The other day I was at my doctor’s office and her assistant noticed I had a book in my hand. “Oh, what are you reading?” she asked making conversation. I told her it was a biography about Thelma Todd. She gave me a blank stare that easily said, who? I explained that Todd was an actress back in the 1920’s and 1930’s who worked with the Marx Brothers and Laurel & Hardy. My answer seemed to satisfy her and we went back to my examination business. This seems to sum up what most people remember, if at all, about Thelma Todd. That and the fact her death, more than eighty years ago, remains one of Hollywood’s most interesting unsolved cases. Continue reading
Okay, I am not going to tell you this original version of Dashiell Hammett’s now classic novel is better that John Huston’s 1941 masterpiece, but the truth is Roy Del Ruth’s 1931 pre-code has a sensual sinful aura the Huston/Bogart film lacks and it makes you want to keep it in your back pocket and save it for a night of wicked dreams.
After the release of the Huston/Bogart gem, Warner Brothers changed the title of the earlier flick to the more vapid and generic Dangerous Woman so as not to confuse anyone. Over the years this first version has practically been pushed into oblivion and only recently, thanks to TCM, popped back on to the screen. Continue reading
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
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.