Monday, May 30, 2011

The Marx Bros. at MGM: Go West (1940)

With Go West (1940), the studio at least had the sense to allow the Marxes to test their material out on the road again. Unfortunately, the final results hardly seemed to justify the effort. Go West remains one of the dullest and uninspired films the team appeared in. Frustratingly, it actually opens with a very solid and funny scene, of the kind in which Chico and Harpo manage to pull one over on Groucho (in this case, while waiting at a train station to make the journey west). If the rest of the picture had managed to sustain the level of wit present in its opening scene, it might very well have turned out to be a perfectly enjoyable comedy. Instead, Groucho (in particular) gets mired down in painful one-liners that turn his normally fearless and cavalier screen character into a coward.

The unfamiliar setting of the old West no doubt works against the film as well, since the Marx Bros. were always more at home in contemporary surroundings, where they could wreak havoc on the established order of society. The writers fail to get any real mileage out of the Western genre as a subject for parody, instead simply dropping Groucho, Harpo and Chico into a routine Western backdrop without really making them integral to it. Add to this the fact that far funnier Western satires had already appeared – most notably Laurel and Hardy’s Way Out West (1937) – and Go West seems even more tired and ineffective in comparison. Throughout the 1940s and 50s, nearly every major comedian appeared in a Western parody at some point, though perhaps only Bob Hope’s Paleface films approached a level of real brilliance.

The generally humorless supporting cast doesn’t help matters any, either. Robert Barrat is hardly the comic foil that Sig Rumann was for the Marx Bros. in their first two MGM films. Walter Woolf King, who had appeared as a sufficiently unlikable heavy in A Night at the Opera is wasted here. And the romantic couple is bland and colorless to the point of being almost totally forgettable, making it even harder than usual to get invested in the film’s subplot (though leading man John Carroll is granted a nice tune, “Riding the Range”, which allows for a fun moment when Groucho and Chico join in).

As a result of its lackluster plot and performances, Go West plods through its 80 minute running time before arriving at its climax, involving a fast-action chase on a locomotive. Like the finale of Laurel and Hardy’s County Hospital and W.C. Fields’ Man on the Flying Trapeze, what makes this scene work so well is the obvious use of special effects and sped-up action, combined with casual cutaways to Groucho’s throwaway one-liners. It's not a bad comedy scene, though it perhaps seems better coming after so much lackluster material during the preceding 80 minutes.

Ultimately, Go West suffers from all the constrictions and restrictions of studio-era production, and is characteristic of the kinds of challenges presented by trying to produce a free-wheeling comedy within the confines of MGM’s factory system.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2011)

Watching CAVE OF FORGOTTEN DREAMS, one cannot help feeling an almost spiritual connection with the past. Not just a connection with the paintings discovered on the walls of the long abandoned Chauvet cave in the south of France, but with those who painted them – a long-forgotten group of people about whom we know nothing, other than what they tell us through their art.

Except that they’re not forgotten. Not really. Werner Herzog’s film is a testament to the endurance of the human spirit and its capacity for creativity and self-expression. And though the cave paintings that he lovingly showcases in 3-D were, in fact, created over the span of several thousand years by various artists, the fact that the oldest of them are said to represent the earliest human artistic endeavors is staggering and humbling at the same time.

Humbling, in the sense that not only does the cave serve, however inadvertently, as an archive of these earliest known artistic endeavors, but also in that it provides a kind of communal space where the past meets the present, as a contemporary artist (Herzog) comes into direct contact with the first generation of artists. One of the most haunting moments is a feeling that Herzog describes having experienced himself when entering the cave: an overwhelming sense of interrupting the artists in the middle of their work, as if he can feel their eyes upon him as he makes his way through their studio. It perhaps takes an artist, in this case a filmmaker like Herzog, to fully articulate the kind of connection that these paintings provide to the culture that created them. It is quite moving to think that these paintings, seen only by small groups of people tens of thousands of years ago, and shut off from view for nearly 30 millennia, are now receiving their widest audience exposure yet through the recorded image of the motion picture.

It is as a filmmaker that Herzog makes his most insightful observations about the paintings themselves, noting the use of multiple legs on a depiction of a bison to create the illusion of movement. Herzog also observes how the play of light and shadow, cast from the torches of these early artists on to the cave wall, would have provided the sensation of motion, just as the battery-operated torches of Herzog and his crew demonstrate. As Herzog describes the ways in which these paintings would have been observed, there is a reverence and wonder in his voice that suggests a very real spiritual connection between himself and his predecessors of 32,000 years ago.

At one point in the film, it is suggested that, at one time, the cave probably served a religious purpose, as indicated by an altar on which rests a cave bear skull. How appropriate, then, that the cave still provides a kind of spiritual connection with those who first explored the human’s capacity for artistic expression and who continue to speak to future generations that look upon their work.

Friday, May 06, 2011

The Marx Bros. at MGM: At the Circus (1939)

When the Marx Bros. signed on with MGM in 1935, producer Irving Thalberg suggested a new formula designed to “fix” the disappointing box office results of their last Paramount comedy, Duck Soup, which had come out in 1933. Thalberg proposed softening the edginess of their comedy, and adding elements such as romantic sub-plots and musical numbers, to broaden their appeal, particularly with female moviegoers.

As perhaps the biggest of the major studios, MGM had a bad track record when it came to producing comedy. The studio managed to do fine with classy, romantic comedies like Dinner at Eight and The Thin Man, but really character-driven stuff, centered around the distinct persona of the leading comedian, seemed to be beyond them. The most notorious case of MGM neutering a really unique comedian occurred with Buster Keaton, who joined the studio in 1928. After turning out one genuinely great film for them (The Cameraman, which – not coincidentally – was the last silent feature over which he had a great degree of creative control), he was shoehorned into increasingly inappropriate vehicles that turned his screen character into a bit of a dimwit, peppered with excruciating one-liners rather than pratfalls, until finally he was teamed with Jimmy Durante, whose rambunctious screen persona overshadowed Keaton’s on-camera.

However, with the release of the Marx Bros.’ first MGM film, A Night at the Opera (1935), it was Thalberg who was vindicated by the box-office receipts. The film itself is really a masterpiece of construction – an expertly structured and well-written comedy that manages to balance its different elements very well. Their follow-up film for the studio, A Day at the Races (1937), continued much in the same tradition, albeit somewhat less successfully (critics of the film rightly cite the “Water Carnival” sequence as an over-produced distraction that brings the film to a halt).

While it’s easy in hindsight to criticize Thalberg’s decision to water-down the Marxes’ comedy to heighten their box office appeal as a crass commercial move, it must be said in his defense that he recognized the need for top-flight writers like George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind, who had worked with the brothers on the stage and whose scripts had served as the foundation for their first two screen hits, The Cocoanuts (1929) and Animal Crackers (1930). Thalberg also recognized the benefit of sending the Marxes on stage tour, to test scenes that had been written for the film, in order to see how they played before a live audience. This was an incredibly wise decision on Thalberg’s part, and both A Night at the Opera and A Day at the Races benefit from the expert timing and polish that the Marxes were used to developing through their work in vaudeville and subsequently on Broadway night after night.

Sadly, during production of A Day at the Races, Irving Thalberg passed away at a tragically young age. The Marx Bros. made one rather lackluster picture on loan-out to RKO, Room Service (1938), an adaptation of a Broadway show that lost much in its translation to the screen.

When the brothers returned to MGM in 1939, things had changed.

Without Thalberg, the Marx Bros. were effectively powerless to fight for top-notch writers and directors, not to mention the ability to test their material on the road before filming, all of which had been so crucial in the success of their first two films with the studio.

Between 1939 and 1941, they would star in their final three films for the studio. These films have been almost unanimously panned as artistic and comedic flops - overproduced, expensive vehicles lacking the wit and charm of the earlier Marx Bros. comedies. While the films certainly fall short of the highest standards of films like Monkey Business, Horse Feathers and Duck Soup, let alone their first two films at MGM, they nonetheless contains moments of comedy that are too good to ignore completely.

Their first picture upon returning to the studio was At the Circus (1939). While hardly one of their best efforts, the film isn’t without its charm, and it still maintains a certain energy that manages to carry it through its dull moments.

The film was directed by Edward Buzzell, a former musical comedy performer (his best-known performance today is probably the delightfully bizarre 1930 2-color Technicolor short, The Devil's Cabaret). The script was by Irving Brecher, who had previously written the vaudeville-flavored New Faces of 1937 starring Milton Berle and Joe Penner at RKO. The problem with Brecher's script isn't that it lacks decent comedy scenes, only that the plotting is too loose to really get invested in at any level (A Night at the Opera and to a lesser extent A Day at the Races at least presented a well-structured plot with just enough sense of conflict to hold interest in it). The other qualm with Brecher's writing style is that the jokes could really be performed by almost any group of comedians, so that there are fewer of the really characteristic moments that could be found in the first five films the Marxes made for Paramount. The film was produced by Mervyn LeRoy, who produced The Wizard of Oz for MGM the same year. On a side note, the film's main titles - featuring caricatures of the Marx Bros. - were drawn by noted cartoonist Al Hirschfeld.

The plot finds circus owner Jeff Wilson (played by popular singer Kenny Baker) struggling to save his company from impending bankruptcy, turning down persistent offers to be bought out by villainous businessman John Carter (James Burke), and trying to make good so that he can marry his sweetheart Julie Randall (Florance Rice). Groucho, as attorney J. Cheever Loophole, is brought in to protect Jeff while the whole circus is en route to via train to their next destination. Of course, Carter’s henchmen have infiltrated the troupe, Jeff Wilson gets knocked on the head and his $10,000 stolen, and Groucho is too busy cracking wise to do much of anything about any of it.

In order to save the circus, Groucho secures them a booking at a big society party given by Jeff’s aunt, Suzanna Dukesbury, without telling her exactly what kind of a show it is that she’s paying for. Things almost fall apart when the maestro, Jardinet (played by that great character actor, Fritz Feld), arrives to conduct the symphony orchestra that had originally been booked to entertain at the party. Groucho instructs Chico to give him a big send-off. He leads him to a giant floating bandstand, where Jardinet begins conducting his orchestra, while the bandstand promptly untied from the dock and set afloat!

The show must go on, and the curtain finally goes up on the circus, leading to a climax in which the villains try to disrupt the performance. This scene suffers from some fairly obvious uses of back projection and stunt doubles, which take away from the fun somewhat. It's really a kind of comic free-for-all, with even the circus gorilla (played by Charles Gemora, so memorable as Ethel in Laurel and Hardy's The Chimp) attempting to steal back the stolen money. Even as she watches her society party fall apart at the seams, one gets the impression that Margaret Dumont is having more fun than she lets on, particularly when she ends up getting shot out of a cannon!

The film’s big fade-out laugh comes with the unforgettable image of Jardinet set adrift on the floating bandstand, where he continues to furiously conduct the orchestra, totally oblivious to the fact that they are sailing off down the river.

While the film has some excellent gags such as this, it is also filled with moments that come very close to being solid comedy scenes, but never really reach their potential. Chico and Harpo sneaking in to the room of the circus strong man while on the train, Groucho, Harpo and Chico interrogating the midget circus performer in his tiny room, and the scene in which Groucho tries to get onto the circus train without his badge all have the basic ingredients that could have made for strong comedy, but they never quite come together. In short, the set-up is there, but the scenes lack the strong payoff of a really strong comedy sequence.

A scene was shot, but deleted, that introduced Groucho's character prior to the train sequence. The sequence took place in a courtroom, and while it might have slowed the pacing of the film's beginning down a bit, it's a shame the scene doesn't survive, as any courtroom scene with Groucho is guaranteed to be a laugh riot.

At the Circus is aided by a strong supporting cast – including Margaret Dumont as wealthy dowager Suzanna Dukesbury – that add a lot to the fun. Nat Pendleton is good as the circus strongman (probably a reference to his performance as Eugene Sandow in MGM’s The Great Ziegfeld). Eve Arden has a great turn as Peerless Pauline, whose act consists of walking on the ceiling with a pair of specially-made shoes. She and Groucho share a fun scene in which he tries to retrieve stolen money from her. After Groucho catches her stuffing the cash in her brassiere ("There must be some way I can get that money without getting in trouble with the Hays Office"), he suggests that she demonstrate for him how to walk on the ceiling. However, she talks Groucho in to donning a pair of the shoes as well, and ends up leaving him stranded, hanging upside-down from the ceiling!

This scene is reflective of a strong current of exasperation running throughout the comedy of At the Circus. Groucho is basically prevented from succeeding at any of his tasks because of he is constantly being one-upped or thwarted by another character. Groucho's entrance in the film is a scene in which he has been offered a job by his old friend Chico, traveling with the circus troupe to protect the owner. However, when Groucho arrives and attempts to board the train that is about to depart, Chico refuses to let him on since he doesn't have the requisite badge. Groucho is repeatedly pushed back out into the pouring rain. Another such instance is the interrogation scene, where all Groucho needs to secure a confession is to get the circus midget (Jerry Maren) to give him one of his cigars, so that he can match it to the one found at the scene of the crime. His efforts to get the necessary sample are repeatedly thwarted by Chico, who keeps pulling out cigars of his own to offer to Groucho. Then there is the already-mentioned scene with Peerless Pauline. These are the kinds of scenes that always made for the most memorable Groucho-Chico exchanges in earlier films. Here, though, it's as if the entire universe has it in for Groucho!

The film has at least one moment of unparalleled brilliance – the “Lydia the Tattooed Lady” musical number, performed by Groucho, and written by the team of Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg, who would write “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” the same year. Along with “Hello, I Must Be Going”, it would become one of Groucho’s favorite songs to reprise over the years on his appearances on television talk shows. Aside from its brilliantly witty lyrics, the song is also a marvel of orchestration (when Groucho sings the lines about "She once swept an admiral clear off his feet/the ships on her hips made his heart skip a beat", the arrangers very carefully included the "Sailor's Hornpipe" within the orchestration). And even though it has been the target of many jibes over the years from fans of the Marxes, “Two Blind Loves” is actually an enjoyable little tune, made all the more charming by Kenny Baker (who is nowhere near as bad in this film as some critics have made him out to be). Chico is allowed an energetic piano solo, performing "Beer Barrel Polka" to the obvious delight of the train passengers (and the audience). Aside from Groucho’s “Lydia”, the best musical number in the film is Harpo’s jazzy and soulful rendition of “Blue Moon”, accompanied by a vocal chorus of black gospel singers. It is both beautiful and haunting.

If At the Circus was a generally amusing comedy punctuated with a few moments approaching greatness, then the Marx Bros.’ following film was an inversion of that – a generally dull picture that only occasionally provided solid laughs.

Sunday, May 01, 2011

Porter's Chase Comedy

A prototypical “chase” comedy, How the French Nobleman Got a Wife Through the New York Herald Personal Columns (1904) demonstrates just how quickly things were developing in these early years of cinema. Directed by Edwin S. Porter for the Thomas Edison Company just one year after The Great Train Robbery, it is heavily influenced by the French farces of the early period, and is most interesting today for its use of the chase to structure its narrative.

This was, in fact, not even the first version of this same idea produced that year. Biograph had produced the first version earlier in 1904, and then after Edison’s version appeared, the Lubin company would make their own version. Such copying was not at all uncommon during this period, and it provides for an interesting comparison between the different versions to see minor variations on the same idea.

The premise finds a French Count placing an ad in the personals, “object: matrimony”, instructing the bride-to-be to meet him in front of Grant’s Tomb. The next day, the Count is shocked when dozens of women show up, expecting to marry him. In a sequence that may have very well inspired the second half of Buster Keaton’s Seven Chances twenty years later, the outraged women give chase, over hill and dale, across streams, over a fence, finally pursuing the Count into a stream, where he gives up. One of the women wades into the stream, consoling him, and then walks off camera with him. The film ends once the characters (and the story) have effectively run out of steam and exhausted themselves.

Much of the film’s running time is devoted to the chase, which seems drawn out and protracted by the standards introduced several years later by Griffith and especially – in the comedy film – by Mack Sennett. The chase had emerged in the British cinema through films like Daring Daylight Burglary and Desperate Poaching Affray (both 1903), in which it served as a way to link shots taken in a variety of locations, as well as to propel the narrative events forward. Porter borrowed the chase structure from the British, and the inclusion of the comic elements into this structure suggest the influence of the French farces produced by the Pathé company, particularly those of Ferdinand Zecca. Of course, given that the film itself is a remake of the version directed by Wallace McCutcheon for Biograph (Personal), Porter was really working from an established model to begin with.

Instead of building the tempo through editing the way that Sennett did at Keystone, Porter instead holds on a static shot of each set up as all of the characters make their way through the frame, not cutting away until the final participant has exited the frame. The pursuers move in a long line straight through the frame. There was still an expectation at this time that all of the action must be presented in its entirety in order to maintain a sort of cognitive logic for the viewer. Similar concerns were expressed over the use of cutaways such as the closeup, which early producers feared would confuse audiences accustomed to seeing actors presented in full proscenium framing. Like so many other conventions, the chase would eventually fall out of favor due to over-use, and it was really through the work of D.W. Griffith at Biograph, and especially his protege Mack Sennett, at Keystone, who would revitalize the chase and help transform it not only in to a staple of American comedy film, but a crucial part in the development of editing action sequences.

A final note: the film is interesting for its use of locations. By 1904, the Edison company had re-located to the Bronx, where a new studio space was constructed (their Manhattan location, which they moved to in 1901 – a small, glass-roofed studio on top of a building - was a short-term solution to finding more space and better open-air lighting conditions). Biograph’s version had been shot in Asbury Park, New Jersey, but Porter filmed in front of a New York landmark, Grant’s Tomb. It’s interesting, purely for the sake of comparison, to see how barren the surrounding area was in 1904, compared to today, when the Tomb is surrounded by trees.