Sunday 1 January 2017

Love Happy (1949)

Director: David Miller
Writers: Frank Tashlin and Mac Benoff, based on a story by Harpo Marx
Stars: The Marx Brothers, Ilona Massey, Vera-Ellen and Marion Hutton

Ten years ago today, I decided that I’d enjoyed the previous year of writing about movies on my own website and so it was time to set up a real blog on the subject. Those ten years have been an absolute blast and they’ve led to much more than I ever expected. I thought I’d just be writing about movies on the web, but Apocalypse Later Press just published my fifth book today and I founded a film festival last year, the Apocalypse Later International Fantastic Film Festival, which will be back for a second year in October as a two full day event. I’ve programmed Mini-Film Festivals at a couple of dozen conventions across the American southwest, helping great short films to find new eyeballs, and I’ve even appeared in a few movies; in bit parts, of course. It’s been a great decade! Oh, and I’ve also written 2,305 reviews too, here at Apocalypse Later, and a few elsewhere as well: movie reviews at Apocalypse Later Now! and book reviews at The Nameless Zine. And it all started ten years ago to the day with a review of a Marx Brothers movie.

That was A Night at Casablanca, released by United Artists in 1946, and it was the twelfth of the thirteen films they made together. I had already seen the first eleven, so that just left one to go, this one, and, while I have no idea why it took me ten years to find, it’s the logical choice to kick off my second decade at Apocalypse Later. I should add here, before completists take umbrage, that these are not quite all. Their first film wasn’t actually The Cocoanuts in 1929, it was a two reel short called Humor Risk, shot in 1921, shown once and never released theatrically; it’s thought to be a lost film today. In 1931, they contributed an original skit to The House That Shadows Built, a 47 minute promotional history of Paramount Pictures, made to celebrate the studio's twentieth anniversary. Finally, The Story of Mankind in 1959 features Groucho, Chico and Harpo, but in separate cameos rather than all together. Outside of film, these same three also appeared on television together in The Incredible Jewel Robbery, an episode of General Electric Theater.

This picture revolves around jewels too: the famous Romanoff diamonds, collected into a necklace, worth a cool million bucks and also lost. Groucho Marx is our narrator, Sam Grunion, Private Eye (he has a painted eye on his window and a blank business card to show how well he keeps secrets) who has been on their trail for a decade. So has Madame Egelichi, who has married and divorced eight husbands in three months as part of her search. We join the film as she, in the elegant form of Ilona Massey, prepares to get hold of them, secreted within a tin of sardines, labelled with a maltese cross, and sent to importers Herbert & Herbert, purveyors of ‘the finest food for the finest people’. However, they end up instead with Harpo Marx, a mute thief who helps customers to cars while he secretes half their purchases within his ample pockets. He thinks he hits the jackpot by sneaking onto the street elevator and raiding the store’s stores, but really it’s that tin of sardines that he swipes from the pocket of manager Lefty Throckmorton.

Now, you might wonder why this picture is called Love Happy. Well, it’s named for a musical production run by Mike Johnson, one of its dancers, and this serves as the primary location. It’s a shoestring affair; nobody’s being paid until they ‘open and click’ and the one backer who isn’t actually in the show, Mr. Lyons, keeps trying to take his costumes and scenery away because of concern over the lack of other money. Chico Marx joins the show, playing a mind-reader called Faustino the Great, because he improvises an effort to keep Lyons on board for a little longer. One of his real life brothers soon shows up, because Harpo only steals to feed the cast and crew; he’s head over heels for Maggie Phillips, the show’s leading lady. Maggie’s boyfriend is Mike Johnson and her best friend is Bunny Dolan, another cast member and minor financier, who has sunk her last three hundred bucks into the show. Groucho doesn’t leave his office until late in the picture, but he does join in scenes with his brothers after that.
While all these brothers (and there were five of them all told) were talented and experienced vaudevillians and they came from a talented and experienced vaudeville family, we’re used to seeing the fast-talking and wise-cracking Groucho as the lead, with his greasepaint moustache and ever-present cigar. However, this is clearly Harpo’s movie, with Chico in support and Groucho adding narration and colour. In fact, Harpo wrote the original story for the film, though it was adapted into a screenplay by Frank Tashlin and Mac Benoff. Now, given that Harpo never spoke, he’s a rather unlikely lead for a sound movie, but the ever-inventive brothers played that up. At one point, Harpo, who has been kidnapped by Madame Egelichi, manages to reach a phone. He rings the theatre and Faustino answers, but the conversation clearly can’t be straightforward. Poor Madame listens in to a collection of whistles and honks, from which she can make absolutely nothing, except that Faustino does mention the theatre.

The plot is as threadbare as usual for a film that exists as much to showcase talent as it does to tell a story. The people behind Love Happy are struggling financially but there’s a million dollar necklace floating around their theatre and a rich woman willing to do whatever it takes to obtain it; it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out how the plot will move forward. But nobody watches a Marx Brothers movie for the plot, they watch for the antics, the skits and the performances. This one delivers on all those counts, with one in particular standing out for me. That’s the duet, or perhaps I should call it a battle, between Faustino the Great on piano and Mr. Lyons on violin. He likes gypsy music, apparently, so they riff around that and veer off in every direction possible, musical and emotional. It’s a great example of how virtuoso musicians can enjoy their skills and turn them into comedic art. Lyons is Leon Belasco, who led an orchestra before becoming an actor and who often played musicians in his films.
Groucho gets surprisingly few moments and he seems a little slower than usual in the early scenes where he’s flying solo. He’s still himself, unlike his final outing in Skidoo, but he’s not the Groucho he used to be. His best moment arrives late, as two recognisable actors show up to his office. The first is Eric Blore, frequent butler for Fred and Ginger and the Lone Wolf. These scenes are flimsy and we wonder why Blore is even there (he’s Grunion’s ‘operator’, Mackinaw) or how the pair escape from the assassin who takes them prisoner (we never find out). The other is Marilyn Monroe, who sashays in to hire this PI because, ‘Some men are following me.’ Grunion replies to us. ‘Really? I can’t understand why!’ This was early days for her and she auditioned for the $100, one day part with two other girls. Producer Lester Cowan had all three walk and asked for Groucho’s thoughts. He said, ‘Are you kidding? How can you take anybody except that last girl?’ One year later, she was in The Asphalt Jungle and All About Eve.

It’s Harpo who gets most of the moments in this picture. He’s the first of the Marx Brothers we see acting with anyone else, given that Groucho’s first appearance is just a solo introduction. Harpo runs his cons, steals his food and fills his pockets with abandon, the laws of physics be damned; he must have a TARDIS in each one. That plays out at length when Madame Egelichi has her goons search him; they pull out a working barber’s sign, a mailbox, a block of ice, a sled, a large dog, you name it. Bonus fun comes from one of those henchmen, Alphonse Zoto, being played by Raymond Burr. I’ve long been fascinated by Burr’s career, which is wildly varied even if everyone knows him as Perry Mason or Ironside. He has to torment Harpo here and it’s obvious that he had trouble keeping a straight face. So do we, especially given that Groucho introduces the scene with, ‘Meanwhile, Madame Egelichi, wearing the pants of the dreaded Catwoman, was desperately trying to make Harpo talk!’
Many of these Harpo moments are with other people, such as a fantastic game of charades as Harpo tries to explain to Faustino the Great that Egelichi is planning to murder Maggie Phillips. The most outrageously cinematic, though, involves him being chased by Egelichi’s three hoods on the rooftops of the city, a chase which involves a wide variety of neon advertising signs. Initially, they’re just there, such as the GE Lamps sign, but then he starts to interact with them. He blows out the light the boy’s holding on the Fisk Tires sign to escape in the dark, rides the moving pegasus in a Mobilgas and Mobiloil sign and swings on the pendulum on a Bulova ‘Watch Time’ sign, turning it in the process into a weapon. After he flies into the smoke-issuing mouth of the penguin in the Kool Cigarettes sign, he’s mastered that approach. This is fantastic and imaginative and it’s well executed. Oddly, his weakest moment is probably his solo spot on the harp, which doesn’t have any of the spice of Chico and Belasco’s musical battle.

Some of the other actors get moments too, even if they’re fewer and further between than those given to the Marx brothers. The two leading ladies are Vera-Ellen, playing Maggie Phillips, and Marion Hutton as Bunny Dolan; given that Vera-Ellen’s nickname was Bunny, it wouldn’t surprise me to find that Marion’s was Maggie. Vera-Ellen had already made a few movies but was about to hit the big time; her next picture, released the same year, was On the Town, sixth on the bill under Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra, and by 1954, she’d be fourth credited in White Christmas, after Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye and Rosemary Clooney. She gets a ballet number to establish her connection to Harpo and a versatile and well-choreographed number with the men’s chorus that begins and ends with them as American GIs but features some as South Pacific natives too. As you can imagine, it’s half jazz, half exotica and there’s a good deal of that musical exploration going on in this picture.
The latter, the elder sister of Betty Hutton, gets an eye-opener of a musical number. It’s called Who Stole the Jam? and it features Bunny Dolan playing mother to three large rag dolls, one or all of whom has perhaps stolen her jam and she frankly abuses them something awful trying to figure out where it’s gone and who took it. Initially, I watched this with wide eyes, but the addition of Harpo to the mix here too brings it back down to earth. I’ve never been a big musical fan and this routine made me wonder how much more I’d enjoy musicals if there was a Harpo Marx in every routine. I enjoyed both Vera-Ellen and Betty Hutton in this film, though I did blur the two together at points because there’s hardly much substance to their roles. Even then, they do better than the men. The opening credits ‘introduce’ Marilyn Monroe, Paul Valentine and Bruce Gordon. Monroe makes herself noticed, but Valentine is a nonentity of a leading hunk and Gordon only manages to be the henchman next to Raymond Burr.

With a quick last minute nod to Harpo’s little shack, with musical instruments built into everything, including the water dispenser, and a penguin in a hat and coat for no discernable reason other than it’s a penguin in a hat and coat, I’ll suggest that this is a flimsy but thoroughly enjoyable late entry into the Marx Brothers filmography. The Big Store had been intended to be their final picture, back in 1941 at the end of a long stretch of prolificity. They’d started in 1929 with The Cocoanuts and continued to release one film every year until The Big Store, missing only the two years around 1935’s classic, A Night at the Opera, as they shifted from Paramount to MGM. However, after their regular run was over, they returned to the screen only for two final pictures at United Artists, both made to help alleviate Chico’s gambling debts. They’re not the classic Paramount pre-codes but both A Night in Casablanca and Love Happy are a great deal of fun and proof that the brothers still had it in copious quantities. Thanks, folks.

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