Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Best Picture Of 1932-33 (Drama): King Kong (prod. Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack)

And the Prophet said, "And lo, the beast looked upon the face of beauty. And it stayed its hand from killing. And from that day, it was as one dead."—An Old Arabian Proverb

Is there anyone here who doesn't know at least the gist of King Kong's plot—a giant ape falls in love with a beautiful blonde and winds up on top of the Empire State Building as a squadron of airplanes plays pin the tail on the forty-foot monkey. It's one of Hollywood's most enduring stories, inspiring two big-budget remakes, several sequels and countless imitations. But in all its various iterations, none of have had the lasting impact of the 1933 original. It's fun, it's stupid, it's a landmark, it's iconic—and it's my choice as the best drama of 1932-33.

Depending on which of producer-director Merian C. Cooper's tall tales you believe, the plot of King Kong was either the product of a nightmare in which a giant gibbon attacked New York City or it came to him full-blown after he watched an airplane fly past the city's skyscrapers. Whichever its origins, the idea certainly appealed to his sensibilities. Raised on tales of adventure and exotic locales, Cooper had already filmed documentaries in Persia and Siam, as well as traveling to Africa for an adaptation of The Four Feathers, and had pondered filming a drama inspired by a family of baboons he had observed while filming the latter movie, going so far as to write an 85,000 word monograph on the subject.

Too, Cooper had been a pilot in the U.S. Air Service in World War I, later flew seventy combat missions for Poland during that country's intervention against the Bolsheviks during the Russian Civil War, and in 1927, became a founding member of Pan American Airways. Surely the thought of flyers shooting up downtown Manhattan had occurred to him at least once.

In any event, Cooper pitched the story to Jesse Lasky at Paramount at the end of 1930. Lasky thought Cooper was nuts and that any resulting picture would likely bankrupt the studio, but David O. Selznick, who had just taken a job at RKO-Radio Pictures, decided the maverick producer was just what his struggling studio needed to goose its lackluster box office. Cooper didn't disappoint him. After producing a successful adaptation of Richard Connell's short story The Most Dangerous Game (with direction by Ernest B. Schoedsack and Irving Pichel), Cooper turned his attention to his giant gorilla movie in earnest. He commissioned special effects wizard Willis O'Brien to shoot two test scenes of the giant ape, and best-selling mystery writer Edgar Wallace to draft a screenplay.

A veteran of the 1925 silent version of Arthur Conan Doyle's The Lost World, O'Brien was the foremost expert in stop-action animation (the process of creating the illusion that an object is in motion by moving it incrementally between individually-photographed frames of film). He and Cooper conceived two test sequences, one of the ape attacking a crew of sailors as they cross a deep gorge, the second of the ape battling a Tyrannosaurus rex as a woman looks on in terror.

To people the test footage, Cooper borrowed two cast members from The Most Dangerous Game, Robert Armstrong in the role of Carl Denham, and as the heroine, Fay Wray, promising the latter a chance to work with "the tallest, darkest leading man in Hollywood." (She thought he meant Clark Gable.) When Game's third star, Joel McCrea, balked at performing the necessary stunts, Cooper substituted bit player Bruce Cabot. Fleshed out with footage of a Triceratops killing a man that O'Brien had prepared for an aborted film project called Creation, Cooper presented the test to RKO's board which immediately approved the project.

With frequent collaborator Ernest B. Schoedsack directing the live-action sequences and Cooper supervising the special effects work, filming was set to begin in August 1932.

Now all Cooper needed was a story.

Edgar Wallace wrote the first draft of the screenplay in just five days at the beginning of 1932, but died of pneumonia a month later. To replace Wallace, Cooper brought in James Ashmore Creelman who had written the screenplay for The Most Dangerous Game. Creelman made the ape more fierce and played up the beauty and the beast aspect of the story, adding the famous final line, "It was Beauty killed the Beast." Schoedsack's wife, writer Ruth Rose, then streamlined Creelman's script, eliminating, for example, an explanation of how the captured gorilla is ferried to New York. She also added autobiographical elements of her experiences with Cooper and her husband when the pair worked on those documentaries in Persia and Siam.

Among those autobiographical elements Rose added was the fictional movie director, Carl Denham, who heads the expedition to find Kong and film the encounter. Characterized as "crazy" and with a reputation for "recklessness," Carl Denham is not a man cursed by self-awareness and only his own half-crazed dreams can make his eyes light up. "It's money and adventure and fame!" he's after, the cost to those around him be damned.

"If he wants a picture of a lion," one character says, "he just goes up to him and tells him to look pleasant."

Armed with a cargo hold full of guns, explosives and gas bombs, Denham and a crew of "tough mugs" have everything needed to shoot a movie except an actress, but no matter how much he's willing to pay, no reputable agent will work with Denham and he winds up hiring a homeless waif right off the streets of New York—Ann Darrow, played by Fay Wray, of course. Going on nothing but a tale told by a Norwegian sailor in a Singapore bar, they set sail for an island "not on any chart" in search of a mythical beast, with Ann along in the role of Beauty—or perhaps bait.

"[T]his low-rent monster movie," Chicago Sun-Times critic Roger Ebert wrote for his Great Movies series, "and not the psychological puzzle of [Citizen] Kane, pointed the way toward the current era of special effects, science fiction, cataclysmic destruction, and nonstop shocks. King Kong is the father of Jurassic Park, the Alien movies and countless other stories in which heroes are terrified by skillful special effects."

King Kong is one of the most aggressive examples of a movie that bypasses your rational mind to work directly on the emotional centers of your limbic system, and much of the plot is a hodgepodge of cliches, culled from a variety of sources—Beauty and the Beast, King Solomon's Mines, The Lost World, The Perils of Pauline, and even the films of silent era director D.W. Griffith. (Indeed, in some ways, King Kong plays like a parody of the by-then passe Griffith, whose movies, when stripped of their art and their politics, can be seen as celluloid records of Griffith's neurotic dread that someone somewhere was about to relieve preternaturally pure Lillian Gish of her virginity, with Kong standing in for the freed slave, the Chinese shopkeeper, the Southern rogue and the French aristocrat of The Birth of a Nation, Broken Blossoms, Way Down East and Orphans of the Storm, respectively. Cooper even drove the joke home by having Denham put Ann through a series of cheesy silent-era poses while filming her with an old hand-cranked movie camera of the sort directors hadn't used since the advent of sound.)

But smarter stories have been told and instantly forgotten and a smart, sensible story isn't the point of King Kong anyway—fun-stupid terror is, and after a long tension-filled build-up, Kong finally makes his first appearance, thrashing through the jungle toward a screaming Fay Wray whom island natives have staked out as a sacrifice to their terrible gorilla god.

KING KONG 1933 -

MICHAEL STEVER | Myspace Video

The wait is well worth it—Kong's entrance is one of the greatest in film history.

To create the special effects at the center of King Kong, O'Brien designed a half-dozen eighteen-inch models of the gorilla, using jointed armatures of aluminum for the skeleton, covering it in cotton and rubber for the muscles, latex for the skin, and rabbit fur for Kong's hair. (Sculptor Marcel Delgado, working from O'Brien's designs, objected to using rabbit fur, fearing it would retain the impression of his fingertips as he moved the model between shots—it did—but RKO executives were thrilled with the result. "Look!" one exclaimed watching the test footage, "Kong is angry—his fur is bristling!")

For close-ups of Kong eating islanders and New Yorkers alike, E.B. Gibson built a full-size bust of Kong's head from wood and cloth with an air compressor to move the metal hinges of his jaws. Similarly, a hand mounted on a crane was built of steel, rubber and bearskin. The various models of Kong scaled out to eighteen, twenty-four, forty and seventy feet, depending on the scene, a fact which drove the meticulous O'Brien to distraction but which satisfied Cooper's dramatic instincts, and moviegoers knew only that Kong was as big as he needed to be at any given moment to scare them out of their wits.

In post-production, Murray Spivak, the head of RKO's sound department, created the sound for all the movie's special effects sequences, which had necessarily been recorded silently. For Kong and prehistoric creatures, Spivak recorded animals at the Selig Zoo, slowing the recordings to deepen their growls and stitching recordings together to make them longer. For Kong's grunting, Spivak recorded his own voice through a megaphone. Kong's chest-beating was the sound of Spivak hitting his assistant Walter Elliott with a drumstick while holding the microphone against Elliott's back. Spivak also provided all of the screams in the movie, with the notable exception of Fay Wray's.

Another innovation, one we very much take for granted these days, was Max Steiner's heart-pumping score which underlined the action and ratcheted up the tension. As hard as it may be to believe now, at the time producers such as Irving Thalberg were firmly opposed to the use of a musical score in a film. He and others believed that music playing in a film from a source not immediately obvious—from a radio, in a nightclub—would only confuse the audience. A quaint notion now, but it took films such as King Kong to prove Thalberg and his ilk wrong. (Check out the blog A Shroud of Thoughts for an interesting article about Steiner's score.)

The real technical achievements, though, involved the processes necessary to integrate the models into the live-action sequences so that instead of dwarfing an eighteen inch model, the actors were battling a full-size ape. Sydney Saunders of the RKO paint department developed a new process for rear-screen projection (used for the first time in Kong's fight with the Tyrannosaurus). Linwood Dunn engineered a new optical printer that made composite and "traveling matte" shots (for example, Kong pushing open the gate at the wall of the native village) practical and economical. And O'Brien himself patented a projector that allowed full-scale live-action footage to be mixed with the miniature on a frame-by-frame basis. Each of these breakthroughs in optical effects technology quickly became the industry standard for decades to come, and while the film's effects are dated by today's lights, personally I find them more satisfying than many of the computer-generated images that have dominated the film industry for the last decade or so. (For a fuller discussion of Kong's groundbreaking special effects, check out Ray Morton's book King Kong: The History of a Movie Icon From Fay Wray to Peter Jackson.)

If I were handing out a complete set of alternate Oscars, I'd give King Kong awards for sound, score, special effects, visual effects, art direction/set decoration (what, at the time, was called interior decoration) and film editing, which along with the award for best drama, comes to seven, making it the biggest winner of the year.

Of course, none of these innovations would have meant much if King Kong hadn't fulfilled its basic promise of scaring the pants off its audience, and it most certainly accomplished that, with stories of audience members fainting in the aisles during the film's screening. Whether you congratulate Cooper, Schoedsack, O'Brien, et al. for their achievement or blame for the thousand pale imitations that followed is up to you.

Which brings us to the acting.

I can't say I disagree with Stephen Hunter's assessment, who for Washington Post wrote that "Bruce Cabot [who played the nominal hero, first mate Jack Driscoll] gave what was probably the worst performance in a great movie on record—he seemed more wooden than a tobacco store Indian and not nearly as colorful." (Indeed, Cabot played "Sam the Indian" in John Wayne's 1971 western, Big Jake.) And Robert Armstrong as Carl Denham isn't much better, although his eyes do shine with the evangelical fervor of a true believer.

But I do take issue with James Berardinelli's assertion that the overall acting is "barely adequate." As I've said before, Fay Wray made a vital contribution to the horror genre, teaching a generation of damsels in distress how to scream—and scream she did. Think about it: just six years before King Kong's premiere, it hadn't even been possible to hear an actress scream in a movie. After Fay Wray, we knew it was the only proper way to enjoy a horror movie. And while she couldn't bring to the table the nuance a talent like Naomi Watts brought to the 2005 remake, ultimately Wray brought something better—fear. And fear, after all, is what we go to a horror movie to experience.

Still, the most likeable and sympathetic character in the entire film, and the only one who feels completely original, is a stop-action model of a forty-foot gorilla.

And that, ultimately, is the genius of King Kong. I suspect that audiences of the time, mired as they were in the worst economic Depression in American history—25% unemployment, a third of the nation "ill-fed, ill-clothed, ill-housed," the stock market worth only ten percent of its previous value—saw in Kong a reflection of their own plight, first as a representation of those outside forces we can't understand—the tornado, the flood, the economic turmoil that punishes the just and unjust alike—but then, as Kong is uprooted from the only home he's ever known and dragged in chains halfway around the world for the jaded amusement of Upper East Side popinjays, as the farmer who has lost his land, the man who has lost his job, the descendant of a slave oppressed by Jim Crow, the recent immigrant adrift in a hostile culture he doesn't comprehend.

"How did you ever get into this fix?" Denham asks.

Speaking for people the world over, Ann replies, "Bad luck, I guess."

In deeply anxious times, King Kong allowed audiences to express their anxieties without confronting them directly, and afforded them, in addition fun-stupid escapism of the first order, a satisfying emotional catharsis.

King Kong opened in New York City on March 2, 1933, to rave reviews and enthusiastic crowds, with lines stretching around the block to see the sold-out show at the 6,500 seat Radio City Music Hall. The film's Los Angeles premiere at Grauman's Chinese Theater featured a seventeen-act stage show as well as the forty-foot "big head" bust of Kong which was placed in front of the theater. Mordaunt Hall of the New York Times called Kong "fantastic" and "compelling," Edwin Schallert of the Los Angeles Times dubbed it "sensational," and Relman Morin, writing for the Los Angeles Record wrote that "King Kong is the supreme product of the coordination of human imagination and human skill."

The film was a solid winner at the box office, too, grossing $2 million in its initial run, enough for ninth on the year's list of top movies. More importantly to RKO executives, the film helped the studio turn its first profit in five years, rescuing RKO from receivership.

After the success of King Kong, Merian Cooper worked primarily as a film producer, first as the vice president of production at Pioneer Pictures, then as the vice president of Selznick International Pictures. During the Second World War, Cooper joined the United States Army Air Force and was stationed in China, eventually rising to the rank of brigadier general. After the war, he formed Argosy Productions with John Ford and produced some of that legendary director's most beloved films, including The Quiet Man, The Searchers and the cavalry trilogy.

Ernest B. Schoedsack continued to direct, working on sixteen movies in all, including the Oscar-winning King Kong knock-off Mighty Joe Young. He and his wife, screenwriter Ruth Rose, remained married for fifty-two years, until her death on Schoedsack's eighty-fifth birthday. He died a year later, in 1979.

Willis O'Brien continued to work as a special effects expert and he was the "Technical Creator" on the 1949 film Mighty Joe Young which won the Oscar for Best Visual Effects. Although no individuals were officially named on that award—it went to "RKO Productions"—O'Brien did receive a statue from the Academy.

Max Steiner went on to compose some of the most famous film scores in history, including those for Gone With The Wind and Casablanca. His scores were nominated for Academy Awards twenty-four times, winning three.

Of the lead actors, Fay Wray remained the most visible, appearing in ninety-nine movies, though never again in a movie of King Kong's renown. "At the premiere," she said later, "I wasn't too impressed. I thought there was too much screaming. I didn't realize then that King Kong and I were going to be together for the rest of our lives, and longer." She was to have made a cameo in the 2005 remake directed by Peter Jackson, cast to speak the famous final line, but passed away before the scene was filmed.

Both Robert Armstrong and Bruce Cabot also worked steadily, but aren't much remembered today outside of the context of King Kong. Indeed, the actor connected with the movie who fared best was Joel McCrea, who turned down the part of Jack Driscoll. He went on to star in such classics as Sullivan's Travels, The Palm Beach Story, The More The Merrier and Ride The High Country.

In 1991 the Library of Congress selected King Kong for preservation in the National Film Registry. The American Film Institute has twice listed Kong as one of the fifty best films of all time (in 1975 and again in 1998) and in 2008, ranked it as the fourth best fantasy film ever made.

Trivia: The "Great Wall" set from King Kong appeared in several other movies over the next five years then was redressed as Atlanta and burned to the ground for the filming of Gone With The Wind.

More Trivia: Look for director-producer Merian Cooper as the pilot of the plane that finally kills Kong and Ernest Schoedsack as the gunner.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Looking Ahead: Turner Classic Movies In December

So what are our boys at TCM showing in December that I've written about or soon plan to write about here at the Monkey? Let's take a look, shall we?

Thursday December 2
3:45 PM Manhattan Melodrama (1934)
Boyhood friends grow up on opposite sides of the law. Cast: Clark Gable, William Powell, Myrna Loy. Dir: W.S. Van Dyke II. BW-90 mins, TV-G, CC

Saturday December 4
7:15 AM Night at the Opera, A (1935)
Three zanies turn an operatic performance into chaos in their efforts to promote their protege's romance with the leading lady. Cast: The Marx Brothers, Allan Jones, Kitty Carlisle. Dir: Sam Wood. BW-91 mins, TV-G, CC, DVS

6:15 PM Thin Man, The (1934)
A husband-and-wife detective team takes on the search for a missing inventor and almost get killed for their efforts. Cast: William Powell, Myrna Loy, Maureen O'Sullivan. Dir: W.S. Van Dyke II. BW-91 mins, TV-G, CC, DVS

Sunday December 12
12:45 AM Intolerance (1916)
In this silent film, four stories from different eras intertwine to depict man's inhumanity to man. Cast: Mae Marsh, Lillian Gish, Constance Talmadge. Dir: D.W. Griffith. BW-115 mins, TV-14

Wednesday December 15
12:00 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, TV-PG, CC

Sunday December 19
12:15 AM King of Kings, The (1927)
In this silent film, Cecil B. DeMille directs an epic retelling of the life of Christ. Cast: H.B. Warner, Dorothy Cumming, Ernest Torrence. Dir: Cecil B. DeMille. BW-157 mins, TV-G

Tuesday December 21
12:00 AM Thin Man, The (1934)
A husband-and-wife detective team takes on the search for a missing inventor and almost get killed for their efforts. Cast: William Powell, Myrna Loy, Maureen O'Sullivan. Dir: W.S. Van Dyke II. BW-91 mins, TV-G, CC, DVS

Wednesday December 22
3:00 AM Big Jake (1971)
A rancher leads the posse out to recover his kidnapped grandson. Cast: John Wayne, Richard Boone, Patrick Wayne. Dir: George Sherman. C-110 mins, TV-14, CC, Letterbox Format

Saturday December 25
6:00 AM Little Women (1933)
The four March sisters fight to keep their family together and find love while their father is off fighting the Civil War. Cast: Katharine Hepburn, Joan Bennett, Paul Lukas. Dir: George Cukor. BW-116 mins, TV-G, CC, DVS

1:00 PM Ben-Hur (1959)
While seeking revenge, a rebellious Israelite prince crosses paths with Jesus Christ. Cast: Charlton Heston, Stephen Boyd, Jack Hawkins. Dir: William Wyler. C-222 mins, TV-PG, CC, Letterbox Format, DVS

Friday December 31
8:00 PM Animal Crackers (1930)
Three zanies try to recover a stolen painting during a madcap house party. Cast: The Marx Brothers, Lillian Roth, Margaret Dumont. Dir: Victor Heerman. BW-97 mins, TV-G

9:45 PM 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, TV-G, CC

11:15 PM Horse Feathers (1932)
In an effort to beef up his school's football team, a college president mistakenly recruits two loonies. Cast: The Marx Brothers, Thelma Todd, David Landau. Dir: Norman Z. McLeod. BW-67 mins, TV-G, CC

12:30 AM 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, TV-G, CC

1:45 AM Night at the Opera, A (1935)
Three zanies turn an operatic performance into chaos in their efforts to promote their protege's romance with the leading lady. Cast: The Marx Brothers, Allan Jones, Kitty Carlisle. Dir: Sam Wood. BW-91 mins, TV-G, CC, DVS

3:30 AM Day At The Races, A (1937)
A group of zanies tries to save a pretty girl's sanitarium. Cast: The Marx Bros., Allan Jones, Maureen O'Sullivan. Dir: Sam Wood. BW-109 mins, TV-G, CC, DVS

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Movies To Serve With Thanksgiving Dinner

I don't know about you, but I love Thanksgiving. Always have, always will. To me, it's like Christmas only better, an excuse to hang out with the people you love and eat obscene amounts of food without the hassle of buying more junk nobody needs.

But clearly that's just me.

Anyway, there aren't a lot of good Thanksgiving-related movies out there, but here are my picks as the five best:

Miracle On 34th Street (the 1947 version, please)—This is the one Katie-Bar-The-Door and I watch every year as we're sleeping off lunch. The charming story of how Santa Claus came to town and wound up on trial for his sanity, Miracle on 34th Street starts at the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade and is a great way to kick off the Christmas season (assuming that, like the Monkey, you refuse to acknowledge those decorations that have been up since Columbus Day).

Serve with warm pecan pie straight from the oven.

Hannah And Her Sisters (1986)—Woody Allen's surprisingly warm tale of three neurotic sisters and their equally neurotic love lives, bookended by sumptuous Thanksgiving celebrations straight out of a Martha Stewart wet dream. As a bonus, Woody learns life is worth living while watching the Marx Brothers' Duck Soup.

Serve with a nice Bordeaux aged in Anton Chekhov's wine cellar.

Planes, Trains and Automobiles (1987)—Roger Ebert's favorite Thanksgiving Day movie, it's a classic odd couple comedy from John Hughes, starring an uptight Steve Martin and the slovenly salt of the earth John Candy as two men desperately trying to get home for the holidays. "How do they know which way we're going?" Tart and funny with all the sugar backloaded to the last five minutes.

Serve with all the trimmings.

Home For The Holidays (1995)—My literary agent, Jill, thinks this is the best Thanksgiving movie ever. It's a comedy filled with hostility, anxiety, irrational grievances and all the unfulfilled familial expectations you could ever want. Not to mention someone gets a turkey dumped in their lap. In other words, it's a documentary of the typical American Thanksgiving dinner.

Serve with bile and battery acid.

The Ice Storm (1997)—Alcoholism, wife swapping, teenage sex—and the best Thanksgiving toast ever. If you grew up in a lunatic asylum or are simply nostalgic for the free-love Seventies, this is the movie for you. Stars Joan Allen and Kevin Kline (sans moustache, and you know what that means).

Serve with cocaine and quaaludes.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

King Kong Wins Poll As Best Drama Of 1932-33

It was a close vote, but in the end King Kong edged out The Invisible Man as your choice for best picture (drama) of 1932-33.

Which is very convenient considering I've already written 2000 words about King Kong, with more on the way.

"We're million- aires, boys!" crowed Carl Denham, the leader of the expe- dition that dis- covered Kong and signed the forty-foot gorilla to a lucrative three-picture deal. "I'll share it with all of you. Why, in a few months, it'll be up in lights on Broadway: Kong, the Eighth Wonder of the World!"

Of the twenty-four votes cast, Kong picked up eight to Invisible's seven, with I Am A Fugitive From A Chain Gang, Red Dust and The Bitter Tea Of General Yen tallying four, three and two votes, respectively.

Asked what would have happened if the vote had gone the other way, Denham said, "Well, now you know why I brought along those cases of gas bombs."

Claude Rains, star of The Invisible Man, was devastated by the loss. "We'll begin with a reign of terror," he said, "a few murders here and there, murders of great men, murders of little men, just to show we make no distinction. An invisible man can rule the world!" he shouted. "No one will see him come, no one will see him go!"

Rains wasn't the only one unhappy with the vote's outcome. "After this, I'm afraid I'll be typecast as a forty-foot gorilla," said Kong, as he nursed a martini at the end of the bar. "There aren't that many parts for a forty-foot gorilla."

Monday, November 22, 2010

A Couple Of Katie Nominees On TCM Tonight

Having trouble deciding which movie to vote for in the latest Monkey poll, or maybe haven't seen them all? Well, I Am A Fugitive From A Chain Gang and Red Dust just happen to be playing on Turner Classic Movies tonight, November 22, 2010.

From the TCM website:

3:00 AM I Am A Fugitive From A Chain Gang (1932)
A World War I veteran faces inhuman conditions when he's sentenced to hard labor. Cast: Paul Muni, Glenda Farrell, Helen Vinson. Dir: Mervyn LeRoy. BW-93 mins, TV-PG, CC

5:00 AM Red Dust (1932)
A plantation overseer in Indochina is torn between a married woman and a lady of the evening. Cast: Clark Gable, Jean Harlow, Mary Astor. Dir: Victor Fleming. BW-83 mins, TV-G, CC

If you live in the Washington, D.C. area, Red Dust will also be playing at the AFI-Silver in Silver Spring, Maryland in early December. Maybe I'll see you there.

The Bitter Tea Of General Yen is also on TCM this month, on Tuesday, November 30 at 4:30 a.m.

4:30 AM 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, TV-PG, CC

Speaking of Katie nominees, the winner of the best comedy/musical of 1932-33, the Marx Brothers' Duck Soup, is playing on TCM on Wednesday evening. If you've never seen it and you get TCM on your cable system, check it out.

11:15 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, TV-G, CC

Thursday, November 18, 2010

New Poll, New Project, New Followers

Faithful reader Erik Beck (of the Boston Becks) has demanded a poll on the question of the best drama of 1932-33 and we here at the Monkey aim to please. I promise the results of the poll will be binding on my choice of best picture in the category of a drama, providing of course that the results jibe with the essay I'm already writing. Otherwise, we'll just call it another frustrating exercise in democracy, what in America is known as an "election."

I'm working on a new project for the blog and have been very distracted lately. As soon as I post the essay on the best drama of 1932-33 and then a brief recap of the year's Katie Award winners, I plan to spend the rest of 2010 writing capsule summaries of each movie year from 1915 to 1927, retroactively awarding Katies to the best movies and performances of the silent era, the "Silent Oscars," if you will.

Which means fans of Harold Lloyd, Theda Bara and Musidora should be very happy.

Then because I like this drama-comedy split I've been using for 1932-33 so much, I'm going to fill in those years I've already covered (1927-1932) with my picks in the categories of drama, comedy-musical and foreign language—e.g., it looks like Luis Buñuel will finally pick up a long overdue award. (Don't worry, it'll make more sense when you see it in action. Or not.)

Finally, I've been out of town a lot lately and have been playing catch-up, blog-wise. If you've recently become a follower of the Mythical Monkey and for some reason I'm not following your blog, drop me a line in the comment section and let me know. I enjoy following the blogs of those following me, whether you write about movies, fashion, music or the rain in Spain that stays mainly in the plain, and I don't want to miss out on the action.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Nominees For Best Picture Of 1932-33 (Drama)

The Bitter Tea Of General Yen (prod. Frank Capra)

I Am A Fugitive From A Chain Gang (prod. Hal B. Wallis)

The Invisible Man
(prod. Carl Laemmle, Jr.)

King Kong (prod. Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack)

Red Dust (prod. Hunt Stromberg and Irving Thalberg)

Friday, November 12, 2010

Best Picture Of 1932-33 (Comedy/Musical): Duck Soup (prod. Herman J. Mankiewicz)

[To read an eight-part biography of the Marx Brothers, click here. To read about Margaret Dumont, my choice for best supporting actress of 1932-33, click here. And to read about the drafting of Duck Soup's screenplay, click here.]

The award year running from September 1, 1932 through the end of 1933 was an unusually rich one for both comedies and musicals with more than a dozen must-see movies, including a pair from Ernst Lubitsch, three by Busby Berkeley, comedies starring Mae West, Charles Laughton, Jean Harlow, Marie Dressler, Laurel and Hardy, and even a groundbreaking cartoon short from Walt Disney. But the best work of the year came from the Marx Brothers, who contributed two indispensable classics, Horse Feathers and my choice for the best comedy of the year—or indeed, any year—Duck Soup.

In case you don't know, the Marx Brothers—Julius, Leonard, Adolph and Herbert, better known to the world as Groucho, Chico, Harpo and Zeppo—were the premiere comedy team of an era that also boasted such classic acts as Laurel and Hardy, and the Three Stooges. Duck Soup was their fifth film and despite being delayed for nine months by a contract dispute with Paramount, proved to be the best of their career, featuring some of the funniest and most famous scenes in the Marx Brothers canon.

Duck Soup is the story of a nation in crisis: Freedonia's economy is in shambles, with a prohibitive increase in taxes ("I've got an uncle in Taxes—Dollars, Taxes!") in the offing if the rich widow Mrs. Teasdale (Margaret Dumont) won't come through with another $20 million. And if that's not enough, Freedonia's bellicose neighbor, Sylvania, is massing troops on the border, threatening not only death and destruction, but also to introduce a plot into the picture's foreground, a development which in previous Marx Brothers movies tended to bring the comedy to a grinding halt.

With a month's rent already paid on the battlefield, war seems inevitable and the country teeters on the brink of anarchy. Desperate for a savior, Freedonia turns to that fearless man of the people, Rufus T. Firefly.

"If you think this country's bad off now," he promises, "just wait 'til I get through with it!"

Playing Firefly is Groucho Marx, he of the lacerating wit, the greasepaint moustache and the most impeccable timing in the history of comedy. While the chief obstacle to achieving peace in our time is ostensibly Sylvania's conniving ambassador Trentino (Louis Calhern), in fact, it's Firefly himself—his temper, his paranoia, his inability to make heads or tails of things a four year old child would understand.

"I'll be only too happy to meet Am- bassador Trentino, and offer him, on behalf of my country, the right hand of good fellowship. And I feel sure that he will accept this gesture in the spirit in which it is offered. But suppose he doesn't. A fine thing that'll be! I hold out my hand and he refuses to accept it! ... Why the cheap, four-flushing swine—so you refuse to shake hands with me!"

And thus just like that, Freedonia finds itself at war.

The humorist Roy Blount, Jr., in his recent book Hail, Hail, Euphoria!, called Duck Soup "the greatest war movie ever made," and while I wouldn't say Harpo carrying a sandwich board reading "Join the Army and See the Navy" around a battlefield is as harrowing as the Omaha Beach scene in Saving Private Ryan, I will agree that it's the best treatment ever of the causes of war. As a student of history, majoring in the subject in college and maintaining a lifelong interest in the to-ings and fro-ings of elected officials, I've concluded that nobody has ever launched a war thinking it was a bad idea, no matter how uninformed, misinformed or half-formed his reasons may have been for thinking so. (Yes, yes, I'm thinking of the War of Jenkins' Ear. Sue me.)

Don't get me wrong. Occasionally the world finds itself in a death match with, say, fascism, and it would be futile, not to mention suicidal, to sit on the sidelines, but more often than not, from the Crusades to Iraq's invasion of Iran and a hundred other major conflicts in between, the thinking leading to war is typically characterized by ego, paranoia, stupidity and shortsightedness, with very little afterwards to show for it but a pile of corpses, and when the smoke clears, everybody scratches their heads and promises to do better—until the next time, that is, when they go off and do it again.

And thus I believe Rufus T. Firefly when he says, "There's no turning back now! This means war!" Or I believe he believes it anyway. But a classic movie, like a well-written history, strips away the comforting lies and the self-delusion and leaves only the truth—in this case, that Rufus T. Firefly might not have been, shall we say, the best choice to lead a country in crisis. (Filmed shortly after the Nazis seized power in Germany, Harpo said later he and his Jewish brothers listened to Hitler's speeches on the radio between scenes and were quite consciously targeting both him and his fascist ally Mussolini with their humor. Indeed, Mussolini banned the film in Italy as a personal attack.)

Egging Firely on are Chicolini and Pinky (Chico and Harpo), who serve not only as Secretary of War and chauffeur, respectively, but also as the most incompetent double agents in history, infiltrating Freedonia's government on behalf of Trentino only to get sidetracked by scissors, doorbells and a cantankerous lemonade vendor.

"Well, you remember you gave us a picture of this man and said follow him? Well, we get on the job right away and in one hour—even-a less than one hour—"


"—we lose-a da picsh. That's-a pretty quick work, heh?"

Providing brilliant support are Margaret Dumont and Edgar Kennedy. Kennedy was a veteran of the Hal Roach Studios, and a master of what is known as slow-burn comedy, with laughs derived from a gradually increasing show of anger. Dumont, simply put, was the most talented straight-(wo)man in the history of movie comedies.

In consciously setting out to make the best Marx Brothers movie ever, director Leo McCarey ruthlessly streamlined the story, eliminating every element not directly related to producing laughs. In addition to cutting the usual harp and piano solos, he also cut a scripted romance between Zeppo and Raquel Torres (who played dancer Vera Marcal) as well as Zeppo's number "Keep On Doin' What You're Doin'" (recycled a year later for the Wheeler and Woolsey comedy, Hips Hips Hooray), effectively reducing the youngest Marx Brother to a bit player in his own movie.

McCarey also beefed up the supporting cast, calling in veteran actors Calhern and Kennedy for key parts, writing two classic sequences involving Harpo, Chico and a lemonade stand for the latter (it was Groucho himself who talked Margaret Dumont into playing Mrs. Teasdale). As a result, the Brothers finally found themselves working with a cast of expert straightmen whose set-up lines and reaction shots heightened the payoffs of the Brothers' already brilliant jokes.

In addition, McCarey's experience as a director of top comedy acts (Laurel and Hardy especially) shows in his ability to tether otherwise unrelated gags and one-liners to the framework of the story. On paper, Duck Soup is no more cohesive than Monkey Business or Horse Feathers, but McCarey is forever stitching scenes together with repeated dialogue, visual cues and recurring gags. $20 million is mentioned several times and many scenes are introduced with the Freedonian national anthem. Three times you see Groucho in bed, three times you see Chico or Harpo at the peanut stand. Several scenes involve eating—peanuts, donuts, crackers, apples. We see Groucho at his desk more than once—first in the newspaper photo that introduces him, then for a cabinet meeting, then yet again for a conversation with Zeppo and a sequence involving Harpo and the telephone. For that matter, we see Harpo on the telephone in two scenes, and Chico once as well. And, of course, there are recurring gags involving Harpo and scissors, a blow torch, a motorcycle, an alarm clock and Edgar Kennedy's hat.

These links, though unobtrusive, satisfy the mind's instinctive need for order and create a resonance that keeps the momentum of the picture from jerking to a halt every time the story changes gears.

"Duck Soup," wrote Roy Blount in Hail, Hail, Euphoria!, "is a seamless blend of just about every form of American comedy up to its time," and I attribute this versatility to Leo McCarey. As a source of inspiration for many of Duck Soup's gags, McCarey dipped into the bag of silent comedy tricks he had learned at the legendary Hal Roach Studios and came up with several scenes crucial to the film's success, including the three-hat gag, the break-in scene from Laurel and Hardy's Night Owls and most unforgettably, the mirror scene, which the Schwartz Brothers originated for the stage, and which showed up again in Charlie Chaplin's The Floorwalker and Max Linder's Seven Years' Bad Luck, but which was never essayed more brilliantly than by the Marx Brothers in Duck Soup.

Most importantly, McCarey provided visuals that for the first—perhaps, only—time in the Marx Brothers' career matched their subversive, surreal wit. I'm thinking particularly of the battle scenes at the tail end of the movie, when Groucho changes uniforms with every shot and the army of elephants, monkeys, dolphins, swimmers, fire engines, etc. that responds to his call for help. But there's also the scene where a dog emerges barking from Harpo's chest, and another scene where Harpo climbs out of Edgar Kennedy's bath in full-dress uniform. (That McCarey used these tricks to turn what in previous movies would have been a plot-heavy resolution into an surrealist's dream is just another reason why he was the best director the Marx Brothers ever worked with. In fact, I'm willing to bet all the surrealists' efforts combined had less impact on attitudes about war and authority than this one Marx Brothers movie. But I digress. Again.)

But of course ultimately Duck Soup is about the Marx Brothers and simultaneously reigned in and unleashed by an expert director of comedy, they were never better. Groucho was never more comfortable in front of the camera. Harpo, the act's unrestrained id, is not as wild as he was in such movies as Animal Crackers, but his bits are better integrated into the flow of the film than ever before. And Chico has the best role of his career, serving not just as a foil for Groucho's wit and Harpo's destructive impulses, but as a showcase talent in his own right. (If you want to read more about the Marx Brothers themselves, click here, but I'm warning you in advance, few who venture there ever return to talk about it.)

In terms of box office, Duck Soup wasn't quite the flop of legend, turning a modest profit, but nevertheless grossing less than any of its predecessors. Ironically, we most desperately seek meaning at those moments when the world most forcefully reminds us that life has no meaning, and in 1933, as the world teetered at the edge of the abyss, audiences had no taste for Duck Soup's bitter recipe. Because let's face it, while at first blush Duck Soup is delightfully silly and absurdist, its underlying riff—that our leaders are fools, that our institutions are corrupt, that young men and women die in wars for no reason, and that, above all, people are born to torment each other without hope of ever getting along—is as bleak and jaundiced a world view as Hollywood ever committed to film. That's not a message a paying audience is prepared to receive on an empty stomach, and in 1933, there were plenty of empty stomachs to go around.

Fortunately, the Marx Brothers signed with Irving Thalberg shortly after Duck Soup's premiere and at MGM, the Brothers made two of their most successful movies, A Night At The Opera and A Day At The Races. Audiences were in the mood to laugh at the Marx Brothers again. They've been laughing ever since.

Boy, Does This Bring Back Memories

From The Mouth O' The Mule, "The Mythical Monkey in Paris, 29/5/1998."

Thursday, November 11, 2010


From my post about the best picture of 1929-30, All Quiet On The Western Front

In the Twentieth Century, no war seemed like a better idea beforehand and a worse idea after than the First World War. Most of Europe, and eventually the United States, marched merrily into what turned out to be a highly-efficient meat grinder destroying for many nations an entire generation of young men, all in the pursuit of what turned out to be not much. I think we Americans don't fully grasp to what degree war ravaged Europe in the Twentieth Century. Britain, for example, during World War I suffered 2.6 million dead and wounded out of a population of 45 million; and France's loss of 6 million dead and wounded out of 40 million would be the equivalent of 45 million casualties for the present-day U.S., losses not only unthinkable today but incomprehensible.

Afterwards, the debate centered not so much on the question of "Should we have fought the war?" as on "How did we get suckered into it?" The level of disillusionment, grief and revulsion was so great, the key European powers sat back while Hitler gobbled up one country after another, and even after the Nazis had overrun most of Europe, invaded Russia and were bombing Britain on a daily basis, America's president, Franklin Roosevelt, had a hard time convincing the nation to even prepare for war, much less fight it. By the time the United States entered the conflict, it was damned near too late—and was, in fact, too late for millions of people.

The effort to make sense of World War I and the political, social and economic upheaval of its aftermath inspired some of the finest art and literature of the Twentieth Century—cubism, surrealism, Picasso, Hemingway, Proust. Possibly the best novel about the war itself was Erich Maria Remarque's best-selling novel, All Quiet On The Western Front, the story of a classroom of German schoolboys on their journey from enthusiastic volunteers to disillusioned veterans to buried corpses.

Carl Laemmle, the legendary head of Universal Studios, quickly bought the rights to the novel. Laemmle had worked as a bookkeeper for twenty years before investing in a string of nickelodeons, eventually founding his own film distribution company, Laemmle Film Service, which after a merger with three other film studios became Universal. He put his son, Carl, Jr., in charge of production and it was "Junior," as he was widely known, who produced
All Quiet On The Western Front.

In adapting the novel for the screen, writers George Abbott, Maxwell Anderson and Del Andrews retained the story's focus on the boys who fought and died in the war rather than on the generals and politicians who sent them, a focus that gave the book so much of its power. Director Lewis Milestone made the significant and (given that the studio was investing more than a million dollars in the production, a huge amount for the time, just weeks after the crash of the New York stock market) risky decision to cast young unknowns in the primary roles—and not in a J.J. Abrams, populate-the-bridge-of-the-Enterprise-with-GQ-pretty-boys sort of way either.

This choice, casting schoolboys to play schoolboys, is nearly unique in the history of Hollywood.

Kurt Vonnegut wrote in
Slaughterhouse-Five that the problem with war stories is that instead of being about the children who actually manned the front lines, they all pretend wars were fought by grown men, "played in the movies by Frank Sinatra and John Wayne or some of those other glamorous, war-loving, dirty old men" which he said made war "look just wonderful, so we'll have lots more of them." And indeed, Frank Sinatra and John Wayne and William Holden and many others were too old, too mature, too poised, too experienced, for the parts they played. Even the superb Saving Private Ryan relied on a cast—Tom Hanks (42), Tom Sizemore (37), Edward Burns (30), Matt Damon (28)—too old for the parts they played.

With the exception of Louis Wolheim, a veteran of fifty movies including the Oscar-winning
Two Arabian Knights, the cast of All Quiet On The Western Front is nearly as young as the parts they are playing. When the film went into production in November 1929, Russell Gleason and William Bakewell were twenty-one, Lew Ayres was twenty, Ben Alexander, eighteen. Richard Alexander (no relation) was the old man of the group at twenty-five.

These are boys, raw recruits who soil their under- wear during their first patrol, kids who've never been away from home, never had a drink, never so much as kissed a girl. Played by grown men, you might feel regret at their deaths, but you'd never get the same sense of how much is lost, how much of even the most basic aspects of life they've missed out on as when these parts are played by boys. The effect is tragic and poignant even now almost eighty years on.

The other significant choice Milestone made was to focus strictly on the war from the point of view of the unglamourous foot soldiers who fought it. No strategic overviews, no explanations of political objectives, not even a crane shot of the battlefield to let you know where the men are headed. Just a boot's level view (often literally) of the hunger, sleeplessness, fear, filth, lice, loneliness, rats, madness, amputations, shelling and unheroic death that was the daily routine for millions of men. Without a greater sense of the war's purpose, Milestone forced his audience to focus on the only goal that mattered to these boys, their survival.

At the same time, however, while Milestone is effective at making you feel the confusion of war, he himself is never confused about what he's trying to show you—and if you've seen some recent movies, where directors hide the limitations of both the action and their imaginations with a rapid blur of edits, you understand there's a big difference between the two.

A good example of this comes during the first great battle sequence, one the greatest cinematic achievements up to its time. The camera sweeps low to the ground, almost always at the eye level of the men in the trenches. Cinematographer Arthur Edeson—as anonymous these days as Milestone despite also working on
Casablanca—reminds you once again of the power of live action over cartoonish computer-generated images, particularly with the shot of a machine gun panning down a line of charging soldiers, then the reverse shot of the charging soldiers falling as the camera sweeps past, human bodies falling in the unpredictable ways an animated image, unbound by gravity, cannot replicate.

The sequence includes an impressive artillery barrage, with real explosions running down the line, throwing fine particles of dirt and the dead into the air, and you feel an adrenaline rush as an overwhelming enemy charges. From the point of view of the soldier, it's all churning legs and rifles, bayonets suddenly at one another's throats as the line is breached and the men engage in hand-to-hand combat, and then as the battle rages, men collapse in exhaustion, gasping for breath, their faces grimy with sweat, blood, wincing in pain, Milestone showing you something you don't often see in a war film, the real sense of physical exertion, the weariness and thirst, just taking the time in the middle of battle to show a man knock the throat off a bottle of wine for a badly needed drink.

Milestone strove for an unprecedented level of realism as he directed the action, drilling his actors like soldiers and casting veterans of the German army in supporting roles. The effort especially paid off in an extraordinary sequence late in the film: an attack, counterattack and counterattack repulsed, nearly all of it shown from Lew Ayres' point of view as he shelters in a bomb crater, with, first, French soldiers leaping the hole in one direction, then leaping it in the other as the Germans drive them back, finally one unfortunate French soldier leaping on top of Ayres leading to a desperate struggle with a bayonet. Then during the day and night that follow as Ayres is trapped in no man's land between the two lines, he watches the French soldier's life slowly drain away, the plight of the Frenchman told in sound from his screams, his cries and finally his silence.

The movie concludes with a shot long thought lost but rediscovered in 1998 when the film was finally restored to its original length: the silent, ghostly image of the boys we've come to know marching off to war superimposed over acres of white crosses.

All Quiet On The Western Front premiered in Los Angeles on April 21, 1930, and was a critical and commercial success, grossing $3 million, more than twice its budget. The National Board of Review named it one of the ten best movies of the year, Photoplay magazine awarded Laemmle, Jr. the Medal of Honor for producing the best movie of the year. The movie even won Japan's Kinema Junpo Award for best foreign language film. On November 5, 1930, the Academy awarded it two Oscars, for best picture and best director.

Decades later, the National Film Preservation Board included
All Quiet On The Western Front in the National Film Registry. In 1998, the American Film Institute included the film on its list of the 100 best American movies ever made and ten years later ranked it seventh among the list of best "epic" features. Steven Spielberg later acknowledged its influence on Saving Private Ryan. In my opinion, not only was All Quiet On The Western Front the best picture of 1930, it's one of the five best (anti-)war movies ever made and arguably was the best film of the entire Early Sound Era (1927-33).

Lew Ayres was so moved by the experience of making All Quiet On The Western Front that he became a conscientious objector during the Second World War, a controversial stand that led the U.S. military to broaden its definition of conscientious objection. After serving in the Medical Corps in the South Pacific, Ayres returned to Hollywood and was better than before he left. Already a star of the Young Dr. Kildare movies, Ayres went on to receive an Oscar nomination in 1949 for his role in Johnny Belinda. He worked steadily until 1994 and died in 1996 at the age of eighty-eight.