Archive for the Ritz Brothers Category

Several Sad Swan Songs: Unworthy Final Films by Great Comedians

Posted in Abbott and Costello, Charlie Chaplin, Comedians, Comedy, Comedy Teams, CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, Hollywood (History), Mae West, Marx Brothers, Ritz Brothers, Three Stooges with tags , , , , , , on August 21, 2015 by travsd

Happy Friday! Because people love nothing more than comedy that depresses them, I thought I would do a little post today about the sad exits of several classic comedy stars. By sad, I mean sad, in the literal sense. Most of these comedians are my heroes, who achieved the very highest heights of what it is possible to achieve in the comedy field. Their last films…well, they just kind of bring down their batting average.

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The Heat’s On (1943)

Mae West’s last picture of the original Hollywood studio era (i.e. when she was relatively in her prime) although she would come back in the 1970s to do two more pictures, which we’ll get to. If you are a Mae West fan, The Heat’s On is disappointing; she’s only in about a quarter of the movie. In a normal Mae West movie Mae is the only important person, she is onscreen almost every minute, and she gets all the funny lines. In this one she is horribly upstaged by Victor Moore, William Gaxton and Xavier Cugat and a million musicians and singers in a crummy conventional plot about putting on a show. Ironically, West was the one whose name director/producer Gregory Ratoff relied upon to raise the financing to make the film. It plays with Mae’s image some, but has nothing like the normal ratio of Westian witticisms. A pale reflection of her earliest Paramount work.

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Love Happy (1950)

Love Happy by some measures is the Marx Brothers’ last movie as a team, although Groucho’s turn is essentially a cameo, and Chico’s is somewhat underwritten. It was originally devised as a starring vehicle for Harpo. The other two got involved because Chico, a problem gambler,  needed the money.

The movie also has the reputation for being the “worst” Marx Brothers movie, although I don’t happen to agree. Love Happy is a relatively bad movie; it is weird, and it has problems, but personally I wouldn’t call it their worst picture by a long shot.  For various reasons, I would give that dubious honor to either Room Service, Go West or The Big StorePerhaps it is a three way tie.

The plot of Love Happy (co-written by Frank Tashlin)  is the usual contemptible claptrap about a troupe of actors desperate to put on a Broadway show. It is manifestly impossible to care whether they succeed or not.  Doubly so, in light of the undistinguished musical numbers we are obliged to sit through. On the other hand, the cast of the show is literally starving for food and that IS an interesting plot. Harpo, the inexplicable mute who appears to be part of the company, although I’m not sure in what capacity, goes to the basement of a grocery store to steal food for them and wanders away with several cans of sardines. Little does he know that one of the cans contains…stolen diamonds! Such plot as there is involves several wicked crooks trying to recover the jewels, which Harpo doesn’t even know they have. Which is ironic, because they could finance a Broadway show and several groceries if they could just fence these rocks, get me?

What is Chico’s role in all of this? Chico plays Harpo’s Italian friend.

And Groucho? He is a detective who narrates the story and shows up at the end. By now he was a solo movie star (Copacabana, 1947) and a game show host and had taken to wearing a real mustache and glasses rather than the fake ones that had been his previous trademarks. He is almost literally phoning it in here.

Most memorably, when financing for the film ran out the producers struck product placement deals, giving us the unusual spectacle in the big chase scene at the climax where the Marx Brothers run across rooftops past billboards for Mobil, Bulova, Kool and General Electric. Why, it’s just like watching television!

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Utopia a.k.a Atoll K a.k.a Robinson Crusoeland (released in the U.S. in 1954, but released in Europe three years earlier)

Laurel and Hardy’s last film. The team’s last previous Hollywood film had been in 1945. In the meantime they had been touring with live shows. This being their only film offer, they took it. The film was a French/ Italian co-production. Both Laurel and Hardy suffered a wide variety of health problems as they were filming (see photo above). And the film is almost unwatchably bad. It concerns Laurel inheriting a private island. He and Hardy, and some friends go there in a shabby, broken-down boat. When they arrive, uranium is discovered. That’s the extent of the plot. The script is not funny, and the performances are painful. It’s one of the saddest exits in film history.

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The 30 Foot Bride of Candy Rock (1959)

This is Lou Costello’s last film, released posthumously. He had broken up with Bud Abbott two years earlier. In this spoof of the typical drive-in movie fare of the day, he plays a schlub who is forced to marry a girl who has been exposed to radiation and has grown to the size of, well, Grape Ape. This is the only film on this list I have not seen, although I’ll trust the conventional wisdom that it’s a stinkeroo. Which only makes me want to see it all the more.

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A Countess from Hong Kong (1967)

Charlie Chaplin’s last film and first foray into color and widescreen casts Sophia Loren as a White Russian aristocrat who is now a taxi dancer and prostitute in Hong Kong. She stows away in conservative diplomat Marlon Brando’s state room. After much resistance on Brando’s part, they fall in love.

Unfortunately, despite the involvement of these stellar artists the film veers way off course in amazingly basic ways for so major a filmmaker. For starters, when does it take place? Originally written in the ‘30s, it has now been tweaked to be “sometime after World War II” (as an opening title tells us), but the fashions and some of the music and dancing seem to tell us it is contemporary (1966). Certainly there is nothing in the film to tell us that it’s a period piece, set in an earlier time. That being the case, our White Russian taxi dancer must be substantially older than Sophia Loren, even if she was a child at the time of the Revolution. And if it is 1966, why on earth is Marlon Brando’s character taking an ocean liner to travel to an important diplomatic post, needlessly taking several days as opposed to several hours by airplane? And if it is supposed to be set in an earlier decade, why do we have a scene in which Angela Scoular dances a Watusi as though she were in an episode of Shindig?

So Chaplin (then 77) was showing signs of being woefully out of touch. Further, the attitudes in his sex comedy are perplexing to say the least. The key to such comedies is to keep them light, fast, and ribald. The tone of A Countess is dark, plodding, and prudish. In My Autobiography, Chaplin reveals himself to be surprisingly Victorian on the subject of sex for someone who had apparently had so much of it, and with so many partners. Brando’s character is a kind of mouthpiece for that perspective in this film, and the movie sort of oddly takes his point of view rather than (as most such comedies do) making him a figure of fun. Since this is a film by the world’s greatest comedian, fun is just what we would expect a lot more of in such a film. Door slamming, for example. Farces are predicated on the hilarious choreography of such comic business. Such had been the case with his early films. For a more recent example of how it’s done, see Noises Off (1992). Chaplin does stage some of this kind of business in the film, but it is amazingly flaccid and perfunctory, it never ignites.

While Sophia Loren is actually great in it (and could potentially have been even better), Brando almost single-handedly sinks the whole movie. As we have said, Chaplin’s cinematic style is passive —it depends entirely on the performances within the frame to achieve its effects. But though Chaplin’s style is set up to support a performance, Brando steadfastly refuses to give one. As we know, while Chaplin was laissez-faire on the photographic side, he micromanaged his actors right down to demonstrating to them every gesture to make. Brando, a method actor, couldn’t stand this, and rebelled. In A Countess from Hong Kong his body is moving through a performance according to Chaplin’s instructions, but his interior life has checked out. You can see his hostility and unhappiness right there on the screen. He doesn’t seem to want to be in Chaplin’s movie. And since Chaplin’s entire film depends on Brando’s performance, A Countess from Hong Kong becomes a turkey.

This production brought to you through the courtesy of Kiwi Shoe Polish

This production brought to you through the courtesy of Kiwi Shoe Polish

Skidoo (1968)

After a lifetime of reading about it (being as it was Groucho Marx’s last film, among other things) I finally got to see this cult classic on TCM about five years ago. They played it in the pre-dawn hours, much where it belongs. The film is almost impossible to describe, so I’ll just try to hit it in fragments. Directed by the great Otto Preminger at a time in his career when he was desperately trying to remain au courant, this nutty film stars the Great One Mr. Jackie Gleason as a retired mobster, whom with his wife Carol Channing, is worried about his hippie daughter and her hippie boyfriend.

Forced by the top mobster “God” (Groucho) to do one last hit, he goes undercover into a jail so he can bump off fellow gangster Mickey Rooney before he can testify before a Senate commission. While in jail, Gleason does LSD. His trip is enjoyable in just the way you would imagine (“I can see MATHEMATICS!” he screams at one point).

Along the way, we meet just about every character actor in Hollywood, a mishmash of old and young: Austin Pendleton (in his first Hollywood role — and bald!), Frankie Avalon, Burgess MeredithCesar RomeroGeorge RaftPeter Lawford, Fred Clark, Frank Gorshin, etc etc etc. Harry Nilsson, who also wrote the soundtrack and its several songs (including the famous musical closing credits), also has a small role as a prison guard.

At the time, when there was a lot of this kind of stuff going on, it no doubt seemed less than the sum of its parts, and it bombed with both press and public. Now however, it has the added value of being a historical curiosity, and I highly recommend seeing it at least once in your life just to say you did.

And how does Groucho come off? Well…oddly, Grouchy. He’s not too funny in this, though we are sort of conditioned to laugh at things he says in a deadpan voice, even when they aren’t jokes, and it can be hard to turn that reaction off. He’s kind of mean and scary in this movie, a pool playing, homicidal gangster. He never leaves the tiny confines of his yacht, an undeniable reflection of the fact that the actor was 78 years old.

We’re lucky to see him standing at all. Believe me, Groucho was capable of doing shows where he DIDN’T stand. In 1976, not long before he died, I saw him on this Bob Hope special, where, in the aftermath of several strokes, he sat in a chair and uttered quips that were difficult to understand because his diction had gone. It was a sad spectacle, and to me as an 11 year old, a confusing one. Was I supposed to get this? No, son, the grown-ups have just done something very ill-advised. Get used to that!

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Kook’s Tour (1970) 

The Three Stooges’ final product may be the saddest of all. Intended as the pilot for a tv series, it’s essentially a lot of MOS film footage of the three elderly men pretending to goof around on vacation, with Moe Howard providing travelogue style voice over narration. There is no plot, and the slapstick is almost nonexistent. Really Kook’s Tour looks like it exists just to give the old guys something to do. Sadly, Larry Fine’s stroke right after filming spoiled the prospects of a series. As awful as this program is, it’s still got to better than the movie Moe was trying to get off the ground in 1975 undoubtedly would have been.

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Blazing Stewardesses (1975)

This bizarre film concerns three porn-refugee stewardesses who help a bordello madam (Yvonne De Carlo) and two cow pokes (B movie western stars Bob Livingston and Red Barry) save their dude ranch.

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Along the way they are helped (hindered) by the two surviving Ritz Brothers, Harry and Jimmy (Al had died in 1965). Their roles were originally to have been played by the remaining Three Stooges, but Larry Fine and Moe Howard both died in 1975, and no one wants Curly Joe de Rita. The film’s title was a craven and rather pathetic attempt to capitalize on the recent success of Blazing Saddles, which is as a Himalaya next to this ant hill of a comedy. Naughty Stewardesses, which features some of the same creative personnel, had come out a few months earlier, though this is technically not a sequel. Seeing two Ritz Brothers in their mid 70s cut up as though they were still in their 30s is quite a spectacle.

“I’ve fallen and I can’t get up!”

Sextette (1978)

Mae West was a pro — she had been in show business for several decades. In fact, it would be technically accurate to say that she had been a professional actress and performer since the 19th century.

Thus, Mae knew that the key to success is: whatever happens, you gotta keep hustling. Keep your mind on your goals, and keep hustling to realize them. Sometimes there may be layoffs. There may be some down time between projects. But always keep a hand in, because the wheel will eventually turn around again.

And so it was that in 1978 — 35 years after her last starring vehicle and over 40 years since starring in a vehicle that could be called her own — Mae West finally got the chance to make her next script, Sextette. She’d written the script in the early 1950s, when she was already a shade long in the tooth, but roughly age appropriate. Then she’d starred in a stage version of the play about ten years later. And now here she was…not 50, not 60, not 70, not 80, but 85 years old, starring in this picture. The iffiness springs not from the fact she was elderly. Hey, look at The Whales of August and On Golden Pond. Nor does chagrin emerge even from the fact that her character is 85 years old and SEXUAL. Hey, look at Cocoon. But what is strange (uncanny? Halloween-like?) about Sextette is that West insisted on playing her character as though the 40 years hadn’t passed at all. The idea was that she was STILL the same sex symbol (a notion that had already become questionable among audiences in the late 1930s). And so in this movie her character gets married to her sixth husband (hence the title), a young Timothy Dalton who was some six decades her junior.

An to prove that she Got By With a Little Help From Her Friends, there was also Ringo Starr! Dom Deluise! Tony Curtis! George Hamilton! Alice Cooper! Keith Moon! All flirting with her (and presumably doing it with her on a large canopy bed with silver, space-age pillows) just as though she were half a century younger. Hey, what the hell. It was the 70s. Sex was in. Even gross sex was in. And not only that, it’s a musical! With crazy disco numbers! Some of which Mae sings herself!

How did this even happen? you may well ask. Well in 1970, Mae had appeared in another of the era’s more notorious films, Myra Breckenridge, an x rated adaptation of the Gore Vidal novel about a transsexual, which despite the adventurous subject matter was a critical and popular flop. Still, Mae was back in the game again and presumably bankable on some level, and so financial backing was found.

At this stage of her life, Mae’s hearing, sight and memory were all gone, so throughout the picture her lines were fed to her through a special ear piece, and you generally see handsome young gents leading her around by the arm. Which a gentleman should do anyway. None of the major studios would distribute the film, so its initial release wasn’t the huge splash one might expect given this major star’s emergence from forced retirement. But over time it has become a cult favorite among, oh, people like me. Everyone should see this film at least once. No one should ever see the film more than once.

But there’s an up side to all this. West passed away two years after Sextette’s release. I think it’s really nice that she passed at a moment when she felt like she was back in the game.

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Cracking Up (1983)

Okay, Jerry Lewis is still with us, but he is 89 years old, and I think it safe to say that Cracking Up will prove to have been his last comedy film as both director and star. In every case we’ve discussed in this blogpost the movie occurred because the artist didn’t know how to quit while they were ahead. And we have to bring some humanity to the contemplation of that. Because that is obviously a hard thing to know how to do. Now Jerry, like many of the folks above (Groucho, Mae West) had more than one “last film”, but kept coming back to the well.  First there was his previous last film as comedy auteur Which Way to the Front (1970), set in Nazi Germany during World War Two. And then there his was aborted Holocaust movie The Day the Clown Cried (1972). (I like to refer to the years 1970-72 as Jerry’s “Third Reich Period”.) After which he ostensibly and perhaps wisely retired.

But…no, eight years later he returned to the big screen for his big “come back” film Hardly Working (1980). The interesting thing about this phase is what he didn’t do. In the last phase of his previous career, Jerry had been trying to “grow”. From around 1965 through 1972, you can see him trying to adjust his previous screen character to account for the fact that he was now a middle aged man. But when he returned in 1980, it was as though he had said “to hell with that.” He just returned to doing what he always did, only much worse. Audiences had grown more sophisticated on some level since Jerry had left the screen. The big stars were SNL alum who made satirical, daring and hip comedies. Jerry ignored what was going on around him at the time and made a film where he just fell down a lot (at the age of 54). Moderate audiences checked out Hardly Working out of curiosity, and I guess Jerry took that as positive reinforcement for his bad behavior.

So…in 1983 he went back to the well yet again with Smorgasbord , which he renamed Cracking Up. Co-written with his old screenwriting partner Bill Richmond the film does everything it can to ignore the commercial will of audiences in 1983, by phoning in Lewis’s own 2o and 30 year old screen behavior, and populating the rest of the movie with over-exposed tv comedians like Foster Brooks and Milton Berle and football player Dick Butkus. After a single preview, it was decided not to distribute the film to theatres. It went straight to cable tv. (Fortunately, Jerry has had many chances to redeem himself as an actor since 1983. This is his last hurrah as actor/director).

To find out more about  the history of show businessconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold. And check out my other book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from amazon.com etc etc etc

Yvonne DeCarlo and The Ritz Brothers in “Blazing Stewardesses”

Posted in Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, Ritz Brothers, Westerns with tags , , on September 1, 2014 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of the late Yvonne De Carlo (Margaret Yvonne Middleton, 1922-2007). Now,there are many posts I’d love to write about her:

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* She was a beauty queen, pin-up, dancer and show girl in her early years: runner up for Miss Venice Beach (1938), dancer at the Florentine Gardens, chorus girl for Earl Carroll. After a few years of struggle, she broke into films and gradually worked her way up to starring parts.

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* Her break-out role was the title character in Salome Where She Danced (1945). We have written about many of the notable stage and screen Salomes over the years here at Travalanche and de Carlo makes a wow-wow-worthy successor.

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She was cast against type in one of my favorite movies, Cecil B. DeMille’s 1956 The Ten Commandments. The hot sex pot in the film is Anne Baxter. De Carlo plays Sephora, the dutiful wife of Moses. But look at the picture above. I think she wants to put the Salome costume back on, or maybe I’m reading too much into it.

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Ah, that’s more like it! As Lily Munster on The Munsters 1966-1968. To my mind, De Carlo was one of those women (like Lana Turner, Anne Bancroft, and others) who got more interesting and even sexier when she got older. A little known secret is that Al Lewis (Grandpa) was actually younger than De Carlo when The Munsters was made.

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Anyway, like I said, being the lowdown character I am, I’m not going to write about any of those things and will instead celebrate Blazing Stewardesses (1975).

We like things to be superlative don’t we? We like hyperbole and exclamation points. At least I do. Not for me, all those middling, unremarkable (boring) films the woman made for decades. Blazing Stewardesses sets a benchmark. For what I hesitate to say.

The film concerns three porn-refugee stewardesses who help a bordello madam (De Carlo) and two cow pokes (B movie western stars Bob Livingston and Red Barry) save their dude ranch.

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Along the way they are helped (hindered) by the two surviving Ritz Brothers, Harry and Jimmy (Al died in 1965). Their roles were originally to have been played by the remaining Three Stooges, but Larry Fine and Moe Howard both died in 1975, and no one wants Curly Joe de Rita. The film’s title was a craven and rather pathetic attempt to capitalize on the recent success of Blazing Saddles, which is as a Himalaya next to this ant hill of a comedy. Naughty Stewardesses, which features some of the same creative personnel, had come out a few months earlier, though this is technically not a sequel. Seeing two Ritz Brothers in their mid 70s cut up as though they were still in their 30s is quite a spectacle. Seeing the low budget tribute to western serials of the 30s is kind of interesting. And de Carlo, at age 48, still has it as you can witness here:

To learn more about comedy film history please check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from amazon.com etc etc etc

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To find out more about  the history of vaudevilleconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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The Ritz Brothers: Trio of Zanies

Posted in Broadway, Comedy, Comedy Teams, Hollywood (History), Jews/ Show Biz, Movies, Ritz Brothers, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 22, 2013 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of Harry Ritz.

Back in the 20s and 30s when someone used the word “madcap” to describe certain comedians it actually made some sense. this was the period when anarchistic comedy was in vogue. it was just as important for the comedian to be “insane” then as it is for a stand up comedian to be topical and observational today. Thus, the Marx BrosOlsen and JohnsonEd WynnJoe Cook, Clark & McCullough and the Ritz Bros.

Conceptually the Ritz Bros are a sort of cross between the Marx bros and the 3 Stooges. Like the former, they were “crazy”. They brought pandemonium with them when they enter a room. You wondered “where’s the straight jacket?” And of course, they were brothers. Like the Three Stooges (two of whom at any given time were also brothers), there was a sameness to them. They were roughly the same size and build, and there was very little individuality in their characterizations. In the case of the Ritz Bros, there was precisely NO individual characterization.

Al started out first as a song and dance man, but was quickly joined by his brothers Jim and Harry. They debuted at the Albee Theatre in Brooklyn in 1925, dressed as college kids, dancing, kidding around and  playing the ukulele. Over time, the kidding around began to make up the bulk of the act. By the end of the decade, they were headliners at the Palace. In the middle 30s they were familiar fixtures in such pictures as One in a Million (1937), On the Avenue (1937), The Goldwyn Follies (1938) and The Three Musketeers (1939). They generally weren’t the stars of their pictures, usually but got 3rd billing, woven in and out of their musical plots.

The boys’ actual patronymic was Joachim. They took the name “Ritz” from the crackers, and it was appropriate, for they were frequently covered in cheese. Audiences either loved or hated the Ritz. Bros. your author confesses to the latter stance, though no less a personage than Sid Caesar considered them his idols. To this viewer, in their films at least, they seem to be really exerting themselves, making a lot of random, aimless contortions to little effect. Rarely have so many faces been pulled in the production of so little laughter. It’s true you can see their influence on Caesar—he makes the same kind of faces—eyes crossed or bugging out, strands of hair that flop onto the forehead . The difference is, in a Caesar sketch, his eyes are crossed because (for example) he has just been hit in the stomach, his eyes are bulging in anger or terror, the hair is flopping because he is freaking out over something. The Ritz Brothers just throw out those faces just for the heck of it. John Bubbles reported seeing them at Loew’s State in 1931: “When they finished, they had to steal a bow! And they were the headliners!”.

 

To find out about  the history of vaudevilleconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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For more on silent and slapstick comedy please check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from amazon.com etc etc etc

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Sonja Henie: One in a Million

Posted in Hollywood (History), Movies, Ritz Brothers, Sport & Recreation, Vaudeville etc., Women with tags , , , , , , , , , on April 8, 2013 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of Sonja Henie (1912-1969), who for ten years enjoyed an unlikely second career for a world champion ice skater — movie star. (although there were others who attempted to follow her lead, with less success)

I watched her first picture One in a Million (1936) several times when I was researching No Applause, because it co-stars several vaudevillians who get to do their turns over the course of this unusual movie. Adolphe Menjou plays a movie mogul desperate to find a “natural” actress, which of course turns out to be Henie.

Along the way we meet several nuts also trying to make it at the studio: the Ritz Brothers and Borah Minnevich and his Harmonica Rascals, with great old-time characters like Julius Tannen and Ned Sparks also in the cast, not to mention Don Ameche. And of course, Sonja herself!

To learn more about the history of vaudeville, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.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

Three Dozen Musketeers

Posted in BOOKS & AUTHORS, CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, Douglas Fairbanks, Hollywood (History), Movies (Contemporary), Ritz Brothers, STEAMPUNK/ VICTORIANA with tags , , , , , , , , on March 15, 2012 by travsd

The DVD release of last year’s Three Musketeers movie and research for my Adah Isaacs Menken play have recently placed Dumas pere foursquare on my radar. The former development represents a perfect occasion for an exercise in the “vertical analysis” I describe here,  As you will soon see, t’s turned out to be a rather obsessive little project.

Dumas’ novel, despite its 750 some odd pages, is a swift and pleasurable read full of vivid  characters, colorful events, humor, sex, adventure, political intrigue, and even historical facts. There’s something for everybody, explaining its popularity both then and now. Although the plot is beyond convoluted, it’s easy to see why it’s been adapted so many times for film.

While there are plenty of foreign versions; I decided to concentrate on American ones. Silent versions made in 1911, 1914 and 1916 being unavailable, we leaped straight for this:

The 1921 silent version starring Douglas Fairbanks, directed by Fred Niblo. It also features Adolph Menjou as Louis XIII, and a downright slim Eugene Pallette as Aramis. This is only the second of Doug’s swashbucking features (after having first achieved stardom with a series of successful comedies). Casting himself as D’artagnagn is brilliant as it plays on the early image, a bumpkin or naif with ambitions of heroism, still awkward but an awesome swordsman. (He’d done a sort of jokey version six years earlier in A Modern Musketeer).

Of all the various versions this one (still) has the best D’artagnan, in fact the best Musketeer, in the person of Fairbanks. After all, tongue in cheek swordplay heroics is what he DID. In one scene, he fights about ten guys at the same time, then carries the fainting heroine Constance upstairs, onto the roof, and across housetops to safety.  At two hours, this version is mighty long for a silent film, however. In fact court intrigue fills the entire first half hour; it’s a quarter way through the film before D’artagnan even calls on Treveille to join the Musketeers. That’s a lot of subtitles for some of you to have to move your lips to.

The following year, French comedian Max Linder released his own lampoon version, The Three Must-Get-Theirs. Most of the wordplay in the titles are roughly as painful as that. Max, for example plays the hero, Dart-in-Again. (Good lord, what is the point of stretching a joke that far and it still isn’t funny?) The Musketeers themselves are named Walrus, Octopus and Porpoise.  My favorite was “Li’l Cardinal Richie-Loo”– played by a dwarf! The film also stars pro-wrestler turned actor Bull Montana, and Harold Lloyd‘s later leading lady Jobyna Ralston. It hews surprisingly closely to the usual plot points, and actually does have some funny gags in it once it gets cooking.

A shame it didn’t make the film version, but the 1928 stage version of  the Marx Bros.’ Animal Crackers featured the foursome singing this Kalmar and Ruby song:

We’re four of the three musketeers.
We’ve been together for years.
Athos, Pathos, Mathos, (horn),
Four of the three musketeers.

In the 30s, there were a couple of serial versions: a 1933 one re-set in the modern day French Foreign Legion andfeaturing John Wayne, Lon Chaney Jr, and Noah Beery Jr., and a 1936 Western one featuring Crash Corrigan, called The Thee Mesquiteers (word-play almost as bad as Max Linder’s, but he has the excuse of being French). I’ve seen both of these. They’re about what you would expect and have little to do with the original book except the number three.

In 1935 RKO released their own version with so much trust in the selling power of the title apparently that they felt free to fill the cast with their least distinguished stars. For some reason this one is hard to get ahold of (Amazon only has a laser disc, for example.) But I finally caught it on TCM. Walter Abel (a familiar character actor in later decades who’s normally about fifth in the billing) is d’Artagnan. Paul Lukas plays Athos. They are the only remotely recognizable names in the cast.  Despite a certain B movie flavor, this is a solid adaptation and one of my favorites.  The scene where d’Artagnan first beholds the King’s Musketeers in an elaborately (musically) choreographed fencing exercise is sheer Hollywood magic. Unfortunately, the guys who play the all-important THREE musketeers are barely indistinguishable one from the other. But the overall cinematic vehicle they move through has lots of old fashioned charm. TCM’s web site shows several clips from the film here.

This is the 1939 musical by 20th Century Fox. One can’t help but be distressed when one learns that the Ritz Brothers are playing the Three Musketeers. Sure, on the one hand it makes perfect sense  — after all, how many scripts are there that call for three identical guys? On the other hand, they’re all spastic! Have no fear, in this story their characters are only masquerading as Athos, Porthos and Aramis, stealing their Musketeer outfits following a drinking contest at the inn where the three men are cooks (when we first meet them they are performing a mortifying chicken plucking number, the lyrics to which include “We pluck! We pluck! We pluck, pluck, pluck!”) At any rate, they get drawn into an adventure by the ambitious D’Artagnan (a very young Don Ameche).

Casting directors should never get “creative”. For example, this movie includes John Carradine, Lionel Atwill and Douglas Dumbrille and NONE of them play the evil villain Richelieu. Indeed, the dumpy, beady-eyed Dumbrille is cast as Athos! The plot has some rough similarity to the book, and the sets are those charming studio one-size-fits-all storybook settings that I consider just fine for a story like this. In the end, not only D’Artagnan but the Ritz Bros. are made full fledged musketeers. That’s too much to swallow!

The 1948 MGM Technicolor version. This movie is absolutely gorgeous to look at, and during the first half you suspect it may be definitive, wondering why no one’s ever heard about this cinematic classic. The cinematography and costume design combine to dazzle the viewer into a scopophiliac bliss. During the second half, though, the “Milady’s Revenge” half, it grows dull and unfocused and one starts looking at the clock.

Some inspired casting here: Gene Kelly is in his acrobatic glory as D’Artagnan. He is natural as a swashbuckler. As the Countess pointed out, many of the scenes look like dry runs for the “silent” scenes in Singing in the Rain.  Vincent Price is Richelieu, one of his first bona fide “Pricean” villains; Frank Morgan, the doddering, kindly King, and the sultry, seductive Lana Turner is Milady de Winter. Rounding out the cast many other familiar faces: Angela Lansbury, June Allyson, Van Hefflin, Gig Young. The one casting misstep is Keenan Wynn as a broadly comical servant; he is clearly embarrassed in the role and his discomfort takes us out of it.

One strange aspect: for some reason, this version strips all religion out. Here, Richelieu is not Cardinal but merely Prime Minister, and his men don’t sport the vivid crucifix insignia that make them so recognizable in other versions. At any rate, like I said, this version overstays its welcome about an hour into it.

Fortunately, MGM also produced the 1952 Tom and Jerry version above.

The 1973/4 version, the double movie Three Musketeers and Four Musketeers. For someone of my age, this is unavoidably the version all others are measured by. Directed by Richard Lester and originally conceived for the Beatles. (The idea makes me salivate. They would have been great. It’s perfect for them. Sex, cheeky humor and not too much acting required….with Ringo as the natural D’artagnan. They really should have done it. That is, it would have been perfect for the 1964 era Beatles, when they were still running and jumping around. By the time this film came out of course they had not only broken up, but fancied themselves sages, poets, revolutionaries and farmers…anything but a cheerful quartet of moptops). Here’s how they might have looked (from a tv comedy sketch they did lampooning Shakespeare in 1964):

At any rate, the consolation cast is nothing to sneeze at: Oliver Reed, Richard Chamberlain,  Michael York, Christopher Lee, Charlton Heston, Raquel Welch, Faye Dunaway, Geraldine Chaplin, Spike Milligan, Roy Kinnear…

I think this just may be the definitive version. The tone is just right…full of slapstick humor, and innocent joy in both the sex and the violence that reminds me a lot of one of my favorite movies, Tony Richardson’s Tom Jones. Unlike previous versions, these musketeers frankly use dirty tricks as part of their scrapping arsenal, which is only fair when they are outnumbered. Lots of location shooting makes it an antidote to the stage-bound previous editions. It feels well researched, but it’s not without its well-placed humorous anachronisms. It even has a Nixon joke!

The 1993 Disney version. This is a missed opportunity if ever there was one. With Disney’s mission, resources and track record, they certainly had it within their power and purview to create the definitive family version (apart from the Mickey, Goofy and Donald one they had also previously done). Instead, they cynically and rather weakly crafted a version that attempts to be sort of au courant, hip and modern (without, unlike the 70s version, comprehending the SOUL of the thing), and so, in short, it’s just another crappy movie. Moronic cookie-cutter dialogue, ironically less sophisticated than movies made 50 and 60 years earlier; gratuitous sexual innuendo by Tim Curry as Richelieu is a dubious tradeoff.

Of the three stars playing Musketeers, only Keifer Sutherland roughly hits the mark, possessing the machismo, the looks and the intelligence for his role. Charlie Sheen is, and always was, a cypher; it took nothing short of a crack frenzy to make him briefly interesting a few months ago. And Oliver Platt is woefully miscast. I’d gladly take him as a villain, bumbling servant or cuckolded innkeep. His instinct to stretch here may have been enjoyable for him personally, but it doesn’t help the movie any. Worst of all, and this is the fatal element, Chris O’Donnell as D’Artagnan is an absolute black hole. He looks and acts like the high school football star who has been drafted to act in the school play because they needed a male ingenue. Beyond not-up-to-the-task. Since the character is at the center of the movie, it made the film virtually unwatchable for me.

2001 The Musketeer. Director Peter Hyams. international production and cast. Extremely excellent. Strictly speaking it’s not The Three Musketeers. It uses Dumas’ characters and overall situation, but makes the journey entirely different. The script is terrific and witty. Spectacular fights by Xin-Xin Siong is one of the main selling points. Some changes–Tim Roth, in one of his best performances is a psychopathic villain named Febre who works for Richeleiu (Stephen Rea). Rea is a sort of laissez-faire villain. He doesn’t mind if some calumnies are done in the name of achieving his aim but it isn’t the POINT for him, and he’d rather avoid bloodshed if possible. Febre’s misdeeds become too much for him, so in the end even he sides with the Musketeers in trying to thwart this monster he has created. The Milady character (many critics’ least favorite element) has been stricken from this version, but the Queen (Catherine Deneuve, still mighty handsome here in her late 50s) is still at the crux of the plot. Mena Suvani plays a character named Francesca (clearly based on the Constance of earlier versions). It is an extremely enjoyable film from start to finish. I’d watch it again!

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The 2011 version was the ostensible reason for this post. When I was finally ready to see it at the one theatre in New York where it was playing, it had closed the day before. The DVD was finally available to rent a couple of days ago, and let me be among the first to say that its quick oblivion was deserved. In its favor: terrific set and costume design, fine casting and acting. Any film that has Christopher Waltz as Richileiu can’t be all bad. The performers do a fine job with what they’re given. But the script is the pits: full of the usual inappropriately contemporary dialogue that is not only not funny, but is just generally degrading. many changes to the trunk story. One of the main missteps is having Milady (Milla Jovovich) also be a female action hero in the Tarantino/ Joss Whedon mold. It’s fine to have such a character, but here, she’s redundant. Another flavor of villainy, more wiles-based, would not only be  more welcome but is necessary. And — worst — the whole heart of the picture, it’s star really, is a large steampunk dirigible.  It is so much the star of this film, that that’s what the film should be called” Steampunk Dirigible, sort of like Herbie, the Love Bug. And the direction is riddled with the sort of Hong Kong martial arts cliches (slow mo, etc) that have become so trendy. Trends are great when you set them. When you follow them, not so much.

Now. This is hardly all the versions of Three Musketeers out there. There are countless French versions, as might be expected. I’ve also left out the hilarious 1973 spaghetti western The Three Musketeers of the West. I have also yet to see something called The Erotic Three Musketeers (wait! wait! judge it on its merits!)

And I was tempted to do all the Man in the Iron Mask versions, but then why not do all the Count of Monte Cristos, and then you’d never see me again, and come to think of it, you’d probably like that wouldn’t you? Nevertheless, after all that work I feel like I need a reward. How about…

Aah hah! Faked you out!

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