Wednesday, March 4, 2015

UNDERSTANDING 'LOVE HAPPY'


Why was "Love Happy" (the Marx Brothers last movie sort of) made? The official story is that Chico had gambling debts and the brothers kicked in to help out. But if that's the case, why is Harpo the star? (He's the center of the 'plot', such as it is. Chico is sort of there and Groucho is the film's desperately needed older brother, there to explain and hold together and apologize for the incoherence). Groucho disliked the film intensely, even bad-mouthing it in the interview in which he remembers Marilyn Monroe's participation in the folly. But if you don't think much of a piece of work, you don't mention it, right? You drop the subject. Mentioning an inferiority and your shame at having participated in it only revives the memory of it. Yet Groucho took the opportunity on a number of occasions to loudly proclaim "Love Happy's" lousiness and his disgust with it. Why?

I think it has to do with a family dynamic sort of thing. I wonder about that Chico-gambling debt story. Why didn't the other four brothers--all of them rich and famously devoted to perfectionism--loan him some money, rather than doing a sub-standard piece of work that none of them wanted to participate in and which severely devalued their preciously preserved 'brand'? Only a decade earlier, they'd gone on tour with to clinically test the comedy routines for "A Day At The Races", carefully refining and revising the routines based on audiences responses. (Truthfully, they worked a little too hard on those routines--the scenes, as filmed, feel mechanical and joyless.) Nobody who works that hard decides, ten years later, to be equally as careless with their work.

 No, the 'gambling-debts' story feels like a convenient excuse, designed to explain away something a little sadder.  I wonder if the three brothers had multiple motives in trying to put together one last movie but no longer had the relationships with the people who'd helped make them great. There was no longer a Bert Kalmer-Harry Ruby to pull together the music, a George S. Kaufman-Morrie Ryskind to plot out a book/script for them to hang their routines on, an Irving Thalberg to theorize on how to best market the brothers singular humor. Although all of the above mentioned people (save Thalberg) were alive and well and working, they were somehow unavailable to aid the cause. Perhaps they no longer believed in the act. And perhaps that's what Groucho--who nobody ever accused of being anything but canny and trenchant in his assessment of others--understood and what caused his everlasting annoyance; the greatest comedy act the world had ever known was over--in fact had been abandoned--and somehow hadn't gone quietly. 'Love Happy' is an inglorious bow. They'd needed to get off the stage one or two acts earlier and somehow they'd overstayed their welcome. What was left of the act that had revolutionized comedy (beginning at the turn of the century!) was now just so much B Movie fodder and nobody cared. Yet if 'Love Happy' didn't exist, neither would Marilyn Monroe. So perhaps greatness doesn't really ever die. It just passes its contagion on...

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Monday, March 2, 2015

MONROE V. MARX; A LOVE (HAPPY) STORY


The Marx Brothers 1949 "Love Happy" is generally considered to be not just their worst movie but the worst final movie of any movie comedian ever made. But is it truly beyond critical rehabilitation? Yes. Let's move on to the interesting stuff.

Beyond being an inglorious farewell to the brothers, the film is notable for bringing the world Marilyn Monroe, who has a brief and quite funny scene with Groucho, who later remembered the intense effect she had on everyone on the set. The producer, Lester Cowan, seems to have sensed that there was more value in her than was being taken advantage of in the little scene. So what did he do about it? Write a bigger part for her? Sign her to a long-term contract? No. The justly forgotten Cowan opted for creating a flip-book, featuring Marilyn and Chico. (A flip book is one of those things where you flip pages of photographs and they flutter by making it look like an action is occurring...oh, Christ, I don't need to explain this, do I?) Thus was born the above posted very rare, item: 'FLIP-O-VISION PRESENTS: MR. MISSED HER KISSER. Apparently the stills you'll see in the above video made up the little booklet and tell the riveting story of Chico and Marilyn trying to kiss each other and missing. Terrific! Mostly, the stills are notable for the fact that Marilyn only appears with Groucho in the movie, but apparently Harpo decided to join Chico (who presumably was on call for the flip-book shoot) on the set that day, thus providing us with pics of MM with both Harpo and Chico as well. Or perhaps Groucho alerted them to come to meet the striking young starlet and the flip-book idea was born on the set. It kind of does sound like the sort of thing Chico would think up, doesn't it? (At least the Chico we know in the movies--"hey, I gotta idea, we make-a da flip'a book!" Etc.) Below is a nice clip of Groucho discussing how they hired Marilyn (shot in 1963) as well as her scene from the movie. Monroe's performance is poor in a very interesting way: it's as if she's doing a weak imitation of an actress named Marilyn Monroe, yet doesn't quite have the confidence to pull it off. Not yet, anyway...



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Thursday, February 26, 2015

ON THE SET OF 'ANIMAL CRACKERS' IN COLOR!


You won't believe what you're about to see--the above eighteen second clip. I still don't and I've watched it like twenty times already. It's a candid view of a rehearsal on the set of the Marx Brothers 1930 film 'Animal Crackers' and it's shot in color. In it, Groucho stares at the camera then paces away, clearly bored. Harpo comes out, sans costume, wearing a bathrobe--no wig, no hat, nothin'. Only his singular grin and mad eyes identify him as Harpo. Margaret Dumont crosses camera right and she and Harpo rehearse their introduction, where she reaches for his hand and gets his horn instead.

And that's it. No information on why this exists, why it's in color, why they shot this rehearsal or what else they may have shot. Possibly it was a test of a color system and they rolled on whatever was happening at that moment (which was this rehearsal)? One of the sparse user comments says this scrap was found in an attic. If anyone has any other clues about this, please leave it in the comments section. This is truly one of the most astounding snippets of film I've ever seen. For eighteen seconds, you're on the set of 'Animal Crackers', seeing the real brothers and the whole sh-bang in the non art-deco black and white that we're used to. Lurid thought the colors are, they bring the whole thing to life in a shocking and delightful way.

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Wednesday, February 25, 2015

THE LOST SONGS OF 'A DAY AT THE RACES'


While watching 'A Day At The Races' this past weekend on TCM, I noticed a snippet of a song in the big finale, when everyone is strutting around the racetrack, waving their hands in the air and in general making horses asses of themselves. Groucho turns to Margaret Dumont, sings a bar of a song called "I've Got A Message From The Man In The Moon", then delivers one of the films better Groucho-isms: "I've got a confession to make. I really am a horse doctor. But marry me and I'll never look at another horse again." What was this little tidbit of a tune doing in there? Rechecking the opening credits, I heard the melody in the overture, thus making Groucho's quoting of it a reprise. But a reprise of what? A song that isn't in the movie? Bravely deciding to nerd-our rather than get some real work done, I dug in and discovered that two songs were cut from "A Day At the Races"--two songs which would have been much better left in, assuming that the big boring Winter Carnival scene was dropped. "I've Got A Message From The Man in the Moon" is a good, second-tier thirties love song, but apparently was one too many for the movie (the surviving love song, "Tomorrow Is Another Day", isn't nearly as much fun). The second was a Captain Spaulding-type number for Groucho called "Dr. Hackenbush." Neither, apparently, was filmed. However Allan Jones, the Zeppo of ADATR, did pre-record the first and the recording survives. Alas the person who posted it disabled embedding of it so you have to click here to listen to it. (Why does it piss me off when people do this on Youtube? It's not as if they haven't already violated copyright law by having posted it without permission to begin with).

But the real treat is the above video, created by a very interesting fellow named Noah Diamond, who is clearly a hard-core student of Marxiana (he actually has restored the long lost Marx show "I'll Say She Is" which I'd love to know more about). He took a 1965 Hollywood Palace performance of the song by Groucho and quite clerverly wove it into a recut of the scene it was supposed to appear in--the somewhat flat first appearance of Groucho at the Standish Sanitarium. Check it out. And I'm afraid I have to agree with a comment he makes on his opening scroll. ADATR is the beginning of the brothers decline and much staler than I remember it, with loads of silly plot and set-piece comedy sequences that are simply not inventive enough to sustain the long waits in between comedy scenes. The Thalberg formula for the Marxes--that it was better for them to be in a movie with a 'real' story than a 'funny' story (like the Paramount comedies)--hasn't worn at all well.

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Tuesday, February 24, 2015

SOME LIKE IT DOC


Here's a nifty little twenty-five minute doc I found on Youtube about the making of "Some Like It Hot." Lemmon, Curtis and Wilder are in it, as well as the mysterious I.A.L Diamond, Wilder's writing partner and a man who eschewed any personal publicity, happily allowing Wilder to be the star attraction. There's home movie footage of the location shoot at the Coronado Hotel in San Diego, which doubled for the hotel that was supposed to be Florida, and a very nice and nonsensical evasion from Tony Curtis on the infamous story of what he said when he was asked what it was like kissing Monroe; "it's like kissing Hitler." Curtis actually attempts to spin it as something that was meant as a compliment. Uh, yeah.

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Monday, February 23, 2015

THE SHATNER TOUCH


Above is posted one of the most notorious celebrity meltdown audio clips known to man. In it, William Shatner, while recording a voice-over, is asked for a second-take from the engineer in the booth. The request is not based on the grounds of faulty audio but on the engineers belief that Shatner has a better performance in him. There's no describing the cruelty of Shatner's response, so just listen and cringe. By the way, the recording comes from a re-playing of the tape on the Howard Stern show, so the cackling you hear in the background is coming from the Stern show and not from the studio in which the unfortunate incident occurred. Enjoy...

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Friday, February 20, 2015

ROCKET MAN: A WILLIAM SHATNER RECITATIVE


The above clip, from the 1978 Science Fiction Film Awards (say what?) begins with Karen Black (remember her?) introducing Bernie Taupin (Elton John's lyricist--and must he ever get tired of having that appended to his name) who talks briefly about 'Rocket Man' before introducing William Shatner, who sings the song. Or doesn't really sing it--recites it is probably the best description. Of course this wasn't meant to be taken seriously. Unlike other posts from the past few weeks, we aren't watching somebody trying to do something seriously (singing) and lousing it up (Jerry, Jack, et al). Instead, here we're watching Shatner trying to do something ridiculous and lousing it up. It takes four long boring minutes for him to get through the song, with interminable pauses and cigarette suckings using up half the time. No one in the audience laughs--was it an empty house? Or were they truly perplexed at the not-funny, not-good, not-even-very-interesting performance? Shatner redefines the term Renaissance man--he's remarkable for doing so many different things so poorly. The acting, it turns out, is the least of it...

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Tuesday, February 17, 2015

LUCY IN THE SKY WITH BILL


Our next victim in our relentless search for 'Worst Record Made By An Actor Who Shouldn't Sing" is one of show-businesses most irritating personalities. I refer to the great William Shatner, who in 1967--while Star Trek was at its height--recorded an album called "The Transformed Man." (By the way, it was released by Decca Records, the people who brought you 'Jerry Lewis Just Sings'. Thanks, guys.) Shatner's 'signiture' style was heard for the first time on this abomination, that sort of spoken word thing he does with big pauses and dramatic flourishes and...and...well, listen to his 'take' on "Lucy In The Sky" and you'll feel the magic. As always with Shatner, though, he has that slightly shady way of perhaps putting you on--did he mean this as a straight-up attempt at a pop album? Or was he sending himself up, as he's taken to doing good-naturedly over the past decade or so? Sorry, but I think it's the former. Shatner has never seemed to me to be in on his own joke; he reminds me of a remark made by the famously cranky novelist John O'Hara about another crank novelist Sinclair Lewis. O'Hara thought Lewis was a much poorer writer than his reputation warranted and that people mistook the clumsiness of his characters and dialogue for witty, deadpan satire. "Once they called him a satirist, he woke up and said 'okay, I'm a satirist.' I have a feeling that Shatner, savvy show-biz operator that he is, realized he was being laughed at and decided to go along with it. It certainly didn't hurt Sinclair Lewis, and Shatner is alive and kicking and still relevant in his own queer way. Click on the above and enjoy Big Bill and his encounter with The Beatles. And I'll bet this is the only time/place/blog anywhere where you'll see those four names--Shatner, Lewis, O'Hara and The Beatles--lumped together. Aren't you glad you tuned in?

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Saturday, February 14, 2015

MITCHUM KICKS IT HARD!


The above-posted 1967 recording of Robert Mitchum singing John D. Loudermilk's "You Deserve Each Other Baby" simply KICKS ASS. Little more be said. I'm growing into a Mitchum/Crooner supporter and am sorry I lumped him with Lumpy Lewis and Lemmon in this mini-series of actors-who-mistakenly-thought-they-could-sing-but-shoulda-stood-in-bed. Mitchum chews this up, spits it out and then no doubt finishes the bottle and moves on. Dig it!

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Friday, February 13, 2015

MITCHUM LOOKA BOO BOO


In 1957, as a result of what was a no doubt rum-soaked journey to Trinidad (for filming of "Fire Down Below" perhaps?) Robert Mitchum recorded a full album of calypso music. Titled "Calypso Is Like So", the album confounds expectations, managing to be quite humorous and bouncy, despite Mitchum's mimicking of local accents making the whole thing a little iffy nowadays. Nonetheless, tracks like 'Mama Looka Boo Boo' (posted above), 'Cocoanut Water' and 'From A Logical Point Of View' make for fun 'easy listening', though I have to say that Mitchum's voice seems speeded up. Perhaps nitrous was a drug of choice in Trinidad in those years? Or in Hollywood?

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Wednesday, February 11, 2015

THE ROBERT MITCHUM THING



Here's a weirdie. Robert Mitchum was known to sing title songs for his movies--'Thunder Road' most notably--and even did a Calypso album ("Calypso Is Like So..."). But at some point in the late '40s, early 50s, he seems to have made a handful of straight-up jazz vocals for an album that never materialized. The material wound up coming out in 1997 on a CD called "Robert Mitchum; Tall Dark Stranger."

They're a curious batch of records as they clearly were not meant for release. Rather they seem to be tests, first drafts if you will, of how Mitchum might approach the tunes. They're all too short--running just over a minute or so--and except for 'Blue Skies', none of them have an ending. Mitchum kind of fades away, not confident in his ability to wrap up the song in a jazzy way that will sync with the pianist (whom I don't know the identity of). On a couple of them you hear him derisively pooh-pooh the effort at the tale end of the take ("I told you that ending wouldn't work..." etc.). But the oddest thing about the existence of these tracks is that, unlike Jack Lemmon and Jerry Lewis (see previous week's posts), Mitchum is actually a pretty cool cat when it comes to his singing. He has a little Dino in his accent and more than a touch of Frankie Laine in his sliding, quasi-country beltings. You get the definite impression that had he focused on it more, he'd have gotten more comfortable and confident and actually pulled this stuff off.

But that wasn't Mitchum's way. It either fell into place for him or it didn't. That was how he approached acting and life. To work hard (or be seen working hard) wasn't his thing. I've always dug the story of him when working on Elia Kazan's movie of Fitzgerald's "The Last Tycoon." It goes like this: Robert De Niro and Kazan were deep in 'method' rehearsals and conversations, which Mitchum naturally had no interest in. One of the other actors heard their rehearsals and was fascinated with a direction he heard Kazan give--a way to achieve the distracted, melancholy nature of the doomed studio-head Monroe Stahr. The actor told Mitchum that Kazan asked De Niro to always be thinking of something other than the lines he was reading while he was talking. Mitchum shrugged and said, "Shit, I've been doing that for forty years."

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Friday, February 6, 2015

ON THE OTHER HAND...TONY BENNETT ACTOR?

"The Oscar" starring Stephen Boyd, Elke Sommer, Milton Berle and way too many other famous people to bother mentioning, is considered by many to be one of the worst movies ever made. (I would amend to that--"in color by a major studio" but many would disagree. And what the hell of it?) With every line a cliche, every performance pitched perfectly wrong, and a raging score to underline the various gaffes and missteps, the film is a disaster to behold and a joy to watch.

But what has this to do with our obsessive pursuit of good actors needing to prove themselves good singers? Well, in this case we have a reverse example of the syndrome we've been studying vis a vis Jerry Lewis and Jack Lemmon (with Robert Mitchum on the horizon). For among the many embarrassments found in "The Oscar" is the only screen performance (other than cameos) of one of the greatest singers of our time, Tony Bennett. He plays Hymie Kelley, whose name is explained by his having a Jewish mother and Irish father--this is typical of the film in that they managed to cast an Italian-American in the role and didn't bother to simply alter one of the nationalities and thus make sense of Bennett's incredibly Italian-Americanish looks and personality. Hymie is a loyal sidekick to movie star Frankie Fain (Stephen Boyd) but eventually realizes what a prick he is and has a meltdown renunciation scene which will leave you stunned by its...its...well lets just say that Tony does to acting what Jerry does "Get Happy" (or Jack does to "Try A Little Tenderness").To Tony's credit, he has often said that he hated the experience, thought he was no good at all and made certain never never NEVER to act again. In 1980s "Golden Turkey Award" book, Michael Medved and Harry Medved (Michael's father? brother? husband?) awarded Bennett "Worst Performance By a Popular Singer." Which makes me think that a similar award should be given out to our actor/singers, a la "Worst Record By a Popular Actor". I like it. I'm only sorry that the idea was Medveds, and not a critic anyone actually respects. Ladies and gentleman, click on the above link to witness Anthony Benedetto's debut and farewell performance in "The Oscar." Stinko!

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