Groucho, Harpo, Chico, Zeppo, and . . . Dali ?

blogopenerThis Friday, August 14, TCM salutes Groucho Marx as part of this month’s Summer Under the Stars. Most of the day is devoted to the classic comedies of the Marx Brothers, which regular TCM viewers have seen multiple times. One of the most rewarding experiences for any avid movie lover is to watch a familiar film with a new perspective, leading the viewer to discover new insights and therefore a new appreciation. I hope my post today offers some of you a different perspective on the Marx Brothers’ movies.

Studying and teaching art history has prompted me to look at the movies in new ways. For example, when first studying the Dadaists in graduate school, I thought immediately of the Marx Brothers, because Dadaism was intentionally subversive and anarchic. It was born out of the anger and frustration over WWI and its causes, and it was designed to ridicule artistic traditions, moral conventions, and social institutions. In cafes and theaters, Dadaists dressed in ridiculous costumes, uttered meaningless noises, or performed poetry based on puns, nonsequiturs, and the interplay of words. Visual artists created collages and sculptures that reflected Freud’s and Jung’s ideas on the subconscious. After the war, the Surrealists picked up where the Dadaists left off, though their perspective was less nihilistic and they were more interested in tapping into the subconscious for their imagery. Surrealism is really about the irrational juxtaposition of recognizable images. Normal, everyday objects lose their identity or meaning because they have been taken out familiar contexts, or because they are depicted as warped or decayed. The imagery can be disturbing, provocative, and/or humorous. The artist whose work came to define Surrealism, at least for the mainstream public, was Salvador Dali, and Dali may have been the Marx Brothers’ biggest fan.

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Hyper Hypochondira: Feel My Pulse (1928)

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Bebe Daniels was a born performer. She debuted on film at the age of nine as Dorothy Gale in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1910, a Selig Polyscope short), and went on to a long and varied career, from co-starring in Harold Lloyd comedy shorts to headlining Cecil B. Demille bodice rippers, before settling in England as a popular radio personality. In 1928 she was in the middle of an interesting run at Paramount/Famous Players Lasky, making subversive comedies in which she was taking on traditionally male roles (as Fritzi Kramer has noted at Movies Silently). She was the lead in Miss Brewster’s Millions (1926), re-booting the George Barr McCutcheon novel with a female lead,  a Zorro-figure in Senorita (1927), and takes on a Valentino-esque persona in She’s a Sheik (1927). In 1928 the cast of She’s a Sheik (Daniels, Richard Arlen, and William Powell) was brought back together for Feel My Pulse (1928), a madcap hypochondriac comedy directed by the up and coming Gregory La Cava. La Cava was a cartoonist who was hired by William Randolph Hearst’s International Film Service to oversee their animations. After that business went kaput, he entered live action two-reelers and features, finally making his way to Bebe Daniels and Feel My Pulse.  Anthology Film Archives recently screened a beautiful print preserved by the Library of Congress, which is 63 minutes of gags, a showcase for Daniels’ effervescent personality and La Cava’s comic strip punchlines.

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August 1, 2015
David Kalat
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Ernst Lubitsch Forgives Himself

If you were so inclined, you could convincingly argue that Ernst Lubitsch’s Heaven Can Wait is a representative example of its time: a costume drama that luxuriates in period detail (playing to the strengths of 20th Century Fox); .a character study told with inventive narrative techniques and non-chronological structure (ike Preston Sturges’ The Great McGinty or Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane); in glorious Technicolor (surging to popularity in the wake of Snow White and The Seven Dwarves).

Except…this is Ernst Lubitsch we are talking about. He did not make movies like everyone else.

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KEYWORDS: Don Ameche, Ernst Lubitsch, Gene Tierney, Heaven Can Wait
COMMENTS: 8
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July 11, 2015
David Kalat
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William Powell vs. the World

William Powell the unflappable. That was his screen persona—memorialized in the likes of The Thin Man. He had a voice like single malt Scotch and a suave manner somehow equal parts immensely cultured and rough. In the glory days of 1930s romantic comedies, he was a king. William Powell was the 1930s equivalent of Fonzie. He was untouchably cool.

On screen, that is. No man is ever really so unmoved. And in 1938, the off-screen William Powell was in personal and professional turmoil. The love of his life, Jean Harlow, died tragically of renal failure at the age of 26. Still reeling from grief at this loss, Powell found his contract at MGM, the studio that practically made him a star, over. He was adrift, in more ways than one—but he would be called on to put on a happy face for the cameras to play opposite French actress Annabella in her American debut for a one-off romantic comedy made at 20th Century Fox. Almost immediately after completing the film, Powell would be diagnosed with cancer, and spend most of the next two years fighting for his life. That The Baroness and the Butler is even watchable is a testament to Powell’s professionalism. (Watch it tonight on TCM, or use the spiffy new TCM app to stream it at your leisure)

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KEYWORDS: Screwball Comedy, The Baroness and the Butler, Walter Lang, William Powell
COMMENTS: 11
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June 13, 2015
David Kalat
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The Blank Stare of Harry Langdon

Back when I started my endless ramblings about the transition from silent slapstick to screwball comedies, I led by singling out Harry Langdon’s Tramp, Tramp, Tramp as a fulcrum point where screwball becomes imperative. So it’s time to come back to Harry Langdon, and indulgently celebrate what made him so gloriously awesome, even if his style of comedy was unsustainable over the long run. Harry, this one’s for you.

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KEYWORDS: Harry Langdon
COMMENTS: 4
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June 6, 2015
David Kalat
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The Rise and Fall of Jimmy Parrott

For the last several weeks we’ve been looking at romantic comedies of the 1930s/40s, specifically the talented filmmakers and (mostly female) comedians whose careers flourished with the transition from slapstick to screwball. But in this story there are some gaps—potholes in history where was supposed to be, for some reason, wasn’t. Consider poor Jimmy Parrott, doomed to live and die in the shadow of his brother Charley.

Jimmy Parrott, or James Parrott, or Paul Parrott, call him what you will, was a talented screen comedian with real gifts for gag construction and physical business. Off camera he was a brilliant comedy writer and director who helped shape the careers of numerous comedy stars, and helped define the unique magic of the Hal Roach studio. Many of his contemporaries who followed the same career trajectory ended up as leading lights of the new screwball mode (as we’ve seen these last few weeks). But Jimmy Parrott was haunted by various personal demons that would bring him to a tragic and untimely end before he had a chance to reap that reward.

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KEYWORDS: charley chase, hal roach, Jimmy Parrott, laurel and hardy
COMMENTS: 2
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May 30, 2015
David Kalat
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Katherine Hepburn vs. Herself

If you have patience for yet one more Cinderella story, I’ve got a 1935 romantic comedy with an interesting behind-the-scenes twist.

This week’s Cinderella is Alice Adams, a Katharine Hepburn vehicle by ex-Laurel & Hardy cameraman George Stevens, adapted from a Booth Tarkington novel of the same name. It garnered Academy Award nominations for both Best Picture and Best Actress, and revived the moribund career of Hepburn (or at least until the next time her popularity hit the rocks, or the next time after that) and was a breakthrough career moment for Stevens, who reinvented himself as a serious director of significant Hollywood pictures and not just that guy who used to make “Boy Friends” comedies for Hal Roach (never heard of ‘em? You’re not alone). And yet, both Hepburn and Stevens fought to prevent the film from being as successful as it came to be. And therein lies our story.

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KEYWORDS: Alice Adams, George Stevens, Katherine Hepburn
COMMENTS: 7
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May 23, 2015
David Kalat
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Lana Turner, the Careless Cinderella

“One of the dullest towns in America is the dreary community of Hotchkiss Falls in the mid-Hudson Valley. The odds are 1000 to 1 against our finding anyone there with an interesting story. However that’s where we are, so let’s take a look around.”

Screwball comedies generally came in one of two flavors. The Heiress On the Run, as the name implies, presented rich girls fleeing their lives of privilege to take up with working-class men (see It Happened One Night, Next Time I Marry, Lady in a Jam, My Man Godfrey, Holiday). The Cinderella Story is also self-descriptive: a destitute and desperate girl is mistaken for a rich debutante, pampered by an older Sugar Daddy, and ultimately takes her place among the social set (see Easy Living, Midnight, and Fifth Avenue Girl, and Ruggles of Red Gap is a gender-reversed variant).

But once, the world of screwball combined these two flavors: Slightly Dangerous is both an Heiress on the Run film and a Cinderella Story, and it gives us a chance to dig into what made these two screwball subgenres work.

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KEYWORDS: Lana Turner, Robert Young, Screwball Comedy, Slightly Dangerous
COMMENTS: 6
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May 16, 2015
David Kalat
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Ginger Rogers: Sad Sacks of Fifth Avenue

Gregory La Cava’s 1939 comedy Fifth Avenue Girl is an excellent example of the 1930s style of romantic comedies, and possibly my favorite Ginger Rogers film of all. It is also a decidedly deviant 1930s romantic comedy that breaks more rules than it follows, and uses Ginger Roger’s natural downtrodden deadpan persona to tamp down the usual screwball shenanigans in favor of something altogether more quiet, and bitter. And if that doesn’t quite sound like comedy to you, then read on…

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KEYWORDS: Fifth Avenue Girl, Ginger Rogers, Gregory La Cava, Screwball Comedy
COMMENTS: 5
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May 9, 2015
David Kalat
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Downton Valley, or Ruggles Conquers the West

Ruggles of Red Gap is an odd duck. It is a crucial turning point into the formative genre of screwball comedy, but it isn’t easily recognizable as a romantic comedy nor is it especially female driven. It was Charles Laughton’s favorite screen role, but he’s not known for comedy, and his performance here consists substantially of standing still and trying to suppress an awkward smile. It’s a 1930s Hollywood comedy for the Downton Abbey set, whose most famous scene involves a British valet reciting the Gettysburg Address to a bar full of Wild West toughs.

In other words, it’s a movie that calls for some unpacking. So let’s get started!

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KEYWORDS: Charles Laughton, Leo McCarey, Ruggles of Red Gap, Screwball Comedy
COMMENTS: 4
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