His Girl Friday (1940) Review

Director: Howard Hawks

Genre(s): Comedy, Crime, Romance

Runtime: 92 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

Newspaper editor Walter Burns (Cary Grant) tries to win back his reporter ex-wife, Hildy Johnson (Rosalind Russell), by having them cover a murder case together. When one thinks of screwball comedies with lots of rapid-fire, fast-paced dialogue, His Girl Friday is what they think of. According to the Trivia section for this movie on IMDb, the rate of dialogue for a normal film is about 90 words per minute, while this picture attacks you with about 240 words per minutes. Yowza!

Unfortunately, this rom-com isn’t as funny as the earlier collaboration between director Howard Hawks and actor Cary Grant, Bringing Up Baby (1938). I suppose that if you think fast-talking 1940s wordplay is inherently funny, you’ll have a field day, but I was less amused. The best joke is probably the one where Grant describes how boring the character of Bruce Baldwin (Ralph Bellamy) is by name-dropping a certain actor, which was supposedly an ad-lib by Grant (it almost made me do a double-take at the television set).

I did not find His Girl Friday to be a compellingly put-together film. It sometimes comes across as repetitive, and occasionally it feels like the two major plot threads – that of Cary Grant trying to win back Rosalind Russell and the murder case coverage – don’t come together seamlessly. Some sequences heavily focus on the Grant-Russell relationship, while others heavily deal with the attempt to stop an execution from taking place. The pace just isn’t as fast as the dialogue.

Overall, I was just left with a “meh” feeling after watching this classic. Perhaps I just should’ve watched Bringing Up Baby again. Anyway, it feels longer than its runtime would indicate and it’s rather talky (although that’s expected). I’d be dishonest if I said that it was bad, but I was largely indifferent to the somewhat forgettable flick being reviewed here. You could do worse, but you could also do better.

My rating is 5 outta 10.

The Producers (1967) Review

Director: Mel Brooks

Genre(s): Comedy, Musical

Runtime: 88 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG

IMDb Page

The 1967 version of The Producers was the directorial debut of popular comedy director Mel Brooks. It’s received a ton of praise over the years, which isn’t bad for his first film, but I’m less ecstatic about it. The plot is about Broadway musical producer Max Bialystock (Zero Mostel) and his accountant Leo Bloom (Gene Wilder) attempting to put on the world’s worst, most offensive play as part of a money-making scam.

The ideas in this movie are hilarious on paper. The script that the main characters settle on for their intentionally horrible production is insane, and should’ve resulted in more laughs. Instead of laser-focused satire, the flick resorts to ultra-broad humor, typically oriented around people falling down, making silly faces at the camera, or screaming their dialogue. I adore senseless comedies like Airplane! (1980) and the The Naked Gun trilogy, but the high-jinks found in The Producers were frequently too easy and obvious, even for my preferences.

There are some decent jabs at the dark side of the American Dream here, but it’s not enough. The subject matter of the picture was once considered audacious, but, after decades of increasingly edgy and groundbreaking satire, it doesn’t quite have the same power that it did back in 1967. Some of the aghast faces of the audience members during the play’s first performance are still pretty funny, though.

This work only runs eighty-eight minutes, and it still feels too long. If you and I sat down and you explained this film’s premise to me, I’d probably think that it would be an out-of-the-parker for me. However, the execution just isn’t there. I’ll give The Producers some figurative points for its bizarre ideas, but it just can’t overcome the fact that too many of its sequences are about as funny as a funeral.

My rating is 5 outta 10.

Duck Soup (1933) Review

Director: Leo McCarey

Genre(s): Comedy, Musical, War

Runtime: 69 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

“The Marx Brothers go to war” could be seen as the hook to their 1933 film Duck Soup, which was the last movie to feature Zeppo Marx (who plays Bob Roland here). The other three Marxes would continue making motion pictures, but straight-man Zeppo had had enough of acting. Widely considered the Marx Brothers’ magnum opus, the flick in question is about the four siblings finding themselves in the middle of a brewing war between the fictional countries of Freedonia and Sylvania.

For those unaccustomed to the Marx Brothers’ style, the opening scenes of Duck Soup might seem a little creaky and odd, but the work soars when it finds its groove. The kooky and fast-paced comedy, whether it be oriented around bizarre slapstick or witty puns, doesn’t slow down once the movie starts to pick up speed. There are no piano or harp solos to stall the jokes, and the iconic mirror scene has occasionally been referenced in pop culture.

My three favorite types of humor – slapstick, surrealist, and satire – can all be found here, but I’d like to talk about the third one (satire) as it applies here. Some commentators have said the Marx Brothers here are tearing holes in the brand of totalitarianism that would lead to World War II. Despite the film in question being banned in Fascist Italy by that nation’s dictator, Benito Mussolini (who saw the picture as a personal insult), I actually think that Duck Soup is more likely to be lampooning the stuffy, old-timey monarchies from the World War I era. Nonetheless, Groucho Marx (who plays Rufus T. Firefly here) essentially shrugged off the claims that Duck Soup was a brilliant satire, saying “We were just four Jews trying to get a laugh.”

Regardless of what this comedy is parodying, it’s still one of the funnier movies out there, and probably the funniest film I’ve seen yet from the Pre-Code era (the time period from 1930 to 1934 prior to the enforcement of the Hollywood Production Code). Running only sixty-nine minutes, it barely wastes a second and never overstays its welcome. It wasn’t the first Marx Brothers flick, but, if you’re considering jumping into their movies but are skeptical of watching something stagey like The Cocoanuts (1929) first, Duck Soup might be a good entry point.

My rating is 8 outta 10.

Bringing Up Baby (1938) Review

Director: Howard Hawks

Genre(s): Comedy, Romance

Runtime: 102 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

The “screwball comedy” subgenre, rather than referring to just any comedy about silly characters, is actually something a bit more specific. It was actually a popular style of romantic comedy in the 1930s and 1940s that focused on mismatched partners who engage in a battle of the sexes. One of the most famous examples of this subgenre is, of course, Bringing Up Baby, about stuffy paleontologist David Huxley (Cary Grant) who finds himself caught up in a series of misadventures with ditzy heiress Susan Vance (Katharine Hepburn).

For a movie released all the way back in 1938, this is a generally fast-paced work. The way that the two main characters find themselves in a constantly escalating parade of comic mishaps feels somewhat modern. This zippy and zany rom-com will make you laugh. It’s no surprise that this is usually considered one of the best screwball comedies of all time. However, the true scene-stealer of the flick is Baby – Katharine Hepburn’s character’s pet leopard.

Bringing Up Baby is, indeed, a winner, but it is not without a few faults. Hepburn’s woefully incompetent character is a bit grating at first, which briefly made me worry about the picture I was about to watch. One character goes through a change-of-heart at the end that wasn’t completely convincing. While the feature handles the compounding troubles that the characters face admirably, it does feel like a tad much after a while, especially during the jail sequence.

Directed by the versatile Howard Hawks (yes, the man who did Scarface [1932] helmed this project), this is a remarkably lighthearted and entertaining movie. It could be considered one of the building blocks of the modern rom-com, although it still holds up on its own. Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn fans need to view it, but the real reason to watch it might be for the animals.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

Horse Feathers (1932) Review

Director: Norman Z. McLeod

Genre(s): Comedy, Musical, Sport

Runtime: 68 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

Many comedy acts sit at the intersection of stupid and intelligent humor, and the Marx Brothers are some of the most famous. At the time of its original release in 1932, Horse Feathers was the best thing that the Marxes had put out. You see, Quincy Adams Wagstaff (Grouch Marx) is made the new president of Huxley College, and his son Frank (Zeppo Marx) convinces him to focus his efforts on improving the school’s football team. So, Wagstaff hires two goons – Baravelli (Chico Marx) and Pinky (Harpo Marx) – to kidnap some football-players-for-hire at the local speakeasy.

The gags in Horse Feathers, both the verbal and the physical, are uproariously funny. It’s a lightweight work, but it has me laughing frequently throughout the runtime. Everybody on planet Earth incessantly describes the Marx Brothers’ sense of humor as “anarchic” and it’s a fitting word. While rock-solid jokes are littered throughout the movie, it’s the ludicrous football game at the end that seals the deal…and you thought that the football match in MASH (1970) was amusing!

Horse Feathers is not a long film, running only a little over an hour. Story structure is somewhat loose, but it does build up to an exciting climax that you can’t take your eyes off of (the aforementioned big game). Only the obligatory harp solo from Harpo Marx threatens to slow things down. The Marxes’ growing confidence in their abilities is apparent. All four of them get their chances to shine in different scenarios.

This is simply one of the funniest comedies of the Pre-Code era (the time period from 1930 to 1934, before the enforcement of the Hollywood Production Code). I won’t spoil any specific gags, but, trust me, this one has a little something for every comedy buff. Silly musical numbers? Check. A barrage of wise-guy cracks from some snarky bastard? Check. Outrageous slapstick? Check.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

Monkey Business (1931) Review

Director: Norman Z. McLeod

Genre(s): Comedy, Crime, Musical

Runtime: 77 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

With this movie, you can really feel the Marx Brothers starting to hit their stride. Here, the four Marxes play stowaways on an ocean liner who raise Hell on the ship and get caught up in a brewing gang war. Being based on an original screenplay, rather than one of their Broadway shows (like The Cocoanuts [1929] and Animal Crackers [1930]), this film feels significantly less physically-constrained than its predecessors.

With the Marx Brothers constantly harassing the rich folks on a transatlantic cruise (probably to please Great Depression-era audiences), one can easily see why critics incessantly refer to their style of humor as “anarchic.” The slapstick comedy here is timeless and the verbal stuff isn’t bad either. As with The Cocoanuts and Animal Crackers, it’s Harpo Marx (playing a character imaginatively named “Harpo”) who has the best gag – this time it’s a zany puppet show.

Monkey Business could actually be one of the more underrated gangster flicks of the Pre-Code era (the time period before the Hollywood Production Code was enforced). Okay, it’s a goofy, anything-goes comedy first and foremost and there’s no shootouts, but organized crime still plays an important role in what could be described as the picture’s plot. One of the best parts of the feature isn’t really even that funny. It’s the somewhat-played-straight fist fight that Zeppo Marx (playing a character named – you guessed it – “Zeppo”) gets into with mobster “Alky” Briggs (Harry Woods) at the end.

Monkey Business was the best Marx Brothers movie (in my opinion) at the time of its original release. It has an appropriate runtime and ends on a climatic note. This serves the humor well. It feels less like a stage play adopted into a film and more like…well, a true film. This flick is quite a bit of fun, and is recommended for fans of comedies – especially older ones.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

Animal Crackers (1930) Review

Director: Victor Heerman

Genre(s): Comedy, Musical

Runtime: 97 minutes

MPAA Rating: G

IMDb Page

The second-oldest surviving Marx Brothers movie, Animal Crackers, has the four actors getting more comfortable with being silver screen stars. I’m not sure if telling you the plot is even necessary, since this is a prime example of a comedy film where the jokes overshadow everything else to an extreme degree. Anyway, the story’s about a party being thrown in honor of returning explorer Captain Geoffrey T. Spaulding (Groucho Marx) and the “mystery” of a stolen painting that takes place at said shindig.

The gags here come fast and frequent (this is the picture where Groucho Marx has a one-liner about hunting elephants in his pajamas). Despite Groucho’s wordplay, the funniest bit might be the Professor (Harpo Marx) horsing around with some firearms (don’t try this at home, kiddos!). The musical numbers are also slightly better-integrated than the ones found in the previous flick to feature the Marxes – The Cocoanuts (1929).

I know that people typically don’t watch a Marx Brothers film for the plot, but the one in Animal Crackers feels especially weak. The tale of a swapped painting could’ve been interesting and added some excitement to the proceedings, but little is done with it. The “climax” of the work is impossibly limp. The resolution of the case of the stolen art seems to come out of nowhere and it holds little-to-no weight.

Released in 1930, during the Pre-Code era of Hollywood (prior to the enforcement of the Hollywood Production Code), this movie still feels pretty creaky, even if it is somewhat technically superior to The Cocoanuts. Still, the humor hits the mark more than it misses. Overall, I’d say that the viewer should simply forget about the lame story and just focus on the rapid-fire jokes.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

The Cocoanuts (1929) Review

Directors: Robert Florey and Joseph Santley

Genre(s): Comedy, Musical

Runtime: 96 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

Believe it or not, The Cocoanuts wasn’t actually the first Marx Brothers movie. There was an unreleased, silent film that they starred in, Humor Risk (1921), that is now considered lost. Anyway, back to The Cocoanuts. This anything-goes comedy is about Hammer (Groucho Marx) and Jamison (Zeppo Marx) running a Florida hotel that’s visited by con artist duo Harpo (Harpo Marx) and Chico (Chico Marx) and that is the sight of a plot to steal some valuable jewels.

Being the oldest surviving Marx Brothers picture, this one has some rough patches. Early on, there were a few moments that had me wondering if I was watching the wrong flick (these were scenes when the Marxes weren’t onscreen). The Cocoanuts sometimes feels like a weird variety show that somebody decided to film, with its semi-random musical and dance numbers and comedy “sketches.” Its stagey nature makes it very obvious that this was based on a play.

However, when this feature gets on a roll, it can be quite funny. Its sense of humor is audaciously corny, largely revolving around wordplay and slapstick. The Marxes even threw in a quick musical number about a side character’s briefly-stolen shirt, probably just for shits and giggles. However, it’s probably Harpo Marx who gets the biggest laugh (well, from me anyway) in his truly absurd scene with a telephone and an inkwell.

For being the first released Marx Brothers movie, this one is a surprising success. Yes, it’s older than dirt, being sent to theaters in 1929, but the sequences where the Marxes get to do their thing are a sight to see. Stick with it and you’ll be rewarded. While much of the comedy feels of its time, other moments of humor feel downright avant-garde.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

The Honeymoon Machine (1961) Review

Director: Richard Thorpe

Genre(s): Comedy, Romance

Runtime: 87 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

One of the few light comedies that actor Steve McQueen did during his relatively short career was The Honeymoon Machine. According to Wikipedia, Cary Grant was actually the first choice for the McQueen role, but he turned it down. In this film, a sailor in the U.S. Navy, Ferguson “Fergie” Howard (Steve McQueen), leads an attempt to use a top-secret supercomputer to make a financial killing at a roulette table in a Venetian casino.

This movie is pretty quaint nowadays. It’s somewhat amusing to see the characters obsessed with a massive, clunky, primitive-looking computer that they can’t even bring ashore (they communicate with it via signal lamp). Now, we have gadgets that could out-think that behemoth of a device that can fit in our pockets. Technology marches on. Overall, the picture sort of resembles an actionless version of Kelly’s Heroes (1970), with American military personnel trying to make a quick buck under the noses of their superiors.

The Honeymoon Machine is based on the 1959 play The Golden Fleecing. This is not hard to believe, considering the confined nature of the flick. There’s a few scenes at the beginning set aboard the naval ship that McQueen’s character is assigned to, but most of the runtime is spent in a couple of hotel rooms and the casino floor. Fortunately, these are pretty luxurious hotel rooms, so it gives the audience some eye candy. To complicate the plot, the main character falls in love with Julie Fitch (Brigid Bazlen), the daughter of Admiral Fitch (Dean Jagger), his commanding officer.

This rom-com is a hard one to have strong feelings about. It’s short (at 87 minutes long), so it doesn’t exactly waste your time, but it’s so lightweight that it doesn’t really offer anything new (well, other than fancy computers for 1961 audiences). The humor isn’t particularly appealing. According to the IMDb Trivia page for this picture, Steve McQueen left the first public screening of it early and swore to never again work for MGM.

My rating is 6 outta 10.

Network (1976) Review

Director: Sidney Lumet

Genre(s): Comedy, Drama

Runtime: 121 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

IMDb Page

Did the 1976 dramedy Network predict how sensationalistic, trashy, and cynical (in the sense of trying to make a fast buck) television, especially the news, would become in the twenty-first century? This biting satire feels awfully damn prescient these days, even if it probably felt ridiculous to those watching it in the 1970s. At the T.V. network UBS, suicidal anchorman Howard Beale (Peter Finch) becomes a ratings sensation when the powers behind the scenes allow him to go on insane rants on air.

For a film released in 1976, this movie feels shockingly relevant. It’s a powerful indictment of demagoguery that doesn’t forget to be funny, too. In some ways, it almost feels like a comedic version of All the King’s Men (1949) set in the world of news media. Network shows just how easy it is to manipulate a crowd (or mob) that’s unsatisfied with the status quo. In case you’re out of the loop, this is the flick where the quote “I’m as mad as Hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore” came from.

This picture is often chaotic in nature, with people talking over each other or multiple goings-on vying for the viewers’ attention. It makes the feature feel even more modern. If I have a quibble with Network, it must be the b-story, revolving around an affair between Max Schumacher (William Holden) and Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway). It does flesh out these characters, but I find it to be far less interesting than the antics of Peter Finch’s character and the behind-the-scenes wranglings over whether to keep him on the air or not.

Network builds up to a bold and surprising finale that definitely leaves an impression on the audience. With the exception of some of the scenes dealing with Holden’s character’s affair, this movie is still immediate and fresh, wryly predicting the future of trash television. This classic was nominated for many awards (including Best Picture at the Oscars), including being nominated for Best Science Fiction Film at the Saturn Awards. Wait…what?!?

My rating is 8 outta 10.