Sometimes after a very long Monday, you ask the laptop, “what’s the shortest, dumbest movie we’ve got,” and the laptop says how about that Marx Brothers movie that you can never remember if you’ve seen or not because it has the same title as a Howard Hawks movie you’ve definitely seen, and you go “sure okay.”

Appropriate title for a movie that’s just a bunch of fooling around. The Four Marx Brothers – even Zeppo, who is properly integrated with the others for once – stowaway on a ship, then anarchy ensues. A couple of warring gangsters are aboard, so the guys split alliances and mess with everyone. There’s plenty of music, and Thelma Todd of Horse Feathers (who would die suspiciously before she was 30), and a gangster’s daughter whom Zeppo likes. There’s a character named Alkie Briggs (Harry Woods, who played the coward Robert Ford in one of the first Jesse James movies) which makes me wish I wrote movies just so I could reuse the name Alkie. And I forget exactly why Harpo had Maurice Chevalier’s passport.

Groucho and Thelma take a break from the action:

The one where Groucho is “Rufus T. Firefly,” the contrived new president of Freedonia, who causes war with a neighboring country whose ambassador (Louis Calhern, Cary Grant’s boss in Notorious) is trying to cuddle up to the rich woman (Marx regular Margaret Dumont) who installed Rufus on the throne. Despite the simple plot summaries I see online claiming a love triangle plot, Groucho is too anarchic for this, insulting both of them equally, while ruling the country with contempt for power and also for the commoners. Harpo and Chico are supposedly spies, but I preferred their scenes as peanut sellers outside the palace, almost standing disconnected from the rest of the movie. Speaking of disconnect, trusty time-filling brother Zeppo is here, I forget in what role, but he vanishes halfway through except for an unwelcome appearance in the big closing musical number. The great Leo McCarey (Ruggles of Red Gap, The Awful Truth) is said to have directed, and indeed this one holds together as a proper film a bit more than Horse Feathers. Katy didn’t like it, she later revealed.

Weirdly slow, clunky and unfunny Marx brothers movie. It kinda stars Harpo, or at least he’s onscreen more than the others. No Zeppo at all. I’d think that would be a good thing, but he’s replaced by generic heroic-type Charles Drake (No Name on the Bullet, It Came From Outer Space) with bland girlfriend Lois Collier (Cobra Woman, Flying Disc Man from Mars).

Managers at a certain hotel keep turning up dead, so Groucho is hired to run the place as a last resort. But a disguised nazi count (silly-toupeed, funny-voiced Sig Ruman of A Night at the Opera, Ninotchka, To Be or Not To Be) has stashed stolen treasure in the hotel and has been scheming to escape with the goods while our gallant hero tries to stop him. Sig’s vamp nazi chick Lisette Verea and his overeager soldier Fred Giermann (who has a long, painful swordfight scene with Harpo) try not-so-hard to thwart the Marxes instead of focusing on the do-gooder and leaving the harmless clowns alone. Groucho gets to use his funny walk more than his funny dialogue, and the movie slows to a crawl a couple times establishing that Chico can play piano and Harpo can play the harp.

The Brothers’ second-to-last film, and also the second-to-last by Archie Mayo (who replaced Fritz Lang on Moontide and adapted Sam Fuller on Confirm or Deny). Two writers plus (allegedly) an uncredited Frank Tashlin, and the Marxes went on tour before the filming “hoping to sharpen the script’s comedy” – so why does it feel like the jokes were so few and inadequate? It was meant to be a spoof of Casablanca, but they chickened out under legal scrutiny, so maybe all the best material got jettisoned in a last-minute rewrite. I don’t mean to be so hard on the movie – it was lightly amusing, a nice waste of 80 minutes – I was just expecting something more.

This must be the best book I’ve read on the work of a director. It’s organized just how I’d like, with articles covering all aspects of Tashlin’s work (with little overlap), interviews with Tashlin and with others about Tashlin, excerpts from his cartoons, plenty of photographs, critical write-ups of each film he directed and detailed chronology and filmography of all his work. I read the library copy straight through. Gotta adjust myself to not being able to put it on my shelf of film books since it’s so far out of print… can’t own everything, ya know.

Some edited excerpts:

Jonathan Rosenbaum:

It seems to me that “Tashlinesque” can mean one or more of five different strains in the contemporary cinema which I will list below, with appropriate examples…

A. Graphic expression in shapes, colors, costumes, settings and facial expressions derived from both animated and still cartoons and comic books: The 500 Fingers of Dr. T., I Want To Go Home, Dick Tracy

B. Sexual hysteria – usually (if not invariably) grounded in the combination of male adolescent lust and 1950s’ notions of feminine voluptuousness: Seven Year Itch, The Nutty Professor, Lord Love a Duck, The Man With Two Brains

C. Vulgar modernism: a “popular, ironic, somewhat dehumanized mode reflexively concerned with the specific properties of its medium or the conditions of its making” (Hoberman): Duck Amuck, Hellzapoppin’, Sullivan’s Travels, The Patsy, Real Life, The Purple Rose of Cairo

D. Intertextual film references: Shoot The Piano Player, Zazie dans le metro, Celine & Julie Go Boating, Who Framed Roger Rabbit

E. Contemporary social satire: products, gadgets, fads, trends: Christmas In July, A King in New York, Mon oncle, Tampopo


J. Hoberman

Tashlin’s films ultimately have less to do with the production of cultural forms than with their packaging and consumption. His America is a nation of robotic image junkies whose minds have been colonized by the media. Jerry Lewis’s landlady in Rock-a-Bye Baby does exactly what TV commercials tell her to do, even to the point of dying her hair vermilion; the movie fans in Hollywood or Bust and Rock Hunter are little more than popcorn and fan-mag consuming zombies. The protagonist of The Girl Can’t Help It is made to hallucinate singer Julie London every time he hears one of her records on a jukebox.


Bernard Eisenschitz

Although Truffaut and his colleagues at Cahiers knew little English and even less about contemporary trends in American theater and jazz… they were not caught unawares by The Girl Can’t Help It and Hollywood or Bust. Rivette, Rohmer and Truffaut rated them “masterpieces” in the same month as The Wrong Man and Chikamatsu monogatari. A phantasy view of America to be sure, but no less valid than the recent sociological approach, in which films have little place. Tashlin not only identified and denounced the contradiction of American cinema, but also embodied it, since the ambivalence of his films makes it impossible to say which side he is taking, or to be sure that he is not exploiting the very thing that he is denouncing. The Cahiers group did not only see Tashlin as radically destructive, they also appreciated the sheer beauty of what he showed.

Playing to the French title of Hollywood or Bust, Charles Bitsch wrote, “A true movie nut, Tashlin is the first to have made films for other true movie nuts.”


Tashlin in 1964

Cartoons are a very stimulating medium. For animators, the joke reigns supreme. But it’s also a world of enslavement. The world of an animator, no matter how fertile his ideas may be, is in the end, a confined frame, a tiny glass cel where his creations come to life. It’s as though the whole universe were reduced to a series of postcards. You spend your whole life splicing, flipping through cel sheets, drawing frame by frame. After a few years the whole thing becomes so debilitating that you lose all contact with the real world.

same interview, after he’d quit working at Disney in 1941…

I sought refuge at Leon Schlesinger’s where I worked on the Merrie Melodies and Looney Tunes cartoons, then went to Screen Gems at Columbia where John Hubley and I developed the “Fox and Crow” series. I became a gagman for Harpo Marx in A Night In Casablanca. The mirror sequence, which I invented specially for him, was a series of variations on an old gag … Then I worked for Eddie Bracken, and later for Bob Hope.


Tashlin in 1962

I really hate television. It’s no experience. You sit at home, you don’t get dressed and go out. It’s free – the audience doesn’t participate – they sit there and turn the dial and be critical. I detest it.


1994 interview with Bill Krohn and Joe Dante:

BK: So much live-action filmmaking today is influenced by cartoons which he was the first to do, but so little of it has any social pertinence.
JD: That’s because he was influenced by better cartoons. The people who are doing cartoons today are basing them on The Flintstones. That was the nadir; cartoons were disappearing as cartoons and becoming radio shows. Doing live-action cartoons – movies like L’il Abner, Popeye – it’s a very tough thing to do. But the Flintstones themselves were so uncartoonlike that it’ll be a little easier to translate them into live action. Whereas to do Bugs Bunny, or to do characters that really are fanciful, you just can’t do that in live action.


Mike Barrier interviews Tashlin in 1971

MB: I understand you worked on the very first development of Lady and the Tramp too.
FT: That’s right, Sam [Cobean] and I did that whole story; I’d forgotten about that.
MB: Were you working from the story that Ward Greene wrote?
FT: I don’t recall the book. Joe Grant had modeled the dog, Lady, and Sam and I did a story. I never saw the film… I think we had rats coming after the baby at the end… did they have that? Then that’s what we did.

MB: You’ve mentioned that when you made your cartoons, you were looking forward to feature work. Now that you’ve been making features for many years, have there been occasions when you’ve looked back to your cartoon work and tried to get a cartoon flavor in some of your films?
FT: Oh I guess quite often, because all the reviewers – Truffaut and Godard and all these people when they were reviewers on Cahiers du Cinema, they always treated my films, my Jerry Lewis films and all, as a cartoon. I did a picture with Tom Ewell and Jayne Mansfield [The Girl Can’t Help It] and as far as they were concerned, that was a Tom and Jerry cartoon, and the fact that his name was Tom and hers was Jerri – which I never thought of – they said, “She is the cat and he is the mouse.”


From the chronology:

1952 – Tashlin spends nearly six months working with Robert Welch on the script for “Sapphire Sal,” later re-titled Red Garters. Tashlin is originally set to direct, but when he checks off the Paramount lot in late August the production is put on hold awaiting the loan-out of Jane Russell from RKO. (Red Garters, not produced until 1954, ultimately stars Rosemary Clooney, with screenplay credit going to Michael Fessier.)

The movie is so nihilistic and immoral, I wonder if it counts as pre-code comedy, if it would’ve been allowed three years later. Aha, IMDB says there are some bits that were lost in ’35 during a post-code re-edit, including the meaning/punchline behind the guys delivering blocks of ice to the apartment of the “college widow”.

I didn’t even know there was a straight-man Marx Brother: Zeppo, here playing Groucho’s son, a student who has spent twelve years at college hanging out with the “college widow” (apparently a common term back then after Archie Mayo’s 1927 movie The College Widow, which Horse Feathers is partly parodying).

Director McLeod (who also made comedies with Cary Grant, WC Fields, Bing Crosby, Bob Hope and Harold Lloyd) did a fine job taking strings of unrelated scenes and jokes and stitching them together into what passes for a movie. The mad energy and nonstop jokes still make it a highly successful comedy. None of the four credited writers bear the name of Marx, so I wonder how much the Marx Bros. brought to the table besides acting. No real sense in a plot summary, since the movie itself doesn’t seem to give a damn for plot. No sense in recounting the jokes either, cuz it’s a goddamned fun flick and I’d rather forget most of it so I’ll enjoy it as much the next time.