Favorite Comedies: The 30’s

The 1930’s brought sound movies to the forefront. Along with it came the fast talking world of screwball comedies, the best of the Marx Brothers and much more. It was hard to limit this list to just ten. But that is the name of the game. The great film critic Andrew Sarris once described “screwball comedy as a sex comedy without the sex.”

This is the Part 3 in a monthly series.

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Horse Feathers (1932) Norman Z. McLeod

For The Marx Brothers the world and everyone in it is a target for ridicule. It makes no difference what ones position is in life: politician, policeman, intellectual, thug, society matron or bimbo, all are treated with equal irrelevance. No one is immune, all are exploited as asinine know nothings. Though the Marx’s share the same universal space as the rest of us, they are a law unto themselves and the first rule is…everything is irrelevant. As for all other rules, just refer back to rule number one. As Groucho sings in the opening minutes of Horse Feathers, their fourth film, Whatever It Is, I’m Against It.

The Marx Brothers world juxtaposes ideas that challenge the normal thought process. We have Groucho telling Harpo, “Young man, as you get older, you will find out you can’t burn the candle at both ends.” Harpo proceeds to quickly rebuke this piece of worldly advice by pulling out a candle from underneath his coat that is doing just that! The Marx’s also fracture the rules cinematically with Groucho breaking through the fourth wall. During Chico’s piano solo, he addresses the audience directly saying, “I’ve got to stay here, but there’s no reason why you folks shouldn’t go out to the lobby until this blows over.” Living in the world of The Marx Brothers can best be described as a dreamy surrealistic trip, no need for drugs, recreational or otherwise, to help you along. Continue reading

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.

Animal Crackers (1930) Victor Heerman

In 1974, more than forty years after its initial release and decades of being unavailable due to copyright troubles, “Animal Crackers” opened in New York at the Sutton Theater to packed houses and continued to do so for an amazing eight weeks.   While many new films played to half empty houses, Marx mania brought in audiences that resulted in lines outside the theater waiting for the next showing.

“One morning I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got in my pajamas, I don’t know.” –  Captain Spaulding.     

Based on a stage musical with a book by George S. Kaufman and Morris Ryskind and music by Burt Kalmar and Harry Ruby that ran on Broadway for 191 performances during the 1928-29 season, “Animal Crackers” was the Marx Brothers second film (The Coconuts was the first). The films gives us the first of Groucho’s  many great characters, the great African explorer,  Captain Jeffrey T. Spaulding, along with many of his most famous lines.

“You’re the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen, which doesn’t say much for you.”

 

The plot, and calling it a plot is a stretch, (who needs a plot in a Marx Brothers film?), involves the return of Captain Spaulding from Africa where he attends a big gala in his honor at the Long Island estate of Mrs. Rittenhouse (Margaret Dumont). An expensive painting is stolen at the party and the Brothers assist in its recovery. The plot, like I said, is really incidental, minor, it’s there, is at best what can be said. The real joy of the film is the sheer Marxist brand of brilliant anarchistic humor that is laid before us. Harpo chasing women, Chico double talking, and Groucho, his lines drenched in sarcasm pouring out at a mile a minute, hitting at machine gun speed. And yes, Zeppo is there too as Groucho’s secretary Jamison, the same character name he used in the Brothers first film, but like the plot, he is incidental. Lillian Roth is on board as Mrs. Rittenhouse’s daughter, Arabella.

 

“Hello, I must be going/I cannot stay, I came to say I must be going/I’m glad I came, but just the same, I must be going, la-la!”

Filmed in the original Astoria studios, “Animal Crackers” is an odd film. In some ways, it could be seen as visually primitive today. The film is static, though not as bad as “The Coconuts,” their first film. This was a common problem in the early days of sound, and also reflects the films’ stage roots. Yet, it does contain at times, a post modern feel to it in scenes, where for example, Groucho breaks the fourth wall addressing the audience directly, apologizing for many bad jokes, or when Harpo pulls out a gun  and shoots a statue that turns out to be a real person. Adapting their own play, Kaufmann and Rykind wrote the screenplay, and songwriters Kalmar and Ruby came up with two now classic songs, “Hooray for Captain Spalding” and “Why Am I So Romantic.”

“Pardon me while I have a strange interlude”.

“Animal Crackers” remains a very funny film, just missing the pantheon of Marx Brothers films, reserved for works like, “Duck Soup,” “Horse Feathers”, “Monkey Business” and “A Night at the Opera.” The film remains essential Marx Brothers viewing. Long live Marxism!

***1/2

Duck Soup (1933) Leo McCarey

Revolution for the Hell of It, Abbie Hoffman wrote back in the late 1960’s but he was way too late in his call. Some thirty-five years earlier the Marx Brothers blew the lid off turning rebellion into a mischievous art form in Leo McCarey’s masterpiece of mayhem, Duck Soup. Marxist chaos rules in the land of Freedonia.

It is difficult to imagine what a depression era audience, the film was made in 1933, made of the pandemonium being presented to them on screen. Like in all previous films, the Marx Brothers have no respect for anything. All positions of authority are targets for ridicule. Anti-politics, anti-war, anti-authority; as Groucho once sang in an earlier film (Horse Feathers), Whatever It Is, I’m Against It.” To the Marx Brothers it was all fodder for their antics to exploit the self-righteous, the rich, and the pompous and most all themselves. Continue reading