Goats and Nuts and MILLION DOLLAR LEGS (Paramount 1932)

cracked rear viewer

Hail, hail Klopstokia! MILLION DOLLAR LEGS is  total  movie anarchy, a throwback to the halcyon days of Mack Sennett. It’s a comedy cornucopia filled with sight gags and verbal nonsense, led by legendary W.C. Fields as president of the mythical country of Klopstokia, about to default on its loans until itinerant brush salesman Jack Oakie comes up with a plan to enter the hale and hearty Klopstokians in the 1932 Olympics and win the huge cash prize being put up by his employer!

Klopstokia is noted for “Goats & Nuts”, their chief exports, imports, and inhabitants! All political disputes are settled by arm wrestling, and President Fields is the strongest of all, though he’s constantly being challenged by his Secretary of the Treasury Hugh Herbert. Presidential daughter Angela (Susan Fleming, future wife of Harpo Marx) and brush salesman Migg Tweeny (Oakie) “meet cute” and immediately fall in love. When asking…

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A Movie A Day #223: The Texas Rangers (1936, directed by King Vidor)

Sam (Lloyd Nolan), Jim (Fred MacMurray), and Wahoo (Jack Oakie) are three outlaws in the old west.  Wahoo works as a stagecoach driver and always lets Sam and Jim know which coaches will be worth holding up.  It’s a pretty good scam until the authorities get wise to their scheme and set out after the three of them.  Sam abandons his two partners while Jim and Wahoo eventually end up in Texas.  At first, Jim and Wahoo are planning to keep on robbing stagecoaches but then they realize that they can make even more money as Texas Rangers.

At first, Jim and Wahoo are just planning on sticking around long enough to make some cash and then split.  However, both of them discover that they prefer to be on the right side of the law.  After they save a boy named David from Indians, Jim and Wahoo decide to stay in Texas and protect its settlers.

The only problem is that their old friend Sam has returned and his still on the wrong side of the law.

Made to commemorate the Texas centenary (though it was filmed in New Mexico), The Texas Rangers is a good example of what’s known as an oater, a low-budget but entertaining portrayal of life on the frontier.   King Vidor does a good job with the action scenes and Fred MacMuarry and Jack Oakie are a likable onscreen team.  The best performance comes from Lloyd Nolan, as the ruthless and calculating Sam.  Sam can be funny and even likable but when he’s bad, he’s really bad.

Jack Oakie was better known as a comedian and The Texas Rangers provides him with a rare dramatic role.  Four years after appearing in The Texas Rangers, Oakie would appear in his most famous role, playing a parody of Benito Mussolini in Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator.

Cleaning Out The DVR #5: Around The World In 80 Days (dir by Michael Anderson)

Last night, as a part of my effort to clean out my DVR by watching and reviewing 38 movies in 10 days, I watched the 1956 Best Picture winner, Around The World In 80 Days.

Based on a novel by Jules Verne, Around The World In 80 Days announces, from the start, that it’s going to be a spectacle.  Before it even begins telling its story, it gives us a lengthy prologue in which Edward R. Murrow discusses the importance of the movies and Jules Verne.  He also shows and narrates footage from Georges Méliès’s A Trip To The Moon.  Seen today, the most interesting thing about the prologue (outside of A Trip To The Moon) is the fact that Edward R. Murrow comes across as being such a pompous windbag.  Take that, Goodnight and Good Luck.

Once we finally get done with Murrow assuring us that we’re about to see something incredibly important, we get down to the actual film.  In 1872, an English gentleman named Phileas Fogg (played by David Niven) goes to London’s Reform Club and announces that he can circumnavigate the globe in 80 days.  Four other members of the club bet him 20,000 pounds that he cannot.  Fogg takes them up on their wager and soon, he and his valet, Passepartout (Cantinflas) are racing across the world.

Around The World in 80 Days is basically a travelogue, following Fogg and Passepartout as they stop in various countries and have various Technicolor adventures.  If you’re looking for a serious examination of different cultures, this is not the film to watch.  Despite the pompousness of Murrow’s introduction, this is a pure adventure film and not meant to be taken as much more than pure entertainment.  When Fogg and Passepartout land in Spain, it means flamenco dancing and bullfighting.  When they travel to the U.S., it means cowboys and Indians.  When they stop off in India, it means that they have to rescue Princess Aouda (Shirley MacClaine!!!) from being sacrificed.  Aouda ends up joining them for the rest of their journey.

Also following them is Insepctor Fix (Robert Newton), who is convinced that Fogg is a bank robber.  Fix follows them across the world, just waiting for his chance to arrest Fogg and disrupt his race across the globe.

But it’s not just Inspector Fix who is on the look out for the world travelers.  Around The World In 80 Days is full of cameos, with every valet, sailor, policeman, and innocent bystander played by a celebrity.  (If the movie were made today, Kim Kardashian and Chelsea Handler would show up at the bullfight.)  I watch a lot of old movies so I recognized some of the star cameos.  For instance, it was impossible not to notice Marlene Dietrich hanging out in the old west saloon, Frank Sinatra playing piano or Peter Lorre wandering around the cruise ship.  But I have to admit that I missed quite a few of the cameos, much as how a viewer 60 years in the future probably wouldn’t recognize Kim K or Chelsea Handler in our hypothetical 2016 remake.  However, I could tell whenever someone famous showed up on screen because the camera would often linger on them and the celeb would often look straight at the audience with a “It’s me!” look on their face.

Around The World in 80 Days is usually dismissed as one of the lesser best picture winners and it’s true that it is an extremely long movie, one which doesn’t necessarily add up to much beyond David Niven, Cantinflas, and the celeb cameos.  But, while it may not be Oscar worthy, it is a likable movie.  David Niven is always fun to watch and he and Cantinflas have a nice rapport.  Shirley MacClaine is not exactly believable as an Indian princess but it’s still interesting to see her when she was young and just starting her film career.

Add to that, Around The World In 80 Days features Jose Greco in this scene:

Around The World In 80 Days may not rank with the greatest films ever made but it’s still an entertaining artifact of its time.  Whenever you sit through one of today’s multi-billion dollar cinematic spectacles, remember that you’re watching one of the descendants of Around The World In 80 Days.

Lisa Considers The Great Dictator (dir. by Charles Chaplin)

I recently discovered that Uverse has select films from the Criterion Collection available OnDemand.  Last night, I took advantage of this service and watched 1940’s The Great Dictator.  Along with being Charlie Chaplin’s first all-sound film, the Great Dictator was also a best picture nominee.  (It lost to Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca.)

The Great Dictator is a broad comedy that, ultimately, has a very serious message.  Made at a time when the second world war was looking more and more inevitable, The Great Dictator features Charlie Chaplin in two roles.  As the film opens at end of World War I, Chaplin plays a meek but well-meaning Jewish barber who has found himself serving in the army of Tomania.  Though the barber manages to survive the war, he also loses his memory and ends up spending the next 20 years in a mental hospital.  When his memory finally does return, the barber returns to his barber shop and quickly discovers that things have changed.  His shop has been boarded up and the word “JEW” has been painted over the windows.  Thugs wearing military uniforms now patrol the streets and continually threaten to send people to concentration camps.  Tomania is now ruled by a dictator named Adenoid Hynkel.

Hynkel, who happens to look just like the barber (and who is, of course, also played by Chaplin) is quickly established as being a crazy and rather simple-minded buffoon.  As played by Chaplin, Hynkel gives long speeches in a harsh gibberish language that is designed to sound German without actually being German (fortunately, Hynkel has a translator on hand to tell us, after he has just spent two minutes harshly ranting, “Hynkel just explained his position on the Jews.”) and he continually runs throughout his palace in an attempt to prove that he’s capable of doing a hundred more things than the average person.  In his private time, he does a child-like dance with a big inflatable globe, speculates on how glorious it will be to be the “brunette dictator of the Aryan people,” and tries to maintain a shaky alliance with his fellow dictator Benzino Napaloni (Jack Oakie).  Playing a character that was the polar opposite of his usual persona, Chaplin’s performance manages to be both comedic and disturbing.  You laugh at Hynkel’s buffoonish behavior but you never forget that he’s a very dangerous man.  (Admittedly, I say that with a hindsight that was not possessed by either Chaplin or the audiences of 1940.)

The film proceeds to follow these two characters in two separate storylines that finally come together at the end of the movie with (SPOILER) Chaplin giving a nearly 5-minute plea for world peace.  While Hynkel schemes to conquer the world one country at a time, the barber attempts to adjust to his new life while sweetly romancing the outspoken Hanna (Paulette Goddard),  While the film is probably best known for Chaplin’s performance as Hynkel, I found the barber and Hannah’s relationship to be sweetly poignant.  Their relationship gives this film a heart to go along with its biting satire.

For me (and admittedly, I’m a secret history nerd), it’s interesting to watch The Great Dictator today and try to imagine how audiences first reacted to it in 1940.  According to Wikipedia, the Great Dictator was Chaplin’s most financially succesful film and Chaplin was even invited to the White House to recite the film’s climatic speech for President Roosevelt. And, of course, The Great Dictator also scored Oscar nominations for best picture, actor (Chaplin), supporting actor (Jack Oakie), screenplay, and original score.  Chaplin also said, in his later years, that if he had known what was truly being done by Hitler and the Nazis, he would never have made a comedy like The Great Dictator.

I think that would have been a mistake on his part because if The Great Dictator proves anything, it proves that satire and humor is often the most powerful weapon against the forces of evil.  Though Chaplin makes no secret of the fact that Hynkel is meant to be Hitler and Oakie is meant to be playing Mussolini, they could also serve as stand-ins for just about any dictator who has seized power through exploiting prejudice and hatred.  The sight of Hynkel dancing with that globe is actually a far more effective anti-totalitarian statement than the heartfelt and undeniably sincere speech that ends the film.