Still Funny After All These Years: Harold Lloyd in THE MILKY WAY (Paramount 1936)

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Harold Lloyd was one of the “Big 3” comedy stars of the Silent Era, right up there with Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton in popularity. I’ve viewed and enjoyed comic gems like SAFETY LAST and THE FRESHMAN, and some of his hilarious shorts. His bespectacled, energetic character was wildly popular in the Roaring Twenties, but with the advent of sound and The Great Depression, audiences turned away from Harold’s brand of comedy. Recently, I watched 1936’s THE MILKY WAY and wondered why they did, because Harold Lloyd was just as funny as ever in it, and the film is just as good as any screwball comedy of the era.

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Harold plays Burleigh Sullivan, a milquetoast milkman constantly in hot water for failing to meet his quotas. When a pair of drunken ruffians try to hit on his sister, meek Burleigh is forced to come to her defense. A fight breaks out, and Burleigh emerges from the pile victorious. The fight hits the papers because it seems Burleigh has knocked out the world’s middleweight champion! In reality, the milkman never touched him… he’s just a good ducker, and the champ’s friend did the slugging (seems Burleigh was picked on by bullies in his schooldays, and learned how to dodge a punch).

The champ’s manager, shifty “Honest” Gabby Sloan, tries to persuade Burleigh to get in the ring, but timid Burleigh declines. When Burleigh’s beloved milk wagon horse Agnes falls ill, the milkman changes his mind, needing money for the sick nag. What Burleigh doesn’t realize is Sloan and his gang plan on setting him up with a series of pugs taking dives so they can clean up at the box office for the big matchup between Burleigh and champ Speed McFarlane.

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It’s all pretty silly, but serves as a showcase for Lloyd’s comedic gifts. His physical agility is put to good use, he has a fine voice that fits his personality, and I really don’t understand why he wasn’t able to make the successful transition to talkies. After one more starring vehicle, 1938’s PROFESSOR BEWARE, Lloyd was off the screen until teaming with director Preston Sturges for THE SIN OF HAROLD DIDDLEBOCK (1947), a sequel to Lloyd’s silent hit THE FRESHMAN.

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Lloyd is surrounded by a solid supporting cast, led by Adolphe Menjou as the scheming promoter Gabby. Gravel voiced Lionel Stander is dimwitted henchman Spider, William Gargan the chump of a champ, and Verree Teasdale (Mrs. Menjou offscreen) Gabby’s wisecracking moll. Helen Mack (star of SON OF KONG) plays sister Mae, Dorothy Wilson is Burleigh’s girl Polly (they “meet cute” when Harold needs a phone to call a doctor for his horse at 3AM), and Marjorie Gateson is a scream as society matron Mrs. Winthrop Lemoyne (who Harold gives a ducking lesson to in another funny scene). Charles Lane plays a reporter, Murry Alper a cabbie, and if you look real close, you’ll spot Anthony Quinn making his film debut as a fight spectator.

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Leo McCarey was an old pro when it came to directing comedy. McCarey got his start at Hal Roach studios, working with the likes of Charlie Chase and Laurel & Hardy. When talkies arrived, he was the go-to guy for the top comedians of the day: The Marx Brothers (DUCK SOUP ), W.C. Fields, Burns & Allen, Mae West. McCarey won two Oscars in his career, for 1937’s screwball hit THE AWFUL TRUTH and the sentimental 1944 GOING MY WAY. Many of you are probably familiar with Harold Lloyd’s silent classics, but don’t take his talkies for granted. If they’re anything like THE MILKY WAY, they’ll be worth watching.

 

 

Curiouser & Curiouser: ALICE IN WONDERLAND (Paramount 1933)

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Lewis Carroll’s 1865 children’s classic ALICE IN WONDERLAND was turned into an all-star spectacular by Paramount in 1933. But the stars were mostly unrecognizable under heavy makeup and costumes, turning audiences off and causing the film to bomb at the box office. Seen today, the 1933 ALICE is a trippy visual delight for early movie buffs, thanks in large part to the art direction of William Cameron Menzies.

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Menzies’ designs are truly out there, giving ALICE the surrealistic quality of the books themselves. He actually storyboarded his ideas right into the physical script, earning a co-writer credit along with Joseph L. Mankiewicz . Menzies was the cinematic wizard whose art direction brought the magical 1924 THE THIEF OF BAGDAD to life. He was co-director and special effects designer for 1932’s CHANDU THE MAGICIAN, and the title of Production Designer was invented for him on the classic GONE WITH THE WIND. Menzies also directed a few films; especially of note are the science fiction entries THINGS TO COME and INVADERS FROM MARS.

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You all know the story: young Alice is snowed in and bored, daydreaming away the time. She falls asleep, and dreamily takes a trip through the looking glass, where everything is backwards, and the chess board comes to life. Alice goes outside and follows the White Rabbit (Skeets Gallagher) down the hole, where she encounters a strange world inhabited by Caterpillar (Ned Sparks), Frog (Sterling Holloway ), The Duchess (Alison Skipworth) and her baby (Billy Barty), The Cheshire Cat (Richard Arlen), The March Hare (Charlie Ruggles ), The Mad Hatter (Edward Everett Horton), The Doormouse (Jackie Searl), The King and Queen of Hearts (Alec B. Francis, May Robson), Gryphon (William Austin), The Mock Turtle (Cary Grant), The Red Queen (Edna May Oliver), The White Queen (Louise Fazenda), Tweedledee and Tweedledum (Roscoe Karns, Jack Oakie), Humpty Dumpty (W.C. Fields ), and The White Knight (Gary Cooper ) on her madcap journey through Wonderland.

Alice In Wonderland (1933) | Pers: Alison Skipworth | Dir: Norman Z. (M) Mcleod | Ref: ALI012AJ | Photo Credit: [ The Kobal Collection / Paramount ] | Editorial use only related to cinema, television and personalities. Not for cover use, advertising or fictional works without specific prior agreement

Nineteen year old Charlotte Henry stars as  twelve year old Alice, and she’s perfect in the part. In fact, she was too perfect, as she became so closely identified with Alice it was tough for her to get other roles. After costarring as Bo-Peep in Laurel & Hardy’s BABES IN TOYLAND (retitled MARCH OF THE WOODEN SOLDIERS), Henry appeared in CHARLIE CHAN AT THE OPERA (with Boris Karloff) and the Frank Buck serial JUNGLE MENACE before retiring from film at the age of 28.

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Film fanatics will be able to recognize many of the stars by their distinct voices. Grant, Cooper, and Fields (who’s my personal favorite) are easy, but true movie afficianados won’t have trouble finding Oakie, Ruggles, Horton, Holloway, or Oliver. Leon Errol Roscoe Ates , Baby LeRoy, and Mae Marsh also take part in this hallucinogenic fantasy directed by Norman Z. McLeod. The director was a comedy specialist, working with greats like Fields (IT’S A GIFT, IF I HAD A MILLION), The Marx Brothers (MONKEY BUSINESS , HORSE FEATHERS), Bob Hope (THE ROAD TO RIO, THE PALEFACE), and Danny Kaye (THE KID FROM BROOKLYN, THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER MITTY), and helming the classic ghost comedy TOPPER.

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Besides the Fields and Cooper segments, one part of the film I really enjoyed was when Tweedledee and Tweedledum relate the story of The Walrus and The Carpenter to Alice. Here the movie veers off into animation by Hugh Harman and Rudoph Ising, a pair of Disney veterans who’d later inaugurate Warner’s Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies cartoons. It’s a cute little vignette done by the animation pioneers, who later created such characters as Bosko and Barney Bear. ALICE IN WONDERLAND probably won’t appeal to those who’re enamored of CGI, but it was way ahead of its time, and is historically worth a look. After all, it isn’t every day you get a chances to see Cary Grant as The Mock Turtle or W.C. Fields as Humpty Dumpty, now is it?

 

Super Bowl Alternative: The “Other” BLACK SUNDAY (Paramount 1977)

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My New England Patriots aren’t in this year’s big game, and I can’t stand that big-headed Peyton Manning, so my interest in tonight’s Super Bowl is minimal. And the halftime show does nothing for me: Coldplay is probably one of my least favorite bands (Beyoncé’s OK, though). So if like me, you’re not planning on spending much time watching Roger Goodell’s season-ending spectacular (can’t stand Goodell, either) may I suggest an alternative, namely John Frankenheimer’s thriller BLACK SUNDAY.

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No, it’s not the 1960 Barbara Steele/Mario Bava horror classic, this BLACK SUNDAY is a rousing political thriller about terrorist organization Black September plotting a strike against America at the biggest game of them all, the Super Bowl. Beautiful but deadly terrorist Dahlia (Marthe Keller) has recruited the bitter, unstable blimp pilot Michael Lander (Bruce Dern at his 70’s psycho best) to turn the blimp into the ultimate suicide bomb, with plastique explosives setting off thousands of steel flechettes into the unsuspecting crowd. Isreali agents Kabakov (Robert Shaw) and Moshevsky (Steven Keats) race against time to foil the fiendish plot and stop Dahlia from enacting her mad scheme.

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BLACK SUNDAY was made at the height of the “disaster film” craze, though it’s really more in Frankenheimer’s political thriller wheelhouse. The director knew the territory well, as he’d previously done classics like THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE and SEVEN DAYS IN MAY. The screenplay’s based on a novel by Thomas Harris, long before his success with a character named Hannibal Lecter in a book called SILENCE OF THE LAMBS. John Williams adds another stirring score to his list of credits that include the same year’s STAR WARS.

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The cast is rounded out by domestic and international veterans such as Fritz Weaver, William Daniels, Michael V. Gazzo (THE GODFATHER PT 2), Bekim Fehmiu (THE ADVENTURERS), Walter Brooke (THE GRADUATE), Walter Gotell (General Gogol in the James Bond series), and Victor Campos (SCARFACE). BLACK SUNDAY was given access to shoot at Super Bowl X (Pittsburgh vs Dallas), and use of the Goodyear Blimp. Miami Dolphins (then) owner Joe Robbie and broadcasters Pat Summerall and Tom Brooksheir make cameo appearences. So now you’ve got a football alternative for tonight. As for me, I’m eagerly awaiting spring training! GO RED SOX!!

Here’s the trailer for BLACK SUNDAY:

A Dying Man, Scared of the Dark: John Wayne in THE SHOOTIST (Paramount 1976)

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THE SHOOTIST is John Wayne’s valedictory statement, a final love letter to his many fans. The Duke was now 69 years old and not in the best of health. He’d had a cancerous lung removed back in 1964, and though the cancer was in remission, Wayne must’ve knew his days were numbered when he made this film. Three years later, he died from cancer of the stomach, intestines, and spine. There were worries about his ability to make this movie, but Wayne loved the script and was determined to do it. The result is an elegy to not only the aging actor, but to the Western genre as a whole.

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The movie begins with footage of older Wayne westerns (EL DORADO, HONDO, RED RIVER, RIO BRAVO) narrated by Ron Howard (Gillom). “His name was J.B. Books…he wasn’t an outlaw. Fact is, for a while he was a lawman…He had a credo that went, ‘I won’t be wronged. I won’t be insulted. I won’t be laid a hand on. I don’t do these things to other people, and I require the same from them’ “.  Books arrives in Carson City, Nevada in the year 1901, a thriving city in a changing world. He’s come to visit his old friend Doc Hostetler (James Stewart), and get a second opinion. Hostetler examines him and gives Books the bad news, ” You have a cancer…advanced”. The doctor can’t do anything to help his friend, except give him Laudanum for the pain. Describing how the end will come, Hostetler says, “I don’t think the death I just described to you is the one I would choose”.

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Books decides to spend his last days in Carson City, taking a room with widowed Bond Rogers (Lauren Bacall) and her restless son Gillom. The young man idolizes Books when he finds out his identity, treating him like rock-star royalty. Others in the town aren’t so welcoming, including Marshal Thibido (Harry Morgan) and Mike Sweeney (Richard Boone), an ornery cuss whose brother was killed by Books. News of the celebrity in Carson City spreads, with faro dealer Jack Pulford (Hugh O’Brien) and local tough guy Jay Cobb (Bill McKinney) wondering how they would fare against the dying gunfighter.

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Others seek to cash in on Books’ pending demise. Newspaperman Dobkins (Rick Lenz) wants to write up a series of articles on Books’ colorful career, only to receive a gun in the mouth and a boot in the ass for his nerve. Former flame Serepta (Sheree North) wants to marry him and trade in on his name.  Undertaker Hezekiah Beckum (John Carradine in a wonderful cameo) offers a free funeral, hoping to put Books’ body on display, but ends up paying Books. The doomed Books, who only seeks to die with dignity and honor, devises a plan once the pain becomes too great to bear. He has Gillom invite Pulford, Sweeney, and Cobb to join him Monday morning for a last stand that’s tensely staged… and comes with a surprise twist.

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Don Siegel  directed THE SHOOTIST with his usual style, handling the well-stocked cast of veterans. Bacall, Boone, Carradine, and Stewart had all costarred with The Duke in films past, making this a sort of last round-up for them all. Bacall is particularly good as the widow Rogers, who despises Books at first until she learns he’s dying of cancer (Bacall’s first husband, the great Humphrey Bogart, died of the disease). Then her Christian charity shines through, and though she disapproves of his former lifestyle, the two gain a mutual respect. Ron Howard has what’s probably his best film role here, a long way from Opie in THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW and Richie in HAPPY DAYS. The superstar director of today gives a terrific performance, having honed his acting chops by working with so many legendary actors and directors in his career. Gillom is a young wastrel with no solid direction in his life until he meets Books. His involvement in the final shootout scene evokes strong emotions in anyone who watches this film.

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The screenplay by Miles Hood Swarthout and Scott Hale is full of memorable dialogue. I love the use of language in this film, it has a poetic quality to it that separates it from the usual Wayne Western. The actors all deliver their lines with conviction, and it’s no surprise considering that marvelous cast. Besides those I’ve mentioned, Scatman Crothers also shines in his small role. But it’s John Wayne who dominates the show. The Duke may move a little slower, and his voice may be ravaged by time and illness, but he’s still The Duke. The cancer that eventually killed him hadn’t been detected yet, but somewhere in the back of his mind I’m sure Wayne knew THE SHOOTIST would be his last cinematic stand. His final public appearance was at the 1979 Academy Awards:

(One trivia note: Charles G. Martin plays the man who guns down Wayne. The Duke also bit the dust onscreen in only six other films. Can you name them?)

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

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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.

Halloween Havoc!: TO BOO OR NOT TO BOO (1951) Complete Casper Cartoon!

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Casper The Friendly Dead Boy (errr, Ghost) made his film debut in 1945, and has been going strong ever since, with movies, comic books, television, and even a feature film. The concept has always struck me as pretty bizarre for kid-friendly fare, but audiences everywhere love the little perished poltergeist. Here’s one of Casper’s earliest apparitions, TO BOO OR NOT TO BOO:

Halloween Havoc!: BODY PARTS (Paramount, 1991)

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October is  here, and Halloween is on its way! I’ll be reviewing horror movies all month on Cracked Rear Viewer and Through the Shattered Lens, covering everything from Aztec Mummies to Zombies! Pleasant screams!

This 1991 variation on THE HANDS OF ORLAC stars Jeff Fahey as psychologist Bill Chrushank, who loses an arm in a horrific car crash. Dr. Agatha Webb (Lindsay Duncan) tells his wife Karen (Kim Delaney) she can restore his arm with a new surgical procedure. Webb grafts a human arm onto Bill’s body. After surgery and therapy, the operation is a success. Bill’s new arm is good as new, but he soon begins experiencing weird visions. Upon doing some research, Bill discovers the arm belonged to executed mass murderer Charles Fletcher. He finds out others have been given Fletcher’s limbs, including artist Remo (Brad Dourif) and young Mark (Peter Murnik).Bill also starts losing control of the arm, as if it has a mind of its own.

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Bill and his son are horseplaying at home, and Bill violently lashes out with an elbow smash to the kid’s kisser. When he tries to strangle wife Karen in bed, he’s forced to leave home. Bill meets at a bar with his fellow graftees. He’s goaded into a fight with a belligerent drunk, and almost kills him. The bar patrons try to stop him, but Bill’s out of control, stopped only by a superkick from Mark. The cops, led by Detective Sawchuck (Zakes Mokae), help break up the melee.

The terror now piles up as Mark and Remo are both killed, their new limbs ripped from their bodies. Bill and Sawchuck get involved in a mad car chase as someone with the grafted head of Charles Fletcher handcuffs himself to Bill, trying to rip his arm off. The cars roar down city streets side by side as Bill desperately tries to hang on to his arm. I won’t spoil the ending, but it’s plenty bizarre and bloody good.

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Director Eric Red ratchets up the terror slowly, building up to the gruesome climax. Red wrote the screenplays for THE HITCHER and NEAR DARK, and worked on this one with Norman Snyder. It’s based on the novel “‘Choice Cuts” by Frenchmen Pierre Boileau and Thomas Norcejac, who also collaborated on books and screenplays for classics like DIABOLIQUE, VERTIGO, and EYES WITHOUT A FACE. A fine pedigree, indeed. Loek Dikker’s score adds to the eeriness, and he won a Saturn Award for his contribution. BODY PARTS is a well crafted movie guaranteed to satisfy horror lovers. A chilling good time! .

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!

Poli-Tricksters: The Marx Brothers in DUCK SOUP (1933)

DuckSoup1When I heard TCM was airing DUCK SOUP tonight, I set the DVR. I got home as soon as I could (after an excellent Tom Rush concert) and began watching before it was finished recording. This is one of my favorite movies of all time, right up there in my personal comedy pantheon with such gems as AIRPLANE! and BLAZING SADDLES. It’s one of the most anarchic comedies ever made, and certainly one of the funniest.  If you think today’s politicians are a bunch of looney tunes, wait til you get a load of these guys.

Continue reading “Poli-Tricksters: The Marx Brothers in DUCK SOUP (1933)”

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