THE DVD SHELF: "The Royal Tenenbaums," "Metropolitan" and the Absurdist Comedy "Million Dollar Legs"

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02 Sep 2012

Cover art for
Cover art for "Universal Rarities: Films of the 1930s"

This month we watch three unconventional and unlikely movies, each of which creates a world of its own: Wes Anderson's "The Royal Tenenbaums," Whit Stillman's "Metropolitan" and a wacky 1932 comedy called "Million Dollar Legs."

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"Million Dollar Legs" — which is included in the most welcome four-disc set Universal Rarities: Films of the 1930s [TCM] — is a wildly madcap romp, a comedy far too good to have been consigned to relative ignominy. The film seems to have been made on a dare; studio head B. P. Schulberg of Paramount sent a command to the writer's building for someone to come up with a script that could capitalize on the upcoming 1932 Olympic Games in Los Angeles. It seems that the Mankiewicz boys devised something just crazy enough to go ahead with.

Herman Mankiewicz was a screenwriter and sometime producer in the Paramount stable; in this case, he served as producer (although elements of the story seem to have sprung from his mind). Joseph L. Mankiewicz, his kid brother, is credited for the script with Henry Myers. (Myers, who had a relatively minor career, was a long-time friend of Lorenz Hart; back in the days before Hart's lyric writing career took off, he produced two plays by Myers on Broadway. Flops. Myers also collaborated with Hammerstein on the moderate 1928 hit Big Boy before going to Hollywood. Hart, Myers, Hammerstein and the Mankiewiczes all hailed from Columbia.)

The Mankiewiczes, of course, went on to legendary films. Joseph won back-to-back directing and writing Oscars for "A Letter to Three Wives" and the classic "All About Eve." It seems, though, that Herman — who got his own Oscar, shared with Orson Welles for the screenplay of "Citizen Kane" — was the guiding force on "Million Dollar Legs."

The action begins in the European kingdom of Klopstokia, a land ruled over by a strongman. Literally so; he reigns under the threat of being unseated by anyone who can beat him at hand wrestling. This is a land where all the girls are named Angela. (A brash young American suitor asks why. "Why not?" replies Angela. Their courtship is thoroughly absurdist. She: "What are you selling?" He: "Yes." She: "I love you, too." Talk about love at first sight.)

The cabinet is dripping with plots, and the place is overrun with spies. The biggest spy of all is a seductive vamp called Mata Machree, who needs only to wriggle to capture her prey. In an eerily modernistic twist, Klopstokia sees one way out of its eight million dollar debt: win the Olympics and get sponsorships from a big corporation. Off they all go to Los Angeles, via ocean liner and train. (The Los Angeles Special arrives just in time for the games, only in San Francisco. Don't ask.)

It turns out that the Klopstokians are all world-class athletes; it must be something in the goat's milk. (The title "Million Dollar Legs" refers not to the blonde bombshell but to the president's major domo, who — thanks to some refreshingly primitive special effects — outruns horses, cars, and boats. Wearing a goat's head.) Best athlete of them all turns out to be the strongman president — none other than W.C. Fields, who here incorporates his old vaudeville routine juggling Indian clubs.



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