At the Circus

Gasser

At the Circus (1939)

With most Marx Bros. movies, the story happening for all the surrounding characters is pretty bland and is easily overshadowed by the somewhat unrelated activities of the boys. In At the Circus, however, there is a pretty decent base plot. Chico and Harpo are appropriately cast as members of a travelling circus while Groucho is invited into the action as an attorney.

Harpo plays second fiddle to the strongman in the troupe, played by a nearly speechless and almost unrecognizable Nat Pendleton. Chico, although pals with Harpo’s Punchy as usual, is behind the scenes and helps out the circus manager Jeff Wilson (Kenny Baker), who is the protagonist of the movie’s actual story. Jeff left behind a life of luxury via his family’s wealth to run the circus but is now at risk of losing it lest he can pay $10,000 to his business partner, antagonist John Carter (James Burke).

John does not actually want Jeff to be able to pay because he does not wish to relinquish his share of the circus. He conspires with the strongman Goliath to steal the $10,000 in cash Jeff prepared, starting the hunt for the money. Chico, Harpo and Groucho as J. Cheever Loophole fail to regain the money and the latter instead targets Jeff’s rich aunt, Mrs. Dukesbury (Margaret Dumont).

When Loophole arrives in Newport to talk the money out of Mrs. Dukesbury, he is mistaken for the orchestra conductor Jardinet, who is to be entertaining the woman’s massive crowd the following night. Loophole plays along and convinces the woman to pay a fee of $10,000 for his services. When the time comes, however, it is the circus that will entertain Mrs. Dukesbury’s guests.

At the Circus, like all Marx Bros. movies, contains scattered and unamusing musical numbers. Chico does fit in his usual entertaining piano playing and Harpo guides a chorus of black singers with his harpist performance. Most amusing is a scene in which Chico and Harpo search Goliath’s train stateroom for the stolen money. The strongman is asleep, and the boys manage to keep him that way while they push him around and climb into his mattress. Coming in second place, by my estimates, is our first encounter with Loophole. Chico has been advised that no one can get on the train without a badge, and despite his inviting Loophole to intervene for Jeff, he will not allow him on board. Loophole ends up rather wet before he can manage to get inside.

I would not say At the Circus is the best Marx Bros. movie, but it is nice to see one that can somewhat captivate you with its main plot line. As I mentioned, the boys usually just steal the show in these movies by conducting their antics while the unimportant plot takes place. In this case I was intrigued by the struggles of Jeff and girlfriend Julie (Florence Rice) to maintain the circus and their romance.

Weekend’s Best Bet Continued…

In running through TCM’s lineup for this weekend, I came across far too many good flicks to list in my regular viewing recommendations in the left column. Not only are there a number of gems showing this weekend, but I have already written about a few them. So click on the links below to learn more about the movies and consider checking them out yourself this weekend. P.S. All times are Eastern Standard Time and on the U.S. programming schedule.

The Public Enemy
6 am Saturday on TCM
James Cagney, Jean Harlow

The Saint Strikes Back
noon Saturday on TCM
George Sanders, Wendy Barrie

Dinner at Eight 
8 pm Saturday on TCM
John Barrymore, Marie Dressler

The Thin Man
10 pm Saturday on TCM
William Powell, Myrna Loy

Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner 
2 am Sunday on TCM
Katharine Hepburn, Spencer Tracy

 San Francisco
8 am Sunday on TCM
Clark Gable, Jeanette MacDonald

A Day at the Races
10 am Sunday on TCM
The Marx Brothers

Witness for the Prosecution
noon Sunday on TCM
Marlene Dietrich, Tyrone Power

Animal Crackers

Dullsville

Animal Crackers (1930)

     I am sure glad I did not start my trek into the world of the Marx Bros. chronologically because Animal Crackers sure disappointed me. I have appreciated the movies the men made that borrowed material from their stage shows, but this second of their motion pictures apparently took too much as it is a filmed version of their stage musical. Possibly the greatest downfall of Animal Crackers is that it looks like what it is: stage performers addressing a camera rather than an audience.

     The musical numbers that drag on for the beginning segment of the picture are difficult to understand because the lyrics are muffled by great crowds of singers, so although the lines are probably rather witty, I couldn’t hear them. The actors, including Marx Bros. regular Margaret Dumont deliver their dialogue with their faces turned slightly toward the “audience” rather than naturally carrying conversations with the person in front of them.

     The story is of Dumont’s Mrs. Rittenhouse hosting a party in honor of Groucho as an African explorer. She is also simultaneously revealing her purchase of a painting worth $100,000. Attending the party are Chico as a musician meant to provide the accompaniment for the party and his partner Harpo as “The Professor”. Zeppo also appears rarely as a secretary for Groucho.

     During the soiree three groups of people separately conspire to replace the famous painting with a replica of their own merely as an attempt to get their work recognized. Because of this, no one really knows where the original ended up and the various hidden versions have disappeared as well.

     The dialogue is crammed full of the Marx brand of puns, but much of what Groucho delivered seemed to me better suited for Chico, whose Italian accent makes it easier to confuse one word for another (see my favorite scene from Horse Feathers). For instance, as Chico asks Harpo for a “flash” –meaning flashlight– the silent partner tugs on the flesh of his face, offers a fish, plays a “flutes”, etc. When Groucho and Chico do finally verbally spar, we get the best of the movie boiled down into a few minutes.

     The boys made their first movie, The Cocoanuts the year prior to Animal Crackers and would ratchet up the quality of their shenanigans the next year with Monkey Business. The quality of the film TCM aired for Animal Crackers was low but so too were the unnecessary and excessive musical numbers that left me totally bored. One of those songs, however, “Horray for Capt. Spaulding” became Groucho’s theme song for much of his career.

What to Watch: New Year’s Eve 2011

Turner Classic Movies has yet again arranged for one of the funniest comedy groups to take over New Year’s Eve programming. For those of you looking for something to do for the 14 hours leading up to your evening plans for the holiday, the network has arranged for me you to never leave the couch except to occasionally roll on the ground in reaction to the antics of the Marx Brothers.

TCM had scheduled probably half a dozen of the trio/quartet’s movies to run last year up through midnight on New Year’s Eve, which is how I came to record and spend the past year watching a majority of them. I hadn’t seen any of the boys’ pictures before then and to my surprise found I utterly adore their mode of humor. I had been resistant to them –like Laurel and Hardy as well– thinking for some reason I would not care for their work. What a fool I was! Chico, Groucho, Harpo (and Zeppo, I guess) have become my favorite comedic team. 

So for those who are Marx Bros. virgins like I once was, Saturday makes for a great chance to become ingrained in their way. And if you are of that inexperienced class, here are some things I didn’t know when watching my first of their movies that might make the experience more enjoyable:

  1. Harpo never speaks and is always acquaintance/sidekick to Chico and usually wears an oversized coat that contains any unlikely implement you can imagine.
  2. Chico always plays an low-brow Italian gent … and is awesome.
  3. Groucho’s mustache and eyebrows ARE painted on, I’ve concluded, as they are far too absurdly large, greasy and unhairy to be real. He is always the ringleader and usual star of the flick.
  4. Zeppo, if he is in the  movie you are watching, will play a normal guy who might be recipient of the other brothers’ antics and you will not recognize him as fitting in with those buffoons.

So cross over to the dark hilarious side if you have not already. The Marx Brothers are not for everyone, but if dumb humor is your taste you will love them. The schedule for Dec. 31 is:

Night at the Opera

Ring a Ding Ding

Night at the Opera (1935)

     I must not be most people because “most people” find A Night at the Opera to be the best Marx Bros. movie. Although I concede this MGM-produced picture is more accessible than the men’s Paramount-produced movies, I like the the zanier nonsense plots than I do this normal comedy embellished with Marx humor.

 
     The brothers start their scheme in Italy where Groucho‘s mark Mrs. Claypool, played by Marx regular Margaret Dumont, is being convinced to donate to the New York Opera Company so it can hire a famous Italian singer, Rudolpho Lassparri (Walter King). Chico is pals with a less-noticed tenor in the Italian opera and tries to finagle a deal for that singer as he confuses Groucho. Harpo is again a pal of Chico’s character and has been employed as a dresser for Lassparri until he is discovered wearing several layers of the theater’s costumes.
 
     The lesser-known tenor, Ricardo Barone (Allan Jones), is in love with opera singer Rosa, played by Kitty Carlisle, who has also attracted the attention of Lassparri. The more prestigious tenor arranges for the woman to come to New York with him and be his leading lady. The next step of the plot involves the trip to New York via steamship.  Although Lassparri, Rosa, Mrs. Claypool and Groucho all have tickets for passage, Chico, Harpo and Ricardo stow away by commandeering Groucho’s trunk. Groucho’s state room also happens to be the size of a closet, yet the trunk, the men and a whole slew of servants and strangers crowd into the room until they literally burst out.
 
     While aboard the boat, the men entertain some gypsy-types with their musical talents while trying to avoid being caught by ship personnel. To depart the vessel without getting caught, the three stowaways pose as foreign, bearded aviators and then are forced to make speeches –or in Harpo’s case, refuse to– before a crowd of Americans there to welcome them. A detective continues to hunt the men who arrived in the U.S. under “false pretences”, which eventually leads them to the opera house where the Marx Bros. are creating chaos and annoying the snooty audience. What finally turns the performance around for the men and the audience is Ricardo taking over for Lassparri as the lead.
 
     No matter how much a screenwriter/studio might try to make me care about the other characters in a Marx Bros. movie, I could not be less interested. What I think makes A Night at the Opera better liked among the average audience is that it balances and mixes the adventures of the Marx men with their surrounding cast members. I continue to prefer, however, the Horse Feathers and Monkey Business stories that have the comedians’ plots having little to do with the story driving all other characters. That is in large part because the scenes with the Marxes were borrowed from their stage acts and so did not rely on the plot. I find these exchanges more comically effective, however, than A Night at the Opera‘s endeavor to intertwine Groucho, Chico and Harpo into the story.
  • A Night at the Opera is set for 12:30 p.m. ET Dec. 31 on TCM.

The Haunted House (Buster Keaton)

Ring a Ding Ding

The Haunted House (1921)

    If you need a criminal hideout, what better place to set up than a “haunted house”? At least that’s what a gang of baddies think in The Haunted House short silent film. Buster Keaton is a bank teller, and I think we can say right off that this is a bad profession for such a clumsy dope as he. While trying to count money out to a client, the man spills a large jar of glue inexplicably situated without a lid on the counter. The contents land upon his pile of money which is now becoming stuck to just about every part of Buster’s body.

     When a host of bank robbers arrives, Buster struggles to put his hands up as they are adhered to his pockets. The man foils the robbers but others think he has just held up the establishment, so he is chased and ends up at the haunted house. Also driven to this locale are a couple of actors who have been run off the stage for a bad performance. The domicile is not actually phantom-ridden as the criminals see their ruse merely as a way to dissuade police from investigating it. They pull pranks, such as a staircase that becomes a slide, but Buster is ultimately scrappy enough to tackle the obstacle and elude the bank officials and police. Buster meets a whole host of ghouls, including a couple of creepily dressed skeletons who reassemble a man, and he event battles satan.

     When the man realizes the ghosts are merely actors, he borrows one of their outfits and holds up the bank official who is after him. That man, however, knocks our hero out with a blow to the head, and Buster ascends to heaven, then to hell, before awaking.

     I think what made Keaton such a good entertainer is that he acted as writer, director and star. Just as Keaton could not have written or directed another actor into giving the same performance or one that is so effective, so too could no other writer or director have known at this early stage how to write to the man’s strengths to create such a unique outcome. Keaton’s greatest asset was his athleticism and acrobatic skill. No one else could make slipping on a banana peel or sliding down a staircase look so natural despite its exaggeration. Keaton knew what he was capable of and how he could make people laugh, so he wrote his stories and conceived of sets around that. The plot of a Keaton story is much like that of a good Marx Bros. movie: It does not really matter. What will make you laugh are the stunts (and in case of the Marx Bros. the dialogue) that has nothing to do with the plot.

A Day at the Races

A Day at the Races (1937)

Gasser

     Why is it that Marx Brothers movies are crafted in a way that they could nearly be classified as musicals? Although the men themselves offer no notable vocal talents, their movies often had supporting actors who might go off on a song or two. In A Day at the Races, we are subjected to a number of musical productions separate from the talents of Chico and Harpo, who typically found themselves showing off their respective instrumental skill.

     Following one such song by our side male lead of Allan Jones as Gil, Chico takes to the piano for an uplifting ditty and to keep the law at bay. Harpo follows up by pounding the piano producing a not-so-bad tune but demolishing the instrument in the process. Thereafter, he play the “harp” by using the piano’s stringed insides. Harpo would also later play a wind instrument and spur a lively musical number featuring a large group of black stablehands. The fabulous song will remind astute ears of “I’ve Got Rhythm” and “Blow Gabriel Blow” and features Ivie Anderson and members of Duke Ellington’s orchestra.

     But musical numbers in Marx Brothers movies always seem a distraction from the actual plot and merely a device to fill up some play time. The story here has nothing to do with anyone’s musical talents, although Gil is mentioned as having a slight singing career, but he is more interested in horse racing. That is where the whole “Races” part of the title comes in. Gil buys a race horse Hi Hat in the hopes of winning some races and providing the financial support his girlfriend needs to keep her sanitarium running. The girlfriend, Judy (Maureen O’Sullivan), must produce some dough to keep the story’s villain Morgan (Douglas Dumbrille) from taking over the institution and transforming it into a casino. Morgan also happens to be the former owner of Hi Hat whose voice drives the horse wild, a detail that will come in handy later.

     Because Gil’s money-raising efforts are failing, Judy hopes that a wealthy woman who thinks she is ill will help fund the sanitarium she calls home. This Mrs. Upjohn, played by Margaret Dumont, is particularly bewitched with Groucho‘s Dr. Hackenbush, whom Judy arranges to come work at her institution. Both women are unaware, however, that Hackenbush is a horse doctor. All sorts of absurdity ensue with Groucho as a fake doctor, Chico as the sanitarium bus driver, and Harpo as a jockey, all working to help Judy save her institution.

     Ever the favorites of MGM Producer Irving Thalberg, the brothers were sent out at his behest to theaters around the country to try out new material they could use in this picture. These were some of the arbitrary games the men play in the picture that have little to do with the plot but are their trademark. Thalberg, however, died while A Day at the Race was in the works, upsetting the Marx boys and shuffling the production credits.

     One of the gags utilized in A Day at the Races would reappear a few years later in Go West. This circulating money routine involves Chico paying a $5 bill to the sheriff to pay for the horse and when the recipient pockets the bill, Harpo retrieves it and passes behind the man’s back to Chico, who pays it again. This works until the Sheriff stuffs the money into his vest pocket rather than his pants and Harpo is left digging in the trousers and leaving with only the sheriff’s sock.

     Possibly the best scam in A Day at the Races is perpetrated by Chico’s Tony, who also works selling “ice cream”, “tutsie frutsie” to be precise. Operating on a new-to-town Dr. Hackenbush, Tony persuades him not to put his money on one horse but instead buy a $1 tip from him for on whom to bet. The doctor agrees, but the tip is in code. Now he must buy from Tony’s ice cream cart a code book. That document is also not clear on the horse’s name and requires information about whether it is a filly, which requires the purchase of another set of documents. By the time Hackenbush discovers the horse’s name he is too late to place a bet and Tony has used his money to back the winning horse, which happens to be the one Hackenbush liked from the start.

     Although I still maintain the pointless endeavors of the Marx Brothers in Horse Feathers as my favorite of their excapades, A Day at the Races had its moments. These largely involved getting the boys alone to go off on one routine or another and are as enjoyable as ever.

  • A Day at the Races is set for 7:30 a.m. ET Oct. 16 and 10:30 a.m. Dec. 31 on TCM.

Source: Robert Osborne

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