Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Thursday, April 19, 2018

WHY DO I OWN THIS?: Delirious (1991)

John Candy was a wonderful comedic performer that rarely found vehicles truly deserving of his talent. He prospered in wacky supporting roles in movies like “Stripes” or “Spaceballs.” His leading parts tended to fluctuated more wildly in quality. There's a reason you never hear anyone talking about “Who's Harry Crumb?” or “Armed and Dangerous.” Or, for that matter, “Delirious.” The movie was another of many flops, grossing not quite six million against an eighteen million dollar budget, that plagued Candy near the end of his life. The critics were no more fond of the film than audiences were. So, once again, I ask the titular question: Why do I own this apparent stinker?

In “Delirious,” Candy plays Jack Gable. A nervous and easily frustrated man, Gable works as a writer for “Beyond Our Dreams,” a popular daytime soap opera. Gable has got some problems. He's got an unrequited crush on Laura, one of the actresses on the show. The show runners are constantly rewriting his script and threatening to replace him, especially with his attempts to introduce some new characters. A stressful day concludes with him getting hit in the head by a trunk latch. Gable awakens within the soap opera's universe. Soon, Jack realizes the characters have mistaken him for Jack Gates, the bad-ass new character he hoped to write into the show. Later still, he discovers he can manipulate the universe's events simply by rewriting them.

The troupes and conventions of soap operas are well-trotted ground as far as parodies go. You don't have to travel far to find something making fun of the overheated melodramas and nonsensical plot twist the now dying format is notorious for. It would seem the filmmakers behind “Delirious,” including director Tim Mankiewicz who previously wrote several Bond movies and a couple of Richard Donner's films, where at least partially aware of this. “Delirious” is a somewhat indecisive parody of soaps. The first half is more about Jack responding to the ridiculous soap opera characters. (Which, in a joke that really hasn't aged well, includes a transvestite auto mechanic.) Its only in the second half, when characters suddenly start undergoing massive changes, that the parody aspect comes into focus. There's at least one good gag there, with a character getting super-advanced cancer out of nowhere. It's also sort of cute that the character with amnesia can't remember that he has amnesia.

Another reason I suspect this was by design is because “Delirious” seems more focused on its main character's ability to rewrite the world around him. This also ends up producing the film's too-few big laughs. John Candy rescues a girl by transforming himself into a hyper-competent martial artist. Later, he teleports a surprise cameo out of the film and sends him to Cleveland. After a night of drunken writing, Jack discovers that he's written his high school crush and some egregious typos into the soap opera world. These scenes also play to John Candy's strengths far better than the broader gags. Candy is funnier when reacting with shock and bafflement to his own decisions than he is during excessively wacky gags like a dramatic horse rescue going wrong or a blindfolded driving scene.

“Delirious” has a large supporting cast, most of whom work pretty well. Mariel Hemingway plays Jack's love interest. Mariel is given glasses, a unibrow, and a klutzy streak in an attempt to ugly her up. It doesn't work, of course, but Hemingway at least seems able to play off Candy. Most of the actors playing the soap opera characters happily go over the top. Emma Samms purrs every line as Rachel/Laura, the show's femme fatale. A young Dylan Baker gets some of the film's biggest bits of physical comedy, as the scheming brother struck by sudden illness. Raymond Burr, in his final film role, is nicely dry as the family patriarch. I like how he inherits a running gag about late cablemen. Disgraced SNL player Charles Rocket gets one or two funny lines two, as the guy in the eye patch. There's also a mildly funny cameo midway through, which I won't spoil.

Why Do I Own This?: So “Delirious' really isn't that funny. The film's few good jokes are bordered by quite a few lame gags and clunky moments. Candy is amusing and leads a decent cast but the material is not up to the same snuff. The movie choosing to veer into sincere romantic-comedy near the end, getting serious after eighty minutes of gaggy comedy, is a really poor choice.

So why do I own this one? As has been the case in the past, I blame misplaced nostalgia. I saw it on TV a few times as kid and even had a copy I recorded off television. I'm not sure why I was fond of it, as the film doesn't really hold up that well. There's another one for the discard pile. At least it's better than “Wagons East,” which I also recorded off TV years ago. Even as an impulsive teenager, I had the foresight not to upgrade that one to DVD. [5/10]

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

NO ENCORES: True Stories (1986)

1. True Stories (1986)
Director: David Bryne

I think I've liked every Talking Heads song I've ever heard but I've yet to dive very deeply into the band's music. I've heard all the big radio hits and saw “Stop Making Sense,” which was exactly as dynamic and excellent as everyone says it is. Nevertheless, I was intrigued by what I had heard about “True Stories.” To cover the film for No Encores is a bit of a cheat. David Bryne, the lead singer of Talking Heads, also directed a feature-length concert film in 1994 called “Between the Teeth.” (In addition to several music videos and short films.) However, “True Stories” shows up on many lists devoted to great films that are also their director's only films.

“True Stories” is a loosely plotted film centered around the fictional small town of Virgil, nestled deep in the heart of Texas, and narrated by Bryne. The movie tracks the lives of several eccentric people that live there. Such as a rich woman who never leaves her bed or a civic leader, who works for Varicorp, a computer manufacturing company heavily involved in the town's local events. Eventually, the story comes to center on Louis Fyne, a Varicorp employee who is looking for love and has dreams of becoming a country/western singer. The various plot threads come together at a talent show meant to celebrate the town's 150th anniversary.

“True Stories” seems to be a lightly mocking ode to small town American life in the mid-eighties. Bryne's film frequently examines the intersection between community life and consumerism. Bryne's cowboy hat wearing narrator begins the film by dryly explaining the history of the area, starring with the dinosaurs, winding his way through the various wars and massacres that occurred there, and ending with the businesses that have brought people here. Early on, the Narrator walks through a shopping mall, detailing how these temples to capitalism have become the modern town centers. The “Love for Sale” musical number has the band interacting with various television commercials, some real, some fictional. Miss Rollings eats up these commercials as if they were films, criticizing or congratulating each one.

Other scenes are more quietly critical. Some of Bryne's connecting sequences has him driving through an empty stretch of countryside, noting how it'll be full of houses in a year. This scene is soon followed by shots of empty, identical houses for sale lining the street. Yet despite holding these things up for examination, Bryne does not seem to be actively satirizing them. As in the Talking Head song “(Nothing but) Flowers,” Bryne is equally critical and fond of these things. “True Stories” plays like a slightly detached, bemused observation of where commerce and small town life intertwine.

David Bryne is not from Texas. He was born in Scotland and grew up in Maryland. Neither is anyone else from Talking Heads, the members hailing from Wisconsin, California, and Kentucky.  So it's tempting to look at “True Stories” as a bunch of outsiders making fun of life in the deep South. And parts of “True Stories” is definitely poking fun. The film portrays Virgil as a fairly ridiculous place. A fashion show in the mall involves people dressed in goofy costumes, made up to look like lettuce or buildings. The talent show at the film's end features a bizarre lasso/yodeling performance. There is a degree of smirking at these small town eccentrics.

Their beliefs and behavior especially. “True Stories” was partially inspired by wild stories from supermarket tabloids. So the film takes a look at the some of the odd beliefs flourishing in Virgil. The musical number, “Puzzlin' Evidence,” has a preacher in a packed mega-church delivering a ranting, conspiracy theory-filled sermon about the Trilateral Commission. There appears to be other religions in Virgil, as Louis visits an apparent voodoo priest before one of his dates. A prominent reoccurring character is the Lying Woman. She claims to have slept with Burt Renyolds, to have served in Vietnam with the real Rambo, to have written Elvis' songs, and half a dozen other whoppers. It seems Virgal is a breeding ground for eccentricity. Like any small town, its isolation allows odd beliefs to take hold.

As much as “True Stories” is making fun of weirdos in weird small town, it's also undeniably fond of them too. Even the jokes in the film are laced with warmth. The film presents some of these characters as odd but is very sincere about it. Such as the Cute Woman, who swoons over adorable babies. Or Louis' quest to find a woman who understands him. Yes, the fashion show in the mall is weird and goofy. But there's also something sweet about it, especially when accompanied by the wistful song “Dream Operator.” While it's easy to laugh at some of the talent show performances – like a giant model of a man eating corn? – it's also homemade art, earnestly created by people trying to express something. This sweetly appreciative if giggling attitude is maybe best summed up by a scene where a loving couple hug and kiss in a field... Before the woman asked if the man has farted.

Despite the title, “True Stories” is not attempting to realistically portray the world. There is a heavy edge of surrealism to movie. In an early scene, Bryne's Narrator steps up to a screen projecting a freeway. He then steps inside it and is next seen in a car, driving before an obviously rear-projected screen. Surreal sights like this are peppered all throughout the movie. The “Love for Sale” scene features the members of Talking Heads being transformed into candy bars, which are then eaten. Another musical number features the band interacting with models of buildings, appearing like giants. Among Miss Rollings' house staff is a chattering robot. There's a deliberate artificial edge to many of the movie's scenes. So it's no surprise when the film concludes with Bryne talking about forgetting things, as if he's awakening from a vivid but fleeting dream.

As a director, Bryne's influences are obvious. European art cinema obviously had a big influence on “True Stories,” with its Godard-like white-on-black title cards or neo-realist documentary approach. You can see wisps of John Waters or David Lynch in its love of small town eccentrics  (Though “True Stories” actually came out the same year as “Blue Velvet,” so the resemblance is unintentional. Either way, it's pretty clear the two Daves share some of the same interests.) Considering his past directing music videos, it's not surprising that “True Stories” frequently resembles one. The song sequences could've been clipped out and shown on MTV and few would've noticed they were intended for the network. Even non-musical scenes, like Spalding Gray's dinner table speech about modern life, are choreographed like a dance. Bryne likes to frame large buildings on empty fields in wide shots, making them look like tiny models. All of “True Stories” maintains this perfectly arranged aesthetic.

By focusing more on a whole town, instead of one person, “True Stories” is not truly an actor's movie. Most of the cast members only have a few scenes. Spalding Gray and Annie McEnroe, as the Culvers, give intentionally exaggerated performances, playing oddly inhuman seeming humans. Jo Harvey Allen and Roebuck 'Pops' Staples are cartoonish as the Lying and Lazy Woman. Bryne himself plays the Narrator as an extension of his stage persona as the lead singer of Talking Heads. He's like a curious alien, watching and commenting on the people and their lives without ever feeling like one of them. All of these choices were obviously intentional.

The closest thing the film has to a protagonist is John Goodman's Louis Fyne. Goodman, it turns, is perfectly cast as Bryne's version of a small town working stiff. Goodman, of course, has a marvelous gift for projecting warmth. He plays Fyne as a slightly ditzy – he does share a last name with one of the Three Stoodges – but well meaning man. He hopes to find romance because he hopes to settle down. Yet his dreams of becoming a singer also set him apart from some of the people around him. Thus, Goodman becomes an everyday guy longing for dreams that seem out of reach. There's not a single thing trite or vulgar about the character, who is as sincere and oddly lovable as the movie around, qualities Goodman is an expert at playing.

“True Stories” is also an unusual take on the musical. When the songs kick in, a further sense of unreality takes over. During “Wild Wild Life,” the break-out lead single on the soundtrack, people from the town walk on-stage to sing and are transformed. Bryne assumes the guise of Billy Idol and a mustachioed Latin lover. Another man becomes the spitting image of Prince. The film frequently uses its music to express dreams and illusions. “Dream Operator” is a sincere ode to the goofy models on the runway. When Goodman steps on-stage to sing “People Like Us,” he fulfills his dream of becoming a singer. The music isn't just catchy but its lyrics and melodies are also in line with the movie's oddball sensibilities.

“True Stories” was not a commercial hit in 1986. I can't imagine anyone expected it to be. A movie like this was always going to be a cult oddity. (The Talking Head album of the same name, which featured the band re-recording the movie's songs, was more successful.) Accordingly, the film has attracted a passionate following, some considering it an overlooked classic. It's an enchanting film, full of life and energy, utterly sincere in its love and humor. Bryne mixed his particular interests together to create a lovable motion picture. After your first viewing, it's likely you'll want to visit Virgil again. It's just such a nice place to live. [9/10]

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

WHY DO I OWN THIS?: Ghost Dad (1990)

We finally live in a time when some women feel like its possible to come forward about the sexual assault and violence they've suffered, even when the responsible party is a beloved pop culture icon. Since this has begun, a few stock reactions have cropped up. I recently saw a brilliant comic mocking one of the most common reactions, the “I never liked this person anyway” reaction. Which will make the following statement from me read as especially insincere but: I always thought there was something off about Bill Cosby. As a stand-up, I frequently found his material amusing. Yet the wholesome, family man image he projected, most obviously on his sitcom, always struck me as somewhat insincere. I guess I never got over the bullshit he put Lisa Bonet through. If I've never been much of a Cosby fan, why do I own “Ghost Dad,” which is not even regarded as an especially good Bill Cosby movie? 

If the title didn't tell you enough, let me lay down the plot of “Ghost Dad” for you. The film follows Elliot Hopper. A recently widowed father of three, he's frequently not at home because he's so busy working. He's so absent that he forgets their birthdays and records their bed time stories to tape. One day, on the way to work, Elliot is picked up by an insane cab driver. Soon, he ends up careening off the edge of a bridge. Hopper awakens as a ghost, believing himself to be dead. He soon learns he can briefly make himself corporeal and goes about trying to return himself to the land of the living.

On the surface, “Ghost Dad” has some things going for it. Behind the camera was Sidney Poitier. Yes, that Sidney Poitier, the Academy Award winning actor who previously directed half-decent comedy “Silver Streak.” The film was co-written by S. S. Wilson and Brent Maddock. This same team had a hand in creating nostalgic favorites like “Tremors,” “Short Circuit,” and “*batteries not included.” Those movies overcame their high concept premise to become decent. “Ghost Dad” does not achieve this goal. Every expected gag is pulled off in as excruciating a manner as possible.

So we get a ghostly Cosby attempting to pass a physical exam, utilizing a skeleton during an x-ray and stealing another man's pee. In jokes right out of a “Casper the Friendly Ghost” cartoon, people react in frightened, exaggerated manners to Cosby's shenanigans. Such as when he wraps himself up like the Invisible Man, makes it look like his youngest daughter is lifting a large trash can or helping his budding magician son pull off outrageous tricks. Most cringe worthy is when he uses his ghostly abilities to torment the sleazeball interested in dating his daughter. Yes, there's even some fart and poop jokes. The non-ghost jokes the film cooks up, like a man having a woman's name, are equally uninspired.

Being a movie about a dad who is also a ghost was not enough of a log line for “Ghost Dad.” The  film follows the standard family movie narrative of a workaholic father who, via fantastical circumstances, learns to make more time for his kids. (Connecting this film with fellow high-concept family movie and previous “Why Do I Own This?” entry,  “My Stepmother is an Alien,” the dad in both films is a widower.) At one point, he chastises his children because he's afraid of loosing his job. Even though he's, you know, dead and his job should be a moot point. In fact, the tension over his job is one of the primary motivators of the plot. Copper has to go through some ridiculous hoops to keep his job, even though he's a fucking ghost. The film's commitment to corny bullshit is confirmed in the last act, when the script wimps out and undoes Copper's ghost status.

When over fifty women accused him of rape, it became impossible to enjoy anything Bill Cosby has ever done. That he frequently played the role of a wise family patriarch just makes everything he did more uncomfortable. “Ghost Dad” is an especially awkward watch. Copper becomes a ghost because he hitches a ride with a devil-worshiping cab driver. The scene builds until Cosby declares himself to be Satan incarnate. Later, there's a scene where Copper's female neighbor, unaware of him being undead, attempts to coax him into a romantic encounter. Yeah, that was unpleasant. Aside from the shitty script, Cosby's in-retrospect status as a monstrous human being makes the ending, where he declares his undying love for his teenage daughter, even harder to swallow.

Why Do I Own This?: There's absolutely no excuse for me owning this stinker. So why do I? Well, you may recall a previous column where I reviewed “King Ralph.” The easiest way to grab that film was in a four pack. And what where the other movies in that set? “Pure Luck,” “For Richer or Poorer,” and “Ghost Dad.” Apparently “shitty, high concept comedies” was the connecting theme in that four film collection. Even if it didn't start a serial rapist, “Ghost Dad” would still be a really shitty movie. The script is garbage and the jokes are limp. [4/10]

Monday, April 16, 2018

NO ENCORES: Not Another Teen Movie (2001)

1. Not Another Teen Movie (2001)
Director: Joel Gallen

When you've been a movie nerd as long as I've been, a certain degree of cynicism is hard to avoid. It's easy to say something like “the parody movie is dead,” even when new classics of the genre like “Black Dynamite” and “They Came Together” creep out every few years. So the parody film might not be dead but it's definitely seen better days. Nearly a decade of steaming garbage like “Meet the Spartans” and “Date Movie,” which didn't make fun of genres so much as just randomly reference trailers and copy scenes, has left the spoof's reputation in shambles.

The “___ Movie” series wouldn't have happened without “Scary Movie” and “Not Another Teen Movie” re-popularizing the parody in the early 2000s. Some, however, have been willing to stand up for the quality of these two movies, despite the awful trend they would spawn. “Not Another Teen Movie, “ in particular, gets singled out for being smarter and better than it seemed. As the sole feature credit of television director Joel Gallen, who probably got this job due to directing several long form parody skits at the MTV Movie Awards, perhaps it does deserve another look.

Shit is going down at John Hughes High School. Football jock Jake has just been dumped by his cheerleader girlfriend Priscilla, who is now dating an artsy-fartsy would-be filmmaker. As revenge, Jake takes up a friend's bet: That he can turn the school's rebellious artist girl, Janney, into prom queen. Jake takes the bet but soon finds himself genuinely attracted to Janney, once she takes off her glasses and lets her hair down. Mixed in there is Janney's younger brother's quest to loose his virginity, the desperate attempts of Janney's best friend to get her romantic attention, and Jake's sister's incestuous desires for her brother, among other things.

Gallen's film targets primarily the teen movies that flourished in the late nineties. The film's A-plot is mostly drawn from “She's All That.” Just in case you didn't get the joke, the film is explicitly referenced several times. The film also throws in direct parodies of “10 Things I Hate About You,” “American Pie,” “Cruel Intentions,” “Never Been Kissed,” “Bring It On,” “Varsity Blues,” and “Road Trip.” (Also “American Beauty,” which I guess is kind of a teen movie.) Occasionally, the homages veer slightly older, with “The Breakfast Club,” “Porky's,” “Ruby,” “Sixteen Candles,” “Ferris Bueller's Day Off,” and “Pretty in Pink” also being ridiculed.

I haven't seen all these movies which means some of the humor is lost on me, which is one of the perils of directly parodying then-recent films. Some of these call-backs are mildly amusing, like the increasingly ridiculous antics of the cheerleaders. Or the elderly journalist sent undercover into the school, which isn't much sillier than a thirty year old Drew Barrymore passing as a teen. Others are somewhat gratuitous, like the incest jokes taken from “Cruel Intentions.” Some even come off as mean-spirited, like the oddly placed jabs at “American Beauty.”

I'll give credits where its due. Unlike later parodies, “Not Another Teen Movie” isn't content to just reference these films. It at least builds jokes around them, as crude or uninspired as they may be. When people talk about “Not Another Teen Movie” being better or smarter than expected, I suspect they're talking about the way the movie riffs on the ideas behind teen movies.  Janney being considered unattractive just because she wears glasses, a ponytail and overalls – the lunacy of which is drawn into sharp contrast by comparing her to literally deformed students – is mocking “She's All That.” It's also mocking the ridiculous standards of beauty in our society.

A token black kid commenting on his own tokenness is goofing on teen flicks but also on how marginalized other races can be. (This is best emphasized during one of the quieter and better gags, when he runs into another token black guy at a party.) The overweight football player suffering repeated concussions is a joke based on “Varsity Blues” but its also commenting on how the real dangers of high school football are often ignored. Let's not give the movie too much credit. The satire is less biting than it is tangential. A smarter, sharper film easily could've been made from this stuff but “Not Another Teen Movie” is not that film.

Ultimately, the gags that made me laugh the most in “Not Another Teen Movie” tend to be more free-wheeling examples of absurdity. In a possible homage to “Pleasentville,” the cheer squad recruits a cheery and wholesome blonde... Who happens to have Tourette's, frequently spending strings of vulgar nonsense. Mr. T has a hilarious cameo as the Wise Janitor, whose advice is actually not that helpful. As does Melissa Joan Hart, who appears to instruct an overeager guy attempting to start a slow clap. These are but two of the high-profile cameos in the film, the best of which is saved for the final act. The transitional end of the second act explodes into a musical number, which is pretty unexpected.

Some of the funniest gags are also the smallest. Like Jake admiring a photo of himself at the school, before walking over to another photo of himself admiring the previous photo. Or Mitch and his friends saying they're setting out on an epic road trip to a party, which lasts about one minute as they drive up the street. Janney's passionately works on her art, with the results being much more whimsical than expected. The movie needed more bits of Zuckerian goofiness like that. Instead of scenes of people being hit by cars or falling down, a style of gaggery the movie leans on too much.

Another thing “Not Another Teen Movie” leans on too much is its considerable crude streak. This is, after all, a film that begins with its female lead's elaborate masturbation ritual going incredibly wrong. Not a minute passes without a reference to some crude sex act or bodily function. Sometimes it gets a laugh, like Cerina Vincent's foreign exchange student spending the entire movie nude, but usually its just gratuitous, the writers going for the easiest jokes. This is most apparent in a scene that begins with a girl peeing on the commode and concludes with a huge fountain of excrement spraying into a class room. Yes, this is extending the sex and shit jokes already existing in teen movies to their most extreme conclusions. But it's also apparent that Gallen and his team just thought poop and other naughty stuff was funny.

Maybe “Not Another Teen Movie's” recent reevaluate is strictly due to its cast. Chris Evans is now one of the star players of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The future Captain America shows himself to be totally game. He plays his ridiculous part to the fullest, embodying the role of a clueless jock idiot without ever winking too much. Not even during the scene where's only wearing whip cream and a suggestively placed banana. Chlyer Leigh, who also has her own superhero cred as the sister on the CW's “Supergirl,” is similarly shameless as Janney, acting her heart out during one ridiculous scene after another. (Leigh was, apparently, in the throes of a serious drug addiction at the time.) Everyone is fairly well cast, from Jaime Pressly as the bitchy cheerleader, Randy Quaid as the shell-shocked war vet dad, to a frequently hilarious Eric Christian Olsen as the cocky blonde guy. The material is mediocre but the cast fucking goes for it.

I don't have much affection for “Not Another Teen Movie.” For every funny bit or memorable gag, there's ten that fail to make me laugh. Mostly, the movie strikes me as overly crass and fairly desperate. The movie was a moderate box office success but the contemporary critical reaction was largely negative. Maybe that's why Joel Gallen has stuck to his music videos, award shows, and TV specials since its release. His direction, fairly flat and uninteresting, definitely reflects his television roots. While I don't besmirch the movie's cult following, “Not Another Teen Movie” gets in its own way a little too often and relies on easy, gross-out far too much. [5/10]

Saturday, March 31, 2018

Series Report Card: The Marx Brothers (1949)

13. Love Happy

The Marx Brothers' movies had been running on fumes for quite a while. After the anarchic highs of those first five Paramount movies, their output at MGM became less and less interesting with each new installment. By the time “The Big Store” limped on-screen, the Brothers rightfully decided to call it quits. They then reunited for “A Night in Casablanca,” which was equally uninspired and lacking in energy. As the forties drew to a close, the Marx Brothers would star in one more movie together. Groucho would dismiss “Love Happy” as the team's worst movie and many Marx Brothers fans agree with him.

The plot concerns a theater company, a friendly tramp, a can of sardines, and a priceless set of diamonds. The wicked Madame Egelichi wants the valuable Royal Romanoff diamonds for herself. She had a henchman hide the diamonds in a can of sardines. Through happenstance, that can would come into the possession of Harpo, a silent street performer. Harpo is friends with Mike and Maggie, two struggling actors attempting to assemble a stage musical called “Love Happy.” Soon, everyone – along with a mind-reader named Faustino and a detective named Sam Grunion – are after the diamonds for different reasons.

If “Love Happy” seems especially disjointed, there's a good reason for it. The film was conceived not as a proper Marx Brothers movie but as a solo vehicle for Harpo. That's all too apparent, as Harpo easily has the most screen time of the three. Supposedly do to his notorious gambling debts, Harpo insisted Chico have a role in the film. After Chico came on-board, the producers insisted all three Brothers appear in the film. Thus Groucho was added in the role of a narrator who barely interacts with the other two. This makes “Love Happy” a pseudo-Marx Brothers movie, an odd compromise that doesn't satisfy anyone.

As a Harpo starring feature, “Love Happy” is only mildly successful. The film actually works best when it puts comedy aside. There's a key scene where Harpo tries to perk up the sad heroine. He performs silly visual gags and listens intently. It's a sweet moment that even veers towards the surreal, when Harpo enters his shanty lean-too and has a wordless conversation with a pet duck. (It also sets up the inevitable harp playing scene, which is at least incorporate organically into the story, if not the pacing.) Considering Harpo has always been the most child-like of the Brothers, that sweetness is a good fit for him. If the movie abandoned broad gags in favor of slightly surreal whimsy, it probably would've been a lot better.

Even this late into their career, Harpo still had the most energy of the three brothers. Very few of the gags he's given are especially inspired. Jokes involving Harpo quickly catching food in his pockets or grabbing stuff with an extending ice-clamp are pretty lame. A long sequence where Harpo is tortured by the bad guys goes on and on, never getting a laugh from the viewer. There are a couple of quick little gags I like. When the villains are looking for the diamonds, they pull all sorts of items out of his coat pockets, including a sled and a barking dog. Later, the Madame stomps her foot in one room, causing Harpo to yelp in the other room. I also like it when he checks his hair in a mirror, only to turn it around and look at the back of his head.

Chico's role in the movie is fairly small. He has a few scenes with Harpo and a couple of gags on his own. (He never interacts with Groucho.) Once again, there's a scene where Harpo explains stuff to Chico using a game of charades. Of all the times the two have done this, this is by far the least inspired. Naturally, he also has a piano playing scene, a duet with a violin player that is mildly amusing. He also contributes one of the dirtiest jokes I've ever seen in a Marx Brothers movie. Upon seeing Egelichi, her dress blowing in the wind and rendered semi-transparent by the lighting, his hat noticeably grows. I can't believe they got away with that one.

If Chico's role in the movie is small, Groucho's role feels like an afterthought. Mostly, he hangs out in his detective office and narrates scenes, somewhere between being a omniscient narrator and an actual character in the story. It's not until the last act that he actively enters the plot at all. Groucho, who was sporting a real mustache by this point thanks to “You Bet Your Life,” is noticeably disinterested in these affairs. He gets one or two funny lines. One's about hiding an elephant. Another is when he attempts to frisk the villainess. His scenes were apparently not filmed apart from the rest of the movie but it certainly feels that way. Groucho's heart was obviously not in this one.

The non-Marx heroes of “Love Happy” are about as boring as usual. Paul Valentine's male lead is especially snore-inducing. The female side of things are slightly more compelling. Vera-Ellen, already a respected dancer by this point, at least projects a sense of vulnerability and sweetness as Maggie. Ilona Massey appears as Madame Egelichi. As a devoted fan of classic monster movies, I immediately recognized Massey from “Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman” and “Invisible Agent.” Massey, with her exotic accent and cold beauty, is perfectly cast as the steely and villainous countess. She also proves to be a formidable straight woman to the Marxes, playing along nicely and never cracking up. However, she still can't save a baffling scene where the Madame seemingly hypnotizes Harpo.

After the music taking a back seat in “A Night in Casablanca,” “Love Happy” returns to being a full-blown musical. Naturally, being set among actors performing in the theater, there's plenty of singing and dancing. As a musical, it's fairly weak. There's a likable scene, the so-called Sadie Hawkins number, where Ellen dances for a series of sailors. The choreography is interesting. None of the songs are too memorable, though the title track is mildly catchy. There's certainly no classics on the level of “Hoo-ray for Captain Spaulding” or “Lydia the Tattooed Lady.”

“Love Happy” is notable for another reason. It's an early example of product placement being used in a movie. Supposedly the production ran low on cash mid-way through. This led to a climatic chase across the rooftops, where Harpo interacts with a number of billboards. The advertisement are actually story relevant, with Harpo being saved by a cloud of smoke from a cigarette billboard. Or riding a neon light sigh across a roof top. Yes, this is “Love Happy's” required excessively wacky climax. No, it's not any funnier than the last couple times the Brothers' movies did this. The chase scene is interesting more for the heavy presence of product placement than anything else.

Aside from being the final Marx Brothers movie, “Love Happy” is notorious for another reason. It features an early appearance from Marilyn Monroe. Marilyn, immediately recognizable, appears as the sexy client who enters Groucho's office in one brief scene. Unsurprisingly, later posters and VHS releases would heavily promote her role in the movie. For the most part, “Love Happy” represents the Marx Brothers' cinematic journey limping to a sad conclusion. It's interesting more for the circumstances surrounding its creation than its content. As a comedy, it sadly fails, producing far too few laughs. The energy and chaos of the Brothers' earliest masterpieces are long gone, replaced with mediocre gags. “Love Happy” is a movie you're unlikely to love, that probably won't make you happy. [5/10]

"Love Happy" was not exactly the of the Marx Brothers' cinematic careers. All three brothers had cameos in "The Story of Mankind," though not together. Groucho starred in two movies of his own, "Copacabana" and "A Girl in Every Port," but found his greatest post-1940s career on television. In fact, Groucho's TV career would keep him in the public eye long after Harpo and Chico fell off the map. Look at the endearing cultural symbolism of the Groucho glasses. I guess, in 2018, the Marx Brothers are mostly known among movie nerds, their cultural significance long receding. But, I don't know, I still think they're pretty funny.  

Series Report Card: The Marx Brothers (1946)

12. A Night in Casablanca

“The Big Store” was meant to be the Marx Brothers' final cinematic offering. Yet, five years later, the three would reunite for “A Night in Casablanca.” I had always assumed that the film came about because some producer had the ill-conceived idea of reuniting a successful comedy team, long after they had given up the ghosts. Apparantly, however, the Marx Brothers themselves were the driving force behind “A Night in Casablanca.” The three produced the film, developing and sharpening the material with a road show before filming began. Why would the Marxes return to theater screens after saying they were done? Supposedly, the movie was made primarily to help Chico pay off his gambling debts. I don't know if this is true but, if it is, it says a lot about “A Night in Casablanca.”

As the title indicates, the film is indeed set in the Morocan city of Casablanca. Following World War II, an escaped Nazi officer is hiding out in the country, at the Hotel Casablanca. He hopes to reclaim the stolen Nazi treasure left inside the hotel. He's killed three managers to hide his identity. The latest manager, a largely incompetent oddball named Ronald Kornblow, is not so easy to deal with. Soon, Kornblow is paired up with a self-proclaimed and a mischievous (and silent) valet. They quickly become a thorn in the Nazi's side.

“A Night in Casablanca” is probably best known today for something that has nothing to do with the film itself. An urban legend, partially perpetrated by Groucho himself, says that the producers of “Casablanca” threatened the movie with a lawsuit unless they changed the name. This story is absolutely not true. However, it is clear that “A Night in Casablanca” was partially inspired by the legend Bogart/Bergman classic. But only in the loosest sense. Aside from its setting and its story involving Nazi officers, “A Night in Casablanca” has nothing to do with the other film. It can not be considered a parody. If anything, it was cashing in on the more popular film's title.

There's not too much interesting about “A Night in Casablanca,” except for one minor details. In his autobiography, Harpo would write about traveling through Europe in the years before World War II and being disturbed by the rising antisemitism he witnessed. What does that have to do with “A Night in Casablanca?” Like the majority of the trio's films, the plot features the mischievous brothers messing with various squares and stuffed shirts. Except, this time, the square just happens to be a former Nazi. Aside from one line from Groucho, a sarcastic reference to “the master race,” the film never acknowledges that it's about three Jews pestering a Nazi officer. Yet it certainly adds an interesting layer to the proceedings.

Groucho does produce some laughs here. One of his funniest lines is easily missed. It occurs near the film's end, when he turns to Harpo and says he “doesn't want to hear another word” from him. Haha. Though noticeably lacking in energy, Groucho still gives it his all. He cracks jokes about chewing gum to a camel. He harasses a cook by complaining about eggs. One of his funnier little lines occur when a complaining caller asks about his “trunks.” One of his best scenes has him flirting and joking with the film's femme fatale, making fun of her cigarette holder and cracking wise about lost and find.

Harpo is the first Marx Brother we see in “A Night in Casablanca.” He's introduced leaning against a building which collapses once he steps away. He does get some big laughs early on. The scenes of him messing with the bad guy, including sucking his toupee into a vacuum cleaner and messing with his jacket, are early highlights. That energy collapses during a long and largely lifeless scene, where he gets into a sword fight. There's a scene where he pantomimes taking a phone call from Salt Lake City by throwing salt at the receiver. Some of Harpo's bit recall gags in earlier movies. Such as when he starts eating candles and tea cups. Or when he combines the old leg-grabbing gag with a cigarette-eating shoe. It's not top-tier stuff but is worth a chuckle or two.

Once again, Chico gets the short end of the stick. He's mostly reduced following his Brothers around, rarely contributing too many jokes of his. His funniest stand-alone line involves a gag around the name of his camel taxi service. This leads to an amusing conversation with Groucho, about the difference between Chico's daytime and nighttime business, that almost makes it seem like the magic is back. Recalling a scene in “A Day at the Races,” there's a scene where Harpo has to explain a plot detail to Chico through pantomime. It's funny at first but definitely goes on way too long. Chico is also at the center of another gag that's funny at first but goes on too long. The trio are hiding from the villain in his room, hiding in suits, trunks, and closest, always just avoiding detection.

Being produced by the Brothers themselves, “A Night in Casablanca” mostly pushes the boring romantic leads to the side. Charles Drake, as the heroic Lt. Delmar, strikes one as a mildly compelling matinee idol type. Lois Collier is pretty as the female lead but isn't given much more to do besides that. The villainous subplot gets more attention. Sig Ruman, as the hiding Nazi, is likable hammy. He certainly digs into his ridiculous accent. Lisette Verea, as the femme fatale, probably gives my favorite performance in the film. She vamps nicely and has a rapport with Groucho during their scenes together.

Unlike most of the Marx Brothers' films, “A Night in Casablanca” is not really a musical. There's only one proper song. The lounge singer performs a rendition of “Who's Sorry Now?,” a song from 1923 that made its cinematic debut here. You might recognize the song, as it has been covered by many different performers, with Connie Francis' 1958 version being the most successful. Aside from that, “A Night in Casablanca” is pretty low on songs. Chico has his standard piano sequence. It's pretty fun, as he soon has the whole band intimated his movements. Harpo, after uncovering the hidden treasure, finds a harp to play. This scene is less memorable.

As has become all too common place now with the Marxes, “A Night in Casablanca” wraps up with another excessively wacky finale. This one begins with the bad guys escaping on an airplane. The heroes leap aboard, climbing across on a ladder. There's exaggerated fighting and shuffling on the plane. Soon, the plane gets airborne before crashing into the wall of a prison. Even that isn't quite the ending of “A Night in Casablanca.” Once again, there's very few laughs to be had in this extended climax, the movie collasping into some especially desperate physical comedy, far too wacky to be enjoyed.

Ultimately, “A Night in Casablanca” doesn't quite justify its own existence. As a parody of “Casablanca,” it could not be more half-assed. As a Marx Brothers reunion movie, it doesn't really distinguish itself from the Brothers' increasingly weak MGM output. Just as a comedy, it's pretty lacking in laughs, only getting a handful of chuckles that quickly fade from memory. I don't know how successful “A Night in Casablanca” was at the box office but hopefully it at least served its purpose of paying off Chico's gambling debts. Otherwise, the movie really didn't need to exist at all. [Grade: C]

Thursday, March 29, 2018

Series Report Card: The Marx Brothers (1941)

11. The Big Store

By 1941, the Marx Brothers had been making movies for over ten years. While not all where huge hits, their schtick had proven successful. While I'm sure none of them knew at the time that some of these films would become classics, they were certainly aware of their popularity. As the forties began, their contracts with MGM came to an end. Maybe the crowds were getting smaller or the Brothers were just aware of the lessening quality of each films. Either way, the decision was made to make “The Big Store” their big farewell film. This didn't stick but, nevertheless, the film was sold as the last Marx Brothers movie. If that had been the case, the film would be even more disappointing.

As the titles indicates, “The Big Store” takes place around a huge in-door department store. The owner has recently passed away, willing ownership of the successful establish to Tommy, his nephew and a popular singer. He plans on selling his half, letting his aunt Martha decide what to do with the rest. A villain by the name of Grover conspires to kill Tommy and marry Martha, thus taking full control of the building. Suspecting something is up, Martha hires an unconventional detective named Wolf J. Flywheel. Flywheel brings Wacky and Ravelli, two wild friends of his, into the investigation as well.

I know complaining about the plot in a Marx Brothers movie is a futile and useless gesture but “The Big Store's” premise seems especially tossed together. It seems the main purpose of the film is to let the Marx Brothers rampage through a shopping mall. Surely there was an easier way to accomplish that then with a rather morbid gangster plot? The criminal elements, involving a conspiracy to commit murder and a detective (albeit flippantly) investigating things, stick out badly when compared to the wackiness around it. At times, it really does feel like two unrelated scripts, a comedy inside a department store and a crime picture, were stitched together randomly. It's not the smoothest combination.

In many of their MGM's films, the Marx Brothers' antics were considerably softened. You were unlikely to see the Brothers hassle random strangers to the degree they did in, say, “Duck Soup.” No lemonade stand owners were going to be tortured after 1933. We don't see anything of that level in “The Big Store.” However, at least the Brothers are fucking with the squares again. When Groucho is introduced to the villain, he immediately begins to push his buttons. Later, he handcuffs two guys he suspects of being bad guys. At least putting the guys at odds with a stiff-lipped villain reminds me of their earlier, better films.

However, “The Big Store” seems more focused on music than comedy at times. Tony Martin, as Tommy, has two musical numbers of note. The first has him serenading his love interest over a piano. Later, he performs a big number in front of an audience, singing with a full orchestra. Yet even this is not the biggest musical number in the film. That occurs when Groucho leads a dance through the department store, encouraging the employees to “Sing While You Sell.” The number goes on and on, shifting through several genres, showing Groucho selling dresses and rugs. At one point, the song pauses so a woman next to a bassinet can sing. Her delivery is monotone, her expression is wide-eyed, and her body language is stiff. It's an odd moment during a number that's already too long and haltingly paced.

During my review of “Go West,” I noted how the big physical gags in the Marx Brothers' movies were getting increasingly sweaty. “The Big Store” is, by far, their most desperate movie yet. The visual comedy tends towards the excessively zany. One long bit is devoted to the various Murphy beds in the store. A full tent unfolds from the wall. Another, huge bunk bed rolls in and out of the floor. I'm not sure why the film finds this stuff so inherently amusing. As unfunny as that scene is, it's nothing compared to the big finale. The bad guys chase the Brothers around the store on roller skates. There's exaggerated gags, of Harpo leaping off lamps and in-between shelves. Wacky sound effects are layered over these sights. It's all painfully unfunny and shows a deep miscalculation of why people found the Marx Brothers funny in the first place.

Uncomfortable racial representations have cropped up in the Marx Brothers' movies from time to time. Such as exaggerated black dancers or unfortunate Indian stereotypes. “The Big Store,” I'm sad to say, features both of these things. A series of black performers sing a song about picking cotton. At one point, a Chinese family wanders into the store, accompanying by chopsticks playing on the soundtrack. Immediately afterwards, an Indian chief in a full headdress wanders into the scene. From a modern perspective, this stuff is deeply embarrassing. Even looking at the time period, it seems the writers were leaning on this stuff in hopes of generating easy laughs.

There aren't many laughs to be had in “The Big Store” but the ones that do exist mostly belong to Groucho. He gets a few good lines. A phone call mentions Trinidad, in an amusing twist. He name-drops Basil Rathbone in a funny way. An aside to a mannequin got me to chuckle. One of the funnier bits has Groucho breaking the fourth wall again, pointing how expensive Technicolor is. Most of Groucho's laughs come from him messing with other people, including Margaret Dumont, happily appearing again. He aces a job interview by admitting to be a shoplifter. Honestly, one of the funnier bits in the film is one of the smallest, when he casually tosses his hat at a lamp and misses.

Harpo gets the most exaggerated gags, not all of which work very well. It seems wacky props have become a standard part of his schtick. He types on an overly loud typewriter while Dumont attempts to speak. It's a mildly funny gag that then goes too far when the reed flies across the room. Similarly, a bit about Harpo and Groucho hiding their breakfast inside a desk starts out funny. However, when the smoke starts to billow out, it's too much. Harpo's funniest bit has him messing with a female spy sent by cutting away the back of her dress when she doesn't notice. As you'd expect, Harpo also gets a lengthy harp playing sequence. This one is a fantasy scene where he imagines his reflection playing against him. It's an interesting attempt to spice up a require part of the movie but doesn't keep it from being rather dull.

As has become commonplace by now, Chico is the brother given the least amount of stuff to do. Once again, he's introduced as a helpful friend of the boring romantic lead, preventing him from getting funny for far too long. It's not until he meets his brothers that he get any laughs at all. And its usually little stuff. Like scratching Harpo's back like he's a dog. Or ducking his head down so Groucho can shake someone else's hand. Chico does get two notable bits. Such as when he encounters an Italian family, one of the few times Chico's fake nationality has been referenced in the movie. Or when he plays the piano alongside Harpo, an amusing attempt for the brothers to square off. Otherwise, Chico just doesn't get much to do.

“The Big Store” is the Marx Brothers in decline. They don't have the energy of their earlier movies. Now, instead of building a movie around the Brothers' style, the films are awkwardly forcing the Brothers into oddly constructed stories and comedic shenanigans. When it comes down to it, “The Big Store” just isn't that funny. There aren't very many laughs and many of the attempts to get big chuckles fall horribly flat. You can't blame the brothers for deciding to call it quits at this point. “The Big Store” is a gasping, wheezing comedy that is desperate for your approval but too tired and weak to earn it. [Grade: C]

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Series Report Card: The Marx Brothers (1940)

10. Go West

Hollywood once made a lot of westerns. During the golden age of cinema, stories of cowboys and gunslinging outlaws were the dominating, populist genre. If westerns were super common in this day, goofs on westerns were nearly as common. I think every major comedy team of the thirties and forties did a riff on the western. So it was only natural that the Marx Brothers would eventually put their own mark on it. Their film, “Go West,” shares it title with at least two other farcical takes on the western, showing you how common this idea really was. But is the Marxes' goof on cowboy adventures inspired or insipid?

“Go West” has the Brothers slipping into familiar roles. Set in 1860, the film has Groucho playing S. Quentin Quale, a con man who heads west in search of gold. Similarly on this journey are out-of-place Italian Joseph and his miming brother Rusty. Upon arriving in the west, none of the men find gold. Joseph and Rusty do get involved in a bidding war over a plot of desert line, soon to become valuable thanks to the growing railroad. Hero Terry Turner and his fiance Eve hope to reclaim the deed from Red Baxter, a cold-blooded gunslinger.

How do the boys adapt to the western genre? Well, “Go West” packs in singing cowboys, horse rides, white hats and black hats, and the occasional shooting duel. Notably, the Marx Brothers rarely participate in any of these things. “Go West” is not really a proper parody of the western, so much as a western movie that just happens to star a trio of famous comedians. You have the traditional good guys and bad guys of the genre, with the Marxes cracking wise around them. The Marx's characters are frequently anachronistic, adding some deliberate contrast to a story that is otherwise not very special.

The plot, as far as these things go, struck me as needlessly convoluted. The MacGuffin is a deed, granting its owner rights to a swatch of desert. Initially, it seems like gold or oil will be discovered there. Instead, the railway rights is what makes the land valuable. Naturally, a good guy and bad guy are bother after this. There are various supporting characters working for the villain, which are sidelined and bested by the various heroic characters. The land deed is switched hands so many times, that you forget why its so valuable in the first place. Moreover, the man who is giving the land away vanishes mysteriously early on.  The plot in a Marx Brothers movie has never mattered less and overcompensated for that irrelevance with unneeded complications.

Yes, “Go West” is another musical too. Chico gets to play his piano in a saloon. Harpo plays a harp placed inside an Indian village for some reason, in an especially long-winded sequence. The actual songs are not that energetic or memorable. The love ballad “As If I Didn't Know” is a total snore. “You Can't Argue with Love,” sung in a saloon, features the peculiarly deep-voiced styling of June MacCloy. The only song I actually like is “Ridin' the Ridge,” as it features Groucho singing and plucking the guitar alongside the movie's romantic lead. Even in their best moments, the songs seem stuck in more because of the expectations of the times than because they suited the film or the story.

A side effect of watching movies from the thirties and forties is, sometimes, you need to overlook some less than enlightened depictions of other races. We've already seen it before, with the overly broad black dancers in “At the Circus” and “A Day at the Races.” “Go West” gives the same treatment to American Indians. Boy, is it a little hard to watch. The Indian chief babbles in a nonsensical language, while Groucho makes snide comments. A horned medicine man leaps from a tent, being mocked by Chico and Harpo. There are mentions of “how” and “fire water.” There's even a fairly cringey line about casinos. These things are what they are and you just have to bare through them.

Groucho Marx continues to dance around the rules and regulations of the Production Code. Some of the funniest bits in “Go West” are its raunchiest. Most of these double entendres are directed at the saloon girls. Groucho says he doesn't recognize one girl while she's standing up, for just one ribald line. He also gets the chance to break the fourth wall again. There are some very silly lines about the invention of the telephone and “the best gag in the picture,” both of which draw attention to the artifice of the story. Besides that, there's plenty of top one-liners in the film, concerning tape measures and conversations with bull skulls.

There's one brief moment in “Go West” where it feels like the old, anarchic Harpo is back. It occurs while the three brothers are riding in a stage coach, alongside some stuffy land managers. Harpo begins messing with the guy by switching their hats around, just because it's fun to mess with someone who takes themselves so seriously. It's a good gag though feels suspiciously similar to earlier ones, as does a scene where Harpo attempts to steal cash back from Groucho. Still, Harpo's slapstick shenanigans produce some solid chuckles. Like a scene involving desk drawers that refuse to cooperate. That builds to an even wackier gag involving a cannon.

It seems, the later we get into the Marx Brothers' cinematic career, the less Chico has to do. The brother's one-liners are cut down to almost a minimum here. He gets the translate during that cringing Indian scene. (Though a line about Indianapolis may get a guilty laugh.) He also gets some laughs during the scene where, alongside Groucho, he interacts with some showgirls. There's a couple of good lines, comparing the west and the east or cracking a joke about an engineer named Manuel, but otherwise Chico is left with pretty thin gruel to spin laughs out of.

The endings to the Marx Brothers' movies just keep getting excessively wackier. It's as if MGM's plan to create more accessible, crowd-pleasing films also had to include an increasingly bigger finale. If “At the Circus” had a climax that was a little sweaty, “Go West” has things officially feeling a little desperate. The Marx Brothers and the bad guys jump on a train. Lots of mayhem follows. Harpo gets stretched between two cars. The train goes off the track in a circle. It collides with a house, which is dragged along. Cows awkwardly dance back and forth, the Brothers spin through the air, popcorn pops, and Harpo is dropped out a moving house. And not a single bit of it generates any laughs. The movie gets louder and wackier at the end but also far less funny.

“Go West” isn't too bad. There are still laughs to be had and, when left to their own devices, the Marx Brothers are still very good at their jobs, an embarrassing Indian segment or two aside. However, a sense of desperation is beginning to settle in. “Go West” is entertaining but uninspired. Its best skits feel derivative of the Brothers' earlier films. If you'll excuse the pun, the film runs out of steam hard once the train set piece begins. Perhaps mixing the Marxes up with westerns was not a surefire formula for success, though the movie is still far from being bad. [Grade: B-]

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Series Report Card: The Marx Brothers (1939)

9. At the Circus

Following their one-year sideline at RKO, the Marx Brothers were back at MGM. The screenplay for “At the Circus,” their ninth feature, would by partially written by Buster Keaton. That may sound like a classic comedy dream team but don't get too excited. Keaton strictly took the gig because he needed the money. The Brothers did not think their styles blended well with Keaton's set piece-heavy humor. Keaton agreed and said he was just doing what he was paid to do. Though “At the Circus” is not especially well regarded by Marx fans, I found myself having a good time with it.

The plot concerns the Wilson Wonder Circus. Bad guy Carter hopes to buy the circus and has employed strongman Goliath and dwarf Professor Atom in stealing it away. Julie, the horse trainer, is in love with Jeff, the circus' partial owner. Goliath steals ten thousand dollars from jeff. In order to get it back, Julie employs a lawyer named Loophole. Some of the other circus works, like the silent Pinky and the verbal Tony, soon join him on this adventure. The story begins at the circus, winds through a train, and concludes by the coast.

The Marx Brothers have formally been on a boat, gone to college, gone to war, gone to the opera,  and gone to the race tracks. Their ninth feature is obviously about the Marx Brothers going to the circus. So there's lot of big top antics here. Harpo rides an ostrich and throws one of its eggs. A giraffe puts in a surprise appearance. Elephants are referenced repeatedly. Lions and gorillas and more appear. Trapeze artist and strong men drive the plot. There's certainly some novelty to this setting, especially since the circus has increasingly become a rare species in recent years. I feel like the circus setting was a common one in films at the time and it was only naturally for the Marxes to put their own spin on it.

Yet “At the Circus” is also the Marx Brothers' take on the mystery genre. After being hired, Loophole and his buddies become detectives of sorts. They go about interrogating Professor Atom and Goliath. They snoop around rooms and attempt to dig up clues. In fact, Chico spends a lot of time talking about clues. A large portion of the film is even set on a train, which can't help but bring other famous train-set mysteries to mind. So that makes 'At the Circus” an odd genre mash-up: A big comedy with a romantic subplot and musical numbers, set at the circus that is also a mystery.

After taking a break from song-and-dance numbers in “Room Service,” the songs make a big comeback in “At the Circus.”  To the film's determent. Kenny Baker and Florence Rice have several lengthy songs, including two separate renditions of “Two Blind Loves,” their romantic themes. Both performances go on for far too long. “A Day at the Races” built a musical number around a embarrassingly stereotypical black performers. This, disappointingly, also makes a comeback here. “Swingali” features Harpo playing with some dark-skinned singers and dancers, whose treatment has not aged very well. Despite most of the musical numbers being either too long or racially insensitive, there's at least one classic here. Groucho performs “Lydia the Tattooed Lady” in a crowded train car. Its complex, witty, and slightly ribald lyrics combine with a catchy melody and Groucho's spirited delivery. No wonder it would become one of his trademark songs.

While the songs aren't always a welcome return, I'm happy to see Margaret Dumont working with the Marxes again. Once again, she's in the role of a rich widow that Groucho is trying to con out of her fortune. (If a scene where he appears wearing a bathrobe is any indication, it's seems his attempted seduction was more successful than usual.) Her late film entrance into the film signals another genre shift. At that point, “At the Circus” becomes another Marxian comedy about contrasting the rambunctious brothers with high society type. This is most apparent in an aghast orchestra leader being set out to sea.

Groucho, oddly, doesn't enter into the film until about ten minutes. Once he does, he's cracking jokes as usual. One of the film's best running jokes has Groucho wearing a jacket that formally belonged to a magician. So he's repeatedly pulling magic tricks out of nowhere, with scarves, a bouquet of flowers, and a pigeon. On his quest to uncover the stolen check, Groucho ends up interrogating the trapeze artist. What follows is the film's most ribald sequence. At one point, Groucho even breaks the forth wall and addresses the Hays Office directly. There's also good lines about lodges, monkeys, Esperanto, and an inspired performance of “Oh Susannah.”

Harpo gets to work alongside several animals in “At the Circus.” This works well, giving the child-like character his own animal sidekicks. He begins the film by joking around with a lion. Later, he puts out an umbrella for a seal as he boards a train. That seal also helps Harpo play checkers, which is a delightful gag. He naps with a sheep and hides his head in the sand with an ostrich. Not all his best bits are animal based. A scene where Chico and Harpo sneak into the sleeping Goliath's room provides some solid laughs. Such as Harpo ending up inside a hanging jacket or dressing up like Santa Claus.

Chico, as always, works best when playing off other. He appears walking through the circus, saying hi to everyone and immediately following up by saying he doesn't have time to talk. There's a strong skit where Chico, as the ticket-checker on a train, refuses to let Groucho board without a badge. Absolutely the funniest scene in the film also features the two brothers. While attempting to investigate the dwarf, suspected of helping steal the money, Chico continues messes up Groucho's plan. The way he repeatedly pulls out a new cigar or bumps his head on the low ceiling just gets funnier and funnier each time its repeated.

It's not uncommon for the Marx Brothers' movies to peter out during the excessively zany last acts. This is very much the case for “At the Circus.” A gorilla – a man in a suit, naturally – escapes his pin and goes running through the big top. The great ape ends up helping save the day, the boys running across the ape's outstretched arms at one point. Aside from being the closest the Marxes ever got to doing a monster movie mash-up, it's otherwise a joke that simply tries too hard. The same climax has Margaret Dumont launched out of a cannon and every main character swinging wildly on the trapeze.

“At the Circus” was one of the few Marx Brothers films I hadn't seen before starting this retrospective. Considering the overall low opinion of their later MGM films, I went in with low expectations. Maybe that helped because I found “At the Circus” to be a lot of fun. Yes, the romantic subplot and musical numbers are a drag, like always. No, the chaotic energy of their earlier films will never be replicated. But this one is still a lot of fun, with several classic gags and a generally strong sense of fun. [Grade: B]

Monday, March 26, 2018

Series Report Card: The Marx Brothers (1938)

8. Room Service

As I started to watch “Room Service,” I was surprised. Not because of the opening credits, which features likable animated versions of Groucho, Harpo, and Chico. No, it's the production logo that threw me. All the prior Marx Brothers I've watched this month begin with the vintage Paramount or MGM logos. “Room Service” begins with the RKO logo. There's a good reason for this. Though under contract with MGM at the time, Zeppo negotiated a deal that allowed his three brothers to star in an adaptation of the popular Broadway play for a rival studio. The film was not successful in 1938 and, due to either that or being produced outside the Brothers' usual studios, is widely overlooked.

Somewhat shifty stage producer Gordon Miller, along with his assistants Binelli and Faker, has been attempting to get a new play produced. The script, “Hail and Farewell!,” is supposedly good but Miller is completely broke. He's currently living out of a hotel room and has the manager breathing down his back, asking for the rent. Things get even more convluted as Leo Davis, the writer of the play, shows up at the hotel. The attempt to fund the play, pay the hotel, and not get kicked out drives the plot further.

“Room Service” is something of a departure for the Marx Brothers. Being based on a Broadway play from another author, it is the only time the Marxes would play roles that were not originated for them. Thus, “Room Service” is not really a Marx Brothers movie that, for some reason, stars the Marx Brothers. The script has a completely different comedic rhythm than the team's usual films. The film leans less on hyper-verbal sparing and wacky visual gags. The pacing is much slower, the film making more room for the non-Marx players. There are also no musical numbers, Harpo going without his harp and Chico without his piano. On one hand, it's interesting to the Marx Brothers play in a slightly different style. At the same time, it's not a mode especially suited to the three's style.

The Marx Brothers had starred in films based on plays before. Despite being several years older than “Room Service,” even “The Cocoanuts” and “Animal Crackers” were less obviously stage adaptations than this one. Almost all of “Room Service” takes place in one hotel room. Characters and events are frequently said to appear just off-screen, a device that made sense in a stagebound play but less so in a motion picture. Director William Seiter throws in a few cinematic moves, like an occasional close-up, but his direction is very stage-like as well. I have no idea why the film's producers took the stage-to-screen transition so literally.

Owing to its origins as an unrelated play, “Room Service” features a much larger cast and more developed characters than the brothers' other films. Most notably, a young Lucille Ball appears as Christine, the actress who is helping Miller fund his play. Though it's neat to see her in the part, Ball sadly isn't given very much to do. Frank Albertson plays Davis, the playwright. This is the part that would've once been played by Zeppo. Yet Davis gets more screen time and personality than the Brothers' straight men usually get, even getting a laugh or two of his own. Donald MacBride, who borders on obnoxious as the hotel manager, has nearly as much screentime as the Brothers.

Despite sharing the screen more than usual, the Brothers are still the stars of the show. Groucho still gets most of the laughs. He proclaims a man that doesn't wear shirts an “atheist,” asks how someone without a fireside can listen to the president's speeches, or proclaims frustration that he can't sue anyone. A conversation has him launching into a rendition of “I'll Be in Scotland Before You.” An attempt to convince someone that the playwright is in a mental institution takes an amusing detour towards a maternity hospital. Groucho even sneaks in some naughtier lines. After being taught he's been given the bridal suite, he asks for three brides. He gets to dance too, at the conclusion of a kind of lame skit that opens the film.

Considering the play wasn't written with the Marxes in mind, one can assume that Harpo's part had to be extensively rewritten. In one scene, what I suspect was the character's dialogue is replaced with a whistle being played. Harpo's trademark ingenuity is present here. He uses a strainer and some iodine to make it look like Davis has measles. He sneaks a live turkey into the hotel under his jacket. When asked if he's ever been in love, he pulls out a squeaking kewpie doll. One of his better gags has him entering the room while wearing a cape and a flaming hat, for no apparent reason. He even gets to hit someone over the head. Not all these skits work, as the turkey bit goes on way too long, but he still gets several laughs.

Chico has a couple of sharp lines too. He doesn't hit the circular arguments he brought to the earlier films but he's still funny here. He propels one of the films' better reoccurring gags, by insisting on carrying a stuffed moose head around with him. Supposedly, it was hard to get through a revolving door. He also gets good lines when confusing a would-be actor/waiter's acting ability with his aptitude for carrying dishes. Perhaps in a bit of a meta touch, considering the Brothers supposedly felt washed-up following their exit from Paramount, Chico actually makes a joke about being washed-up here.

“Room Service” is actually full of running gags. Some of them are better than others. On two occasions, the Brothers start putting on multiple copies of the same clothes, a mildly surreal gag. More than once, someone runs into a room stacked full of stuff. Yet frequently the repeated jokes here do not successfully hit their target. MacBride's manager is given the annoying catchphrase of “Jumping butterballs,” which the movie repeats over and over again. There's also a running joke about characters bidding someone else goodbye. It says a lot that one of the funniest moments in the movie is simply a knowing glance between the three Brothers as they try to pull off a scheme.

“Room Service” takes a surprisingly morbid turn in its last act. When it becomes clear that they won't be able to pay the bill they owe, the Brothers decide that Davis should fake suicide. This leads to him writhing on a bed, pretending to have drank poison, until he ends up faking his death. When that isn't enough, Harpo fakes suicide too, dropping out of a closet with a knife in his back. All of this happens in the film's final ten minutes, feeling increasingly sweaty and a bit off-putting as “Room Service” runs towards its sudden ending.

According to the sages over at Wikipeida, “Room Services” recorded a loss of 330,00 dollars, which couldn't have been good for RKO in 1938. Needless to say, the Brothers wouldn't make another movie with that studio. Though the more subdued style of the MGM films supposedly were a hit with audiences at the times, perhaps “Room Service” was too subdued, even for 1938. It's the rarest of characters, a Marx Brothers movie that doesn't really feel like a Marx Brothers movie. While I admire the trio for attempting something new, the result clearly did not play to their strength as well as their usual style. [Grade: C+]