ADATR at 80, Part II (Behind the scenes)

Following in the footsteps of 1935’s brilliantly successful ANATO, ADATR also was previewed and perfected via a vaudeville tour. This gave the Marx Brothers the chance to see what audiences liked and didn’t like, what needed to be reworked, how to time gags and quips, and what needed ditched.

As a result, the screenplay went through many rounds of edits and outlines before attaining the final draft we know and love.

“All God’s Chillun Got Rhythm,” performed by Ivie Anderson and The Crinoline Choir, was nominated for Best Dance Direction at the 1937 Oscars. This was the only Marx Brothers’ movie to ever get an Oscar nomination.

Ivie Anderson was a very popular jazz singer who was performing with Duke Ellington’s orchestral band at the time. The dancers were Herbert “Whitey” White’s Lindy Hoppers of Harlem’s Savoy Ballroom, including an uncredited Dorothy Dandridge.

The song was most likely inspired by traditional African–American spiritual “All God’s Chillun Got Wings,” which in turn inspired a 1924 Eugene O’Neill play of the same name. Its première starred Paul Robeson (one of my heroes), who sang the title song.

Allan Jones originally sang “A Message from the Man in the Moon” during his introductory scene. Another song, “Dr. Hackenbush,” was sung by Groucho upon his arrival at the sanitarium. They were cut out of consideration for the already sprawling length.

The former song is heard during opening credits and again by the dancing at the dull water carnival. It’s also sung by Groucho in the final scene. The DVD includes an audio extra of Allan Jones singing it. I think just about everyone would gladly trade that boring water ballet for either of those songs!

Originally, “On Blue Venetian Waters” was shot in light brown sepia, and the even more boring water ballet was tinted blue.

It’s interesting to note that at MGM, Groucho’s outlandish characters weren’t accepted without questions. Everyone knows or suspects he’s a fraud, even Chico’s own shyster characters. However, in spite of this, audience sympathy is always established. 

Dr. Hackenbush was Groucho’s favoritest character he ever played. In his later years, he often signed his letters and referred to himself by that name, and sang the deleted novelty song.

His character’s name was originally Quackenbush, but was changed due to fear of lawsuits from several real-life Dr. Quackenbushes.

Producer Irving Thalberg (who never allowed himself to be credited onscreen) passed away of pneumonia 14 September 1936, aged only 37. He’d always been sickly, due to a congenital heart disease. Filming immediately ceased. When it resumed on 21 December, production shifted to his brother-in-law Lawrence Weingarten, who was also uncredited.

While Thalberg was adamant about balancing the comedy with a romantic subplot and musical performances, there would’ve been a much better balance had he not died during production.

After this, the musical interludes began hogging more and more screentime. Allan Jones also wasn’t particularly happy with the songs he was given in ADATR. With the notable exception of “Tomorrow Is Another Day,” they weren’t as strong as the ones from ANATO, nor were any of them huge hits like “Alone.”

Besides the canned musical numbers, one of the deleted scenes featured Chico and Harpo infiltrating the dancing by the water carnival, pretending to be waiters in formal suits, and wreaking comedic mayhem. Another featured Harpo trying to calm a little girl by giving her ice-cream, and then swallowing a balloon she bopped him over the head with.

Several references to things we never see suggest other potential deleted scenes, such as Tony already knowing Whitmore and Morgan are in cahoots, and Dr. Hackenbush saying he thought he told Tony and Stuffy “to stay down there with those pigeons.”

Had Thelma Todd not tragically passed away in 1935, it’s quite possible she and not Esther Muir would’ve played blonde floozy Flo, who tries to frame Dr. Hackenbush.

A lithograph of this has been hanging on my wall for years!

Just about all reviews were very good, something which would never happen again. After Thalberg passed away, the Marx Brothers were left to twist in the wind, and became more and more like guest stars in their own movies. I don’t think the later films are nearly as awful as their reputation, but they’re not 5-star efforts either.

The classic 1976 Queen album A Day at the Races takes its name from the film, just as their 1975 A Night at the Opera takes it name from that movie.

ADATR at 80, Part I (General overview)

Released 11 June 1937, A Day at the Races has long been my favoritest Marx Brothers’ film, and one of my favoritest films overall. Sadly, producer Irving Thalberg, their biggest advocate, unexpectedly passed away during production, and they never made a film this perfect again.

No matter how many times I’ve seen this film, the ending always puts a smile on my face. While the musical numbers and romantic subplot were beginning to take up too much screentime, they still fit with the story and work with it instead of against it.

Just as in ANATO, their pseudo-Zeppo was the handsome, talented Allan Jones, who has great chemistry with the brothers. We like him and his girlfriend, instead of groaning every time they appear onscreen and fast-forwarding through their scenes. They belong there.

Judy Standish (Maureen O’Sullivan, whom Groucho had a big crush on) runs a sanitarium which is going bankrupt. Employee Tony (Chico) suggests wealthy patient Emily Upjohn (Margaret Dumont) might give them a big splash of money, but Mrs. Upjohn announces she’s leaving. None of the doctors can find anything wrong with her, though Dr. Hugo Z. Hackenbush (Groucho) has convinced her she’s quite unhealthy.

Dr. Hackenbush, whom Mrs. Upjohn doesn’t know is really a horse doctor, is invited as chief of staff in the hopes of saving the sanitarium. However, business manager Whitmore and hotel and racetrack owner Morgan suspect he’s a fraud.

There’s also trouble between Judy and her beau Gil Stewart (Allan Jones). Gil, who sings at Morgan’s hotel, just dropped his last $1,500 on a horse named Hi-Hat. He hoped to enter Hi-Hat in a race and bet on him to save the sanitarium, but now he doesn’t have any money for Hi-Hat’s feed.

Morgan fires jockey Stuffy (Harpo) for refusing to lose a race, and Tony suggests him as Hi-Hat’s jockey and caretaker. When the sheriff arrives to collect Hi-Hat’s bill, Tony and Stuffy pretend $5 is $15. Tony then scams Dr. Hackenbush, in the famous tutsi-fruitsy ice-cream scene. All Dr. Hackenbush wants to do is get a tip for a horse, but ends up buying a bunch of useless books to decipher the tip ZVBXRPL.

Dr. Hackenbush fends off Whitmore’s suspicions by faking a call from the Florida Medical Board and staging numerous interruptions. Afterwards, Tony brings in Stuffy for a medical exam, and discovers Dr. Hackenbush is really a horse doctor. At first, Tony wants to blow his cover, but he quickly realizes Dr. Hackenbush could save the sanitarium.

Gil and Judy make up after Gil’s performance at the hotel, which includes a rather boring water ballet, and musical performances by Chico and Harpo. During the dancing, Dr. Hackenbush keeps ditching Mrs. Upjohn for blonde floozy Flo.

Stuffy hides in the bushes and overhears Flo and Whitmore conspiring to trap Dr. Hackenbush in a compromising situation. Stuffy pantomimes this to Tony, a scene later revisited in A Night in Casablanca (1946) and Love Happy (1949).

Stuffy and Tony stage several interruptions, and foil the attempted framing. However, the trouble isn’t over yet, as Whitmore next brings in prominent Viennese Dr. Steinberg (Sig Rumann).

Dr. Steinberg and Whitmore want to see how Dr. Hackenbush conducts an examination, and Mrs. Upjohn is quite glad to volunteer. Dr. Hackenbush, determined not to be exposed as a fraud, prolongs the examination as long as possible. This scene contains one of the instances where Harpo may have snuck his voice in.

To prevent being arrested, Dr. Hackenbush, Gil, Tony, and Stuffy hide out in Hi-Hat’s stable. After Judy arrives with some blankets, there are several more musical numbers. Morgan and the sheriff interrupt the singing and dancing, and aren’t fooled by our heroes’ attempt to hide in the shantytown crowd with blackface.

Hi-Hat, as always, goes crazy at the sound of Morgan’s voice. This time, he jumps over several obstacles. Gil immediately realizes why Hi-Hat never won a race, and enters him in a steeplechase race.

Morgan remains determined to bring everyone down, and horse-naps Hi-Hat. Our heroes, in return, stage several disturbances to prevent the race from starting until Hi-Hat is rescued. And the trouble doesn’t end when the race begins!

A decadent, devout Passion Play

Released 19 April 1927, The King of Kings is one of Cecil B. DeMille’s great Biblical epics. While he was a devout Christian, he also loved his decadence, and brought the two together in some very interesting ways. How many other directors would impart moral lessons alongside orgies, pet leopards, and parties where everything is made of candy?

The immense cast includes H.B. Warner as Jesus, Dorothy Cumming as Mary, the awesome character actor Ernest Torrence as Peter, Jacqueline Logan as Mary Magdalene, Joseph Schildkraut as Judas, child actor Micky Moore as Mark, Victor Varconi as Pontius Pilate, and an uncredited Ayn Rand.

When it comes to such a well-known story, an original angle is key. It helps the story to stand out from all the other versions. DeMille did this quite well, not only in his trademark decadent touches, but also in how he handled the religious material.

Mary Magdalene is at a very hedonistic party which includes a pet monkey and leopard. When one of her boytoys sits in Judas’s chair, she pushes him out. This guy points out that Judas hasn’t come around for a few days, and Mary Magdalene thinks Judas must be with another woman.

Upon being told he’s hanging out with a band of beggars led by a carpenter, she hops on her zebra-drawn chariot (because why not?) and goes to find him.

We then shift to a large crowd outside of Jesus’s house, as people wait in line to get healed. One of the crowd is a little blind girl, who gives one of the film’s most touching performances. The future Gospel writer Mark runs across her, and takes her to a window. Our first sight of Jesus is through her eyes.

Shortly after this healing, Mary Magdalene arrives to confront Judas, whose ulterior motive in befriending Jesus is the possibility of being promoted to a high official. Before she can have it out with Judas, however, Jesus casts the Seven Deadly Sins out of her in a multiple-exposure sequence.

It’s fair to assume just about everyone is familiar with the Biblical account of Jesus’s ministry and life, so the rest of this review will focus on my own thoughts, and the things which make this film unique.

Some people feel H.B. Warner, in his early fifties, was far too old to play a convincing Jesus, though others feel his fatherly appearance is perfect for the role. It all depends on your perspective. As a student of world religions, I love how every culture depicts holy figures in their own image, in a way they can relate to. It’s the same person and message, only a little bit different than the one we’re used to seeing.

I absolutely love Ernest Torrence as Peter! He usually played heavies (villains), so this is quite a delightful departure from his usual forte. His Peter is such a sweet, big lug, just perfect for the role.

Torrence is on the far right in the group embrace

I also love the scenes of Jesus with children. Besides the blind girl, another sweet, lovely scene is with a child who tells Jesus Mark says he can heal broken legs, then presents a doll whose leg has fallen off. Jesus obligingly mends the doll.

That is such a believable child thing to do, or for anyone who has a soft spot for stuffed animals and dolls. Many adults send their precious old friends to doll and teddybear hospitals.

Almost all of the intertitles are from the Bible, with the book, chapter, and verse noted. They’re also rendered in Elizabethan English, which can be kind of distracting to the modern audience. These people spoke Aramaic, not any form of English! I tend to translate Elizabethan English in my head.

Nitpicker I am, I cringed to notice a typo in one intertitle, “sieze” instead of “seize.”

The above still comes from a scene where a woman is accused of adultery and Jesus famously challenges the crowd, “Let he who is among you without sin cast the first stone.” He proceeds to write various sins (in Hebrew) in sand that spilled out of a broken jug.

The mob scatters as their sins are revealed, until the last guy thanks God he’s not like other men. Then his sin is revealed as adultery, and he too leaves.

In a scene in the 155-minute grand première version (versus the 112-minute general release), Jesus steps into the carpentry shop of a couple whose son he just cast the Devil out of. Some of his disciples, including Peter, are fishing during this time. The piece of wood Jesus is working on is covered on top by a cloth, and it’s later revealed to be a cross.

Joseph Schildkraut is excellent as Judas. His body language conveys how conflicted and torn-up he is about his betrayal.

A dove flies onto the empty Last Supper table, which was apparently unplanned.

The Resurrection scene is in two-strip Technicolor, though not that vibrant.

Both versions are good, though the longer original adds so much extra depth. It makes it seem like the general release is missing lots of chapters! I highly recommend this film, to people of all faiths.

An ahistorical slap in the face

Many people feel it’s sacrilegious to criticise any book or film about the Shoah, as though it’s an untouchable sacred cow. But as I’ve explained before, accuracy, quality research, and vetting sources in this subgenre of historical fiction are extremely crucial to prevent adding fuel to deniers’ fire.

While I can concede Roberto Benigni’s heart seems to have been in the right place when he made the highly inaccurate Life Is Beautiful, I can’t say the same thing about John Boyne’s dreadful The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas. That’s not a book or film I’d recommend to anyone who cares about historical accuracy.

I’m not some pedant who insists every single minute detail be a million percent accurate. Most people who live in the real world expect even the best-researched story to have some elements which weren’t necessarily so common or accurate. It can create greater dramatic intensity, or a protagonist who’s a bit more relatable.

However, a good story gives us a reason to go along with them, as well as making clear this wasn’t typical. E.g., a woman in 1800 who wants to become a doctor, or an entire family surviving the Shoah. The writer may also include an explanatory note.

Why this story fails most spectacularly:

1. How in the hell does a kid who was born in 1934, the son of a high-ranking Nazi no less, not know who Hitler is?! Sure, I don’t expect any 9-year-old, no matter how advanced, to understand political complexities or have mature political opinions, but it’s not possible he wouldn’t know the name and face of his country’s dictator!

Though I was born during the Carter Administration, the first president I remember is Reagan. I certainly knew his name and face very well as a child, though I don’t think I knew anything about his politics. I still remember how shocked I was to find out just how old he really was, and that he dyed his hair!

2. You can’t claim a story is “just a fable” and not meant to be taken seriously when it involves one of the most well-documented historical events of the 20th century! It’s really offensive and tasteless, like a certain 1997 movie using one of history’s worst maritime disasters as a minor backdrop for a beyond-implausible MTV-era “love story.”

3. Very, very, VERY few children were allowed to live at Auschwitz. They were overwhelmingly “Dr.” Mengele’s test subjects and in the Czech and Gypsy Family Camps. Once in a very rare while, a child was picked for something like a messenger boy or girl, admitted to the camp due to a rare gas malfunction, or arrived after gassing operations stopped. Shmuel fits in none of those categories.

4. Just like the clownish Guido in Life Is Beautiful, Bruno too is allowed to wander around the camp at ease. More than that, he’s able to regularly meet Shmuel by the same unguarded spot at the fence, with a freaking hole underneath it.

5. The fences were electrified, so powerful they vibrated and made noises. You couldn’t touch or crawl under one and live!

6. Is Bruno supposed to be mentally slow? Even after he’s been corrected numerous times and seen Auschwitz written out, he keeps calling it “Out-With.”

7. Speaking of, the “puns” don’t work in German. Bruno also calls Hitler “the Fury,” as a play on Führer, but Furie is only one of a number of German translations. The others are Zorn, Wut, Rage, Raserel, and Grimm. As for “Out-With” (gag), that would be Aus Mit.

8. Kids of 9 and 12 written like overgrown babies! If you’re going to write from a child’s POV, be familiar with how real kids talk and act!

9. How has Bruno never heard of Jews until 1942? Any child born in 1934 would’ve been drenched in state-sponsored anti-Semitism and racial theories. Maybe he didn’t meet any (which is still pretty far-fetched), but he certainly would’ve heard about them!

10. “Heil Hitler” is a fancy way of saying hello?! Are we supposed to believe this kid is either mentally slow or were locked in a closet until 1942?

11. Garbage like this only serves to bolster Shoah deniers’ claims! They point to BS like this and Irene Zisblatt’s The Fifth Diamond to claim it wasn’t that bad, or that if one person made something up, everyone’s a liar.

12. A beyond-implausible, ridiculous ending that would NEVER have happened in real life, or even fiction with realistic dramatic license!

13. Bruno doesn’t know the word “Fatherland”? What, again? Really?!

14. If Bruno were as mentally slow as he’s depicted, he would’ve been murdered years before, under Nazi eugenics policies.

15. He also doesn’t know what an air-raid is?! In the middle of a war with plenty of them?

16. It’s emotionally manipulative pathos for those without much grounding in Shoah history.

17. He doesn’t know what an Aryan is either?!

18. How is Bruno’s older sister Gretel not in the League of German Girls? The daughter of a high-ranking Nazi certainly would’ve been.

19. Why aren’t Germans using the metric system?

20. Bruno lives in the camp for a year and still doesn’t understand what’s really going on?

This story is absolute garbage. Writers of historical fiction set during the Shoah have a huge moral obligation to represent it accurately, not as a warm, fuzzy fairytale. Mr. Boyne’s lack of proper research and complete disconnect from the Shoah shows in spades. It’s best-seller bait for the masses, not deep, intelligent, honest writing for the ages.

Metropolis at 90, Part V (What it means to me)

I can’t remember exactly when I first saw Metropolis (at least that I was consciously aware of), but I’m pretty sure it was 1991 or 1992. My local PBS station frequently played it in those years, and I watched it on the small black and white TV my family had in the kitchen. Yes, I grew up before all TVs were in color! Our bigger TV in the living room was color, but we also had that smaller set. It also didn’t get all the channels the other TV did.

My entire life, I’d watched old films with my paternal grandma, or took my pick of the old films and historical dramas she had on VHS. I already loved history, so I never thought to dismiss these films as old and musty, unhip, boring. Even today, most of the contemporary films I watch are historical dramas, foreign, or indie.

So many years later, I honestly couldn’t tell you exactly when I learnt films used to be silent. I don’t recall ever watching any silents with my grandma, since she was born in 1927 and grew up with sound films. I don’t mean to stereotype, but let’s be honest, she wasn’t from a generation that tended to like and appreciate silent cinema. It was out with the old, in with the new. The reawakening of interest only really started in the 1950s.

So when I discovered Metropolis as a preteen, I was fascinated. Even with a much-truncated version, years before the near-complete restoration, I thought it was awesome. Unfortunately, I didn’t have a chance to see many silents until 2004, when I finally began actively pursuing my longtime passion.

The initial spark (for anything) is different for every person. While most silent fans recommend comedies as the ideal starting-place, this sci-fi film did it for me. A silent film was so different, new, fascinating. It also helped that I’ve always been different from the crowd, born in the wrong generation on several fronts.

I’ve never been interested in most things from modern pop culture. I love films from my great-grandparents’ and grandparents’ generations; I prefer music from my parents’ generation (along with my childhood decade the Eighties); and I just love history in general. It took years for my parents, esp. my father, to accept this is a genuine passion, not a phase to be mocked.

When I saw this film after my political awakening at age fifteen, in 1995, it took on a whole new personal meaning for me. I realised it was about class struggle and the exploitation of the proletariat by the ruling classes. My political views aren’t something I like to get into here, but this is the kind of post where they’re very pertinent.

I grew up poor and working-class, with deep proletarian roots on both sides of my family. I’ve honestly never aspired to be bourgeois, and would be very happy being respectably working-class for the rest of my life. I just can’t relate to the typical bourgeois lifestyle. I’m 100% NOT some spoilt limousine liberal.

My political views are shaped by my life experiences as a have-not. I’ve never forgotten how awful it was to grow up without a lot of money, denied certain toys my parents wanted to get me but couldn’t afford. My parents didn’t have $10,000 in the bank at one time until I was about fifteen, and we didn’t own our own home till I was a legal adult. At one point, we lived in the ghetto.

While I’m no longer as super-far-Left as I was in my teens and very early Twenties, I’m still much further Left than probably most of my readers (though there are some issues I take a more conservative view on, and my personal beliefs are rather old-fashioned). It’s too complicated to get into here, but I have nothing in common with modern-day neoliberals. I’m a real Leftist, not some regressive neoliberal.

Not only did Metropolis introduce me to silent cinema, but it also took on a whole new meaning, deeper and more personal, after I began coming of age and developing my political views. I doubt a simple comedy could’ve done that!