Straight No Chaser: The Marx Brothers in MONKEY BUSINESS (Paramount, 1931)

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After filming their stage successes THE COCONUTS (1929) and ANIMAL CRACKERS (1930), The Four Marx Brothers made their first movie written directly for the screen. MONKEY BUSINESS showcases the anarchic comedy style the brothers were famous for in a very loosely plotted script by humorist S.J. Perelman and Will B. Johnstone (with “additional dialogue” by Arthur Sheekman) full of crazy comic moments.

The brothers play stowaways on an ocean liner bound for America who get mixed up with a pair of rival gangsters. Groucho, of course, gets mixed up with gangster Briggs’s wife, the wonderful Thelma Todd. She takes the role usually reserved for Margaret Dumont, but her youth and beauty give it a different spin. Groucho and Thelma are perfect foils, whether it’s their comic banter (Thelma: “My husband will wallop me” – Groucho: “Always thinking of your husband. Couldn’t I wallop you just as well?”) or their zany dance routines. Thelma would make one more with the Marxes (HORSE FEATHERS, 1932) before her tragic death at age 29 in 1935.

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The jokes come fast and furious. Groucho’s timing, freed from the conventions of the stage,is better then ever, his rhythmic one-liners roll off his tongue (‘Is it true you wash your hair in clam broth?”) The eye-rolling, eyebrow raising, and rat-a-tat delivery are far superior here than in the first two films. Harpo’s sight gags (the frog in the hat, the Punch and Judy scene) are great, and he’s still chasing every girl in sight. Chico mangles the English language like no one else can, and his trick piano playing’s always a treat. Even Zeppo does well in a larger than usual role as the love interest for rival gangster Helton’s daughter.

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The most famous scene is when the four brothers try to get off the ship by impersonating Maurice Chevalier singing “You Brought A New Kind of Love to Me”. When the other three fail, Harpo almost gets away with it until it’s discovered he has a phonograph strapped to his back! There’s plenty of slapstick to go along with the non-stop puns and back-and-forth verbal gymnastics. Director Norman Z. McLeod (who also did the follow-up HORSE FEATHERS) was a gifted comedy director who guided pros like W.C. Fields (IT’S A GIFT, 1934) and Red Skelton (PANAMA HATTIE, 1942), as well as several Bob Hope vehicles (ROAD TO RIO, 1947, THE PALEFACE, 1948). McLeod was also responsible for the classic ghost comedy TOPPER (1937) and the all-star IF I HAD A MILLION (1932).

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MONKEY BUSINESS is right up there with DUCK SOUP as one of the Marx Brothers best. I’m a huge fan of their early Paramount movies. That let-it-all-hang-out spirit just really wasn’t there at MGM. Most critics think different, that the brothers needed to be reigned in. I disagree. I like the undiluted, anything goes style found in MONKEY BUSINESS and their four others at Paramount. If you like your Marx Brother straight with no romantic subplot chaser, MONKEY BUSINESS will not disappoint!

Less Than Grand Guignol: TWO ON A GUILLOTINE (Warner Bros, 1965)

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TWO ON A GUILLOTINE was one of those movies that used to air frequently on Boston’s Channel 56. I’d seen it numerous times, and had largely forgotten about it when TCM aired it recently. I wondered how it held up after all those decades so, good little film blogger that I am, I DVR’d it to review. While it’s certainly no classic, TWO ON A GUILLOTINE isn’t as bad as the title would imply.

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The movie’s about a famous stage magician, The Great Duquense aka Duke (Cesar Romero), who passes away. The papers say he “vows to return from the grave”. His estranged daughter Cassie (Connie Stevens) shows up at the funeral. She’s a dead ringer for her mom, who mysteriously vanished twenty years ago. Duke’s will is read (at the Hollywood Bowl, no less), and Cassie is set to inherit his estate if she’ll stay at his home for seven days, specifically not to leave between midnight and dawn. Val Henderson (Dean Jones), a reporter looking for a story, cons his way into Cassie’s life by pretending to be a real estate agent interested in the house. She finds him “contemptible”. Of course, they quickly fall in love. 

The creepy old house is gimmicked up with Duke’s stage props. There’s a lot of strange goings-on involving scary noises, secret locked doors, skeletons popping out of nowhere, and general eerieness. Cassie finds out he’s a reporter, dumps him, then wants him back (your classic boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl, boy-regains-girl scenario). There’s some genuinely spooky scenes here, but on the whole it’s more Less Than Grand Guignol. I’ve got to admit the twist ending is pretty neat, though.

The cast is full of familiar actors. Likeable Dean Jones has been a favorite of mine since his Disney days (THAT DARN CAT!, THE UGLY DACHSHUND, THE LOVE BUG), and his presence is always welcome. Connie Stevens wasn’t the best actress, but she wasn’t the worst, either. Cesar Romero gives the part of Duquense his customary pizzazz. Others in the picture include Parley Baer, Virginia Gregg, John Hoyt, Connie Gilchrist, and midget actor Billy Curtis in a small role (sorry, I had to do it!!)

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Some of the behind the cameras stuff is more interesting to me than the film itself. Producer/director William Conrad was best known for his two hit TV series, CANNON and JAKE & THE FATMAN. The veteran actor of radio (the original Marshal Dillon on GUNSMOKE), films (THE KILLERS, THE RACKET), and television has a Hitchcockian cameo in this one. Conrad did a lot of TV directing, most notably for 77 SUNSET STRIP. His booming bass voice was often heard narrating movies and shows. (Yes, that’s Conrad narrating the classic animated series ROCKY & BULLWINKLE!) Writer Henry Slesar was an award-winning short-story author who dabbled in TV (ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS), soap operas (SEARCH FOR TOMORROW, EDGE OF NIGHT), and movies (1971’s MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE, with Jason Robards). Slesar even contributed the two-part BATMAN episode featuring Shelley Winters as Ma Parker. And TWO ON A GUILLOTINE was the next-to-last score for composer Max Steiner, who was a long way from GONE WITH THE WIND, KING KONG, CASABLANCA, and THE SEARCHERS.

TWO ON A GUILLOTINE was filmed in black and white. and would’ve benefitted from color. There’s a lot of obvious foreshadowing and it covers all too familiar ground, but it’s not a bad way to spend two hours, and I’m glad I got to see it one more time. Oh….that rock band appearing in the club sequence is The Condors, featuring George and Teddy. They aren’t bad, either. Wonder whatever happened to them?

Remembering Lionel Atwill: DOCTOR X (1932) and MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM (1933)

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When film fans think of their Mount Rushmore of horror stars, a few names immediately come to mind. Boris Karloff. Bela Lugosi. Lon Chaney (Sr & Jr). Vincent Price, Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee. One name usually omitted is Lionel Atwill. Which is a shame, because the actor was front and center at the beginning of the horror cycle of the 1930s. While hard-core horror buffs certainly know his work, Atwill is best remembered today for his supporting role as the wooden-armed Inspector Krough in 1939’s SON OF FRANKENSTEIN. But at the dawn of the Golden Age of Horror, Lionel Atwill starred in two of the earliest fright classics, both produced by Warner Brothers: DOCTOR X and MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM.

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DOCTOR X is more along the lines of an “old dark house” mystery, with dashes of the new horror genre added for extra spice. Dr. Xavier (Atwill) is called in by the police in the matter of the “Moon Killer” murders, involving a cannibalistic madman. The cops say these murders could only be caused by a special scalpel used at Xavier’s academy. The doctor, worried about bringing bad publicity to his research, asks for 48 hours to investigate on his own. Meanwhile, nosy reporter Lee Taylor (Lee Tracy) is snooping around trying to get a sensationalistic scoop. We’re introduced to Xavier’s faculty, and they’re an odd lot indeed: one-handed Dr. Wells (Preston Foster) is an expert on cannibalism, Dr. Haines (John Wray) a brain surgeon once shipwrecked in Tahiti under mysterious circumstances, and Drs. Duke and Rowitz (Harry Beresford, Arthur Edmund Carewe), studiers of astronomy. Taylor goes to Xavier’s estate to dig up some info, where he’s thrown out by Xavier’s lovely daughter Joanne (scream queen Fay Wray). He manages to find out Xavier is bringing his faculty out to Cliff Shoales manor, and follows along.

Continue reading Remembering Lionel Atwill: DOCTOR X (1932) and MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM (1933)

Have a Bucket of Fun!: THE KENTUCKY FRIED MOVIE (1977)

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Satire ran rampant in the 70s. Magazines like MAD and NATIONAL LAMPOON were eagerly devoured by hungry youth disillusioned with the status quo, while SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE and MONTY PYTHON’S FLYING CIRCUS kept us glued to our TV sets for must-watch comic nonsense. Moviegoers were treated to such farcical fare as THE GROOVE TUBE (1974), TUNNELVISION (1976), and LOOSE SHOES (1980). But without question, the side-splittingly funniest of them all was THE KENTUCKY FRIED MOVIE.

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KFM (as I’ll pretensiously call it) was the brainchild of David Zucker, Jim Abrahams, and Jerry Zucker, those geniuses behind AIRPLANE! The trio of comic terrorists first got together as college chums in a theatrical troupe known as The Kentucky Fried Theater. Making a name for themselves as unbridled smart-alecs taking potshots at everything in sight, they developed this hilarious gumbo of outrageous skits with the help of a young director named John Landis, whose only previous credit in the director’s chair was the horror spoof SCHLOCK! (1971), which I’ll get around to viewing sooner rather than later (I know you’re all excited about that!)

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THE KENTUCKY FRIED MOVIE, like everything the Zucker/Abrahams/Zucker team does, takes guerilla comedy to the extreme. A series of unrelated events, KFM skewers local news, commercials, PSAs (Henry Gibson in a United Appeal for the Dead), TV shows, and movies. There’s some Previews of Coming Attractions thrown in, touting “Samuel L. Bronkowitz” producions of R-rated titillation pics (CATHOLIC HIGH SCHOOL GIRLS IN TROUBLE), disaster movies (THAT’S ARMAGGEDON!!), and Blaxploitation (CLEOPATRA SCHWARTZ). The big set-piece is A FISTFUL OF YEN, a pitch-perfect kung-fu parody with leads that can’t pronounce their R’s (“Total consentwation”), cheesy sound effects, an evil villain bent on world domination, and an insanely funny conclusion.

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Filled with groan-inducing puns,non-sequiturs, ethnic humor, questionable taste, silly cameo roles (Bill Bixby, George Lazenby, Donald Sutherland, Tony Dow, porn star Uschi Digard, FAMOUS MONSTERS editor Forrest J Ackerman) and lots and lots of bare boobs, THE KENTUCKY FRIED MOVIE is as edgy as it was when it was first made. It wouldn’t go over well with today’s easily offended, politically correct crowd. The film was a big hit with the “party animals” of the day. I remember seeing it at the movies stoned out of my gourd, like I was most of the time back then. But that was many moons ago, and today I’m…..

Nahhh, I’ll save the true confessions stuff if I ever want to start one of those “personal recovery journey” blogs. THE KENTUCKY FRIED MOVIE  still makes me laugh my ass off! Stoned out of your gourd or stone-cold sober, just watch it and see. Unless you’re one of those overly sensitive types. Maybe you should go watch THE NOTEBOOK or something.

A MAJOR AWARD!

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It seems I’ve been nominated by Ryan Watches Films to receive the prestigious Leibster Award!! I’m not sure what this means, but I’m grateful for the recognition. Ryan’s unique take on film are well worth your time, and I recommend you check out his blog as soon as possible. (Mine too, for that matter!)

Rules

Once you are nominated, make a post thanking and linking the person who nominated you.

– Include the Liebster Award sticker in the post too.
– Nominate 5 -10 other bloggers who you feel are worthy of this award. Let them know they have been nominated by commenting on one of their posts. You can also nominate the person who nominated you.
– Ensure all of these bloggers have less than 200 followers.
– Answer the eleven questions asked to you by the person who nominated you, and make eleven questions of your own for your nominees or you may use the same questions.
– Lastly, COPY these rules in the post.

Questions

1. If you could travel anywhere tomorrow, where would it be?
Straight down to Ft. Myers, FLA…..I love that city!!

2. What is the simplest thing that makes you smile?
A happy child.

3. What do you like about your hometown?
We’re right on the ocean.

4. What is the best meal you can prepare?
Since I spent over 20 years as a cook/chef, it’s hard to choose….but I do have a preference for Cajun cuisine!

5. What’s your favourite chore to do at home?
None…..I hate to clean!

6. What’s your favourite book?

Again, hard to choose…. toss up between The Godfather (Mario Puzo), One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest (Ken Kesey), and Ringolevio (Emmett Grogan)

 7. What’s the very first thing you would do if you won the lottery?
Pay off all my bills!

8. What’s your favourite fruit or vegetable?
Cold green grapes

9. How many times have you fallen in love?
Thousands…or maybe that’s just lust!

10. What was your favourite game or toy as a child?
Anything that could be played outdoors

11. What’s your favourite beverage?
Arnold Palmer (lemonade & iced tea)

With the 11 questions posed to you, my nominees are :

Halloween Girl

An Empire of Words

Arthouse Photography

Mad Movie Ranter/That Movie Writer Guy

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Congratulations and happy blogging!!

Happy Birthday Robert Mitchum: OUT OF THE PAST (RKO 1947)

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One of my favorite actors, the laconic, iconic Robert Mitchum was born August 6, 1917 in Bridgeport, Connecticut. Rugged Robert had a wandering spirit, riding the rails in the days of the Depression, and even did time on a Georgia chain gang. Mitchum eventually ended up in California , and was bitten by the acting bug. After small roles in Laurel & Hardy comedies and Hopalong Cassidy oaters, Mitchum got noticed in a series of B-Westerns based on the novels of Zane Grey. His big break came as a tough sergeant in 1945’s THE STORY OF G.I. JOE, which he received an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor. But the role that made him a star was world-weary private eye Jeff Bailey in the film noir classic OUT OF THE PAST.

We meet Bailey running a gas station in the small town of Bridgeport, California (an homage to Mitchum’s hometown, perhaps?) He has a mute boy only known as The Kid (Dickie Moore) working for him, and a pretty girlfriend Ann (Virginia Huston). Life is good until old acquaintance Joe Stefano (Paul Valentine) drops by and tells Jeff his ex-employer Whit Sterling (Kirk Douglas) wants to see him. Jeff has Ann drive him to Whit’s estate in Lake Tahoe and relates the story of his past in flashback: His real name is Markham. a former private eye once hired by Whit to find errant girlfriend Kathy Moffat (Jane Greer). Kathy put two slugs in Whit’s gut and absconded with forty grand. But Whit says he doesn’t care about the money, he just wants Kathy back. Jeff tracks her down to Acapulco, and immediately becomes infatuated with her. She plays along, but knows why he’s there. She confesses she did shoot Whit, but didn’t take any money. The two begin their doomed affair (Kathy: “Won’t you believe me?” Jeff: “Baby, I don’t care” as they embrace). Whit and Joe show up and Jeff throws them off the trail.

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Jeff and Kathy wind up in San Francisco, where they’re spotted by Jeff’s former partner Fisher (Steve Brodie), now working for Whit. The couple gets a cabin deep in the woods, but Fisher trails them. The two men duke it out, when Kathy shoots Fisher. She takes off in the car and leaves Jeff  to bury the body…

Flashback over, Ann drops Jeff off at Whit’s. There he discovers Kathy’s “back in the fold”, as Whit puts it. Whit wants to hire Jeff for a new job, obtaining some incriminating tax papers from Whit’s blackmailing attorney Leonard Eels (Ken Niles). Kathy goes to Jeff alone and tries to explain things, but he bitterly tells her to get lost. Jeff’s sent back to San Francisco to meet Eels’ secretary Meta (Rhonda Fleming), and put the plan in play. Sensing a frame-up going on, he tries to warn Eels. When Jeff goes back to Eels apartment later, sure enough, the lawyer’s been killed. Jeff hides the body in the basement. Jeff sneaks over to Kathy’s, and discovers her calling the building manager about Eels. The scheme has failed, and Kathy tells Jeff she was forced to sign an affidavit stating Jeff murdered Fisher, and had to go along with the plan. Jeff obtains the papers from Whit’s club, and Joe and Kathy call Whit, who puts the word out, and Jeff’s now wanted for two murders. Joe is sent by Kathy to follow the Kid to lead him to Jeff. He’s about to shoot Jeff when the Kid snags him with a fishing hook, and Joe falls to a watery grave. Jeff confronts Kathy and Whit, and tells Whit the truth. Returning briefly to Ann, Jeff goes back to Whit’s and finds him shot dead on the floor. Kathy’s running the show now, and is ready to split with Jeff (Kathy: “I think we deserve a break”  Jeff: “We deserve each other”). As she gathers some clothes, Jeff discretely calls the cops. They drive down the highway when Kathy sees a roadblock. Realizing Jeff’s betrayed her, she shoots him. The car careens down the highway as the cops shoot at it, and both Jeff and Kathy wind up dead.

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Pretty bleak stuff. OUT OF THE PAST can get confusing at times, but Mitchum’s the glue that holds it all together. His Jeff Bailey/Markham is tough but vulnerable, smarter than his adversaries, always with a wisecrack on his lips. Robert Mitchum in that trenchcoat and slouch hat became the symbol of a film noir anti-hero. The sleepy-eyed star’s career almost ended in 1948 after a pot bust, but he returned to the screen for almost another half-century. Some of his best (in my opinion) were HIS KIND OF WOMAN (1951), RIVER OF NO RETURN (with Marilyn Monroe, 1954), NIGHT OF THE HUNTER (1955), HEAVEN KNOWS, MR. ALLISON (1957), THUNDER ROAD (1958, where Mitchum even sings the title song!), THE SUNDOWNERS (1960), the original CAPE FEAR (1962), EL DORADO (with John Wayne, 1966), RYAN’S DAUGHTER (1970), and FAREWELL, MY LOVELY (as Phillip Marlowe, 1975). He also starred in the popular 1983 TV-miniseries THE WINDS OF WAR. Robert Mitchum had a long and diverse career as a true Hollywood star, and though he died on July 7, 1997, we still have that tremendous body of work to look back on. OUT OF THE PAST isn’t just one of Mitchum’s best films, it’s a film noir masterpiece that has influenced generations, and will continue to do so as long as there are movies to be made. Happy Birthday, Robert!

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That’s Blaxploitaion!: BLACK BELT JONES (Warners 1974)

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Here’s the recipe for the quintessential 70s flick: Take a huge hunk of blaxpolitation, add equal parts kung-fu action, throw in some Mafia type villains. Stick em all in a blender with some generic funk music, and you’ve got BLACK BELT JONES. This movie was made to cash in on all three crazes, and to make a star out of Jim ‘The Dragon’ Kelly, who appeared in director Robert Clouse’s previous kung-fu extravaganza ENTER THE DRAGON, starring the immortal Bruce Lee.  Kelly looked good onscreen, and had all the right martial art moves. Unfortunately, he couldn’t act his way out of a Chinese take-out box. Nobody can in this film except gorgeous Gloria Hendry, who plays Kelly’s kung-fu partner/love interest Sydney.

The plot’s basically just there to hang the action scenes on: Mafia chief Don Stefano tries to grab some land the city of Los Angeles wants for a new civic center. He sends Pinky, the local black gangleader, to threaten Papa Byrd (Scatman Crothers in a terrible hairpiece!), whose karate school sits on the land. Pinky roughs him up a little too well, and Papa dies. Enter Black Belt Jones (friends call him BB), the baddest dude in the hood! Papa’s long-lost daughter Sydney (Hendry) shows up at the funeral, and now owns the building. Turns out she’s a kung-fu fighter, too. Pinky sends for some Bogarts from San Francisco (Don: “What are Bogarts?” – Pinky: “Treacherous niggers!”) to beat up the kung-fu students and hold BB’s young pal Quincy (Eric Lanueville) hostage. BB rips off The Don and sets up Pinky to take the fall. They save Quincy, the hoods find out, and the obligatory car chase is on!  BB and Sydney kick righteous ass on the bad guys and turn them in to BB’s friends the Feds.

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I just love some of the politically incorrect (and inept) dialogue in BLACK BELT JONES:

  • “Wesley, I’m gonna slap the black offa you!”
  • “I’ll make you look like a sick faggot”
  • “You goddam ape! You made a monkey outta us!”

Kelly’s karate noises (“woo-woo-woo”) sound more like Curly Howard than Bruce Lee, while the whipcracking sound effects every time someone lands a blow would make a great drinking game! And those fashions…hoo boy! Motown session guitarist Dennis Coffey (“Scorpio”) delivers the theme, while the rest of the score, by Luchi DeJesus, is ersatz Quincy Jones, sounding straight out of a 70s cop show (and indeed, DeJesus did the music for TV’s GET CHRISTIE LOVE!).

Full of hand slapping and jive talking, BLACK BELT JONES is a pure slab of 70s cheese. Quentin Tarantino (whose movies I love) wishes he could’ve made this. If you’re in the mood for an 85 minute blast from the past, catch BLACK BELT JONES. Can you dig it?

(There’ll be more That’s Blaxpolitation! posts in the near futureStay tuned, suckas!) 

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