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Georg Wilhelm Pabst
In France, an insane surgeon's obsession with an actress from England leads him to replace her pianist husband's hands that got mangled in an accident with the hands of a late knife murderer which still have the urge to throw knives.
When we think of German cinema of the 1930s, I think it's fair to say that for most of us light comedy is not the first thing that comes to mind. But director Erich Engel made quite a few such films during the period, often featuring a perky brunette named Jenny Jugo. For those of us more familiar with Hollywood comediennes she comes off rather like Bebe Daniels, with a touch of Gracie Allen and a dash or two of Lucille Ball in her TV heyday. She gives a very winning performance in Funf von der Jazzband, a cute comedy that offers some clever gags and one terrific musical number.
The story concerns a struggling quartet, the Jazz Band Four, who are desperate to get hired to play at a prestigious music hall. Early on, when they audition for the theater's hard-to-please director, their performance is exhilarating—for me, a definite highlight of the film. Not only is their theme song a catchy, lively tune, but the musicians spice up the number with sight gags and funny props: a balloon that inflates from a saxophone, a lady's hat that appears from nowhere, a pistol fired unexpectedly, etc. And there's also an incredibly risqué gag involving a horn held like a portion of the male anatomy that must be seen to be believed. I don't think any studio in Hollywood could have gotten away with that bit, even in the Pre-Code era.
In any case, this is when our leading lady Jessie enters the act, though quite unwillingly. She's a stranger to the musicians, a somewhat dizzy young lady who has coincidentally gone backstage to see the manager, and then has to climb a ladder to find him. At the climax of the jazz number her ladder topples onto the stage, depositing her in the drum kit. The music hall director, who (oddly) wasn't very impressed with the band up until this moment, loves this big finish and hires them on the spot, but with the understanding that Jessie will perform her fall regularly as part of the act. Jessie, who has no musical talent, and no desire to be part of what is now the Jazz Band Five, must be persuaded to stick around, go along with the misunderstanding, and risk all for the sake of a paycheck.
That's the gist of the plot, and, like so many show business stories, it all builds up to a high pressure occasion: opening night. Happily, there are some amusing gags along the way. For instance, every time Jessie gets angry and slams a door, the same painting falls from the wall. (Eventually, one of the guys tries to catch it.) In a more elaborate sequence, our leading lady, who has had too much to drink, staggers across a busy street and narrowly misses getting hit by passing cars. (Comedy fans will be reminded of a similar routine from It's a Gift with W.C. Fields, made two years later.) In the last portion of the film there's even a surprise appearance by young Peter Lorre, as a sleazy car thief. His role is brief, but it's a treat to see him at this very early point in his acting career.
Funf von der Jazzband is a rarity, but worth chasing down if you can find it. Jenny Jugo is a nice discovery for buffs interested in films of the '30s, and having enjoyed her work in this zippy vehicle I'd like to see more. This is someone who deserves to be better known.
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