Goats and Nuts and MILLION DOLLAR LEGS (Paramount 1932)

Hail, hail Klopstokia! MILLION DOLLAR LEGS is  total  movie anarchy, a throwback to the halcyon days of Mack Sennett. It’s a comedy cornucopia filled with sight gags and verbal nonsense, led by legendary W.C. Fields as president of the mythical country of Klopstokia, about to default on its loans until itinerant brush salesman Jack Oakie comes up with a plan to enter the hale and hearty Klopstokians in the 1932 Olympics and win the huge cash prize being put up by his employer!

Klopstokia is noted for “Goats & Nuts”, their chief exports, imports, and inhabitants! All political disputes are settled by arm wrestling, and President Fields is the strongest of all, though he’s constantly being challenged by his Secretary of the Treasury Hugh Herbert. Presidential daughter Angela (Susan Fleming, future wife of Harpo Marx) and brush salesman Migg Tweeny (Oakie) “meet cute” and immediately fall in love. When asking for her hand, Angela tells her dad she calls Migg “Sweetheart”, which the Prez mistakes for Migg’s real moniker! (Migg: “Listen, my name’s Tweeny” Prez: “You’ll always be ‘Sweetheart’ to me” Migg: “I know, I know, but there’s talk already…)

Secretary Herbert and his traitorous cabinet (including Keystone veterans Irving Bacon, Vernon Dent, and Billy Gilbert , who performs his comical sneeze routine) plot to put Klopstokia’s athletic team out of commission by hiring super-spy Mata Machree, “A Woman No Man Can Resist”! She’s played by luscious Lyda Roberti, parodying Garbo (who starred in 1931’s MATA HARI) and sings the risqué “When I Get Hot in Klopstokia”. You haven’t lived until you’ve seen lithe Lyda slink and wiggle her way to a man’s… err, heart.

You all know what a sucker I am for punny wordplay, and MILLION DOLLAR LEGS is loaded with it, thanks to screenwriters Henry Myers and future Oscar winner Joseph L. Mankiewicz . Here’s a couple of examples:

Migg: “You know what? I love you!”

Angela: “In Klopstokia, we have another way of saying that”

Migg: “In public??”

Then there’s this: Angela: “All the girls in this country are named Angela, and all the men are named George”

Migg: “Why?”

Angela: “Why not!”

Fields is a riot, as always, whether having troubles with his top hat, juggling clubs to stay in shape, or performing as a one-man band. Cross-eyed silent comedian Ben Turpin keeps popping up (for no reason!) as a cloak-and-dagger spy, Andy Clyde as Fields’ Major-Domo could give The Flash a run for his money, and little Dickie Moore steals whatever scenes he’s in as Angela’s brother Willie – apparently the only male in Klopstokia not named George!! All this absurdity is expertly handled by director Edward F. “Eddie” Cline, who went back to Mack Sennett’s Keystone Kops, and worked with nearly every great comic in history, from Chaplin and Keaton, to Wheeler & Woolsey and Olsen & Johnson, to the Ritz Brothers and the Andrews Sisters!

MILLION DOLLAR LEGS is sheer nonsense, and I mean that in the best way possible. Predating the Marx Brothers’ DUCK SOUP by a year, the film shares its anarchic spirit, and the two together would make a great double feature when you need to just cut loose and laugh. And we all need that in this day and age!!

Pre Code Confidential #3: MAKE ME A STAR (Paramount 1932)

1932's Make Me a Star
1932’s Make Me a Star

MAKE ME A STAR is an odd Pre Code film unsure what it wants to be. It starts off as a comedy about a movie-mad country bumpkin named Merton (Stuart Erwin) in the small town of Simsbury who dreams of becoming a cowboy star like his idol, Buck Benson (George Templeton). He’s even studying to become a thespian by listening to recordings from the National Correspondence Academy of Acting. Town busybody Mrs. Scudder (Zasu Pitts)  complains about Merton’s absent-mindedness to his boss, general store owner Gashwiler (Charles Sellon). Merton has a supportive friend, Tessie (Helen Jerome Eddy) who helps him set up a photo-shoot. But things go awry when Merton, dressed in full cowboy regalia, loses control of Gashwiler’s horse, causing a ruckus in the town square. Gashwiler fires Merton, and the starry-eyed yokel takes a train to Hollywood.

The film veers off into drama from here, as Merton tries to crash the movies, without success. Comic actress Flips Montague (Joan Blondell) feels sorry for the rube, and wrangles him an extra role in a Buck Benson production. But the talentless Merton promptly blows his one line and is fired from the set. Dejected and broke, he hides out on the studio lot, where Flips finds him living days later, hungry and disheveled. She buys him breakfast and tells him to forget his dreams (“You haven’t got a Chinaman’s chance”), offering him train fare back to Simsbury.  He politely refuses, determined to make it in Hollywood.

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Flips takes him to see her director Jeff Baird (Sam Hardy) and comes up with a plan to star Merton in a Buck Benson parody. The two don’t tell him it’s a farce though, because Merton abhors slapstick, thinking it’s degrading to the noble art of acting. While Merton (acting under the moniker Whoop Ryder) plays it straight, he’s surrounded by Baird’s comedy stars (veterans Ben Turpin, Snub Pollard, and Bud Jamison) hamming it up. The movie’s then gimmicked up in post-production with comic sound effects, sped-up action, and a high-pitched voice for Merton. When the finished product “Wide Open Spaces” is previewed, the audience howls with laughter. Poor Merton is mortified, and is ready to give up show business. He goes to see Flips one last time, who’s taken a shine to the boy, and feels terrible about the whole mess. Merton breaks down and cries, cradled in Flips’ arms in a real downbeat ending.

MAKE ME A STAR was based on a novel by Harry Leon Wilson and stage play by George S. Kaufman and Marc Connelly. It was originally filmed as MERTON OF THE MOVIES in a 1924 silent version, and remade again as a Red Skelton vehicle in 1947 under the same name. The director of MAKE ME A STAR was William Beaudine, who shows great restraint with the material, not letting things get too maudlin. Beaudine had been around since the dawn of Hollywood, and could make a good picture when given the opportunity. Unfortunately, he somehow became stuck on Poverty Row during the 1930’s and cranked out hundreds of Grade B and lower potboilers for studios like Monogram, PRC, and the indies for the next thirty years, earning the nickname “One Shot” for bringing ’em in quick and cheap. MAKE ME A STAR allows Beaudine a chance to show he had talent, and his fate as a low-budget maestro wasn’t fully deserved.

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Stuart Erwin has never been one of my favorites. He’s clearly going for pathos, but comes off as just pathetic. Merton’s such a dimwit it’s hard to muster any sympathy for him. Joan Blondell plays her usual tough dame with a heart of gold  who’s seen it all. In the hands of a lesser actress, the improbable budding romance between Flips and Merton would be unbelievable, but Blondell’s talent somehow makes it work, despite Erwin. She’s the glue that holds the latter half of this schizophrenic film together.

The most interesting thing about MAKE ME A STAR is the cameos by some of Paramount’s brightest stars of the day. Pay attention and you’ll see Tallulah Bankhead, Maurice Chevalier, Claudette Colbert, Gary Cooper, Fredric March, Jack Oakie, Charlie Ruggles, and Sylvia Sidney parade across the screen in quick bits. This alone makes the film worth a look, but ultimately it’s a disappointment.  Aficionados of early 30’s Hollywood will want to see it; if that’s not you, don’t bother.

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