Thursday, August 30, 2012

Million Dollar Legs (Paramount, 1932)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I cracked open the latest boxed set I’d ordered from Turner Classic Movies called, howlingly inaccurately, Universal Rarities: Films of the 1930’s — inaccurately because while the four films in it are titles Universal owns, they were all originally produced by Paramount, acquired by MCA-TV in the 1950’s and later assigned to Universal when it was purchased by MCA in the 1960’s : the 1932 comedy Million Dollar Legs with Jack Oakie and W. C. Fields (billed in that order), Mae West’s 1934 film Belle of the Nineties (shot during the “pre-Code” glasnost but released post-Code and blatantly butchered; there’s a jarring cut in the middle of one of Mae West’s songs that all too obviously removed a particularly racy chorus at the censors’ behest), the 1937 film Artists and Models (a Raoul Walsh-directed musical starring Richard Arlen and Jack Benny — Robert Osborne, in an introduction included with the DVD set, said it was Jack Benny’s first starring feature, but arguably that honor belongs to Transatlantic Merry-Go-Round three years earlier: Gene Raymond and Nancy Carroll were the stars of that marvelously quirky combination of musical and crime thriller but Benny was billed third and his part ran through the entire movie) and — a weird fit with the other three movies — the 1937 maritime melodrama Souls at Sea, directed by Henry Hathaway and starring Gary Cooper. (About the only connection that film had with comedy was that in 1940 Laurel and Hardy parodied its title for their last film at Hal Roach Studios, Saps at Sea, though the plot was not a parody of Souls at Sea and the films otherwise have nothing to do with each other.) TCM also advertised all four films in the box as new to DVD, which is not true; Belle of the Nineties had a previous DVD issue in the mid-2000’s (I know because I bought it then and Charles and I watched it).

The movie we watched last night was Million Dollar Legs, a really wild comedy (the posters in 1932 announced, “It’s Insane! — It’s Joyous!,” and both adjectives were quite correct) that managed to pull off within the limits of early-1930’s Hollywood the same kind of relentless assault on the funnybone Monty Python did on the BBC in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. It’s set largely in a fictitious country called “Klopstokia,” made up of all the mittel-Europan standing sets on the Paramount backlot and introduced in a title as “Chief Exports — Goats and Nuts,” “Chief Imports — Goats and Nuts,” “Chief Inhabitants — Goats and Nuts.” Migg Tweeny (Jack Oakie) is a super-salesman who works for the Baldwin Brush Company, whose CEO, Mr. Baldwin (George Barbier), is in Klopstokia with Tweeny on a sales trip. Only Tweeny takes a wrong turn with his sample case and bumps into Angela (Susan Fleming, a quite personable and appealing actress who quit the business in 1936 to marry Harpo Marx), and the two instantly fall in love at first sight. Anxious to take the steamer out of Klopstokia with his boss, Migg commandeers an ornate carriage he thinks is a cab, but is in fact the official vehicle of Klopstokia’s President (W. C. Fields) — who just happens to be Angela’s father. In fact, according to the wild script by Joseph L. Mankiewicz (who got the job because his brother Herman was the associate producer of the film — which has led to some sources claiming that Herman actually wrote it, which he didn’t), Henry Myers and Nick Barrows, all Klopstokian women are named Angela and all Klopstokian men are named George (though there’s one exception in the latter department: Angela’s pre-pubescent brother Willie, played by child actor Dickie Moore).

What’s more, every Klopstokian is a super-athlete — we’re supposed to believe, I think, that that’s due to their subsisting largely on a diet of goat’s milk — and instead of elections, the Klopstokians select their president by arm-wrestling matches. The Secretary of the Treasury (Hugh Herbert, in a much stronger role than he usually got to play at Warners — apparently having a part in a film with people like W. C. Fields inspired him a good deal more than the rather dreary “woo-woo” roles he played in the Warners musicals) is working out, determined to beat the President at arm wrestling so he can take over, and the rest of the Klopstokian cabinet is in league with him: they have a secret meeting place (there’s an elevator button reading “Down” next to a tree which lowers the tree and creates the entrance to their Batcave) where they plot their schemes, which basically involve taking advantage of Klopstokia’s $8 million debt to dethrone W. C. Fields and take over. Migg discovers this when he takes Angela for a walk through the woods and she accidentally sits down on the button — this comes after Migg has been appointed Fields’ privy councilor when, sentenced to be tortured and killed by a firing squad as punishment for Fields’ daughter’s suitors, he instead talks them out of killing him and into buying his company’s brushes — and Migg, whom Fields calls “Sweetheart” (making for some pretty outrageously gender-bending gags even by the relatively loose standards of the “pre-Code” era!) because that’s what his daughter calls him, hits on the idea of entering a Klopstokian team in the 1932 Olympics, which were being held in the Los Angeles Coliseum (and Paramount released the film a few weeks before the start of the actual Olympics to use them as promotion); once Klopstokia’s super-athletes sweep the Olympics, Migg reasons, his boss Mr. Baldwin will shower sponsorship money on them and Klopstokia will be able to pay off its national debt.

Only the corrupt cabinet members (a veritable who’s-who of slapstick comedy sidekicks: Billy Gilbert, Vernon Dent, Teddy Hart, John Sinclair, and Sam Adams) hit on a counter-strategy: they’ll call on the internationally famous femme fatale, “Mata Machree, The Woman No Man Can Resist” (Lyda Roberti, the heavily accented blonde singer who introduced George and Ira Gershwin’s “My Cousin from Milwaukee” in the 1933 flop musical Pardon My English and who died tragically young at age 29), to seduce all the Klopstokian male athletes one by one so that when they find out she’s betrayed them all, their morale will be crushed and they’ll do wretchedly. When the cabinet members go to visit her, there’s a nameplate outside her door reading, “Mata Machree: The Woman No Man Can Resist. Not Responsible for Men Left After 30 Days,” and when she actually deigns to see them she makes a grand entrance down a long staircase to the tune of the “Land of Hope and Glory” strain of Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance March No. 2. She’s quite obviously being played as a parody of Greta Garbo — she’s even given one of Garbo’s most famous off-screen lines, “I t’ank I go home now” (during an argument with Louis B. Mayer over a contract dispute in 1928, Garbo told him, “I t’ank I go home now,” and left his office; everyone at MGM thought she simply meant she was returning to the bungalow she was staying in in Hollywood … until the next time they heard from her, when they found out she was in Sweden) — though she also gets to do one of the almost incomprehensible hot-jazz vocals she was famous for, “When I Get Hot It’s Terrific,” written by Leo Robin and Ralph Rainger. Mata’s machinations work — they also temporarily derail the relationship between Migg and Angela — but Angela drags Mata into the Klopstokian locker room, she confesses to the athletes that she never loved any of them, and this restores their morale and they go on to win the overall medal count — thanks to a weight-lifting performance by W. C. Fields at the end: competing against Hugh Herbert as a free-lance entrant he seems like he’s going to be unable to lift the 1,000-pound weight until, at Angela’s urging, Migg goads him into getting angry, whereupon he not only lifts it but hurls it far enough he wins the shot-put medal as well.

And as if all this isn’t zany enough, there’s also a former Klopstokian national anthem, “Woof Bloogle Jig,” which is actually the melody Richard Whiting (Margaret Whiting’s father) wrote for the title song of the Ernst Lubitsch-George Cukor One Hour with You, starring Jeanette MacDonald and Maurice Chevalier, released by Paramount earlier in 1932, but with gibberish lyrics supplied by Harry Myers; Angela explains these represent “the old Klopstokian language, which we spoke before we all learned English.” (At last someone in Hollywood parodied the insistence in American movies that everyone in the world spoke English, no matter what country they were from or where the story took place.) Million Dollar Legs is so arbitrarily put together it makes the Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup seem like a model of plot coherence by comparison, and though W. C. Fields is screamingly funny in it it does suffer from his lack of involvement with the script (and though Fields at this point was large but without the alcoholic bloat he acquired later, believing him as a weight-lifter so powerful he makes Arnold Schwarzenegger look like Twiggy is a bit of a stretch even in this anything-for-a-laugh context), even though it has some of his classic gags, including the “hearty handclasp” and the bit in which he would put his cane over his shoulder, then try to put his hat on, and his hat would end up on the tip of his cane instead of his head.

 Million Dollar Legs may not be the funniest movie ever made (as claimed by one over-the-top contributor) but it’s appealing in its own zaniness (and it’s interesting that two of the actors in it, Jack Oakie and Billy Gilbert, later turned up in Charlie Chaplin’s Hitler spoof The Great Dictator) and especially for the droll Keaton-esque performance by Andy Clyde, who seems to be the possessor of the “million dollar legs” alluded to in the title (the working titles were “On Your Mark” — the name Joseph L. Mankiewicz gave his original story — and “Million Dollar Feet”) since (thanks to fast-motion photography) he’s so fast a runner he can give the other contestants in a mile race a 200-yard head start and still win. (The fact that the Olympics are running a mile race itself dates this movie: in today’s Olympics all the track events are at distances measured in metric units — actually, according to, the Olympics were already running races at metric distances in 1932.) Paramount reused the title Million Dollar Legs for a Betty Grable musical in 1932 (Grable moved from RKO to Fox to Paramount and back again to Fox, where she finally broke through as a star when she was a last-minute replacement for Alice Faye in Down Argentine Way) but the two films have nothing to do with each other plot-wise. The film is directed by Eddie Cline, who would return to Fields at Universal in 1940 and make his last three starring movies (My Little Chickadee, The Bank Dick and Never Give a Sucker an Even Break), who before he became a director was a Keystone Kop (as was Hank Mann, who supposedly has an uncredited bit part as a customs inspector), so he knew a thing or two, three or several about slapstick!