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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

Romeo and Juliet (1936)

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Romeo and Juliet (1936)

     I have been avoiding the various incarnations of Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” for a number of years based on the conclusion that the story is far too compelling and therefore horribly depressing. My aversion, to put it simply, is that I can find no way to not be crying and frustrated by the conclusion. Nevertheless, I opted to delve into the much proclaimed MGM take on the tale of star-crossed lovers and found that perhaps my emotional curse with this story is lifted; although, that is not a compliment to the picture.

     Unlike the most recent adaptation of the play directed and artfully reimagined by Baz Lurhman, the Romeo and Juliet starring Norma Shearer and Leslie Howard keeps much of the dialogue that the newer version found unnecessary. I do not count this as a virtue, however. Mercutio, who is well played by John Barrymore, spends many a minute rambling through fanciful descriptions of dreams and fantasy, the words from which fly by so quickly that one would mentally exhaust himself if he tried to understand what the hell that man was rambling about. I find it hard to believe that audiences in 1936, the majority of which were less educated than we are now especially with the likes of Shakespeare, were able to find enjoyment in this style of English that in some of the relays of dialogue is utterly impossible to understand even by me. Count me stupid, I suppose.

     What perhaps did appeal to audiences was the grand spectacle the picture was. MGM pulled out all the stops in putting this film together. A Verona church was constructed in Hollywood, three different replicas of Juliet’s balcony were used so as to avoid the use of a camera on crane, and exotic animals such as peacocks and monkeys lurk in the backdrop in some scenes. More than 2,000 extras were used on set. Also of interest is that the movie was filmed twice: once on set and again with actors in rehearsal against a screen. The latter technique is particularly obvious during the party scene when our lovers are dancing together but in front of a back projection screen where the remainder of the party guests dance in time.

     This was the last picture that MGM Producer and “wonder boy” Irving Thalberg produced before dying in 1936. His involvement and push to have this movie made were why audiences got the leading lady they did. Shearer was his wife, and he instantly marked Romeo and Juliet as a great vehicle for the then-queen of MGM. Shearer’s star power would lose clout at the studio after her husband’s death. As far as the gal’s performance, I found it agreeable but not stunning. She is quite different from the roles she had become known for in playing sexually liberated women before the Production Code cut back on such characters. Shearer is young-spirited and air headed at times as the dreamy-eyed Juliet. Her leading counterpart Howard does a better job, I think, but neither seemed to bring strong enough emotion to their parts to get me weeping or feeling sorry for their plight by the end. When Mercutio dies, we get nearly no emotion from Romeo before he dashes off to kill Tybalt (Basil Rathbone), but perhaps that was the way of men in those days.

     The MGM 1936 Romeo and Juliet is a high-rated film by critics and contemporary viewers, so I’m likely to be chastised when I say that I was not thrilled by it. Frankly, I was falling asleep trying to endure the dialogue, which I think at times obscured emotional acting from the players, that runs on for more than two hours. I have mentioned before my slight lack of appreciation for Shakespeare, which I am sure had some play here, but the actors gave me little to cling to otherwise. Barrymore is the only actor I think was perfectly cast. Howard does fine but he is not the most manly of men. The part was offered to Clark Gable, who turned it down by famously saying, “I don’t look Shakespeare. I don’t talk Shakespeare. I don’t like Shakespeare, and I won’t do Shakespeare.” I think it is best he was not hired for the part, and I am not sure who would have done better. Cagney? Kidding.

Sources: Ben Manckiewicz, TCM.com

The Secret Six

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The Secret Six (1931)

     Gobs of movies during what we consider the classic eras had titles that had little or nothing to do with the plot of the film. Many took their names from popular songs of the day and others went through numerous changes before a title that suited the studio was selected. With The Secret Six the name is nearly irrelevant. The title refers to a body of men who wear masks (and pretty lame ones) and collect information on bootleggers and other criminals, delivering their findings to the district attorney. That body of men is only twice referenced in the movie and the first does not occur until more than half way through the action.

     Also not appearing until probably a third into the plot are Clark Gable and Jean Harlow, who appeared together for the first time in this Wallace Beery vehicle. Beery was a big deal at that time, but in a few years time his name would get billed under the other two as their stars quickly climbed (see China Seas). Beery could be quite the heel and liked to flex his star power, and Harlow, whom MGM borrowed from Howard Hughes who had her on a contract, found particular distaste with the star.

     In The Secret Six, Beery is laborer “Slaugherhouse” who takes up with some bootlegger friends of his upon learning about the great living they earn. When he and his pal Johnny Franks, among others, start to muscle in on a rival bootlegging operation, a shoot out ensues and the rival boss, Colimo (John Miljan) finds his kid brother killed. Franks pins the rap on Slaughterhouse, but when Colimo’s gang goes after him, they only wound the brute. Getting his revenge, Slaughterhouse shoots Franks and takes over his restaurant. He has now become essentially the boss of the operation. Enter reporter Carl (Gable) who with another reporter Hank (John Mack Brown) are trying to get the scoop on the murder while also flirting with Anne (Harlow), a moll of what is now Slaughterhouse’s gang, who is also now arriving out of no where.

     Although Anne selects Hank as her beau, both reporters hang around the gang, trying to get scoops on all the goings on. Slaughterhouse, who now is going by Louis Scorpio, has also bribed them for giving him favorable light in the papers. The mobster has managed to elect a new mayor, which will keep the cops off his back to an extent. Carl and Hank are separately helping the police and the Secret Six by spilling information on the bootleggers. Hank has a theory that the same gun was used to kill Franks and Colimo, who has by now been knocked off. So he’s in search of it in the Scorpio home, which has the boss wise to his disloyalty. Anne tries to warn her man, but he is gunned down on the subway.

     The case goes to court and Anne and Carl testify against Scorpio, but because the jury is fixed, the man gets off. He is now obviously out to kill the two snitches and is nearly successful.

     The Secret Six was released before the Production Code was in full swing, so it managed to get by with some considerable violence. Some theaters refused to air it because of that concern. Unlike some other pre-code gems, however, in this flick the bad guy does not get away with his crimes. He is also horribly unlikable, so no one is really rooting for that approach.

     The movie was a great move for Gable and Harlow. MGM exec Irving Thalberg had scenes added to bolster Gable’s character and the actor was hired to a contract with the company thereafter. Harlow too would soon join the MGM ranks. Both of those actors are enjoyable to watch but Beery does a great job of being an awful person. He is both evil and persuasive so that he does not become a totally hateable man, but one we know not to cross.

  • The Secret Six is set for 7:30 a.m. ET Aug. 14 on TCM.

Source: Robert Osborne, TCM.com

Cinematic Shorts: The Divorcee

Gasser

The Divorcée (1930)

     The Divorcée makes for a great study in film history. It not only illustrates the liberal sexual subjects able to be portrayed in the time before the Production Code banned anything seemingly indecent, but it shows all too well the double standard of infidelity between men and women in the 1930s. Additionally, Norma Shearer appears in the type of role that she seemed to own during those pre-code days.

     The film begins with the intensely enamored couple Jerry (Shearer) and Ted (Chester Morris) deciding to get married, much to the chagrin of womanizer Don, a role perfect for Robert Montgomery. Three years later as the couple prepare to celebrate their third anniversary, Jerry learns her husband has been cheating on her. She manages, whether deliberately or not, to sleep with Don, her husband’s best friend. Although she reveals the affair to Ted, she does not say who the man is, and a slimy Don has fled the country to avoid any trouble.

     Although Jerry is willing to forgive Ted’s longtime indiscretion with another woman, Ted is appalled by his wife’s behavior and the two divorce. Jerry now lives life to the fullest with all sorts of men, but prepares to settle down with Paul (Conrad Nagel), who had loved her before her marriage. The trouble is Paul is married, and at the last minute his wife begs to retain him. Jerry and Ted manage to find a happy ending, although one might question to the extent either can be happy given the lives they have lived in the meantime.

     Although Norma Shearer began her career in nice-girl sorts of roles, she managed to use her marriage to MGM Production Manager Irving Thalberg to land the spicy spots for which she would come to be known. The story goes that Shearer had sexy pictures taken of herself, which she provided to Thalberg as proof she could embody such roles. Specifically she was angling for The Divorcée, the first in a long run of racy flicks and one that garnered her the Best Actress Oscar.

     I must add that as much as I love Montgomery and have accepted with open arms the many womanizing and otherwise selfish romantic roles he plays, he was a bit weasly in The Divorcée. As much as I was rooting for Shearer to hook up with him, I hoped it would be permanent, not an awkward day-after situation in which Don had clearly gotten what he desired an now wanted out and away from the danger of an angry husband. I’m sure that was the intention of the role, and he played it well, but I need a redeeming picture to get him back in my good graces.

Source: Robert Osborne

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