Buster’s silent swan song

Lea of Silentology is hosting her fifth annual Buster Keaton Blogathon, a celebration of all things Buster (features, shorts, comedic art, news stories, the whole kitten caboodle). Click on the button above for links to this year’s entries.

My subject this year is Spite Marriage, Buster’s last silent and second MGM film, released 6 April 1929. Though Buster wanted this to be his first talkie, relying less on dialogue than sound effects, MGM only let him use a synchronized musical score and sound effects. (Buster hated the sound effects he ended up with.) Apart from that bit of studio interference, this was the final film Buster had any creative control over.

Elmer Gantry (Buster) is a dry cleaner hopelessly smitten with stage actor Trilby Drew (Dorothy Sebastian). Her pictures are plastered all over his wall at work, and Elmer has a front row seat at all her shows.

Unluckily for Elmer, Trilby’s dating her co-star Lionel Benmore (Edward Earle), who in turn is cheating on her with Ethyl Norcrosse (Leila Hyams).

Elmer’s luck starts turning around when an undercover cop shows up looking for one of the actors. Since he’s seen the show (David Belasco’s Heart of Maryland) 35 times, he assures the actor he can take his place onstage. The guilty party then escapes through the window.

While Elmer puts on a false beard, Trilby confronts Lionel about his cheating ways, and brags she’s got a millionaire (Elmer) sending her flowers.

Naturally, nothing goes right from the moment Elmer begins getting into costume. Trilby’s manager Nussbaum is more and more horrorstruck at Elmer’s hilariously incompetent antics, and demands someone shoot him. The audience will think it’s part of the show.

The audience is in hysterics over Elmer’s performance. This serious Civil War drama has been transformed into a comedy.

Elmer falls into the orchestra pit as he flees from Nussbaum, then finds his way to another escape route with a window. He changes clothes and pulls off his beard just in time to fool Nussbaum and his associates.

Trilby is heartbroken when Ethyl tells her she and Lionel are announcing their engagement that night. When she runs across Elmer, she proposes to him, and declares they’ll marry that night.

After their unhappy, unconsummated wedding night, Elmer and Trilby go to speakeasy La Bohème, where Lionel and Ethyl have also gone. Trilby spends most of the night longingly looking at Lionel and drinking.

Full of alcohol, Trilby goes to confront Lionel and Ethyl, and has to be hauled back to her table. Elmer has to help her back into her shoes and wrap, and walk her out of the club, up the stairs, and back to their room.

The putting the drunken bride to bed scene is one of the film’s most famous. Buster reused this scene in a number of his later films and live shows, some of them with his third and final wife Eleanor.

In the morning, Nussbaum advises Trilby to leave this poor pants-presser for the sake of her public reputation. She agrees, and Elmer learns the news when he goes to deliver her a stuffed dog. Outside the hotel, Lionel tells him the real reason Trilby married him.

Elmer ends up in a taxi with gangster Scarzi, who’s on the run from the cops, and then on a boat with Scarzi and his gang. He escapes onto a private yacht, where he’s put to work as a member of the crew. As expected, he’s hilariously incompetent at this.

Who should also be on the yacht but Trilby and Lionel! Things go from bad to worse when Elmer accidentally worsens a fire in the engine room.

Everyone flees while Elmer puts out the fire. Everyone, that is, except Trilby, who passed out in the hall after Lionel abandoned her.

Things get even more complicated when the gangsters get on the yacht.

MGM’s hit film Show People, released November 1928, is referenced in a poster for fictional film Peggy Pepper Fires of Desire. Peggy Pepper is the name of Marion Davies’s character.

Buster loved the name Elmer, frequently giving it to both his characters and his dogs. In this film, Elmer Gantry comes from Sinclair Lewis’s 1927 novel of the same name, about a conman.

The film was originally 90 minutes, and the opening scene of Elmer and Trilby on a bridle path is all that survives of a much longer scene of Elmer trying and failing to ride a horse.

The names Lionel, Ethyl, and Drew come from the famous siblings Lionel and Ethel Barrymore, and their mother Georgiana Drew.

Dorothy Sebastian (whom the unhappily married Buster was having an affair with) is much different than Buster’s previous leading ladies. Instead of serving as a passive prop, she takes an active, full role in the story and helps him with saving the day.

Though Spite Marriage isn’t always considered one of Buster’s best silents, I’ve always loved it, and highly recommend it.

Advertisements

Duck Soup at 85, Part III (Legacy)

While the Marx Brothers’ MGM films were more financially successful and popular than their Paramount films during their respective original runs, today the situation has reversed. By and large, fans tend to strongly prefer the five Paramount films, and don’t think that highly of any but their first two MGM films.

In the 1960s, as interest in 1930s films grew, Duck Soup finally recovered from its initial lacklustre reception and gained classic status.

Some film critics feel it’s not only on par with other comedic, satirical send-ups of politics and wars, like The Great Dictator and Dr. Strangelove, but even more effective and unnerving because it wasn’t consciously trying to be anything but irreverent comedy.

In 1990, Duck Soup was chosen by the Library of Congress for preservation in the U.S. National Film Registry, owing to being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.” On those incessant best-of lists and surveys, it’s routinely included as one of the greatest comedies and films of all time.

The film has been cited as strong inspiration for many comedians over the years, as well as some political satires and animated cartoons. The Beatles also named it as inspiration for their madcap film Help!, and other of their comedic stylings.

In 2004, the five Paramount films were released in a boxed set, along with 15 minutes of interviews and a rather shallow 40-page booklet. Many fans were deeply disappointed with the shoddy condition of the prints and audio, and the lack of bonus features.

In contrast, the MGM films (and the one-off RKO film), which show a gradual, painful decline in quality, got the deluxe DVD treatment.

Thankfully, in 2016, this disgraceful situation was finally rectified, and now we can enjoy these films properly, with pristine prints, audio commentaries, and bonus features.

I first saw Duck Soup on New Year’s Eve 1999. In 1997, I’d seen my first two Marx Brothers’ films, which I wouldn’t wish on any new fan. Of all the great films to start out with, Love Happy (1949) ain’t it! That horrible, unrepresentative first impression was followed up by another poor choice for a new fan, Room Service (1938).

I decided to give them one more chance when my father rented Duck Soup from Blockbuster. Lo and behold, it was much better than the first two films I’d seen, and significantly changed my impression. I finally understood what all the fuss was about.

The third time was the charm. While it took me awhile to fully grow in love with the Marx Brothers (vs. immediately falling in love, as I did with Laurel and Hardy and the Three Stooges), it ultimately created a very strong bond.

I wasn’t ready to be a true Marx Brothers fan till my mid-twenties, through no fault of theirs, or mine. I just most strongly prefer slapstick and physical comedy. Some things, like fine wine or a piano, are best when aged.

There are also books, films, and albums one always enjoys, but doesn’t have the maturity to fully appreciate and understand until going through more of life. That’s what the Marx Brothers have been to me.

Duck Soup at 85, Part II (Behind the scenes)

Though urban legend has it Duck Soup was a box office bomb and caused Paramount to drop the Marx Brothers, it was the sixth-highest-grossing film of 1933. It earned mixed reviews, despite not earning nearly as much money as Paramount hoped for.

The Marxes left Paramount because of contract disputes; deteriorated relationships between them; and a threatened walk-out. Duck Soup also fulfilled the five-film contract they’d signed, so they were free to go elsewhere.

Audiences didn’t warm to it so well because they were in the throes of the Great Depression. They sought lightweight, escapist entertainment, not cynical political satires. The subject matter wasn’t something they felt should be made into a joke.

As MGM wonder boy Irving G. Thalberg explained when they switched studios, there wasn’t enough of a solid story. Audiences needed someone to root for, not a nonstop, disconnected parade of freewheeling comedy, gags, and anarchy.

The MGM films have more tightly-plotted scripts, but they also added something else Thalberg insisted on—a romantic subplot, with the brothers helping the couple to get their happy ever after. Had Zeppo stayed, he would’ve gotten so much more screentime as the romantic lead and straightman!

Most of the characters’ names were altered from the original script. Groucho’s surname was Firestone; Harpo was Brownie; Ambassador Trentino of Sylvania was Ambassador Frankenstein of Amnesia; and Vera Marcal was June Parker. The lattermost started as Mrs. Teasdale’s niece, then became Trentino’s niece, before finally just becoming Trentino’s partner in crime.

Zeppo was also originally Groucho’s son.

Prior to filming, Paramount was near bankruptcy, and on the eve of reorganization. They thought they could use the Marx Brothers as cash cows (like Universal later used Abbott and Costello), based on the huge success of 1932’s Horse Feathers. Unfortunately, the brothers feared they’d never get paid what they were already owed, and threatened to start their own company.

They planned their first indie film as an adaptation of Of Thee I Sing, a Pulitzer Prize-winning Broadway musical. There was talk of Groucho and Chico starring as the characters they played on their radio show, Flywheel, Shyster, and Flywheel.

In 1941, they finally played these characters, Flywheel and Ravelli, in the dreadful The Big Store. Many of the gags and routines in the final script came from the radio show.

This indie film never came to fruition, and the team of Bert Kalmar, Harry Ruby, and Arthur Sheekman, whom they’d worked with before, began writing a script with the working title Firecrackers. Two months later, it was changed to Cracked Ice. Several more months later, it became Grasshoppers.

The ultimate title was the same one director Leo McCarey had used for a 1927 Laurel and Hardy short. In U.S. slang of the time, duck soup referred to an easy job.

The title also continued their animal theme, after Animal Crackers, Monkey Business, and Horse Feathers.

Mussolini banned the film, taking it as a personal insult, while the city of Fredonia, NY, wanted the fictional nation’s name changed. They thought it’d hurt their reputation. The brothers fired back, telling them to change their name to avoid hurting the movie.

Duck Soup at 85, Part I (General overview)

Released 17 November 1933, Duck Soup was the final Paramount Marx Brothers’ film, and their final film with the gorgeous, underappreciated Zeppo. All their MGM films featured a pseudo-Zeppo (the best being Allan Jones), and as Fate would have it, the pseudo-Zeppos got way more screentime than the real Zeppo ever did!

Though the film wasn’t such a wild success when it was released, it wasn’t a box office bomb, as urban legend claims. It was the sixth-highest grossing film of 1933. Regardless, it wasn’t received very well by critics, and didn’t make enough money for Paramount. Duck Soup only became a classic in the Sixties.

Mrs. Gloria Teasdale (Margaret Dumont) is sick and tired of loaning her riches to the beleaguered, bankrupt nation of Freedonia, but after the authorities wheedle enough, she relents one last time. There’s only one condition—Rufus T. Firefly must become Freedonia’s new leader.

An ambassador from neighbouring nation Sylvania, Trentino (Louis Calhern), immediately begins making plans to overthrow Rufus, with help from Vera Marcal (Raquel Torres).

Firefly then lays out his wacky rules for governing, in “Just Wait ‘Til I Get Through with It.” This is the film’s second song, after “When the Clock on  the Wall Strikes Ten.”

Trentino has enlisted two spies, Chicolini and Pinky (Chico and Harpo), to dig up dirt on Firefly. It’s obvious from the jump they’re incompetent dopes, which drives Trentino up the wall with frustration and exasperation.

We now see Firefly by a meeting of the Chamber of Deputies, who are also overcome with exasperation and frustration. Rufus isn’t exactly the kind of leader anyone wants!

The next scene is one of the film’s most famous, featuring slow burn comedic character actor Edgar Kennedy as a lemonade stand vendor. He has the misfortune to be next to Chicolini’s peanut stand, and nothing goes right after he crosses paths with Pinky and Chicolini.

Rufus offers Chicolini the position of Secretary of War, in spite of his utter incompetence and chutzpah. Pinky also comes into Firefly’s office, and shows off a bunch of tattoos.

Firefly’s secretary, Bob Roland (Zeppo), has developed suspicions about Trentino’s intentions, and suggests a plan to get rid of him. Firefly will insult Trentino, and goad him into a slap. However, the plan backfires, and Firefly ends up slapping Trentino instead.

More mayhem follows between Pinky and the lemonade stand owner.

Mrs. Teasdale invites Firefly over, which delights him. He uses the opportunity to put the moves on Mrs. Teasdale. This seduction is interrupted by Trentino. Mrs. Teasdale begs them to put aside their differences, which doesn’t exactly go according to plan. Firefly is insulted and enraged anew, and turns Trentino into even more of an enemy.

Trentino begs Vera to find war plans in Mrs. Teasdale’s safe. This scheme is complicated by the presence of Firefly, who’s spending the night. Things get even more complicated when Vera sneaks Chicolini and Pinky inside.

Pinky and Chicolini impersonate Firefly to try to fool Mrs. Teasdale and get the plans. This night of double-crossing includes the famous mirror scene, which was first used in the Harold Lloyd short The Marathon (1919), and again in the Max Linder feature Seven Years Bad Luck (1921).

It demonstrates how sound can be used selectively without a film losing anything. So many early talkies were just that, talky, with barely any breathing room. Not everything needs constant dialogue to be understood or deeply felt!

Chicolini is put on trial for treason, and naturally acts like a total nitwit on the witness stand. During the proceedings, Mrs. Teasdale comes to beg Firefly one final time not to go to war. Firefly initially cheerfully agrees to meet Trentino and make peace, but soon is overcome with rage about what might happen. Trentino gets another slap, and war is officially declared.

The film’s final song, “This Country’s Going to War,” is performed. Needless to say, the trial is over.

The remainder of the film is more trademark Marxian anarchy, freewheeling comic mayhem, and chaos. These aren’t films one watches for carefully-plotted storylines!

Harold’s silent swan song

My favouritest of Harold Lloyd’s silent features, Speedy, was released 7 April 1928. It was Harold’s final silent, and is such a beautiful, poignant farewell to this era of his career. Harold alternated gag comedies with character comedies, and this is a gag comedy.

New York City is a city of speed, progress, fast-paced lives, but not so for Pop Dillon (Bert Woodruff), who drives the city’s last horse-drawn streetcar. He lives with his granddaughter Jane (Ann Christy), who’s going steady with Harold “Speedy” Swift.

Railroad officials have been pestering Pop to sell them his streetcar, but he refuses to take their offer. Either he sells on his terms, for his price, or not at all.

We now learn Speedy has a new job, the latest in a long line of short-lived jobs. Each time, he insists this job will be successful. His jobs all have one thing in common—being within phoning distance of Yankee Stadium.

Speedy’s latest job is as a soda jerk, and he constantly phones for the latest score. Speedy has a very clever way of communicating this to his co-workers, who love the Yankees just as much as he does. Harold always had such ingenious gags, perhaps partly a result of having to learn how to navigate life with only eight fingers. He had to figure out ways to do things other people might never consider.

Speedy knows he’s out of this job too when there’s a mishap with flowers he’s supposed to deliver to the boss’s wife. Pop and Jane are rather upset, but he assures them he’ll quickly find a replacement job, just as he always does. Speedy also promises Jane they’ll go to Coney Island.

The vice-president of the railroad company comes to ask for Pop’s rock-bottom price. While he’s writing the figure, Speedy sees a newspaper story announcing a planned merger of streetcars, which can’t succeed unless small franchises are bought up. Speedy conveniently arranges for the card with Pop’s price to fall on the floor, and Speedy changes it from $10,000 to $70,000.

Harold writes with his left hand in this scene. Though he was able to write with his three-fingered right hand, it makes me happiest to see Harold doing things left-handed. That must’ve been a huge shot of pride for the lefties in the audience, in an era when a great majority of them were bullied and shamed out of their natural inclination.

Speedy and Jane then go to Coney Island. I absolutely love the footage of real Coney Island rides, all of which now exist only in memory. These people were so lucky to be able to go there and experience all these wonderful attractions, food stands, games, prizes, kiosks, and rides, and to have such cheap subway fare.

Before a curved mirror, Speedy gives himself the finger, possibly the first known instance of this on film.

After a day full of fun, and many misunderstandings with other amusement park-goers, Speedy and Jane head home with almost too much to carry, and a dog who wouldn’t leave them alone. They ride home in the back of a furniture truck, and play at it being their own home.

Speedy proposes, and Jane says she won’t think of it until Pop’s affairs are settled. Speedy promises to get a job in the morning, and to help Pop.

That next job is as a cabbie, which of course quickly descends into disaster and comedic misunderstandings. One of the gags involves a suitcase leaking a trail of liquid in front of a cop, which 1928 audiences understood meant he was violating Prohibition.

In this era, it was only 15 cents for the first quarter-mile, and five cents per each additional quarter-mile.

Speedy eventually gets the passenger of a lifetime—Babe Ruth. During the drive to Yankee Stadium, Speedy barely watches the road, so overcome with star fever. Babe barely arrives in one piece, but nevertheless invites Speedy to watch the game.

Who should be right in front of Speedy at the game but his boss! Also at the game is the cop who wrote him two tickets.

While hiding in a phonebooth, Speedy overhears the railroad bosses hatching a plan to drive Pop out of business. If the car doesn’t run at least once every 24 hours, he’ll have to give it up. Towards this end, they plan to start a fight to distract him, and steal the car during it.

At home, Speedy notices Pop is sick, and asks if he can drive the car for the next few days. Pop agrees.

Now it’s up to Speedy to figure out a way to save the day.