Duck Soup. Directed by Leo McCarey. Marx madness reigns supreme as the brothers run amok in Freedonia, hailed as the “land of the brave and free.” Margaret Dumont does her best work in a Marx Brothers film as the elegant Mrs. Teasdale, providing the perfect counterpart to Groucho’s barbs. The always first-rate Louis Calhern is terrific as the straight man to Groucho’s insults, rival Sylvanian ambassador Trentino. I’ve never been crazy about Raquel Torres, mostly because she has very little to do as Vera Marcal, but the other supporting actors make up for it: Edgar Kennedy as the street vendor constantly bothered by Chico and Harpo, Charles Middleton as the court prosecutor and Leonid Kinskey as an agitator. Duck Soup was one of my favorite Marx Brothers films when I was a kid, tied with A Night at the Opera. Many lines and gags from the film have embedded themselves into my mind (including the famous mirror scene), but the moment that has become my favorite is the courtroom song-and-dance sequence that is featured in Hannah and Her Sisters. Allen’s internal monologue about life and death is made all the more powerful by the images of the Marx Brothers having a grand old time.
Footlight Parade. Directed by Lloyd Bacon. Jimmy Cagney was superb as song-and-dance man Chester Kent, leading a bevy of beauties in this Depression-era musical. It’s more of a music film than a musical, though; songs are only sung in the context of shows, not as part of the characters’ reality. Dick Powell and Ruby Keeler do a fine job in the “By a Waterfall” number and Cagney has the chance to show off his dancing expertise in the “Shanghai Lil” number; unfortunately, after watching the movie in my film history class, one girl commented that either the number or perhaps the movie as a whole was “so cheesy” and in response a guy said, “So horrible it’s awesome.” (Dick Powell was also referred to by students as “the other guy – the one from Arkansas College.”) When I watch musicals, I am filled with joy, as I wrote about in a previous post. My classmates do not appear to share my enthusiasm for the American musical. (I love musicals of all kinds, but there is something particularly wonderful about the musicals from the early 30s through the early 60s.) I must also point out how fabulous Joan Blondell was in Footlight Parade, although I wish she’d been able to take part in the musical aspect of the film.
Hold Your Man. Directed by Sam Wood. This romantic drama was the third of five films Jean Harlow made paired with Clark Gable. For me this is one of Gable’s best early roles, displaying a tenderness toward the end that I didn’t see in A Free Soul or Red Dust. Harlow continues to impress me, giving a much more complex performance than one might expect from the blonde bombshell. Her rendition of the title song is an especially poignant touch. Among the supporting cast are Stuart Erwin as Al, typical moll Dorothy Burgess as Gypsy, Garry Owen (the waiting taxi driver in Arsenic and Old Lace) as Slim, Inez Courtney (Ilona in The Shop Around the Corner) as Harlow’s fellow prisoner Mazie and Barbara Barondess as Jewish inmate Sadie. Black actors Theresa Harris and George Reed lend dignity to their uncredited but important roles as Lily Mae and Reverend Crippen. Crisp cinematography by Harold Rosson adds to the atmosphere; Rosson photographed a variety of films, like The Docks of New York, Red Dust, The Scarlet Pimpernel, Captains Courageous, The Wizard of Oz, Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo, On the Town, The Asphalt Jungle, Singin’ in the Rain and The Bad Seed.
Man’s Castle. Directed by Frank Borzage. Borzage was a master of the romantic drama (if you have not yet seen 7th Heaven, Lucky Star, Three Comrades or Moonrise, please do!) and this lush pre-Code film is no exception. Loretta Young is lovely and luminous, exquisitely illuminated by Joseph H. August’s cinematography. She is matched by Spencer Tracy in one of his first great film roles, displaying the mix of toughness and sentimentality that would become his trademark. Also part of the cast is the much underrated Marjorie Rambeau (who made quite an impact in her Oscar-nominated turn in Primrose Path), playing Flossie. Man’s Castle was edited by Viola Lawrence, one of the many excellent female film editors from the Golden Age of Hollywood; among the other titles she worked on are Queen Kelly, The Whole Town’s Talking, Craig’s Wife, Only Angels Have Wings, Here Comes Mr. Jordan, My Sister Eileen, Cover Girl, The Lady from Shanghai, In a Lonely Place and Pal Joey.
Sons of the Desert. Directed by William A. Seiter. This is definitely one of Laurel and Hardy’s best feature films. The boys tell their wives (the fantastic Mae Busch and Dorothy Christy) that they’re going on a “medicinal cruise,” when in fact it’s a convention chock full of wine, women and song; naturally, hijinks ensue, but the real fun doesn’t start until L&H return home. Comedian Charley Chase, who was popular in the 20s (his 1926 short Mighty Like a Moose was added to the National Film Registry a few years ago) but whose career was waning by the time this film came out, is hilarious as a fellow conventioneer whom the boys run into. There are early uncredited appearances by Robert Cummings and Ellen Corby; even Charlie Hall shows up as a waiter (he’s also in a bunch of other L & H shorts – Hall is the disgruntled husband from Them Thar Hills and Tit for Tat and had parts in classics like The Music Box and The Live Ghost, as well as being in a number of Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers films, the Buster Keaton film College and the incredibly weird Harry Langdon short Skirt Shy). Do check out this uproarious comedy!