Short Takes III: Groucho, Doris and Frank James

Horse Feathers (****1/2) The only thing wrong with this hilariously funny Marx Brothers film is the absene of Margaret Dumont from the cast. Other than that this film, the fourth of five for Universal the Brothers made is outstanding.  At this point in time the Marx Brothers were in the middle of a series of iconic films that still stand today as gems of absurdist comedy. The anarchistic arm of comedy rules right from the opening scene when Groucho, as Professor Quincy Adams Wagstaff, performs, “Whatever It Is , I’m Against It,”   and that pretty much is the theme of this short 75 minute film.

There are so many great scenes it is difficult to highlight just a few. I love the row boat scene with Groucho romancing Thelma Todd while she is attempting to seduce the team’s plays out of him. The entire sequence has a risqué and somewhat surrealistic feel to it all. When Thelma fall overboard and screams to Groucho to throw her a life saver, heroically he does just that, a candy life saver. The final wedding scene ends in what could be termed a riotous orgy. The scene opens with Groucho, Harpo and Chico standing off to the side as newlywed Thelma and an unseen groom, presumably Zeppo, are receiving their wedding vows from  the preacher. As soon as he pronounces the couple man and wife and says to kiss the bride, Groucho, Harpo and Chico literally jump all over Thelma falling into one big pile to the ground.   Directed by Norman Z. McLeod.

My Dream Is Yours (***1/2) an odd little musical with a young Doris Day and second banana Jack Carson in the male lead role. Despite being a musical there are dark overtones of alcoholism and the death of a husband/father in the war. I am not much of a Doris Day fan (I’m diabetic and cannot take the sugar rush) generally avoiding her films like I would a hornets’ nest, but Martin Scorsese discusses this film in the new book, CONVERSATIONS WITH SCORSESE and liked it. Coincidently, it recently popped up on TCM and thought, with the Scorsese recommendation, I would give it a try. The film is a mixed bag, but  there is a wonderful dream sequence blending live action and animation featuring Bugs Bunny, along with Doris and Jack that is the highlight of the film. Location shots in Hollywood including Schwab’s Drugstore and The Brown Derby add a nice flavor. Directed by Michael Curtiz.

The Return of Frank James (**1/2) Fictional version of Frank James pursuit of the Ford Brothers for the killing of his brother Jesse. As portrayed by Henry Fonda, Frank James is a gosh darn, soft spoken, man of the land kind of guy just out for good ol’ American revenge. I find Fonda such a likable actor, he could play a serial killer and you gosh darn want to like him. Henry Hull is entertainingly blustery as the newspaper editor/lawyer who defends Frank in court. The recently deceased Jackie Cooper’s death scene in the film has more corn than tears, and the film is also hurt by some serious stereotyping dialogue forced to be read by the black members of the cast. Nicely photographed by George Barnes. Directed by Fritz Lang. Cast includes Gene Tierney, John Carradine and Donald Meek.

6 comments on “Short Takes III: Groucho, Doris and Frank James

  1. Judy says:

    Hi John, I saw ‘The Return of Frank James’ a few weeks ago, and quite enjoyed it, though I must say I thought Henry Hull goes wildly over the top in the courtroom scenes! I rather liked seeing Jackie Cooper in an almost grown-up role and think I found his death scene a bit more moving than you say here. Also agree about the stereotyping of the black actors in this. Gene Tierney looks very beautiful in this film and I enjoyed seeing a woman newspaper reporter in a Western – I thought there might be more of a romance between her and Henry Fonda, but I’ve since read somewhere that they were forced to leave this as just a hint because Frank James’ descendants objected!

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    • John Greco says:

      Judy – Yeah I saw this film many years ago for the first time and remembered liking it. But this most recent look left me wanting more. Tierney does look fabulous in the film and, now that you mention it, I too enjoyed the newspaper scenes. That is interesting about the James family objecting to a romance between Frank and the Tierney character. I guess they did not object to all the other fictional stuff in the film like Frank killing the Ford Brothers. In real life, Charles Ford committed suicide and Robert Ford was shot to death by a man named Edward O’Kelley some eight years after his brother’s suicide.

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  2. ClassicBecky says:

    John, I love the Marx Brothers, and have gone to great lengths to make sure my boys and their kids do the same! “Whatever it is, I’m against it” is my favorite Groucho song. Great movie, though I too always miss Margaret Dumont when she is not in a Marx Bros. movie. I saw Groucho at his Academy Awards tribute. He was very old, but still funny — he said something so sweet. He said he wished his brothers could be there, and Margaret Dumont as well.

    Haven’t seen the Doris Day flick, and probably won’t. LOL! I’m not diabetic, but she’s not my cup of tea.

    Your assessment of Return of Frank James is right on. The only movie I ever saw in which Henry Fonda was not likeable was Once Upon A Time in the West. And that’s it. I feel that way about James Cagney, too. Even in White Heat, when he plays a psychopathic killer, he still manages to find a part of your heart. Good post, John!

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    • John Greco says:

      Thanks Becky. That’s good parenting teaching your kids to love the Marx Brothers (LOL). I remember seeing Groucho at the Academy Award tribute, it’s nice that they honor theses people but so many of them, like Groucho did, look old and frail by thenn making it kind if sad.

      Fonda is a great actor and he will always be Tom Joad to me.

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  3. Sam Juliano says:

    Like Judy, I also saw THE RETURN OF FRANK JAMES recently, in fact at the Fritz Lang Festival at the Film Forum. Perhaps I liked it a bit more than you (I go with *** 1/2) but can see why it’s largely undistinguished. As you note George Barnes typically does buffo camerawork in color. Nice point bringing up Jackie Cooper, whose death I did indeed read about.

    I agree the Doris Day musical (I’ll give it ***) is rather a mixed bag, but the dream sequence you talk about is indeed noteworthy.

    I love HORSE FEATHERS just about as much as I do DUCK SOUP, and am tempted to go with the highets rating. You frame it perfectly here John!

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    • John Greco says:

      Sam – HORSE FEATHERS is just brilliant stuff. The Marx Brothers at the top of their game. Thanks again, my friend.

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