All posts by Andrew Wickliffe

Duck Soup (1933, Leo McCarey)

Duck Soup is madness. It’s not divine madness or sublime madness. It’s comedic madness, which is fine, but it’s a tad frantic and a tad distracted. The film opens with Margaret Dumont’s wealthy widow getting Groucho Marx installed as a head of state. Turns out evil Louis Calhern–a neighboring country’s ambassador–wants to create unrest and he’s setting vixen Raquel Torres on Groucho to get it done.

Only Groucho isn’t interested and he never really gets interested. Oh, Zeppo’s his assistant. Zeppo has nothing to do in Duck Soup.

Groucho as President is funnier in concept than execution–director McCarey seems disinterested in Groucho’s storyline, instead focusing on Chico and Harpo’s battles with a lemonade stand owner, played by Edgar Kennedy. There are some musical numbers, which get a smile and are well-produced, but they’re filler. Duck Soup runs under seventy minutes. There shouldn’t be a lot of filler and there’s a whole bunch of it.

Chico and Harpo are spies for Calhern, but Chico also works for Groucho. It’s madness, after all, a series of non sequiturs run together, with the audience left out of most of the jokes. The finale has all four Marx Brothers in a variety of soldier outfits. It’s cute and not a bad setup, only the jokes never arrive. McCarey’s rushing to get the thing finished.

There are some great Harpo moments and a fantastic Harpo and Chico dress as Groucho sequence. Those moments simply don’t add up or make enough of a difference. Duck Soup doesn’t have much narrative logic–something McCarey could embrace and amp up the lunacy; he doesn’t. By the end of the second act musical number, everyone looks exhausted. The whole picture has become a metaphor for McCarey’s universal disinterest and Zeppo’s growing on.

Then comes the third act, which has the two countries at war. It’s mostly poorly cut sight gags–uncredited editor LeRoy Stone never does a great job, but in the third act, he completely gives up. Duck Soup is a surrender (no spoilers). The film doesn’t even come up with a good comeuppance for Calhern, who really, really, really deserves one.

The script–from Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby–and then also Arthur Sheekman and Nat Perrin contributing additional dialogue (perhaps the funnier stuff for Chico and Harpo)–is always problematic. McCarey’s direction is always problematic. The actors get away mostly unscathed, however. Even if Dumont gets almost nothing to do. She’s in the picture a lot–Zeppo’s got nothing to do, but he’s barely in Duck Soup; but the film breaks the cardinal rule–it’s a Marx Brothers movie and it wastes Margaret Dumont.

It’s a shame too, as the film’s probably only a rewrite or two away from greatness.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Leo McCarey; screenplay by Arthur Sheekman, Nat Perrin, Bert Kalmar, and Harry Ruby; director of photography, Henry Sharp; edited by LeRoy Stone; produced by Herman J. Mankiewicz; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Groucho Marx (Rufus T. Firefly), Harpo Marx (Pinky), Chico Marx (Chicolini), Zeppo Marx (Bob Roland), Margaret Dumont (Mrs. Gloria Teasdale), Raquel Torres (Vera Marcal), Louis Calhern (Ambassador Trentino), and Edgar Kennedy (Lemonade Vendor).


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Love & Friendship (2016, Whit Stillman)

Love & Friendship opens with some non-traditional portrait cards for its cast of characters. The actors all appear in the opening titles, but then director Stillman breaks out introductions to the characters. Along with some narration. There’s some narration early on, which goes away almost immediately. Because narration might show a little too much of the film’s hand and Stillman wants to play it real close.

Everyone’s character gets an introduction card–done with portrait effect nodding to silent film techniques–except Kate Beckinsale. She’s not just the lead, she’s the object of everyone’s attention, which almost seems like the same thing as the film’s subject. But not so. With another twenty minutes or so, maybe Stillman could’ve made Beckinsale the film’s subject, but Love & Friendship runs a quick ninety-four minutes. There’s only so much he can do and wants to do. Beckinsale’s character might be deserving of a character study, but Stillman’s making a comedy and a light one. So object of attention she remains.

Though Stillman does obfuscate just enough to keep Beckinsale unknowable. Though no one in Love & Friendship is exactly knowable. Most character development comes out in characters discussing other ones, revealing bits and pieces of gossip and backstory, which informs how discussed characters play out, but there’s always a wink. Chloë Sevigny’s role in the film is mostly just to be knowing. She’s the wink at the audience.

Stillman takes his time introducing characters and storylines. When the film opens, Beckinsale and sidekick Kelly Campbell are just arriving to mooch off some of Beckinsale’s dead husband’s relations. It’s set in eighteenth century English society, but a lot of the film’s humor relates to just how brazen Beckinsale can be. She’s got a title and no money. She’s got a daughter and no husband. She also provokes a lot of rumor and gossip, which the audience gets in on before Beckinsale even shows up in the film. Stillman lays the groundwork for introducing her–as sensationally as possible given the realities of the setting–but also for what’s going to come in the second and third acts. He doesn’t foreshadow. He goes out of his way to avoid it, instead relying on Richard Van Oosterhout’s precise photography, Benjamin Esdraffo’s score, and Sophie Corra’s awesome editing to package each scene in the film as a separate moment. The actors give the film a continuous tempo, not Stillman’s script. Stillman’s script is about the smiles, the laughs, the intrigue, but he relies on the actors to keep the characters going.

It’s important because he’s introducing new, important ones throughout. Even if they got a portrait card in the first act, a lot goes on in Love & Friendship and Stillman uses the device for charm and humor more than establishing the ground situation. The ground situation comes out in the dialogue, the actors deliver the dialogue. Stillman directs to emphasize each exchange. Occasionally with some eclectic composition choices, always with perfectly timed ones. Again, Corra’s editing is essential to the film’s success.

The acting is all great. Beckinsale holds it all together. With everyone talking about nothing except her character, she’s always the focus, even if she’s not in the scene. So when she does come back onscreen, she doesn’t just have to do the scene, she’s also got to bridge her absence and the discussed character or plot development. Beckinsale, Stillman, and Corra get it right every time.

Xavier Samuel is good as Beckinsale’s too young suitor, Emma Greenwell is great as his disapproving sister. Morfydd Clark is good as Beckinsale’s daughter, who should be looking for a suitor of her own. The relationship with Beckinsale and Clark ought to forecast where Love & Friendship is going to end up, but it doesn’t. Stillman doesn’t want any peeking.

Tom Bennett is hilarious as Clark’s suitor, a rich buffoon. Justin Edwards is quietly excellent as Greenwell’s husband.

Sevigny’s perfect in her bemusement.

Love & Friendship is a delightful, thoughtful, ambitious, beauteous, little, grandiose picture.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Whit Stillman; screenplay by Stillman, based on a novella by Jane Austen; director of photography, Richard Van Oosterhout; edited by Sophie Corra; music by Benjamin Esdraffo; produced by Lauranne Bourrachot, Katie Holly, and Stillman; released by Amazon Studios.

Starring Kate Beckinsale (Lady Susan Vernon), Chloë Sevigny (Alicia Johnson), Xavier Samuel (Reginald DeCourcy), Emma Greenwell (Catherine Vernon), Morfydd Clark (Frederica Vernon), Tom Bennett (Sir James Martin), Kelly Campbell (Mrs Cross), Justin Edwards (Charles Vernon), James Fleet (Sir Reginald DeCourcy), Jemma Redgrave (Lady DeCourcy), Jenn Murray (Lady Lucy Manwaring), and Stephen Fry (Mr. Johnson).


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A Connecticut Yankee (1931, David Butler)

A Connecticut Yankee fumbles on pretty much every level, including wasting lead Will Rogers. The big problem is the script, from William M. Conselman. It doesn’t help any director Butler can’t mount an action or comedy sequences, because there’s nothing else in the picture. It doesn’t even work as a Rogers vehicle because his character’s so poorly written.

The film opens in the present, with vaguely dopey electronics repairman slash radio station announcer Rogers going to an old dark house to deliver a battery. He meets the house’s strange inhabitants and then gets knocked unconscious by a falling suit of armor. When he wakes up, he’s in sixth century England. Has Rogers mystically travelled back in time or is he unconscious on a floor? Oh, the drama.

Regardless of inventiveness, the device should give the film a chance to reset. The film sets Rogers up as slightly lazy, mostly stupid. No doubt once he gets back to olden times he’ll make a change for the better. Not really, though. He’s still just a bit of a moron. Conselman’s script makes cracks about him being a Democrat–which is on brand for Rogers, but one would think he’d want better material than one-liners.

Rogers meets King Arthur (William Farnum) and Merlin (Brandon Hurst). Both Farnum and Hurst are bad, but it’s hard to blame them. Their writing is terrible and Butler’s direction of actors is somewhat worse than his direction of action. At least with the action, there’s the castle set. It’s fine. Not so much once Rogers modernizes Camelot. Right after he proves himself worthy, the film cuts to a Camelot with telephones, roller-skates, machine guns, tanks, cars, whatever else.

Because Rogers might be a questionably talented electrician and radio announcer, but he’s a king of all industry. Connecticut Yankee would probably be able to get away with it if there was any direction. Conselman’s script is too inept for comedy or commentary, as is Butler’s direction.

There’s an almost amusing knight vs. cowboy joust. Butler can’t direct it, unfortunately. Then Farnum and Rogers go adventuring; they need to rescue princess Maureen O’Sullivan from evil queen Myrna Loy.

Rogers gets sympathy, but he’s not good. Farnum’s not good. O’Sullivan is appealing but she has a handful of scenes and nothing to do. Same with Frank Albertson as Rogers’s pointless sidekick. Hurst is awful in a fun way as Merlin though. He’s always sprinkling dust on things. Because magic.

Loy’s probably the best? It’s hard to say, as Conselman’s script is so wretched; Loy at least gets to have some fantastic gowns.

The big action finale with knights with tommy-guns ought to be a lot better. Everything about Connecticut Yankee ought to be better. Conselman and Butler never have a handle on the film. They’re fumbling from scene one.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by David Butler; screenplay by William M. Conselman, based on a novel by Mark Twain; director of photography, Ernest Palmer; edited by Irene Morra; released by Fox Film Corporation.

Starring Will Rogers (Hank Martin), William Farnum (Arthur), Frank Albertson (Clarence), Brandon Hurst (Merlin), Maureen O’Sullivan (Alisande), Mitchell Harris (Sagramor), and Myrna Loy (Morgan le Fay).


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The Wind in the Willows (1983, Mark Hall and Chris Taylor)

The Wind in the Willows has an undeniable charm about it. Directors Hall and Taylor send the first act of the film focusing on lovely details. Wind is stop motion, with a lot of intricate “set” decoration. And they do occasionally utilize their control over performers and location to get some excellent shots. Unfortunately, none of that ingenuity carries over to dealing with the characters and their storylines.

Some of the problem is Rosemary Anne Sisson’s teleplay. Sisson meanders from event to event. Most events involve Toad (voiced by David Jason), which is great. Toad’s ostensibly a lot of fun. Only most of his interactions with other characters are long shots in profile. Hall and Taylor are perfectly comfortable revealing the stop motion models’ lack of, well, fur, in close-ups, but they never bother to shoot anything from an angle. While some may be constraints of the sets, it’s not all.

Wind in the Willows is the story of four friends and there’s zero character relationship between any of them. Sisson’s script rushes the introduction of “leads” Mole (Richard Pearson) and Rat (Ian Carmichael) in a hurry to get to Jason. And Jason doesn’t really start paying off for a while. Eventually, Jason–and his musical numbers–hold Willows afloat, but not at the start. Sisson, Hall, and Taylor still need to get Pearson and Carmichael established.

They never really do. Sisson’s script is purely functional. All the sublime charm about riverfront life for adorable anthropomorphized British animals is from the stop motion. Outside the songs, nothing in the writing brings any of the charm. It’s sometimes so craven it does the exact opposite. As a result, Pearson and Carmichael aren’t the leads, they aren’t even friends. They don’t have enough time together.

And Michael Hordern, as wise old Badger, is a three dimensional pothole. Hordern’s characterization lacks warmth, Sisson’s writing lacks thought, and the character design is awkward. Badger doesn’t fit anywhere in Willows, not outside, not inside. Not even when he’s inside of his own house.

The Wind in the Willows coasts most of the way (and almost entirely downhill), it gets tedious when it should be exciting, it smacks of missed opportunity, but it does get through all right. Hall and Taylor end up having no idea what to do with the various constraints, though they do seem to understand Jason’s Toad songs are the best part.

Keith Hopwood and Malcolm Rowe’s music, however, is way too much. It tries so hard to be tranquil and just ends up being intrusive.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Mark Hall and Chris Taylor; teleplay by Rosemary Anne Sisson, based on the novel by Kenneth Grahame; edited by John McManus; music by Keith Hopwood and Malcolm Rowe; produced by Brian Cosgrove and Hall; aired by Independent Television.

Starring Richard Pearson (Mole), Ian Carmichael (Rat), David Jason (Toad), Michael Hordern (Badger), Una Stubbs (Jailer’s Daughter), and Beryl Reid (The Magistrate).


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