The Marx Brothers: Ain’t that a kick in the can?
It’s a slow week at the movies, and what with my 65th birthday looming large, I decided to spend Labor Day weekend sweating through a sea of nostalgia. What lies ahead are answers to the two questions most frequently thrown my way. The first — What is your favorite movie? — takes but one sentence to answer: I’m hoping I’ve yet to see it. Question #2 — When were you first bitten by the movie bug? — inspires the following recollection.
It was in seventh grade that I first encountered the Marx Brothers proper. There were You Bet Your Life reruns and fuzzy memories of The Incredible Jewel Robbery, but it wasn’t until that fateful gathering of the Boone Booster Club that I witnessed my first Marx Bros. feature. The club was a perk for students attending Daniel Boone elementary school in Chicago’s West Rogers Park neighborhood. It was around this time that I began my lifelong love affair with all things projected, even the unsophisticated science documentaries my biology teacher screened for the class (while he darted to the teacher’s lounge to grab a butt). The squeaky wheels and clattering joints of an AV Cart transporting a Bell & Howell Autoload down the corridor overjoyed my ears the way an electric can opener would a dog’s. But this was more than educational shorts on a pulldown screen. One Tuesday morning a month, the BBC offered students the chance to watch a real movie, on a big screen and on school time.
Three things I’ll never forget about Miss Russell, the teacher responsible for curating the series: her aim was such she could bounce a chalkboard eraser off the bonce of a sleeping student at 30 paces, her legs matched Popeye’s arms, and as a film programmer, she deserved a dunce cap and a spot in the corner. Instead of challenging students with The 5000 Fingers of Dr. T or the original Babes in Toyland, she exposed impressionable minds to the insipid remake of the latter, in addition to Blackbeard’s Ghost (another live-action Disney hellhole), the feature length version of Journey to the Beginning of Time (which worked better in 5 minute installments on WGN-TV’s Garfield Goose and Friends) and two episodes of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. spliced together to form a feature. There was a Martin and Lewis film, but the clueless Russell chose Taurog (Pardners) over Tashlin.
Seven classrooms’ worth of students converged in the packed assembly hall, where critical focus was unheard of, the sound system just slightly better than a subway tunnel, and the tattered window shades allowed for more light leaks than the Sistine Chapel. But in spite of all of the hardships cast upon this budding young cinephile, the brilliance of the brothers could not be denied. It was what Chico would have called “Love at a first snipe.” As if preordained, WBKB-TV scheduled a 1 am screening of the movie later that weekend. “So what if it’s past my bedtime?” I pleaded with my parents. “It’s not a school night!” My mother, generally the softer touch of the pair, wasn’t budging. But after hearing my appeal, it was my father who stepped up to the plate and uncharacteristically ruled in my favor. He assured my mother, “The kid will be asleep ten minutes after it starts, and we’ll never hear about it again.”
Right as usual! (Ha!) Over the next four months, Ch. 7 not only ran all the Marxes (save Animal Crackers), they also padded their late night Friday and Saturday slots by giving equal billing to Mae West and W.C. Fields. It was a Paramount package sent from heaven. Much to my parents’ chagrin, I saw each one of them through to their conclusions, no matter how late the party ended. Turns out the 107 minutes spent watching A Day at the Races was the single greatest learning experience in eight years of public school education. Thanks, Miss Russell!
Video on Demand New Release Roundup
Bill & Ted Face the Music — Bill (Alex Winter) assures us that “Sometimes, things don’t make sense until the end of the story.” It might well be a good distance from the culminating moments of The Life and Death of Col. Blimp or Planet of the Apes, but the opportunity to see Bill reunite with his most outstandingest friend Ted (Keanu Reeves) and save the world kept me goofy-grinning throughout. One forgets just how successful a franchise this is: Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure spawned two sequels, a Saturday morning cartoon series, and a live-action sitcom. Better a sequel than a remake — particularly after a 29-year absence — it’s a pleasure to report that our good-natured time traveling slackers haven’t lost one drop of chemistry. The directors may change — Dean Parisot (Galaxy Quest) keeps the time-frames in order — but scripters Chris Matheson and Ed Solomon are eternal. They craft each character with equal doses of loving care and urgent frustration, and somehow find logic amid the asininity. Much of the laughter stems from the screenwriting duo’s ability to work their way through the bizarreness by topping it in subsequent scenes. Come for the fathers and stay for their genderqueer offspring: Thea (Samara Weaving) and Billie (Brigette Lundy-Paine). Weaving has already left a mark, but it’s her co-star who’s a force of nature. As pliant as a windsock, Lundy-Paine makes something memorable out of cradling a bag of Cheetos in her arm. Coming soon: Billie and Thea’s Non-Binary Outing? I sure hope so! 2020 — S.M. ★★★
Mulan — At one time, “live-action Disney” was the most fearsome phrase in the cinematic lexicon. It’s time to update the dread with the slightly longer “live-action Disney remake.” Where does the animated Mulan rank in the Disney canon? Of the post-Little Mermaid and pre-A Bug’s Life animated features, Disney’s tale of a young woman masquerading as a male warrior to save her famliy was by far the boldest, not only in terms of visual design, but also because it was the first of the studio’s features to scratch the surface of feminist thinking. Niki Caro (Whale Rider, North County) helms the remake, and like Hidden Crotch and Tiger Dragon, hers is a flying-people picture for audiences who would never go near films like A Chinese Ghost Story or The Bride With White Hair. The rapid-fire editing in those films is bracing and seamlessly cut together, pulling audiences into the action. Compare them to the overcut chicken chase that first acquaints Mulan to the audience, or the overall flaccid structure of the action scenes — or better yet, don’t. The color design is garishly Disney, but what works in Technicolor animation comes off sharp and brittle when applied to live-action storytelling. And it’s one thing for a film to be designed in the manner of a cartoon, another when everything looks like an A-ticket ride at Disneyland. Better than Burton’s Dumbo, but what isn’t? 2020. — S.M. ★