Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Film Review: Million Dollar Legs

"Million Dollar Legs"  *** (out of ****)

"Million Dollar Legs" (1932) is the kind of absurdest comedy I normally champion. A comedy which understands a "plot" is something you can dance around. It has a tendency to "get in the way" of the jokes. The jokes are the most important element of a comedy. If you take away all the jokes, well, then you are left with drama. And that's not funny.

This philosophy of mine would put me at odds with every instructor I ever had in film school. When I would write my scripts and submit them for approval to film, the instructors would always take out their red pens and tell me, "Alex, you are sacrificing the plot for a joke". There is not enough character motivation. The script lacks structure. There are no repercussions for the character's actions. And I would always tell them, but the Marx Brothers didn't worry about that. Bob Hope and Bing Crosby didn't worry about that. Why should I? But Alex, they would say, you aren't those people. Which means, they could do that. They are famous. You aren't. Thus you must follow different set of rules. That's not fair of course and you can't stop me from finding something funny.

"Million Dollars Legs" understands my viewpoint. It follows in the tradition of political satires such as "Duck Soup" (1933) and "Diplomaniacs" (1933, which I have reviewed). Unfortunately however, it is not as funny. But Heaven knows it tries. And there is talent involved here in spades.

In the movie W.C. Fields stars as the President of a small European country, Klopstokia. A country on the verge of bankruptcy. The President's cabinet, consisting of character actors us old-timers will instantly recognize; Hugh Herbert  (as the Secretary of Treasury), Billy Gilbert (as the Secretary of Interior) and Vernon Dent (as the Secretary of Agriculture) among others, want to over-throw the President and rule the country themselves.

This puts the President in a bind. His only way out is to enlist his country in the 1932 Summer Olympics (!). What else were you expecting? In order to do this he needs the help of Migg Tweeny (Jack Oakie), the number one salesman of Baldwin Brushes. Tweeny is in love with the President's daughter, Angela (Susan Fleming), the official name of all women of Klopstokia. If Tweeny agrees to help the President and the country makes a success at the Olympics, the President will allow Tweeny to marry his daughter.

But this will not be easy for a variety of reasons. For one thing there is a spy (Ben Turpin, a comedy veteran, even by 1932, from the old Mack Sennett studio) writing down everything, everyone says. And number two, the Secretary of Treasury, along with the rest of the cabinet, have acquired the help of a famous vamp (as they used to be called), Mata Machree (Lyda Roberti). She will distract all the athletes entered in the Olympic games, ensuring the country will lose every contest.

Now you may begin asking yourself a lot of questions and say things just don't seem to add up with the plot description I've given you. Stop thinking! Sure it doesn't make a lick of sense on why a country thinks by entering the Olympics, it will save their country from bankruptcy. Of course you just can't enter a country in the Olympics on the same day. Naturally the movie doesn't depict a realistic view of society and the bad guys conveniently wearing black, so we know who to root against. But who wants to see any other kind of movie?!

To today's audience it might seem strange but Jack Oakie gets top billing. Although there may be people who never heard of anyone in this cast, so it really doesn't matter who gets top billing. But for those of us who know who these people are, you wouldn't think Oakie would get billing over Fields. Oakie was a star in musicals and comedies. He is best known for a performance he would give later in his career, in the Charlie Chaplin comedy, "The Great Dictator" (1940, which I reviewed), for which he was nominated for an Academy Award. But he was also in the Alice Faye musical "King of Burlesque" (1936), which is actually very good. He co-stars in the Ruby Keeler / Dick Powell musical "Colleen" (1936), the Sonja Henie picture "Wintertime" (1943, which I have reviewed) and the Betty Grable / Alice Faye musical comedy "Tin Pan Alley" (1940, which I have reviewed). He usually played the cliche all-American go-getter. And that is exactly how you can describe his character here.

W.C. Fields is not playing the character he established through-out his career. The grumpy, dog-hating, child-hating, non-fmaily man drunk that you would find in comedy shorts such as "The Barber Shop" (1933) or "The Pharmacist" (1933) or motion pictures like "Never Give A Sucker An Even Break" (1941) and "You Can't Cheat An Honest Man" (1939). Here he plays a bit of a tough guy, who has super-human strength when he is angry. He rules his country with an iron fist. In one scene he beats up seven of his own bodyguards! Fields would play a similar character in the silent comedy "Running Wild" (1927, which I have reviewed).

I really enjoy the spirit of this movie and its lack of structure but I just didn't find it laugh out loud funny. It didn't take enough jabs at society or our political system. The Wheeler & Woolsey comedy "Diplomaniacs" does a much better job, commenting on the nature of war, as does the Marx Brothers comedy "Duck Soup". Their comedic target is bigger and allows for more opportunities to take aim at. "Million Dollar Legs" feels tame in comparison. It doesn't make a strong commentary in my opinion. It leaves the system untouched. Not even slightly bruised.

There are laughs to be had. When the President asks Angela for Tweeny's name, she replies, "I always call him "sweetheart". So, that's what the President calls Tweeny for the remainder of the picture. Angela hands Tweeny sheet music with lyrics written in the ancient Klopstokian language. If Tweeny loves her he will learn the song and the lyrics. When he does learn it and we hear him sing to her, it is done to the melody of "One Hour With You", the great 1930s standard.

The film was directed by Edward F. Cline. I have reviewed many of his movies on here. He worked with some of the great comedy talents of his era. Prior to this movie he worked with Wheeler & Woolsey on the political satire "Cracked Nuts" (1931, which I have reviewed) and "Hook, Line and Sinker" (1930, which I have reviewed). He would go on to direct Fields in "The Bank Dick" (1940, which I have also reviewed) considered one of Fields' best comedies. And finally he worked with the team Olsen & Johnson on "Crazy House" (1943) and the team's final film, "See My Lawyer" (1945). It is hard to say if Cline actually "directed" these people. I tend to believe the comedians had a very big say in the final product of all the films they appeared in. But Cline associated himself with very funny men and knew "funny" when he saw it.

The script was by Joseph L. Mankiewicz and Henry Myers. They co-wrote "Diplomaniacs" and "Alice in Wonderland" (1933) which featured both Oakie and Fields, I have reviewed it. Mankiewicz is better known for more serious films and a different brand of comedy, see his Academy Award winner, "All About Eve" (1950) as an example.

"Million Dollar Legs" works in certain parts and should not be avoided. The movie moves along quickly at 62 minutes. I enjoy the spirit of the movie and it is great seeing such a talented cast assembled. Where else can you see Oakie, Fields, Turpin and Herbert all together? Only comedy Heaven. I just wish the movie would have taken greater satirical aim at the political system and the status quo. If you are looking for that watch "Duck Soup" and "Diplomaniacs".

And what about the movie's title? What does it mean? And the spy Turpin plays? Neither is explained. Bravo!