Horse Feathers (1932)

“You’ve got the brain of a four-year-old boy — and I’ll bet he was glad to get rid of it.”

Synopsis:
The new president (Groucho Marx) of Huxley University hires two bumbling spies (Chico and Harpo Marx) to help his institution win a big football game against a rival university.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
As Peary notes, this “frantic, anarchical comedy” is “regarded as the most surrealistic of the Marx Brothers films”, given that it “takes us zooming from one senseless scene to the next and through completely absurd bits of dialogue”. Peary calls out several particularly “memorable scenes”, including the opening scene (“Groucho addressing the faculty and students”), “Groucho trying to gain entrance into a speakeasy by guessing the doorman Chico’s secret word”, and “Groucho taking ‘college widow’ Thelma Todd canoeing” (during which “she falls overboard and he tosses her a peppermint Life Saver”). I’m less a fan of the infamously climactic “wild, wild football game”, though I’ll concede its slapstick brilliance from afar. Listen for plenty of the Brothers’ characteristically zany verbal wit:

Professor Wagstaff: Tomorrow we start tearing down the college.
Professors: But, Professor, where will the students sleep?
Professor Wagstaff: Where they always sleep: in the classroom.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • The infectiously hummable opening song (“Whatever It Is, I’m Against It”)
  • Plenty of classic Marxian dialogue, one-liners, puns, and scenarios: “Why don’t you bore a hole in yourself and let the sap run out?”

Must See?
Yes. Most film fanatics will be curious to check out all of the Marx Brothers’ early Paramount Studios classics, including this one.

Categories

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Cocoanuts, The (1929)

“When the necklace is found missing, someone has got to be blamed — why not them?”

Synopsis:
At a struggling Florida hotel owned by Groucho Marx, the sole paying guest (Margaret Dumont) tries to convince her daughter (Mary Eaton) to marry a more socially acceptable man (Cyril Ring) than the hotel clerk (Oscar Shaw) she’s in love with — not knowing that Ring is actually in cahoots with Kay Francis to steal Dumont’s valuable diamond necklace, and then place the blame on two new visitors at the hotel (Harpo and Chico Marx).

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary recommends that you “forget the necklace storyline” of this Marx Brothers debut film (made while they were busy performing Animal Crackers on Broadway), and simply watch them presenting “some of the funniest… dialogue and Harpo magic found in their movies”. He notes that while “critics often complain about the film’s theatricality and static stretches” (not to mention the poor quality of existing prints, despite DVD restoration), it nonetheless provides “non-stop hilarity” whenever “Groucho, Chico, and Harpo are on the screen”. I’m in agreement with Peary on this one. While the “slow stretches” are indeed of negligible worth (you’ll pretty much yawn as soon as either Eaton or Ring open their mouth to sing Irving Berlin’s songs), the surrounding material is nearly always consistently amusing; the one exception is the final banquet scene, which left me oddly unimpressed. Regardless, Peary is right to state that “one can only wonder how audiences who had never seen the Marx Brothers before reacted” to this first presentation of their work on-screen, which remains worthy viewing today, despite its flaws.

Note: Watch for Kay Francis’s strikingly butch hairstyle — and listen for Harpo’s lovely solo, a truly worthy introduction to his musical talents.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Many classic, still highly enjoyable Marx Brothers routines

  • Harpo’s lovely harp solo
  • Creative opening credits

Must See?
Yes, for its historical importance as the Marx Brothers’ first film.

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Tabu (1931)

“Sacred is Reri from this time forth. She is Tabu. To break this Tabu means death.”

Synopsis:
A pearl diver (Matahi) falls in love with a beautiful girl (Anne Chevalier) who is soon selected as her island’s “holy maid”, and thus becomes “tabu” for any man. The young couple sneak away and sail to freedom on another island, but an elderly spiritual warrier (Hitu) continues to threaten Matahi with death if Chevalier does not return and take her rightful position.

Genres:

Review:
Defined by Time Out as director F.W. Murnau’s “purest and least inhibited celebration of physical sensuality and love”, his final film — made in collaboration with documentarian Robert Flaherty — tells “a simple Pacific islands folk tale”, all done without dialogue or even inter-titles (necessary information is provided through “authentic” notes and letters written by various characters). The first half hour or so presents itself as a beautifully shot travelogue, as two gorgeous young natives (Matahi and Chevalier make a sexy, appealing young couple) flirt innocently with one another and fall in love. Soon, however, the storyline shifts into a tragic tale bearing an eerie resemblance to Romeo and Juliet; be prepared for emotional devastation. Shot in stunning black and white (by Flaherty and Floyd Crosby), the film presents a pristine vision of the South Seas, which — in a subtle yet crucial subtext — is nonetheless slowly being overrun by corrupt colonial forces. Nominated by Peary as one of the best films of the year in his Alternate Oscars book.

Note: This film served as the direct inspiration for King Vidor’s thematically similar Bird of Paradise the following year.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Matahi and Chevalier’s appealingly natural performances

  • Beautiful cinematography

Must See?
Yes, simply for its historical relevance as Murnau’s final film. Listed as a film with historical importance and a Personal Recommendation in the back of Peary’s book. Nominated by Peary as one of the Best Movies of the Year in his Alternate Oscars.

Categories

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

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House of Dracula (1945)

“I believe anything can happen, in a person’s mind.”

Synopsis:
Dracula (John Carradine) and the Wolf Man (Lon Chaney, Jr.) both seek the help of Dr. Edelmann (Onslow Stevens) in curing their ailments; soon the Wolf Man stumbles upon the body of Frankenstein’s monster (Glenn Strange), who Dr. Edelmann decides to revive.

Genres:

Review:
Of all the Universal Studios “monster flicks” I’ve watched over the last few months (and that’s quite a few), House of Dracula stands out as probably the least of them all. There’s honestly nothing new here to speak of — unless you count the inclusion of a beautiful hump-backed female nurse (Jane Adams) as Dr. Edelmann’s assistant. Visually, it’s as stunning as the rest of Universal’s output, with appropriately atmospheric cinematography, impressively baroque sets, and some creatively conceived imagery. But the lack of any type of original story for these (overly) familiar characters was simply killing me — and the forced inclusion of Frankenstein’s monster into the narrative is (if possible) more egregiously nonsensical than ever before. This one’s really only for diehard fans.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Dracula hypnotizing Martha O’Driscoll into playing piano music she’s never heard before
  • Atmospheric cinematography
  • Some creative imagery

Must See?
Definitely not; like so many of Universal’s other follow-up “monster flicks”, this one will only be of interest to fans of the series.

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Son of Dracula (1943)

“Ours will be a different life, without material needs — a life that will last for eternity!”

Synopsis:
Hungarian Count Alucard (Lon Chaney, Jr.) arrives in the deep south, where he promptly marries an occult-obsessed girl (Louise Allbritton) engaged to her childhood sweetheart (Robert Paige). Meanwhile, the town doctor (Frank Craven) and a psychologist well-versed in vampire lore (J. Edward Bromberg) begin to investigate Alucard’s true identity.

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Review:
Opinions vary widely on this third entry in Universal Studios’ Dracula franchise (directed by Robert Siodmak), with most critics lambasting it as the worst of the bunch — thanks primarily to the perceived miscasting of Lon Chaney, Jr. in the title role. As DVD Savant argues, he’s “lumbering and chubby”, and “just looks overfed, puffy, and in a bad temper. It doesn’t work for a moment.” With that said, the film remains of minor interest for: a) being the first to portray a Goth girl lusting after eternal life through vampirism (Allbritton is convincing in this pivotal role), and b) essentially turning a standard-issue Universal horror sequel into a film noir, complete with a femme fatale, atmospheric cinematography, plenty of unexpected plot twists, and a poor chump of a guy (Paige is equally convincing) who really doesn’t deserve the roller coaster ride of emotions he’s taken on.

Note: Regardless of how you feel about Chaney’s (mis)casting in this film, it’s interesting to know that (for better or for worse), he was the only actor to portray all four of Universal’s classic monsters.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Robert Paige as Frank
  • Louise Allbritton as Kay
  • Reasonably effective low-budget special effects
  • George Robinson’s atmospheric cinematography

Must See?
No, though fans of Universal horror films will surely want to check it out.

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Love Happy (1949)

“This is not the right can!”

Synopsis:
A detective (Groucho Marx) relates the story of a case he helped solve, in which a mute kleptomaniac clown (Harpo Marx) assisting a penniless theater troupe accidentally steals a can of sardines with valuable diamonds in them, and faces the wrath of the woman (Ilona Massey) who intends to possess them at any cost.

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Review:
Love Happy is primarily known as the Marx Brothers’ final (tepid) outing together. Originally intended as a solo vehicle for Harpo Marx (indeed, the bulk of the narrative centers around his pantomiming character), Groucho and Chico were reined in as well, and given ancillary roles that truly do feel tacked-on. With that said, Love Happy isn’t entirely disappointing: Ilona Massey (best known for her role as the Baroness Elsa Frankenstein in Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man) plays an enjoyably hiss-worthy villainess, and Vera-Ellen’s dancing is always a treat (it’s nice to see her here looking a little healthier and less gaunt); meanwhile, Harpo’s antics (scripted in part by Frank Tashlin) are occasionally amusing. If you check out the film’s poster (see above), you’ll note that Love Happy is also known for “featuring” Marilyn Monroe in one of her earliest films — though her notoriety here is a bit of a joke, given that she literally waltzes into a room late in the story, says a few lines, then shimmies back out, all within the space of a minute or so. That’s it. She’s sexy, but is literally of no importance to the storyline at all: be forewarned.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Ilona Massey as Madame Egelichi
  • Vera-Ellen’s dancing
  • Frank Tashlin’s uneven but occasionally enjoyable script

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

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Duck Soup (1933)

“But there must be a war. I’ve paid a month’s rent on the battlefield!”

Synopsis:
A wealthy socialite (Margaret Dumont) with a crush on zany Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho Marx) insists that he be elected president of the troubled country of Freedonia; meanwhile, the ambassador (Louis Calhern) of Freedonia’s rival, Sylvania, enlists the help of two inept spies (Chico Marx and Harpo Marx) to gather critical information on Firefly, and soon war has erupted between the two countries.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
It’s interesting but not surprising to learn that while made in the Marx Brothers’ “heyday”, Duck Soup was their “one critical and commercial flop of the period” — perhaps because “Depression Era audiences, who needed to believe in their leaders, were a bit unnerved seeing Groucho as the ruler of a country”. However, as Peary notes, “college audiences in the 1960s were looking for films that treated politicians with the disrespect they deserved”, thus leading this film to take its “rightful place in the comedy-film pantheon” (and turning it into a cult favorite). Peary, along with most other critics, refers to this as “the team’s masterpiece”, noting that it contains “70 delightful minutes of non-stop (no musical interludes or romance) sight gags, verbal wit, zany improvisations, and Groucho and Harpo offending everyone around them”, and further observing that “it is the only film that provided the team with the proper political milieu for their anarchic brand of humor”.

In his Cult Movies review, Peary argues that director Leo McCarey (who apparently balked at being given this assignment) “presents the Marx Brothers… at their most consistently rude and irreverent”, noting that their humor is “derived to a great extent from the cumulative effects that their unremitting insults (Groucho), puns (Groucho and Chico), invasions of privacy, destruction of property (Harpo), and general annoyances (Groucho, Chico, and Harpo) have on the pompous boors and wealthy hypocrites who populate their world”. Nicely said! Indeed, that description just about sums up their comedic arsenal perfectly. For more information about specific scenes in this zaniest of cinematic masterpieces — a still-potent example of unadulterated comedic anarchy — I humbly refer you to either Peary’s Cult Movies review, or any of the many fine analyses available online or in print.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Groucho Marx as Firefly (nominated by Peary as one of the best actors of the year in Alternate Oscars)
  • Margaret Dumont at Mrs. Teasdale
  • Groucho and Chico’s non-stop verbal wit
  • A ruthlessly breakneck satire of countless cinematic tropes
  • The infamous, oft-imitated-but-never-equaled mirror scene
  • A truly surreal screenplay

Must See?
Yes, as an undisputed comedy classic. Nominated by Peary as one of the best films of the year in his Alternate Oscars, and discussed at length in his first Cult Movies book.

Categories

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

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Night of the Hunter, The (1955)

“There’s too many of them. I can’t kill the world.”

Synopsis:
A psychopathic preacher (Robert Mitchum) learns that his cellmate (Peter Graves) has hidden $10,000 in stolen money somewhere in his home. Once he’s out of jail, Mitchum woos and marries Graves’ widow (Shelley Winters), hoping to get her children (Billy Chapin and Sally Jane Bruce) to reveal what they know about the money. Soon Chapin and Bruce are on the lam from murderous Mitchum, seeking refuge with a kind older woman (Lillian Gish).

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
On the basis of his sole directorial effort, it’s clear that Charles Laughton was not only a gifted actor but a true genius behind the camera. His Night of the Hunter — based on an award-winning Depression-era novel by Davis Grubb, and “strikingly photographed by [DP] Stanley Cortez” — remains a “fascinating, truly unique work, part gothic horror film, part religious parable, part fairytale” (and, as described in Peary’s review of the film for Alternate Oscars, “part animated-cartoon”). As Peary notes, Robert Mitchum (in perhaps his most memorable role) is “absolutely terrifying as the phony preacher” who “all adults are mesmerized by”, but who the film’s stalwart young protagonist (Chapin) recognizes immediately as a wolf “in sheep’s clothing”. Once Chapin and the doll-like Bruce (that forehead!) go on the lam from the predatory Mitchum, Peary accurately likens them to “Hansel and Gretel, traveling through the woods, heading downstream — only they find a sweet old lady” (Gish) rather than a witch.

In his more extensive review of the film for his Cult Movies 3 book, Peary admits that he gets “all choked up about halfway through [the film], anticipating Rachel [Gish] coming to the aid of the two desperate children”. He notes “how brave, unselfish, and caring she is”, as the only adult in the film who “recognizes their need for help, and the only one who has the inner strength and the faith to help them”. To that end, “strong-willed Gish and strong-bodied Mitchum are great opponents” — what inspired casting on both counts! Other performances in the film — from Winters as Mitchum’s doomed new bride, to Evelyn Varden as a nosy, self-righteous neighbor named Icey Spoon (!) — are fine as well; but what’s most striking about the film is Laughton’s utterly “audacious visual style”, turning nearly every frame of the picture into a memorable tableaux (see stills below). As Peary notes, Laughton “borrowed from D.W. Griffith (Gish’s most famous director) and German Expressionists” to create a highly stylized alter-universe which “immediately takes us out of reality”. The film’s enormously creative opening scene, for instance, has “harsh music… replaced by the sweet singing of children and the heads of Rachel and her five young wards appear[ing] in the sky, amidst the stars”, providing just a hint of what’s to come — no ordinary 1950s Hollywood melodrama, this!

(And speaking of the opening shot, it’s intriguing to wonder whether the entire film might be, as Peary suggests, “the nightmare John [Chapin] has… after hearing Rachel’s fretful words”. Hmmm…)

Regardless, we’re taken on a humdinger of a ride — one we can’t ever pull our eyes away from, no matter how frightening the story becomes. This is thanks in large part to the consistently striking beauty of Laughton’s visuals, but also due to how Laughton deftly infuses this most tragic of tales (about murder, theft, deceit, and child abuse!) with plenty of alleviating dark humor. He does this by turning Mitchum’s psychopathic preacher into a “classic deceitful fairy-tale villain”, one who supplies unexpected “slapstick humor” and thus provides the film with its “necessary moments of relief”. Yet for all his cartoonish qualities, Mitchum remains a serious presence to be reckoned with throughout — a truly crazy “messenger of God” who will do anything, absolutely anything, to get that $10,000. Watch and be afraid.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Robert Mitchum as Harry Powell (nominated by Peary as Best Actor of the Year in his Alternate Oscars)
  • Shelley Winters as Willa Harper
  • Lillian Gish as Rachel Cooper
  • Evelyn Varden as busybody Icey Spoon
  • Masterful, consistently creative direction

  • Stanley Cortez’s stunning cinematography

  • Countless indelibly haunting images


  • Walter Schumann’s varied, eclectic score

Must See?
Absolutely. This unique classic remains one of the best examples of mid-century American cinema. Discussed at length in Peary’s Cult Movies 3. Selected as the Best Movie of the Year in Peary’s Alternate Oscars.

Categories

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

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Monsieur Beaucaire (1946)

“Listen to me, Beaucaire — your life is in danger!”

Synopsis:
During the reign of Louis XV (Reginald Owen), a French barber (Bob Hope) who has recently been spurned by his ambitious girlfriend (Joan Caulfield) is forced to impersonate a duke (Patric Knowles), whose upcoming marriage to a Spanish princess (Marjorie Reynolds) will supposedly stop imminent war between the two countries.

Genres:

Review:
Based on a novel by Booth Tarkington, this farcical costume drama is a classic Bob Hope feature, featuring the beloved ski-nosed star bumbling his way through numerous semi-dangerous scenarios — all while keeping an eye on the girl he hopes to win (in this case, an enjoyably feisty Joan Caulfield), and spouting characteristically snappy come-back lines:

Count D’Armand: Go on! Help him!
Monsieur Beaucaire: Who me?
Count D’Armand: Yes, you! You’re a man. You’ve got blood in your veins.
Monsieur Beaucaire: I wanna keep it there. It’s the squirty kind.

How much you’ll enjoy Monsieur Beaucaire depends precisely on how funny you find this kind of exchange. For myself, I find that a little of Hope goes a long way — and having watched soooo many of his films in recent months, I’m feeling a little weary at this point. In fact, now that I’ve finished reviewing all of the Bob Hope titles in Peary’s book, I think I can safely say that you only need to a see a couple of his films (one of the Road To… flicks with Bing Crosby, and what I consider to be Hope’s best satirical vehicle — My Favorite Brunette) to get a sense of what his enduring popularity was all about. If you’re a fan, rest assured that there are plenty of other competent Hope films out there — like this one — to enjoy.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Plenty of Hope’s typically light-hearted humor

Must See?
No, though naturally Hope fans will want to check it out. Listed as a Personal Recommendation in the back of Peary’s book.

Links:

Night of the Ghouls / Revenge of the Dead (1959)

“Monsters! Space people! Mad doctors! They didn’t teach me about such things in the police academy!”

Synopsis:
A pair of detectives (Duke Moore and Paul Marco) are sent to investigate a suspicious spiritualist named Dr. Acula (Kenne Duncan), who works in cahoots with a fake ghost (Valda Hansen) to convince wealthy clients that they are in communication with departed loved ones.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary accurately notes that while Ed Wood’s “follow-up to Plan 9 From Outer Space features god-awful acting, direction, music, dialogue, costumes, sets, props, lighting, pacing, and camera work”, this likely “won’t be enough to satisfy hardcore Wood fanatics” (or all purpose bad-movie lovers for that matter) “who have the right to expect much worse”. Often afforded the dubious label of being Wood’s most competent film (for better or for worse), Night of the Ghouls actually possesses an interesting history, not mentioned in Peary’s book: Wood couldn’t afford the lab fees to print the film, so it wasn’t viewed until years later (in 1983), when an aficionado named Wade Williams paid the overdue lab fees and released the film, much to the delight of Wood’s growing cult of fans. At any rate, as Peary notes, the film is full of “typically ludicrous Wood touches”, such as the infamously giggle-worthy scene when one of the detectives “sneaks through a dark house (the film’s prime set) [and] both [the film's narrator] Criswell and our hero, through voiceovers, discuss in great detail the railing his hand happens to touch” — which is “completely irrelevant to the story”. Unfortunately, however, as Peary notes, “the picture hasn’t the inspired madness of Wood’s classics”, and really isn’t must-see except for his die-hardest fans.

Note: I disagree with Peary that “Jennie Stevens as the Black Ghost can’t hold a candle to Plan 9‘s Vampira”. While Vampira may have been more strikingly dramatic (and unearthly), Stevens is both gorgeous and haunting in her own way. (Besides, it’s not like these “roles” were really meant to offer anything more than ghoulish eye-candy anyway!).

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • A few humorously campy moments

Must See?
No; this one is only for Ed Wood completists.

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