Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928)

Steamboat Bill, Jr. – 1928

Director – Charles Reisner

Starring – Buster Keaton, Tom McGuire, Ernest Torrence, and Marion Byron

A big debate amongst cinephiles is the merit of a film whose sole intent is entertainment, dispensing of deadweight such as message, stakes, and emotional heft.  Today these types of films are called “Popcorn Films” or “Blockbusters”, and they are designed to appeal to the lowest common denominator, kids, elderly, men, women, people of all shapes, sizes, colors, and creeds.  No one demographic is really ever left out of the mix when talking about the audience for a film like this, with the exception of one…film snobs.  Does it have to be this way?  Are the visual hijinks, daring physical feats, and very basic storyline of something like Steamboat Bill, Jr. enough to make watching it worth while?  You bet!

This time around (just like most of the other times around) Buster Keaton finds himself the subject of scorn by an adult or an authority figure.  Despite this treatment, he remains almost blissfully unaware, and instead focuses his attention on the pretty young girl who has caught his eye.  Some sort of catastrophe occurs necessitating Keaton to spring into action, simultaneously proving the nay-sayers wrong and confirming the young girl’s belief in him.  Keaton invariably does this by demonstrating his physical prowess in an impressive and hilarious way.

Okay, so the story line is pretty much the same in each of his movies, only the setting and some of the plot points change.  One time it’s a train, the next it’s a steamboat.  He want’s to be a detective in one and the next he wants to play the violin.  This really isn’t all that different from other of Keaton’s peers, Chaplin, and the Marx Brothers for example, were basically the same characters in multiple different movies, but does that remove any of their value, or the value of the film?

I submit to you that this is the best of Keaton’s films that I’ve seen so far.  I say this solely on the strength of the last 30 minutes of the film knowing full well that by then the story has almost completely finished.  We watch Keaton twist and contort his body against the force of a hurricane.  He has to dodge and weave, avoiding entire houses as they collapse around him, and in this flurry of activity I lost track of time and stared in wonder watching him go.  Whereas, during the first 45 minutes I found myself feeling restless and a little board, by the end I was on the edge of my seat.  The only disappointing part, was that the film wasn’t a full hour and fifteen minutes of that.

While I know what to expect from the storyline of a Keaton film, I will keep coming back and watching them because I also know what to expect from the sense of action and adventure from a Keaton film too.  This is my favorite of his films so far, and I don’t say that lightly.

“Buster Keaton, the inventor of break dancing.” – Ashley

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A Night at the Opera (1935)

A Night at the Opera – 1935

Director – Sam Wood

Starring – Groucho Marx, Chico Marx, Harpo Marx, Kitty Carlisle, and Allan Jones

The Marx Brothers films are quickly becoming some of my favorite of the ones that I’ve watched for this blog so far.  While I have seen only two now, this one and Duck Soup, I am hoping there are a few more on the list.  If not, I suppose I’ll have to rent and watch them in addition to whatever is next to see on the list.

As with most comedies of this era, the plotline is a simple one.  Groucho’s character is the manager of a small opera house in small Italian town, Harpo plays the unhelpful assistant to the conceited lead singer, and Chico plays the manager for the up and coming young talent who’s currently working as a backup singer in the show.  The plot really takes off when blah blah blah blah blah…blah, blah blah…..  Basically, the story doesn’t matter.  The film is a series of set ups for one-liners, sight-gags, singing, and clever instrumentation.  It doesn’t have a message, and doesn’t pretend to be anything other than entertaining.

As far as comedians go, Harpo is still my favorite with his innocent yet devilish destructiveness.  Groucho comes in at a close second, often times providing the group a kick in the pants by way of witty dialogue.  This keeps the plot and the action moving forward.  Chico acts as a good in-between man, balancing the loose energy of Harpo and the cynicism of Groucho.  Each is talented in their own rights, but alone they wouldn’t remain as consistently interesting.  Operating as a team they feed off of and support one another.

I’ve read that this film was the first to not feature Zeppo Marx, instead featuring Allan Jones as the straight man come love interest for the lead actress.  Jones’ character is virtually unnecessary to the film, except as a plot device to get the brothers on to the steam ship bound for New York.  The same can be said for virtually every other actor and actress save for one, Margaret Dumont as Mrs. Claypool.  Dumont, a favorite of the Marx Brothers, has co-starred in quite a few of their films, including At The Circus, Cocoanuts, A Day At The Races, and Duck Soup just to name a few.  She always manages to play the put-upon, yet the eternally forgiving upper-crust subject (victim?) of Groucho’s advances, one-liners, and lewd remarks, and she always does it with a straight face.  When describing his and Dumont’s chemistry on-screen, Groucho credits it’s success to the fact that she “never understood what he was saying”.

If this list of films has done anything for me, it has opened my eyes to the fact that my movie education has had some gaping holes in it for sometime.  The Marx Brothers have long been one of those holes, but thankfully they are a gap that is getting filled in.  If you are a fan of the Three Stooges, Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, or W.C. Fields, it is more than a safe bet that you’ll love the Marx Brothers too.  I can certainly attest to that.

P.S.  This review marks the 1 year anniversary of this blog being around (well… one year and a handful of days anyway).  In that time, I’ve seen and reviewed 70 different movies from 1900 through the 2000’s.  I’m very glad to see that I am still keeping up with it, sometimes not as quickly as others, but for the most part fairly regularly.  Thanks to those who comment, and thanks to those bloggers whom I comment on!

Duck Soup (1933)

DuckSoup1933

Duck Soup – 1933

Director – Leo McCarey

Starring – The Marx Brothers

Somehow, throughout all of my film school career, and on into my life as an avid film-goer, I’ve managed to avoid the entire Marx Brother’s catalogue.  I had the vague impression that you were either a Stooges guy or a Marx Brothers guy.  There existed a separation.  Fans of either series simply ran in different circles, like people who like Elvis, and people who like the Beatles.  Well, now that I’ve finally seen one, I can say that I really enjoyed the experience.

The country seeking a new ruler plot is fairly ludicrous, but serves as a decent enough vehicle for the absurd behavior that the Marx Brothers are known for.  Groucho plays the man taking over for the ousted leader of Freedonia at the behest of the country’s wealthiest woman.  Chico and Zeppo Marx play men either trying to bring Groucho down or in support of his regime, respectively.  Far and away though, the greatest comedian of them all is the malicious, gleeful, maniacal Harpo Marx, as the silent foil to anyone standing in front of him.  Harpo steals the show with his love of scissors, hats, and a general zeal for making trouble.

The ins and outs of the story aren’t really of consequence, except to note that they put each of these characters at odds with one another enough times to provide plenty of comic opportunity.  The peripheral characters serve a similar purpose.  It’s fun to watch the stodgy lemonade man deal with Harpo, who keeps burning his hats, or the wealthy older woman who is consistently reacting to Groucho’s continual come-ons and put-downs.

At just over an hour long, there was plenty of material, but not so long as to allow the premise to wear thin.  The one down side, and it’s not even really a downside, it just didn’t fit in with the rest of the picture, was the 3 or so song and dance routines.  They all happen near the beginning, and it doesn’t seem as if there is any real reason to have them, nor does the trend continue throughout the rest of the movie.  They seemed tacked on at the last moment, almost as if through some sort of studio intervention to capture multiple demographics.

In terms of sophistication, The Marx Brothers run the gamut from The Three Stooges style of sight gags and violence, to W.C. Fields style articulation.  Some jokes are so blatant that you can’t help but see them coming, and others are completely out of the blue and take a minute to get.  Either way, most all of the jokes are funny, making this movie completely worth the watch.  Highly recommended!

“The Mark Brothers, helping people in the thirties feel a little less depressed. – Ashley