Pre Code Confidential #5: HOLLYWOOD PARTY (MGM 1934)

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One of the most bizarre films of the Pre-Code (or any) era is HOLLYWOOD PARTY. This practically plotless hodgepodge stars Jimmy Durante as jungle movie hero Schnarzan, whose films are tanking at the box office. The public has grown tired of his battles with “moth-eaten, toothless lions”, so his producer decides to buy new ones from the adventurer Baron Munchausen (radio star Jack Pearl doing his schtick). Schnarzan throws a big Hollywood party for the Baron, hoping to win his favor, but screen rival Liondola (dialect comic Georges Givot), disguising himself as the Grand Royal Duke of Peloponnesia, crashes the bash and tries to buy the lions for himself with the help of Oklahoma oil baron Harvey Crump (the perpetually perplexed  Charles Butterworth).

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All this is just an excuse for a series of unrelated comic bits featuring some of the era’s top funnymen. Durante, as the nominal star, gets the bulk of the material. He’s a roar in a “Schnarzan” trailer with his half-naked costar, the fiery and funny Lupe Velez. A reincarnation skit features Jimmy as Adam at the Garden of Eden and Paul Revere’s horse! He even gets to clown around with the one and only Mickey Mouse (voiced by Walt Disney), which segues into a color Disney cartoon, “Hot Chocolate Soldiers”.

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Ted Healy and his Three Stooges show up, with Moe, Larry, and Curly as autograph hounds at the door and do a bit about Neanderthal craniums with three eminent professors. Mack Sennett veteran Polly Moran is Butterworth’s social-climbing wife, who gets involved in some amorous (and racy!) situations with Durante and Givot. Young lovers Eddie Quillan and June Clyde pitch woo and sing the comical “I’ve Had My Moments”.

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But it’s Laurel & Hardy who manage to steal the film, showing up in the last half as a pair of ragamuffins who sold the lions to Baron Munchausen. Seems the Baron gave them a check for fifty thousand tiddy-winks, and they want their lions back! After some shenanigans at the front door with butler Tom Kennedy, they crash the party and meet Lupe Velez at the bar. This turns into a classic “tit for tat” bit involving Stan, Ollie, Lupe, and a bowl of raw eggs (which the team later reprised in THE BULLFIGHTERS). Stan and Ollie let one of the lions loose, and Schnarzan engages in a fierce battle, only to awaken from what’s been a dream Durante had after reading a Tarzan book!

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HOLLYWOOD PARTY features tons of scantily clad women in musical sequences singing and dancing to some pretty forgettable songs. It was released about a month before the Code went into effect, and edited upon rerelease by the censors. What survives is still funny, and of interest to fans of early 30’s comedy. Also in the cast are Leonid Kinskey, Edwin Maxwell, Jed Prouty, Arthur Treacher (as a butler, of course), Robert Young (doing a bit as a radio announcer), and the ubiquitous Bess Flowers (if you look close, you’ll spot her!).

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Richard Boleslavsky usually gets the director’s credit, but research has shown the film had multiple hands working on different sequences. George Stevens handled the Laurel & Hardy scenes, and Allan Dwan, Edmund Goulding, Russell Mack, Charles Reisner, Roy Rowland, and Sam Wood all took turns in the director’s chair, but who did what is up for speculation. This gives HOLLYWOOD PARTY a disconnected feeling, like a series of two-reelers slapped together, but somehow it works. It’s a zany look at Hollywood Bacchanalia before the code went into effect, and film buff’s delight. If you’re a fan of any of the comedians I’ve mentioned, it’s definately worth checking out.

More PRE-CODE CONFIDENTIAL:

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!