3 Classic Comedies on TCM in the Wee Hours

Unless you’re an old hooty owl you’ll want to set your DVR…TCM is running some movies that are of interest to classic comedy fans tonight (actually tomorrow) starting at midnight (EST)!

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Midnight: Limelight (1952)

Charlie Chaplin’s Limelight is not so much a comedy as a drama about a comedian—a down on his luck, aging clown with an alcohol problem, someone who used to be great but now can’t even get work. He pulls himself together to become the mentor and salvation of a suicidal ballet dancer played by Claire Bloom. Along the way there are bits of pantomime as Chaplin’s music hall performer (named Calvero, and quite distinct from the Tramp) takes the stage.  And there is the tour de force comedy scene between him and Buster Keaton, the only time the pair appeared together on film. By all rights, this should have been Chaplin’s last film, as was originally planned. His artistic reputation would have been intact, the story caps his myth, and it is the only picture in which he dies (spoiler). Talk about Oscar bait! But as great as Limelight is (and the script and performances are terrific, too) the film never had a chance. As Chaplin sailed to England for the promotional tour, he received a wire saying that his re-entry permit to return to the U.S. had been revoked for political reasons. Rather than suffer the indignity of reapplying, he spent the remainder of his life in American exile in Switzerland.

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2:30 a.m. A Day at the Races (1937)

As a Paramount Marx Brothers purist I’ve always hated this movie, though it gradually grows on me because certain scenes sparkle. But you sure have to wait around forever for them!  Was the team depressed because their benefactor Irving Thalberg died? The frequency of the jokes is about ten percent of what it used to be, and the pace much slower. (And is the slow pace because they are holding for laughs a la their stage experience?) The emphasis on plot strangles the comedians’ unique contributions. Chico suffers the worst in this picture I think. Interminable opening scenes with him just being a shmo…his usual vaudeville malaprop routines are gone. I DETEST the much-loved “tutsi frutsi ice cream” scene – it is out of character for Groucho, and it also moves way too slow.

One is saddened when one hears what the film might have been. I think Kalmar and Ruby were initially involved and it was about an insane asylum (not a sanitarium)….it promised to be a crazy, surreal comedy of the sort they’d done at Paramount. But the studio felt compelled to graft the highly conventional horse race plot to it. Yet Groucho had said this was his favorite of all their movies. I’m sure he just felt glad he had made a slick, conventional movie that looked like everybody else’s and earned him some money.

Anyway, Groucho gets to shine in several scenes – -I love the bit with the telephone call (where he pretends to be a Kentucky colonel vouching for his own character). I love the rumba bit on the dance floor. A couple of the operating room sequences are OK, and the love making scene with the wall paper (thank yaw!). But you have to wait and wait for the tedious plot to go by. Musical numbers are undistinguished…most memorable is “All God’s Chillun” number with “darkies” who appear out of nowhere—spectacular dancing. (But the Marx Bros. don blackface to make their escape. Not too cool!)

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4:30 a.m. A Night in Casablanca (1946)

The Marx Bros. come-back  movie following a five year retirement prompted by a succession of turkeys made by MGM. A very interesting film, and I think their best since A Night at the Opera. The most interesting aspect is that they are “doing” themselves…as Shakespeare did in The Tempest, as the Beatles do on Abbey Road…they revisit elements of past films at a later stage. The title echoes A Night at the Opera and A Day at the Races. Groucho as a hotel manager echoes The Coconuts. The international intrigue echoes Duck Soup. Sig Rugman is back from several of their earlier MGM comedies. Though sadly the overall product (especially the tedious climax) echoes their more recent films Go West and The Big Store. Ironically, the film is more successful than any of their MGM films at seeming to have a real plot. Though it purports to parody Casablanca, compared with their Paramount romps this is slim parody indeed; it plays more like an actual spy movie. Groucho comes off best—he has more funny lines than any of their films since A Night at the Opera, and he seems to go at it with more energy. Chico perhaps comes off the worst…we are far away from vaudeville now…the reason for having his character in the story is flimsier than ever, particularly one whose Italian accent is way out of practice. Harpo looks ancient, though he has some good bits.

To find out more about the variety arts past and presentconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famousavailable at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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And don’t miss my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc

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