Monday, May 31, 2010

Turner Classic Movies Schedule For June

Well, I say it's the TCM schedule for June—it's the schedule of those movies I've mentioned in my blog that are appearing on TCM in June. If you want to get persnickety.

Of particular interest are A Nous La Liberte on the 6th, Duck Soup on the 13th and The Bitter Tea Of General Yen on the 23rd. I'm telling you, you absolutely don't want to miss those.

Remember: the TCM day runs from 6 a.m. EDT until 6 a.m. the following day.

3 Thursday
12:45 AM Arrowsmith (1931)
A crusading doctor fights his way through tragedy to find his true calling. Cast: Ronald Colman, Helen Hayes, Myrna Loy. Dir: John Ford. BW-99 mins

6 Sunday
2:15 AM A Nous La Liberte (1931)
An escaped convict creates a business empire that becomes a new prison for him. Cast: Raymond Cordy, Henri Marchand, Rolla France. Dir: Rene Clair. BW-83 mins

9 Wednesday
9:00 AM Our Blushing Brides (1930)
Three roommates try to land rich husbands. Cast: Joan Crawford, Anita Page, Robert Montgomery. Dir: Harry Beaumont. BW-101 mins

12 Saturday
9:00 AM Monkey Business (1931)
Four stowaways get mixed up with gangsters while running riot on an ocean liner. Cast: The Marx Brothers, Thelma Todd, Rockliffe Fellowes. Dir: Norman Z. McLeod. BW-78 mins

13 Sunday
8:00 PM Duck Soup (1933)
When he's named dictator of Freedonia, a con artist declares war on the neighboring kingdom. Cast: The Marx Brothers, Louis Calhern, Margaret Dumont. Dir: Leo McCarey. BW-69 mins

20 Sunday
12:30 AM Battleship Potemkin, The (1925)
In this silent classic, a Russian mutiny triggers revolutionary sentiments around the nation. Cast: Alexander Antonov, Grigori Alexandrov, Vladimir Barsky. Dir: Sergei Eisenstein. BW-69 mins

23 Wednesday
12:30 PM Bitter Tea of General Yen, The (1932)
An American missionary falls in love with a Chinese warlord. Cast: Barbara Stanwyck, Nils Asther, Walter Connolly. Dir: Frank Capra. BW-87 mins

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Rethinking The Best Director Nominations For 1932-33

As he frequently does, Erik Beck (of the Boston Becks) got me to thinking, this time about the director nom- inations for 1932-33. There were some names that got left off the list that in nearly any other year would have made it easily—Mervyn LeRoy, James Whale, Frank Capra, and others. And you know how I hate to leave anybody out.

Well, there is precedent from the Academy itself for a solution. At the very first Oscars, there were two prizes for best director—one for best director of a drama, one for best director of a comedy. How about, on a one time only basis, two best director trophies? We could throw Whale (The Invisible Man and The Old Dark House), LeRoy (I Am A Fugitive From A Chain Gang and Gold Diggers Of 1933), Capra (The Bitter Tea Of General Yen) and one other name into the drama category with Cooper and Schoedsack (King Kong); and Cukor, Lubitsch, McCarey, Renoir and one other name into the comedy category.

Or are there just too goshdarn many Katie Awards already? You're not going to hurt my feelings.

Any thoughts on the other potential nominees? If you need some suggestions, how about:

Lloyd Bacon (42nd Street and Footlight Parade) (musical/comedy)

* Carl Theodor Dreyer (Vampyr) (drama)

Victor Fleming (Red Dust and Bombshell) (drama or comedy)

Alexander Korda (The Private Life Of Henry VIII) (drama) (sort of)

* Fritz Lang (The Testament Of Dr. Mabuse) (drama)

Rouben Mamoulian (Love Me Tonight and Queen Christina) (comedy or drama)

Max Ophüls (Liebelei) (drama)

Jean Vigo (Zero For Conduct) (comedy)

... or anybody else who had a picture released between August 1, 1932 and December 31, 1933. [*—previous winner]

Think about it for a couple of days, leave a comment, speak your mind. I wasn't planning to post my essay on the best director of 1932-33 until the end of the week anyway.

Nominees For Best Director Of 1932-33

George Cukor (Dinner At Eight and Little Women) (here with the cast of Little Women)

Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack (King Kong) (with Marguerite Harrison)

Ernst Lubitsch (Trouble In Paradise and Design For Living)

Leo McCarey (Duck Soup)

Jean Renoir (Boudu Saved From Drowning)

Friday, May 28, 2010

Best Supporting Actor Of 1932-33: John Barrymore (Dinner At Eight)

Many actors have laid claim to the title of the Biggest Ham in Hollywood over the years—Wallace Beery, Christopher Walken, William Shatner, Jack Nicholson, even Laurence Olivier when he was bored and phoning it in—but few at their peak were as deliciously hammy as John Barrymore.

Bad ham acting takes no especial skill other than a lack of talent and self-awareness, and bad ham actors, whose numbers would fill a football stadium, take you right out of the action, start you looking for the exits and are either quickly forgotten or wind up making miniseries on the Lifetime Channel. "[A] bad ham actor," writes "Greg" at Cinema Styles, "is a bad actor period, someone who overplays, overemotes and overinflects every move, tear and shout. They're bad, they don't know how to do anything else.

"But a great ham actor is also a great actor who is in possession of so much skill and talent they know when to go over the top and how far to take it."

Great ham acting is an underappreciated art form and great ham actors, so few we can nearly name them all, last for years, energize the mundane, create a giddy sense of the possible. And with Dinner At Eight, John Barrymore put the capstone on a career that featured some of the best ham acting in the history of Hollywood. His Larry Renault—like Barrymore, an alcoholic ham on the downside of his career—was, as TV Guide put it in its 5-star review, "a bitchy casting idea, chilling to watch," but Barrymore was open to taking himself to task on screen, and though it was all downhill after this, he played the part to perfection.

The action opens as Park Avenue socialite Millicent Jordan (Billie Burke, in a performance that would establish her chirpy screen persona) frantically puts the finishing touches on an important dinner party she's planned for that evening. Absorbed with trivial worries about aspic and ice sculptures, she's oblivious to the crises mounting around her—her ailing husband (Lionel Barrymore) finds himself on the verge of losing everything to a rapacious tycoon (a particularly boorish Wallace Beery), her daughter is about to marry a man she no longer loves, and old friend Carlotta Vance (Marie Dressler), an over-the-hill actress, needs money fast.

Add to the list of the desperate a last-minute substitution on the guest list, Larry Renault (John Barrymore), a one-time silent film star now fallen on hard times thanks to his outsized ego and fondness for the bottle. Reduced to pawning his cufflinks for cabfare, he's in New York hoping to make a comeback on the Broadway stage. "The play's not much," he says, "but I think I can put it over. I play the only male character," then shrugs, "oh, there's a small male part for a bit actor ... but I dominate that."

Perhaps you can guess how this is going to turn out for him, even if he can't.

Dinner At Eight is usually billed as a comedy, and it is, but only in the same sense that Anton Chekhov's masterpiece of endless Russian gloom, The Cherry Orchard, is a comedy. That is, it's a tragedy about foolish people in relentless pursuit of the ephemeral, behaving as if they'll live forever and discovering too late that they won't. You see this same comedy played out, in high places and in low, every day, and always with the same ending.

The cast of characters neatly divides into those who, either through careless living or bad luck, find themselves at the end of their ropes; and those who prey upon them, both wittingly (Beery) and unwittingly (Burke). (That Jean Harlow, playing a low-rent Billie Burke in training, proves to be an angel of mercy for one of these desperate souls gives us the only hopeful moment in the entire movie.)

In the self-contained universe of the New York blue bloods who populate Dinner At Eight, it perhaps shouldn't come as a surprise that Renault is sleeping with Mrs. Jordan's nineteen year old daughter Paula (Madge Evans in a part originally offered to Joan Crawford). For her, Renault represents a chance to escape the spiritually-empty and empty-headed future her mother has so carefully planned for her; but for him, Paula is a last taste of the life he has wasted and she's too young to understand why he feels only anxiety when what she feels is bliss.

"You're young and fresh," he tells her, "and I'm burned out."

For Renault, it's an all-too-infrequent moment of clarity that lends poignancy to his plight—it's one thing to spiral into the abyss in ignorance, quite another to watch yourself do it—and Barrymore is at his best in these moments, quiet, still, a great actor inhabiting a burned-out shell without resorting to showy actor tricks. Then as Renault puffs himself up with self-pity, paranoia and memories of past glory, Barrymore reaches for just those hammy touches that a bad actor would use on a stage when playing a part too big for his talent.

Ultimately, the moral of Dinner At Eight is "adapt or die," a timely message in 1933 for both out-of-work actors and a nation suffering through the fourth year of the Great Depression, but advice Renault is incapable of following. He may be a high-functioning alcoholic, immaculately dressed and able dip into his bag of acting tricks just enough to fuddle his way through a speech or two—watch Barrymore dial up the ham factor as he demonstrates Renault's "acting" ability—but he can't keep his delusions of grandeur in check and, like a man on a ledge with an uncontrollable urge to jump, each moment of clarity turns into self-pity and another excuse to take a drink.

Whether the bottle has kept him from acclimating or he turned to the bottle because he couldn't (it doesn't really matter; an alcoholic doesn't need a reason to drink), Renault is a man frozen in time. He still fancies himself an "important artist," a matinee idol, a big name. "$8000 a week is what I got," he says, "and I was gonna get ten until the talkies came in, so don't think you're doing me a favor by asking me to play in your ratty little show because I'm doing you one." But the sad fact is, he's a forgotten has-been and when he finally grasps the truth, it's brutal to watch.

"Look at those pouches under your eyes," says his long-suffering agent, steering Renault to the mirror. "Look at those creases. You sag like an old woman. ... You're a corpse, and you don't know it. Go get yourself buried."

Barrymore's Renault is by turns buffoonish, arrogant, reflective, bullying, anxious, humiliated, and ultimately, by remaining true to his idea of himself to the very end, somehow heroic. In a contemporaneous review of Dinner At Eight, Variety heralded Barrymore's performance as "a stark, uncompromising treatment of a pretty thorough-going blackguard and ingrate."

Recent reviews have echoed the sentiment: "John Barrymore is beautiful as the only honest man in the entire picture." (Movie Reviews UK) Renault is "played with the right touch of self-centered clownishness to undercut the pathos." (Slant Magazine) Barrymore's Renault, "the Profile in winter [is a] small, honest portrait of reaching the end of your tether." (Bright Lights Film Journal)

And me? I think it's possibly the best portrayal of an alcoholic in the movies before Ray Milland's Oscar-winning turn in The Lost Weekend twelve years later, certainly one of the few serious ones at a time when alcoholics in movies were almost always treated as comic relief. And as a portrait of a man at the end of his rope, Barrymore's performance would make a terrific double feature with his work from the year before in another glamorous MGM ensemble piece, Grand Hotel.

Director George Cukor later said of Barrymore that he had no vanity and noted that many of the ideas for Renault's character came from Barrymore himself:

"[Renault] found out that another actor got the job that he desperately needed," Cukor recalled, "And he'd say, 'I can be English. I can be as English as ahnybohdy.' Then he'd say, 'Ibsen, Ibsen. I can do Ibsen,' and he had just heard vaguely of Ibsen, and he would strike this absolutely inappropriate pose and he said, 'Mother dear, give me the moon.' Whereas the Ibsen line was, 'Mother, give me the sun'—to show that he'd gone over, he'd become mad.'"

Yet as good as Barrymore's performance was, it almost didn't happen.

According to Frank Miller, writing for Turner Classic Movies, MGM Studio chief Louis B. Mayer objected to the casting of Barrymore. "He was worried about Barrymore's drinking and erratic behavior," Miller writes, "but Cukor assured him that they had developed a good working relationship on A Bill of Divorcement (1932). On the set of Dinner at Eight Barrymore was cooperative and helpful. Far from resisting comparisons between himself and his character, a fading matinee idol succumbing to alcoholism, he suggested playing up the similarities. At his instigation, [Frances] Marion and co-writer Herman J. Mankiewicz added references to his profile and his three wives. On the set, he even improvised imitations of faded actors he'd run into in New York."

Born John Sidney Blyth in Philadelphia in 1882, John Barrymore was the youngest sibling of an acting dynasty that included Oscar-winners Lionel and Ethel (they took their stage name from their father, who performed as Maurice Barrymore). While Lionel and Ethel took to the stage at an early age, John began as a painter, and only followed his siblings into acting at their urging. Despite his late start, he was a major Broadway star by 1909. His Broadway performance in the title role of Hamlet in 1922 purports to be one of the best in history although no recording of it exists and recreations nearly two decades on are marred by Barrymore's shameless mugging.

Although he may have appeared in films as early as 1912, his first confirmed role was in An American Citizen in 1914. Known as "The Great Profile," Barrymore was a star throughout the silent era, appearing in such films as Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920), Sherlock Holmes (1922), Beau Brummel (1924) and Don Juan (1926).

Barrymore made the transition to talkies successfully, and I'm not convinced playwrights George Kaufman and Edna Ferber (Marion and Mankiewicz handled the screenplay chores) had Barrymore in mind when they wrote the part—he was still a star even if his drinking and ego were already the stuff of legend, and the story of the silent era matinee idol reduced to penury with the coming of the talkies was so commonplace as to be a cliche. Still, I couldn't help wondering as he studied his aging, alcohol-ravaged face in that last, painful scene, whether Barrymore saw his own future writ large in the mirror.

Aside from his terrible thirst, I get the impression Barrymore's biggest problem was not so much an oversized ego, as a lack of regard for the art of motion pictures—much like Marlon Brando after him, he rarely thought of the movies he made as worth the effort. "Watching Barrymore on screen," Dan Callahan wrote, "we are always waiting to see whether he will engage with his material; if he does, he's capable of large-spirited magic, and if he doesn't, he merely moves his face and pops his eyes, wearily, as if he's trying to be amused."

"My memory is full of beauty," Barrymore once quipped, explaining why he hadn't bothered to learn his lines before filming a scene, "Hamlet's soliloquies, the Queen Mab speech, King Magnus' monologue from The Apple Cart, most of the Sonnets. Do you expect me to clutter up all that with this horseshit?"

For a while at least, until the effects of indolence and alcohol caught up with him, Barrymore could still reach down for worthy films such as Grand Hotel, A Bill Of Divorcement, Counsellor-at-Law and Dinner at Eight and produced a good performance. The rest of the time, though, he was content to give the people what they wanted, a parody of himself.

"I like to be introduced as America's foremost actor. It saves the necessity of further effort."

John Barrymore died in 1942 of pneumonia as a complication of cirrhosis of the liver. He was sixty years old.

[To read my take on Jean Harlow's performance in Dinner At Eight, click here.]

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Another Good Reason ...

In case you've never stopped by Film Noir Photos before, here's another example of why it's on my every day to-do list—a spectacular photo of Katie Award nominee Kay Francis:

I'm working away on my essay for best supporting actor of 1932-33. Should have it up today, or tomorrow at the latest.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

A Reminder: Baby Face On TCM Tomorrow

A pre-Code classic starring Barbara Stanwyck at the precise moment she became what we think of as "Barbara Stanwyck"—a tough, sexy dame who took what she wanted and took nothing off nobody never.

Be sure to look for a young John Wayne playing one of Stanwyck's stepping stones on the way to the top.

From the TCM website:

9:00am [Drama] Baby Face (1933)
A beautiful schemer sleeps her way to the top of a banking empire.
Cast: Barbara Stanwyck, George Brent, Donald Cook, Alphonse Ethier Dir: Alfred E. Green BW-76 mins

Nominees For Best Supporting Actor of 1932-33

John Barrymore (Dinner At Eight)

Edward Everett Horton (Trouble In Paradise and Design For Living)

Edgar Kennedy (here with Harpo Marx) (Duck Soup)

Guy Kibbee (here with Joan Blondell) (Gold Diggers of 1933, Lady For A Day and Footlight Parade)

Adolphe Menjou (A Farewell To Arms)

Monday, May 24, 2010

Speaking Of Thelma Todd ...

Thelma Todd made 119 features and short subjects in her all-too-brief career, appearing with such film legends as Laurel and Hardy, Buster Keaton, John Barrymore and Clara Bow, but she'll always be known primarily for the two movies she made with the Marx Brothers, Monkey Business and Horse Feathers.

Born in 1906 in Lawrence, Massachusetts, Todd worked as a school teacher for two years before attaining notice as a contestant in the Miss America pageant; shortly thereafter, she signed with Paramount Pictures and made her movie debut in 1926. Promoted as both "The Ice Cream Blonde" and "Hot Toddy," Todd excelled in comedies and wound up at the Hal Roach Studios where she made dozens of films including six shorts and features with Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy.

Many of her best films, though, were made while on loan to other studios, including her two pictures with the Marx Brothers. Both films were big financial successes and helped keep Paramount afloat during the depths of the Depression.

In addition to her film work, Todd also owned a highly successful nightclub in the Pacific Palisades called Thelma Todd's Sidewalk Café.

Ironically, one of Groucho's quips from Monkey Business—"You've been getting nothing but dirty breaks; we can clean and tighten your brakes, but you'll have to stay in the garage all night"—proved to be Todd's epitaph. On December 16, 1935, Todd was found dead in her garage of carbon monoxide poisoning. The coroner labeled her death an accident but others have speculated that it was either suicide—she had argued with her ex-husband that same evening—or the work of gangsters who had recently tried to muscle in on the Sidewalk Café hoping to turn it into a gambling den.

She was just twenty-nine.

On August 30, 2010, Turner Classic Movies will feature the work of Thelma Todd as part of its annual Summer Under The Stars promotional event. Mark your calendars.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Friday, May 21, 2010

Best Supporting Actress Of 1932-33: Margaret Dumont (Duck Soup)

Here's another award that tied me in knots for a while and with good reason. The five nominees belong on a short list of the greatest character actresses of the era, each appearing in superb movies while giving performances that are both memorable and representative of their careers as a whole.

Elsa Lanchester gave the first great performance of her long career as a decidedly non-historical Anne of Cleves in the witty satire The Private Life Of Henry VIII. Conversely, Marie Dressler, beloved in her day, largely forgotten now, gave the last great performance of her career, playing a has-been actress and veteran flirt too old to any longer trade on her name or looks in Dinner At Eight. And Billie Burke and Una O'Connor provide wonderful comic relief to what at times are quite serious movies, the former as a ditzy socialite in the aforementioned Dinner At Eight, the latter as a terrified scullery maid in The Invisible Man.

Any one of them would have been a good choice. A couple of them were almost mine.

But simply put, Margaret Dumont was the most talented straight-(wo)man in the history of movie comedies, and Duck Soup being both the best movie of the year and the most representative of her gifts, she's my pick as the best supporting actress of 1932-33.

Born Daisy Juliette Baker in Brooklyn in 1882 (she claimed to have been born Marguerite Baker in Atlanta in 1889), Margaret Dumont was raised by her godfather Joel Chandler Harris, author of the Uncle Remus stories. Dumont trained as an opera singer and spent the first decade of the twentieth century working as a singer and comedic actress, both abroad and on the American vaudeville circuit. Described in reviews of the time as "a statuesque beauty," Dumont met and married the wealthy industrialist John Moller, Jr. in 1910 and retired from the stage, but returned eight years later after his sudden death.

It was playwright George S. Kaufman who recommended Dumont for the role of a stuffy dowager staying at a hotel run by the Marx Brothers in the Broadway stageplay, The Cocoanuts, and she proved so successful as a comic foil to the supremely irreverent Groucho, she was cast in a nearly identical part in the Brothers' next play, Animal Crackers, then reprised both roles for film.

"There has never been a good comedian that didn't have a good straight man," Groucho said. "Audiences don't think the straight man means anything, but it's very important."

The role of the stuffy rich widow was a part she played in all seven of the Marx Brothers films she appeared in, and she played the part perfectly—regal and self-possessed without being arrogant, naive and romantic without being vulnerable—so that the audience neither felt sorry for her not angry at her as Groucho bounces insults off her. Indeed, his attempts at seduction play as surreal rather than hostile, enhancing the anarchic quality of the Marx Brothers' humor.

"Not that I care, but where is your husband?"

"Why, he's dead."

"I bet he's just using that as an excuse."

"I was with him to the very end."

"No wonder he passed away."

"I held him in my arms and kissed him."

"Oh, I see, then it was murder! Will you marry me? Did he leave you any money? Answer the second question first."

(In real life, Groucho's aggressive banter drove three wives to drink. Maybe he should have married Margaret Dumont as many fans in the 1930s assumed he had.)

The widely-accepted notion that Dumont had no sense of humor, promoted by Groucho, studio publicists and perhaps by Dumont herself, is belied not only by the evidence of her early career as a comic actress but from her performances in the movies themselves.

Listen sometime to her delivery of a line like "It's a gala day for you" from Duck Soup (to which Groucho replies, "Well, a gal a day is enough for me. I don't think I could handle any more.") The line comes at the end of a long, florid speech and as she arrives at the straight-line, her pace slows up just a hair and she adds a slight emphasis to the words, setting the gag up on a tee for Groucho. She clearly understood how a gag was constructed and how to deliver a straight-line in a way that made the audience anticipate the punchline, which as Buddy Hackett once explained to Roger Ebert, goes a long way toward selling a joke.

"I'm a straight lady," Dumont once said, "the best in Hollywood. There is an art to playing the straight role. You must build up your man but never top him, never steal the laughs." Groucho recognized as much when upon accepting an honorary Oscar, he spoke of Chico and Harpo then added, "I wish Margaret Dumont could be here, too. She was a great straight-woman for me."

Dumont also knew how to react to Groucho's gags. It may sound counter- intuitive, but in a comedy it's important that none of the actors in it signal to the audience that they know they're in a comedy. Unless you're Harvey Korman on the old Carol Burnett Show, where half the fun was watching him trying and failing to keep a straight face, a comic actor has to react as though what is happening makes complete sense in the world he inhabits; to laugh at the punchline is to take all the air out of the gag. Dumont's reactions punctuate the humor without puncturing it. Nobody else in the Marxian universe ever did it better.

And then, of course, with her battleship bearing and her battleship body, Dumont not only feeds Groucho an endless series of straight-lines, but is a walking straight-line herself.

"I've sponsored your appointment," she intones, "because I feel you are the most able statesman in all Freedonia!"

"Well, that covers a lot of ground," Groucho says. "Say, you cover a lot of ground yourself. You'd better beat it. I hear they're gonna tear you down and put up an office building where you're standing."

Let's face it—it's funny because it's true. We're just too polite to say so.

And then Dumont was often given the thankless task of keeping the slender narrative of the Brothers' movies on track. This was especially true in Duck Soup where she insists on the appointment of Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho) as leader of Freedonia; introduces him to his political and romantic rival Trentino of Sylvania (Louis Calhern); worries about the secret code (and two pair of plans!); and tries to prevent war; all without ever becoming tedious in the process.

The best example of Dumont's work in Duck Soup is the scene in her bedroom involving all three Marx Brothers. Attempting to steal secret war plans hidden in Dumont's safe, Chico and Harpo (disguised as Groucho), followed by Groucho himself, pop in and out of her room with all the freneticism of a British bedroom farce.

"Your Excellency, I thought you'd left!"

"Oh no," says Chico, "I no leave."

"But I saw you with my own eyes!"

"Well, who you gonna believe, me or your own eyes?"

Here, Dumont plays off three different styles of comedy—Groucho's hostile levity, Chico's faux Italian malapropisms and Harpo's pantomime—but just as Ringo mastered every musical style John, Paul and George threw at him without losing the beat (or his temper), Dumont plays off all three of the Brothers expertly.

Eventually you come to realize what you're watching in Dumont and the Marx Brothers is the equivalent of a tight little Jazz band, with Dumont providing a steady backing rhythm that keeps Groucho's (and his brothers') wild improvisations grounded and on track.

It's surprising then that the Marx Brothers ever worked with anyone else, and I suspect some (very) casual fans might not even be aware that she didn't. In fact, though, after the release of Animal Crackers in 1930, the Marx Brothers left New York for Hollywood; Dumont did not follow them. Whether that was her choice or theirs, I don't know, but in any event, the studio opted for the glamorous Thelma Todd in her place. Todd was young, beautiful and a veteran of the Hal Roach Studios where she made comedies with Laurel and Hardy, among others. Yet as lovely as she was, and no doubt comically adept, Todd's presence in Monkey Business and Horse Feathers serves only to underscore what Dumont brought to the proceedings.

In her two movies with the Marx Brothers, Todd played a seductress who has all four brothers panting for her company. Unfortunately, as it turned out, there's nothing inherently funny about a middle-aged man attempting to seduce a beautiful young woman—embarrassing maybe, and certainly foolish, but funny? Indeed, at times, watching Groucho and his brothers fawning over Todd is a bit creepy (to me, anyway).

Further, what is surreal and subversive when aimed at Dumont becomes hostile and misogynistic when aimed at Todd. Take for example Erik Beck's (of the Boston Becks) favorite line from Duck Soup—"We go forth to fight for this woman's honor, which is probably more than she ever did." Applied to Dumont, the idea is absurd and incongruous and just plain hilarious. Not only does the physically imposing Dumont look like she could snap a man in half (certainly Groucho, who was two inches shorter than Dumont), she also comes across as a woman so Victorian, she doesn't even know what sex is, much less engage in it wantonly—you'd probably just bounce off of her.

But can you imagine that same line spoken about Thelma Todd, or any other young, beautiful actress? Suddenly it becomes a credible insult and not a funny one at that.

Besides, the Marx Brothers are funniest when they stop making sense altogether and there's nothing nonsensical about Thelma Todd. I mean, who wouldn't want to make love to Thelma Todd? But Margaret Dumont? That's plain crazy.

In her 1937 review of A Day At The Races, film critic Cecilia Ager wrote perhaps the finest tribute ever to Dumont's talents:

"There ought to be a statue erected, or a Congressional Medal awarded, or a national holiday proclaimed, to honor that great woman, Margaret Dumont, the dame who takes the raps from the Marx Bros. For she is of the stuff of which our pioneer women were made, combining in her highly indignant person Duse, stalwart oak, and Chief Fall Guy—a lady of epic ability to take it, a lady whose mighty love for Groucho is a saga of devotion, a lady who asks but little and gets it.

"Disappointment can't down her, nor perfidy shake her faith. Always she comes back for more though slapsticks have crippled her, custard pies spattered her trusting face. Surrounded by brothers who are surely a little odd, she does not think so. To her, her world of Marx Bros. pictures is rational, comprehensible, secure. Calmly she surveys it, with infinite resource she fights to keep on her feet in it. Equally ready for amorous dalliance or hair-pulling, for Groucho's sudden tender moods, or base betrayal, all her magnificent qualities are on display in A Day At the Races, where once again her fortitude is nothing human. It's godlike."

It's a pity more people didn't recognize Dumont's gifts at the time. Her success with the Marx Brothers led to typecasting and pretty much finished her dreams of taking on dramatic film roles. She appeared in fifty movies in a career that began with an uncredited bit part in 1917's A Tale Of Two Cities and ended shortly before her death in 1965 with a televised performance with Groucho on The Hollywood Palace where she reprised her role as Mrs. Rittenhouse from Animal Crackers.

"Don't step on those few laughs I have up here," he ad-libbed at one point, for once cracking up the consummate straight woman.

Margaret Dumont called herself the best straight woman in Hollywood and when I look back over the history of film comedy, I can't think of a better one. And more to the point, I can't think of a more indispensable one. With all due respect to Zeppo, Margaret Dumont was the real fourth Marx Brother.

Postscript: Half a dozen sources note that Margaret Dumont won the Screen Actors Guild award for best supporting actress of 1937 for her work in A Day At The Races—sources beyond the ever-reliable Wikipedia, such as The Marx Brothers: A Bio-Bibliography by Wes D. Gehring and Hal Erickson's All Movie Guide. Well, maybe. The Screen Actors Guild Awards as we currently know and love them only came into existence in 1995, so perhaps these sources are referring to an earlier, now-defunct version of the award. Or perhaps it was some other award. Only I can't find any reference to any of the other winners of such an award from 1937 and the usually thorough Internet Movie Database doesn't mention it at all. But there are many things I don't know and maybe she did win some kind of an award for A Day At The Races. If so, good for her, because she certainly deserved some recognition in her lifetime.

Can anybody out there clear up the discrepancy? If so, I'd appreciate it if you'd drop a line in the comments box and fill me in.

In any event, she's now won a Katie-Bar-The-Door Award which trumps the Screen Actors Guild any day, and I'm sure if Margaret Dumont were alive today, she'd rise up out of her grave, and we'd only have to bury her again.

Note: To read about Duck Soup's screenplay, click here.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Grasshoppers: The Duck Soup That Almost Was

Katie is home early again today after a grueling two-plus hour trip to the dentist. While convalescing, she's been reading The Marx Brothers Encyclopedia by Glenn Mitchell, which I checked out from the library the other day.

Here's an interesting bit about an early draft of the Marx Brothers' movie, Duck Soup, which in June 1933 sported the temporary title Grasshoppers. According to Mitchell, in the original ending, Chico was to assassinate arch rival Trentino (Louis Calhern) with a bomb, but instead winds up blowing up himself and his brothers as well. The five of them fly off to heaven—Harpo plucking a harp, naturally—and as Trentino opines, "Well, where we're going, there'll be peace and happiness," Harpo begins to clip his wings.

"Think of all the trouble we had down below," Trentino continues, "just because I called you an upstart." At which point Groucho slaps Trentino and the pair begins fighting once again.

The idea was quickly jettisoned. But the Three Stooges must have liked it—they basically recycled the idea for the end of their 1939 short Three Little Sew and Sews.

[Click here for a fuller discussion of Duck Soup's screenplay.]

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Poll Results: We've All Gone Blonde Crazy!

Or should I say Blondell crazy? Joan Blondell, that is, who was the winner of the latest Monkey Poll, "Of the previous winners of the Katie Award for best supporting actress, who's your favorite?"

The final totals: Joan Blondell 10; Miriam Hopkins 5; Anita Page 3; and Marie Dressler and Clara Bow 2 each.

No weak sisters on that list, brother.

Up next: The best supporting actress of 1932-33.

Monday, May 17, 2010

We Interrupt This Regularly Scheduled Program ...

I was 1200 words into my essay on the best supporting actress of 1932-33 when I changed my mind. It happens. I know you think I have this all mapped out in advance, but I really don't—I only think I do.

So what that means is my post won't be ready today as originally planned.

In the meantime, how about passing the time with William Powell in a detective movie? This street-legal copy of The Kennel Murder Case comes courtesy of the Internet Movie Database and features Powell in his recurring role as Philo Vance, a high society dandy who solves murder mysteries in his spare time. This is pre-Thin Man, so no booze or wisecracks, but if you know Powell's work in The Thin Man series, this gives you a chance to see where he polished his chops.

Typically, actors in those days toiled for years before they got a shot at stardom, but when they got their break, they knew what to do with it. Powell was no exception. This was his fifty-sixth movie and you can see that he knows how to command the screen. All he needed at this point was Myrna Loy and a wire-haired terrier to make the leap to stardom.

No slapdash B-picture, this. Directed by Michael Curtiz, who would later win an Oscar for directing Casablanca, it co-stars Mary Astor and one of my favorite character actors, Eugene Pallette.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Rhetorical Question

Do you ever need an excuse to post a picture of Anita Page?

These are from one of my favorite sites, Vintage Images ...

The Rest Of the Month

Rather than dole out the highlights from Turner Classic Movies piecemeal—and forget to mention a gem like this morning's showing of the Marx Brothers' Horse Feathers—here are the movies showing for the rest of the month of May that I've mentioned in this blog or have nominated for a Katie-Bar-The-Door Award.

Mark your calendars and have at it.

Note: A TCM "day" runs from 6 a.m. until 6 a.m. the following morning, so that midnight showing of The Big Parade on Sunday May 23, well, technically that's Monday May 24 ...

18 Tuesday
6:00 AM Gold Diggers Of 1933 (1933)
Three chorus girls fight to keep their show going and find rich husbands. Cast: Joan Blondell, Ruby Keeler, Dick Powell. Dir: Mervyn LeRoy. BW-98 mins

7:39 AM Short Film: Harry Warren: America's Foremost Composer (1933)
BW-9 mins

21 Friday
6:30 AM Big House, The (1930)
An attempted prison break leads to a riot. Cast: Chester Morris, Wallace Beery, Robert Montgomery. Dir: George Hill. BW-87 mins

8:00 AM Divorcee, The (1930)
The double standard destroys a liberal couple's marriage. Cast: Norma Shearer, Chester Morris, Robert Montgomery. Dir: Robert Z. Leonard. BW-82 mins

9:30 AM Private Lives (1931)
A divorced couple rekindles the spark after landing in adjoining honeymoon suites with new mates. Cast: Norma Shearer, Robert Montgomery, Una Merkel. Dir: Sidney Franklin. BW-84 mins

22 Saturday
8:30 AM Front Page, The (1931)
A crusading newspaper editor tricks his retiring star reporter into covering one last case. Cast: Pat O'Brien, Adolphe Menjou, Edward Everett Horton. Dir: Lewis Milestone. BW-100 mins

23 Sunday
12:00 AM Big Parade, The (1925)
In this silent film, a young innocent enlists for World War I service but soon learns the horrors of war. Cast: John Gilbert, Renee Adoree, Karl Dane. Dir: King Vidor. BW-126 mins

24 Monday
12:30 AM Farewell To Arms, A (1932)
An American serving in World War I falls for a spirited nurse. Cast: Gary Cooper, Helen Hayes, Adolphe Menjou. Dir: Frank Borzage. BW-89 mins

26 Wednesday
9:00 AM Baby Face (1933)
A beautiful schemer sleeps her way to the top of a banking empire. Cast: Barbara Stanwyck, George Brent, John Wayne. Dir: Alfred E. Green. BW-76 mins

27 Thursday
8:00 PM Nanook of the North (1922)
This pioneering documentary depicts the harsh life of an eskimo and his family. Cast: Nanook. Dir: Robert Flaherty. BW-65 mins

Friday, May 14, 2010

Tonight On TCM: What Price Hollywood?

Not to interrupt the nonstop non-blogging, but I thought I'd mention for you subscribers of Turner Classic Movies that at 12:15 a.m. tonight (or tomorrow, if you want to get technical) TCM is showing What Price Hollywood? Starring Constance Bennett in the best performance of her career, What Price Hollywood? is the story of an alcoholic director who molds an unknown into a star. If that sounds a bit like A Star Is Born, there's a good reason—What Price Hollywood is the pre-Code version of the same story.

The film also marked George Cukor's first great directorial effort.

It's all part of TCM's "So You Want To Be Famous" series, which starts at 8 p.m. EDT and also includes Red, Hot and Blue (8 p.m.), It Should Happen To You (9:30 p.m.) and Chatterbox (11 p.m.).

From their website:

12:15am [Drama] What Price Hollywood? (1932)
A drunken director whose career is fading helps a waitress become a Hollywood star.
Cast: Constance Bennett, Lowell Sherman, Neil Hamilton, Gregory Ratoff Dir: George Cukor BW-88 mins, TV-G

Monday, May 10, 2010

Latest Monkey Poll: Past Supporting Actress Winners

While Katie-Bar-The-Door is home sick and I'm working on my essay for best supporting actress of 1932-33, how about a poll? Of the previous winners of the Katie Award for best supporting actress, who's your favorite?

Clara Bow

Anita Page

Marie Dressler

Joan Blondell

Miriam Hopkins