Friday, May 14, 2004

I Had that Same Horse When I Had My Eyes Examined

Since the Marx Brothers' MGM movies have just been released on DVD, I should say something about the movie from whence (I'm sorry: from which where) this blog gets its URL, A Day at the Races. There's a tendency to bemoan the fact that Irving Thalberg, MGM's boy-genius producer, insisted on the Brothers being made more sympathetic; the argument is that while having them act nice to Kitty Carlisle or Maureen O'Sullivan may have made them more successful at the box-office, it took the hard edge off their comedy and MGM-ized them. The thing to remember, though, is that it wasn't just Thalberg who thought the Marxes needed to be more sympathetic and the stories more structured. I once saw an interview with Nat Perrin, one of the writers on the most purely anarchic Marx film, Duck Soup (Kalmar and Ruby, the songwriters, got screenplay credit but as usual with Hollywood comedy movies, there were a number of writers), and he was surprisingly lukewarm about the film; he felt it was so relentlessly unstructured and pointless that there was nothing to hold the viewer's interest between jokes, and no one to sympathize with. I'm not saying he was right to consider Duck Soup a disappointment, because I certainly don't agree with him -- but it was a prevailing opinion at the time that Duck Soup was not only a box-office failure but an artistic failure as well. By giving some structure and sympathy to the Brothers' comedy, Thalberg was seen as improving their work, not selling it out to box-office considerations.

Well, the Thalberg approach worked beautifully in A Night at the Opera (though my enjoyment of the film is slightly dampened by the knowledge that the opening shot of the movie -- which was cut during WWII to remove any acknowledgement of the fact that the film takes place in Italy -- is lost). Even the much-derided Kitty Carlisle/Allan Jones romance works well: it doesn't take up too much screen time, and director Sam Wood makes it move still faster by shooting the romantic scenes in long uninterrupted takes; the first scene between the two lovebirds/songbirds, in Carlisle's dressing room, is one take with no cuts.

A Day at the Races, the Brothers' follow-up (and the last film Thalberg worked on before his untimely death) doesn't work as well for me now, though I loved it as a kid -- who could resist seeing that mean Mr. Morgan and his weasel jockey get defeated? The romance in Races takes up too much time and, unlike the romantic plot in Opera, has no intrinsic rooting interest: who cares whether Maureen O'Sullivan gets too keep operating a rest spot for wealthy hypochondriacs? But to me the weakest thing about Races is the way the Brothers' characters are made moregeneric.

In Opera, the Brothers are more sympathetic than previously, but they are still given the basic characterizations that we expect from them: Groucho is the guy trying to "get into society" but unable to resist insulting everyone he wants to mooch off of and hanging around with
rifraff like Chico and Harpo; Chico is the con man; Harpo steals and/or eats everything in sight and likes nothing better than to cut off guys' beards or knock them out. Because Opera was written by George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind, authors of the Brothers' stage and screen hits The Coconauts and Animal Crackers (longtime Marx associates Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby also turned in an early draft of the script), the writing is very appropriate to the characters; the difference is that their character traits are pointed in more socially acceptable directions; they're now trying to help young lovers get together, and winning sympathy as Thalberg wanted them to.

Races, which was written by a number of MGM contract writers including George Seaton (who later went on to write and direct Miracle on 34th Street), seems to me to soften the Brothers up quite a bit more; Groucho's less of a *schnorrer*, Chico has a real job (working at the sanitarium), as does Harpo (a jockey?!), and their goals are even nobler: they don't just want to help out young lovers, they want to save a failing sanitarium from the evil businessman. Many of the comedy routines are more generic too: the final race scene could have been done by any comedians; same with the scene with Groucho pretending to be various people on the phone (though it's a very funny scene), and even the "examination" scene is pretty bland because it's just disorganized wackiness, whereas the best Marx scenes involve them slowly taking apart something that everyone else takes seriously, like the professor's lecture in Horse Feathers. The comedy in Races still works because the writers were good comedy writers, but a lot of it doesn't feel like the Marx Brothers, because their characters are starting to be transformed into catch-all comedy characters with some Marxian traits. The Marx characters didn't really resurface in their original form until the post-MGM A Night in Casablanca, which is why that movie is so enjoyable despite the bargain-basement production and so-so script: it's just so nice to see the Brothers acting like themselves again, instead of the generic mischief-makers they started to become in Races.

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