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Monday, September 18, 2023

Category Called Comedy #3

 


CCC: Million Dollar Legs, The Lucky Dog, They Got Me Covered, and Big Jack



MILLION DOLLAR LEGS (1932) --- Really wacky, almost perverse comedy. Million Dollar Legs got latter years boost when Pauline Kael wrote somewhere that it was good, and so of course, others followed suit. How could one tire of mere 64 minutes? Looks like everybody who ever raised a laugh was hired, none so long as to fatigue, Jack Oakie most visible. Shown if at all because W.C. Fields is aboard, Million Dollar Legs has him by-playing with other comics. We wonder how competitive these clowns were, on-set or off. This was Bill’s first time talking for Paramount, them trusting him for support or specialties for the time being, starring work to wait until a public seemed ready. Gags are saucy and travel fast. There’s constant sense of having missed something that might be funny. Laughter arises from the unexpected, at times outrageous. Young Joseph Mankiewicz was among writers. He’d recall later what a mess it all seemed. Paramount refined a sense of the absurd thanks to talent not of norm (Fields, the Marx Bros.), seemed intent on being the lead comedy shop, at least for features. But hold, they were releasing shorts too, from independents, including mighty Mack Sennett in waning days. If the Million Dollar Legs applied to a character, that would have been Susan Fleming, appealing and offbeat presence sold as “Girl With …” the title assets. She stayed with movies until trade-up to marriage with Harpo Marx that endured till he died in 1964. She lived to age 94 and left memoirs lately published, a book I keep meaning to read, as word says it is fine and thoroughly candid. TCM released Million Dollar Legs on their DVD label in 2013, ran it a few times on the network, an old transfer unfortunately, plus there is a Region Two disc as part of a crowded W.C. Fields box. I’ve not so far seen a Blu-Ray offered.



THE LUCKY DOG (1917? 1919? No, 1921) --- The Lucky Dog marked a first time Laurel and Hardy performed on screen together. Not upon many screens however, as this two-reel subject played precious few venues due to fold of the firm producing it, The Lucky Dog interchangeable with others of commonplace content. We care for obvious reason of L&H and not a lot else, the century old obscurity made meaningful from initial “rediscovery” in 1963 when Robert Youngson came across a 16mm print and blew it up to highlight 30 Years of Fun. Found footage was less a thing then, Youngson and crew wrong as to when The Lucky Dog was made (they said 1919, others had floated 1917). Never mind though, as it was unexpected joy to see Laurel and Hardy cavort in something few knew existed till Youngson’s reveal. Truth was The Lucky Dog being around and sold to hobbyists on 16mm since the early 30’s, but how many of these still had their print, or remembered L&H both being involved? What Youngson came across was 1963 equivalent to The Battle of the Century turning up more-less complete in 2015. Lucky Dog would be a basis to benefit 30 Years of Fun. Who would assert, or care enough, that it had never been lost? Emerging Laurel-Hardy fans of nit-pick nature challenged 1919 as production date for The Lucky Dog, one among them noting a license plate barely visible in the film, car confirming date that was actually 1921, not news in a mainstream sense but meaningful to community from which members compiled a Blu-Ray of L&H silents to lately enter the public domain. What impresses me and undoubted others is hunt and gather of more Lucky Dog footage since Robert Youngson shared his four or so minutes in 1963, visual quality hugely improved as expected, this completing a historical record plus giving us not just an artifact put right but an entertaining comedy, in Blackhawk parlance, “substantially” as seen at few theatrical slots The Lucky Dog filled in 1921.



THEY GOT ME COVERED (1943) --- So much war reference as to date grievously, fun had for that reason mainly, us to wonder the while if there were really spy conspiracies to approach what Otto Preminger and crew have in mind here, or for that matter, what German operatives planned in Saboteur and All Through the Night. Bob Hope was his own resistance force apart from what he did in movies, the public well abreast of the comedian's globe canvas on victory behalf and hazards he willingly faced in the doing. Hope as radio spokesman for films he made was guarantor of earning, $3.3 million in worldwide rentals for They Got Me Covered more than anyone else’s comedy could dream of. Bob as hopeless bungler of a war correspondent misses the German invasion of Russia, so must compensate by quelling Axis takedown of US industry. This he does by check-off of then-hot topics meaningless to us now, but again, that’s essence for watching and a history lesson if not the laff riot Covered must have seemed in 1943. Hope did not make movies for the ages anymore than contemporaries Danny Kaye or Abbott-Costello, but these were clowns that prospered best in their day, freshness as then perceived, while immortals we’d propose, Keaton, Laurel-Hardy, even Chaplin, represented humor fashion now past. Hope was quick, relevant, and naughty as a vigilant Code allowed, the comic for whom daily news supplied gags. Watching him was to be hep to headlines almost before they happened, Hope good as any barometer to show how our war was going. They Got Me Covered was untypically for Goldwyn rather than Paramount, so production is elevated, Rudolph Maté for instance behind cameras, this to make Covered desired by collectors in 16mm, him supplier of handsome look for whatever he photographed. They Got Me Covered is playing “free” at present on You Tube. Don’t know how long that will last.



BIG JACK (1949) --- Wallace Beery’s last picture. Why discuss him at all? Maybe for fact that of all MGM stars, his vehicles never lost money, and vehicles they most resolutely were, change or variation things anathema to Wally’s fans as well as employers. Could he have sustained the fifties? Possibly … imagine Beery’s First in Cinemascope! or him being shotgun-toting dad to some of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. Beery may have had questionable appeal for ladies, but was catnip to men who’d lay about home with suspenders down and being truculent to wives. Wally was truculent too, not to everybody as some would allege. Jeanette MacDonald in fact liked him, said Beery gave her best advice of all from Hollywood, Squeakiest wheels get the grease, he said, and she from that point on applied the principle to Leo’s front office. A few of kid co-stars liked him OK; it was mainly ones he had to work with repeatedly that got Beery’s goat. Margaret O’Brian famously tells of how he stole her box lunch on Bad Bascomb’s location. Yeah, but can you prove that, Margaret? To my untrained eye, Beery was one of the best performers the business ever had, simply for going totally his own way and hang the dialogue others prepared for him. Players learned to follow his lead and find marks where they could. Would director/producers straighten Wally out? Good luck with that. Beery kept a cabin in the woods, being like Chaney for preferring his own company. Big Jack might as well be called Big Slob for Beery expectations met. In fact, they all could have been titled that. Co-star was Marjorie Main, who wouldn’t seem so inadequate had not Marie Dressler been around in the early thirties to show how such a part should be played.

8 Comments:

Blogger DBenson said...

Joseph Mankiewicz also wrote the Wheeler & Woolsey "Diplomaniacs", which trods similar territory and is almost a rough draft for "Duck Soup". It's a fun film, but underscores that it's possible to be TOO silly. Secondary and even minor characters are as surreal as the stars, and you miss the tether to reality that Margaret Dumont and various straight men provided for the Marx Brothers. In "Million Dollar Legs", Oakie and Fleming aren't necessarily more sane but largely oblivious to the wilder doings around them, serving as a reference point.

Bob Hope and similar of-the-moment acts actually had widespread shelf life into the 60s. Old theatrical cartoons and Bs were the default local television programming, so we couldn't help but pick up enough context to get the jokes. Then came color, and then a critical mass of color content to push Road pictures and the like into novelty territory.

5:16 PM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

"Million Dollar Legs" is terrific -- until the action shifts to the cruise ship, and the movie collapses under its own weight, never to pick up speed again. Kind of the opposite problem with the Marx Bros. in "Monkey Business".

As for Wallace Beery -- recently saw him in the 1931 bootlegging drama "The Secret Six". He's quite good, underplaying nicely in what often feels like a proto-Method performance. Reminds of Lionel Barrymore, in that they both started out realistic only to pull out all the hammy stops as they got older. Guess people liked it.

To DBenson: Paramount saw a lot of similarities between "Duck Soup" and "Diplomaniacs" -- so much so that they sued Mankiewicz and RKO for plagiarism. I dunno what the outcome was. I really like "Diplomaniacs" a lot (after that awful barbershop scene, that is). There seemed to be a lot of movie comedies at that time which would be commended as "surreal" decades later, while their creators likely thought they were just wacky fun to distract audiences from the Depression.

5:48 PM  
Blogger Dave said...

For me, Beery's popularity is one of Hollywood's greatest mysteries. He's a terrible actor and has little charm. Given Mayer's taste for dentist-drill sopranos, though, the presence of someone irritating on the payroll maybe isn't -that- baffling.

An ex-girlfriend, whose father was an editor at Metro, recently told me that he had told her that it was always possible to tell where Beery had been on the lot: just follow the stench of beer and B.O.

2:08 AM  
Blogger IA said...

"Million Dollar Legs" was one of Pauline Kael's favorite movies. In a post-retirement interview Newsweek asked her "what's the greatest movie you've ever seen?" She replied, "Some years I might have answered D. W. Griffith's 'Intolerance.' Some days I might have said W C. Fields in 'Million Dollar Legs.' Right now I think I'd say Kirsanoff's 'Menilmontant,' a short French film from 1926. It has a lyricism Chaplin could only dream of."

As noted above by DBenson, Joseph Mankiewicz also wrote Wheeler & Woolsey's "Diplomaniacs." I disagree about it being too silly though; I love how out-there and surreal those 30s "crazy fool" comedies were, and they were usually too short to wear out their welcome. Wheeler & Woolsey had also ventured into proto-Duck Soup territory with "Cracked Nuts" (1931), which featured Edna Oliver, Boris Karloff, and Ben Turpin, but "Diplomaniacs" is a much stronger and wackier film, thanks to Joseph Mankiewicz---I wish he'd done one or two more crazy comedies.

Rene Clair cited "Million Dollar Legs" as a big influence on his "Le dernier milliardaire" ("The Last Millionaire," 1934), which was a critical and commercial bomb on release but today holds up very well. It represents the end of the Ruritanian comedy cycle...and perhaps that of the 30s crazy fool comedies too.

2:46 PM  
Blogger Filmfanman said...

I found the Hope film online, and it was a good print too; and I think the collectors are right, Mate's cinematography is very good - some of the shots, like those of Hope with the machinery in the exercise room of the Nazi spies' health spa/ beauty salon front operation, or moving about in the marbled halls of same, have a very clean "modern" look to them, a very "post-war" look to my eyes; those shots in fact reminded me of the industrial photos of the 1950s showcasing sleek, new and very clean-looking petro-chemical plants - come to think of it, looking much like the place Jimmy Cagney blows up at the end of "White Heat".

As to Beery - I think that like many movie stars, he projected a similar character in all the roles he played ( or at least in the films of his that I've seen) and more importantly, that a sufficient number of the paying public at that time enjoyed spending time with that character for Beery to make a viable starring movie career out of it.
I don't think that acting has ever been the most important thing for a movie star - it's rather the appeal to the public of the character that is being projected by the player that is the key to that level of popularity. For the same reason, it's all too easy for a movie star to have a "miss" rather than a "hit" whenever they attempt a role which doesn't portray in some way that same character. I think John Wayne was very wise never to play a out-and-out villain.

2:58 PM  
Blogger Neely OHara said...

Re THEY GOT ME COVERED;

One of the most interesting bits pertaining to WWII is a looped line at the end. Hope kicks the Japanese villain in ass as the heavies are arrested, and says, “That’s to save your face,” but a careful look at Hopes lips shows the line was changed from the original, “That’s for Pearl Harbor.”

Perhaps producers thought the Pearl Harbor reference wouldn’t age well…

12:13 PM  
Blogger Tommie Hicks said...

Regarding LUCKY DOG:
You get the impression from the Youngson comp that the robbery scene between Stan and Babe was all the interaction between the two. Imagine my surprise in the early '80s when I finally saw the film in its entirety that Oliver Hardy was in the whole short. Stan's brother Ted played the butler.

10:40 PM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

When I ran INTERNATIONAL HOUSE at Rochdale College in Toronto in the 1970s if I told the audience before the film that in "THAT REEFER MAN" Cab Calloway was singing about marijuana they go, "Wow!"

If I didn't they never got it. The same with the song "SWEET MARIJUANA" in MURDER AT THE VANITIES and with Chaplin snorting "nose powder" in MODERN TIMES. The thing was the audience was there for W.C.Fields only. They were blind to the great talents surrounding him. That is what happens with fans.

Rochdale was a unique experiment in alternate education. Each Rochdalian was called to be their own teacher. There were no teachers in the formal sense. Few were. What there was were "Resource People." These were people invited to live at Rochdale cost free who had achieved success in their field on condition they talk with anyone who wanted to talk with them. Judith Merril, the mother of modern SF, was one of the resource people. I knew her from her anthologies of THE YEAR'S BEST SF. I went to Rochdale top meet her. We became friends for life.

The thing that wicked was that the government agreed to allow the use of hashish, LSD, marijuana, mescaline and peyote as part of the Rochdale experiment. If any audience should have been hip to those moments in those films this was it. Most were not. Rochdale became a target of yellow journalism that highlighted the drug use thus drawing people who were only there for the drugs. The media created a monster out a damned good thing. I am very proud to have been part of it. When, in 1970 two police officers in Hollywood asked me what I had done in Toronto I said, "I showed films at Rochdale College." They said, Do you mean Canada's Communist Training Centre," I said to myself, "If the police in the most out of touch city on earth know of Rochdale it must be the hippest place on earth. I have to get back to Toronto." I returned at once to become Rochdale's Director of Cinema Studies. Among my regulars was Jane Jacobs. Rochdale was the hippest place on earth. There is one helluva movie to be made out if that story. I tell part of it in my book, THE NIGHT THEY RAIDED ROCHDALE. You have not lived until you've met a cop terrified by everything he has heard, read and seen in the media with his gun aimed between your eyes.

4:45 PM  

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