Films: Comedy/Musicals



THE HIPPOPOTAMUS. Lightyear Entertainment, 2017. Roger Allam, Mathew Modine, Fiona Shaw, Tim McInnerny, Emily Berrington, Geraldine Sommerville, John Standing, Tommy Knight, Dean Ridge. Screenplay by Blanche McIntyre, Tom Hodgson, John Finnemore, & Robin Hill, based on the novel by Stephen Fry. Directed by John Jencks. Available on DVD, as well as streaming on Amazon Prime.

   To begin with, Ted Wallace (Roger Allam) has committed original sin, he’s a poet, worse still he’s a successful published poet even though it has been five years since the wrote a line. These days he makes his living at an even worse crime: he “commits journalism.” He is a theatrical critic.

   At least he is until he blows up during a particularly odious production and is escorted out by the police after having sucker punched the director.

   Ted is miserable and self destructive, and now he is broke as well, but Ted is about to be thrown a lifeline by an unlikely source, his goddaughter Jane (Emily Berrington) who is dying of cancer and recently in remission.

   Jane is convinced she has been saved by a miracle, the nature of which she will not reveal, but wishes Ted to investigate, at her Uncle, Lord John Logan (Mathew Modine)’s estate (“he did something unspeakable for Margaret Thatcher” to earn his knighthood, we are told).

   Ted is more than willing for the 25,000 Sterling offered, but things are a bit strained between him and his old school chum John, but then things are a bit constrained between him and Jane’s Mother, John’s sister (Geraldine Sommevile) too. In fact things are a bit strained between Ted and the world, but if he is just careful he can get by claiming to be concerned about his nephew young David (Tommy Knight) who is sensitive, awkward, and wants to be a poet.

   Those are just some of the odd things about David, as Ted will soon learn, because though there isn’t a corpse or a murder in sight, The Hippopotamus (Ted) is a manor house mystery in the mode of Agatha Christie replete with eccentric characters, carefully hidden family secrets, and a reluctant but acerbic and quite able sleuth in Ted himself.

   John Logan once saw his father save a man’s life, and he has believed his father had a gift all his life. Now he thinks it skipped a generation and is in his son David, who it seems has performed three actual miracles, starting my saving his mother’s life. John wants to protect David from being exploited, but is also a bit too in awe of that supposed gift.

   Just how David performed most of those miracles though is among the more hilarious and scandalous things about this tale.

   Most of the laughs here are of the quiet variety, but real enough. Despite the constant flow of acid and obscenity from Ted, the film is gentle as very nearly as everyone involved, but Ted has a desperate need to believe in a miracle that ultimately will do more harm than good. He is an unlikely hero, but before it is over he and several others will be saved, though not without cost.

   There is even a delightful great detective moment when kicking the bucket puts all the pieces of the puzzle together.

   Suspects include Tim McInnerny as a flamboyant homosexual who lives on the estate; Fiona Shaw as David’s protective, and sane, Mother; a house guest and her plain daughter who pose another threat to David; Jane’s mother who still loathes Ted after their breakup; and Simon (Dean Ridge) David’s sane nice brother.

   John Standing has a nice bit as Podmore, the aging and rather bored butler.

   All in all, it builds up to a satisfying conclusion with Ted even getting to play at Hercule Poirot at a gathering of the suspects when he puts the pieces of the puzzle in the right order that everyone else has jumbled up in their own needs and hopes. As in a Christie novel everyone sees the same things, but only Ted sees them as they are and not as everyone would like them to be.

   The novel is by Stephen Fry, himself an acerbic actor, comic, and commentator who has appeared in numerous movies, television shows (a semi regular role on Bones), was teamed with actor Hugh Laurie as Jeeves to Laurie’s Wooster and in a variety series, and who has written several novels, one a modern version of The Count of Monte Cristo. Fry is one of those jack of all literary and artistic trades that seem to appear when needed in British entertainment and enrich us all.

   It is almost impossible to describe anything from Fry without the words, wicked, delicious, delightful, playful, sinful, arch, amusing, intelligent, or barbed, and that perfectly sums up this bright tale where the laying on of hands becomes a different kind of miracle in the mind of an oversexed teen than you would ever expect.

   Feel the need to escape, but to do so without sacrificing brain cells, then this is perfect for you. Literate, well played, vicious and kind at the same time, arch and human, nasty and heartfelt, it is a delight as novel or film. There is a definite Ealing comedy feel to it, with a touch of Oscar Wilde, the zing of Monty Python, and just enough black humor (or at least dark gray) to leaven the whole thing.

   We are in those delightful British waters where dwelt Oscar Wilde, John Mortimer, P. G. Wodehouse, Kingsley Amis, Simon Raven, Iris Murdoch, George Orwell, Timothy Findlay, and in a comic mood Graham Greene, and it is refreshing indeed.



THIS WAY PLEASE Paramount, 1937. Charles “Buddy” Rogers, Betty Grable, Ned Sparks, Jim and Marian Jordan, Porter Hall, Lee Bowman, Mary Livingstone. Director: Robert Florey. Shown at Cinevent 21, May 1989.

   Rogers is a popular stage entertainer in This Way Please, pulling them in for he between-the-films shows, and Betty Grable is hired as an usherette, but (wouldn’t you know it?) ends up heading the billing, while alternately cooing and feuding with Rogers.

   Fibber McGee and Molly [Jim and Marian Jordan] are in the big town, vacationing from Wistful Vista, and Ned Sparks is the pop-eyed publicist, trying desperately to provide some bearable comic relief in a film that tried to be unrelievedly comic.

   There is one striking stage number but not much else of interest. Florey’s direction is dreadful, and this drags its way to a predictable conclusion.

   I almost walked on this one.

— Reprinted from The French Connection, July 1989.


GIRL WITHOUT A ROOM. Paramount, 1933. Charles Farrell, Charles Ruggles, Marguerite Churchill, Gregory Ratoff, Walter Woolf, Grace Bradley, Leonid Snegoff, Mischa Auer, Leonid Kinsky. Director: Ralph Murphy. Shown at Cinevent 21, May 1989.

   Farrell arrives on a scholarship in Paris, France from Paris, Tennessee, to paint and rents a room at a boardinghouse filled with eccentric bohemian artists and expatriate Russians (including the Trotsky, Walksky, Gallopsky/Sitsky crew).

   There is the far-out Bohemian playgirl “Nada” (Churchill), who is pursued by an alcoholic rich American but who falls for Farrell; and Vergil Crook (Chares Ruggles), master of the revelries, and surrogate mentor for the babe-in-the-wood Farrell.

   This is a funny, charming, delightful send-up of the 30s avant-garde French art scene. For me, this was the sleeper of the convention. Director Ralph Murphy is credited with over 40 films and some later work in television. Of the movies, only The Men in Half Moon Street (1945) seems somewhat familiar, but as my big-city friends will tell you, living in the boondocks has severely restricted my film education.

— Reprinted from The French Connection, July 1989.


A NIGHT IN CASABLANCA. United Artists, 1946. Groucho Marx, Harpo Marx, Chico Marx, Charles Drake, Lois Collier, Sig Ruman. Director: Archie Mayo.

   One of the later entries in the Marx Brothers film catalogue and a movie supposed made in order to help Chico Marx pay off his gambling debts, A Night in Casablanca was originally imagined to be a satire of Warner Brothers’ Casablanca (1942), the now classic film starring Humphrey Bogart. Aside from the setting and a Nazi connection, there isn’t all that much that binds these two films together. And to be perfectly honest, this Marx Brothers entry is nowhere near as appreciated as the comedians’ earlier films from the 1930s.

   Yet, it remains a worth a look for a few reasons. First of all, there are definitely some good verbal quips from Groucho, and Harpo shines as a mute who must convey his thoughts via music and mime. [See comment #3.] And at the end of the day, even a lesser Marx Brothers film with its zany antics and physical comedy is often better than a lot of the comedies that are produced and released into theaters today.

   For me personally, what made A Night in Casablanca worth watching was the fact that an escaped Nazi was the film’s antagonist. It was only one year since the Second World War had ended, and Hollywood had already discovered the allure of stories involving Nazis on the run and the notion of hidden Nazi loot and treasure.

   Unlike two other movies from the same year that featured Nazis running from their past – Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious (reviewed here) and Orson Welles’s The Stranger (reviewed here) – the Marx Brothers film plays the topic for laughs. Heinrich Stubel (Sig Ruman), the villain here, is more of a stereotypical and buffoonish Teutonic figure than either evil incarnate or an amoral opportunist. But the fact that he is supposed to be someone to root against is transparent.

   Here also is something I noticed and I thought I would mention. Groucho’s character, a hotel manager who helps bring Stubel to justice, is named Ronald Kornblow. Ignore the misspelling and you will notice it’s a very stereotypical German-Jewish name. I have to wonder if this was not deliberate, given the Marx Brothers’ own German-Jewish and Alsatian-Jewish origins.


KEEPING MUM. Isle of Man Film – Azure Films – Tusk Productions / Entertainment Film Distributors, UK, 2005. Rowan Atkinson, Kristin Scott Thomas, Maggie Smith, Patrick Swayze, Tamsin Egerton, Toby Parkes, Liz Smith. Screenplay: Richard Russo & Niall Johnson, based on a story by the former. Director: Niall Johnson.

   A couple of months ago I saw a French film from 2000, With a Friend Like Harry, about a psycho who insinuates himself into a family. then “helps them” by killing anyone he perceives as their enemies. Imagine my surprise to find the same plot played for laughs — and played quite well — in Keeping Mum, which I recommend if you ever think back to those old Ealing comedies like Lady Killers and Kind Hearts and Coronets where murder was done with such quiet panache as to seen amusing and even tasteful.

   Mum centers around Kristine Scott-Thomas as the beleaguered wife of bemused country ,minister Rowen Atkinson, mother of a libidinous teenage daughter and a bullied son, and sex-object of sleazy lothario Patrick Swayze. Into her chaotic life housekeeper Maggie Smith descends like a lethal Mary Poppins with a perfectly simple philosophy for happiness: kill anyone who gets on your nerves.

   Writer-director Niall Johnson handles this thing with the necessary light touch — he recycles the cell-phone gag from With a Friend Like Harry to highly amusing effect — and the players are competent and sometimes inspired. Scott-Thomas as the wide-eyed adulteress reminded me touchingly at times of Celia Johnson in Brief Encounter. Give this one a look if you enjoy the gentle irony of British Humour at its best.

— Reprinted from The Hound of Dr. Johnson #51, May 2007.


SWING YOUR LADY. Warner Brothers, 1938. Humphrey Bogart, Frank McHugh, Louise Fazenda, Nat Pendleton, Penny Singleton, Allen Jenkins, the Weaver Brothers and Elviry, Ronald Reagan, and Daniel Boone Savage. Screenplay by Joseph Schenk and Maurice Leo, from the play by Kenyon Nicholson and Charles Robinson. Directed by Ray Enright.

   A film that once seen is never forgotten—no matter how hard I try.

   At this stage in his career, Humphrey Bogart had been with Warners for two years and seven films, with noteworthy performances in three of them: THE PETRIFIED FOREST, BLACK LEGION and DEAD END. The star quality was definitely there, but somebody kept shunting him off into nothing parts in big films like VIRGINIA CITY and DARK VICTORY, or leads in things like SWING YOUR LADY.

   Bogart plays a seedy fight promoter, sort of like Adolphe Menjou in GOLDEN BOY, minus Barbara Stanwyck and William Holden. What he’s got is Penny “Blondie” Singleton and lunk-headed wrestler Nat Pendleton, touring the sticks trying to drum up a fight that will draw a crowd and get him noticed.

   Bogie eventually sets up a match between his boy and the local blacksmith (Louise Fazenda) but has to resort to chicanery, first to keep Nat from finding out he has to wrestle a woman, then to break up a romance when they meet and fall in love.

   Help of sorts comes in the form of Fazenda’s rejected beau Noah (Daniel Boone Savage, a professional wrestler using his Hillbilly Bruiser persona here in his only screen appearance.) Bogie arranges for him to fight Pendleton, then true to sleazy form, tells Louise that Nat already has a wife and four kids, then orders Nat to throw the match because the Winner is supposed to marry Ms Fazenda.

   Did you get all that? And did it put you on tenterhooks, wondering how it all comes out?

   Me neither.

   Obviously this is not a film for Bogart fans or those with a taste for sophisticated comedy. SWING YOUR LADY was sold as a Hillbilly Musical, and the story, such as it is, stops for long stretches to showcase the Weaver Brothers and Elviry, who seem to spend all their time singing on the porch at the General Store while Bogie hustles and everyone else tells hillbilly jokes.

   Easy as it is to dump on LADY, I should add that some of the musical interludes aren’t bad at all.

   Penny Singleton (having just changed her name from Dorothy McNulty) had a real talent for dancing — in a showy, Gene Kelley style — and she shows it off here in a couple of novelty numbers choreographed by Bobby Connolly, who worked on the dances in THE WIZARD OF OZ.

   As for the Weavers Brothers and Elviry… well, taken in the proper spirit, one can view them as authentic folk artists leaving a filmed record of their art.

   It helps. But not enough to redeem a movie that belittles its characters and demeans itself. Or as Bogart himself put it, “If you want to see the worst picture I ever made, get them to screen SWING YOUR LADY.”

HOPSCOTCH. AVCO Embassy Pictures, 1980. Walter Matthau, Glenda Jackson, Sam Waterston, Ned Beatty, Herbert Lom, David Matthau, Lucy Saroyan. Screenplay by Brian Garfield and Bryan Forbes, based on the novel by the former. Director: Ronald Neame.

   It wasn’t intentional, but I saw this right after after watching Spy Game (reviewed here ), another film based on what happens after men in the spy business are about to retire, or in this case, unwillingly bounced out of the job. This is what happens to Miles Kendig (Walter Matthau) when he lets his counterpart for the Soviet Union (Herbert Lom) go free when caught red-handed just doing his job.

   Matthau’s rationale is that it’s better to know who’s who on the other side rather the wait to learn who the new guy might be. But furious, Ned Beatty as Matthau’s new inexperienced boss, boots him out, permanently.

   What is there for Matthau to do but a little revenge, which comes in the form of writing his memoirs, which he starts sending out to publishers one chapter at a time, and staying ahead of Beatty and his former co-workers one jump at a time.

   It is but a game to him, and it is a lot of fun for the viewer too, but the viewer (this one, anyway) begins to realize that the game is all too easy for Miles Kendig. The game is far too one-sided. Ned Beatty, for all his profanity and foot-stomping, doesn’t stand a chance.

   The remaining pleasure therefore lies in watching Walter Matthau, he of the lugubrious, lived-in face, as an old pro at work. Glenda Jackson as his long-time lady friend, doesn’t have all that much else to do, but whenever the two of them are on the screen together, the chemistry between them makes sparks fly.

   All in all, though, when compared to Spy Game, the only category for which I would rate Hopscotch more than second best is light comedy, at which there was none better than Walter Matthau, that and the additional presence of Glenda Jackson.

   As a movie, it’s a lot of fun to watch, I grant you, but when what’s happening on the screen starts repeating itself, you know the movie’s over, and way too soon. And worse, there’s never a sense of urgency or tension in the story that’s told. Even if played as a comedy, which this one is, stories of a master spy at work should never be as relaxing as this one.


LET’S GO NATIVE. Paramount, 1930. Jeanette MacDonald, Jack Oakie, “Skeets” Gallagher, Kay Francis, James Hall and William Austin. Written by Percy Heath and George Marion Jr. Directed by Leo McCarey.

   A silly thing, but outrageously enjoyable. Writers Heath and Marion start with a “putting on a show” story: Jeanette McDonald is a Costume Designer in dire straits whose show is about to launch… if she can just make ends meet till then. That’s adequate, but Director McCarey is more interested in using slap-shtick from his old silent days, while Eugene Pallette, charged with repossessing Jeanette’s belongings, drops and breaks whatever he touches, like a one-man Laurel & Hardy routine.

   Suddenly a title card informs us that the star of the show couldn’t make it, so Jeannette stepped in and is now the star! 10 minutes of show tunes ensue, including one with dancing bears that ends with the warbling lovers encased in snow. McCarey does what he can with a stationary camera, but basically this is just photographed dance routines, in the style of the Marx Brothers’ Coconuts (1929.) Still, those guys dancing in bear suits….

   About this time Jack Oakie shows up as a cab driver named Voltaire McGinnis, and the whole show sets off for South America(!) whereupon Native turns into a shipboard romance, with Jeanette up against Kay Francis (also the vamp in Coconuts) for the affections of bland leading man James Hall. With time out for some more L&H routines and a dance number of course.

   Then there’s a shipwreck and the players are stranded on a tropical island ruled by Skeets Gallagher, a band-leader marooned there years ago, who taught the native girls (there are no native men) to play swing music. So they dress up in Jeanette’s costumes and put on a show till the volcano erupts…. and NO, Jeanette does NOT wake up from a dream.

   Jack Oakie gets most of the comedy time, but the big laugh-getter is William Austin, a British comic I never heard of, who does physical & verbal comedy equally well, mixed with an off-hand manner that downplays his expertise and conversely shows it off. Austin had a mostly bit-part career but is remembered thusly in IMDB:

    “William Austin’s being cast as Alfred the Butler in the Columbia Pictures’ Batman Serial (1943) proved to have a profound effect on the character. Prior to the serial, Alfred had been portrayed as being a very portly character. In order to rectify the disparity between Comics Page and Film, the Editors at DC Comics had Alfred put on a diet; which resulted in a slimmer Butler, who mirrored the movie version.”

   So William Austin paved the way for Michael Gough, Alan Napier, Michael Caine and Jeremy Irons. In these posts I strive to be Educational as well as Entertaining.


THE PRESIDENT’S ANALYST. Paramount, 1967. James Coburn, Godfrey Cambridge, Severn Darden, Joan Delaney, Pat Harrington, Barry McGuire, Jill Banner, Will Geer, William Daniels and Joan Darling. Written and directed by Theodore J. Flicker.

   This will open with a rant, so skip the first few paragraphs and scan down till you see the words “The President’s Analyst” again. Got that? “The President’s Analyst.” I mean the next time you see it. Not now, further down. Okay? Now the rant.

   Last month I cut the cable with ATT DirecTV and switched internet services. Getting the new service hooked up and my TV set switched to Antenna was fairly simple. Getting away from ATT was not.

   Working on instructions from ATT, FedEx handled the return with aplomb, ATT acknowledged receipt of the Modem — but not the Cable stuff.

   My “whuzzah?”call to ATT began an acquaintance with “Brian,” “Jessica,” “Donald” and others (American names must be popular in India.) who said my ATT service was “concert” but they couldn’t credit me for the equipment until the end of the “birring cykor.”

   Turns out ATT policy said I’d be charged for the next month for the very good reason that it was ATT policy to cancer (?) service at the end of the month following notice. After some telephone pinball, someone — “Trixie,” I think — allowed me to speak with a supervisor about this, and after 10 minutes on hold, cut me off.

   To make a long story a little less long, I went through this a few more times, with “Larry,” “Moe” and “Aditya” before reaching a supervisor (“Bonnie”) who said she couldn’t alter ATT “Pohsee” and anyone who could was by definition too important to talk to me.

   So anyway, I related all this to a friend, who responded “Three words, Dan: The President’s Analyst.”


   It took me back to my Senior Year of High School, when adulthood beckoned with a coy wink, and the World was falling apart. Somewhere in the midst of this gaudy chaos, James Coburn was emerging as a movie star, and The President’s Analyst solidified his image as a somewhat off-beat persona in a film that never quite makes up its mind what it wants to be about — and is all the better for it.

   It starts out as a one-joke movie: Coburn is retained as the POTUS’ on-call shrink, and finds himself growing paranoid — or is he really being watched? Well of course he is. What kind of movie would you have if he wasn’t?

   So when he cracks under the strain and goes on the run, TPA shifts from Political Comedy to Spy Spoof as our hero finds himself pursued by the Secret Agencies of every government on Earth and takes cover: first with a family of militant liberals (deftly played by William Daniels and Joan Darling) then, less amusingly, with Barry McGuire’s hippie band.

   I should pause here to mention Godfrey Cambridge and Severn Darden as an American agent and his Soviet counterpart, both roles well written and feelingly played, notably in a fractured and melancholy reminiscence about departed enemies. Later on, Daniels and Darling do a hilarious bit of suburban self-defense, then there’s a balletic sequence of Coburn plucking the gowans fine with a fair young maiden in a field of wildflowers — while being stalked by scores of assassins, agents and assorted men in black.

   All that though is just writer/director Flicker showing off his stylish wit as TPA changes course once again. Finally captured by Darden’s Russian Spy, Coburn realizes that his best weapon is the one he was trained to use, and he sets about escaping from Darden by understanding him — a ploy used earlier in films like Blind Alley and The Dark Past, but never to such humorous effect.

    Whereupon (you guessed it) the movie bounces off a wild wall, and the sinister agency behind the whole thing is revealed as… Well if you didn’t guess it, I won’t reveal it now, but Pat Harrington plays the PR man for Artifice Trapping & Treachery with a cozening cheerfulness just wonderful to watch. Even better, his little show is followed by a noisy burst of gunfire, explosions & derring-do just as satisfying in its own brainless way.

   The President’s Analyst is no classic. It’s just a little too trendy for its own good. But it’s also unlike any other film you’re likely to see, and worth a look.

   And by the way, I found out that BBB trumps ATT, and got a Happy Ending all my own.


THE WIDOW FROM MONTE CARLO. Warner Brothers, 1936. Warren William, Dolores del Río, Louise Fazenda, Colin Clive, Warren Hymer. Director: Arthur Greville Collins.

   A better than average WB flick is The Widow from Monte Carlo. Good cast, with brightest performances by Hymer (Dopey Mullins) as an American crook “vacationing” in England and Fazenda as a socially ambitious American parvenue who’s not above blackmail to get Del Rio to attend her costume ball.

   William is more interesting when he plays one of his cads, but he makes an amused foil for Hymer and an attentive suitor for Del Rio. A drawing-room comedy based on a play by F. Hugh Herbert (and others). Not memorable but polished and charming.

— Reprinted from Walter’s Place #106, March 1995.

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