Pride of the Marines (1945)

“I won’t have her being a seeing eye dog for me!”

Synopsis:
A Marine hero (John Garfield) wounded in battle is reluctant to return home to his fiancee (Eleanor Parker) and face a new life without sight.

Genres:

Review:
Based on the true story of Navy Cross-winning Marine Al Schmid, this powerful (anti-)war film — sensitively directed by Delmer Daves — afforded John Garfield one of his best starring roles. Other than the inclusion of one short but genuinely terrifying battle sequence (in which Schmid loses his sight), the film is primarily concerned with the lingering effects of war on wounded veterans — and while numerous other mid-century films (i.e., Fred Zinnemann’s The Men, and William Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives) did an equally fine job tackling this sensitive topic, Pride of the Marines remains a worthy entry in the limited genre. The screenplay (based closely on Schmid’s memoir) spends the entire first half-hour showing us Garfield’s courtship with Parker, firmly investing us in the idyllic life he leaves behind when he goes to war. We’re allowed ample opportunity to understand what a proud, self-determined man Schmid is — thus compounding his struggles to come to terms with his disability. Despite occasional lapses into overly patriotic banter (to be expected, given the time of the film’s release), this finely acted, little-seen movie is worth a look by all film fanatics.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • John Garfield as Al Schmid
  • Eleanor Parker as Ruthie
  • Dane Clark as Al’s fellow Marine, Lee
  • The terrifyingly realistic battle scene
  • Incisive (and occasionally surprisingly risque!) dialogue:

    “What’s the first thing you’re going to do when you get home, Bill?”
    “I think I’ll spend about three solid weeks just saying hello to my wife.”

Must See?
Yes, for Garfield’s fine central performance, and as an all-around powerful “war film”.

Categories

Links:

Lost Weekend, The (1945)

“Most men lead lives of quiet desperation. I can’t take quiet desperation!”

Synopsis:
An alcoholic writer (Ray Milland) cared for by his loyal brother (Phillip Terry) and girlfriend (Jane Wyman) battles his addiction during a particularly grueling weekend alone in New York.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary begins his review of this ground-breaking film about alcoholism (the first to address the issue head-on) by asking, “Is there anybody who really enjoys movies about junkies or alcoholics trying to cure their addiction?” (I’ll wager the answer is “Yes”.) He admits that he “invariably feel[s] less excitement than obligation to watch this early social drama and multi-Oscar winner (for Best Picture, Actor, and Screenplay) whenever it turns up on television”, yet concedes that he’s “always surprised to find [him]self becoming engrossed” in the film, However, he argues that his “enjoyment is somewhat perverse”, given that he is “not so taken by those scenes in which the drunk Milland makes a fool of himself in public… or has hallucinations” as by “watching the sober Milland start squirming and sweating… thinking about a drink, planning how to get it, lying so he can be alone to pursue it, figuring out what to pawn for the money he’ll need…” He posits that “surely director Billy Wilder and his co-writer, Charles Brackett, are exhibiting ironic wit when they show how much a man will suffer in order to suffer even more.”

Since its release, of course (when NY Times critic Bosley Crowther referred to it as “shatteringly realistic and morbidly fascinating”), countless other films — too many to list here — have tackled the sticky topic of alcoholism and/or drug addiction, thus lessening the inherent shock value of The Lost Weekend for modern viewers. Yet on its own terms, the film remains a well-told tale of “a several-day [nightmarish] binge that almost costs [a man] his loyal girlfriend… and his life.” As Peary notes, the “dialogue is tough and cynical” (“She knows she’s clutching a razor blade, but she just won’t let go!”), and “Wilder makes strong use of New York streets and backgrounds” by blending “harsh expressionistic visuals indoors with washed-out shots of the city to convey mood changes in Milland”. With a running time of 101 minutes, the film thankfully never feels too long; from the tensely scripted and filmed opening sequence (in which Milland tries to distract his brother long enough to pack a hidden bottle of alcohol that’s dangling from a rope outside his window sill), to the justifiably lauded sequence in which Milland walks the streets of New York in desperate search of a pawn shop (only to find that they’re all closed on Yom Kippur), we’re genuinely curious to know what kind of trouble Milland will find himself in next, and how he’ll worm his way out.

Most problematic for me, however, is the fact that “Milland (who usually played nice guys) is mean right from the beginning”. While Wilder and Brackett should be commended for not “pull[ing] any punches” in their portrayal of a man who all but the most loyal of friends and family members would have given up on long ago, it’s slightly discomfiting to be rooting for someone so utterly unlikable. Milland’s Don Birnam comes across like a self-pitying whiner who needs a serious kick in the pants to get himself back in gear; even a strategically placed flashback sequence — in which we get to see Milland meeting cute with Wyman at an opera — doesn’t help us like him any better. Fortunately, Milland’s performance is “strong”, and he carries the film surprisingly well. As Peary notes in his Alternate Oscars (where he votes for Boris Karloff in Val Lewton’s The Body Snatcher instead as Best Actor of the Year), Milland’s performance was “the best by any of the [official] nominees and maybe the best of his decent career, [but] he doesn’t make you feel enough empathy for his sick, troubled character”. Indeed, while Milland should certainly be commended for daring to “play an unsympathetic character for a change”, I don’t think society in general understood enough about the disease-driven nature of alcoholism at the time for Milland to do justice to the role; as a result, Birnam ultimately comes across as a pathetic anti-hero rather than the pitiable addict he really is.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Ray Milland as Don Birnam
  • Fine supporting performances
  • John Seitz’s cinematography
  • Good use of authentic New York locations
  • Charles Brackett’s screenplay

Must See?
Yes, for its historical relevance, and for Milland’s Oscar winning performance.

Categories

(Listed in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)

Links:

Gang’s All Here, The (1943)

“That hat! I’ll have to watch my bell cords and lampshades.”

Synopsis:
A soldier (James Ellison) about to leave for war romances a chorus girl (Alice Faye), failing to tell her he’s engaged to his childhood sweetheart (Sheila Ryan). Meanwhile, his father (Eugene Palette) and Ryan’s father (Edward Everett Horton) plan a welcome-back musical for him, starring both Faye and a Brazilian singer (Carmen Miranda).

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary accurately notes that this “camp classic” (the first film “directed and choreographed by Busby Berkeley”) possesses “a nominal plot” — indeed, it’s simply a paper-thin variation on the “boy meets-loses-wins girl” trope, with a ridiculous mistaken-identity “subplot” thrown in for good measure, and a humorously hasty happy ending slapped on to bring things to a convenient close. But, as he points out, the “conventional story [truly] takes a back seat to the songs and dances”, which are “some of the worst yet most inspired, colorful, and extravagant musical numbers in cinema history” (quite a mixed compliment, there!). He posits simply that they “boggle the mind”, and likens the entire film to one of “those so-awful-they’re-fascinating half-time shows during the Orange Bowl”. With that said, film fanatics of any stripe (i.e., gay or straight) won’t want to miss watching — at least once — the film in which the infamously English-mangling Carmen Miranda (“I spilled the cat out of the beans!”) sings “The Lady With the Tutti-Frutti Hat” while “chorus girls do suggestive things with giant bananas”.

Note: Watch for limber-limbed Charlotte Greenwood strutting her stuff in a brief scene, and a (perhaps unknown; her identity is debatable) acrobatic dancer in a black leotard doing a nifty solo in a medley towards the end.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Carmen Miranda singing “The Lady in the Tutti-Frutti Hat”
  • Charlotte Greenwood’s surprisingly limber dance maneuvers
  • Busby Berkeley’s marvelously surreal dance “creations”

Must See?
Yes — to see Carmen Miranda in her most iconic film, and as a camp classic.

Categories

Links:

Night at the Opera, A (1935)

“I’d give you my seat, but I’m sitting here.”

Synopsis:
A huckster (Groucho Marx) hired by a would-be socialite (Margaret Dumont) to help her enter high society convinces her to invest $200,000 in an opera production, whose snooty manager (Sig Ruman) hires an arrogant opera star (Walter Woolf King) as his lead singer. Meanwhile, a talented tenor (Allan Jones) in love with the singer (Kitty Carlisle) coveted by King strives for his big break, helped by Chico and Harpo Marx.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary argues that this “most famous and popular film” by the Marx Brothers “isn’t on the level of Duck Soup (few comedies are) but is still a comic masterpiece”; however, I’ll admit I’m one of those who actually prefer this more narratively-driven outing (indeed, it’s probably my favorite of their entire oeuvre). Peary notes that “while the individual comedy scenes are as zany as anything in the Marx Brothers’” output, “the overall picture is more structured”, and — thanks in large part to the assistance of Irving Thalberg, who was hoping to help the brothers reach a more mainstream audience — “the storyline makes more sense”. He calls out some of the film’s “many hilarious sequences”, starting with the classic “opening in which Groucho explains to Dumont that he’d kept her waiting for two hours in a restaurant because he was dining at the next table with a woman who reminded him of her”. (This scene — which was originally preceded by a three-minute musical number on the streets of Italy — always has me immediately in stitches; what a wham-bam start to the film!) He goes on to list, among others, the scene in which “Groucho and Chico agree on a contract by ripping it to shreds” (equally hilarious); the film’s “most famous scene” (in which “everyone imaginable crowds into Groucho’s tiny stateroom”); and the classic “opera finale”, during which true Marxian mayhem ensues.

Having seen this classic several times now, I only have minor complaints to register. While the first half of the film offers practically non-stop merriment (this is where the majority of the best scenes occur), the second half is less laugh-out-loud hilarious. Meanwhile, Dumont’s archetypical foil has been better served elsewhere; other than the wonderful opening sequence, she doesn’t really get enough of a chance to interact with Groucho, and she far too quickly becomes unsympathetic. Finally, the entire subplot between Carlisle, Jones, and King is (naturally) rather pedestrian, and definitely slows down the comedic pacing — though it could be argued that this helps to space out the comedic mayhem. A final note: now that I’ve finished reviewing all the Marx Brothers films in Peary’s book, I must admit that I don’t think I’ve ever had a harder time succinctly synopsizing the plots of a given set of “narratives” — in part, I think, because the characters played by the three brothers don’t really possess discrete titles or roles. I mean, what type of livelihood would you assign to any of them here? Groucho comes closest to being able to draft a resume, as a sort of “high society agent”, but how exactly would you label Chico or Harpo’s roles (here and in other films), other than “friendly assistants”? Indeed, it seems that they always managed to maintain their anarchical “otherness” even in the midst of supposed societal sanity.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • The hilarious opening scene between Groucho and Dumont: “When I invite a woman to dinner I expect her to look at my face. That’s the price she has to pay.”
  • The “party of the first part” contract scene: “You can’t fool me — there ain’t no Sanity Clause!”
  • The classic “stuffed stateroom” scene
  • The zany closing opera debacle


Must See?
Yes, as a genuine comedy classic. Nominated by Peary as one of the Best Films of the Year in his Alternate Oscars.

Categories

(Listed in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)

Links:

Room Service (1938)

“I’ll give you the best performance you ever saw in a hotel bedroom!”

Synopsis:
When the agent (Philip Wood) for a high-end investor reneges on backing a play written by a penniless playwright (Frank Albertson), the play’s producer (Groucho Marx) and his two associates (Chico and Harpo Marx) arrange for an irate hotel manager (Donald MacBride) to secretly foot the bill until opening night.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary is utterly dismissive of this unusual Marx Brother outing (their only film for RKO Studios), “based on a Broadway play by John Murray and Allen Boretz that was adapted by Morrie Ryskind for the comedy team”. (Of course, one wonders why it’s included in his book at all, given how much he dislikes it — but I digress.) At any rate, he argues that “it’s shattering hearing Groucho say one unfunny line after another, and seeing the three [brothers] act almost civilly”. He further complains that “there’s no sharpness to Groucho’s delivery, [and] no chaos initiated by Harpo”; however, Harpo DOES get to maintain his standard persona throughout, and is given at least a few brief moments in the limelight — most notably during what Peary calls out as the best scene in the film, in which the brothers “simply gorge themselves on the first meal they’ve had in days”.

Ultimately, it seems as though Peary disapproves of the Marx Brothers’ attempt to move outside of their usual schtick — and my rebuttal is that I think they were brave to do so. Unfortunately, the play itself — while not terrible — isn’t all that scintillating, and director William Seiter’s pacing is far too slow for a screwball comedy. Thus, what could have worked as a perfectly legitimate alternate venue for Groucho et al. is instead a rather tepid (though watchable) affair. What I found myself missing most was Groucho’s zany wordplay with Chico and others. For example, Chico says to Groucho at one point, “You haven’t got a leg to stand on” — a statement absolutely ripe for word play, but which Groucho simply accepts at face value. Too bad Ryskind’s rewrite couldn’t have allowed for the team to fling back more creative responses at each other…

Note: Watch for both Lucille Ball and Ann Miller (only 15 years old!) in early supporting roles.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Donald MacBride as Mr. Wagoner

Must See?
No; this one remains a Marx Brothers curiosity but not must-see viewing.

Links:

Go West (1940)

“Time wounds all heels.”

Synopsis:
The grandfather (Tully Marshall) of a poor woman (Diana Lewis) hoping to marry her fiancee (John Carroll) gives his two fellow prospectors (Chico and Harpo Marx) a seemingly worthless deed, which is soon coveted by two evil railroad barons (Walter Woolf King and Robert Barrat) hoping to sell the land to the U.S. government for $50,000.

Genres:

Review:
Other than the unusual late-career entry Love Happy (1949), Go West is the final Marx Brothers film listed in Peary’s book. [Fortunately, despite his completist tendencies, he omits the notorious Marxian clunkers The Big Store (1941) and A Night in Casablanca (1946).] As a standard vehicle for their talents, it’s certainly competent enough: by this point, audiences knew what to expect from a Marx Brothers film, and the western genre hadn’t yet been milked, so this was as good a choice as any for a setting. While there aren’t really any laugh-out-loud sequences, I did find it interesting to see how Harpo would manage to secure a “harp” in the Old West (he utilizes a Native American loom!) — and there were enough witty verbal exchanges to keep me at least intermittently engaged. Note that the slapstick climax on board a train owes quite a bit to Buster Keaton’s The General (1926); indeed, Keaton actually served as an advisor on the film.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

Must See?
No, though naturally fans will want to check it out.

Links:

Day at the Races, A (1937)

“I’ve got the most peculiar talents of any doctor you ever met.”

Synopsis:
The assistant (Chico Marx) to the owner (Maureen O’Sullivan) of a struggling sanitarium tries to help solicit much-needed funds by hiring a horse doctor (Groucho Marx) who a wealthy hypochondriac patient (Margaret Dumont) has a crush on. Meanwhile, O’Sullivan’s boyfriend (Allan Jones) buys a racehorse, hoping that a jockey (Harpo Marx) will ride him as a money-making winner at an upcoming race.

Genres:

Review:
While this successful follow-up to A Night at the Opera is beloved by many (it was chosen by the American Film Institute as the 59th funniest American film), it nonetheless seems to subtly mark the beginning of the Marx Brothers’ decline as a comedic force to be reckoned with. Irving Thalberg (an enormous supporter of the brothers at their new home of MGM Studios) died suddenly during its production, and Groucho claimed to lose all interest in making films from this point forward — which can somehow be sensed here. All the right ingredients are certainly available, with plenty of humorously conceived interactions between the three brothers and their diverse supporting cast (including the “fifth Marx Brother”, stalwart Margaret Dumont) — but I simply didn’t find myself laughing out loud very often. Plus, at 111 minutes, the film definitely feels far too long, with numerous lengthy (and often tedious) musical dance sequences trying one’s patience. Interestingly, one such scene — in which Harpo plays a flute amidst a cast of African American stable hands (led by Ivie Anderson), singing “All God’s Chillun Got Rhythm” — was actually nominated for an Academy Award for Best Dance Direction, and the dancing is impressive (as long as you can get past the painfully commonplace stereotypes presented).

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Plenty of humorous situations, dialogue, and one-liners:

    Whitmore: Do you actually give those to your patients? isn’t that awfully large for a pill?
    Dr. Hackenbush: Well, it was too small for a basketball, and I didn’t know what to do with it. Say, you’re awfully large for a pill yourself!

Must See?
No, though of course it’s worth a look. Listed as a Personal Recommendation in the back of Peary’s book.

Links:

At the Circus (1939)

“There must be some way of getting that money, without getting in trouble with the Hays Office!”

Synopsis:
With the help of two dubious but well-meaning assistants (Chico and Harpo Marx), a lawyer (Groucho Marx) tries to secure enough evidence to indict the thieves (Nat Pendleton and Jerry Maren) who have stolen $10,000 from a struggling circus owner (Kenny Baker).

Genres:

Review:
At the Circus was made during the tail end of the Marx Brothers’ successful run of collaboratively anarchic comedies, and is clearly one of their lesser efforts. It’s too bad the team were apparently denied the opportunity to preview their interactions before a live audience, since I suspect this would have given them the opportunity to fine-tune their schtick. As it is, the gags and dialogue throughout are pretty much hit-and-miss. I’m not at all a fan of the entire “midget scene”, for instance, which comes across as simply an un-P.C., one-note gag. However, Groucho is given numerous opportunities to shine, as he sings the iconic ditty “Lydia the Tattooed Lady”, interacts with the always-welcome Dumont (given a small but pivotal supporting role), and tries to get Eve Arden to drop a wallet of stolen money while walking upside down on the ceiling (a scenario which is, at the very least, novel). Harpo’s solo is lovely, but placed smack dab in the middle of a questionable musical revue involving African American stable hands. Meanwhile, all the supporting storyline scenes (between Wilson and Florence Rice, playing his long-suffering fiancee) pretty much grind things to a halt.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Groucho singing “Lydia the Tattooed Lady”
  • Groucho’s interactions with Dumont
  • Eve Arden demonstrating ceiling walking to Groucho

Must See?
No; this one is only must-see for Marx Brothers fans.

Links:

Where the Sidewalk Ends (1950)

“You’re a good man with a good brain — but you’re no good to the department unless you learn to control yourself.”

Synopsis:
A pugnacious detective (Dana Andrews) accidentally kills the estranged husband (Craig Stevens) of a woman (Gene Tierney) whose father (Tom Tully) becomes the prime suspect, then tries to pin the blame on an underworld crime boss (Gary Merrill).

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary accurately labels this “one of Otto Preminger’s best melodramas”, noting that it’s a “stylish, atmospheric film” with “a solid script by Ben Hecht”, “marred only by a trite, overly simplistic ending and the fact that the cops so easily convince Tierney’s father that he’ll be judged guilty”. I don’t think I’ve ever seen Andrews more convincing than he is here, playing a “brutal cop known for running roughshod over suspects” — an embittered man who, “influenced by sweet Tierney”, eventually “replaces [his] hostile feelings with a conscience”. The cast of supporting players is also notably fine, with even the tiniest of bit roles perfectly cast and executed (see stills below). Meanwhile, I would argue that Hecht’s script is even better than solid — it’s taut and gripping from beginning to finish, without any wasted scenes or dialogue, and based on a genuinely intriguing premise. From the opening scene — in which Andrews is confronted by his superiors, and warned that he’d better shape up or risk more than just demotion — to his accidental killing of Stevens and subsequent attempts to cover up his actions while wrongly fingering a reviled nemesis, we realize we’re witnessing refreshing shades of gray in what amounts to a suspenseful morality play.

The final statement in Peary’s review, however, simply defies all belief: “Romance between leads would be more effective if Tierney were as pretty as she’d been in 1944′s Laura.” ?????!!!!!!! What in the world is he talking about? While Tierney’s performance here isn’t particularly noteworthy (she’s the one exception to my claims above), she’s as beautiful as always — and since when did relative shades of attractiveness play any part in the effectiveness of an on-screen romance? Honestly.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Dana Andrews as Mark Dixon
  • Fine supporting performances all around



  • Joseph LaShelle’s cinematography
  • Ben Hecht’s smart, taut script

Must See?
Yes, as one of Preminger’s finest films, and an excellent noir all-around.

Categories

Links:

Animal Crackers (1930)

“Now then, Captain, I think between the two of us we can solve the mystery of the stolen painting — especially if you go home.”

Synopsis:
A world-renowned African explorer (Groucho Marx) is feted by a society woman (Margaret Dumond), who is eager to show off a valuable painting which various people — including her own daughter (Lillian Roth) — are intent on replacing with a forgery.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Animal Crackers was the Marx Brothers’ second movie, and — like their debut film, The Cocoanuts — also a filmed version of one of their hit Broadway musicals.
Peary notes that when it was re-released in 1974 “amid great fanfare” (Paramount had allowed its licenses to expire, so it hadn’t been shown in theaters since the 1950s), “critics were so happy to see another Marx Brothers picture that they overpraised it”. He argues (and I agree) that “overall it’s a disappointing film, where the innocuous art-theft plot gets in the way of the comedy”. With that said, I disagree with Peary that the film “come[s] to a dead halt when Chico plays the piano” (I’m actually tickled by Groucho and Dumont’s reactions to his repetitive rendition of his theme song, “I’m Daffy Over You”); or when “romantic leads Hal Thompson and Lillian Roth… sing a duet” (Thompson IS instantly forgettable, but Roth — “the pretty actress-singer who’d become an alcoholic” and was later portrayed by Susan Hayward in 1955′s I’ll Cry Tomorrow — is positively infectious, and well worth waiting for whenever she appears on-screen).

In the remainder of his review, Peary calls out numerous “comedic highlights”, including “Groucho leading the guests in a rousing ‘Hooray for Captain Spaulding’, which would become his television theme song” (though all I could think about during this ditty was how much it sounds like it belongs in a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta), and “Groucho recalling his trip to Africa” (‘The first morning saw us up at six, breakfasted, and back in bed at seven — this was our routine for the first three months’)”. While Peary notes that it’s “a nice change of pace watching Dumont play scenes with Harpo and Chico, and not just Groucho”, I’ll admit I’m less a fan of their particular routines here — though it is a delight to see the finale of the infamous bridge scene, in which it’s revealed that Harpo has stolen Margaret Irving’s heels (nb: he shows up wearing a dress later on as well). Pun lovers, by the way, will be in absolute heaven while watching Animal Crackers; just wait until you hear the one about removing tusks in Tuscaloosa…

Note: See the “Re-Release” section of Wikipedia’s article to read more about the film’s celebrated emergence from obscurity.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Plenty of appealingly surreal scenarios
  • Groucho dictating a letter to Zeppo
  • Chico playing his trademark song, “I’m Daffy Over You”
  • Margaret Dumont as Mrs. Rittenhouse
  • Lillian Roth as Arabella
  • Seemingly endless amusing puns and clever wordplay:

    Capt. Spaulding: How much would you charge to run into an open manhole?
    Ravelli: Just the cover charge.
    Capt. Spaulding: Well, drop in sometime.
    Ravelli: Sewer.
    Capt. Spaulding: Well, we cleaned that up pretty well.

  • Capt. Spaulding: One morning I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got in my pajamas, I don’t know.

Must See?
Yes — as one among many “must-see” early Marx Brothers classics.

Categories

Links: