Friday, April 6, 2012

Film Reviews: The Three Musketeers & Straight Place and Show

"The Three Musketeers" *** (out of ****)

Today we are going to discuss the comedy of the Ritz Brothers. This is the first time I've written about the largely forgotten comedy team. I've name dropped them a few times in other reviews but I've neglected to discuss any of their films.

Readers of this blog know I have a great appreciation for comedy and a great interest in the forgotten comedians and comedy teams. I love learning about the history of cinema and discovering new films and comedians.

I've known who the Ritz Brothers are for many many years. At first I strictly knew them by name only. Their comedies rarely play on TV anymore. The brothers first came to my attention when I saw their two reeler comedy, "Hotel Anchovy" (1934), which marked their first on-screen appearance. Initially my reaction towards the brothers was negative. My feeling was like that of many others who are critical of the team. I felt there was no great distinction between the brothers so one basically cancelled the other out. They have been regularly compared to another famous brother comedy team, the Marx Brothers, though, if I had to describe the Ritz Brothers I would say think of three Harpo Marx brothers in one movie.

But as I got older I rewatched the Ritz Brothers. I saw them in musical comedies such as "The Goldwyn Follies" (1938) and "On the Avenue" (1937) with Alice Faye and Dick Powell. Suddenly my opinion was starting to change. Then I saw what might be their most easily accessible comedy, "The Gorilla" (1939). It is generally dismissed by film critics and movie fans but, believe it or not, I liked it. The comedy style of the Ritz Brothers was starting to grow on me.

And that leads us to "The Three Musketeers" (1939) and "Straight Place and Show" (1938). I've been thinking about the Ritz Brothers often lately. I've been watching some Wheeler & Woolsey comedies as well as Olsen & Johnson, two other largely forgotten comedy teams and it made me realize it's time to review a Ritz Brothers comedy. Why hadn't I done so before? Well, my answer my not satisfy some people but the reason is simple. I just didn't want to.

The Ritz Brothers, like the Marx Brothers, started off in vaudeville where their humor was deeply rooted in typical Jewish humor. From the stage they found their way in films. Their humor can be off-the-wall and zany though most people consider their strength in musical farce. Think Danny Kaye.

Though the brothers are largely forgotten you will find the team does have their strong supporters. Comedy filmmaker Mel Brooks has called Harry Ritz (the "leader" of the team) the funniest man in the world. Other devoted fans include Soupy Sales, Sid Caesar and Jerry Lewis. Some say they are funnier than the Marx Brothers.

"The Three Musketeers" is often considered the team's best comedy. It has the best production value and perhaps the best storyline they ever worked with. It is of course a musical comedy adaptation of Alexandre Dumas' story. It was directed by Allan Dwan and stars Don Ameche. Not bad.

The brothers play three tavern workers who are mistaken for Musketeers. They meet D' Artagnan (Ameche) a young man who claims to be a great swordfighter. It is his one ambition to serve the king and become a Musketeer himself. It is he who mistakens the brothers for Musketeers.

Together they learn of a terrible plot concerning the Queen (Gloria Stuart) and the Duke of Buckingham (Lester Matthews). They are lovers. This is not acceptable since France and England are about to be at war. Cardinal Richelieu (Miles Mander) and De Rochefort (Lionel Atwill) are plotting against the Queen. It is up to our Musketeers to retrive a brouche and hand it to Lady Constance (Pauline Moore) who will hand it to the Queen. D'Artagnan has also fallen in love with Constance.

The plot may not sound like much and the film is relatively short, 72 minutes, but there is just enough going on here to make the film thoroughly enjoyable. Don Ameche does some singing and the Ritz Brothers have some good routines. One centers around them trying to make as much noise as possible to protect D'Artagnan, who is snooping around the royal palace. Another has the boys hiding in a trunk where Harry has been flattened by the other two (Jimmy and Al).

If Ritz Brothers fans have a problem with this film it would be the same problem they would have with any one of their pictures. The team is primarily used as comic relief. They don't take up all of the screen time here but when they are on-sceen they are funny and brighten up the movie.

Many people believe this was the last worthwhile film the team appeared in. It was their second to last film made at 20th Century Fox ("The Gorilla" was their last) before they went to Universal Studios where their film careers went into further decline.

A word about film director Allan Dwan. I never really paid much attention to him. In fact I wasn't even aware of him until I heard filmmaker and historian Peter Bogdanovich speak about him. He was one of the subjects in Bogdanovich's book "Who The Devil Made It".

Dwan's career goes back to the silent era, Bogdanovich credits Dwan in his film "Nickelodeon" (1976, which I have reviewed). I personally never thought highly of Dwan as a director. He did direct "The Gorilla" as well. Other films include "Around the World" (1943) a goofy WW2 comedy with bandleader Kay Kaiser and Joan Davis. I don't recommend it. Plus he directed "Escape to Burma" (1955) and "Sands of Iwo Jima" (1949).

If you are unfamiliar with the Ritz Brothers "The Three Musketeers" is not a bad place to start.

"Straight Place and Show" *** (out of ****)

"Straight Place and Show" is a film adaptation of a Damon Runyon/ Irving Caesar story directed by comedy director David Butler and starring the Ritz Brothers.

Whenever I hear a movie is based on a Damon Runyon story I generally have a hunch it will be a good movie. Other Runyon film adaptations include the Frank Capra film " Lady For A Day" (1933), the Joe E. Brown comedy "A Very Honorable Guy" (1934), one of Brown's best, Bob Hope in "The Lemon Drop Kid" (1951) and perhaps the most popular Runyon adaptation the musical "Guys & Dolls" (1955).

Runyon generally liked to write stories about gangsters and gamblers. They took place on race tracks sometimes and often involved a small time crook getting involved in over his head.

"Straight Place and Show" is a bit different but familar at the same time. The Ritz Brothers play a variation of themselves (they usually do). They run a kiddie pony show. Ten cents a ride or they have a special ride twice for only twenty cents.

They meet Barbara Drake (Phyllis Brooks). A rich socialite and avid horse lover. She owns a race horse, Playboy, who is the love of her life. In fact the horse is so much a part of her life, her soon-to-be husband, Denny (Richard Arlen) is starting to get jealous. All of Barbara's time goes to Playboy leaving Denny alone with Linda (Ethel Merman) who also has her eye on Denny.

Denny and Barbara have an agreement. If Playboy doesn't win a race Denny will take control of Playboy and they must set a date for their wedding. Playboy loses every race he is entered in and Denny decides to give Playboy away to the Ritz Brothers for free. Without Barbara's knowledge.

Now that the Ritz Brothers own a race horse they decide they have to race it and make some money off of it with Harry as the jockey. Things don't really work out as planned.

What I like about "Straight Place and Show" is it is really a Ritz Brothers comedy. The boys have a lot of screen time and are given freedom to do their comedy. When we first see them they are doing a singing cowboy routine which finds them making fun of Cab Calloway and his signature tune "Minnie the Moocher". The question is how many younger viewers will catch that reference?

Still I enjoyed watching the movie. Some people might complain the Ritz Brothers are dated. Their comedy is too old-fashion. But I grew up with this style of comedy. I like it.

In "Straight Place and Show" I would describe the team as three well intentioned losers looking to hit it big. Some viewers say it is hard to tell the brothers apart. I think it is easy. Harry Ritz is the leader and the one that does all the comedy. Jimmy and Al Ritz are the goofballs that follow Harry because they actually think he's smart. If that doesn't help you, Harry is usually the one standing in the middle.

Director David Butler directed another Ritz Brother comedy, "Kentucky Moonshine" (1938). He directed several Bob Hope comedies including "Road to Morocco" (1942) often cited as the best of the Bing Crosby/Bob Hope "road" pictures and the delightful Will Rogers comedy "Down to Earth" (1932, which I have reviewed).

Both "Three Musketeers" and Straight Place and Show" feature the Ritz Brothers in good form. And despite what you may have heard I'd even recommend "The Gorilla".