30/01/2010

Animal Crackers (1930)



I realise I've already covered the Marx Brothers once this month but I really couldn't resist Groucho's wild dancing in Animal Crackers as Captain Jeffrey T. Spaulding. 'Hooray for Captain Spaulding' would later be reused as the theme for his long-running quiz show You Bet Your Life (1947-61). The character's name was rumoured to have come from Paramount's in-house coke dealer and would later be borrowed for a murderous redneck clown in Rob Zombie's nasty horror flick House Of 1,000 Corpses (2003), along with characters called Driftwood and Firefly after other famous Groucho aliases. One wonders what on earth the old scoundrel would have made of such a left-field tribute.

Animal Crackers was only the Brothers' second feature and it captures some of the frothing energy of their legendary stage shows but does feel rather flat and constricted, more like an unimaginatively filmed play than a movie and Zeppo in particular is left with very little to do. The farcical plot, about a misplaced painting, is neither here nor there. However, Margaret Dumont, a survivor of the original Broadway version, is especially lovely as Mrs Rittenhouse, often struggling to suppress a giggle at Groucho's rapid-fire zingers and spoof soliloquising (a lampoon of Eugene O'Neill's lengthy, experimental play Strange Interlude, 1928). Harpo is also on splendid form as The Professor: sporting nothing but underwear beneath his hat and cape, he has fun shooting at statues, sabotaging bridge games, trying on ladies' shoes, producing insane objects from every pocket and chasing Long Island high society blondes around the grounds. Naming Robert Grieg's chubby butler "Hives" was an inspired move, although it was a favourite gag of Laurel and Hardy and would be used by them again that same year in the classic short, Another Fine Mess (a remake of an earlier silent outing from 1927, incidentally, that happened to be called Duck Soup and whose supervising director was one Leo McCarey). There's also a nice self-referential joke when the pompous Roscoe W. Chandler (Louis Sorin) is exposed by Chico as a Czech fishmonger called Abie Kabbible and retorts, "Say, how did you get to be Italian?"

Veteran director Victor Heerman, a former editor at Keystone, was assigned to the project because of his reputation as a merciless disciplinarian but even he failed to bring order to the Marx madhouse and was allegedly forced to make use of a prop jail to imprison the wayward brothers in during the lulls between shooting. Without this slight infringement of their human rights, Animal Crackers might never have been completed, so difficult was it to keep all four siblings in one place and on time. J.B. Priestley saw the finished film upon its release and described himself, "lost in wonder and joy", and declared Groucho to be "urban America, the office executive, the speculator, the publicity agent, the salesman, raised to a height at which the folly of such men blazes like a beacon."

28/01/2010

The African Queen (1951)


One of Hollywood's great unwritten rules is that any movie featuring a mismatched couple must end with their reconciliation. If it's a buddy cop affair, this should take the form of "grudging mutual respect", often served with a side order of homoerotic banter and longing glances. If it's a romantic comedy, the initially bickering pair will find themselves contractually bound to follow the Pride & Prejudice (1813) blueprint, reassess one another and fall in love.

The latter is very much the case with John Huston's exotic First World War adventure The African Queen, independently-made with the support of legendary producer Sam Spiegel, then calling himself "S.P. Eagle". Based on C.S. Forester's 1935 novel with a script by James Agee, the couple in question are prim Methodist missionary Rose Sayer (a cut-glass Katherine Hepburn) and Canadian "Jack-of-all trades" Charlie Allnut (Humphrey Bogart). Thankfully the chemistry between the two leads is winning and natural, which allows Huston to establish their romance quickly and crack on with the simple, human story of Rosie and Charlie's bid to navigate the tortuous straits of East Africa's Ulanga-Bora river in a rickety old steamer with the intention of doing their bit for the war effort. The lovers plan to sink the Empress Louisa, a German gunboat stationed in a nearby lake, by turning their own vessel into a giant improvised torpedo rigged with gelatin explosives. "Two old people going up and down an African river... who's going to be interested in that? You'll go bankrupt," were the famous last words of Alexander Korda.


The film's location shoot in the Belgian Congo was famously tough. As Bogie's biographers A.M. Sperber and Eric Lax record, "The local hazards included poisonous snakes, crocodiles, scorpions, invading soldier ants, leprosy, dysentery, and a particularly nasty malady called bilhazia that comes from contact with tainted river water and involves worms working their way under one's skin." Bogie and Huston acclimatised by sitting around the bamboo base camp marinating themselves in Scotch - the star hating every minute of it, the maverick director, nicknamed The Monster, keen for a rain delay to resume his elephant hunting in the jungle. Hepburn adored the landscape, spending time learning the Latin names for the tropical flora and fauna, but fell ill from malaria having resolved to stay teetotal: "Those two undisciplined weaklings had so lined their insides with alcohol that no bug could live in the atmosphere... a very good joke on me."


A highly enjoyable, Oscar-winning piece of work then with some vibrant Technicolor cinematography by the late Jack Cardiff, but perhaps not the out-and-out masterpiece it's often claimed to be. Bogie is slightly hammier than usual as Allnut, a little man driven to great deeds by the love of a good woman, but is well within his comfort zone. Allnut is really just one more of Bogart's boozy, cynical expats with a taste for sailing to add to the collection (Huston pitched The African Queen to him thus: "The hero's a lowlife and you're the biggest lowlife in town and therefore most suitable for the part"). Hepburn is also very game throughout - her director instructed her to smile stoically like Eleanor Roosevelt - and the scene in which she sternly pours away Bogie's entire cargo of Gordon's gin, bottle by bottle, was later stolen outright for Pirates Of The Caribbean  The Curse Of The Black Pearl (2003), wherein Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightley) burns Jack Sparrow's (Johnny Depp) secret stash of desert island rum the morning after, much to his horror and bewilderment.

27/01/2010

I'm No Angel (1933)


The delightfully named Wesley Ruggles directed this fruity Mae West comedy and it's still a corker 77 years on. West, shimmering sex personified, is on peak form here, her final film before the Hays Office made its 1930 Motion Picture Production Code mandatory and unleashed enforcer Joseph I. Breen, an Irish-American ex-journalist, to spoil the party with his scissors, black marker pens and Catholic prudery. Every roll of West's hips in I'm No Angel, every murmured "mmm" or "oh" is packed with lewd suggestion and she is clearly having a ball taking a lighted match to conventional manners and mores. No one else in the cast can take their eyes off her and the world seems to positively revolve around this extraordinary woman for 90 minutes. Phwoar.

Particularly priceless is the beaming look of amusement on the young Cary Grant's face as Mae defends herself in court in front of an equally besotted judge (Walter Walker). This was Grant's second film with West following the picture that saved Paramount, She Done Him Wrong (1933), and he once said of the experience, "I learned everything from her. Well, almost everything."

The plot, about West's rise from sideshow attraction to wealthy socialite via a stint as a circus lion tamer, hardly matters of course, although the sight of the sexpot star sticking her head between the beast's slavering jaws rivals her shoot-out with the Injuns aboard a moving train in My Little Chickadee (1940) for sheer audacious spectacle. Mae apparently harboured a lifelong affection for lions after being taken to see them at Coney Island by her father as a child. There's strong support here from established character players like Edward Arnold and Gregory Ratoff (Max the producer from All About Eve, 1950) and the songs are a blast, not least 'That Dallas Man' from Mae's extraordinarily limited record collection.


Best line? In a film loaded with West's trademark bawdy quips and double entendres ("It's not the men in your life that counts, it's the life in your men"), it's this weird request to her maid that really had me in stitches: "Beulah, peel me a grape!"

26/01/2010

Ashes & Diamonds (1958)


Zbigniew Cybulski, the Polish James Dean, as Maciek in Andrzej Wajda's seminal war movie, Ashes & Diamonds, based on a novel by Jerzy Andrzejewski. Cybulski, a great star until his untimely death in 1967 when he was killed leaping for a train, enjoyed his most iconic role here as a resistance fighter with the anti-Marxist Home Army, charged with assassinating Szczuka (Wacław Zastrzeżyński), the new district secretary appointed by the incoming Communists. Having botched the hit, taking out two cement plant workers by mistake, Maciek struts and frets about the bar of the Monopol hotel unable to decide whether or not to try again, a Hamlet in shades.

Wajda's film is set over the course of one night, 8th May 1945, with Poland on the cusp of history following Germany's official surrender. It's a transitional moment and ultimately one of pragmatic compromise. The country's citizens are at once liberated, triumphant and privately harbouring grave doubts about exchanging one totalitarian dictatorship for another.

Ashes & Diamonds is beautifully shot in bleak, noirish tones. When Maciek's impromptu date with barmaid Krystyna (Ewa Krzyżewska) takes them amid the rubble and desolation of an old church, the landscape suddenly recalls the crumbling Vienna of Carol Reed's The Third Man (1949). That scene, in which a statue of Christ hangs upside down from the rafters, is one of only a handful that feel consciously stylised. Another is the expressionistic burst of fireworks that announce Szczuka's bullet-riddled corpse hitting the pavement. Maciek's death is one more - winged while sprinting away from enemy soldiers through a labyrinth of billowing laundry, he finally falls to his knees and breathes his last in a festering rubbish tip. This ending might have pleased state censors, watching a murderous dissident get his comeuppance, but to the rest of the free world it only confirmed Maciek's place as one of cinema's greatest tragic anti-heroes, romantic, idealistic and longing for a better world. In truth, Maciek is an angsty fifties youth in a forties context but the anachronism hardly matters.


With Ashes & Diamonds, Wajda completed a war trilogy that began with A Generation (1954) and Kanal (1956). A graduate of the famous Łódź Film School, he is still directing today, aged 83, most recently with Katyń (2007), another examination of World War Two atrocity (his own father was among the 21,768 Polish officers massacred in the forest by members of Stalin's N.K.V.D. in 1940). Speaking to Daniel Bickley and Lenny Rubenstein of Cineaste magazine in 1980, Wajda said of his fatalistic star:

"Nobody has ever had an effect on me as Cybulski did. We worked closely together very often and very closely at the beginning of my career. He was my collaborator. We always discussed new films and developed ideas together. Cybulski was the kind of actor who brought to films his own character, his own individuality. He was almost incapable of playing someone wholly invented by a writer; he always played himself. That's why he was so irreplaceable. Even after his death I felt he was still with me, planning my next film. I thought about him constantly. I was shocked when I realised that it was impossible to make another film with him, that his character would never again appear on the screen. At that instant I understood that each of us is exceptional; when someone dies, something unique disappears from the universe. There is no replacement for the individual human nature."

25/01/2010

The Wizard Of Oz (1939)


Victor Fleming's 1939 musical adaptation of L. Frank Baum's children's book The Wonderful Wizard Of Oz (1900) for MGM remains as timeless as ever. I say it's Victor Fleming's, but Norman Taurog, Richard Thorpe, George Cukor and King Vidor all sat in the director's chair at one stage or another and Vidor's early Kansas scenes, including Judy Garland singing 'Over The Rainbow', remain in the finished film. The songs by Harold Arlen and E.Y. 'Yip' Harburg are funny and neatly interwoven into the narrative, the bright costumes and sets, referencing W.W. Denslow's original illustrations, are imaginative throughout and the performances are uniformly excellent. Ray Bolger, Jack Haley and Bert Lahr in particular excel as the Scarecrow, Tin Man and Cowardly Lion respectively, each bringing unique physical and vocal idiosnycracies to their oddball characters (sadly, a dance sequence choreographed by Busby Berkeley showcasing Bolger's buckling legs of straw had to be cut to save time). Re-watching Oz recently, I honestly think I enjoyed this even more than when I was a kid.

Like many enduring films, there's a lot of back story to take in. Garland beat Shirley Temple and Deanna Durbin to the role of Dorothy Gale while former kindergarten teacher Margaret Hamilton, playing the cackling Wicked Witch of the West, was only brought in when original choice Gale Sondergaard (below) was considered too beautiful and baulked at the idea of being made-up as an "ugly hag". Frank Morgan as the "humbug" wizard was also not a first choice, his part originally intended for W.C. Fields until the Great Man's haggling proved too great a nuisance to frazzled producers. Morgan though more than made up for Fields' absence, gladly putting away enough sauce for two on set.


Jack Haley wasn't pencilled in for the Tin Man either. He was only called up nine days into shooting when Broadway actor Buddy Ebsen (below) was hospitalised after inhaling some of the aluminium dust from his make-up, which coated his lungs and hindered his breathing. Haley, whose face was pasted instead of powdered, proved a terrific stand-in as the tearily sentimental woodsman but he too fell ill, suffering a bad eye infection from the greasepaint, further delaying matters.


It's easy to see why The Wizard Of Oz has attracted so much speculation as to its underlying meaning over the years. In many ways, it's the ultimate American thirties movie, an escapist fantasy in the spirit of Harry McClintock's lovely Depression-era hobo ballad 'Big Rock Candy Mountain'. That decade was the American Nightmare after the dream of Fitzgerald's Jazz Age and Oz's Kansas sequences (i.e. the real world) are shot in dusty, sepia-tinted black-and-white, suggesting a drab, uncertain, dustblown existence for Dorothy out on the praire that could be disturbed at any moment by unforeseen disaster - the tornado as Stock Market Crash. Meanwhile, the candy-striped dreamworld of Munchkinland is under threat of invasion from tyrannical forces abroad (the Wicked Witch and her flying monkeys), echoing the distant, rumbling threat of Hitler's Nazis in Europe.

Obviously such allegorical readings of Oz could only apply to the film and not Baum's novel, though that too has attracted much academic pontificating. In 1964, New York high school teacher Henry Littlefield put forward the theory that Oz was an allegory for American monetary policy at the end of the nineteenth century when the gold standard was being used to value the dollar and the country was emerging from 16 years of deflation, depression and debt. In Littlefield's interpretation, Dorothy represents the American Everyman, the Munchkins ordinary citizens, the Scarecrow the farming community and the Tin Man industrialised labour. The Cowardly Lion? William Jennings Bryan, the politician who backed the populist cause to get silver taken into account as well as gold. Dorothy's shoes in the book are silver and she must walk the Yellow Brick Road (the gold standard) to get to Emerald City (Washington, home of the greenback dollar) to confront the Wizard (the President), who, significantly, is not all he's cracked up to be. A fascinating theory, still taught in US economics classes, but undone by the film because producer Mervyn LeRoy thought ruby red slippers would make better use of Technicolor.

Whatever the underlying message, The Wizard Of Oz endures as an ode to friendship and self-realisation. However, as the years go by, the film continues to accumulate wearisome, unsavoury and downright prurient urban myths. While the Munchkins were indeed paid less than Terry the dog (well, Toto does appear in almost every scene), it's not true that the little people took revenge by staging wild drunken orgies at night. As for the famous dead Munchkin, said to have committed suicide by hanging himself from a prop tree and left in the final film, this is nothing more sinister than a rented emu wandering about in the background. It is true, however, that Margaret Hamilton was badly burned when a stunt in which she was required to disappear in a burst of flame backfired on set.

Various celluloid attempts to revisit Baum's 14 Oz stories have been made over the years, most of which failed to come close to matching the joy and exuberance of this version. The Wiz, a bizarre Motown remake with Diana Ross and Michael Jackson reared its ugly head in 1978 and a disturbing but brilliant gothic sequel, Return To Oz, appeared in 1985, starring Fairuza Balk and featuring such darkly memorable Baum characters as Jack Pumpkinhead, Tik-Tok, the Wheelers and Mombi, an evil princess with 31 interchangeable heads. Rightly remembered as a cult classic, it bombed at the box office as a result of being too frightening for children and remains the last Oz film attempted as well as the only movie to bear celebrated cinematographer Walter Murch's name as director. 

02/01/2010

A Night At The Opera (1935)


New year, old movies. What else? This is probably my favourite Marx Brothers outing. Duck Soup (1933) may have more to say but perhaps in the final analysis its satirical targets are too broad and its underlying message too grave to permit the sort of joyous, carefree abandon peddled in A Night At The Opera. Don't get me wrong, Duck Soup is home to some of the finest anti-war dialogue ever uttered (Groucho: "Remember, while you're out there risking life and limb through shot and shell, we'll be in here thinking what a sucker you are"). It also has the added benefits of a very game Louis Calhern and Margaret Dumont plus the extraordinary Raquel Torres, a kind of Hispanic Betty Boop brought to life. And even though it's not as heavy-handed as The Great Dictator (1940) or as bleak as Dr Strangelove (1964), a world in which dictators go to war because someone called them "an upstart" or because they've already paid a month's rent on the battlefield strikes me as too close for comfort in a world of fictionalised weapons of mass destruction and dodgy dossiers.

A Night At The Opera doesn't begin to concern itself with anything so weighty. Instead, the Brothers combine to form a kind of anarchic moral tornado, devastating and ridiculing anything in their path that smacks of pomposity, cruelty or injustice. Their principle targets here are wet-blanket tenor Rodolfo Lassparri (Walter Woolf King) and the snobbish Herman Gottlieb (Sig Ruman), the touring opera company's financier, who are conspiring against simpering young lovers Allan Jones and Kitty Carlisle. Highlights include Groucho and Chico tearing the legal profession apart clause by clause and the famous stateroom scene in which the Brothers see how many people they can cram into a crowded ship's cabin - a setpiece that has continued to provide the inspiration for student pranksters the world over ever since. Variations involving Mini Coopers and telephone booths remain popular to this day.



Another very fine scene is this definitive example of Chico's piano playing, a unique comic style he developed entirely by himself. The tune is 'All I Do is Dream of You' by Nacio Herb Brown and Arthur Freed, which was also sung by Debbie Reynolds and a chorus of bathing beauties in Singin' In The Rain (1952).



A Night At The Opera marked the end for the often redundant Zeppo as well as the Brothers' transfer from Paramount to MGM and into the hands of Boy Wonder producer Irving Thalberg, the inspiration for F. Scott Fitzgerald's Monroe Stahr who would die tragically just two years later from pneumonia aged 37. Thalberg met Chico (a chronic gambler) at a poker game where he overheard the comedian complaining that the Marxes were all washed up. The producer disagreed and felt they had simply been mismanaged by their previous employers. Later, the wunderkind bet Groucho that he could make a picture with the Brothers containing only half as many laughs as Duck Soup and still make twice as much money. Having signed them and endured their relentless practical joking on set, Thalberg's innovations turned out to include bringing back playwrights George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind, veterans of The Cocoanuts (1929) and Animal Crackers (1930), to shape the story (as well as uncredited gag specialists Al Boasberg and a certain Buster Keaton) and sending the Brothers back out on the road to rediscover their vaudeville roots. This proved an inspired call. Testing out new material in front of live theatre audiences helped revitalise the Marxes' whole act and the resulting films with Sam Wood at the helm, this and the patchier A Day At The Races (1936), are all the fresher for it (in spite of their intense dislike for Wood). There is real confidence in these tried-and-tested routines.

Another problem with Duck Soup that is avoided here is in the staging. Freedonia's Art Deco interiors feel rushed, ill-defined and ultimately unreal. Its government buildings, court rooms and lawns are vague and interchangeable unlike, say, the similar but more distinctive big white Venice sets used in Fred Astaire's Top Hat (1935). The ship, hotel and opera house here though all serve to contain the Brothers within a stuffy real-world context of privilege and propriety, an atmosphere that provides the ideal backdrop for their zany brand of anti-establishment capering.

Not everyone agrees though. Groucho's biographer Stefan Kanfer complains of A Night At The Opera that, "Instead of making sport of romance, they facilitated it. Instead of whacking away at the powerful institutions of government or the military or education, they battled the toothless enemy of grand opera... They were not outrageous any more, they were only frivolous; they were not surreal, they were only foolish; they were not daring, they were only impolite." Maybe so, but A Night At The Opera is still a rollicking good ride at the expense of snide self-importance, a worthy target if ever there was one.