“Alright, so it’s impossible. How long will it take?” – Forbidden Planet, Robby the Robot, and 98 Questionable Minutes in Film History

Five years after The Day the Earth Stood Still, and four years before The Time Machine, MGM Studios took on their first Sci Fi film, Forbidden Planet. Initially conceived as a low-budget B-movie, producers Allen Adler and Irving Block decided their idea was bigger than the two of them and pitched it to MGM. Oddly enough, MGM accepted their pitch. I say oddly enough, because I can’t for the life of me figure out this film’s appeal. A thousand geeks and nerds across the nation probably just gasped in disgust at me. Wait, I take it back; I don’t have nearly that many readers… yet.

 “There’s something funny down there Skipper!” – Jerry –

What starts out as a jaunt through space for Commander John J. Adams (Leslie Nielsen) and his crew, ends with monstrous results. Their mission is to check on the status of a research team sent to the planet Altair-4 twenty years ago. Why it took twenty years to check on the group of scientists is beyond me. In any case, upon landing Adams and his team quickly discover Edward Morbius P.H.D. (Walter Pidgeon) and his daughter Altaira (Anne Francis) to be the sole survivors of the team. Aside from their servant, Robby the Robot (who was supposedly built by Morbius), there doesn’t seem to be much sign of civilization. It seems a dark presence killed off Morbius’ team long ago, but where is it now? Will it come back? How does Morbius have a daughter? Why can she tame tigers? What is Morbius hiding? And who are the Krell? Some of these questions will be answered in the film, others will never make sense; watcher beware. If you’re still interested, though, here’s the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xEj8bZo9IGA

Ultimately, I found this film to be more than a little cheesy, and far from entertaining. In a text message to my cousin I said, “It’s like Lost in Space, only not funny.” I had such high expectations for Robby the Robot too. What with the flat, unlikable characters, and the confounding and unlikely mysteries revealed by Morbius, you can’t help but wonder if the film would’ve been better had the film been all about Robby. He was, by far, the most interesting member of the cast. I particularly enjoyed when he told the spoiled, clueless, and slightly suspicious Altaira that it would take him a week to grow the “star sapphires” that she wanted on her dress that she’d asked him to create by morning. Suck it Altaira!

What else can I possibly say beyond: This time you really can read a movie by it’s cover. It looks just as ridiculous as it really ends up being. There’s word that it’s based loosely on Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Perhaps, this would be a better film if I knew The Tempest. Perhaps we will never know.

Looking at IMDB, however, I see that many people who remember seeing it as a kid absolutely loved it. One viewer from 1956 said simply. “I was 9…it scared the crap out of me… I LOVED it.” Another film buff said, “I saw it in 1956 at age 7 as well. Scared me to death. Somewhere I read that the story was based on Shakespeare’s “The Tempest.” The memory of that movie has stayed with me a long time!” I guess it all depends on your point of view. It seems that most of the people who saw the film when they were young were extremely frightened, entertained, and impressed by the movie. Who amongst us can’t relate? When I was a kid I thought The Neverending Storywas the best thing since fresh-off-the fryer doughnuts. I watched it a few years ago, and it really wasn’t as deep as it seemed then. At the time, though, the “Nothing” scared me just as much as the monster in Forbidden Planet scared these viewers. 

“Others. But there are no others, Commander. Before the first year was out, they had all, every man and woman succumbed to a sort of planetary force here. Some dark, terrible, incomprehensible force.”- Morbius –

Though this was by all (or at least most) accounts a campy B-movie even against it’s best intentions, I can’t disregard the heroics in special effects and sound design that must’ve been top-notch at the time. According to a write-up by Turner Classic Movies, the film had a budget that started out at $1 million and eventually rose to almost double that amount. MGM studios used a 10,000 foot circular painting as a backdrop for the film, and a beautiful backdrop at that. One can’t help but be awe-stricken by the detailed painting that went into such backdrops of the time. Equally as intricate was Robby the Robot, who at 6 ft. 11 inches required a person inside manning the controls as well as outside controls. Apparently this didn’t keep Robby from toppling over on several occasions, though, leading to the joke that Robby was a drunk. According to a documentary about Robby the Robot from the DVD’s bonus material, MGM actually promoted Robby as a “real” robot. Many people didn’t know until much later that there was actually a man inside running the controls. That said, Robby still cost the studio around $100,000 and used airplane parts put together by some of Lockheed’s most talented machinists. Though he was large and loud, he was still unlike any other robot created at the time, and went on to gain celebrity status. He even got his own second movie, The Invisible Boy, and several cameos years later in other films (i.e. Gremlins). In another documentary about early Sci Fi that came with the DVD, Steven Spielberg is certain in an interview that George Lucas must’ve been inspired by Robby the Robot to create C3P0’s character. Lucas however claims that he was influenced more by Metropolis for 3P0’s character, than by Robby. Of course that doesn’t explain why both robot’s deliver a similar line about speaking many languages. I’m just saying…

“If you do not speak English, I am at your disposal with 187 other languages along with their various dialects and sub-tongues.” – Robby the Robot

Also notable effects-wise is the murderous monster, which appears as a creepy outline of a terrible creature. The monster was actually created by Disney animators who specialized in such effects, and were allowed to temporarily work on the MGM film. Another IMDB viewer said, “I saw it in 1956, at the Fox Theater in Redondo Beach, CA. I’ll never forget the effect of the Id monster breaking into the camp.”

All of these powers combined with the spaceship and underground city designs led to the film’s nomination for Best special effects in the 1956 Academy Awards. In the same DVD documentary that featured Lucas and Spielberg, Ridley Scott claims that the spaceship set, “Could’ve been Frank Sinatra’s living room.” The film didn’t win the award for best special effects; it lost to The Ten Commandments.

The score for the film is also quite interesting. Today we hear the cheesy theremin soundtrack and sound effects and giggle, or as the case may be, cringe. I mean it’s the kind of noise that frightens cats…mine included. At the time, however, creating an entire film score with purely electronic music was relatively unheard of. Composers Louis and Bebe Barron used only electronically generated sounds to make the eerie soundtrack, which paved the way for new ways of looking at film scoring. According to the TCM write-up on Forbidden Planet executives at MGM were nervous about the strange score, and decided to present a sneak preview of the unfinished film to see how the audience would react to this bizarre new style. The response was so positive, that MGM didn’t even allow the composers or editors to polish off the film.

Guilty! Guilty! My evil self is at that door, and I have no power to stop it!” – Morbius –

Who’s to blame/thank for the film’s greatness or lack there of?
Well, we can’t blame the robot. He did his best. I blame the writers and the producers for coming up with something so silly.

Is it re-watchable?
Simply stated; no. I would probably find some Lost in Space re-runs instead.

Why I watched this film in the first place?
I was looking for an old Sci Fi film to check out, namely because I don’t think I’ve seen many. I loved The Day the Earth Stood Still, so I thought surely there’d be other early Sci Fi films that were just as good. SOMEONE recommended this one to me.

If you liked this, you might also like:
Okay, so this is going to sound strange, but if you liked this I’d actually “recommend” The Brain that Wouldn’t Die. It was equally bizarre, but actually more entertaining, if you ask me. I’d also recommend, if this isn’t obvious, The Day the Earth Stood Still, because once you’ve seen Robby the Robot, you probably need to make sure you see Gort. Also, it’s a far better movie. I guess if you liked this, though, there are lots of other B-movies that you’ll really enjoy. I couldn’t say.

Final verdict – in claps
You may not clap, but you might cringe, roll your eyes, or simply stare in disbelief wondering what crazy thing the characters could possibly say next.

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A Night at the Opera, the Marx Brothers, and Two Hard-boiled Eggs *Honk*… Make that Three Hard-boiled Eggs

The best part about great comedy is that it lasts, and lasts…and lasts. Good comedy holds up over time; it makes a viewer today laugh just as much as it made someone laugh in say, 1935. It forces laughter at the same old jokes days, weeks, months and years later. Sometimes it’s even funnier days, weeks, months, or years later. Growing up in the 80’s, I saw very few of the 80’s comedies that everyone else saw 10 times before they turned 12. Seeing them for the first time twenty years after their release just isn’t the same. Some of them don’t hold up. I doubt some of today’s movies will hold up. The Marx Brothers hold up.
 

Of course, that’s why I’m sitting here with you. Because you remind me of you. Your eyes, your throat, your lips! Everything about you reminds me of you. Except you.” – Otis B. Driftwood 

Otis B. Driftwood (Grouch Marx) is hoping to make money from the perfect business deal with the rich Mrs. Claypool (Margaret Dumont). Rosa (Kitty Carlisle) and Ricardo (Allan Jones) are opera singers in love; the only problem is that Rosa is a star, and Ricardo is still an unknown talent. Lassparri (Walter Woolf King) is a snobbish tenor, attempting to claim Rosa for his own. Fiorello (Chico Marx) is a piano player, and friend of Ricardo. Tomasso (Harpo Marx) is the mute who’s just sort of always around. Herman Gottlieb (Sig Ruman) is the manager of the New York Opera Company who signs Lassparri for his first American opera. Naturally, Lassparri brings Rosa along, leaving her lovesick for Ricardo who’s been left behind…or so we think. Meanwhile, thinking Ricardo is the best opera singer in the world (no thanks to Chico Marx’s character Fiorello) Groucho er Otis B. Driftwood has “signed” him to become an opera singer in America. Driftwood and Gottlieb battle for Mrs. Claypool’s money and attention by setting sail with their respective talents for New York. There is baffling banter, happenstantial humor, and gags aplenty both aboard the ship and on the opera stage as Groucho, Chico, and Harpo cause their traditional chaos. This time, though, they’re doing it for their friend Ricardo to ensure that he gets to steal the show, and the girl.

Otis B. Driftwood: All right, I’ll read it to you. Can you hear?
Fiorello: I haven’t heard anything yet. Did you say anything?
Otis B. Driftwood: Well, I haven’t said anything worth hearing
Fiorello: That’s why I didn’t hear anything
Otis B. Driftwood: Well, that’s why I didn’t say anything.

It has come to my attention that I’ve rambled on quite a bit in my last several blogs, so I’m going to work on brevity this time. I could sit here and write all about vaudeville comedians, or how humor has changed over the years, or question whether it has. Then again, I could just let this film stand on its own. After all, what are moves if not entertainment? They make us think sometimes, they make us sit on the edges of our seats other times, and sometimes they just make us laugh. This made me laugh. It will probably make you laugh too. There is little reason, in this case, for me to dwell on why. What I will do is give a bit of insight into The Marx Brothers themselves.

This film featured Groucho, Harpo, and Chico Marx. In this day and age, I don’t think it’s beyond reason to assume that almost everyone knows who Groucho is, and very few would really recognize the others if he weren’t also present. Is that fair? There were two other Marx brothers; and they were in fact brothers. Zeppo Marx starred in several earlier Marx Brothers films, but unlike his brothers he always played the role of the dramatic character. He dropped out of the comedy team, because he got tired of playing roles he believed to be beneath his talent; he wanted to be funny too. There was also Gummo Marx, who was never in a Marx Brothers movie, but was a part of their vaudeville team. According to a documentary that came as a special feature on the DVD of A Night at the Opera, the brothers nicknames all had an “o” at the end, because in the nineteen teens nicknames that ended in “o” were popular. Thus, Adolph Marx became Harpo Marx, because he played the harp beautifully. Yes, that was really him playing the harp and piano in the movie. Leonard Marx became Chico Marx, because he was a girl chaser; he chased the chicks. Julius Marx became Groucho Marx either because he was a grouch or because he was often seen carrying a grouch bag, which was a small bag you wore around your neck to carry money. According to a Wikipedia entry that quotes Groucho live at Carnegie Hall, when asked to discuss the origin of his brothers names he got to his own and said,”My name, of course, I never did understand.”

Each brother had his own distinct character that was carried throughout all of the Marx Brothers films. Chico talked with an accent that wasn’t quite Italian and played dumb. Harpo never spoke and often used clown and pantomime acts. He usually played the harp at some point in the films as well. Groucho, of course, wore the famed mustache and eyebrows, wiggled his cigar, walked with a stoops, and offered up rapid-fire dialogue of the sort you’ll see in A Night at the Opera. According to the documentary on the DVD, The Marx Brothers launched a new style of comedy for the time. Comedy pre-Marx was full of crazy antics, but it was motivated craziness. The Marx, on the other hand, just did amusing things for the sake of amusement. There a scene in A Night at the Opera, for instance, when the orchestra begins playing “Take me Out to the Ball Game” and Groucho starts to sell peanuts in the aisle. Then, Chico pitches a ball to Harpo, who hits it with a violin. It’s ridiculous; it’s unmotivated, and it’s fantastic! You can watch it here if you’d like:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yCgaZnnHB1I

In the earlier part of their career the Marx adapted many of their vaudeville stage routines to film. It’s my understanding that these films were funny, but lacked the dramatic storyline of their later films such as A Night at the Opera. Because of this, one of their now best-known works, Duck Soup, initially failed at the box office. This is almost impossible for me to imagine. As the only other Marx Brothers film I’ve seen, I can say with all certainty that it’s hilarious. We watched it as part of a black and white movie night in college, and everyone in the room was rolling with laughter the entire time. It’s number five on AFI’s list of 100 Years…100 Laughs. A Night at the Opera, by the way, is listed as number 12. I absolutely agree that Duck Soup is funnier, though sitting here now a few days after watching A Night at the Opera, I think I’m laughing more at the humorous moments than I was at the time. Yes, they’re just that memorable. But wait…what were we talking about. Oh yes, so after Duck Soup initially failed at the box office, the Marx switched to MGM studios under the guidance of producer Irving Thalberg. It was Thalberg that introduced The Marx Brothers to the idea of adding a dramatic storyline to their humorous style. He gave them original stories, and worked their antics into a more structured plotline. This combination of drama and silliness, according to the documentary, was more in line with the tastes of the time than the Marx’s former style.

Another addition that Thalberg made to the Marx’s normal film structure was to add impressive and sweeping musical numbers. This was MGM’s style at the time, and it shows in scenes like the one where Chico and Harpo are involved in a huge song and dance party after their last dinner on the ship. There was something about this scene that reminded me exactly of the scene from Titanic with the singing and dancing in the ship’s lower quarters. Of course, Harpo wasn’t there playing his harp; that was something truly unique. In any case, A Night at the Opera, became a huge success, and according to the DVD case: “Many say this is the best Marx Brothers movie.” You can judge that one for yourself.

Otis B. Driftwood: You didn’t happen to see my suit in there, did you?
Fiorello: Yeah. It was taking up too much room, so we sold it.
Otis B. Driftwood: Did you get anything for it?
Fiorello: Uh…dollar forty.
Otis B. Driftwood: That’s my suit all right

Who’s to blame/thank for the film’s greatness or lack there of?
I think this is obvious. The film is funny, because The Marx Brothers are hilarious. The film was a success because MGM took a simple dramatic story based around the very serious opera, and added Groucho, Harpo, Chico, and all of the hijinks they brought along for the ride…literally.

Who’s to blame/thank for the film’s greatness or lack there of?
I think this is obvious. The film is funny, because The Marx Brothers are hilarious. The film was a success because MGM took a simple dramatic story based around the very serious opera, and added Groucho, Harpo, Chico, and all of the hijinks they brought along for the ride…literally.

Otis B. Driftwood: It’s all right, that’s in every contract. That’s what they call a sanity clause
Fiorello: You can’t fool me! There ain’t no Sanity Claus!

Is it re-watchable?
No, no, don’t watch this again, unless you want to laugh even harder the second time. I mean it might be a health risk…

 “Last night, I counted five thousand sheep in those three beds, so I had to have another bed to sleep in. You wouldn’t want me to sleep with the sheep, would you?”

Why I watched this film in the first place?
Once again I was browsing the library shelves, and picked up a random pile of old movies. Knowing that I’d only seen one other Marx Brothers film, I picked this one up. Knowing I was in more of a comedy mood, than an Invasion of the Body Snatchers mood, I went with the Marx Brothers.

If you liked this, you might also like:
As previously mentioned, Duck Soup was hilarious. My guess is that most Marx Brothers movies are darn funny and worth watching, though. My grandpa had almost all of them, which is good enough for me. If you like The Marx Brothers  you might like some films by the other great comedy teams too, such as oh I dunno…Abbott & Costello. If I’m remembering correctly, I found every Abbott & Costello movie with the words “meet the” in the title to be particularly funny. It occurs to me that I was about to say that you might also like Laurel & Hardy films, and while that is probably true, looking at the titles I don’t know which if any I’ve actually seen. This is bothersome. I suppose Babes in Toyland both counts, and doesn’t count. Huh.

Final verdict – in claps
Why clap when you can start swinging from the rafters at an opera? Go all out on this one. Okay, maybe you shouldn’t actually try that, so… You most definitely may clap, but put on your Groucho mustache glasses first. It’ll be great!

Otis B. Driftwood: It’s all right, that’s in every contract. That’s what they call a sanity clause
Fiorello: You can’t fool me! There ain’t no Sanity Claus!

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum: Why it’s a funnier phrase than a film. Buster Keaton’s last Hurrah!

At 33 minutes in, my notes say quite simply, “This is HORRIBLE!” I suppose that just about sums up my disappointment with A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the ForumHad I not already committed myself to writing this review, than I may not have seen it all way through. It quite nearly made the VERY short list of films I could not finish, which includes Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Romance and Cigarettes. It absolutely makes the list of the films I wish I hadn’t finished; Happy-Go-Lucky, The Squid and the Whale, Blue, Kiss Me Kate, Burn After Reading, etc.

Things I found more entertaining than giving this film my full attention:

  • Words with Friends
  • Sudoku
  • Looking up photos for this blog entry
  • Making a bowl of ice cream (almond slivers make a surprisingly great topping)
  • Contemplating my next film choice
  • Doodling
  • Watching the cat sleep

There’s something for everyone on comedy tonight, except for me, I suppose. But, the blog must go on.

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum stars Zero Mostel as Pseudolus. He also played this role in the Broadway version of the film, winning a Tony for his efforts. Set in ancient Rome, Pseudolus (borrowed from a Roman play by the same name) is the slave of the Roman senator, Senex (Michael Hordern) and his wife Domina (Patricia Jessel). Pseudolus is known for his witty, lying, cheating, and all-around sneaky antics. Senex and Domina leave their grown son, Hero (Michael Crawford), alone and in the care of their trusted slave Hysterium (Jack Gilford). However, in an effort to win his own freedom, Pseudolus decides to help Hero buy the “girl next door” (whom he adores) from the “dealer of flesh,” Marcus Lycus (Phil Silvers). Meanwhile, Lycus has already promised her to the evil Captain Miles Gloriosus (Leon Greene), who is on the rampage when he cannot find his bride. Then there is the old, half-blind man Erronius (Buster Keaton) who has just returned home after a long and fruitless search for his lost children, who were kidnapped by pirates when they were young. Of course, amidst the cluster, Hero’s parents return home (separately) adding to the comedic cover-up of Hero’s love for the slave girl. If this doesn’t sound like chaos, I’m not sure what chaos is. Who knew ancient Rome could be so ridiculous. If the sexual objectification of women and the dumbification of society is your cup of tea, then this is the film for you. Oh? Did I actually just type that?

Pseudolus: I don’t want to spoil your day
Hysterium: How can you spoil a disaster?

Alright, alright, so even though I hated this movie I’m going to give it at least a few props. First off, the character names are hilarious. Some of them are obvious like Hero, Hysterium, and Erronius (latin for wrong). Then there are the names Senex (old man or senile), Domina (mistress), and Gloriosus (braggart). One can’t help but chuckle at these names, even if that’s where the laughter stops. True, the chariot chase at the end was probably a slapstick-lovers delight, but I was so bored by the time the chariots started tearing across the screen that I was barely watching anymore. So what is it about this play, turned film, that had audiences laughing through it’s original 964 Broadway performances, additional runs, and a movie? I pulled a few old reviews to find out, because obviously I’ve missed something.

According to the New York Times Review from 1966, Vincent Canby states simply at the end of his first paragraph, “Here, at last, is a motion-picture spectacle for old men of all ages.” He goes on with mixed feelings about the film’s execution by Director Richard Lester (who directed two Beatles films, and went on to direct Superman II and III).

It is hard to decide whether Mr. Lester has gone too far, or not far enough, in translating into film terms the carefully calculated nonsense originally conceived for the theater. He’s done a lot of tricky things — with his penchant for quick cutting and juxtaposition of absurd images — but there are times when this style seems oddly at variance with the basic material, which is roughly 2,000 years older than the motion-picture camera.

I’m gathering from Canby’s review that he had mixed emotions towards the film. It sounded as if he wanted to enjoy it based on the theatrical success of the play, but the film fell short of his hopes.

Of the play itself, an article in the Winnipeg Free Press (of all papers)  from July 13, 1963 by Christopher Dafoe describes the spectacle.

 A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum asks no more of the beholder (or the reader) than a broad mind, an easy nature and the sort of deep, rolling laughter that comes from the belly…The play is like a beloved old scrapbook containing the remembered jokes and pratfalls of a thousand drunken years of theatre. All the old favorites are here: the dirty old men, the sleeping potion that turns out to be a love philtre…the long lost children, the case of mistaken identity in which an old man attempts to have a last fling with a young virgin who turns out to be a man in disguise…The play, of course, has its wild chase and the stage is full of nearly naked courtesans, puffing soldiers and giggling eunuchs. Nothing, as you can imagine, has been left to the imagination. Nobody asks you to think. You just sit there like Gargantua (the giant not the ape) and laugh. And there’s nothing wrong with that, is there?

It seems, then, that the appeal of the play, according to Dafoe, was not to think. Here, I believe we’ve reached my problem with this type of comedy. I enjoy thinking. Comedy that makes me think is much funnier to me, than comedy that doesn’t. Okay, okay, there’s always room for slapstick, but slapstick with heart. The type of slapstick farcetastic foolery presented in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum is merely as the New York Times reviewer so lightly put, “A motion-picture spectacle for old men of all ages.”

 Even today, though, 74% of people on Rotten Tomatoes liked it, with reviews ranging from, “This is freakin’ hilarious,” to “Humorous to an extent, but lacking the bang you might expect from a big screen musical.” I say, decide for yourself. Your sense of humor might differ from mine. In fact, it probably does. Though if you’ve latched on to my particular type of reviews, maybe it doesn’t, and we will glide happily through the same pages of film interests and disinterests. It’s really hard to say.

Pseudolus/Soothsayer: How many geese in a gaggle?
Erronius: At least seven
Pseudolus/Soothsayer: Seven! Before I say this sooth again, you must run seven times around the seven hills of Rome.

Regardless of what other reviewers may have said, I still didn’t enjoy this movie. The only discernible haha moment for me was the arrival of the late great Buster Keaton on set as Erronius. This was Keaton’s last appearance on film. As I understand it, he was already quite ill with the same lung cancer that ultimately took his life. Because of this, he had a stunt double that did most of the running scenes for him in the film. Keaton, the slapstick star of the silent era, wrote, directed, and starred in some of the most fun, imaginative, and well-crafted films of the silent age. His expressiveness, fantastical stunts, and all-around likeability on film has left an incredible mark on the history of the craft. It was both remarkable, and saddening to see him romp about in his final role. As the New York Times Reviewer states:

A funny but inevitably sad note is struck by the appearance of the late Buster Keaton, as a myopic old man searching for his children, stolen years ago by pirates. He literally runs through the film as a sight gag. “A Funny Thing,” however, is a fitting vehicle for the departure of a fine old clown.

Why did it have to be this film, though? The way he acted out this role reminded me of Barney Fife from The Andy Griffith Show for some reason. Perhaps, there was just something about his voice that made me think of Don Knotts. Come to think of it, though, I’ve never heard him talk before. The only other time I’ve seen Keaton out of the silent era was in an episode of The Twilight Zone, but even then the part I saw was silent. In any case, Keaton lives up to the high standards of comedy that he’d long ago set. I love when he’s running about during the chariot chase at the end, and accidentally crashes into a tree. There’s word that it might actually have been an unintentional act of comedic genius on Keaton’s part — one final nod, if you will, to the pure, calculated, and honest humor that he brought with him through decades of stage and film history. Though the rest of the cast must’ve pulled off their roles in an equally amusing manner to win over audiences that aren’t me, in my opinion his was the only character of interest. But then, maybe it was just the fact that he was searching for infants stolen by pirates…in ancient Rome!  You can enjoy the longest of the Buster Keaton scenes, and perhaps the best scene from the entire film, here:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QPds0-hZ1tM

Who’s to blame/thank for the film’s greatness or lack there of?
I will arguably agree that there was some fine acting in the film, and Zero Mostel has all of the makings of a great comedian. The other actors and actresses in the film also performed their roles quite well, and I don’t fault any of them for this movie being a stinker.  I think I just hated the all-around script, concept, and type of humor. It didn’t appeal to me; pure and simple. There are all types of humor, and this wasn’t my type. I blame the type of humor for my dislike; nothing more.

Is it re-watchable?
I won’t be re-watching it; no. If you happen to find it amusing, however, I can see why you’d want to watch it again. Amusing things are always worth watching over and over to the viewer who finds them to be humorous. If you like it, who am I to tell you not to re-watch it? If you don’t like it, throw it in the junker list like me.

Why I watched this film in the first place?
I’d seen this film title in my grandpa’s collection many, many years ago, and the amusing title stuck with me. Often, I find myself wanting to say things like, “A funny thing happened on the way to the fall,” or “A funny thing happened on the way to the freeway,” but I never used it out loud. It didn’t seem right without having seen the film or the play. That said, I suppose I watched it based on it’s funny title alone. The good news is that in my research I discovered that the play’s title was not the origin of the phrase. A funny thing happned on the way to the theatre, was a common phrase used by vaudville actors. I suppose that means I can go ahead and use the phrase now if I’d like.

If you liked this, you might also like:
I have no idea what you’d like if you liked this, because I don’t like anything like this. I suppose I would put the fast-paced, slapstick, period-set type of comedy to battle with any number of Mel Brooks‘ films. You might also like Monty Python films. Those are my best comparisons, though, most of these films are actually funny — at least those I’ve seen. You could also try one of my favorite slapstick comedy jaunts, The Great Race. I don’t know if you’d like The Great Race if you liked this, but I know you’ll like The Great Race if you didn’t like this.

Final verdict – in claps
You may clap, but I did not. Thank goodness that I don’t have to waste money on the play EVER.

What a lovely day for a banter match. His Girl Friday, screwball comedy, and the news biz.

“It all happened in the ‘dark ages’ of the newspaper game – when to a reporter ‘getting that story’ justifies anything short of murder. Incidentally, you will see in the picture no resemblance to the men and women of the press of today. Ready? Well, once upon a time ___ ___”

This is the opening title slate for His Girl Friday, starring Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell. In Howard Hawks‘ well-crafted slap-happy comedy, newspaper editor Walter Burns (Grant) is faced with the re-appearance of his ex-wife and ace reporter Hildy Johnson (Russell). Pretending nothing has changed, Burns jumps right into their usual banter war, only to find that Hildy is not only leaving the paper, but also getting re-married. Unable to cope, Burns does all that he can to prevent either from happening. He makes an effort to befriend Hildy’s fiance, Bruce (Ralph Bellamy), and convinces Hildy to stay on for one “last” big story; the execution of a potentially innocent man, Earl Williams. As comedies go, it’s not shocking to find that Burns’ efforts quickly spiral into the ridiculous, but in the best kind of 1940’s way. Adapted from the Broadway play, The Front Page, this depiction of journalism and it’s impact on lives, relationships, and politics claims to be a farce, yet dances right on the edge of truth. It makes light of life, death, and the pursuit of happiness in the screwiest kind of screwball way, but decades later still makes several valid social remarks. All in good fun, of course.

Check out the trailer here:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dHVvnEWez1M

        “A journalist? Hell, what does that mean? Peeking through keyholes? Chasing after fire engines? Waking people up in the middle of the night to ask them if Hitler’s gonna start another war?Stealing pictures off old ladies? I know all about reporters, Walter. A lot of daffy buttinskis running around without a nickel in their pockets and for what? So a million hired girls and motormen’s wives’ll know what’s going on. Why…Golly, what’s the use? Walter, you-you wouldn’t know what it means to want to be respectable and live a half-way normal life. The point is, I-I’m through.”
– Hildy Johnson –

I thought long and hard (okay not that long or even that hard) about which direction I wanted to go with the critical part of this review. There was the obvious feminism approach. What’s a “Girl Friday” anyway? According to several dictionary references, it’s a term for someone’s all-around helper or assistant, and references a character in Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. It can also mean a female employee who has a wide range of duties, including secretarial or clerical work. How bizarre then, that the film is titled His Girl Friday when it’s obvious that Hildy is far more than an assistant or secretary. She does what she wants, is respected by the male reporters she encounters, and seems to be regarded by Walter Burns as his best writer. There’s obviously a lot to be said about this, but we all know that toting any kind of feminist agenda just isn’t my style.

The next obvious direction to go when analyzing a film like this is to take the political route, or the direction that analyzes the prejudices of the period; albinos, people out on the street talking about “production of use,” crooked mayors, governors, and sheriffs — oh my! I could also go the safe route and just talk about the comic value of the film; of which there is plenty! This route, however, seems completely obvious. You couldn’t possibly watch this film without dawning a smile and a few outward chuckles; no it’s comedic value is already apparent.

Thus, having the unique perspective as a former newsie, I’ve decided to take a look at how journalism is portrayed in the film. Was it accurate? Was it overblown? Is journalism still like this?

       Molly: They aren’t human.
Hildy: I know; they’re newspaper men.


Oh Molly, you’re the one who calls the news station to tell everyone we got it wrong. You’re the one posting to websites maintaining that your boyfriend could never have fired a gun, or robbed that bank. You’re the girl no one believes, but might take a minute to listen to anyway. Hildy, you’re the bitter reporter. No, you’re not the bitter reporter; you’ve every reporter that ever was. But let’s backup, and talk not about modern journalism, but rather journalism during the time the film was made.

The important thing to note about the film is that, though it was made in 1940, the original Broadway play was first produced in 1928. Written by former Chicago reporters Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur it was, no doubt, based at least slightly on their impressions of journalism at the time. Something else important to note is that in the original play Hildy was a male character, and though he was trying to leave the news business and was held in place by his Editor Walter Burns to cover the hanging of Earl Williams; there was obviously no love triangle. Incidentally, coincidentally, and completely unintentionally on my part, the director from my last review, Billy Wilder, actually made a film with Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthieu with the same name as the Broadway play and followed the play more closely. But wait there’s another happy coincidence from my last review…

Oh you thought I’d tell you now? Nah…we’re talking about newspapers at the moment.

       “No, no, nevermind the Chinese earthquake for heaven’s sake…Look, I don’ care if there’s a million dead…No, no, junk the Polish Corridor…Take all these Miss America pictures off Page Sex…Take Hitler and stick him on the funny page…No, no, leave the rooster story alone — that’s human interest.” – Walter Burns –

According to Michael Schudson‘s, Discovering the News: A Social History of American Newspapers, “The pessimism about the institutions of democracy and capitalism in the 1930’s had roots in the doubts of the 1920’s about the public and human nature, traditional values and received knowledge. The spirit of business in the twenties was buoyant, and there was a feeling of liberation in the social science, the arts, and the social life of the urban Bohemians. But the liberation into a new culture marked the rapid disintegration of the old, and many serious thinkers began to fear that the new edifices of the arts and sciences were being raised without foundations.” (p. 126) Schudson says, the “public” in this case was the “urban masses who liked banner headlines, large drawings and photographs, snappy and spicy writing.” This “public” had replaced a more educated middle class rising against the upper-class with informed opinions. It as during this early part of the 20th century that the field of public relations arose in order to help shape the opinions of this newly established, “public.”

Schudson goes on to discuss how around this time newspapers began publishing the equivalent of propaganda, or articles that could be construed as advertisements for whoever’s public relations officer got to the paper first. Not all newspaper editors were happy with the situation, though, Stanley Walker of the New York Herald Tribune wrote an essay in which he notes that the number of public relations agents in New York outnumbered the number of journalists, and that half or more of the news articles in the daily papers originated from public relations work. He was certain that newspaper men and public relations officers were bound to be enemies. It was during this time that the idea of interpretive reporting came into play; in which the opinion of a reporter, or the general public could become part of a regular news story. Eventually, this led to opinion columns, political columns, and opinionated magazines like Time.

All of this said, how does this play into the way that His Girl Friday depicts newspaper reporters? It claims in the opening title not to reflect the press of today, yet who can’t help but question something that tells you right away that it’s not accurately portraying something. To me, this is like the disclaimers at the end of movies, which state that any resemblance to actual people is purely coincidence. Anyone who writes knows that we write from what we know. In this script, then, can it not be assumed that the two former journalists who wrote the play wrote at least somewhat from what they knew?

In the film, the political undertones are obvious; the mayor who’ll do anything to get votes; the governor who’s trying to pardon a murderer, and the sheriff who seems to be in cahoots with the press to make sure his version of the story is the one who goes to print. Then there are the newspaper men themselves who seem to have little concern for facts, but rather telling a compelling story. Were the writers poking fun at the “public” who looked for big headlines and spiced-up writing? Or were they poking at journalists who did the spicing. My favorite instance of this sensationalistic reporting happens near the end of the film when everyone starts calling in a different version of what just happened to their editors, even though we’ve all seen what really happened for ourselves. It’s refreshing, however, that though they will do anything to get a good story our main characters, Hildy and Walter, are the only ones reporting the story correctly. If you’ve already seen the film, you can enjoy the chaos I just described in the clip below:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5HU4g2bKybM&feature=related

Was the film depicting journalists in 1940 or in 1928, though? That’s a good question that I’d need to do more research to understand. As much as I wanted to keep reading about the history of journalism, this is but one review and my goal was just to touch on some of the undertones of the time, rather than go into full-on research mode. If I did that every time, you’d never have a weekly review, and you’d probably be lucky to get a monthly one.

Now the greater question: Is journalism still like this? Sure we all like to believe that reporters strive for accuracy these days, and won’t overglorify a story of death and destruction, or grab innocent bystanders like Molly and turn her into yet another victim of the crime. Sadly, I’ve witnessed many a reporter grabbing onto one person’s version of the story, and spinning it into fact or into a new story that may or may not actually represent what actually happened. These cases are actually rare, though, and I think most journalists just want to get the story. Do they still try to get the story at all costs, sometimes disregarding personal relationships? Yes, it’s a disease. I worry for many of them; knowing that they are actually good people. Others I will forever remember as that girl who shoved me out of the doorway to bust uninvited into the home of potential interview. Those “journalists” are what bring disrespect to the profession. But, let’s get back to Hildy and Walter — is it so wrong for them to be completely happy with their particular passion for journalism and getting the story? If that’s really what ties them to one another; I suppose not. If their constant back-and-forth battles of banter and constant races for the story suit them then more power to them, and a huge thanks for the ridiculous ride. If more journalists were that amusing, I think we might look on them with a rosier light. Don’t you?

        Walter: You always carry an umbrellla, Bruce?
        Bruce: Well, It looked a little cloudy this morning.
        Walter: Rubbers too, I hope. Atta boy!
A man ought to be prepared for any emergency.

And now for a random observation: In His Girl Friday, Grant’s character, Walter Burns, picks on poor Bruce for carrying an umbrella. It seems completely random. I mean who cares if he has an umbrella. Lots of people have umbrellas, I’d assume. The only reason it stood out for me is that coincidentally in Sabrina Humphrey Bogart’s character, Linus, is also often seen with an umbrella. Though I could find no evidence of umbrellas being a symbol of dullness, weakness, or overall stodginess amongst men in the 1930’s – 50’s, this is no doubt what His Girl Friday was implying. Later in the film a messenger from the governor, also of seemingly weak countenance is carrying an umbrella. I suppose Howard Hawks had strong opinions about umbrellas. It’s easy to see how Bogart’s character in Sabrina could fit that mold as well. Umbrellas? Who knew?

Who’s to blame/thank for the film’s greatness or lack there of?
No doubt, I blame the script for this film’s excellence. That, and the flawless comedic execution of the quick, overlapping dialogue that Grant and Russell spit out as if this is their natural mode of conversation. According to Rosalind Russell in her autobiography (according to Wikipedia) she thought her role didn’t have as many great lines as Cary Grant’s role, so she hired a writer to give her more zing. Because Hawks encouraged the cast to improvise on set, Russell was able to slip in her new lines without Hawks’ knowledge. Grant was apparently privy to her tactic, however, and would ask her each morning, “What have you got today?”


Regardless of how the realistic raillery came about, Grant and Russell were naturals. Even the bumbling Bruce has his moments near the end of the film when all three are talking at once; all on different topics. I recognize this banter as believable, because believe me I’ve been there. While others protest at such antics, I revel in the rivalry of words; as long as it’s in good fun, mind you. Perhaps, the grandest moments in the film were the times when Hildy and Burns were insulting each other with such fantastic remarks as, “You’ve got the brain of a pancake,” or, “You double-crossing chimpanzee,” or “You great big bubble-headed baboon.” Though I suppose I would protest to being told I had the brain of a pancake, I find it necessary at some point in life to use the bubble-headed baboon comment in jest. Two more of my favorite lines are as follows:

        Hildy: He treats me like a woman.
       Walter Burns: Oh he does, does he? Mmm hmm…how did I treat you? Like a water buffalo?

      Walter: We’ve been in worse jams than this, haven’t we, Hildy?
Hildy: Nope.

The simplicity of Hildy’s response, delivered so precisely by Russell, nearly rolled me from the couch. Well played; well played indeed. The list of priceless moments like these goes on-and-on-and-on…

Is it re-watchable?
Are you sick of hearing about this movie yet? If not, I say go ahead and watch and re-watch. Let’s just say that I couldn’t write the funny dialogue down fast enough, which is how quickly they flew at me. I think you have to re-watch this film at least once just to catch everything; plus what fun!

Why I watched this film in the first place?
I could tell you that I watched this film because it’s a Howard Hawks film starring Cary Grant. Though this is ultimately true; I watched it because I found it on the shelf at the library and seeing that it starred Cary Grant and was directed by Hawks, who also directed one of my all-time favorite films, Bringing up Baby, I decided to give it a watch. I was both drawn and put-off by it’s news business storyline — like a moth to a flame, I suppose.

If you liked this, you might also like:
You will absolutely like Bringing up Baby; another Hawks film with Cary Grant, this time co-starring Katherine Hepburn. It’s the same type of screwball comedy, but with leopards. You might also dig other Cary Grant comedies such as Arsenic and Old Lace or The Philadelphia Story, or why not take a look at another classic screwball comedy,  My Man Godfrey. I haven’t seen any other Rosalind Russell films, so I’m up for suggestions. I heard this film was her best performance, and the one she’s known for, however. I’m all for checking out Wilder’s version of The Front Page now as well. I’m also up for some more news comedies if anyone has ’em.

Final verdict – in claps
You may clap loudly while everyone else is trying to talk, or while your friend is making a phone call. It would make Cary Grant very happy to see that you’re carrying on his chaotic humor