 by dcairns


Otto Preminger: “Everything I know about camera blocking, I learned from ANIMAL CRACKERS. How to get the actors through a door, how to make them stand still so we can see them. How to make them go away again (yelling works for this).”

It had been an age since we’d watched ANIMAL CRACKERS, which is the most primitive Marx Bros film apart from of course THE COCONUTS, which is positively primordial. My love of Lillian Roth made me want to see this again — I became a fan back in the early days of Shadowplay, when this blog was in short trousers, so to speak, but I haven’t looked at her turn in this film in detail — my memory told me she wasn’t a very strong actress, though, and her musical number, like all the romantic numbers in Marx Bros films, was kind of a drag.


In short, I may be the first person in eighty years to watch ANIMAL CRACKERS for Lillian Roth.

She’s not a very good actress, but she’s a very cute actress, It’s like watching a tiny child doing a school play. They say acting is reacting, in which case she does a lot of acting here, but she’s not really responding to the other actors, she’s responding, I somehow feel, to the lines in the script. It makes sense that she was a child actor — she uses a kind of artifice which would be acceptable in a kid, since we’re always a little impressed by kids acting at all, and a kid has a kind of built-in authenticity, like a dog or a very old person. We believe them, unless absolutely forced not to by the worst kind of ineptitude. We can tell they really are a child, a dog or an old person, actually performing for us.

She’s also the most improbably society girl outside of Jean Harlow in PLATINUM BLONDE, her astonishing Boston-by-way-of-everywhere vowels creating a funhouse mirror with the English language.

Her song is a dull one, and of course we don’t need relief from the comedy in a Marx Bros film, and we get plenty of it anyway, via the plot scenes. The fancy art deco set also functions as a kind of relief, since manoeuvering from one corner of it to another eats up a certain amount of screen time during which we can admire the woodwork.


The other actors aren’t seen quite at their best. Margaret Dumont smiles too much, like she actually gets the jokes. She found more dignified ways to react later. Robert Greig, the archetypal, platonic ideal of the butler, is required to be a bit more nimble and excitable than his constitution can bear. Louis Sorin as the art expert is probably the best foil, although one appreciates Zeppo — pretty much his entire role is to be abused by Groucho, and anybody who comes in for plenty of Groucho abuse is worth having around.


Censored lyrics —

(Mrs. Rittenhouse) You are the only white man to cover every acre.

(Spaulding) I think I’ll try and make her.

I see Hollywood is obliging us with a new film called ANIMAL CRACKERS, with Sylvester Stallone. Based on his appearance at the Oscars, he ought to make a superb Mrs. Rittenhouse.