Archive for Zeppo Marx

Where Men Are Empty Overcoats (Business Without Monkeys)

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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The Rittenhouse Affair

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

The Wedding Marx

Posted in FILM, Sport with tags , , , , , , , , , on September 6, 2014 by dcairns

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For our anniversary, Fiona and I ate out and then decided to astonish the world by watching a movie. Yes, a year already. It seems to be lasting. Of course, we’d been together for twenty years before we got hitched. It’s a good system: a lot more marriages would last until death us do part if the couples waited until they were nearly dead before making it legal.

We considered various movies to watch for this special occasion — things that got us both interested in movies in the first place, like KING KONG and Ray Harryhausen, classic science fiction like FORBIDDEN PLANET and THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN, classic horror like FRANKENSTEIN etc. But in the end we plumped for the Marx Bros, and the one I proposed was HORSE FEATHERS (1932), just because we’d never watched it together. It’s the Paramount one without Margaret Dumont, which was why Fiona always chose a different one.

But HORSE FEATHERS is very good, even if it doesn’t have the Grande Dame herself. It has Thelma Todd, and it had been so long since I’d seen it that this time I recognised a lot more people, like Robert Greig, the butler from SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS, partially eclipsed by his beard, and Vince Barnett standing at a bar with no lines (somebody thought another comedian might come in handy), and Theresa Harris (as a maid, of course) and Nat Pendleton.

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If the faces hadn’t previously registered, the dialogue was mostly etched in memory. Groucho’s address to the college, his address to the class, the password routine, And Groucho’s perfect response to a threatened musical interlude from Chico, stepping up to the camera and telling us: “I’ve got to stay here, but there’s no reason you folks shouldn’t go out in the lobby until this thing blows over.” I actually like Chico’s recitals, it’s Harpo’s that make me tired.

Just watched a documentary on clowns produced by the estimable Lobster Films. It tells the story, at one point, of Harpo’s trip to the USSR. His baggage containing various pistols, daggers, prop bombs and sticks of dynamite (all part of the act) he was detained and interrogated by the Soviet police, a scenario for a play if ever I heard one (to be entitled So You Won’t Talk, Huh?)

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HORSE FEATHERS has a big slapstick football game climax. I hate sport. I am to sport what Richard Dawkins is to religion. And while I admire Keaton’s COLLEGE and Lloyd’s THE FRESHMAN, I don’t like the way the bookworm turns and beats the jocks at their own game. It isn’t realistic, and it’s a betrayal of their identity. So, although it isn’t so very funny, I quite like the way the Marxes just destroy the whole concept of a rues-based competitive sport, racing to the touch-line by chariot and producing a whole series of balls to raise their score.

Marx Bros films usually fizzle out, being predicated upon nothing and defying narrative structure, but this one has a good, if arbitrary ending, with all three brothers (Zeppo may be there, but he’s wisely framed out) marrying Thelma and then aggressively clambering aboard her as the Wedding March blasts out, applying to the rules of matrimony the same freeform approach taken to football.

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 The Marx Brothers Silver Screen Collection

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