Silent Essentials: The Phantom of the Opera

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It’s week three of my spotlight on essential silent films. I’ve talked about the science fiction classic Metropolis, the comedy classic The General, and this week I’m bringing you my take on a silent horror classic. My pick this week is The Phantom of the Opera. Now, this is the 1925 silent version with Lon Chaney, not the musical version or one of the other countless remakes of the classic tale. While I did greatly enjoy the musical version when I saw it in New York City a few years ago, the silent version remains the gold standard.

The story is based on the novel of the same name by Gaston Leroux. It’s about a disfigured genius, forbidden romance, and haunted opera house.

The phantom of the title is a disfigured former composer who haunts the Paris Opera House. Several people have seen him. Sitting atop the opera house stage he sees and falls in love with the young understudy Christine Daae (Mary Philbin), who is standing in for the company’s principal, Carlotta (Virginia Pearson). The masked phantom lures Christine into the subterranean world below Paris where he lives and professes his love. When she unmasks him, she is horrified by his grotesque appearance and begs for him to let her go. The phantom agrees. But there’s a catch. She must stay away from her lover, the Vicomte Raoul de Chagny (Norman Kerry). Terrified, Christine turns to Raoul for protection. The outraged phantom, whom the police have determined is an insane criminal and an escapee from Devil’s Island, kidnaps Christine off the stage during a performance of Faust. Assisted by Ledoux of the secret police (Arthur Edmund Carewe), Raoul proceeds to enter the phantom’s underground lair to rescue her.–IMDB

The Phantom of the Opera is a great gothic love story. It’s no surprise that it has endured since it was first published in 1909. It’s part horror, mystery, and romance. All of those elements work well together in the book and in the classic film version from 1925.

There are many reasons I consider this silent film an essential. First there’s the magnificent performance of Lon Chaney as the phantom. Dubbed the man of 1,000 faces, Chaney was the original film chameleon. He was able to play anything he was asked to. In The Phantom of the Opera he delivers one of the greatest performances of the silent film era. He makes us scared of the masked phantom but also feel empathy for his predicament. The phantom is one of the classic horror film outsiders, along with the monster in Frankenstein. Chaney’s performance works not just because of his terrifying makeup, but because of Chaney’s ability to tell a whole story with his body language. Nowhere is that more evident than in the classic unmasking scene. His face equally coneys pain and his disfigurement being revealed and anger at the situation. Not many actors can do that all at once. Chaney was a genius. And here’s a fun little tidbit about him showing off his phantom makeup for the first time

According to Charles Van Enger, the film’s cameraman, he himself had a very strong reaction as Lon Chaney’s unsuspecting “guinea pig”. Chaney had summoned Van Enger to his dressing room, but without telling him why. When he got there and was standing about a foot behind the actor, Chaney suddenly spun around in full Phantom makeup! “I almost wet my pants. I fell back over a stool and landed flat on my back!” Chaney laughed so hard and Van Enger, who by then was “mad as hell” yelled, “Are you NUTS?” Unable to clearly talk with his fake teeth in, he spit them out: “Never mind Charlie, you already told me what I wanted to know.”–IMDB

Another reason The Phantom of the Opera is an essential is the incredible production design. As a viewer we really feel like we are in a haunted opera house. Credit Ben Carre for the production design and art directors Charles D. Hall and Elmer Sheeley. This is one of the most moody and atmospheric films ever made. Fun fact: par of the opera house still stands to this day.

Inside Sound Stage 28, part of the opera house still stands to the side where it was filmed some eight decades ago, making it the oldest standing interior film set in the world. Though it remains impressive, time has taken its toll and it is very rarely used. Urban legends claim the set remains because when workers have attempted to take it down in the past there have been fatal accidents, said to be caused by the ghost of Lon Chaney.–IMDB
 Talk about life imitating art!
I also want to mention Mary Philbin’s performance as a reason to see it. While Lon Chaney gets most of the film’s praise, Philbin deserves credit too. She’s very convincing as the doomed leading lady. Like Chaney, she tells the whole store with her physicality. Her terror in the unmasking scene is one of the things that completely sells the movie. Her contribution to the film cannot be overstated.
The Phantom of the Opera has been told in countless movie and stage version through the years. But, for my money, the best version of the classic tale is the silent film version from 1925. I hope you’ll take the time to check it out. It’s a great way to start your love of silent cinema.

Silent Essentials: The General

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This week my month-long look at essential silent films continues. This time around I’m spotlighting a film by the legendary Buster Keaton. My pick is his 1926 comedy masterpiece The General. It contains some truly spectacular stunts, includes the most expensive shot of the silent movie era. It was a critical and commercial failure on its initial release. But over the years it has become rightfully regarded as a classic.

The General is set against the backdrop of the Civil War. Keaton’s character (Johnnie Gray) wants to enlist in the army. But the Confederacy thinks he’s more valuable as a train engineer. This not only frustrates Johnnie, but it puts a wedge between him and his girlfriend Annabelle (Marion Mack). She thinks he’s a coward. Things get even worse for Johnnie. The General, his beloved engine, is stolen by Union spies and heads for Union lines. Making things worse is the fact that Annabelle is on board. Johnnie then sets out two save his two loves.

It’s worth noting that The General was based on true events. Here’s a little background:

Based on a true incident during the Civil War. In April 1862 Union agent James J. Andrews led a squad of 21 soldiers on a daring secret raid. Dressed in civilian clothes, Andrews and his men traveled by rail into the Southern states. Their mission was to sabotage rail lines and disrupt the Confederate army’s supply chain. At the town of Big Shanty, GA, (now known as Kennesaw, Georgia) the raiders stole a locomotive known as “The General.” They headed north, tearing up track, burning covered bridges and cutting telegraph lines along the way. William Fuller and Jeff Cain, the conductor and engineer of “The General,” pursued the stolen train by rail and foot. They first used a hand-cart (as Buster Keaton does in the film), then a small work locomotive called “The Yonah,” which they borrowed from a railroad work crew, and finally a full-sized Confederate army locomotive called “The Texas,” which pursued “The General” for 51 miles–in reverse. During the chase Confederate soldiers were able to repair the sabotaged telegraph wires and send messages ahead of the raiders. Andrews and his men were intercepted and captured near Chattanooga, TN, by a squad of Confederate troops led by Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest (who, after the war, was one of the founders of the Ku Klux Klan). Tried as spies, Andrews and seven of his raiders were hanged (a special gallows was built to hold all eight men). The rest of the raiders were traded in a prisoner exchange. In 1863 the survivors of the mission were awarded the first Medals of Honor (Andrews and the raiders who had been hanged later received the medal posthumously). Although this film is a comedy, the incident was later filmed by Walt Disney as a drama, The Great Locomotive Chase (1956), with Fess Parker–a Southerner, born in Texas–as Andrews.–IMDB

One reason this is a silent essential is because of the groundbreaking stunts. Keaton, like his silent era counterpart Harold Lloyd, was known for doing daring stunts. There’s a scene where Keaton rides on the front of the train (pictured at the top of this post). There’s a *spoiler alert!* legendary train crash at the end. According to Internet Movie Database, a crash dummy was used as the engineer in that scene. But it looked so realistic that the townspeople who had come to watch screamed in terror. Here’s another fun tidbit about the film from Internet Movie Database:

When the Texas goes over the burning bridge and plummets into the river, the looks of shock on the faces of the Union officers were real, because the actors who played them were not told what was going to happen to that train.–IMDB

We take crashes and explosions for granted now because we live in the era of CGI and Industrial Light and Magic. But before you could pull up special effects on a computer, you had to do it yourself and hope you didn’t get hurt. Keaton was a mad genius who put everything into his films and often put his life on the line to achieve a visual gag. The General is a great example. It’s no surprise that it was Keaton’s favorite film of his own.

If you’re looking for an introduction to the genius of Buster Keaton, The General is a great place to start. It has great comic bits in addition to the jaw-dropping silent era action. It’s one of my favorite silent films. I could watch it again and again. I hope you’ll take time to give it a look or introduce a friend to it.

Silent Essentials: Metropolis

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Every month on this blog I try to spotlight something different about classic/essential films. This month I will be highlighting essential silent films. If I had a dime for every person I’ve met who has never seen a silent film, I could have retired ten years ago. It’s really sad how many people won’t even give a film a chance because it’s in black and white or requires them to do some reading while they watch it because of title cards or subtitles. So this month I’m giving people a starting point to explore the stunning world of silent cinema. The first film I’ll be writing about is the first silent film I ever saw: Metropolis. Released in 1927 and directed by Fritz Lang, it’s a silent film that paved the way for films such as Blade Runner and Dark City.

The plot of Metropolis is pretty straight forward.

In a futuristic city sharply divided between the working class and the city planners, the son of the city’s mastermind falls in love with a working class prophet who predicts the coming of a savior to mediate their differences.–IMDB

Lang uses this simply plot as a vehicle to discuss things such as workers rights and class structure. If the plot sounds familiar, a Star Trek episode called The Cloud Minders had similar themes. But that’s not surprising. Many science fiction films drew inspiration from Lang’s landmark film. But I digress. In Metropolis, the working class prophet is named Maria. She is part of an underground work of workers who run the machinery that keeps the city of Metropolis going. Maria wants to bring the people in power in the upper world together with the workers. Well, as you can imagine, the powers that be are not to keen on the idea of a worker revolt. So they create a robot version of Maria to espouse their propaganda in order to maintain the status quo. I leave the plot twists for you to discover. I wouldn’t want to spoil the fun for first time viewers.

Now, let’s talk about the look of Metropolis. For a film made in 1927 the production design and artwork are absolutely stunning! It’s one of many reasons the film is an enduring classic so many decades later. Whether it’s the look of the factory, the underground world of the workers, or the skyscrapers in the city, this is one of the most incredible films just to look at. Here’s a little background on how they got some of those impressive shots of the futuristic city.

The establishing shots of the city – with cars, planes and elevated trains moving about – were shot using stop-motion photography. The cars were modeled on the newest taxicabs driving the streets of Berlin. It took months to build the city model and several days to film the few short sequences. Then the lab ruined the first shots. The backgrounds in the shot had been dimly lit to create a greater sense of depth, but the head of the lab, who developed the film himself, decided that was a mistake and lightened the backgrounds, thereby destroying the sense of forced perspective.–IMDB

Aside from the story and the striking look of the film, the print of the film has a complicated history.

For decades, all that survived of “Metropolis” were an incomplete original negative and copies of shortened, re-edited release prints; over a quarter of the film was believed lost. However, in July 2008 Germany’s ‘ZEITmagazin’ reported the discovery at the Buenos Aires Museo del Cine Pablo Ducrós Hicken by film historian and collector Fernando Martín Peña of a 16mm dupe negative copy of the original full-length 35mm export print, which had been sent to Argentina in 1928. Examining the reels in Buenos Aires, cinema experts realised that they contained almost all of the missing sequences (around 25 minutes-worth of footage, predominantly those involving the Thin Man who spies on Freder, and worker 11811 heading to and from Yoshiwara). Additionally, in October 2008 it was announced that another (hopefully) early copy in the obsolete 9.5mm format had been held in the University of Chile’s film library, intentionally mislabelled to avoid destruction during 1973’s military coup. It is as yet unknown if this holds any further viewable footage. After almost 80 years, the film is now practically complete, barring sections such as Joh Fredersen’s fight with Rotwang.–IMDB

I was fortunate to see the restored version of Metropolis at Ebert Fest in 2011, complete with accompaniment by the Alloy Orchestra. It was the opening film of the festival. If you get a chance to see it on a big screen, do it! Side note: in 1984 there was an attempt to restore the film by Giorgio Moroder. The visuals were tinted, special effects added, and there was a new soundtrack featuring Freddie Mercury and Pat Benatar, among others. It’s an interesting experiment worth seeing once. I saw it one time just to experience the pure oddity of it. Not sure I would ever seek it out again.

So many films owe a debt to Metropolis. The looks of Blade Runner and Dark City clearly drew some inspiration from it. The robot version of Maria inspired the look of C-3PO in Star Wars. The list goes on. Fritz Lang has one of the most impressive bodies of work of any director. Whether he’s directing science fiction (Metropolis), film noir (Scarlet Street), or crime films (Dr. Mabuse trilogy), he always makes films worth watching. Metropolis is one of his many cinematic masterpieces. It’s a great starting point to get you into silent cinema.

Screwball Comedy Month: Sullivan’s Travels

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This is the last week of my blog spotlight on screwball comedies. For my final piece, I’ve chosen a film that’s not only funny, but has moments where it’s downright profound. That would be Sullivan’s Travels from 1941. It was written and directed by Preston Sturges, arguably the king of screwball comedy films. And the cast isn’t too shabby either. The leads are played by Joel McCrea and Veronica Lake.

The plot involves director Joel Sullivan (Joel McCrea). He’s tired of making the same fluffy, commercial movies. He wants to branch out and make a social message picture. Sullivan wants to make a film about what it’s like to be poor. The studio executives tell him that since he grew up privileged, he’s not qualified to make such a picture. Sullivan agrees. Then he comes up with the brilliant idea of masquerading as a hobo and starting off with ten cents in his pocket, then goes out into the real world to see what such a life is like. The studio agrees to let him to it, only if they can follow him and document the experience. The director has a few false starts where he can’t shake his privileged past. He gets the studio to agree to let him go it alone for a few weeks and then meet up with him to see how it’s going. Eventually he meets a struggling actress (Veronica Lake) who goes on the journey with him. Their adventures and misadventures make for an entertaining third act.

Sullivan’s Travels has some sight gags. But the screwball comedy aspect largely comes from the writing. That should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with writer/director Sturges, a man known for his rapid-fire dialogue. Exhibit A is the opening conversation between Sullivan and the studio executives where he pitches his idea.

John L. Sullivan: I want this picture to be a commentary on modern conditions. Stark realism. The problems that confront the average man!

LeBrand: But with a little sex in it.

John L. Sullivan: A little, but I don’t want to stress it. I want this picture to be a document. I want to hold a mirror up to life. I want this to be a picture of dignity! A true canvas of the suffering of humanity!

LeBrand: But with a little sex in it.

John L. Sullivan: With a little sex in it.

Hadrian: How ’bout a nice musical?–IMDB

What isn’t mentioned in that passage that I find worth noting is that one of the films Sullivan directed was called Ants in Your Pants of 1939. Another one of my favorite passages of dialogue is a passing dig at the city of Pittsburgh. Sullivan is discussing with the studio executives a serious film that was a box office flop.

LeBrand: It died in Pittsburgh.

Hadrian: Like a dog!

John L. Sullivan: Aw, what do they know in Pittsburgh…

Hadrian: They know what they like.

John L. Sullivan: If they knew what they liked, they wouldn’t live in Pittsburgh!–IMDB

I have nothing against the city of Pittsburgh. But that’s a great piece of comedy writing.

I could write extensively about Sturges’ brilliant writing, but I’d be here for days. So I want to touch on some of the sight gags.

Early in the film, Sullivan is trying to lose the studio executives that are tailing him. He hitchhikes in a car with an old lady who drives like a bat out of hell. The studio executives are following him in what they call a land yacht. Imagine a camper that’s the size of a zeppelin and has four star accommodations and you get a good visual idea of it. Trying to keep up with Sullivan, the land yacht pursues at breakneck speed, causing people and objects in the vehicle to fly around in a classic screwball comedy scene. It’s a great take on the old timey car chase.

Another great sight gag is when Lake and McCrea have a verbal fight. After having a few choice words, Lake pushes McCrea into a pool. Eventually she ends up pulled in too. The sight of them as drowned rats is one to behold.

I want to mention also a scene that’s funny and touching. Towards the end of the movie, there’s a mix-up that results in Sullivan being arrested and ending up in prison. One night, the prisoners are treated to a night of cartoons in a nearby church. This scene was groundbreaking at the time, because the members of the church were some of the first non-stereotypical portrayals of African-Americans in a movie. What Sullivan and the prisoners end up watching is a Pluto cartoon. Sitting watching the cartoon with the prisoners and witnessing the healing powers of laughter, Sullivan has a startling revelation. In troubled times, comedy allows people to forget their troubles. The comedy films he’s making were more important than he realized. *Spoiler alert!* At the end of the film when things are cleared up and released from prison, he delivers a line that’s one of the great film epiphanies.

John L. Sullivan: There’s a lot to be said for making people laugh. Did you know that that’s all some people have? It isn’t much, but it’s better than nothing in this cockeyed caravan.–IMDB

In the end laughter really is the best medicine.

Sullivan’s Travels is a real hidden gem. McCrea and Lake have terrific onscreen chemistry. The script is smart and funny. It manages to be both a road picture and a buddy comedy. And on top of everything else, between the laughter we learn a lot about how the other half lives. It’s pretty impressive that one film could pull all that off. But Preston Sturges was a master storyteller. Sullivan’s Travels is one of his best films.

That’s it for screwball comedy month. Hope you found some new films to give you a belly laugh or two.

Screwball Comedy Month: Young Frankenstein

a78ba8286bcb788af3bb474f9ee27c06Greetings, readers! I hope you’re enjoying my month-long spotlight on screwball comedies. Most of my comedies have been from the 30s and 40s so far. This week I leap forward all the way to 1974. Yes, this week’s selection is Young Frankenstein. Director Mel Brooks has brought us some of the most brilliant and outrageous comedies over the years: The Producers, Blazing Saddles, and even the underrated Silent Movie. But of all his films, Young Frankenstein is my favorite. It brilliantly satirizes the Universal monster movies, especially Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein. It’s smart, funny, and is a great love letter to classic monster movies.

The plot is pretty straight forward. Dr. Frederick Frankenstein (Gene Wilder), grandson of Victor Frankenstein from the James Whale film, is desperate to prove he is not a mad scientist like his grandfather. Early in the film he is invited to his late grandfather’s castle in Transylvania. There he discovers the process via books in his grandfather’s library how to reanimate the dead. Eventually he creates his own monster, just like in the original James Whale film. Chaos ensues and so do plenty of laughs.

Where do I begin to narrow down my favorite scenes/gangs in this comic masterpiece? There’s barely a line in the screenplay that isn’t quotable or a moment that isn’t hilarious. But here are a few of my favorOne of the many things that Mel Brooks does so well is use a stock company of brilliant comic actors. In Young Frankenstein one of my favorites in the talented supporting cast is Marty Feldman. He plays Igor, an assistant to Dr. Frankenstein. Feldman has so many hilarious scenes/gags, including the running joke about the hump on his back switching sides. But perhaps my favorite is the scene where he is pressured to reveal to Dr. Frankenstein whose brain the Dr. put in the now reanimated body. Igor was supposed to get the brain of a brilliant man, but sadly dropped it on the floor of the brain depository. He grabs a brain marked,”abnormal.” This leads to this brilliant exchange.

Dr. Frederick Frankenstein: [to Igor] Now that brain that you gave me. Was it Hans Delbruck’s?

Igor: No.

Dr. Frederick Frankenstein: Ah! Very good. Would you mind telling me whose brain I DID put in?

Igor: Then you won’t be angry?

Dr. Frederick Frankenstein: I will NOT be angry.

Igor: Abby someone.

Dr. Frederick Frankenstein: Abby someone. Abby who?

Igor: Abby… Normal.

Dr. Frederick Frankenstein: Abby Normal?

Igor: I’m almost sure that was the name.

Dr. Frederick Frankenstein: Are you saying that I put an abnormal brain into a seven and a half-foot long, fifty-four inch wide GORILLA? Is that what you’re telling me?–IMDB

The Abby Normal line kills me every time.

Another moment of comic gold is the iconic Puttin’ on the Ritz scene. After finally recapturing the escaped monster, Dr. Frankenstein decides to show the monster off in front of the scientific community in the village. He suits himself and the monster up in top hats and tails and the two do a brilliant song and dance number that I bet would have made the likes of Fred Astaire smile. What makes the scene, apart from the concept of a science experiment doing a song and dance routine, is Peter Boyle’s physicality and vocals. Him choking the lyrics of the song out in character as the monster is brilliant. So is how he manages to go through the dance movies looking both lumbering and elegant. It’s an iconic scene for good reason.

Another one of my favorite scenes is the cameo by the wonderful Gene Hackman. He plays a blind man living in the forest. When the monster breaks loose from the castle, he happens upon the blind man’s house. The blind man is lonely, so he is thrilled to have company, if it is a monster. The two sit down to dinner where some great gags ensue. What sells them are Peter Boyle’s priceless facial expressions and Hackman’s scene-stealing performance. He’s on screen for less than five minutes, but boy does he deliver. There’s a moment where the blind man tries to teach the monster how to light a cigar and accidentally sets the monster’s thumb on fire. There’s also the part where they try to have a toast with their wine glasses, but the glasses collide to forcefully and break, leading to a priceless Boyle reaction shot. And there’s also the part where the blind man tries to serve the monster soup, but in the process of pouring it into the bowl ladles it into the poor monster’s lap. But mere words do not do the sequence justice.

Finally, there’s a priceless scene of charades. Dr. Frankenstein thinks his reanimation experiment is a failure. When he finds out a success, he releases the monster from the lab table. The monster proceeds to attack him. This leads to rather hilarious scene of charades where Dr. Frankenstein tries to communicate through pantomime that he needs a sedative. Eventually Igor and Inga (another lab assistant played to comedic brilliance by Teri Garr) work out something close to the word: sedagive.

Side note: look for brilliant supporting performances by Madeline Kahn as Dr. Frankenstein’s fiancée Elizabeth (she does a great send up of an iconic scene from Bride of Frankenstein at the end) and Cloris Leachman as Frau Blücher, who has one of the funniest secret revealing scenes in movie history.

I’ve seen Young Frankenstein I don’t know how many times. I laugh just as hard each viewing. Credit the stellar cast, lead by the brilliant Gene Wilder who also co-wrote the screenplay with Mel Brooks. Once the laughs start coming they don’t stop. Spoofs are hard to do. And they don’t get much better than Young Frankenstein.

Screwball Comedy Month: Monkey Business

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This month on my blog it’s all about screwball comedies. Continuing my spotlight on films that give us great belly laughs, this week I bring you my write-up on Monkey Business. The Marx Bros were a comic gold mine. If you’re ever having a bad day, just put one of their movies on. Their high jinks are the perfect natural antidepressant. I could have picked any number of their movies. But Monkey Business doesn’t get enough love. So it’s my pick this week.

Monkey Business was the first Marx Bros film written especially for the screen instead of the stage. That format allows the zany bunch to go to town with their antics. The result is a hilarious romp. There is a plot, albeit a loose one.

While stowing away on a ship to America, the boys get involuntarily pressed into service as toughs for a pair of feuding gangsters while trying desperately to evade the ship’s crew. After arriving stateside, one of the gangsters kidnaps the other’s daughter – and it’s up to our unlikely heroes to save the day.–IMDB

In typical screwball comedy fashion, the plot on the surface is ridiculous and the situations get more and more outrageous. The genius of Monkey Business is that it embraces what makes the Marx Bros movies magical: inspired anarchy.

Now let me tell you about some of my favorite scenes. There’s the opening with them harmonizing Sweet Adeline while in barrels, humorously with no one else noticing. While not a laugh out loud scene, it’s a fun setup for the film.

One of the funniest scenes is one of the Marx Bros’ numerous attempts to evade the ship’s crew, particularly Inspector Gibson, After crashing a stage show on the ship for children, Chico and Harpo go around the ship masquerading as barbers. One of the best laughs comes after a botched attempt at trimming an officer’s mustache.

Another great scene is the one that brings the gangster plot into the mix. Groucho hides in the closet of gangster Alkie Briggs (Harry Lewis). He is fighting with his wife Lucille (Thelma Todd). When Briggs leaves, Groucho and Lucille hit it off (Groucho is such a scamp). This encounter leads to this great dialogue exchange that ends with one of my favorite Groucho Marx lines.

Groucho: Oh no, you’re not gonna get me off this bed.

Lucille: I didn’t know you were a lawyer. You’re awfully shy for a lawyer.

Groucho: You bet I’m shy. I’m a shyster lawyer.

And I have to mention Zeppo’s contribution to this movie. For once his just as much of a con artist as his brothers. The part where he romances a bootlegger isn’t a particularly long sequence and he doesn’t get tons of screen time. But what he has he makes the most of. It’s one of the film’s best surprises.
There’s also a long-running gang about a stolen passport which leads to some hilarious impersonations. And of course there’s the chaos that ensues when Chico and Harpo become body guards for Briggs and Groucho and Zeppo work for Briggs’ rival Big Joe Helton (Rockliffe Fellowes). He’s on the ship too, because of course.
But I don’t want to just give you a laundry list one one-liners and sight gags. The Marx Bros movies are an experience. Just put Monkey Business on and enjoy watching the mayhem unfold. Your sides will hurt by the time the end credits roll.

Screwball Comedy Month: Love Crazy

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This is week two of my spotlight on screwball comedies. Anyone familiar with classic comedy teams no doubt knows of William Powell and Myrna Loy. While their most famous collaboration was The Thin Man film series, they made a slew of other films together. Of all of them, my favorite is Love Crazy. It’s worth a watch for the great chemistry of the stars, as well as the image of William Powell in drag. More on that later.

Like many screwball comedies, the laughs come from misunderstandings and increasingly preposterous situations. But even in a preposterous movie there has to be some semblance of a plot. So here’s a summary:

Steve (William Powell) and Susan (Myrna Loy) Ireland are about to celebrate their 4th wedding anniversary by re-enacting their first date. When Susan’s meddling mother interrupts and injures herself, Steve is left to take care of her. When he meets an old flame in the elevator, Susan’s mother takes the opportunity to break-up their marriage. She convinces Susan that Steve is cheating on her-Susan files for divorce. Steve has one solution to save his marriage…Pretend he is insane.–IMDB

And who hasn’t pretended to be crazy in order to delay a divorce? The problem is that pleading insanity leads to Steve being put in an insane asylum. From there the film just gets funnier and funnier.

Let me break down some of my favorite gags. The whole sequence where Steve and his old flame get stuck in the elevator is a scream. Powell gets his head stuck in the elevator door and keeps getting his head smacked as the elevator car goes up and down. In one particularly funny moment, Powell is stuck between the elevator door on the lower part and a dog that he freed in the process of attempting to get out stops to lick his face. While this sounds very broad and an easy laugh, Powell’s facial expressions make it absolutely priceless.

Another great series of laughs happens when Steve crashes Susan’s posh party. Pretending to be crazy, he takes the hats of all the guests and puts them in the pool. Steve pretends to be Abraham Lincoln and says he’s freeing the hats. When Susan’s mother confronts him he shoves her into the pool, saying she needs to be freed as well. It’s a great sight gag.

Finally, there’s the scene of Powell in drag that I mentioned earlier. Steve eventually escapes the asylum and hides in the apartment of his old flame. Steve then has to dodge Susan’s new beau by wearing some of his old flame’s clothes and posing as his sister. It’s not only hilarious to see Powell in drag. But it’s funny seeing him without his trademark mustache when he shaves it off for the disguise. I don’t want to say much more. That would spoil some great belly laughs. But after the farcical sequence Steve and Susan patch things up.

William Powell and Myrna Loy are two of my favorite people from classic Hollywood. They made great films together and look like they had fun in the process. Their chemistry isn’t something you see in comedies of today. That’s a testament to what great actors they were. Love Crazy isn’t as well-known as The Thin Man films and their sequels, but it’s worth a watch if you need a hearty chuckle. Side note: look for the wonderful Jack Carson as Loy’s new beau. A prolific character actor, Carson is always fun to watch. He is a welcome addition to the talented cast. If you need a good pick-me-up, you can’t go wrong with William Powell and Myrna Loy in the underrated comic gem Love Crazy.