Merrily We Live! (1938): My Man Godfrey Redux

merrily we live

What a harebrained movie this is in all the best ways. The origins of Merrily We Live themselves are a tad murky or, at the very least, convoluted. It’s purportedly based on the novel The Dark Chapter, which subsequently received a Broadway adaptation, They All Want Something. There was a film in 1930, What a Man, with a similar vignette about a chauffeur falling in love with a woman. But for the classic film aficionado, basic similarities to My Man Godfrey are obvious enough to warrant some amount of comparison.

It is a shame ensuing generations have mostly forgotten Constance Bennett. (I must admit to paying more attention to her sister Joan.) Our leading man and amiable Englishman Brian Adherne is obliging if generally uninteresting. Certainly, we don’t have the pinpoint comic delivery of William Powell or the sheer frenzied force of comedic fury that is Carole Lombard so in this regard, Merrily We Live is a lesser effort, but that does not mean it can’t offer up its own mercurial delights.

We trade out a supporting cast of Alice Brady, Eugene Pallette, and Gail Patrick with one arguably just as good calling on the talents of Billie Burke, Clarence Kolb, and Bonita Granville. Alan Mowbray is one of the lone holdouts from the earlier picture. Thus, there is barely a drop in quality, which leads one to marvel at the sheer prolific nature of these character actors. It really was the heyday of the bit roles with actors building up such robust catalogues of appearances and seamlessly sliding into role after role.

The help, headed by Grosvenor (Mowbray), is constantly in disarray as the vexed valet threatens to walk out on his duties time and time again for all the egregious infractions he has to put up with. The latest affront was an unseen tramp named Ambrose (these character names are gold) who ran off with the family silver.

The breakfast table is an arena and a convenient microcosm for the wacky family dynamics to play out in farcical fashion. This particular morning, since there is a sudden lack of silverware in the house, the family must make do with any amount of ladles, chisels, and hammers. It’s highly irregular, but they are no normal menage.

merrily we live 3

We are blessed with another ridiculously rich and dysfunctional family of bickering oddballs. Constance Bennett, as the eldest daughter Geraldine “Jerry,” has a grand old time being mildly amused by the utter chaos that makes up their day-to-day in the lap of luxury and excess. She’s not quite as high-strung as Lombard before her, but bouncing off her family members is entertainment enough.

Baby sister Marion (Bonita Granville) is ready to whine and prank her way into getting funds for her latest scheme. She’s part whiny brat and certainly a budding comedienne. One need only remember her chilling turn in These Three to realize how starkly different she is. Then, their brother’s always bickering and complaining about the siblings he’s been saddled with.

Billie Burke is at her most ditsy-headed cycling through absent-minded hilarity and bubble-brained insufferableness. What’s not to like? She even holds a dinner party a la Dinner at Eight. Consequently, she’s also the source of some of this constant disarray with her most recent hobby of collecting “forgotten men” and bringing them on as servants. Ambrose was her latest pet project and also the most recent disaster.

Clarence Kolb is at his most physically brilliant given more than a mere scene or two to flex his comic talents. He doesn’t disappoint alongside his wacky costars. I’ve never been so delighted with his characterization while attempting to eat his breakfast or taking a cab home after becoming completely wasted.

The family is rounded out by their two absurdly named pooches “Get Off The Rug” and “You Too,” not to mention Mrs. Kilbourne’s pride and joys “Fishy Wishy.” It’s not so much pure spastic energy but the off-the-cuff remarks and sudden jolts of absurdity and slapstick carrying the film to its conclusion. These elements are what drag the story along its merry path of craziness with or without major plot points.

Of course, we would be remiss not to mention Rawlins (Adherne), the most important new piece in the screwball equation, acting as a bit of a willing catalyst for all the mayhem inside the mansion’s walls. There has to be one normal lout, and so he conveniently fits the bill as the resident straight man.

It begins when his car goes hurtling over the side of the road. He’s an author with no means of communication. His only recourse is to find a telephone. His attire and Mrs. Kilbourne’s dull-headed insistence pull him into the house quite by accident.

All he wants is to make his phone call, but he good-naturedly acquiesces when Mrs. brings him on to work as their new chauffeur. It’s a bit of good fun. This is the key. He gladly enables their quirkiness playing along with their daily madcap rituals.

merrily we live 2

One moment he’s assisting a fawning Jerry into the first-floor window after her flirtatious solicitation. Then, he’s covering for Mr. Kilbourne when he comes home from a bender with his buddies, as a cabbie tries to take advantage of him. The list of duties could go on and on, and very few of them have to do with his recently acquired occupation.

One of my personal high points from the movie includes Grosvenor repeatedly clunking into the chimes in the dining room, matched by the breakfast chatter. It’s not highbrow, but somehow I find this tromping around and people falling to the ground faint uproariously funny, in the right circumstances.

Merrily We Live is just the film, though one must admit it ends far too abruptly to do itself any favors. It’s a movie that’s never about the story anyway; it’s the brief instances of near serendipitous comic verve seemingly bottled more by accident than any amount of scripting. These are the interludes to truly relish and they just might be worth another viewing — once my blood pressure has settled down again.

3.5/5 Stars

Topper (1937): Cary Grant’s a Ghost

topper 1.png

We know what kind of movie we’re in for upon meeting Cary Grant, whistling a merry tune, as he drives his fancy wheels with his feet. His wife — a quizzical platinum blonde played to perfection by Constance Bennett — stares up at him in amusement. They are a picture of fun-loving decadence out of The Nick and Nora Charles mode.

Understandably, they are the main draw in Norman Z. McLeod’s corkscrew fantasy comedy but like its distant relative, The Thin Man, someone else’s name actually garners the title. In this particular instance, it is Mr. Topper (Roland Young), a highly successful businessman who is, nevertheless, enslaved by his rigid regimen, and it’s not of his own accord. His stifling spouse has cultivated his humdrum life like clockwork to her own liking. We don’t envy the man, hustled and harried as he is every day, with his breakfasts and innumerable sensibly scheduled appointments.

You quite forget Billie Burke can be insufferable in a different manner as the quietly exacting wife, giving the impression of a woman constantly on the verge of indignance, her voice teetering on the edge of fragility. I hardly believe myself saying this, but I like her at her more titteringly giddy spectrum. At least she’s allowed to be sympathetic; bubble-headed but sympathetic. If the point hasn’t been made apparent already, this enforced tedium is the baseline of the cinematic world needing to be spiced up by the Kerbies and their happy-go-lucky prodigality.

If we can hone in on a turning point, Topper really hits its stride in death — the death of Mr. and Mrs. Kirby, that is. Because as is the habit in the fantasy mills of Old Hollywood, our couple dies only to come back as ghostly versions of themselves, appearing and reappearing as easily as a snap of the figure.

They pull themselves away from the wreckage of their automobile and have their first out of body experience. Played straight, it would seem ghastly, but they are as gay and chipper as ever, nonchalantly debating how they’ll get through the pearly gates. Everything they did (or didn’t) learn in Sunday school says they need to do some good deeds. Regrettably, they’ve been living on the high horse for too long; they haven’t actually gotten around to the greatest commandment: loving their neighbors.

topper 3

Their pet project is “Toppy,” and he’s in need of vivification. His one act of rebellion against his wife is purchasing George Kirby’s old automobile. This is the foot in the door after he gets into a near-death fender bender of his own. It leads to his first out of body reunion with his old friends.

The movie effectively utilizes old-fashioned special effects dating back to the days of George Melies, making it effortless for Toppy’s two guardian socialites to drop in and out of his visual field. As an invisible Mr. Kirby makes himself useful changing the tire, Toppy is teased by the lady Kirby as she blows on a blade of grass like a giddy schoolgirl. It’s our first chance to play with the logic, the fact only the audience and Toppy are availed of seeing the deceased.

Because what’s really a treat are the ghosts and the ghosted. The ones who are oblivious to the somewhat explainable supernatural acts around them. We get similar moments in Here Comes Mr. Jordan and even It’s a Wonderful Life when the concrete and ethereal collide in a most comical fashion.

Roland Young does an admirable job in the part, and he’s on par with any number of the comparable characters of the day and age whether a Charlie Ruggles or Leo G. Carroll, though slightly less well-remembered for whatever reason. He finally has some pizzazz injected into his every day as the Kirby’s indulge his budding interests in wine, dancing, and song. He’s hardly a party animal, still, he gives it a go.

topper 2

It leads to a brawl in front of a restaurant that they must bail him out of and then a handful encounters with a hoodwinked doorman. At best, Mr. Topper is the hapless figure caught in the spectral screwball chaos with the Kirbys pulling all the strings for him. Unfortunately, the storyline becomes too stagnant without the constant presence of Grant and Bennett, visually or otherwise.

Toppy finds a new standard of living and comes to reconcile with his wife. These are wonderful things, mind you, but it feels like the movie itself has compromised and gone away from what really makes it zing — that is the screwball antics of its true leading couple. Without them, it feels insipid and frankly trite, arriving at its unequivocally saccharine ending.

He is the one playing it straight, in a boring perfunctory manner because this is what is requested of him. But there are a handful of quality character moments of note. Certainly, a befuddled house detective played by Eugene Palette is always good for a lark. Alan Mowbray is his typical snooty Jeeves-like valet and even Hoagy Carmichael shows up (in his screen debut) to knock back a tune on the honky-tonk with Cary and Constance.

I couldn’t help thinking, I wish our two dazzling leads had partnered in another rom-com. After all, Powell and Loy got together for over 12 offerings. Alas, it was not meant to be. It makes Topper even more crucial in charting the rise of the Cary Grant we would come to know and also an oft-forgotten starlet in Constance Bennett.

3/5 Stars

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (1947): Danny Kaye Does Thurber

SecretLifeofwalter.jpg

In many ways, it seems short stories are the best sources for feature-length films because they allow the narrative to take the spark of an idea and extrapolate and mold it into something new and hopefully ingenious in its own right.

Author James Thurber didn’t seem to think that was the case with this adaptation of his short story plucked from the pages of The New Yorker in 1939 and turned into a vessel of lavish Hollywood entertainment by Samuel Goldwyn. Reading his story, in itself, gives a fascinating insight into the film version. For one thing, the “pocketa-pocketa-pocketa” onomatopoeia is translated from page to screen.

However, it’s also very apparent watching The Secret Life of Walter Mitty that Goldwyn, for obvious reasons, tailored the material to his star Danny Kaye. There’s certainly no point of contention there and the story probably is better for it.

In this version, Walter Mitty is a Pulp magazine editor and being unmarried, it’s his mother, not his wife, who is constantly nagging him to stop dawdling and do his best to not be so absent-minded. If you actually think about it, the fact this homely mama’s boy is brainstorming racy detective novels, exotic love stories, and horror romances is a bit ironic. Though given his flights of fancy, it’s not all too unbelievable.

Kaye’s spry verbal acrobatics are as limber as ever finding his voice contorting, shrieking, and hiccuping in all manner of ways through all manner of dialogue, monologues, and songs. He also progressively plays up his nervous shtick as he goes clunking around offices, with pigeons flying about, continually fearing for his life while also receiving the ire of his conceited boss.

These developments come with the acquisition of a little black book that very much resembles the one he uses to maintain his daily regimen. Except this one is very important to a beautiful woman named Rosalind van Hoorn (Virginia Mayo) as she attempts to acquire some priceless Dutch jewels.

The best elements of the narrative, plucked from the fanciful comic short story, have Mitty swimming in and out of daydreams. And of course, alluring Mayo plays the grateful damsel in every scenario, cast as his dream girl and later found in the flesh when they cross paths for the first time.

His imagination has him taking on all sorts of occupations from a captain on the high seas to a world-class surgeon in the operating room of a hospital. Then, it’s a daring Air Cadet in the RAF with impressive impersonation abilities. The persona of the Riverboat Gambler made me realize Snoopy has a bit of Walter Mitty’s whimsy in him. It’s not too far a stretch to surmise Charles M. Schultz was all too familiar with the picture. But onwards and upwards as Walter daydreams himself into being a women’s hat designer and finally a western hero. Each scenario conveniently brought to life in front of us. This is the film at its most inventive.

But the comedy of the original story, you soon realize, is that Walter Mitty really is a mundane individual. There’s nothing particularly special about him and yet he takes the banalities of daily life and turns them into something thrilling to ignite his hyperactive imagination. Maybe implicitly it’s about being stuck in the monotony but more overtly it’s simply a tale of a normal, average, everyday person who, when you pull back the curtain, has a deeply imaginative fantasy life. Perhaps there’s something neurotic about it but more so it’s simply goofy.

Although watching Danny Kaye run around with Virginia Mayo in what feels like an inept amalgamation of The Big Sleep and North by Northwest has its intrigue, you begin getting away from its true inspiration. Because the lovable peculiarity of Mitty is that he’s so very unextraordinary and his life is so menial. However, by inserting this cloak-and-dagger stuff, although the film gets more exciting, it loses something of its main conceit.

The best single scene by far finally comes at the tail-end where Mitty’s lives collide and he finally gains a backbone. Calling out all the small-minded, tiresome, annoying quibblers in his life. It’s Walter’s way of firmly sticking it to the insufferable doldrums he’s been subjected to.

But it is interesting how films or modes of media, in general, are very much indicative of their times. Take Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” being turned into Apocalypse Now (1979) in the post-Vietnam years and most certainly the remake of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013).  It reflected the escape from mid-life crises that many Americans no doubt crave at a certain age. Again, it’s part of the overarching narrative but not necessarily the true essence of Thurber’s original idea. Funny how that happens.

3/5 Stars

Review: Horse Feathers (1932)

horse feathers 1.png

At Paramount Pictures The Marx Brothers released a row of comedies with seemingly arbitrary names evoking fauna like Animal Crackers, Monkey Business, Horse Feathers, and of course Duck Soup.  The phrase  “Horse Feathers” is essentially a variation on “Nonsense” though it sounds rather archaic by today’s standards. That hardly detracts from any of its charms as a film.

There must be a location — a place for the brothers to be unleashed upon the world where they can belittle and bash heads all at the same time. What better place than a university campus that pantheon of learning dating all the way back to the Greeks? It commences with a perfect opening ceremony that’s quintessential Groucho.

He accepts his new post by badmouthing his eminent predecessor, pulling on the facial hair of all his eminent faculty, besmirching the reputation of his eminent institution and singing a typically cheeky ditty, “I’m Against It.”

His son played by none other than his younger brother Zeppo has been spending his idle hours outside of the classroom and off the football field in the company of a College Widow (Thelma Todd). Much like “Horse Feathers,” this might come as another antiquated term or at the very least euphemistic. It usually denotes a woman who lived near college campuses to romance male students. She was commonly known to be easy pickings. But that’s enough context. Watch the film and you’ll probably have all the context you need because Groucho wants to get in on the action too — not to mention the other brothers.

However, there’s more important business at hand. Namely the fact that Huxley hasn’t had a good football team since 1888. Even in 1932 that was still a very long time ago. As Groucho notes they’re neglecting football for education. At the behest of his son, he personally heads down to the Speakeasy to dig up some talent. It isn’t the least bit ethical so obviously, the school’s new head promptly heads straight there.

Before he can enter, however, he needs to provide the password and you guessed it the gatekeeper is the bootlegger Baravelli (Chico). Getting inside is more convoluted than you ever imagined. Of course, the actual joint is then Harpo’s personal playground and overflowing slot machine. His hat runneth over so to speak. The steady stream of gags keeps on flowing.

I was genuinely cracking up whilst Harpo stokes the fire with books in Wagstaff’s office Groucho remarks that Baravelli has the brain of a four-year-old boy, and “I bet he was glad to get rid of it.” Classic Marx Brothers.

Follow that up with an invasion of a lecture hall with Chico and Harpo taking up seats in the front row after their typical fisticuffs while Groucho stands by making snide remarks over the professor’s shoulder. Another perfect scenario capped off by Groucho taking over and getting caught in a spitball war with his two most unruly students.

horse feathers 2.png

Next, it becomes grand central station in the promiscuous college widow’s pad with slabs of ice getting repeatedly chucked out the window and Groucho repeatedly breaking up the action and the fourth wall by talking to the audience. He even invites them to go out to the lobby during  Chico’s piano playing. To be honest, I was never that big of a fan. Each of the brothers pays the dame a visit as does her other beau backing Darwin while Groucho constantly makes a chore of carrying out his umbrella and rubbers before exiting the busy room.

We have the resulting romantic date on the lake with the dame conspiring to steal Huxley’s signals. Groucho’s serenade of “I Love You” is the kicker. In fact, it’s very true that everyone says I love you — including each of the brothers — each in a very different way. Meanwhile, Todd assaults Groucho with baby talk and he all but tosses her out of their dingy (in case you didn’t realize, they had Life Savers candy back in 1932).

But the finale comes on the football field and there’s no doubt that Chico and Harpo liven things up. The most storied gags are courtesy of Harpo including a football yo-yo and laying down a minefield of banana peels, and of course chariots. They have no respect for the game. What better way to sum it up than marriage Marx Brothers style. They have no respect for that institution either.

Whether or not its second tier to the likes of Duck Soup (1933) or Night at the Opera (1935) is beside the point aside from being purely dismissive. Watching the boys at work here is arguably as wild and deliriously funny as anything they ever put to film. Here is a comedy that wonderfully condenses all that these brothers stood for as far as comic hooliganism was concerned in a gag reel that never has time to run out of steam. A wonderful summation of what college might be like if the Brothers had ever had the good fortune of making it there. Regardless, it’s a joy to the very last hike and the very last frame of chaos.

4/5 Stars