Tuesday, April 28, 2015

A Night At The Opera – Here comes Sanity Clause!

This post is for The Fabulous Films of the 30s Blogathon, Hosted by CMBA, from April 27 through May 1, 2015!
Starring The Marx Brothers: Groucho Marx, Chico Marx, and Harpo Marx.
Co-starring Margaret Dumont, Kitty Carlisle and Allan Jones
Director: Sam Wood (1934)

Fantasia in Radio City Music Hall!  Especially “What’s Opera, Doc?” with Elmer Fudd singing “”Kill the Wabbit” over the Ring Cycle (no hobbits in sight, of course, this was the ORIGINAL Ring tale, but that’s, you should pardon the expression, another story) Call it a “Gateway drug” if you like except it’s not illegal -- you only get high on music and comedy.
We kids were introduced to the classics as kids from Looney Tunes and Disney’s

Likewise, odds are most classic comedy fans’ look at opera was likely from the Marx Brothers masterpiece, A Night at the Opera.  I’ve been a fan of The Marx Brothers since my older siblings showed me their comedies when I was in kindergarten!  They sat me down to watch The Cocoanuts, with also introduced me to Kay Francis with each new zany antics, including, where I also discovered Kay Francis.  I rarely find a Marx Brothers comedy that I haven’t liked, but A Night at the Opera is my hands-down favorite!

To say that Bugs and the Marx boys had parallels is an understatement.  Bugs had to work triple time, taking on aspects of all three of the Brother, from Groucho’s sharp tongue to Chico’s willingness to engage in a blow to the head, to Harpo’s sheer manic frenzy, ripping pants and coats all in the campaign to make his target look and feel an utter fool.

The Marx Brothers had settled into almost archetype roles for their films, and this is no exception.

Every Marx Brothers film has at least one
perfectly quotable malaprop pun - Night at the
Opera delivers one of the best
as Otis B. Driftwood; promoter and sometime con-man; ever sidling up to the ample bosom and bank account of Mrs. Claypool, played by film’s greatest straight man, Margaret Dumont

Chico Marx takes his heavily accented position as Firello,, kind of a wise guy, but sharp and well meaning.  He’s slightly less actively criminal this time around, but he’s clearly not above whipping out a leather cosh when needs must.

He is ever teamed with his “Silent partner” Tomasso, played by Harpo Marx, playing his traditional role of mute whirlwind of chaos.

As usual, Groucho starts alone, working his way into Mrs. Claypool’s best graces as primary patron of the city’s opera company, where he sets himself up with a cushy managerial position, careful never to actually hear any singing.  Keen to sign legendary European tenor Rodolfo Lasparri (not the one “of Palermo Sicily), for all of you who saw The Freshman) he meets Fiorello, who claims to manage “The greatest tenor in the world”. Of course, he’s not referring to The Great Lasparri, but his friend Ricardo (Allan Jones) who has no resume as a singer. But Lasparri has the hots for Ricardo’s girl, Rosa (Kitty Carlisle) and when he’s approached to sing, he says he won’t go to New York without her.

As zany as the boys can be, they can also be kind and helpful to their friends, so at this point, Lasparri become the Marx’ “Special friend” (as the Marx-channeling Warner Brothers called their targets of torment on Animaniacs) and he becomes the target of their own special brand of War of Nerves.  At the same time, Groucho has to keep Mrs. Claypool’s cheeks blushing, and keep his opposition for her charms and bankbook, Gottlieb (Sig Ruman) off balance. 

The trip back from Europe provides us what may be one of the greatest scenes of physical comedy in a Marx Brothers film, and possibly any film ever, The Stateroom Scene.Two and a half minutes of filmic perfection.

The setup is simple – Driftwood’s room on the ship is calamitously small – so much so that it can barely accommodate himself and his monstrous steamer trunk, which is itself accommodating stowaways Fiorello, Tomasso and Ricardo.  So as more and more people arrive to do various work in the room, it become increasingly sardine-like.  To this day it’s one of the only scenes of black-and-white film that our daughter Siobhan will willingly sit through, and no surprise why.

The Marxes were all noted lotharios - none of them ever
needed a "beard"!
Graham Linehan, creator of classic British sitcoms like Father Ted and The IT Crowd, points out a theory of sitcom scenarios from Griff Rhys-Jones – the characters in a sitcom must be trapped, or otherwise stuck together, or why else would they stay with people they hated?  That adds another layer of comedy to the scene – all throughout the scene, Groucho is trying to prepare for an intimate dalliance with Mrs. Claypool, resulting in a moment of surprise when she arrives.

When is a door not a door?  When it's a cot held up
to hide from a detective, obviously!
When the company arrives in New York, there’s the matter of the ship being three Italians heavy.  So the boys pose as visiting Russian aviators, allegedly fresh from a grand adventure.  After a speech at City Hall goes south, the stowaways are on the run, and with a policeman hot on their trail, it becomes very difficult for Groucho to keep all his oars in the water.  Not as famous as the Stateroom Scene is the sequence where the crew must shell-game a series of cots between two hotel rooms to keep Detective Henderson off kilter.

The final reel is sheer Marx madness as a massive plot is hatched to get revenge on all those who have wronged them, get the starcrossed lovers back together, and get Driftwood back into Mrs Claypool’s arms and trust fund.

The manic action of a Marx Brothers movie is met equally by the wit of the dialogue.  Groucho has a free-range tongue, and from it comes some of the most perplexing verbiage ever heard on film, leaving the stage littered with confused targets:

Otis B. Driftwood: That woman? Do you know why I sat with her? Because she reminded me of you.
Mrs. Claypool: Really?
Driftwood: Of course, that's why I'm sitting here with you. Because you remind me of you. Your eyes, your throat, your lips! Everything about you reminds me of you. Except you. How do you account for that? (to the camera) If she figures that one out, she's good.

Decades later, Dennis Dugan directed a truly under-appreciated remake of this film titled Brain Donors. Set in a ballet company instead of opera, it features John Tuturro in the Groucho-esque role of Roland T. Flakfiser, Mel Smith as Rocco Melonchek and hybrid stand-up comic Bob Nelson standing in for Harpo as Jacques. Nancy Marchand, then known best from Lou Grant and now better known for The Sopranos steps in for Dumont as doddering dowager Lillian Ogelthorpe.  It more than satisfies the requirements that a remake must meet, and while it can never replace the original, it does a fine job of showing that classic comedy still holds up today.  Well worth a look

Sunday, April 12, 2015

HIS KIND OF WOMAN (1961): Face the Music!

This post is forThe Great Villain Blogathon, Hosted by Speakeasy; Shadows & Satin; and Silver Screenings, from April 13 through April 17, 2015, revised for 2015!

Have you ever seen a movie that seems like a typical genre flick, but as you keep watching it, you realize it’s got a mind of its own, and it’s so wild and crazy and all-but-off-the rails, you soon realize that you can’t help loving it?  Well, gang, meet the 1951 RKO comedy/noir His Kind of Woman, which also quickly became one of my favorite movies!  Director John Farrow (The Big Clock; Wake Island; and; Hondo, among many other memorable films, with the directing mostly given to Richard Fleischer (Fantastic Voyage) was responsible for considerable tweaking—re-shoots, even!  Lots of writers were in His Kind of Woman, too, including Frank Fenton and Jack Leonard, with Gerald Drayson Adams’ original story getting credit as well. Seems like everyone gets a little credit here, and why not, with that swell cast?

In His Kind of Woman, we meet our Villain from the start: Nick Ferraro, a vicious deported crime boss with a sinister agenda. Raymond Burr plays one of his very best villain roles here as the wicked Raymond Burr, the man who scared us in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window; Raw Deal; A Place in The Sun; the role of Steve Martin (no, not the actor/comedian/author Steve Martin) from the classic Japanese thriller Godzilla, now a hero for a change!  We don’t want to spill all the surprises, though we’re impressed with Burr's range, from bad guys to many Emmy-Awards for his role as good-guy-lawyer Perry Mason.  In real life, Burr was a complicated man who left his private life to himself, with his loyal long-time friends and colleagues, including the cast of Perry Mason and Ironside.  Good for him; the man was entitled to have a private life and trusted friends as, as well as his Emmy Awards! 

"OK, who's the wise guy cracking Selznick jokes?!"
Burr freely invented the facts of his life, often claiming to tragedy to triumph, claiming to have had a happy childhood; then joining the Coast Guard; then acting and working at a Vancouver stock theater. No wonder Burr became an actor, even if Burr had to fudge his credits – but it worked!  Burr became starstruck, becoming an apt pupil, eager to become an actor.  His  He started playing heavies (literally, with his huge frame)  playing heavies to film movie stars villains to fame and fortune as TV’s Perry Mason and Ironside, with fame and Emmys, bless him; with Burr’s superb as a fine a fine actor both before his success as a TV and film actor and with Burr’s thanks to Perry Mason and Ironside!  Burr was quite the chameleon, but I’d say it served him well in his acting career. showed

But today, the spotlight belongs to the stars of His Kind of Woman!
Burr played superbly in his villain roles, which says a lot, considering Robert Mitchum is at his bedroom-eyed best as Dan Milner, a rambler and a gambler, literally. But Dan is easy to like; how can you not trust a guy who sticks with milk or ginger ale instead of booze, and helps others who are in trouble as well!   Sure, it’s implied that Dan has gotten in trouble with liquor in the past, but it’s also that clear that that Dan has learned his lesson.  Dan is the kind of likable lug who really should get in the habit of looking before he leaps. He seems to have been pretty successful at making a living from gambling (we wish Dan was a real guy who could’ve given my late dad pointers!), but Lady Luck hasn’t been returning Dan’s calls lately (dames—sheesh!). But Dan has a funny feeling there’s more to his recent string of nigh-Kafkaesque mishaps than cold dice, especially when he’s accosted by a couple of smooth-talking, suit-clad jaspers: Corley (the uncredited Paul Frees, whose voice is well known to Team Bartilucci from both animated and live-action films, including another RKO classic, The Thing from Another World), and Thompson (Charles McGraw from The Narrow Margin and The Killers, who also narrates the film in early scenes).  Corley and Thompson offer Dan a cool fifty-grand (big money back them) to go to The Morros Lodge, a fabulous Mexican resort (filmed in Baja California) and await further instructions, no questions asked (well, few questions, anyway).  Dan’s not entirely comfortable with the arrangement, but he sure can use the dough. Wonder if Dan’s ever heard a little story about a Trojan horse?

Dan sure knows how to rub Lenore the right way!
While waiting for his plane to Mexico, tough guy Dan is smitten in spite of himself when he meets the lovely, sassy, ostensibly rich Lenore Brent (Jane Russell from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes;The; Paleface; Macao), giving her lovely voice, among her other charms (producer Howard Hughes never missed an opportunity to showcase the ravishing Russell’s pulchritude). I always enjoy The Paleface hearing Jane Russell sing; she has a nice snappy way with a song, and she’s both sultry and jaunty as she sings “Five Little Miles from San Berdoo” and the torchy  “You’ll Know.” Despite their characters’ mutual cat-and-mouse routine, you can see the electricity crackling between Russell and Mitchum. There they are, sexy and playful as all get-out, and nobody’s naked (though they sometimes come close, at least by late 1940s/early 1950s standards)! By all accounts, Mitchum and Russell were good friends offscreen, and only friends. (In fact, after Mitchum’s death in 1997, Russell and Mitchum’s wife Dorothy scattered his ashes at sea.  But I digress!)

Back at the Morros Lodge the ranch, er, lodge, the fun in the sun apparently includes role-playing games as well, because each vacationer Dan meets at this gorgeous resort seems to be trying to be someone else!  Lenore may or may not be an heiress, and her real name may or may not be Liz Brady; Bill Lusk (Tim Holt of The Magnificent Ambersons and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre) might be a drunken tourist, or he might be a wily Fed. Myron Winton (Jim Backus, whose many roles included Rebel Without A Cause and TV’s Gilligan’s Island, not to mention the voice of Mr. Magoo!) is a! businessman who turns out to be a card sharp, or maybe just a plain old cheater. Then there’s mysterious author Martin Kraft (John Mylong) who only seems interested in playing chess with himself (“Maybe he hates to lose,” Dan suggests).

I also like that Dan is basically a decent guy with a kind heart underneath his sleepy-eyed shrewdness, like when he helps the young newlywed couple win their money back from sneaky so-and-so Winton. Maybe that’s why Lusk finally ditches his lush routine and reveals to Dan that he’s an immigration officer pursuing evil Nick Ferraro (is Nick an evil S.O.B. or what!?)  Burr is in his element in one of his juiciest over-the-top bad-guy roles before Perry Mason made him a TV star). Turns out the only thing Kraft writes is prescriptions: he’s really a plastic surgeon who was himself deported, like Nick. Seems Dan’s role in all this is the ultimate face-off: the doc’s supposed to put Dan’s face on the evil Nick so he can sneak back into the U.S., after which Nick and his boys will bump Dan off so Nick can keep his secret! Yikes!

Don't you go fainting on me when  I'm trying to torment you, mister!
I’ll admit the mix of film noir suspense and zany comedy gets a bit lopsided at times, but I was so caught up in the fun of His Kind of Woman, I was having too much fun to quibble!  I liked the nice background details, too, like the sarcastic radio announcer ragging on Nick Ferraro!  Lots of our favorite uncredited supporting players in His Kind Of Woman also include Mamie Van Doren, Robert Cornthwaite (clean-shaven and almost unrecognizable from his role as the exhausted, going-mad scientist in The Thing from Another World), and Anthony Caruso (The Asphalt Jungle, among others) as one of Nick’s vicious strong-arm boys. On a related note, it’s interesting to see the difference between early 1950s and 21st-century beefcake. As I said in my I Wake up Screaming post, today’s muscular hunks are so ridiculously ripped, you'd cut yourself if you touched them!  However, Nick is a psychotic, with a posse of sadistic henchmen, including Anthony Caruso (The Asphalt Jungle).; Charles McGraw.  But it’s Nick who’s the true villain.  He’s so nuts that he won’t let poor Dan come to come to until he gets to see right in his eyes!  Even the bad guys are getting antsy; maybe they’ve got more dates with other vicious bad guys his a gun in his hand – that guy’s so nutty, even his fellow goons are getting antsy, or maybe they just has other creeps to victimize!

My king for a horse, but guns will do! Vincent Price steals the show as movie star Mark Cardigan!
Ironically, one of the most sincere characters in His Kind of Woman. is Vincent Price’s character, the flamboyant movie star Mark Cardigan. He thinks he’s gonna run off with his mistress Lenore.  Surprise!  Wifey Helen (Marjorie Reynolds of Ministry of Fear; and White Christman)) shows up, with her attorney in tow.  Price is clearly having a blast, and I don’t just mean with his hunting rifle!  Even with Mark’s goofy airs, he saves the day, bless him (with a few hilarious fits and starts along the way). Every cast member is great fun to watch, though there’s no denying that Price steals the show as Mark. He basks in the spotlight and he’s a big ham, but a tasty one. Even better, Mark truly puts his money where his Shakespeare-trained mouth is when Dan’s in danger. The scene where Mark tries to squeeze every volunteer at the resort into the boat to rescue Dan is laugh-out-loud funny!

Over at the TCM Web site, Price wrote that Mitchum was “heaven to work with...one of those “diamond- in- the-rough”  types in whose character you can’t find any sort of holes because he’s so open and honest...He’s a complete anachronism. He claims he doesn’t care about acting, but he’s an extraordinary actor. He’s one of that group of people in Hollywood who are such extraordinary personalities that people forget they’re marvelous actors.” Moreover, Mitchum was generous on the set, treating about twenty members of the cast and crew to lunch in his bungalow every day, and “on several occasions when he realized his stand-in had had a rough night, he stood in for the stand-in.” Don’t you love it when actors you like turn out to be decent folks, too?

The Film's DVD commentary mentions that one of the band members seen in the background of several scene was Lalo Guererro, credited as the father of Pacheco, or Chicano music.  In addition to popularizing the latin sub-style , he was also a master parodist, with Mexicanized versions of hit songs like "Tacos for Two" and his first big hit, "Pancho Lopez", a parody of Davy Crockett.