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Edward F. Cline
A small country on the verge of bankruptcy is persuaded to enter the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics as a means of raising money. Either a masterpiece of absurdity or a triumph of satire, depending on your mood, but it's quite possibly the funniest movie ever made, and becomes even funnier with subsequent viewings.Written by
They don't make 'em like this anymore! In fact, they hardly ever made 'em like this in the first place. Million Dollar Legs is one of a kind, a truly bizarre comedy with attitude to spare and an otherworldly quality all its own. This is a Flesicher cartoon come to life, full of weird non sequiturs, sassy quips, slapstick violence and sexy dance moves. It's hard to believe that such an off-the-wall concoction was the product of the Hollywood studio system of the '30s; it looks more like something written by Algonquin Round Table wiseacres during a late night, booze-fueled party. The closest cinematic parallel would be the Marx Brothers' Duck Soup, made at the same studio (Paramount) by the same producer (Herman J. Mankiewicz) a year later. Both movies take place in mythical countries and include elements of political satire, with oblique references to the financial crisis then sweeping the globe. Both movies were made when Fascist and Soviet totalitarianism was on the march, and both use crazy verbal and visual gags to suggest a world gone mad. Still, Million Dollar Legs is the one that takes the madness concept deeper into the Outer Limits. The Marx Brothers' classic may be a funnier and more tightly made comedy, but this flick is crazier. Viewers with a taste for surreal silliness will be in seventh heaven.
This film was made in anticipation of the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics. The Paramount brass wanted to have something ready to go into theaters in conjunction with the games, and instead of a routine sports picture it was suggested that a comedy would be novel. The project was given to Herman Mankiewicz to supervise, since he'd worked with the Marx Brothers on Monkey Business and seemed to have a knack for this sort of thing. Mankiewicz, an eccentric wit from New York who'd been a regular member of the Algonquin literary set, assigned the script to his 24 year-old brother Joe and a writer named Henry Myers. In later years Joseph L. Mankiewicz told interviewers that the studio brass responded favorably to his crazy ideas and didn't seem too concerned about what kind of movie it turned out to be, as long as it involved the Olympics. One wonders how those Front Office executives -- not to mention Olympics Committee officials -- reacted when they saw the results.
Our story is set in the republic of Klopstokia, a land that time forgot where, we're informed, the chief imports, exports, and inhabitants are nuts and goats. In Klopstokia all the women are named Angela and all the men are named George -- except for our leading lady's little brother Willie, who shoots people in the butt with arrows. The place has a forlorn backwater atmosphere, although the inhabitants all possess superhuman athletic ability. The plot concerns a visiting American brush salesman (Jack Oakie) blessed with the name Migg Tweeny, who falls in love with a Klopstokian girl (Susan Fleming) who happens to be the daughter of the country's beleaguered President (W.C. Fields). Tweeny's boss is eager to bestow money on deserving athletes, so Tweeny, who has been fired, contrives a plan to recruit a team of Klopstokian super-athletes for the Los Angeles Olympics. Thus he can win prize money for Klopstokia, win back his job, and win his girl. The President, meanwhile, must fend off palace coup attempts in a land crawling with spies.
The plot doesn't matter, this movie is all about gags. Million Dollar Legs is generally remembered today as a W.C. Fields vehicle, but although he has a number a good moments he's really just a member of the larger comic ensemble. The tone of the comedy certainly isn't characteristically "Fieldsian," but feels instead like an attempt to revive the freewheeling, anything-goes atmosphere of the early Keystone comedies, updated with a '30s sensibility and satirical wordplay. The Keystone revival motif is underlined by the casting of numerous veterans of the Sennett studio in supporting roles, including Andy Clyde, Vernon Dent, Heinie Conklin, etc. Most notably, Ben Turpin makes a number of wordless appearances as a spy dressed in black. When talkies came in Turpin began a new career in cameo roles, serving as a kind of instant nostalgia figure representing the old days, nowhere so amusingly as here. Jack Oakie and Susan Fleming are the juvenile leads, and while normally I don't much care for Oakie I must admit he's quite appropriately cast as the feckless American brush salesman. Susan Fleming was a gorgeous brunette who is best remembered as Mrs. Harpo Marx. Based on the evidence at hand she wasn't much of an actress, but her awkward line readings (reminiscent of Ruby Keeler) boost the enterprise greatly: instead of "selling" the material she delivers her dialog with a flat-footed earnestness that makes it funnier. And special mention must go to the great Lyda Roberti in the role of the Mata Hari-like Mata Machree, the Woman No Man Can Resist. Faced with formidable competition Roberti rises to the occasion and practically steals the picture with a show-stopping performance of her big number "When I Get Hot in Klopstokia," a tune that sadly doesn't get much airplay nowadays.
There aren't many movies that even try to be as wacky as this one, but that doesn't mean Million Dollar Legs hasn't been influential. I would guess that its admirers have included everyone from Preston Sturges, Ernie Kovacs and Stan Freberg to the writing staffs of Mad Magazine, National Lampoon, Saturday Night Live and The Onion. The comic sensibility may not be to everyone's taste, but for connoisseurs of Pre-Code surrealism this is a gourmet feast.
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