Tag Archives: Buster Keaton

Matinee Monday: At The Circus (1939)

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This week, I’m returning to my theme of writing about the great crop of movies that came out in ’39. I’ve already written about most of the ten nominees for Best Picture, only omitting the two I have never seen before. Now I want to start writing about pictures that weren’t in the top ten, but are notable in themselves. They may have been second tier, but oh, a second tier like those in ’39 never existed!

By 1939, Groucho Marx was 48, and starting to show his age. The best years (and films) of the Marx Brothers were behind them. There was no way they could again bottle the magic of such comedy classics as A Night At The Opera or Animal Crackers. But they were still capable of creating a few gold nuggets, every now and then.

At The Circus, while not among the pantheon of Marx Brothers classics, is memorable for two things, one off-screen and one on. One of the gag writers who worked on At The Circus was the great silent comic, Buster Keaton, His career was sliding, and Louie B. Mayer (head of MGM at the time) directed him to work behind the scenes with the Marx Brothers developing comedy gags. The problem was that the comedic styles of Keaton and the Marx Brothers just didn’t mesh. One time, when Groucho was upset over how a joke wasn’t working, he called Keaton on it. Keaton responded, “Hey, I’m only doing what Mr. Mayer told me to do. The truth is that you guys are so good that you don’t need help.”

The second notable fact was that At The Circus featured Groucho performing that great comedy classic song, Lydia, The Tattooed Lady. A quick search of YouTube will pull up many different covers of the sing, including one by Kermit the Frog, but here is the original:

CSL

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Matinee Monday: In The Good Old Summertime

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Two weeks ago, when writing about a Danny Kaye film, I opened with these questions:

What do you do if you are a movie maker and you own a story that did well in 1941? And if you own a studio that makes the best technicolor musicals in Hollywood? And if you own such talent as Danny Kaye and Virginia Mayo?

I can do the same with this one, substituting the names of the always bankable Judy Garland, and popular heartthrob of the day, Van Johnson. And I can answer with the same line line: you make a musical. After all, it worked in 1948 for Danny Kaye, it will surely work for Judy Garland in 1949. And thus, a musical remake of The Shop Around The Corner was made, In The Good Old Summertime.

This time around, instead of being set in Hungary, it is set in turn-of-the-century Chicago, allowing Garland and company to perform nostalgic songs, such as Chicago (That Toddling Town), Wait Til The Sun Shines, Nellie, and the title song, In The Good Old Summertime. It tells the same story, of two co-workers who dislike each other in person, but fall “in like” as penpals.

Again, that wonderful character actor, S. Z. “Cuddles” Sakall is a major performer, as the lovable but irascible shop owner. One welcome surprise is that this movie marked the return of the great silent star Buster Keaton to MGM films. Keaton had been reduced to writing gags for MGM, and was consulted by the producers about a plot device. It seems that the film needed a comedic, yet plausible, mishap for a priceless Stradivarius violin to be destroyed, and Keaton, the quintessential “buster”, devised the fall needed. It seems that he was the only one who could make it look real on screen, and so he was cast as the hapless nephew of “Cuddles” Sakall.

In the following trailer, there are several delights to watch for. Of course, you’ll get an idea of the turn-of-the-century music I referred to, above. But, in the first part of the trailer, you’ll see the film debut of Liza Minelli, Judy Garland’s daughter. She is the toddler walking between Garland and Van Johnson. Also, Keaton’s Stradivarius-breaking gag that I mentioned is in the latter part of the trailer. Enjoy.

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