Wednesday, October 31, 2018
There’s a certain kind of dread missing from too many horror films these days, the sort involving characters that you know have reached the end of the line. You don’t get that with movies involving teenagers or twentysomethings where it’s all just sensation so there’s no vibe of regret there, not the kind you get in films where what happens is almost the last, final chapter in a long decline of regret. So much of what’s left is simply noise. Weirdly, that’s what I found myself thinking about as I revisited Terence Fisher’s FRANKENSTEIN AND THE MONSTER FROM HELL, a film which faces that regret and the ways it can be denied until it’s too late. It’s a small film, just as other productions from Hammer were becoming during this late period, and it’s the last in the Frankenstein cycle made by the studio as well as the final time Peter Cushing played the role of Baron Victor Frankenstein. The end of the modern Prometheus. There’s no fire left.
Simon Helder (Shane Briant) is a young doctor determined to follow in the footsteps of the legendary Dr. Frankenstein (Peter Cushing) whose experiments he faithfully studies and attempts to replicate. When Simon is arrested for the crime of bodysnatching and sentenced to an asylum for the criminally insane he is quickly thrilled and pleased to encounter Baron Frankenstein himself, now secretly working there under the identity of Dr. Karl Victor since the Baron is, as far as the outside world is concerned, officially dead. Once Frankenstein realizes that this young doctor can be trusted, he takes Simon under his wing but it doesn’t take the protégé long to discover what the baron is really doing in his laboratory where, along with mute assistant Sarah (Madeline Smith), is in the middle of a plan to take body parts of various inmates and bring life to a creature (David Prowse) which will justify his attempts to truly create man as he has been attempting to do for so many years.
FRANKENSTEIN AND THE MONSTER FROM HELL is a fairly morose viewing experience and yet it’s hard not to enjoy a movie where someone spills a jarful of eyeballs during the first ten minutes. The film even makes a plot point of them later on with Peter Cushing pausing to examine one using a giant magnifying glass along with extensive shots of brains being removed, stored and transplanted, none of which appear very convincing although I’d someday like to discuss the medical accuracy of all this with my neurosurgeon brother-in-law. It’s a mostly sedate film punctuated by these bits of grossness with the occasional blood splatter to underline the point. And as glum as it all is it’s hard to ignore how much the movie finds the dark humor in where the baron has wound up and his own perverse fondness for what he’s still attempting to accomplish after all this time.
Released in the States in 1974 on a double bill with CAPTAIN KRONOS: VAMPIRE HUNTER which is how the New York Times reviewed them (“Both are Foolish But Respectable Fun” declared the headline), it was the final film directed by Terence Fisher who helmed some of the most legendary Hammer titles including all of the Frankenstein entries featuring Cushing but one and he brings to it a quiet gravity which makes the story compelling throughout with his careful approach that means every shot has a specific purpose, every moment feels gently laid out as it takes its time telling the slim story. You could call the film compact or maybe just threadbare due to the obviously low budget and unlike the tropes we normally expect from Hammer films, here there are no autumnal forests or frightened villagers, not much of anything outside of the basic story for that matter. Once we enter the asylum (never mind what country this is supposed to be set in) represented in model shots which, apologies, always make me think of MISTER ROGERS’ NEIGHBORHOOD, that’s where the film stays, never to leave, next to no disturbances from the outside world which is how the main character who chooses to learn under the tutelage of Frankenstein wants it, believing that’s the only place where the true wisdom he’s looking for can be found.
With a screenplay by John Elder (the pen name of Anthony Hinds, which he used for numerous Hammer productions) the film mostly stays with the three leads, four if you count the creature, for long stretches with very few supporting characters to get in the way; the orderlies don’t do much snooping around to disturb things, other patients only appear briefly or as needed and the asylum’s director, though given a big introduction, isn’t as crucial to the plot as it seems like he will be at first even when certain revelations are brought to light. Compared with certain other Hammer films where years later all you remember is the sheer power of its color scheme and one or two moments of, say, a sudden Christopher Lee appearance, aside from those brains and blood this is a fairly muted film with DP Brian Probyn, who also shot THE SATANIC RITES OF DRACULA for the studio as well as films like DOWNHILL RACER and part of BADLANDS, providing depth and layers to these few sets which gets me to forget how threadbare they probably were with the 70s look giving every scene an immediacy, unlike the fairy tale quality that used to be common in Hammer films. Even the powerfully lyrical nature normally found in James Bernard’s scores is mostly not found here with the music providing little more than atmosphere for the most part (although his notorious method of working the titles of movies into his themes appears to be in use here with the way the end title seems to pound out “Monster-From-Hell” repeatedly). Everything about it is intent on staying away from the world and living in its own state of quiet.
The film came roughly five years after Fisher’s great FRANKENSTEIN MUST BE DESTROYED with the non-Cushing offshoot HORROR OF FRANKENSTEIN coming in between and everything about the character (as well as Peter Cushing) here seems older, slower, no longer that vicious bastard he developed into but someone with no understanding of how pathetic he’s become, only able to get the young doctor under his spell due to what he once was. These films never paid much attention to the continuing storyline from one film to the next although the burned hands of ‘Dr. Victor’ seem to be the result of the fiery DESTROYED climax and here, working with his two helpers, he seems to have no inner strength left, persisting on his mad quest because there’s nothing else in him. To be honest, a few of the middle entries in the Hammer Frankenstein cycle have always played a little dull for me but while MONSTER FROM HELL is a spare film it’s never dry, as if the limited scope and budget gave a focus to the direction and what the story is ultimately about. Fisher makes the blocking always about the character’s relationships to each other and it’s not too much of a stretch to imagine that this script could easily be performed on stage with only a few modifications (there’s a daydream I’m going to fixate on for the rest of the day). It doesn’t have the crass energy of something like DRACULA A.D. 1972 which had the studio desperately trying to fit into the early part of that decade but compared to other Hammers of the period which try to alter the basic formula too much this one feels like a film stripping itself down to the essentials giving it a different kind of energy, the real monsters truly shut off from the rest of the world and the creature who is unlucky to be their creation finding no one to care enough about what they’ve done to him.
Unlike other Hammer productions which increasingly tried to toss sex into the mix during this period, this one oddly has almost none with Shane Briant’s vaguely androgynous nature indicating that he doesn’t give much thought to the idea at all. And Madeline Smith’s mute Sarah is clearly a total innocent, dubbed ‘Angel’ by some, even if her unfortunate backstory as well as Frankenstein’s plan for her “real function as a woman” is consistent with other sleazy elements the studio would place into films during this period whether they made sense or not and, with the scripting not exactly always intricate, ultimately serves little purpose at all. It’s also a very small cast, slightly disappointing considering how much enjoyment in these films can come from the supporting characters and the few patients we meet that the doctor is keeping a close eye on are intellectuals and artists whose lives have led them to this end and what little we see of the outside world is mostly made up of authority figures and the grave digger who retrieves the bodies for Simon, terrified but still mainly interested in money for his next drink. Cushing, wearing one hell of a wig, commands these unfortunates with his gaunt, sunken cheekbones looking like a beacon of death over all this, helping us see how he can take over this place from the weaklings supposedly in charge. Even if he does seem visibly older than the last time he played the character, Cushing’s physicality becomes so much of the performance with even his pauses given all the weight in the world and one scene where he leaps onto the monster in an attempt to subdue him is still surprising as if the film is suddenly given a jolt of adrenaline we didn’t know it was even capable of.
The creature is made up of body, hands and the brain from those various asylum patients and the design worn by David Prowse appears to be more of an ape suit than full makeup job. It’s sort of part humanoid, part monster, at times looking just absurd and cheesy but also strangely compelling so when the monster wakes up and realizes what he is, the effect of his reaction is mostly just sad with of course only ‘Angel’ displaying any sympathy for him at all. So he’s not exactly a monster from hell although admittedly FRANKENSTEIN AND THE MONSTER UNDERGOING A SEVERE DEPRESSION wouldn’t look very good on a marquee. But the way Fisher allows those scenes to play, even giving us extended close-ups of him, allowing us a chance to ponder the creature when he’s strapped in upright as a surgery takes place, unconscious, slowly breathing, waiting for his new brain. When he finally attacks near the end it’s mostly lumbering confusion in search for the truth of what he was, using giant shards of broken glass to attack his victims, a remnant from the brute’s former life. The US cut is apparently missing some gore which is visible in other countries and at least one bloody close-up on the Paramount DVD feels cut short but there’s still plenty to see anyway in those surgery scenes along with lots of talk about the body taking over the brain, in some ways just doubletalk in the script but also a reminder of how there really is nothing being accomplished in this creation of a monster who, despite the title, isn’t actually from hell but has merely been born into it.
The arrogance displayed by Shane Briant’s Simon is of course a sign that he’s taking after what was once the behavior of Dr. Frankenstein but here that character is played as more callously uninterested in others than the flat out cruelty he displayed at his worst with the younger doctor soon realizing that the hero he venerated isn’t really much of anything; unable to perform surgery, no appreciation for the arts, lack of manners and even laughing at bad jokes with the increasing monstrosity of his actions that he blithely waves off. Frankenstein is determined that this new creature will at last make all his sacrifices worth it, never realizing that no one else cares and it’s a film with the light going out, containing a sadness for humanity and all the wasted dreams that you are sometimes left with. It even offers what feels like an ending, unlike all those other Hammer films which seem to abruptly conclude without so much as an obligatory wrap up scene and maybe this one also seemed abrupt and unrewarding when I first saw the film long ago but now it makes perfect sense. Sometimes in life you find yourself in the place you always dreamed of but then you realize too late that it’s nothing more than a prison. And that’s all it is.
Peter Cushing brings all the gravity imaginable to the role with his clipped speech and grave intonations, everything about his manner making it a true fusion of performance and film. His older nature here is invaluable with the simple reading of the line “I never shall” as his voice cracks when insisting he won’t give up is infused with more genuine emotion than the actor ever seemed to allow in his characters. There might be bad lines in the script, but never the way Cushing delivers them even when standing there talking to the monster as if it’s all perfectly normal. Shane Briant has a certain stiffness to his acting style but one that also makes clear how unafraid he is with a quietly defiant gaze, showing how ready he is to help Frankenstein in his goal. Madeline Smith of Hammer’s THE VAMPIRE LOVERS and also LIVE AND LET DIE plays much of her largely mute role as blankly staring innocence, kind of a living prop but the enigmatic quality works and she’s always present in the moment no matter what. A few years before he played Darth Vader alongside Cushing in STAR WARS, David Prowse brings a slovenly humanity to all that lumbering as the creature and in some odd way that mask combined with the blank expression coming from his eyes is perfect to make us wonder what he’s thinking or if he’s thinking anything at all. Among the few smaller roles Patrick Troughton, familiar as the priest in THE OMEN plays the gravedigger and brings a grubby humanity to just a few scenes while Bernard Lee, “M” in the James Bond films, briefly appears as one of the asylum patients having basically no dialogue but manages to communicate all the regret and loneliness in the world in just a moment or two.
For me, Hammer Films have always come from the past, they’ve always seemed inherently nostalgic. That’s my own perception, of course. They were older, I sought them out, I loved them for a while, but then moved on except for the occasional return particularly during the Halloween season where their autumnal nature fits the mood perfectly. FRANKENSTEIN AND THE MONSTER FROM HELL isn’t just a final chapter of this saga, it’s an epilogue, both in the story of this character and possibly to Hammer as well, even if the studio still had a few titles like TO THE DEVIL A DAUGHTER to go at this point. By itself, it’s a worn down star vehicle for Peter Cushing with enough oddball touches to set it apart. But in the greater context of the people who made it and the genre which surrounds it the film is about reaching a dead end which gives it a certain power. You can waste your life, which might be the greatest horror of all. And then where will you be.
Thursday, October 25, 2018
Once it seemed like I was on a straight path but that feeling went away long ago. Too much has gotten screwed up, there have been too many detours. Right now it feels like I got off at an exit because of construction and can’t find the way back on. That’s when the drifting happens, I guess, hoping that some new sign will go up to lead you back on the main road. Jerry Schatzberg’s SCARECROW is about that drifting, about refusing to face the reality of what’s right in front of you, because all you want to do is move on to the next thing. Released in 1973, the film teamed up Gene Hackman and Al Pacino during their first rush of superstardom and it’s one of the most 70s films imaginable; rough and scrappy, boozy and smoky, in some ways half formed but with moments that are so rich you can feel yourself right there in the scene. Sharing the Palme d’Or at the 1973 Cannes Film Festival, it’s still maybe not quite top tier since, after all, some of the other films featuring these guys from the period include the likes of THE FRENCH CONNECTION and THE GODFATHER but it’s an indelible character piece and tough to shake. Now available on a gorgeous looking Blu-ray from Warner Archive it deserves to be looked at as a key part of that decade and the legacies of those involved.
Ex-convict Max (Gene Hackman) and ex-sailor Francis (Al Pacino) meet by chance on a country road in the middle of nowhere and the two drifters quickly strike up a friendship with Francis, quickly dubbed “Lion” by his new companion, tagging along to go to Pittsburgh where Max says he has money waiting for him to open a car wash business. Lion, meanwhile, is on his way to Detroit so he can hopefully reconcile with the wife he left behind and finally see the child he’s never met but Max also talks him into partnering up on his car wash once they get all this taken care of. On the way they stop in Denver where they meet Max’s sister Coley (Dorothy Tristan) and her best friend Darlene (Ann Wedgeworth) both of whom would like it if the two men stuck around for a while but even though Max is insistent on reaching his destination it’s still not going to be easy for them to get there.
There are things you remember about SCARECROW. That deserted country road of the opening scene as the credits quietly flash by, the two of them sizing each other up, waiting to see who’s going to get a car to stop first and it’s almost as if they can’t keep going until they finally team up here. They become friends simply because one gives the other a light, Francis wearing down Max’s wall of distrust in the process and there’s no other reason, it just happens, almost as if they both somehow know they need each other out there. Francis, nicknamed Lion by Max who doesn’t want to keep saying his real name, offers up his theory about how crows are actually laughing at the scarecrows used to keep them away so he does the same in life, getting people to laugh along with him, and it’s a theory Max rejects without even realizing that’s exactly what already happened between the two of them. But he refuses to admit anything, sticking to his notes and his plan of getting to Pittsburgh, never seeing the obvious let alone that the term Scarecrow is eventually going to apply to him whether he likes it or not. Director Jerry Schatzberg’s previous films were PUZZLE OF A DOWNFALL CHILD and PANIC IN NEEDLE PARK (that one also with Pacino), both of which almost feel as if they’re about the magazine layout depictions of their misery as much as anything else but SCARECROW digs into the personalities of the two leads and, with Panavision cinematography by Vilmos Zsigmond, is a widescreen look at their journey via freight trains and thumbed rides, just trying to keep moving without getting weighed down. It’s not about the beauty that they encounter out there in the middle of the country but the sprawl, about how long it really takes to get from one point to another and how far apart people can become even when they’re close by. Zsigmond gets the foreboding beauty of the landscape, the feel of why you’d want to stay out there but also why you shouldn’t, closely observing the camaraderie as the two of them stay near each other in the frame when they walk down those endless train tracks, that breakfast scene where they get to know each other with the bond quickly growing as their food comes. Max insists that he doesn’t trust anyone at the precise moment he lets this guy in, never realizing how much he’s going against his own creed.
Written by Garry Michael White, SCARECROW has a rambling vibe, jumping over key moments whether their first real conversation or talk of finding a job that immediately cuts to them being thrown out of the place. Though it obviously plays as something from the post-MIDNIGHT COWBOY period in what we generally think of as the aimless road movies of the early 70s, not to mention any OF MICE AND MEN thoughts, the whole Lion and Scarecrow thing makes me look at it as a sort of inverted WIZARD OF OZ, maybe with that lamp Lion carries around for the child he’s never met serving as the tin man’s heart and every woman they encounter versions of Dorothy who have already found their home with no need to wander anymore. In this case it’s the guys who don’t know where they’re supposed to settle down in anything they can call a home. Dialogue indicates Max’s sensible sister Coley, now making a living as a junk dealer, has already done a good amount of drifting with him and I wonder about that backstory which is only hinted at but she’s clearly had enough of it all while Max is still out there, looking for what was and what he thinks will be ahead of him, getting into fights that he’ll claim he didn’t start at the first opportunity. He’s focused solely on his goal of starting a car wash in Pittsburgh and every cent he’s put into the plan all itemized out but it still sounds vague as if his supposed determination is going to solve everything, no plan for what might go wrong. He answers, “Home cooking” when asked what he missed the most while in prison but it doesn’t seem like he’s ever had a home at all, never really knowing what he didn’t have.
Pacino’s Francis ran away from the responsibility of adulthood to join the navy, a backstory that sounds a little like Freddie Quell in THE MASTER, and much as he wants to make things right he’s still just that scared kid. All he seems to remember of his service is what dawn looked like from a ship and all he thinks of when he meets someone new is how to get them to laugh. If Max is about to get into a fight, he’s the one who knows how to stop it by making a joke. One thing the two guys definitely have in common is how they’ve both been sending their money somewhere as if in preparation for the future they hope for as if that excuses their present. Each of them thinks things are always going to be the same, no matter how long they’ve been gone and Lion insists that he’s headed for something big as if he’s just going to stumble into his destiny. There’s a vague feeling that they’re both romanticizing their situation a little too much, creating these myths in their heads but they’ve just left wreckage and pain, something they refuse to ever face up to.
Set in an America of working class bars that open early, it’s a product of the early 70s with long takes, scenes that are never in a rush and bluesy riffs on the soundtrack by Fred Myrow who did something similar for the opening of SOYLENT GREEN the same year but it’s not quite about the period the way certain other films are which makes sense because these guys seem out of time anyway after being away so long. It’s the women they encounter who all seem to be left waiting for the men to accept responsibility and even Ann Wedgeworth’s Frenchy who ruins that home-cooked dinner and claims she doesn’t know where she got the nickname seems to have her feet on the ground at least a little, as if she’s waited too long for a few too many guys to finally wise up. At one point when Max is out on the dance floor in a bar with her, Aretha Franklin playing on the jukebox, as she looks at him he suddenly seems overwhelmed by all that possibility and is ready to make this move, you can feel the choice bubbling up inside of him. But the moment soon passes with another fight out there to start, just as when Lion makes a key choice near the end it’s a reminder that he’s still afraid, that both of them will never be prepared to face the reality without losing who they think they are. The plot takes a prison detour as the two of them are hauled in after a bar brawl which is frustrating since I just want to see them on the road but in a way this section is the closest the movie gets to showing the normal work of the real world, with its own rules, hierarchy and soul deadening horrors in the form of Richard Lynch in his first film ready to make his own demands of Lion. Certain characters are discarded at one point which is also frustrating but that makes sense too, considering how determined Max and Lion are to keep going. And things take a turn after the prison stay with Max realizing how much he needs Lion, even doing an impromptu striptease in a crowded bar to prove that he’s becoming a scarecrow too. But Lion is so totally damaged after what’s happened to them and all those laughs not being enough that there’s a haunted look in his face, one I understand.
The biggest criticism you could make about SCARECROW is that it feels like a series of meandering but well-shot acting exercises more than a full narrative with a firm spine to it. It’s no surprise that it’s worth it just to watch these two guys dig into their characters and they’re both absolutely on fire here with moments that are indelible to understanding them. But it all still keeps us at a distance with the vague feeling that Schatzberg has let DP Zsigmond completely take over the visual approach to the film, not that I blame him, at one point shooting a crucial beatdown from a distance when it might be more satisfying to be up close. There’s even one shot during the prison sequence containing a lens flare that offers such exuberant perfection within the frame that you imagine the cinematographer viewing it in dailies and deciding this one shot is why he was put on this earth. But the lack of real payoff means that the film feels like it’s building to big scenes that never quite come, simply dwelling on how they sort of listen to each other’s stories and the way the camera half catches the people in the frame. Even what might be Pacino’s biggest moment during a phone call late in the film keeps him mostly off camera as if it’s willingly holding back on the real connection. Without that catharsis, in some ways the film is a FIVE EASY PIECES only without any equivalent of the chicken salad scene to latch onto and totally understand these guys. Sure, there’s a very funny bit in a department store where Max asks Lion to create a diversion so he can steal a purse but it goes by way too fast. The moments that stick in your brain from SCARECROW are the little things, the way you sometimes remember people no longer in your life, the gestures certain characters make as they reach to someone else almost in desperation after being convinced that they’re going to be alone forever, realizing it’s all too late. You see it in Pacino’s eyes when Lion is pretty much told that he’ll never be a man and it’s what makes him crumble most of all. Hackman’s final moment almost acts as a protest at the very idea of being forced to care, trying to keep himself together by putting the straw back into the scarecrow he’s become. It may not work, but he doesn’t have a choice anymore.
So much of it is really about how Max and Lion go together mixed with that visual style and you feel the two actors connecting with each other as the characters reach for that connection. Gene Hackman has sometimes named this as his favorite film and it’s certainly one of his most atypical roles, his natural intensity always on the surface but you feel the anger simmering inside him, you see that desire to not answer to anyone always on his face and within that characterization is a freedom almost unlike anything else he’s ever done in his career. Al Pacino plays the total innocence in Lion, not a mean or cynical bone in his body almost in denial of what’s all around him with the growing awareness of the world around him bubbling up that in the end he doesn’t know what to do with and where he goes with that knowledge in a climactic scene shot on location at the Belle Isle Fountain in Detroit is utterly devastating. Dorothy Tristan as Max’s sister offers such a sensible nature that I wish there was time to explore that relationship a little more while Ann Wedgeworth, given a movie star entrance meant to catch Max’s attention, is like a heart and soul that the movie almost doesn’t know what to do with. Eileen Brennan has a memorable bit as a barfly who Max goes home with and Penelope Allen who as Pacino’s wife unrelentingly lays into him when she turns up. She later played the head bank teller in DOG DAY AFTERNOON so the scene now plays like a connection to that film and oddly when Lion goes to a church to pray late in the film I can’t help but think there’s a snatch of the GODFATHER melody stuck into the score. Maybe I’ve just seen some of these films too many times by now.
The look of this film is what Blu-ray was seemingly made for, giving clarity to the widescreen imagery and those washed out 70s colors, letting us focus on the characters and their relationship to each other so the Warner Archive disc is essential for any fans of these actors or road movies from that decade. SCARECROW might not always have the payoff we’re looking for, even as far as downbeat 70s movies go, but it’s still extremely rewarding as a character piece as well as a look at just being out there on the road, putting off the truth for as long as possible. It’s a film about how sometimes you have to know when to stop but you just can’t help yourself. Even when there’s nowhere left to go and you’ve done all you can do, you just keep going. You have to. It’s all you know how to do.
Thursday, October 11, 2018
We can’t stop thinking about the past no matter how much we try. There are even reasons why we shouldn’t. Sometimes my dad took me to the movies, of course he did, and even if many of those memories are uneventful they’re what I choose to remember. And there were a few special occasions as well, almost as if he knew how important all this was going to be for me. Once he took me to the 57th Street Playhouse to see a few Jacques Tati films and this may have confused my 11 year-old self at the time but looking back on it I’m so grateful, almost like it was a small yet key event that helped open up my mind at that early age to what else was out there. Other days were more about the pure enjoyment of it all, like the Sunday afternoon when he took me to the late, lamented Regency for a double bill of A NIGHT AT THE OPERA and CHARLIE CHAN AT THE OPERA. It was the only time I ever went to that theater and though my memories are a little hazy—one thing I recall was actress Nedda Harrigan from the Chan film appeared before that film to talk about it—I may as well get extremely maudlin about the whole thing and say that this was probably the best day of my life. This past September marked 20 years since he died. I don’t know what that means. On the day of the anniversary I found myself more introspective than I expected to be, thinking about what was and what wasn’t, about memories that hadn’t come to mind for a long time. All those things I never got to tell him and never got to know. So that night for whatever reason I put on A NIGHT AT THE OPERA, thinking of him and what we could talk about after all this time if we watched it together again now, forgetting about everything else as much as possible.
Otis B. Driftwood (Groucho Marx), business manager for the wealthy Mrs. Claypool (Margaret Dumont), introduces her to New York Opera Company manager Herman Gottlieb (Sig Ruman) in order arrange for her to invest in the organization thereby giving her an entrée into society. In order to get a piece of all this action Driftwood attempts to sign the famous tenor Rudolfo Lasparri (Walter Woolf King) for the company but a chance encounter with piano player Fiorello (Chico Marx), best friend to unknown singer Ricardo Baroni (Allan Jones), leads to him signing up that tenor instead. As they all set sail for New York and the new opera season, Driftwood is shocked to find Baroni, Fiorello and their friend Tomasso (Harpo) stowing away in his steamer trunk which means Driftwood must do what he can to keep them from being discovered while somehow getting Baroni together with his lady love Rosa (Kitty Carlisle) the soprano in the opera company who Lasparri very much has his eye on.
Released in 1935, A NIGHT AT THE OPERA may be the best film the Marx Brothers ever made even if it’s not the greatest Marx Brothers movie. The much more anarchic DUCK SOUP which they made previous to this was possibly the high water mark of their earlier run at Paramount; some might choose HORSE FEATHERS (1931’s MONKEY BUSINESS doesn’t quite sustain itself for the entire running time) and it’s possible that either of these films brings me more personal hysteria than A NIGHT AT THE OPERA does and the unapologetic insanity found in them might be the greatest pure examples of their humor onscreen. DUCK SOUP was also their last at that studio after it underperformed and it was apparently Irving Thalberg, wonder boy head of production over at MGM, who had the idea of how to get people interested in them again when they went over to that studio. Except for the absence of Zeppo, who departed his straight man role after DUCK SOUP to become a Hollywood agent, the brothers remained more or less as they were (not entirely and we’ll get to that) but A NIGHT AT THE OPERA surrounds their comedy with an actual story, production values, high end songs, elaborate costumes; in other words, give people who don’t want to see a Marx Brothers film reasons to see a Marx Brothers film. And even if it is more ‘normal’ the film succeeds, combining these elements beautifully and even while speaking as someone who isn’t the biggest fan of the classic MGM aesthetic, in many ways this feels like a golden age masterpiece, playing now as the ideal of what a Hollywood movie circa 1935 could possibly be with all the entertainment value imaginable. It looks pretty, not that anyone sees a Marx Brothers film because it looks pretty, but it takes a mixture that shouldn’t work as good as it does and it all flows together, even if any sense of anarchy that was a key part of the earlier films is pretty much wiped away.
For one thing, A NIGHT AT THE OPERA (Screenplay by George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind from a story by James Kevin McGuiness) has a plot. This in itself would normally not be a surprise but compared with the past few Marx Brothers films at Paramount this warrants mention. Those are films which are never anything less than wonderfully random, scenes colliding together, costume changes out of nowhere, actions that make no real sense and a surreal mood always hanging in the air whether pondering what sort of country the mythical Freedonia is or simply how much Harpo really has concealed in his various pockets. OPERA, meanwhile, is firmly set in some version of the real world, at least a world set entirely on the MGM lot, where everything more or less makes sense. The story actually moves along from one scene to the next and the 3 Marxes become an integral part of it, even given reasons to care about what happens. Plus the main bad guy is an actual bad guy—he slaps around Harpo and even whips him, for crying out loud—not just somebody for Groucho to insult on the assumption that he’s a bad guy although he seems willing to do that anyway. It all makes me imagine a Paramount version of this film’s basic idea, maybe one where Groucho runs the opera house and whatever he does to save it would mostly be out of spite or fury rather than any concept of doing the right thing. Of course, nothing would make much sense and maybe even the music would be part of the joke (now I want to see this film) but A NIGHT AT THE OPERA, pausing for real musical numbers every now and then, plays that part totally straight which makes sense considering the setting but it’s also a reminder of how this is a musical comedy where the music actually matters, like it or not.
It helps that some of the music is better than average and of course the film doesn’t skewer opera as much as the pretension of everything surrounding it. Essentially it’s a story built around getting Allan Jones and Kitty Carlisle to sing together which gives a reason for the mayhem, not that we need one even if the film does. The structure is both airtight and loose enough that it knows not to overcomplicate things since we know who the good guys and the bad guys are so it’s mostly about arranging them all into place for the big opening night climax. More than simple randomness, Groucho’s Otis B. Driftwood is always on the move given pointed insult dialogue that has a defiant and unapologetic approach whether needling Gottlieb, the incessant come-ons to Mrs. Claypool or even tossing out a familiar Garbo line (well, it is MGM) when questioned by a suspicious cop. What the film has is a balance of the impeccable wordplay mixed in with the sight gags and music so it always seems to know which one to focus on at any given moment.
Groucho’s surprise introduction at the start is one of his very best and feels like it’s toying with the expected anticipation after his delayed first appearance in DUCK SOUP. It’s one of the greatest unexplained mysteries in all of Cinema just why the various Margaret Dumont characters in these films submit to getting mixed up with Groucho and right from the start he wastes no time being indignant towards her at the very concept of being upset with him for dining just a few feet away while making it very clear he’s interested in her money as long as he doesn’t have to hear a minute of the opera. The persona of Groucho is someone who doesn’t care in a movie with a plot that sort of forces him to care but as long as he disrupts things and insults people, his job is done. Even when the plot forces him to suddenly be a nice guy it isn’t so bad and in particular I wish there had been more of Groucho just hanging out with Kitty Carlisle’s Rosa, lightly joking with her at a party while also keeping other suitors away until Allan Jones gets back. The parts given to Chico and Harpo are more strict supporting roles than they’ve had in the past with a little sanding off of their mischievous edges but they still get moments like Harpo’s endless drinking of water and Chico explaining how they flew across the ocean by taking a steamship when they try to pass themselves off as ‘the three greatest aviators in the world’.
Even Harpo is more grounded, no longer pulling steaming hot cups of coffee from his pocket or other such impossible feats and once their run at MGM begins it’s like he’s playing someone who can’t speak as opposed to someone who doesn’t speak—there is a difference, after all. Sure, Tomasso and Fiorello (nobody ever remembers their names, unlike Groucho characters) annoy Driftwood in his quest for Mrs. Claypool’s fortune but really all they want to do is help out Ricardo and Rosa and it somehow doesn’t feel like a betrayal of their basic persona. They’re just happy to help and do what’s right. Fortunately it also has Groucho and Chico dealing with each other in the classic contract routine with the recurring “party of the first part” refrain as they rip the contracts into shreds, one of those unexpectedly incisive explorations of Groucho’s persona as someone who prides himself on pulling it over anyone confronted by someone who is able to do the same to him, possibly without even realizing it. And, just so there’s no confusion, there is no Sanity Clause. When a film has Groucho and Chico debating something that makes no sense all it needs to do is find the right camera angle although that doesn’t entirely matter either. This just happens to be a film which cares about that sort of thing.
Which makes sense because MGM was kind of the Cadillac of studios back then, very pristine and safe and that style is very much in evidence, standing in contrast to Paramount which always had that silvery 30s look but never seemed to pay much attention to which way the cameras were facing or if there was any semblance of continuity between shots. At MGM everything is shiny, everyone is pretty and the filmmaking as evidenced by director Sam Wood (when it’s an MGM production supervised by Irving Thalberg it probably isn’t necessary to mention the director until the eighth paragraph) is always smoothly professional. It only really gets awkward when we become aware of how much the laughs are specifically timed for the audience which results in cutaways and inserts that stand out a little too much as placeholders before we can get to the next line of dialogue, making the film a little less elegant than it might be. But, of course, no one ever went to a Marx Brothers film for elegance. These pauses for timing were, of course, all part of the idea and the film’s history includes how they took it out on the road to perform the comedy sequences in a sort of “Scenes from A NIGHT AT THE OPERA” for audiences before filming in order to try out lines and gage the laughs they would get. And it worked although I can’t help but think that some of the best lines are the ones that feel the most offhand, like Groucho’s “We can tear up the Mayor’s speech when we get there,” during the aviator charade. I’ve seen this film countless times in my life and even now some of it gets me to laugh out loud with the famous stateroom scene a beauty of pure construction as if the runner of “two hard boiled eggs” is merely ramping up to the famous image of all those people crammed into that tiny space, never complaining as Driftwood encourages it all as much as possible. “I’ve got plenty of room,” Fiorello declares. This is the Marx Brother view of the world. Everyone crams in together. It’ll all make sense eventually.
I’m old enough now that the musical numbers aren’t as deadly as they used to be with several of them placed together anyway in the big setpiece on the ship filled with, I assume, peasants from some vaguely European nation who are traveling to America, strictly the MGM kind content to sing and dance forever (one imagines James Cameron struck with inspiration after catching this sequence on TV while writing TITANIC). Chico’s piano solos were always fun anyway and Harpo’s rendition of the recurring ballad “Alone” on the harp is one of his best solos, catching just the right mood and maybe more than any other point in the film here’s where I feel the MGM/Thalberg touch with that kindly old woman in the frame as he plays, as if assuring anyone out there who might be unsure that these boys aren’t so bad after all. Incidentally, they’re clearly traveling from Italy at the start of the film even though the country is never named—there were allegedly cuts made when it played during World War II that were never reinstated which would have specified the location and apparently this is why the opening of the film is so abrupt, although a few things like a close-up of Driftwood’s Milan hotel bill slipped through.
The best pure comedy sequences here move like clockwork, particularly when compared with certain scenes from HORSE FEATHERS or DUCK SOUP which are brilliant yet feel like they’re more about barreling forward to the next joke than the pace. The scene in Driftwood’s hotel room with beds being frantically switched around has expert farcical timing while the big climax at the opening night of “Il Trovatore” skewers every ounce of pretension brought to the occasion by Margaret Dumont and what feels like a theater full of Margaret Dumonts. The three of them attack all the pomposity and grandiosity they can find, whether through Groucho’s nonsensical introductory speech, the surprise appearance of “Take Me Out to The Ball Game” or Harpo’s unending glee at doing everything he can to bring this all crashing down. That all stops when we get to hear Allan Jones and Kitty Carlisle sing but it’s the thrill of telling off an insufferable prima donna who just had an apple thrown at him onstage that really matters. The way it’s all laid out is mostly perfect, ideal enough that the film was paid homage to in the 1992 comedy BRAIN DONORS which starred a spectacular John Turturro as the Groucho-like “Roland T. Flakfizer” in a plot which substituted ballet for opera; it’s practically a remake and the ‘suggested by’ acknowledgement to this film buried in the credits makes me think someone in legal got worried it was a little more than just a tribute. Going too far in the other direction was the 1937 Marx Brothers follow-up A DAY AT THE RACES, never one of my favorites, which is loaded with extraneous musical numbers even though you’d think that wouldn’t be as necessary in a film set at a racetrack and hospital. What’s worse is even the comedy in that film never lives up to this one. But A NIGHT AT THE OPERA has a special flair that even now plays like total joy for me. Anyway, we love what we love. Whether it’s their finest film will never be decided since there are always going to be days when you might want to watch this one, you might want to watch DUCK SOUP. Sometimes it has to do with your mood. Sometimes it’s what you need to remember.
In some ways it’s Groucho’s movie and one of his best performances too, living up to the material as he lays out every possible insult and insinuation but sometimes doing the most when all he has to do in a scene in stand there, waiting for what he knows is coming. Chico’s happy stubbornness keeps things moving with his insistence that it’s all going to be just fine while it’s almost like Harpo makes an impression out of sheer force of will, even playing an active role in the stateroom scene when he’s supposed to be asleep. The likable Allan Jones takes on what is sort of the Zeppo role but not really since he’s more of a love interest and singer plus, all respect to Zeppo, he’s got more screen presence too and love interest Kitty Carlisle’s fragility becomes endearing which helps make you believe they’ll all do what they can to protect her. Margaret Dumont, declaring every effrontery to the heavens, and Sig Ruman, always gasping in shock, turn their foils into just the right dart boards for Groucho while almost getting you to believe that they’re still trying to make some sort of sense out of him. Hey, they’re not even really bad guys. Even Gottlieb is just trying to put on an opera, after all.
Of the two films I saw on that double bill long ago, A NIGHT AT THE OPERA is definitely better than CHARLIE CHAN AT THE OPERA. Just for the record. Still, putting aside any issues of political correctness, that one’s kind of fun too and I once snagged a used DVD of it for the same sentimental reasons. To this day it’s still the only Chan film I’ve ever seen and I’m fine with that. At other times my father also took me to a double bill of HORSE FEATHERS and DUCK SOUP at the Metro, the same theater where Woody Allen saw the latter in HANNAH AND HER SISTERS, as well as a trip to see the Marx Brothers/Hollywood homage A DAY IN HOLLYWOOD A NIGHT IN THE UKRAINE on Broadway, possibly on my tenth birthday. Of course, there are other memories not related to films or the Marx Brothers but they don’t really matter as much, not even some of the visits to Yankee Stadium. The pull and desperation to go back to those particular days just isn’t as strong. And some years later, when he was in a wheelchair, I took him to movies from DIE HARD to GOODFELLAS and even once to a Harold Lloyd series at the Film Forum. Some days I think about him. Some days I try not to. There’s no real end to any of this because the past always ends before you realize it. There are just things you remember about your father and things you remember because of him which will always matter. And I don’t need an anniversary to do that. The past stays with you, whether you like it or not.
September 10, 1939 – September 19, 1998