Sunday, December 23, 2012

Discovering Olsen and Johnson: "Fifty Million Frenchmen"

Olsen and Johnson give them the slip.
Years from now, when scholars are trying to understand the success of the comedy team of Olsen and Johnson, they will take a look at their 1931 film "Fifty Million Frenchmen" and gain practically no insight at all.

The team experienced phenomenal success on Broadway, where their comic revues "Hellzapoppin' " and "Sons O'Fun" -- filled with risque sight gags and physical comedy -- ran for years. But their free-wheeling style doesn't exactly translate to the screen, and even if it did, "Fifty Million Frenchmen" would still be a very weird duck.

Based on the 1929 Cole Porter stage success (directed by Monty Woolley), "Fifty Million Frenchmen" was filmed as a Technicolor musical in 1930. But by the time it was released, musicals were judged to be out of style (a few months later, "42nd Street" would become a smash and musicals would be in again), so all the numbers were removed -- although you do hear hints of Porter's "You Do Something to Me" and "You Don't Know Paree" on the soundtrack. And the Technicolor prints have disappeared, so the only example we have of the film today is in black and white. AND Olsen and Johnson are shoehorned into the show -- their roles did not exist in the Broadway production.

The nominal hero is William Gaxton as Jack Forbes, a millionaire's son who is in Paris because "father seems to think his business in America is better if I'm over here." Gaxton seems to be the world's oldest juvenile -- he was in his late 30s when the movie was filmed, and he's supposed to be at least ten years younger. Gaxton is repeating his Broadway role, literally -- he's still playing to the balcony.

Meanwhile, here come Olsen and Johnson as Simon and Peter, two bumbling detectives. Chic Johnson is the taller of the two, with a sharper voice, and Ole Olsen's trademark is an irritating, mirthless laugh:



(Funny how Olsen's laugh calls to mind Joe E. Brown's (much funnier) laugh in "Some Like It Hot," a (much funnier) film where Brown, too, uses the word "zowie." Hmmmm.)

Anyway, Jack has fallen for a young woman, but his friend Cummings (John Halliday) bets him $50,000 that Jack can't win the girl on charm alone. So Jack gives up his wealth for two weeks. And Cummings hires Simon and Peter to keep an eye on Jack.

As for Jack, he goes to work as a tour guide at the American Express office, where he meets Violet (Helen Broderick), a thrill-loving tourist who's come to Paris "to be insulted":



Then, in an unusually tedious plot turn, Simon and Peter are mistaken for two businessmen and become the targets of two prostitutes. Then the real businessmen show up, blah blah blah. Jack helps Simon and Peter hide out, and they disguise themselves as a magician and his assistants. They're performing the old stick-the-swords-into-a-box trick, but the setup is funnier (relatively speaking) than the trick itself:


Most everyone here would go on to do better (or at least more successful) work -- Gaxton would appear in the Broadway productions of the Gershwin shows "Of Thee I Sing" and "Let Them Eat Cake," paired with Victor Moore, with whom he would form an occasional comedy team into the 1940s. Broderick (Broderick Crawford's mother) would end up as the wisecracking friend in the Astaire-Rogers musicals "Swing Time" and "Top Hat." And Olsen and Johnson would always have Broadway.

As for "Fifty Million Frenchmen," nothing exposes the rickety plot of a musical comedy like cutting all the numbers -- after 70 very long minutes, Jack wins his girl and the bet, and gives the reward to Simon and Peter. And scholars will continue their search for the well-hidden secret of the appeal of Olsen and Johnson.

Here are the film's complete credits, and a preview:

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

"It's Tough to Be Famous," or Media, Myself and I


As the scion of one of Hollywood's first families, Douglas Fairbanks Jr. was born in the spotlight, and in the 1932 film "It's Tough to Be Famous," he spends all his time trying to get out of it.

YOU'RE hot! I'm wearing a turtleneck and wool blazer! 
Fairbanks plays Scotty McClenahan, a submarine commander whose ship is dead in the water -- actually, UNDER the water, eighty feet of it. There's no ventilation, and oxygen is running out.

On the surface, help is on the way with search planes flying, phones buzzing, flotillas flotilla-ing -- every producer of stock footage in the country is swinging into action! But in the submarine on the ocean floor, the mood is lower than a submarine on the ocean floor. Then Scotty gets an idea -- he starts shooting the crew, one at a time, out the torpedo tubes to the surface. Finally, it comes down to Scotty and Stevens (David Landau). They can't both escape because someone has to stay behind and pull the trigger:



When Scotty comes to, he's a hero -- and waiting to see him at the big welcoming ceremony is mom (Emma Dunn) and girlfriend Janet (Mary Brian). There's someone else waiting as well -- magazine publisher Chapin (a perfectly cast Walter Catlett), who is to ballyhoo what Crosby is to crooning:

  


"From now on," Chapin tells Scotty, "you're America's sweetheart!" Since Scotty was on the verge of being discharged anyway, he lets Chapin take him under his wingtips -- I mean wing. Scotty starts fielding offers from vaudeville and radio, and he starts endorsing things he doesn't know anything about. The phoniness and constant attention starts to get to him, and he can't even go to the movies without seeing his puss in the newsreels:

 


Scotty finally has a job, but he wants to be an engineer, and all his boss wants him for is the publicity value. And when his verbal faux pas make nationwide headlines, he finds his marriage to Janet crumbling as fast as his celebrity status. Finally, he tells Chapin, "We're all trying to get rich because I had the good luck -- or the bad luck -- to do my duty down in that submarine."

From Charles Lindbergh to Ryan Lochte, media-created Celebrities have been part of our culture, and through a remarkably smart script, "It's Tough to Be Famous" outlines a scenario that's relevant. All that's changed is the delivery system -- it's the Internet and TV rather than vaudeville and printed material.

In the end, Scotty is knocked from his public perch in the most natural of ways -- by another sailor, named Ole, who jumped overboard to rescue a dog.

"Don't you realize that Ole is the ideal national hero?" Chapin tells Scotty. "He's big, handsome, dumb, got a nice smile and he doesn't speak enough English to antagonize anybody!"

Here is full cast and credits information for "It's Tough to Be Famous," and here's the trailer:          




Tuesday, December 11, 2012

The Noel Francis Film Festival: "Bachelor Apartment" and "Smart Woman"


Of all the actresses who appeared in 1930s movies, Noel Francis (1906-59) was certainly one of them.

Noel Francis Madison
Not to be confused with Noel Madison, who was a guy, Noel Francis was an attractive blonde with a winsome expression. She had been a dancer on Broadway, appearing in the Ziegfeld Follies during the mid-1920s, often with the comedy team of Wheeler and Woolsey. She came to Hollywood in 1929 and ended up being signed to a contract at Warner Bros.

In Hollywood, she made over 40 movies, most of them during the pre-code period, so she usually played mistresses and prostitutes, potential mistresses and prostitutes, or former mistresses and prostitutes.

In the 1931 film ”Blonde Crazy," for example, she's the mistress of Louis Calhern and she helps him bilk the film's star, James Cagney. In "Smart Money," released the same year, she helps bilk Edward G. Robinson. In 1932's "Night Court," she's the mistress of crooked judge Walter Huston.

Her best-known film credit is probably 1932's "I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang." She plays a prostitute who James Allen (Paul Muni) meets after his first escape from the gang. Her appearance is brief, but memorable:



Francis was rarely the female lead; she usually received fifth or sixth billing. In the 1931 film "Bachelor Apartment," for example, she is one of several women who are seduced by the film's hero, Lowell Sherman, who also directed. Sherman plays Wayne Carter, a bachelor whose apartment is just busting with women -- the movie is like a pre-code "Boeing Boeing." When the taxi Francis's character is riding in gets involved in an accident, Sherman -- who has been eyeing her from his limousine -- sweeps in and scoops her up:


Once Sherman gets Francis back to his bachelor apartment, he "accidentally" spills a drink on her dress, forcing her to change into something more comfortable:



Sherman has an impish comic quality and he's always fun to watch -- he also played the dipsomaniac director who discovers Constance Bennett in "What Price Hollywood?" -- and the film's storyline has him leaving girls like Francis behind so he can marry his proper stenographer, played by Irene Dunne.

In "Smart Woman," also released in 1931, Francis has a more substantial part. She's Peggy, the other woman who Mary Astor's husband (Robert Ames) has taken up with while Astor was with her sick mother in Paris. Gracefully directed by Gregory La Cava, "Smart Woman" is more comedy than soaper, thanks largely to the presence of Edward Everett Horton as Astor's husband's business partner. Astor decides to fight fire with fire, and invites the mistress and her mercenary mother to a weekend at the family estate; then she enters, carrying lawn shears:



Astor also tries to make her husband jealous by implying that she's been having an affair of her own with the kind Sir Guy (John Halliday), a British millionaire she met on the cruise back from Paris. But when Peggy learns of Sir Guy's fortune, she sets her cap for him:



It's too easy to blame the decline in Francis's career on the advent of the Production Code in 1935, but it's true that under the Code, parts like the ones Francis played were frowned upon. At any rate, by the mid-1930s, her career had declined to the point that she was appearing in quickie Buck Jones westerns and her final feature was 1937's "Left-Handed Law."

Here are the full credits for "Bachelor Apartment" and "Smart Woman."
 

Saturday, December 8, 2012

"The Animal Kingdom," or Fie, Society

To steal a line from his best-known work, "The Philadelphia Story," Philip Barry's plays were often about "the privileged class enjoying its privileges." But they also showed the other side of the coin: how easy it was to lose your self-respect -- and yourself, for that matter -- by getting caught up in living a life based solely on societal obligations and other people's expectations.

In Barry's "Holiday" and in "The Animal Kingdom," the 1932 film based on Barry's play, the expectations come from fiancees.

As "The Animal Kingdom" begins, Tom (Leslie Howard) has just gotten engaged to Cecilia, aka Cee (Myrna Loy). He is a proud iconoclast from a wealthy family -- he publishes limited-edition books, lives in a small (but elegant) house and prefers a simple life, with his household needs met by Regan (William Gargan), a former prizefighter who is his butler and friend.

Tom's love life has been nontraditional as well -- for years he lived with Daisy (Ann Harding) in a no-strings relationship based as much on the compatibility of their souls as it was on sex. Cee knows about it and seems very broadminded about the whole thing.


Tom (about Daisy): Well, we've been everything possible to each other, of course, but... 

Cee: Yes, Tom?

Tom: ...at the same time free as air. I mean, there has never been a feeling of conventional responsibility towards each other's involvement. 

Cee: I can understand that.

Tom: Can you, Cee? 'Cause I never could.
 
But now Tom is committed to marriage.

Tom: We must make a grand go of it.

Cee: We shall -- never you fear.

(Sounds a little like Katharine Hepburn talking to herself.)

Daisy has just gotten back in town and doesn't know Tom is engaged. He goes to tell her, but she has news of her own -- she's ready to marry Tom:



Daisy: Behold, the bridegroom cometh. And no oil for my lamp, as usual. A foolish virgin me. Well, foolish anyway.

The breakup is devastating to both of them because it also marks the end of a great friendship. Tom would like to stay friends, but Daisy is honest enough with herself to know she can't handle it.

We move forward a few months, maybe a year. Tom and Cee are now married, Daisy has decided to start painting and has her first showing scheduled. At home, Tom is starting to deal with those obligations -- Cee wants him to fire the rough-edged but good-hearted Regan. And he's bowed to her wishes and started publishing badly written, but successful, novels.

Tom dodges the bullet with Regan, who leaves on his own for another job. ("I feel somehow my luck's going with him," he tells Cee.) And he wants to go into town for Daisy's opening. Cee isn't keen on the idea -- she thinks Tom should just send a congratulatory telegram -- but she doesn't come out and say so. She has other ways of keeping Tom from leaving:



More time passes, and Cee is pressuring Tom to accept a buyout offer from a larger, mass-market publishing company. And she wants to move into the city and share the family mansion with Tom's domineering father. She also decides to meet the Daisy problem head on by inviting her out to the country for Tom's birthday. Daisy comes, and despairs over the change in Tom. She and her friends leave abruptly.

The film's final sequence is beautifully played by Howard and Loy. It's finally beginning to dawn on him that if things change, it will only be for the worst. They have an intimate supper in a sitting room -- a room that reminds Tom of his visits to a London bawdy house where you left your payment on the mantle. Cee doesn't like the comparison -- she wants Tom to "behave" and give in to her vision for their lives together. Tom doesn't explode, but you see the awareness dawning on him. Cee and Tom drink some champagne and Cee starts giggling about feeling naughty. She goes to the bedroom to wait for him. Tom takes out the birthday check he received from his father, for a sizable amount:

   

Exit Tom.

"The Animal Kingdom" deals with such pre-code subjects as cohabitation, prostitution and at least attempted adultery  The performances are uniformly fine -- Howard and Gargan are reprising their stage roles, as is Ilka Chase as one of Cee's silly rich friends. Harding is the free-spirited one here -- she played a similar character in the 1930 film version of Barry's "Holiday"; in the 1938 film version of "Holiday," Hepburn would play the role.

For once, Loy is the odd woman out, but hey -- since she's Myrna Loy, she's perfect. Just consider the range of her roles in 1932 -- as a mixed-race murderess in "Thirteen Women," an amorous countess in "Love Me Tonight," and the villain's hopped-up daughter in "The Mask of Fu Manchu."

The scenes with Tom and Daisy have great wit and heart, as do the scenes between Tom and Regan, who loves Tom almost as much as Daisy does. It's easy to see why Hepburn and Barry worked together so often -- he was writing of a world she knew intimately, and she was the Tom figure within her own family.

Here are the complete credits for "The Animal Kingdom."
   


Tuesday, December 4, 2012

"The Mummy," or Bandages on the Run

The 1932 film "The Mummy" opens in 1921 in Egypt, where an expedition from the British Museum is digging up stuff from around the pyramids. They have found a mummy, and researcher Ralph Norton (Bramwell Fletcher) is badgering his boss, Sir Joseph Whemple (Arthur Byron), into opening a box that came along with the sarcophagus.

Sir Joseph (reading the outside of the box): "Death -- eternal punishment for anyone who opens this casket." ... Good heavens, what a terrible curse.
  
Norton: Let's see what's inside!

Sir Joseph then steps outside and Ralph Norton, that strange and curious man whose name is a combination of the leading characters of TV's popular "The Honeymooners," can resist temptation no longer, to his eternal regret:  



Norton goes cray-cray and we move forward 11 years, to another expedition, this one with Sir Joseph's son, Frank (David Manners). It looks like this one is going to be a bust, artifact-wise, until a mysterious fellow shows up and points them toward a new find -- the tomb of a princess.

Who is this guy? The fez is familiar. Oh! It's the mummy (Boris Karloff), but now looking like (more or less) a human! He goes by the name Ardeth Bey, and he has an ulterior motive -- he wants the princess's tomb dug up so they can have a reunion of souls.

Meanwhile, in Cairo, Helen Grosvenor (Zita Johann) is foxtrotting with some guy when she picks up on Ardeth Bey's mind rays:



Helen has an Egyptian-English lineage, and Bey has decided that she is the reincarnated princess. Meanwhile, Frank has fallen in love with Helen and vows to protect her from the Bey rays, any time or plays -- I mean place. Bey has returned to life because of a spell on a scroll, so Sir Joseph and his friend Dr. Muller (Edward Van Sloan) decide to burn it. But Bey's rays are too strong for Sir Joseph to resist, and he is killed.

Then Frank is felled, and Bey spirits Helen away to the museum where the princess's tomb is on display. Then he puts her in a skimpy ceremonial costume and gives her a home permanent and everything so she looks just like the princess. Object: To separate the princess's soul from Helen's body, if you know what I mean, and I think you do. Will Frank and Dr. Muller arrive in time? (You could see for yourself, but NBC-Universal forbids me from posting a clip showing you the climax, because they're terrified that once you see it you won't shell out $12 for "The Mummy" on DVD. Or you can go here.)

And if you still can't guess what happens, here's a hint -- anytime we can see your skull through your skin, you are in the process of decomposing, mk? 

"The Mummy" is one of the few films directed by Karl Freund -- he is better known as the director of photography of such films as "Dracula," "Metropolis" and "The Last Laugh." And in the early 1950s, he worked along with Desi Arnaz on "I Love Lucy," pioneering the way television shows were lit and photographed on film with the three-camera system that many sitcoms still use today. Naturally, he nails the movie's atmosphere of foreboding -- he has help from "Karloff the uncanny," as the ads referred to him and Johann, who looks a lot like Elisabeth Moss, who plays Peggy on "Mad Men."
 
Here is a full listing of credits, and a trailer from a re-release: