Happy Father’s Day!

I wish a happy Father’s Day to all of the dads out there. It has occurred to me that some of you might be wondering why I have never written a blog entry about my father. It’s because if I did, it would probably depress you even more than did my recent blog entry about suicide. Suffice to say that when it came to helping my wife raise our two children, whenever a child-rearing issue came up, I usually found success by thinking about what my father would have done in the given situation, and then doing the exact opposite.

To end this on a lighter note, here’s Groucho Marx singing “Father’s Day,” a song by his old pal Harry Ruby (who also co-wrote “Hooray for Captain Spaulding”).

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The Marx Brothers in A DAY AT THE RACES (1937) – Long live Dr. Hackenbush!

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The following is my entry in the Medicine in the Movies Blogathon, being hosted May 26-28, 2017 at the blog Charlene’s (Mostly) Classic Movie Reviews. Click on the above banner to read bloggers’ tributes to medicos in the movies!

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(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)

A Day at the Races is a bit of a comedown after The Marx Bros. smash hit A Night at the Opera, but then most things are.

Happily, the sense of worsening decay that marred the Marx Brothers’ final M-G-M films is not wholly present here, but there are some bad omens. The movie has two monstrosities that, if they’d been removed, would have lessened Races‘ load considerably.

One is the Water Carnival, an outrageously lavish production number that looks as though Broadway would be too small to hold it. The second, even more horrifying scene is when Harpo trundles through a black community containing every African-American stereotype known to man, and all of the blacks seize upon Harpo as “Gabriel.” This is only worsened when all three Marxes don blackface (!) as a supposed tribute to their black comrades. (Even when the Gabriel bit was reprised in At the Circus, it at least wasn’t the jaw-dropper it is here.)

That’s a great pity, because the comedy here is as great as anything the Marxes ever delivered. The premise is that sanitarium owner Judy (Maureen O’Sullivan) has 30 days to fend off the advances of Morgan (Douglass Dumbrille), who wants to foreclose on the sanitarium and turn it into a casino to complement his nearby race track. Judy’s fortune hinges on the huge fortune of Mrs. Upjohn (Margaret Dumont), who (shades of Duck Soup) will help Judy only if she will install her quack doctor, Dr. Hugo Z. Hackenbush (Groucho), as the sanitarium head.

Races might well be Groucho Marx’s finest hour with the Marx Brothers. Chico and Harpo are hardly lacking for laughs (the charade scene and their interruption of Groucho’s hot date are both superb), but Groucho is the star attraction here — wheeling, dealing, dancing (see below), and basically proving himself to be as much of a phony as the villains believe him to be. He never operated at such full steam again in a movie, with or without his brothers.

Actually, producer Irving Thalberg’s choice of a sanitarium as a setting seems a bit bizarre, or at least dated. People can still relate to operatic pretensions being smashed, but let’s face it, do we really care whether or not the sanitarium gets saved? But as a clothesline on which to hang some great scenes and gags, it serves its purpose — whatever that is.

As well-documented elsewhere, A Day at the Races was the Marxes’ last hurrah before settling into ’40s formula. So enjoy it — water carnival and all.

(Less than six degrees of Marx separation: Nearly 50 years after A Day at the Races, Maureen O’Sullivan played a supporting role in Woody Allen’s glorious Hannah and Her Sisters [1986], where Woody’s climactic scene shows him watching Duck Soup as an affirmation of the good things in life.)

The Marx Brothers in AT THE CIRCUS (1939) – Peanuts to you!

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The following is my contribution to the At the Circus Blogathon, being hosted Nov. 11-13, 2016 at the blogs Critica Retro and Serendipitous Anachronisms. Click on the above banner, and read bloggers’ take on a wide range of circus-themed movies!

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(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)

Everything that’s wrong with At the Circus is encapsulated in its first ten minutes. Before two whole Marx Brothers are together on-screen at the same time, we’ve had:

* Margaret Dumont being fourth-billed in the supporting-cast credits;

* MGM’s fancy idea of a small-time circus, complete with neon lighting;

* two musical numbers from The Couple Nobody Cares About; and

* Kenny Baker as part of that couple — easily the simpiest romantic lead in a Marx movie (and that’s saying something).

And when two Marxes finally do get together, it’s no cause for celebration. The movie’s premise is that all that’s standing in the way of would-be circus owner Jeff Wilson (Baker) and his true love Julie Randall (Florence Rice) is the $10,000 that the circus’ owner stole from Jeff so that he couldn’t pay off his circus bill. So Jeff’s cohort Tony (Chico) brings in his “best friend in the world” J. Cheever Loophole (Groucho) to solve the case.

With best friends like Chico, Groucho doesn’t need enemies. Tony, the very man who called for Loophole’s help in the first place, keeps pushing Loophole out into the rain because he doesn’t have the proper badge to get on the train. Once he finally gets on the train (and the movie never shows how he gets on — he just is on), Loophole tries to extract a cigar from a midget suspect (Jerry Maren, a quarter-century before he strew confetti on “The Gong Show”) to match some of the crime scene’s evidence — only Tony keeps offering Loophole his own cigars instead, at the same time complaining that Loophole isn’t getting any evidence. These, sadly, are the movie’s first attempts at Marx Bros. comedy scenes.

Also, villainess Peerless Pauline is played by Eve Arden. Although she was only 28 years old at the time of filming, and her circus costume certainly shows her long legs off nicely, her character is such a priss as to make Our Miss Brooks come off as a siren. Margaret Dumont exudes more sex appeal than Arden does in this movie.

The one who comes off best, at least for a while, is Harpo, who keeps making silent but wacko commentary on the sidelines and is funnier than the main performers. But then MGM has to drag that “Svengali” stuff from A Day at the Races into the movie, apparently trying to prove again that the only hope for the future of African-Americans is Harpo Marx.

When Loophole finally gets the bright idea of hitting up Jeff’s rich aunt (Margaret Dumont) for the missing money, the movie turns into the comedy it was supposed to have been an hour before that. Groucho’s usual wooing of dame Dumont, Harpo and Chico’s subsequent burglary of the strong-man/suspect’s den, and most of the movie’s climax are quite hilarious.

Even the climax, filled as it is with cheap slide-whistle sound effects and obvious back projection, is so frenetic that it comes as a relief after the movie’s dirge-like beginning. It’s a case of the Marx Brothers rising above the movie’s intended comedy instead of causing it. But in the Marxes’ latter MGM days, that almost counts as a triumph.

Here’s a definite highlight of the movie, from the same songwriters who brought you the score for The Wizard of Oz:

Trump Soup

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I’ve been a Marx Brothers fan all of my life, and I can’t believe I never made a connection between their classic comedy Duck Soup and the wackiness that is the Donald Trump Presidential bid. But Luke Epplin of Slate.com did. Click here to read his on-point comparison between the two.

THE INCREDIBLE JEWEL ROBBERY (1959) – The Marx Brothers’ day at the finish line

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Today is the 57th anniversary of the TV broadcast of the Marx Brothers’ final filmed appearance together. (Whew, that was a mouthful!)  Harpo and Chico Marx appeared as Harry and Nick, two inept thieves who try to pull off a jewelry heist, in “The Incredible Jewel Robbery,” an episode of “General Electric Theater,” a CBS anthology series that was hosted by future U.S. President Ronald Reagan.

(From here on in, this blog entry is one big SPOILER, if you care.)

The episode is primarily noted for its cameo appearance by the stars’ brother Groucho at the end. The episode is played completely without dialogue until the final scene, where Groucho joins his brothers in a police line-up and says, “We don’t talk until we see our lawyer!”

CBS’ press release for the show stated, “If you watch the show you’ll see a familiar face equipped with mustache and leer. Because of his contract terms [Groucho was still doing ‘You Bet Your Life’ on NBC], his name can’t be mentioned, but he is not Jerry Colonna.”

I was 11 years old when I first read about this TV episode, and I felt as though I’d have given anything to see it. Now it is readily available for viewing on YouTube — it’s embedded below, in two parts — and it couldn’t be more disappointing.

First, the entire premise is played out at such a literal level that even a kindergartener would be rolling his eyes at it. At one point, Harpo is trying to paint a police-car logo onto his car to make it look like a cop car. The logo is circular, so Harpo gets a spare tire, holds it up to the car, and traces the outside of it with his paintbrush in order to paint a circle. Haw-haw.

Second, the silent-movie conceit would be a lot more enjoyable if the show was truly silent. The episode’s musical score is loud and intrusive, and worse, there’s a laugh track all the way through the show to tell us when we’re supposed to guffaw. Since when do the Marx Brothers need a laugh track to tell us they’re funny?

Sadly, this is a show for comedy completists who feel as though they have to see everything their heroes ever did, rather than having entertainment value on its own. Once you’ve viewed “The Incredible Jewel Robbery” one time, your curiosity will be more than satisfied.

Here’s Part 1:

And Part 2:

 

 

Chill Willis and his ALAMO Oscar campaign

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This post is part of the 31 Days of Oscar Blogathon, being co-hosted by Aurora at Once Upon a Screen, Kellee at Outspoken & Freckled, and Paula at Paula’s Cinema Club as a month-long salute to the Academy Awards.

Each week has a different theme: THE ACTORS! (February 6), OSCAR SNUBS! (February 13), THE CRAFTS! (February 20), and THE MOTION PICTURES and THE DIRECTORS! (February 27). (My blog entry, which follows, is related to OSCAR SNUBS.) Click on the above banner for a terrific variety of blogs related to the history of Oscars!

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If you were a movie actor, what would you do to try to win an Oscar? Chill Wills did nothing less than invoke God Almighty.

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Theodore Childress “Chill” Wills (1902-1978) was a performer from early childhood, forming and leading the Avalon Boys singing group before disbanding them in 1938 to pursue a solo acting career.

(Laurel & Hardy fans are well familiar with Wills and the Avalon Boys. They provide the back-up singing for the famous softshoe number “At the Ball, That’s All” in the L&H comedy Way Out West. Wills can be seen as the yodeler in the group.)

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For two decades, Wills’ film work ranged from the serious (Uncle Bawley in the James Dean movie Giant) to the ridiculous (he was the uncredited voice of Francis the Talking Mule in Universal’s long-running comedy series). But for reasons we’ll explain, Wills’ most notorious role was probably “Beekeeper,” the alcoholic sidekick to Davy Crockett (John Wayne), in the Wayne-produced-and-directed Western The Alamo (1960).

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The Alamo, based of course on the 1836 Battle of the Alamo, was a pet project of Wayne’s. He wanted so much to get the movie made that he put up $1.5 million of his own money for the budget, and he starred in the movie when he would have preferred a supporting role or no role at all (other backers refused to help fund the movie without Wayne’s star power as insurance). Despite Wayne’s fondness for the subject matter, historians and critics complained loudly about the movie’s lack of factual accuracy.

And as it turned out, Wayne’s love of a good Western story was nothing compared to Chill Wills’ passion for a golden statuette.

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Despite the movie’s mixed notices, Wills’ performance got him rave reviews and an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor. At age 58, Wills was not about to let his only shot at an Academy Award slip through his leathery fingers.

Wills enlisted the aid of veteran press agent W.S. “Bow-Wow” Wojciechowicz to mount an Oscar bid for him. While Wills took the heat for this self-serving campaign, Bow-Wow later admitted that Wills knew nothing about it and that it was entirely his doing. And Bow-Wow certainly earned his salary.

The campaign’s first ad read, “We of The Alamo cast are praying harder than the real Texans prayed for their lives at The Alamo — for Chill Wills to win the Oscar. Cousin Chill’s acting was great. [Signed,] Your Alamo cousins.”

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The straw that broke the Academy’s back was the ad with Wills declaring, “Win, lose, or draw, you’re still my cousins and I love you all.” It was Wills’ hard luck that Hollywood’s master of sarcasm, Groucho Marx, was one of the Academy’s Oscar voters. Noting that Sal Mineo was also up for a Supporting Actor Oscar (for the movie Exodus), Groucho posted his own ad that read, “Dear Mr. Chill Wills: I am delighted to be your cousin but I voted for Sal Mineo.”

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The back-and-forth did not end there. John Wayne was quite eager to distance himself and Batjac, his production company, from Wills’ campaign. Wayne ran an ad in Variety which stated: “No one in Batjac or in the Russell Birdwell office [Wayne’s publicist] had been a party to [Wills’] trade paper advertising. I refrain from using stronger language because I am sure his intentions are not as bad as his taste.”

Groucho Marx couldn’t resist taking a crack at Wayne’s sanctimoniousness either, remarking publicly, “For John Wayne to impugn Chill Wills’ taste is tantamount to Jayne Mansfield criticizing Sabrina for too much exposure.”

And that was about the last that The Alamo heard about any Oscars. The Best Supporting Actor award went to neither Wills nor Mineo, but to Peter Ustinov for Spartacus. Despite a total of seven nominations (including Best Picture), the only Oscar garnered by The Alamo was for Best Sound. Wayne himself would win his only Oscar, not for directing his prized project, but for his lead acting role in True Grit nearly a decade later.

Wills’ elaborate Oscar adventure is proof that money and publicity alone are not enough to nab someone an Academy Award. But as we’ve seen in the 55 years since The Alamo, that doesn’t stop plenty of wanna-bes from trying.

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Sources:

Emmanuel Levy Cinema 24/7. “Oscar Scandals: Wills, Chill (The Alamo).” Dec. 31, 2005. http://emanuellevy.com/oscar/oscar-scandals-chill-wills-9/

Los Angeles Times. “‘The Alamo’ Mission.” Jan. 6, 2010. http://articles.latimes.com/2010/jan/06/news/la-en-archives6-2010jan06

The Oscar Buzz. “Failed Oscar Campaigns: ‘The Alamo’ (1960).” http://theoscarbuzz.blogspot.com/2014/12/failed-oscar-campaigns-alamo-1960.html

Wikipedia. “‘The Alamo’ (1960 film).” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Alamo_(1960_film)

Wikipedia. “Chill Wills.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chill_Wills