Tag Archives: Sam Wood

A Day at the Races (1937, Sam Wood)

Until the halfway point or so, A Day at the Races moves quite well. Sure, it gets off to a slow start–introducing Chico as sidekick to Maureen O’Sullivan and setting up her problems (her sanitarium is going out of business), which isn’t funny stuff. I think Allan Jones even shows up as her nightclub singing beau before the other Marx Brothers make an appearance. But once they do, Races gets in gear.

There are a series of excellent sequences, all utilizing the Marx Brothers. Whether it’s Harpo doing physical comedy, Groucho and Chico doing a banter bit–with Harpo joining them in another one a few minutes later–Races uses them to wonderful effect. Director Wood even gets in a fine instrument playing number for Harpo and Chico.

And the supporting cast–O’Sullivan, Margaret Dumont, Leonard Ceeley, Douglass Dumbrille–is strong. Jones is an exception; his performance is broad, but he’s likable enough.

Until the second half, when the film should be giving him more to do acting-wise and doesn’t, instead giving him a long musical number. That long musical number, which leads to Harpo recruiting the nearby poor black workers into the number, kills Races’s pace. The previous musical interlude, with a lengthy (and gorgeous) ballet sequence, is about all it could handle. Maybe because there was great Marx Brothers comedy immediately following.

After the second musical sequence? Uninspired situation comedy. Races manages a satisfactory recovery in the finish, but it can’t make up the time.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Sam Wood; screenplay by Robert Pirosh, George Seaton and George Oppenheimer, based on a story by Pirosh and Seaton; director of photography, Joseph Ruttenberg; edited by Frank E. Hull; music by Franz Waxman; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Groucho Marx (Dr. Hackenbush), Chico Marx (Tony), Harpo Marx (Stuffy), Allan Jones (Gil), Maureen O’Sullivan (Judy), Margaret Dumont (Mrs. Upjohn), Leonard Ceeley (Whitmore), Douglass Dumbrille (Morgan), Esther Muir (‘Flo’), Robert Middlemass (Sheriff), Vivien Fay (Dancer), Ivie Anderson (Vocalist) and Sig Ruman (Dr. Steinberg).


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A Night at the Opera (1935, Sam Wood)

As good as the Marx Brothers are in A Night at the Opera–and George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind’s strong script is important too–director Wood really brings the whole thing together. The film has its obligatory musical subplot and romantic leads. Wood knows how to balance those elements with the comedy; during long music sequences, he brings in the Brothers for a quick gag. And Opera smartly establishes those romantic leads (played by Kitty Carlisle and Allan Jones) in relation to their sympathies for Harpo and Chico.

Opera also benefits from having one wonderful heinous villain (Walter Woolf King as an obnoxious opera star) and two great doofus ones (Sig Ruman and Robert Emmett O’Connor). King has the biggest part in the film and the briefest comedic sequences. Ruman and O’Connor both have long, elaborate sequences.

But where Wood’s direction is most impressive is how he and Merritt B. Gerstad shoot the Marx Brothers. While there’s a great moment with Groucho admiring a long Harpo gag, my favorite is how Wood handles Chico and Harpo’s music scene. After a quick, finely staged song from Jones, Chico plays the piano, then Harpo plays the harp. Chico’s sequence is jovial and engaging. Harpo’s is jovial and emotive. It’s gorgeous and Wood gives it as much weight as any comedy sequence. It simultaneously breaks Opera’s reality and deepens the entire film.

The film’s perfectly timed, has some great exasperation from Margaret Dumont, and some wonderful sketches. It’s a marvelous Night.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Sam Wood; screenplay by George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind, based on a story by James Kevin McGuinness; director of photography, Merritt B. Gerstad; edited by William LeVanway; music by Herbert Stothart; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Groucho Marx (Otis B. Driftwood), Chico Marx (Fiorello), Harpo Marx (Tomasso), Kitty Carlisle (Rosa), Allan Jones (Ricardo), Walter Woolf King (Lassparri), Sig Ruman (Gottlieb), Margaret Dumont (Mrs. Claypool), Edward Keane (Captain) and Robert Emmett O’Connor (Henderson).


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The Devil and Miss Jones (1941, Sam Wood)

The Devil and Miss Jones has three or four stages in the narrative, but director Sam Wood basically has three. The first phase–covering the first two narrative stages–feature this singular composition technique. For close-ups, Wood either gives his actors a lot of headroom (fifty percent of the frame) or almost none. Harry Stradling Sr. shoots Jones and the photography’s magnificent, so both type of shot looks great, but with the department store setting, the extra headroom shots are always very full. It makes the film extremely visually distinctive.

In the second two phases of Wood’s direction, he changes it up a little, but retains the deliberate close-ups. Jean Arthur (who gets top billing) doesn’t even become the protagonist until about the halfway point; the close-ups make the handoff–from Charles Coburn to her–work beautifully.

The film has six essentials–Wood, Arthur, Coburn, Robert Cummings as Arthur’s beau, Spring Byington as her friend, and–possibly most importantly–writer Norman Krasna. Krasna’s script for Jones is a masterpiece, in plotting, in pacing, in every possible way. He even pulls off a relatively awkward finish.

It’s a pro-worker social comedy, with Coburn a fat cat who decides to spy on his employees to sabotage their union organizing. Arthur, Cummings and Byington are the employees he dupes. Great interactions with all the principals, obviously with Arthur and Coburn, but there’s a lot of nice moments with Arthur and Cummings and Coburn and Byington too.

Jones’s pure magic.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Sam Wood; written by Norman Krasna; director of photography, Harry Stradling Sr.; edited by Sherman Todd; production designer, William Cameron Menzies; produced by Frank Ross; released by RKO Radio Pictures.

Starring Charles Coburn (Merrick), Jean Arthur (Mary), Robert Cummings (Joe), Spring Byington (Elizabeth), S.Z. Sakall (George), Edmund Gwenn (Hooper), Walter Kingsford (Allison), Montagu Love (Harrison), Richard Carle (Oliver), Charles Waldron (Needles), Edwin Maxwell (Withers), William Demarest (First Detective), Regis Toomey (1st Policeman) and Edward McNamara (Police Sergeant).


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Whipsaw (1935, Sam Wood)

Whipsaw takes some detours, but eventually reveals itself as an unlikely road picture… albeit one with limited stops.

The first few scenes are in London, with a lot of exposition introducing Myrna Loy and Harvey Stephens as jewel thieves. There are some other jewel thieves who want in on their score. At this point, Whipsaw seems like it’s going to take place entirely at sea.

But then it skips to New York, three weeks later, with both the cops and the rival crooks staking out Loy in hopes of finding Stephens.

At this point, there are about eight characters to remember–all of whom might end up being significant to the plot.

Then Spencer Tracy shows up as an undercover cop. Even after he does, it still takes Whipsaw another twenty minutes to finally define itself. While Howard Emmett Rogers’s script is messy and often meanders, there’s a lot of enthusiasm to it. The structure’s odd, since Tracy’s deceiving Loy, who he assumes is deceiving him; it doesn’t work for the first act, but once the couple is on the road… Whipsaw gets good.

Loy and Tracy are both fantastic. Their characters have to respect the other’s intellect, try to outsmart the other one and constantly lie. It creates a lot of personal conflict, which the actors essay beautifully.

Wood’s direction–aided by James Wong Howe’s wondrous photography–has some sublime moments but not enough. Basil Wrangell’s editing is weak.

The earnest ending misfires. Loy and Tracy weather it ably.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Sam Wood; screenplay by Howard Emmett Rogers, based on a story by James Edward Grant; director of photography, James Wong Howe; edited by Basil Wrangell; music by William Axt; produced by Wood and Harry Rapf; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Myrna Loy (Vivian Palmer), Spencer Tracy (Ross McBride), Harvey Stephens (Ed Dexter), William Harrigan (‘Doc’ Evans), Clay Clement (Harry Ames), Robert Gleckler (Steve Arnold), Robert Warwick (Robert W. Wadsworth), Georges Renavent (Monetta), Paul Stanton (Justice Department Chief Hughes), Wade Boteler (Detective Humphries), Don Rowan (Curley), John Qualen (Will Dabson), Irene Franklin (Madame Marie), Lillian Leighton (Aunt Jane), J. Anthony Hughes (Justice Department Agent Bailey), William Ingersoll (Dr. Williams) and Charles Irwin (Larry King).


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