From time to time, FilmEdge is glad to offer some programming suggestions when great films are on the air, and Thursday the 28th Turner Classic Movies unspools some classics. It’s quite a lineup for a weekday, so if you’re near your TV, check them out:
The day begins with one of the Marx Brothers‘ best, 1935’s A NIGHT AT THE OPERA directed by Sam Wood. Groucho leads the high society crowd into hilarity as Otis B. Driftwood, with Chico and Harpo supporting a struggling opera singer (series semi-regular Allan Jones) who loves the prima donna (Kitty Carlisle). The boys thoroughly dismantle perfect Marx-fodder foil Sig Rumann in the process. Numerous comedic set pieces contribute to the film’s legendary status with fans, including Groucho’s overcrowded stateroom (with two hard-boiled eggs), the Brothers’ radio interview as three great aviators, and Chico’s famous ‘sanity clause’ contract bit. A NIGHT AT THE OPERA airs at 8:30am ET, so invite the Marxes in for breakfast (make that three hard-boiled eggs!) or set your Tivo if you’re a west coaster like me.
Great Garbo continues the good humor of the day at 2pm ET in NINOTCHKA, Ernst Lubitsch‘s must-see gem from a year of great filmmaking in 1939. This was the film which first introduced me to Garbo’s hypnotic beauty and on-screen power, and if you’ve never seen one of her films this continues to be a perfect starting course. She’s hilarious as a stern, stiff Russian envoy sent to corrupt capitalist Paris to berate her freedom-smitten comrades for delaying the sale of confiscated jewels of a Grand Countess. In true Lubitsch fashion, laughs and just a touch of human truths ensue as Garbo emerges from her shell to enjoy the very non-decadent, simple joys of life. Melvyn Douglas, Ina Claire, Bela Lugosi co-star, along with another delightful dose of Sig Rumann. [edit: somehow I said Garbo and gang went to America instead of Paris – don’t know what I was thinking! Sorry.]
The star power rolls on in an unforgettable comedy at 6pm ET as Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant, James Stewart and Ruth Hussey make headlines in THE PHILADELPHIA STORY. George Cukor expertly directs Donald Ogden Stewart‘s adaptation of Philip Barry‘s hit stage play. Haughty socialite Hepburn is about to marry an ambitious self-made man (John Howard) when her ex-husband Grant returns to the scene of the nuptials with two hungry magazine reporters in tow. Social satire runs rampant as Stewart and Hussey attempt to get a great story while Grant works up some lighthearted revenge on his ex-wife to spite her perfect image. Young Virginia Weidler stands out amid a stellar cast as Hepburn’s little sister. Far from a simple farce, a complex yet comedy-filled entanglement of unrequited loves follow straight through to the improbable, delightful ending.
Just when you thought TCM couldn’t pack any more comedy greats into one day, the network goes on the road with Bob Hope, Bing Crosby and Dorothy Lamour in five globe-hopping gems. The adventure begins at 8pm ET as the boys take the ROAD TO SINGAPORE which started the hit series in 1940. Buddy Bob helps shipping heir Bing duck out on his family business responsibilities and an impending engagement by hopping a boat to the South Seas. In Kaigoon, their vow of bachelorhood quickly ends when they rescue dancer Lamour from her jealous partner (Anthony Quinn). Soon her feminine wiles make both the boys fall in love with her. They attempt to eke out a living by running a medicine show scam against Jerry Colonna, and find themselves on the run once again. Of course double-dealing ensues as Bob and Bing fight to woo Lamour away from the other, and fans know how this inevitably turns out. Some of the series more lyrical songs blend romance with raucous routines in the least formulaic of the ROAD franchise.
Bob and Bing head to Africa in 1941’s ROAD TO ZANZIBAR, a highlight sequel of the series which matches Lamour and cohort Una Merkel against the scheming boys in a zany tale of con games, carnival stunts and competitive romance. Lured by the promise of easy riches discovering a lost treasure, Hope and Crosby get their comeuppance as the women play their own clever angles. Certainly the stereotyping of African-American actors dates this entry badly as a product of its time, but this aside the film offers a torrent of one-liners and ad libs as Bob and Bing have fun with the ROAD formula. Frank Butler and Don Hartman‘s script is a stand-out under Victor Schertzinger‘s direction, and songs by Johnny Burke and James Van Heusen rate as some of the series’ best.
Next the boys trade the jungle for the desert in 1942’s ROAD TO MOROCCO, perhaps my favorite of the five-film set thanks to Butler and Hartman’s rapid-fire script of hilarious zingers — though by this point both Hope and Crosby hired their own teams of uncredited writers to invent jabs and pokers at their co-star in an unending game of one-upsmanship. Audience reap the benefit of this joke war set against the lush Moroccan set designs and luxuriant costumes decorating Lamour’s princess palace (one of the last studio pictures to spend so much on design as World War II began for America). Anthony Quinn returns as Lamour’s hot-headed desert sheik and intended fiance, but naturally Bob and Bing have their own ideas of winning the princess’ heart. Burke and Van Heusen delivered the best theme song of the ROAD series in a clever tune which pokes fun at the franchise while extending it another chapter. Indeed, the ROAD pictures get a much more self-conscious by this entry but audiences played along with the gag gladly.
Hope and Crosby resumed their travels after the war in 1946’s ROAD TO UTOPIA, which shows some wear around the edges of the franchise but still offers plenty of laughs. Flipping the script a bit, the film opens with Bob and Dorothy as an elderly married couple surprised by the return of Bing after many years absence and presumed dead. The story then proceeds as the flashback to their collective youth and meeting of Dorothy in the wilderness of Alaska. Schemes and double shuffles abound as the boys pose as ruthless frontier killers who stole the map to a gold mine. Douglas Dumbrille works comedic wonders as the slick and sinister villain, while Robert Benchley attempts to keep the wacky tale on track as the pop-up narrator. The only period film in the series, Benchley delivers a then-current day touch of self-parody to UTOPIA, which also points out the script’s comparative weakness to the prior entries.
The series concludes in the wee hours of Friday morning with 1953’s ROAD TO BALI in what may be one of the most delayed sequels in any comedy franchise. The series was a little long in the tooth by this entry, Hope and Crosby a little thicker in the waist and Dorothy a lot deeper in voice, but the boys’ conniving buddy act still delivers on laughs. As two vaudeville hoofers avoiding a shotgun wedding, Bob and Bing seek new work and get scammed by a devious island prince (Murvyn Vye) into stealing a sunken treasure from a man-crushing squid. Against all odds, Hope comes up with the treasure and the boys sail off to marry Lamour in a franchise-bending double wedding. A volcanic eruption shakes up the silly factor even higher for the finale which finds Hope the romantic victim of his own solo film success in THE PALEFACE.
Plot your course for great comedy all day Thursday on TCM and enjoy!