Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Preston Sturges and the Marx Brothers at the Stanford Theater

The Stanford Theater ran Preston Sturges/Marx Brothers double features for seven consecutive weeks in November and December.  I was able to catch four of the double features.

Sullivan's Travels starring Joel McCrea & Veronica Lake; directed by Preston Sturges; (1941)
Horse Feathers starring the Four Marx Brothers & Thelma Todd; directed by Norman Z. McLeod; (1932)
Miracle at Morgan's Creek starring Eddie Bracken & Betty Hutton; directed by Preston Sturges; (1944)
Duck Soup starring the Four Marx Brothers & Margaret Dumont; directed by Leo McCarey; (1933)
The Palm Beach Story starring Claudette Colbert, Joel McCrea, Mary Astor & Rudy Vallee; directed by Preston Sturges; (1942)
A Night at the Opera starring the Three Marx Brothers & Margaret Dumont; directed by Sam Wood; (1935)
A Day at the Races starring the Three Marx Brothers, Maureen O'Sullivan & Margaret Dumont; directed by Sam Wood; (1937)
Hail the Conquering Hero starring Eddie Bracken & Ella Raines; directed by Preston Sturges; (1944)

I have previously stated my enjoyment of the Marx Brothers' films but haven't mentioned Preston Sturges.  I recall watching Preston Sturges films on television (the Family Film Festival) as a boy.  I don't think I've seen a Preston Sturges film since the 1980s and I'm fairly certain I have never seen a Sturges film on the big screen.

In addition to their typical calendar, the Stanford Theater published an eight page essay titled Preston Sturges & The Marx Bros. by Richard von Busack.

The Sturges film I most wanted to see again was The Great McGinty with Brian Donlevy.  However, that screened the same days as the San Francisco Film Society's New Italian Cinema series.

Some of the 35 mm prints were badly worn and scenes were abridged due to splicing.


I will dispense with comments on all but one of the Marx Brothers films. I stand by my July 11, 2011 post regarding Duck Soup and A Night at the Opera and my July 4, 2012 post regarding Horse Feathers.

I showed up 15 minutes late to A Day at the Races.  I misread the showtime as 5:25 when in fact 5:35 and I didn't walk into the auditorium until 5:40.  I know I have seen A Day at the Races before but it seemed new to me.  Unlike the other three Marx Brothers films I saw in the series,  I had not seen A Day at the Race often enough to know which gags were coming up.  In fact, I thought the gags were curiously absent. from the film  At 111 minutes, A Day at the Races seemed bloated and I only caught 95 minutes of it.

There was an extended Lindy Hop musical number featuring Whitey's Lindy Hoppers, an African American dance troupe where we are treated to Groucho, Chico & Harpo in blackface.  The size & scope of the number clarified for me why I prefer the Marx Brothers' Paramount films to their later MGM films.  In the Paramount films, the songs were an extension of their comedy.  In the MGM films, the plots are more structured and musical numbers more professional.  The emphasis has shifted away from the Marxist free-for-all anarchy to a formulaic plot with high-end song & dance numbers tacked on.

Of the six Marx Brothers films I've blogged about over the past 2.5 years, A Day at the Races was my least favorite.  Notable gags were the Tutsi Fruitsy Ice Cream scene where Chico scams Groucho out of money at the race track (I didn't think it was that funny) and a scene where Groucho attempts to woo Esther Muir's character (who in real life was Busby Berkeley ex-wife) only to be continually interrupted by Chico & Harpo.


Of the Sturges films I saw, I was most anticipating Sullivan's Travels and I was not disappointed.  Joel McCrea plays John L. Sullivan.  I'm not sure why the character was named after the famous boxer.  Sullivan is a successful Hollywood film director of light comedies.  He chafes at what he perceives to be wasting his talent on trivial films.  Sullivan wants to make a serious film about the struggles of the poor.  His butler & valet  tell him he knows nothing about being poor and foolish for trying to ascribe a nobility to what is actually just survival instinct.

Sullivan hits on the idea of dressing like a hobo (with the help of his studio's wardrobe dept.) and setting out with only a dime in his pocket.  The studio dispatches a tour bus to follow him for publicity purposes.  This leads to a truly rambunctious gag as the bus attempts to follow Sullivan when he gets a ride from a kid in a hot rod.

At this point, Sullivan convinces his handlers that he needs to proceed alone on his journey.  Actually, this is the point in the film where goes from comedy to fairly serious social commentary which is strong suit for the film.  Sullivan hitchhikes to nowhere in particular except eastward (Kansas City is his destination if I recall).  Instead, Sullivan is dropped off in Los Angeles.

Discouraged, he goes to a diner where Veronica Lake (no character name given; credited as The Girl) takes pity on him.  She tells him she came to Hollywood to be a movie actress but has failed and is going back to her hometown.   Sullivan eventually reveals his identity and the reason for his appearance.  Initially disbelieving and later angry at being deceived, the Girl eventually decides that she should travel with Sullivan since he knows nothing about being poor.

Surprisingly convincing while posing as a boy (and reminding me a lot of Louise Brooks in Beggars of Life) , the Girl & Sullivan hops a freight train out of LA.  Sturges effectively uses a montage sequence to show the difficulty the homeless during the period.  After he has gathered enough background material, Sullivan ends the odyssey.  In appreciation of the lessons taught to him by the poor, Sullivan decides to handout $5 bills to the hobos near the freight yard.  I have found people can be categorized into one of two types.  Some people think that handing out money to the homeless is a kind and charitable act.  Other people (myself included) question the benefit of giving money directly to homeless people and would fear for our safety if we flashed a wad of cash in a homeless encampment.

Sullivan is robbed of his cash (by the same hobo who stole his shoes while he was sleeping) and knocked unconscious.  His assailant is killed trying to pick up the cash while a train bears down on him.  Sullivan was deposited into a boxcar and the train pulls out the yard with him out cold.   The dead hobo is wearing Sullivan's shoes which have been altered to include his identification papers in the sole.  The dead man's face is mangled by the impact of the train but his remains are identified by the ID in his shoes.  Sullivan's death is reported in the newspapers.

Meanwhile, Sullivan wakes up in a freight yard which is serious breach of hobo etiquette.  Hobos jump off the train just outside the railroad property lest the bulls hassle them.  Sullivan gets hassled by a railroad bull.  Not thinking clearly due to the head blow and unaccustomed to being treated so roughly, Sullivan lashes back and strikes the other man.  Suffering from amnesia, Sullivan is unable to assist in his subsequent trial for assaulting the railroad man.  He is sentenced to six years in prison.  Eventually, he regains his memory but the guards don't want to hear it.  It seems as though Sullivan will have to serve out his sentence until he hits upon the novel idea of confessing to a murder - the murder of John Sullivan.  Eventually, his Hollywood contacts see "the murderer's" photo in the paper and realize what has happened.  The film ends with Sullivan set free (what about assaulting the railroad guy?) and free to marry the Girl (there had been a subplot involving Sullivan sham marriage).

I thought the last part of the film was inspired screenwriting despite the contrivances.  The film is ostensibly a screwball comedy but really present a bleak view of society which must have particularly pointed at the time given that the Great Depression was so recent.  Sullivan's Travels was a great firm.  I think it would have worked equally well as a straight up drama.


There is something about Eddie Bracken's screen persona that I don't like.  In Miracle at Morgan's Creek and Hail the Conquering Hero, he plays a stumbling, bumbling milquetoast type of guy who allows other to manipulate him.  That's not altogether different that the characters Danny Kaye or even Bob Hope played but Bracken turns me off for some reason I can't quite identify.

In Miracle at Morgan's Creek, Betty Hutton plays Trudy Kockenlocker (you would think Hays Office would have objected to the name), a small town girl with a thing for men in uniform.  Fortunately for her, there is an Army base nearby and dance on Saturday night in honor of the soldier shipping out to the war.  Trudy's father (William Demarest) won't allow her to go to the dance so she gets a beard in the form of Norval Jones (Eddie Bracken), a local 4F boy who stutters, is too nice for his own good and long had a crush on Trudy.  Jones picks up Trudy at her house and as soon as they leave, Trudy asks to borrow his car so she can go to the party.  Jones relents and catches a triple feature at the movie theater while Trudy goes to the party.

The next morning, Jones is asleep outside the theater when Trudy pulls up.  Obviously intoxicated (so much Production Code not showing DUIs), Trudy can't remember what happened the night before...except she married a soldier whose name she can't recall.  Soon enough, she discovers she is pregnant (what does that say for the unknown soldier's sexual prowess?) and her father only knows that the last guy she went out with was Jones.

I can't recall the specifics but somehow Trudy needs to marry Jones under an alias to get out of the first marriage.  In all goes sideways and Jones ends up under arrest (if I recall correctly, Trudy is a minor!).  Sturges extricates the couple from their situation by having Trudy give birth to sextuplets...one-upping Dionne quintuplets.

I never really got into Miracle at Morgan's Creek.  Demarest and Diana Lynn as Trudy's younger sister stood out in my memory.  Brian Donlevy & Akim Tamiroff makes cameos at the start & end of the film as their Great McGinty characters. 

In Hail the Conquering Hero, Bracken plays Woodrow Lafayette Pershing Truesmith, a small town boy who has been medically discharged from the Marine Corps due to hay fever.  As his name indicates, Truesmith has special reason to hide is medical discharge.  His father was a marine who was killed in WWI.  Truesmith has been hiding his civilian status from his family and friends by having marines mail pre-written postcards from overseas.  Truesmith sees a group of Marines in a bar and buys them a round.  The sergeant in the group (Demarest) knew Truesmith's father in WWI.  When one of the marines hears about Truesmith's situation, he decides to call Truesmith's mother and tell her that he is coming home after meritorious service in the Pacific.

When Truesmith and the marines get to town, there is a rally to greet the hero.  Things spiral out of control from that point.  Truesmith is pressed into running for mayor based on his service record.  Complicating matters is that Truesmith's former girlfriends is dating the incumbent mayor's son and is the mayor's secretary.

I found Hail the Conquering Hero to be tedious although it was criticizing the mindless patriotism and hero worship which I suppose was prevalent during WWII.  My father fought in WWII and he has told me that people recognized the dissonance between what was depicted in films and what happened in real life.  In other words, was Hail the Conquering Hero decrying the mindless patriotism and hero worship that was occurring or decrying the media's promotion mindless patriotism and hero worship?


I enjoyed The Palm Beach Story more than Miracle at Morgan's Creek and Hail the Conquering Hero.

In The Palm Beach Story, Claudette Colbert is Geraldine Jeffers, who is surprisingly ambivalent about her marriage to Tom Jeffers (Joel McCrea).  There is prologue which was kind of confusing but explained at the end.  Geraldine is an identical twin & Tom is an identical twin and each thinks they are marrying the other twin.

Anyway, Gerry is ready for a new husband.  Tom is nice enough but he isn't successful enough for Gerry.  With some help from odd, little, old, rich guy, Gerry takes off for Palm Beach to get a divorce.  Along the way, she meets a rambunctious group of hunters from the Ale & Quail Club, gets separated from her luggage and eventually accepts the kindness of John D. Hackensacker III (Rudy Vallee), one of the world's wealthiest men who is travelling in a sleeper car.

The old rich guy (Robert Dudley) who helped Gerry also helps Tom by flying him down to Palm Beach so he can arrive there before Gerry and convince her not to get divorced.  Upon her arrival, she introduces him to Hackensacker as her brother because she has told Hackensacker about her pending divorce and allowed him to think the worst of her husband.  That suits Hackensacker's sister (Mary Astor) just fine.  The oft divorced heiress takes an instant liking to Tom which creates the situation where two siblings are courting two siblings, unaware that the siblings are in fact, a married couple.  A little too contrived but that's Sturges's MO.

Astor plays the man eating princess quite well and Vallee is also memorable as the lonely millionaire.  Eventually, Gerry & Tom (I just noticed this may be play on the Tom & Jerry cartoons) decide  to give their marriage another chance and confess their ruse to the Hackensackers.  This allows for the opening sequence to be explained and the possibility that the Hackensackers will pursue Gerry and Tom's identical twin siblings.

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