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Monday, June 27, 2022

Landfills More Crowded Every Day


How Much Stays Good and For How Long?

How soon are best efforts obscured? Success even … great success. There are those who wrote novels that sold into thousands, a million even, whose names we no longer know. Panels on You Tube speak of authors once celebrated whose names mean less than dust, complaint that these are unjustly obscure, fear present that all will join such ranks. It’s relative same with movies and those who made them, celebrated once, barely if ever since. How oft do we meet someone young or unschooled who never even heard of an artist or personality you thought could not be forgot? Happens enough for me to no longer notice. What determines the survival of any book or film, and should it be for one or group of persons to choose what “dates” or not? I lately watched a now obscure feature adapted from an as obscure novel, East Side, West Side, released by MGM in 1949 and starring Barbara Stanwyck, James Mason, Van Heflin, and Ava Gardner. The source scribe was Marcia Davenport, one who “wrote what she knew,” high life among trend-set New Yorkers, doings amidst café society and rot that underlies marriage between perceived class equals. It all was relevant once, spoke not just to a sophisticated audience but a mass one, book-to-film amended to assure that. Published in 1947, East Side, West Side had pedigree for coming behind Davenport’s The Valley of Decision, a considerable hit for MGM in 1945. Having been so would presell whatever oak came of this author’s acorn.

Other literary names past and beyond reclamation, how does Marcia Davenport differ from these? One way at least --- there were the two popular movies made from her books, and so long as TCM or streaming persists, they will be seen and maybe even enjoyed. Movies' rough equivalent, that is its legion of the now-arcane, might include Paul Muni or Greer Garson, seat-fillers then, unknown or debased since, excepting us fans of course. There are others, plentiful others (virtually all of silent players apart from comics), difference being that with films, there is always someone, plenty of someones, who still care. For authors it is often, and only, family members to hold banners aloft. As told previous, Raintree County creator Ross Lockridge left children who did a webpage and defend still his legacy. Movie offspring tender the same by way of familial tribute … Victoria Mature, daughter of we-know-who, developed a cabaret act where she appears on screen with her father, a neat way of reminding us who Victor Mature was and why he matters still. Difference in books and film is commitment, as in we can watch the one in ninety minutes to two hours but reading the other means three-four hundred pages, and that’s a mighty haul for something with less consensus for its relevance or amusement value. My own bites from such apples proved bittersweet: Son of Fury, Whispering Smith, Little Lord Fauntleroy. Just wanting to like or appreciate a thing will not get it done. So why are we made to feel like philistines for often preferring movies over books they were made from?

Louis Bromfield At Work Among His Severest Critics

Whatever East Side, West Side aspired to as a novel, accomplished even, could translate to movies only in terms of melodrama, which was what Hollywood was expert at and audiences demanded whatever the text source. Warners did The Fountainhead a year before, even hired Ayn Rand (above left with Vidor and Cooper) to pen the screenplay, but what they, she, and we got was heat supplied by director King Vidor and star Gary Cooper, both having fed a same stove since careers began, all and sundry secure that what we read is one thing, but what we watch is entirely something else. This applied to any book studios purchased, best result had from work most like a movie to begin with, a trick popular authors learned as output through 30-40’s looked to screen sales for payoffs greater than even best sellers might yield. Louis Bromfield was one of these, a critic’s pet and public favorite whose reputation would fold within his lifetime. The New York Times in 1927 called him “the most promising of all the young American authors writing today,” though by his death in 1956, Bromfield was thought by many to be a used-up “hack” occupied more with soil conservation at his Ohio farm than focusing on novels. Critic-at-large Edmund Wilson referred to more than one Bromfield book “stretching out its arms to Hollywood,” sure a curtail for any author as Wilson saw it. If being remembered is sought-most object of artists, was a surer bet for immortality literature or film? Let lists be made of writer names familiar from decades referenced above, then compare with movie careers still recalled. Which has the longer list? And yet estimation of film folk still runs distinct second, writing by far the more honored estate, even if it pays way less, but isn’t that mere further evidence of our skewed priorities?

There is a thing called a “canon” to which books belong or they don’t. If you were once in, then out, chances are you won’t get back in again. Panel people I watch speak of work long since expelled from the club. Names like Joseph Hergesheimer and James Branch Cabell are bandied. They both were big once, lived lush off their writing. Long-gone Richard Blackmore gave us Lorna Doone, which was voted Best Novel Ever Written by Yale students in 1906. We know Lorna from nothing but a punchline in Three Stooge comedies, or cookies on a market shelf. How does output so celebrated go spent, in fact “unreadable,” as one modern scholar referred to the cast-off lot? There is a movie canon too, less and less for things that are old. Who assigns worthies? Film is taught still, but what do instructors teach? Something tells me a lot of my favorites are not and never will be part of any canon. TCM has theirs, based I suspect on popular rather than aesthetic choices. What would be “Best Of” by estimate of modern-day copyright holders? “Classic” is a more fluid term for movies than books. There are those who would call Harry Potter, novels or films based on them, classic. Picking a canon should be personal, for we as individuals are the ones reading and watching … trouble is everyone wants to be “right” in their pick, and if gatekeepers mock me for liking Lorna Doone, which I have not read, there’s comfort at least in the fact Yale students once went for it.

Did you know In This Our Life (1942) was based on a 1941 novel by Ellen Glasgow that won a Pulitzer Prize in 1942? What I recall as overheated Bette Davis v. Olivia De Havilland, barely different from a dozen other such, came of high-regarded literary antecedent that has probably gone unread since before the Korean War, or am I wrong? If people watch In This Our Life, it is likelier for Davis, or maybe the fact John Huston directed. And yet Ellen Glasgow was very important to the film’s prospects when it was new, having written five best-selling novels (d. 1945). Her family home in Richmond is a National Historic Landmark. How do we best know when time comes to stop enjoying a thing? Critic/historian David Thomson in 2008: “Has anybody made a voluntary decision to see Heston’s Ben-Hur in recent years?”, being a question you may answer correctly with Hell No, Are You Kidding? or anything other than Yes. And yet I kind of liked it the last time round, so may not properly know my classics, at least not ones that deserve to be in a canon. There now is fear factored into praise for things cast out, and it doesn’t matter if they once won Academy Awards, as Ben-Hur assuredly did. I recall Gone With The Wind as many people’s notion of the Best Picture Ever Made. Find someone who will say so now. Many are afraid to trust their own judgment for what is good, or at least acceptable. Literature has been the more segregated for over a century, much of old out if not reviled, what’s recent but tentatively in. Geoffrey Tillotson discussed this under heading of “Writers Despise Their Immediate Ancestors,” being attitude he observed from beginnings of the twentieth century, when young writers and thinkers wanted no part of anything generated during the century before.

A scholar lady, Brit-based, says on You Tube that there are two kinds of novels, one called “writerly” that will challenge you, and a “readerly” sort for relaxation, left alone after a single pleasurable pass. Readerly books go on vacation with their buyer but generally do not come back. Seems in long runs we prefer ambiguity, the read that requires work to comprehend, the sort for which we construct our own meaning. The rest is to enjoy and then discard, being too “passive and accessible” to warrant revisit. A classic never finishes saying what it has to say, changing with us as we grow to understand and appreciate what was there but beyond our grasp. There must be truth in all this, for what lighter-than-air book gets twice or more airing? Movies however are a species different. Is there a term called “watcherly”? (spell check just flagged as “not a word,” so never mind). Let’s try “comfort watching.” There are hundreds of those in my kit, many more than of sort I would seek to “challenge” me. Does this mean novels are inherently more intelligent and worthy of focus than film? Are movies so much an art for dumbbells as to not be art at all? Because they appeal so directly to emotion, I say that is why we go back over and again, to see/hear a thing that moved us a first time and more to come. Novels offer much, but we cannot visualize or listen to them outside our imagination. Purists would say that is how it should be, that all films are passive and require nothing of viewership other than to sit and be fed by a spoon that is the screen.

Dick Powell as Role Model ... I Use His Odd Goodbye Wave From Time to Time

Movies rank for most by how many jolts of pleasure they supply. Should one have a dozen, we will come back to it and often. Given a hundred such stimuli, there may be yearly, even monthly, ritual of re-watching, mood elevators more effective than what medicos so recklessly prescribe. Citizen Kane, Sunset Blvd., and The Searchers are settled classics, but I go to them less than The Thing, Cry Danger, or The Tall T, those first listed to admire, while the latter three are to truly collaborate with. Jolts are what more modest ones have. They demand less, but somehow offer more. Jolts come of casual and seemingly ad-libbed conversation that takes place in The Thing, how Dick Powell messes with props in Cry Danger, or the eccentric way he waves goodbye to Rhonda Fleming when he drops her off to work. Jolts. Randolph Scott in The Tall T telling Richard Boone about the ranch he plans to have, despite knowing Boone full intends to kill him. These and others will never forfeit welcome for memory and feeling they call up, isolated moments where it seems real life is being lived, and we’re quiet witness to it. Looking at a face and hearing the timbre of a voice, to know what comes, eager always to see it again. I don’t mind so much being challenged by a film, but once only, please … from there it must sustain on repeated joy it offers, for how much do challenging ones give after you pass their test or not? If “difficult” books, say James Joyce or Tolstoy, reward most for being read again (and again), then here might be where literature essentially parts from film, anything to be admired best done so from afar, at least by me.

Monday, June 20, 2022

Film Noir #9

 Noir: The Big Clock and The Big Knife

THE BIG CLOCK (1948) --- Some stories merit telling twice, Nightmare Alley as recent evidence. So too was The Big Clock by Kenneth Fearing, a noir novel of the forties, adapted in 1948 and again in 1987 (No Way Out). The Big Clock is infused with humor, lightly played by Ray Milland and sinisterly by Charles Laughton, a felicitous combination. Simon Callow in a Blu-Ray extra described Milland as “a butch Welshman” who despised Laughton, info I’d like to see a source for, though I understand Ray could be prickly w/ co-stars he found less than congenial, Marlene Dietrich (Golden Earrings), Hedy Lamarr (Copper Canyon) two such. Fearing’s novel was an attack on big business, indeed on capitalism itself, but Paramount would not go there. “Janoth Publications” impresses, an art-directed marvel, its sole liability a murderer as C.E.O. Laughton is dapper and better turned-out than in most 40’s circumstance (compare especially with soon-after The Bribe). We like him for once being in control and not the hapless victim of others’ machinations. Laughton characters had been dreadfully put upon during his thirties peak, many inviting pity or revulsion … not here.

The Big Clock
gives Laughton leeway to dominate, his Janoth described as “an insufferable egomaniac,” a delight to see him play, no more the whipping post. Let him for once make victim of others. The Big Clock must have impressed as something chic for its time, a reveal of what made slick magazines of national prominence tick, this as they touched peaks of popularity. There had been Cover Girl to celebrate fashion in print, Otto Kruger as benign head. Stories set in publishing reflected lifestyles as lush, so could be expensive to mount. The Big Clock’s design dazzles, the Janoth empire as empiric as any apart from Metropolis. Director John Farrow manages a single-take elevator ride with doors opening on one rear-projected-floor after another, the effect seamless as 40’s film could manage, passenger enter/exit at each level, our P.O.V. from inside the lift. Once I met Noel Neill, asked her about playing the operator … she said the job was for one day, Farrow getting the whole in a single take, the actress done and out the same afternoon.

If you’re going to make a light thriller, do please let the initial murder play straight so the rest can generate suspense in concert with levity. The Big Clock knew this recipe and triumphs with it. Dialogue is crisp as a year’s worth of the New Yorker and what passed then as urban sophistication. Was this how moderns spoke, drank, interacted, in 1948? There is rapport among Milland’s “Crimeways” staff; we feel a part of his high-powered honeycomb. Janoth may be a tyrant, but his people seem happy enough with their jobs, exception the mistress he discards via sundial he clonks her fatally with, impetus for Acts Two and Three during which momentum does not flag. The Big Clock gets us close to being there as anything contemporary-set from post-war. Movement builds to a hair-split finish, The Big Clock a far-fetch for story but seeming authentic re white collar climb circa late 40's and daily struggle to keep a plush job afloat. Informative is "George Stroud" (Milland) comparing salary received from his old job vs. generous stipend he draws from Janoth, a primer to what was regarded best pay by then-measure, proof again that old movies don't just entertain, they teach. Many judge The Big Clock for smart comedy as much as noir, good reason it should please at least ones who find noir glum. If there are such things as feel-good from this category, The Big Clock fits snug there. Arrow Academy has the best Blu-Ray.

THE BIG KNIFE (1955) --- Clifford Odets wrote the play (1949) from which this was adapted. Fuss over any star signing a “seven-year contract” had dated by 1955, Hollywood a dismally different place, as if ’49 didn’t already reflect a wonderland in collapse. “Selling out” seems misplaced concern where Jack Palance argues it. I never got why his Charlie Castle was so miserable being a popular and high-paid movie star, apart from big boss Rod Steiger shouting tile off his patio. Odets liked movies and writing them but was made to feel guilty about it by pressuring peers who wanted to him to stay East, be poor but proud. Odets admitted later that Hollywood money was plenty OK and that some of his films turned out good (and they were … even The Story on Page One). The Big Knife is Playhouse 90 yelling from a bigger canvas, was suggested by strife and career of John Garfield, who played the Palance part on stage in ’49.

Did studio bosses hold felonies over the heads of contract stars, blackmail a basis for firm loyalty? The Big Knife says yes, and Odets was insider enough by the late 40’s to know. I wish Garfield had lived to play this on screen, as Palance needs adjusting to. Steiger is fun given proper mood. Work like this made his name shorthand for over-top emoting. Tab Hunter told a funny story where Natalie Wood laid on thick a scene for The Girl He Left Behind and Tab said, “Thank you, Mr. Steiger,” her response a day-long pout. Did Rod ever get around to parodying himself? If so, I’d enjoy seeing it. More subdued Wendell Corey benefits for the contrast if not customary skill he applies. A downer end does not appeal, but I guess they did sort of paint Palance’s character into a corner. How could he or anyone survive this steam bath? Director Robert Aldrich gets much energy from pretty much a single set. He knew hell that Hollywood could be. Wish he had left a memoir, though there is career study, with many interviews, by Edwin T. Arnold and Eugene L. Miller, Jr. The Big Knife is available on a nifty Blu-Ray from Arrow.

Other noirs starting with "B" elsewhere at Greenbriar: Beat the Devil, Berlin Express, Beyond a Reasonable Doubt, The Big Boodle, The Big Combo, The Big Heat, The Big Sleep, and The Big Steal. 

Monday, June 13, 2022

A Song In Columbus Dark


Where Cartoons Go To Please Anew

Couple of weeks ago, I experienced a MMM at Columbus. Not Mary Miles Minter, but a Magic Movie Moment like we seek from watching what is old and evocative of happiest days. It was their yearly hour (Saturday morning per custom) of pick from animated rarities private collectors protect on 16mm, a chance to see things that for whatever reason elude us otherwise. Ten cartoons might exhaust me had they less variety than laid before attendees at “The Columbus Moving Picture Show” (formerly Cinevent). The happening, I’ll say “Happening,” was #3 of the bunch called You Try Somebody Else (1932), a Fleischer “Screen Song” of that series where live-cast stars comport with drawn oddities from Max-Dave menagerie, the on-screen singer inviting us to join in reprise, a bouncing ball over lyrics for assist. You Try Somebody Else was performed by Ethel Merman, looking barely as Ethel Merman later would, torchy over swain who gave her the go-by. Kate Smith, Rudy Vallee, Connie Boswell, others, recorded the song before or contemporaneous with Merman. The tune was new to me and likely so for many Columbus attendees, upshot and pay-off our getting to sing with Ethel … spanning bridge of ninety years to sing with Ethel, me included, happily if not lustily. You Try Somebody Else was highlight of the hour, maybe the entire trip, for what is mere reading about singalongs at 30’s theatres we never experienced … or joined? There’s no knowing it, feeling it, until you see/hear, and participate. I grew up impatient with bounce-ball cartoons as part of TV ritual, songs slowing action to a crawl, but as of May 30 in a hotel ballroom at Columbus, Ohio, my attitude has changed.

We got another Fleischer, this a Popeye entitled Bridge Ahoy (1936). Keeping Popeyes apart does not come easy, being there are so many, all of black-and-whites reliably good. Was there another cartoon series from the thirties to maintain such high standard? I’ve spent thought on how/why the Sailor Man vanquished Mickey Mouse to become top swab at ticket windows. Records show Popeye Clubs overtook ones for Mickey and kept a lead right to the war, stopped finally by slippage of quality (Paramount forming “Famous Studios” after hurl of Fleischers), plus emergence of Bugs Bunny as combat trainer for crowds bestirred by all-over fighting. I visited Popeye Clubs before and remain awed by what they achieved for venues small and vast. Many a town had one. Membership routinely ran into hundreds, Thornton, Rhode Island signing up 875 among local population of 1,326. Paramount dispatched junior talent as good will ambassadors to Popeye meetings. Major stars were photographed with Sailor Man puppets and stuffed figures for eventual publication in fan magazines. School superintendents endorsed Club chapters, "wholesome recreation" as classified by these as well as parents.

But whoa a moment to the wholesome part, for did Popeye amount to anything other than ritualized violence done by seven-minute metronome, that is, beatings, intake of spinach, then reprisal at severity many times a level of abuse that inspired it? If eating spinach will vanquish all comers, then bring on spinach said I at age five, though leaf which was offered, dry as it was raw, tasted no different from grass in the yard, which we were told dogs ate only when they wished to throw up something disagreeable. Given reality of spinach, let Bluto go his way. Thing about Popeyes, at least ones Fleischer made, was how sophisticated they seemed, even Avant Garde. How would audiences sit otherwise through models identical as to structure and execution played year after (thirty) years at least. To know is to account also for Punch and Judy, which was approximate same except with puppets. Popeye will trounce Bluto and that is all we need to know. Even after the cartoons went to color with mechanics too revealed, still there was irresistible impulse to watch and know that expectation would be fulfilled. Mickey Mouse for all his gifts could not appeal to yearning so basic and outcome so assured. We are a warlike species, and Popeye proves it. Such human nature dictated that he would prevail almost upon arrival, first clubs organized by late 1933 with a mere six sailor cartoons so far released.

Success of Popeye was almost alarming. Few thought Disney could be stopped, then comes Paramount/Fleischer to do just that. This may have been when Zukor and sub-chiefs began asking how dispensable Max and Dave might be. The brothers fought between themselves and a front office found that unseemly plus destabilizing to steady flow of Popeye. The character was no Fleischer creation in any case, leased instead from a comic strip. Popeye became too valuable to leave anything to chance. Max/Dave imitated Disney when what they did best was beat him on terms with which Walt could/would not compete. How to counterfeit attitude of East Coast delinquents too scruffy to draw for up-market betters? Disney wanted no part of such rabble. Fleischer “Color Classics” which tried to be like Silly Symphonies were lush and sometimes clever, but few figured they could meet, let alone pass, the Disneys. Gulliver’s Travels was barely worth making, nobody’s idea of an advance on Snow White even though it profited OK, if nowhere near what Disney/RKO had earned. Meaningful was fact no other major studio tried an animated feature, having ceded the field to Disney.

Usefulness of the Fleischers would be the more questioned once Paramount realized Popeye was near all value Max/Dave had to give. Betty Boop was done by 1939, the color art reels wrapped, and a strike by Fleischer staff looked like a problem that could and should have been avoided. Memos between New York and Miami, latter the Fleischer’s transferred-to site, gave confirmation that Max and Dave weren’t speaking. Dave had got production control and weak cartoons reflected it (remarkable exceptions: the Superman group). He also had a secretary girlfriend and an office he refitted for a horse parlor. Ticker tape to record bets was innovation not toward the good of animation now needing an oxygen tent to score laughs. Many said the move to Florida was misjudged, or maybe it was inevitable that Paramount would pull plugs and take the operation over. Doing that was simple as turn-off of tap and starving the Fleischers out onto streets. It all reads like a rawest of deals, but clearer shines life’s oldest adage of nobody in any argument being all right or all wrong.

The Duncan Sisters Swoon for Popeye

Fleischer would have his victory, but it was pyrrhic, plus came too late to do him good. The Popeyes had gone to television, the lot of them, in 1956, and did culturally phenomenal business. Not to use the term light … these shorts amazed a jaded trade who thought one kid-filler barely different from another. Popeye touched a reflex and there was simply no getting enough of him, all the while Disneys from same past era absent from syndication (Walt’s withhold), or there for Mouseketeers to pull from magic drawers and largely bore viewers with. Nothing from Disney it seemed had anything like energy Popeye gave out each afternoon plus Saturdays. New owners of negs took Fleischer’s name off remade credits and he sued, scant good coming of the gesture. Max got history’s commendation however, this a best win of all as awarded by posterity. Massive TV spike like what Popeye had would seem like history with capacity to repeat itself, and indeed, the sailor should have cycled through generations to a present, but for reality of best Popeyes being black-and-white and fed into a syndicated market that by the seventies rejected them for being black-and-white. By the time I caught up seriously to the Fleischer group during 1972-1976, they were fit only for UHF, and darn few of those outliers could care. Television’s blight on black-and-white, beginning in the mid-sixties when color sets took off, had its fulfillment within a decade after, Popeye a casualty along with B/W feature packages. The cartoons today are hardly missing, not so long as TCM and You Tube thrive, and there is of course DVD and the sets Warner sells. It’s just that Popeye is no longer something you discover by stumbling over him. You must go looking, like Trader Horn. Help toward that end, learning Popeye plus the Fleischers and their work, best begins with books by Ray Pointer, Leslie Cabarga, or better, both. Add to these a reservation for the next Columbus Moving Picture Show, already down for May 2023 dates.

Monday, June 06, 2022

The Circus Being No Place for Marx Bros ...


More of Marx Comedy for Metro

The first MGM Marx Bros. comedy not road-tested in live theatres prior to production. Did failure of A Day at the Races ($543K loss) disincline the studio toward that added expense? Groucho thought tours an only sure way to make sure thing of Marx routines. Did he ask for, and did Leo refuse, the accommodation? If so, it was harbinger of tight times to come, for little else spoke so loud to diminished confidence in the team. Marx comedy was increasingly a matter of set pieces spotted throughout story otherwise wan, so these had to work for overall effect, being all an audience could take away from experience of seeing At The Circus or whatever the boys engaged. They had not been on a proper stage for years (other than tryouts for movie routines), let alone Broadway, and crowds forgot what panics The Cocoanuts and Animal Crackers had been. Some execs, if not a public at large, saw the Marx Bros. as upscaled Wheeler/Woolsey, or any team in comedic decline. Still there was $250,000 for Marx trio to share from each of three Metro pledged them to, and we wonder if regrets did not accompany ink as it dried upon such contract, especially with guiding light Thalberg gone and less sympathetic others to handle chore the Marxes increasingly were.

At The Circus
was done for less than A Day at the Races ($1.3 versus $1.7 million), and again, there was red ink ($492K). Less writers would contribute, Irving Brecher getting sole scribe credit. Surely others took part, but Brecher insisted to an end that it was all his. Louis Mayer was said to be at the least ambivalent re Marx Bros. Groucho had insulted him on occasion, foolishly so based on accounts. L.B. asked once how a picture was going and Grouch replied that it was none of his concern. How impolitic was that in a business where relationships were key? Mayer might forebear were the team still hot, but based on ticket performance, I could envision him suggesting the team “retire” from features, at least ones produced by MGM. The Thalberg formula was used again, and why not? Here was an act limited severe for vehicles to suit them, song and story imposed still to relieve Marx madness, only they were less mad than hapless helpmates to romance relief in person of Kenny Baker and Florence Rice, two who made Allen Jones and Kitty Carlisle seem like MacDonald/Eddy by comparison.

There are anecdotes to effect of Marxes, individually and together, lighting hot foots to propriety in/out of Hollywood through the 30's --- was this frustrated compensation for movies they knew weren't as funny? These were older men now, mature when they began filming (1929), mischief likelier dreamt by press agents put to task of keeping them in character whether cameras turned or not. Routines throughout At the Circus might look alright on paper, but fall flat for poor staging, off-timed edits. The director was Eddie Buzzell, friendly with the Brothers (stage and vaude) before he became a Metro factory man. Now he wore a leash and wouldn't chance front office slap for seeing things Marx way. The idea was to start and finish At The Circus on assembly terms. So, whose wrong idea was it to put the Marx Bros. under a Big Top? --- freaks among freaks was how it turned out --- and imagine squirm for 60/70's college viewers during twelve-minute wait after credits for Groucho to even show up. Salaried Buster Keaton was sent over to furnish gags, Grouch wondering why this guy might imagine he’d make funnies. Keaton said later that Marxes could never be located at a same time so work might commence. If that was the case, and progress was slowed, why keep them around to fulfill the final two per agreement (Go West, The Big Store)?

Wisecracking To the End --- Even Lobby Card Captions Aren't Spared

In fairness, Groucho didn't want any part of At the Circus, having written off movies after Thalberg passed. Latter was firewall against a front office that never much liked them, less studio effort on Marx behalf a sure sign that things could only get worse. Grouch was habitually unhappy with gags as firm-submitted … what was amusing in the morning would not seem so by lunch. Most comedians were insecure --- how to know if watchers hundreds or thousands of miles distant would eventually laugh? Groucho said, and often, that his lousy movies ended up in crumb-dump cinemas little better than holes he and brothers played through upward struggle, everything after Thalberg going bad to worse. Not hard to understand why in senior years he preferred not to be reminded of the last three at Metro. There was comfort to think At the Circus would fade quick from screens and embarrass Groucho no further. Would he have done the thing at all if he knew it would play revivals all the way to the end of his long life?

And yet there was effort applied here, albeit by ones not fully in grasp of what a good Marx Bros. comedy should be. Evidence suggests there were better situations to start that for whatever reason got discarded. This had been a case before, even Duck Soup monkeyed with and possibly denuded. Ad-libs were expected of the team, so however precise a watch got wound in advance, they'd have their singular way with it. But was that always to the good, or was what got left behind better? We’ll never know as to that. These comics rose or fell on quality of writing. Just because they looked funny and acted that way was no assurance the Brothers could be so for ninety minutes or more. Not one or combined effort of three could save a failing enterprise. To the Marxes, this was work done for a price, Groucho vexed over script quality or its lack, Chico and Harpo earning theirs, then onward to greater priorities. Grouch was pack leader for at least in part caring … we feel load he bore that was At The Circus.

Abandon of their Broadway work could not be recaptured on chalk marks drawn at Metro. Maybe this is what made Circus a war not worth fighting for Chico/Harpo. Life had been free, easy, and fun during stage days, with an audience always there to reward them, while on a sound stage, no gag seemed funny from hindsight of ten takes and counting. I’ll guess Chico had a better time performing with his orchestra in years after At The Circus, but it took a lot of supper clubs to match what one movie paid, plus Chico gambled ... ruinously so. How often do you suppose Groucho or others made him take a pledge? It's easy to knock At the Circus when you watch alone, which again brings up the question: How does this perform to an audience? Did they/Do they laugh? There is a You Tube committee that might answer, a panel of experts that do podcasts second to none for Marx lore. These are fans who have come to the table later than ones supping for fifty plus years, and theirs I must say is a fresher output of appreciation and insight. Listen to any broadcast from The Marx Brothers Council, there are 46 so far, one I particularly enjoy about the notorious Groucho plus Richard Anobile Scrapbook devoted to the team, featuring guest Nick Santa Maria, whose intros and presentations so enlivened last week’s Columbus (Ohio) Moving Picture Show. HERE be where the Council dwells, a must of an address for those who revere the Marx Brothers and want to learn more about them.
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