There must have been something in the Paramount water in the early 30's, as once in a while they released something completely off-the-wall, full of very broad humor, eccentric stunts, wild dance moves, and plot absurdities--two prime examples were directed by Leo McCarey--this one, and three years later, the comic jewel Duck Soup, with all four Marx Brothers. In between, W.C. Fields starred in Million Dollar Legs, another screwy film taking place in Klopstockia, the nation where all the men are named George and the women are named Angela, and where the office of President is decided by arm wrestling.
In this film, absurdities abound, and if you like your humor more linear or sophisticated, the nonsense may not be appealing...native girls in hula skirts on a remote island speak with a "poifect Brooklyn accent," gravel-voiced Eugene Palette, a house mover, cautions his workers to handle with care, and then, naturally and continually inadvertently smashes vases to smithereens. Oakie breaks out in several tap routines with great charm and elan, and Jeanette seems to be having fun just along for the ride. It makes almost no sense at all, unlike say, Abbott and Costello or The Three Stooges, who at least follow a logical plot line, bordering if not crossing into the territory of surreal.
Unfortunately, sources where this film is available in a decent quality print do not exist, and the DVDs currently available are terribly washed out with fuzzy sound; one seems to be only to see it at Museum and College Retrospectives. It's time for whoever currently controls the early Paramount product to dig these things out--especially the early Kay Francis films not available.
First and foremost, Jeanette's singing remains glorious, and unlike most of her films, she doesn't need to maintain soprano dignity at all times, but is given the opportunity to say a good many things she doubtless wanted to say in some of the other films--this was 1942, after all, and there was a good deal of censorship. But this was also based on a late Rodgers and Hart Broadway musical, and spicy situations were inherent in the script, though tamped down.
This is lavish in a way only MGM could manage, but has a whiff of Paramount in it's sophisticated treatment of romance and setting. And also because it is from MGM who advertised "more stars than there are in Heaven," it's provides an opportunity to see dozens of character actors, however briefly, especially in a banquet scene that turns into a very weird version of musical chairs.
It's too bad that some of the end scenes with MacDonald appearing in Carmen and in Faust (what's she doing with that moth-eaten terrier?) weren't of ample length, so her voice could be showcased even more than it was in the glorious over-blown scene where "Angel" Jeanette is surrounded with harps.
If a viewer wants straight operetta romance with the usual formula--New Moon, Naughty Marietta, or Maytime (one of their very best!) this off-the- wall effort is not it. But if a viewer seeks something that director Major W.S. Van Dyke let fly for fun, you may find this as amusing as I did.
This soapy yarn centers around a hometown newsstand girl who becomes an international actress almost overnight in order to make sure her dull hubby John Litel doesn't stay into the clink where he was tossed when he offed a bad actor by decking him for insulting Our Kay. The film was made during a later period of Kay's career, when Warners was attempting to convince their fading star to break her contract so they wouldn't need to pay her exorbitant contract fee; Gutsy Kay didn't care much at this point, but gamely let herself be cast in B movies like this one, second string films, weepers made specifically for women's matinees—a time long before television. She still made the money.
The Orry-Kelly costumes that Kay styles are ravishing; as she rises from burlesque sweetie to continental darling, the dresses rise to the occasion, often deliciously outrageous. And there are some worthwhile performances from familiar Hollywood character actors, the best likely from Minna Gombel as a "wise old broad" who knows her way around and babysits Kay's souvenir from her small town marriage—and you may want to strangle Sybil Jason, a child star who mugs and grimaces until you want to scream for her to get off the screen! (During an early backstage visit as Kay meets the famous out-of-town thespian, one also gets a glimpse of Susan Hayward, who has a single line in an itty-bitty part).
And since we never, ever, get to see what talents catapulted Kay to world fame on stage-she's always ready to go on or meeting with someone after the show; we don't get to see The Comet In Action! But this is melodrama at its most extreme, and by the end of the film you may never forgive yourself for sticking with it—unless you find the absurd conclusion as much fun as I did. Comet Over Broadway is not a great film, and maybe not even a very good one—but it's never dull and is cunningly crafted so that you can hardly wait to see not only what Kay will wear next, but if her heart will take her where it should.
And color it has, And it is a loud farce. But although it completely lacks the soft focus turn of the century costumer that Grable so often appeared it, and barely gives the viewer time to absorb the nutty humor, Beautiful Blonde, from it's initial scenes with Grandpa Russell Simpson teaching his little curly-haired granddaughter to reduce bottles to smithereens with a careful aim to the last mad gunfight, a loud and vulgar and often screamingly funny parody of dozens of final shoot-outs in hundreds of western hero epics, this film exudes a sense of madness, of a cast nearly out of control in the spirit of farce.
One critic mentions how often Olga San Juan as "Conchita" the dark- skinned servant, is insulted—but failed to remark on her hilarious comebacks, a few surely cut off mid-sentence by censorship concerns. If a careful viewer listens carefully (often hard to do in this raucous unendingly noisy film), there are ample double-entendres as well as the beginnings of a limerick that rhymes with "Nantucket." Surely most alert viewers will fill in the blank. This film demands your attention, and if you do not have the patience for noise and chaos as part of your experience, you may actively dislike it.
Grable seems to be having a great time, especially as the substitute teacher with a golden gun, confronted by a pair of demented youths out of some clueless Beavis-world, one an off-the-wall Sterling Holloway. And the film is certainly worth watching just to see so many familiar character actors taking full advantage of their few lines—whether it's Margaret Hamilton, Hugh Herbert or for a brief moment, Marie Windsor in full-on scarlet feather drag—the film is so short, so fast-paced, that co-star Cesar Romero almost seems insignificant, and seems to be plot window-dressing. Which he is!
Of course this is no Palm Beach Story, that brilliant farce about romance and love and money: nor has it the zany coherence of The Miracle of Morgan's Creek. But it reflects the scattershot, nutty world that Sturges created so often, and seems like his final party before the silence descended--and you are invited.
In many ways, this is a deeply cynical film (witness the running commentary from the two constant house guests) about public and private lives, the last gasp of pre-code comedy before the censors came down hard on creative expression of and shuttered them into the kitchen with their aprons for the next thirty years or so, when Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton exposed a more modern version of the S/M games that can develop when love is stunted by circumstance. This is not a great film by any measure, but viewed in an unusual context can be great fun.
One fascinating performance is offered by the underused Charlie Grapewin, perhaps known to the average film goer as Uncle Henry in The Wizard of Oz, or as Grandpa in Grapes of Wrath (Grapewins's most sympathetic and memorable role is as burned-out Jeeter Lester in Jonh Ford's misunderstood Tobacco Road). In Johhny Apollo, Grapewin's take on the burned-out lawyer who takes milk with his Scotch and mumbles Shakespeare when to evade confrontation is both funny and endearing and he becomes a pivotal plot element as the plot thickens.
And thicken it does, with lusty Edward Arnold tossed into jail for embezzlement, and his disowned son, Power, taking up with gangster Lloyd Nolan (always reliable, but here essayed with a nasty undercurrent); much of what Nolan's brutal ganglord does adds a noir element to the film,and a brief scene in a steam bath is right out of Sam Fuller.
Add thug Marc Lawrence from Broadway, Jonathan Hale, reliably a doctor, Fuzzy Knight as a nervous prisoner, and from the Son of Frankenstein, Lionel Atwill, cold and calculating as the lawyer without ethics--until money is dangled his way. The pace never flags, and, except for a short and absurd tagged-on ending that Zanuck probably demanded on behalf of Power fans, the film builds to a dynamic shoot-out in a prison. Not a great classic, but a perfect example of 20th Century Fox machine making a film worth watching.
The camera continues a barrage of brilliantly made images edited with speed and expertise, built around the main character, Richard Dix (a hugely popular star for a short period of time), in for bank robbery, and dismayed when his younger brother ends up in the same camp.
Unlike many RKO melodramas, this film has a strong documentary feeling, with some persuasive touches seldom seen in a fast-moving prison film-- during one mother's visit to the prison, the camera pauses in close-up just long enough to see a grown man feel the touch of his mother's palm. The prison supervisor is normally a unfeeling chilly individual--but in an intimate quiet scene is shown tuning up his violin and sitting down to play some music while the convicts are chained in a cage.
And for those of you who are Flash Gordon devotees, Charles "Ming The Merciless" Middleton essays the prison mystic, crucial to several plot developments, and often very funny in a space of his very own. There is much to notice in the film, such as the black prisoner's chorus with a refrain that encapsulates another plot development, and the effeminate cook treated as something other than another Hollywood stereotype. Hell's Highway is one of those gems that make digging around in the old stuff worthwhile.
I bring this up because it seems to be that many reviewers of this film are looking for something besides a good thriller, a tight mystery with clues strewn here and there but little definite plot until, as the film continues, a willing viewer can easily get caught up in several kinds of espionage and cult subterfuge, one can get caught up in what I might call a Midnight Special,i.e. a film to watch for fun, to suspend one's disbelief so that the involvement is total.
The ingredients are here: the film has an independent streak, features five actors of compelling capability, several really frightening jump-out-of-your-seat moments, and enough likely intentional references to past films of a similar nature to echo past thrills as one runs away with the haunted, gifted child escaping and his parents. This isn't Manchester By The Sea, nor is it a cartoon--and doesn't intend to be. It's a roller coaster ride, a Midnight Special. For me it succeeds in spades.
From the opening shots on a foggy wharf, with a mysterious large box hoisted off as ship and into a truck, the extremely mobile camera transports us quickly to an English boarding house crammed with lamps and antimacassars and ferns and portraits and zooms from upstairs to downstairs and in and out of doors as suspects in a crime skulk about and share concerns and accusations with mild hysteria lurking just below their civilized surfaces.
But this is not a serious film; it is a fast-paced gem full of strange relationships, a murder or two, folks running about in disguises, and, at last, a clueless police force showing up as things get out of hand, a couple of bodies in locked upstairs rooms.
I was never bored, was often amused, had a devil of a time attempting to pin down who-done-it, and much enjoyed the offbeat characters written into the script. Would that much of today's major films had the virtues of succinctness!
Toss into the mix two extended bar-room brawls, plenty of unexpected sentiment and some classy singing, and what results is a Western in the spirits of Destry Rides Again--not quite in the same class, but nevertheless more entertaining than one might except and needing a really good DVD transfer. Go Turhan!
It it with regret that I found the Madison Square Garden cold and obvious, overly calculated, as if Izzard was cowed by his first major appearance in New York, feared the chill that almost every comic feels in his bones when the joke falls flat. This hour and a half set lacked the charming, sometime childlike silliness that Eddie can conjure up, and in place of that inventive fun that one excepts, seems far too scripted, and his all-too frequent use of the "F" word in place of wit or commentary or impersonation, seems a desperate cover-up for failing to charm the audience.
One complaint that has nothing to do with Izzard himself but everything to do with the production designer is the much too frequent use of audience shots, the camera set on different couples, supposedly rolling in hilarity, as if to demonstrate to the viewer that indeed, this is a funny program (when in truth if often lacks genuine hilarity) implying that everybody else is in hysterics--and why aren't you? I didn't pay to watch the audience.
I kept thinking that as Izzard moved though various civilizations and applied his shape-shifting tropes to the Egyptians or Aliens or Squirrels, that the inimitable stream of consciousness would rise to the top and sweep us along, but the act seemed to just get desperate, and wear the man out. It wore me out, and I was so in hopes to be swept away.
From the beginning, the viewer eavesdrops on cynical reporters attempting to bribe the little brother of a recent suicide, simultaneously offering the Mother cold cash for the dead boy's verse; editor George Bancroft sets the tone here as a heartless man who claims that no matter who the story damages--if it sells papers, it's news. His wife, Kay Francis, sits at home, draping various parts of her body with eye-catching fashion, and in one scene, other action front and center, there is some pre-code semi-nudity with mirrors catching the sort of undressing censored just three years later.
But it is the plot that, despite the soapy melodrama, rises above its origins, and provides no little suspense--with an odd, seemingly tacked-on ending, probably to please the money men. An additional incentive to early film fans is the rich casting of secondary players--Irving Bacon, Sid Saylor, Vince Barnett, Robert Parish, and even the man that become The Weenie King in The Palm Beach Story--Robert Dudley.
For early fans of Mr. Robinson and Our Kay, this is compelling fun, and frequently details fascinating turns of historical event--Teddy Roosevelt makes a personal appearance and WWI turns the world upside down. For those expecting the powerful one-note (but perhaps less well-rounded) characterizations which Robinson was often gave, there may be surprises as he ages--and hides out in another country. For others, this is a historical curiosity peopled with familiar early First National Faces.
Black-clad, cool-headed Hopalong Cassidy (William Boyd) must track down lawbreakers and get the guys in the slammer--and wouldn't it be a surprise to all of us if he failed to do so? Most Hoppy films have a distinguishing hallmark, and perhaps this one's is a Movable Herd and the men who move it.
Mystery Man is a low-key, genial cowboy movie with only one song tossed in for good measure, and the sheriff's daughter picking on whatever attractions Hoppy's second- hand man has to offer. For action fans, there is a good deal of gun-play behind boulders and dust-raising in Lone Pine, and' as is often the case, the cinematography by Russell Harlan is a major bonus point, taking what could show as dull chases and enhancing California desert landscape with background mountain majesties and banks of clouds. Harlan turns the ordinary into memorable--lucky us!
For today's moviegoer, this is probably pretty dull stuff, but for the film historian, the fan of Kay Francis, or anybody who wants to enjoy the minor delights of an early "B" romance, this can be great fun.