Saturday, August 31, 2013

It's all just Duck Soup wrapped about The Bellboy


Follow along--you'll figure it out.

Last week I announced that for one of my fun classes this semester, I am enrolled in a class called "The Art of Comedy".  I was hoping there might be some performing, analysing of comedic plays, but alas, it is a horrible, relaxing evening, complete with popcorn and laughter, watching...COMEDIC FILMS.  Yes, I know--I live a rough life.

Below are my reviews of both films as I submitted them.  If you agree, if you don't agree, kindly comment on your thoughts and feelings on these two films.  That way I can learn more. (And to submit a comment, just click on "Snarks" and that will open the comment window.)

And now, sit back, don't spill soda on the floor (or I'll make you lick it up), no sharing of popcorn, and enjoy the show!

DVD cover for Duck Soup. Courtesy: Universal

Duck Soup
Directed by: Leo McCarey

Written by:
Bert Kalmar--(story)
Harry Ruby--(story)
Arthur Sheekman--(additional dialogue) and
Nat Perrin--(additional dialogue)

The Marx Brothers
Margaret Dumont--Mrs. Teasdale
Raquel Torres--Very Marcal
Edgar Kennedy--The street Vendor

Synopsis and Review:
I have been studying comedy for probably over twenty years.  I've studied stand-up comedy with some of the best punch-up men working in Hollywood today; I have friends on speed-dial who are A-list, working comedians; I've studied improvisation with Second City in Chicago; have studied and honed my craft of physical comedy; even began writing my own one-woman shows since character roles in my type were scarce in my area, and the one consistent comment when someone brings up this film is "You've got to see the Marx Brothers if you're into physical comedy."

So, I had to see the Marx Brothers.  I had no preconceived notions about this film, except for my own expectation.  And sadly, I was let down.  With a name like Duck Soup, I didn't even know what the plot was, so when it later developed to be the title for a war breaking out between Freedonia and Sylvania over money, I was lost.  Was that a common idiom used in the thirties for war?  I must confess, if I had known that small colloquialism, I think my mind would've been better receptive
I was immediately put off right away with the actress, Margaret Dumont as the social-climbing Mrs. Teasdale.  I kept having to remind myself that this was the early 30s--not many actors at this time had been trained by Konstantin Stanislavski himself, so I had to sit in a pointed "cringe" all during the film (and you know what they say about cringing--if you're not careful you'll be cramping), watching her use the same embarrassing tricks of pure indication that I used to do as a beginning comedic actress: the wild eyes for surprise, or "don't look over there"; the over-enunciation in an attempt to be exaggeratedly-funny; the fake anger when at least an attempt at real anger might have sufficed, etc.  Yes, I have five years of strict Meisner training under my belt, along with two in Stanislavski from a private tutor, and a theatre arts minor, so I had to constantly remind myself not to compare everything I saw on the screen to the polished and mellifluous actors we are privileged to see today.

Groucho, eh.  All I could see once he popped on screen was Alan Alda from an episode of M*A*S*H NAILING an impersonation of him, and that made me increase my respect for Alan, not Groucho.  I know the film was supposed to be a vehicle for this comedy team, but after a little while, the tricks and one-off-one-liners became old and fast.  But, I couldn't take my eyes away from Harpo.  To me, HE was the truly gifted comic--having to convey so much of his intention and story with no words at all.  Viola Spolin from Second City created a language of just gibberish for that very reason:  because actors tend to rely too much on their dialogue, instead of what they should be feeling in the scene.

Yes, the scenes were childish and had no point (in fact, I still don't know the point of the entire film except to showcase the Marx comedy team), and I think I'd rather shove a fork through my eye than to have to sit through it again, but during the scenes in which there was no dialogue and only physical comedy, were the moments of sheer brilliance that came out and made this film salvageable.
I would never recommend this movie to anyone I considered to be a friend.  I just really hated it.  And I really wanted to like it.

The Bellboy

Directed by: Jerry Lewis

Written by:
Jerry Lewis

Produced by:
Jerry Lewis

Jerry Lewis
Alex Gerry
Bob Clayton
Cary Middlecoff – Himself
Art Terry – Himself
Frankie Carr – Himself
Joe Mayer – Himself

Synopsis and Review:

I had seen this delightful film many years ago on a lazy, too-hot Saturday afternoon on some local station.  I had no idea what the film was about (yes, I’d already heard of Jerry Lewis and his comedic genius for years), but since I had nothing better to do, decided to watch.  And the moment he came on the screen, I. was. hooked.

As with the Marx Brothers, Lewis came a bit before my time in his real heyday, but (and I’m pretty sure I’m not part French), I love be a good absurdist comedy sometimes.

The first thing I think he did that was brilliant was in giving poor Stanley, his bellboy character, no lines.  Then, the “poor, put-upon, over-worked” bellboy nearly has carte blanche for his comedic reactions.  I was listening closely to the reactions of the other students in the audience as we all viewed both films together, and I was shocked, really:  those that rolled out loud at Duck Soup, barely even gave a titter for The Bellboy.  And that one still puzzles me.  It’s usually the same reaction when they see my idol, Tim Conway, working his sketches.  I wasn’t aware physical comedy had delineations of age differences.  Perhaps I was wrong.

But, nonetheless, they come right out and say this film has no plot, so in this regard it was the same absurdism as Duck Soup.  Both were vehicles for their very popular comedic genius stars.  And since there was no plot, in both, you could pretty much stop it anywhere you wanted and you wouldn’t lose a thing.

But to me, the crucial difference is Lewis.  Groucho would enter a scene and drop a one-liner bomb just for the sake of doing it.  Whereas with Lewis, at least he stayed connected and tied to the scene and the characters surrounding him.  He made not one extraneous and unmotivated movement unless it was tied and in reaction to a real scene happening.  Groucho almost reminded me of a “Sarah Bernhardt” whose only objection in the scene was to move downstage centre to the apron and deliver her soliloquy, apart from her fellow characters in the scene, never let anyone interact with her, and then when she was done, she would step back upstage to her original spot, and allow the other actors to work; he would simply prance around the stage in a crouch for the sake of preening.

But this was definitely not Lewis’ way of working.  He reacted to nearly everything around him—he pretty much had to, because he had no dialogue until the last twenty-seconds of the film.  And yet, he deftly told his own story—representing “the every man” who works a menial job for bosses who take credit for their work, and some who even mock him because he’s different.

And what do we find out in the end?  He’s just like everyone else—he does have a voice and he could use it, but no one asked him to.

I could be digging levels deeper than I was supposed to, but that’s part of the reason I love this film so much.  I’ve heard the French love absurdist plays and comedies, and that’s why they’ve been such a huge fan of his for as long as he’s been performing.  And I’ve also heard that’s why many people didn’t like him—my dad, included (he’s just being stupid; makes no sense).  If I had to look to a comedic hero upon whom to base and learn my physical comedy skills, Lewis would be in at least one of the top two spots.

And yet, I’ll make the point that in those rare few scenes when Lewis was appearing as himself, the audience laughed even harder at his comedic moments—times when he was in no, way, shape or form, being absurdist.  Interesting.  Maybe we just don’t have as many fans of adsurdism as I had thought—or hoped.

I did believe everything that was happening to him and around him (one reason a top-notch ensemble cast is key), but not so much with the Marx Brothers.  Even though Lewis used no words, and went over-the-top with his comedic reactions/actions, yes, I did believe he was being truthful, which I guess is why I was one of only few in the audience who really had a good belly laugh, and fell in love with poor Stanley, the Bell Boy.

And yes, that is HAYES!
In conclusion, I will make one suggestion:  If you’ve never had the chance to see Sean Hayes (Jack McFarland of Will & Grace) in his ah-MAZ-ing performance of the life of Jerry Lewis in the film for CBS entitled, “Martin and Lewis”, then you are truly depriving yourself of something special.  I’d been a fan of Hayes’ because of W&G, but because he was portraying Jerry Lewis, I was doubly-excited, and I was NOT disappointed.  In fact, in some spots of The Bellboy, the performance given by Hayes of Lewis, and Lewis as Stanley began to blur—they all became one person/actor/character.  That’s how good Sean was in this film, and I believe it was nominated for a SAG award for best male actor.

And just because I like you, I'll add a cherry on top for you:  This October 3, again on NBC, Hayes returns to episodic comedy with his new show, Sean Saves the World.  9/8C.  Can't wait!

1 comment: