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

By Steven Suskin
September 2, 2012

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.

Fields plays second banana to Jack Oakie, one of those low-comedy masters of the double take who is all but forgotten. Oakie does fine here. (His most memorable role — which resulted in his only Oscar nomination — was as the savagely satirical, Mussolini-inspired Benzino Napaloni, opposite Charles Chaplin's Adenoid Hynkel in "The Great Dictator.") Mata Machree, "The Woman No Man Can Resist," is played by the sizzling Lyda Roberti. She had made a splash on Broadway the year before in Harold Arlen's first musical, You Said It!, singing "Sweet and Hot." (She pronounced it "sweet and ccccchot.")

Andy Clyde is wryly funny as the speedy presidential aide, and the uncredited Billy Gilbert — who built a career on his comic sneezes — can be found in the cabinet meeting, sneezing. The Angela of the occasion is one Susan Fleming, who manages to hold her own against scene-stealers Oakie and Fields. She soon retired to marry another scene-stealer, Adolph Marx (better known as Harpo).

Adding to the hilarity are two songs, the first of which is Roberti's "It's Terrific (When I Get Hot)," by Ralph Rainger and Leo Robin. The other is the Klopstokian national love song, "Woof Bloogle Gik." This is an inside joke; the nonsense lyric is set to Richard Whiting's title tune for one of Paramount's then-current hits, "One Hour with You." But the whole film is blissful nonsense. The only thing that comes close is "Duck Soup," and not coincidentally. Herman Mankiewicz produced that one — his third Marx Brothers film — a year later.

TCM has packaged the film with three other '30s titles. (All are from Paramount, despite the "Universal Rarities" label.) The others are Mae West's "Belle of the Nineties" (1934), a risque tale of, well, Mae West; "Artists and Models," a Jack Benny musical of 1937; and — as a distinct change of pace — the 1937 adventure tale "Souls at Sea" starring Gary Cooper.

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Cover art for "The Royal Tenenbaums"
Director Wes Anderson creates an altogether unique universe in the 2001 charmer, The Royal Tenenbaums [Criterion]. Royal Tenenbaum is the patriarch of this impossibly unlikely — but thoroughly Delectable — clan. So richly detailed is this film that you assume it must be based on some thick, literate novel, but no; it is created in and of itself. It almost seems like Anderson purposely assembled a cast of actors who don't belong in the same movie and rose to the challenge of perfectly fitting them into a grand puzzle: Gene Hackman, Anjelica Huston, Gwyneth Paltrow, Ben Stiller, Bill Murray, Danny Glover, Luke Wilson, and his brother Owen (who collaborated with Anderson on the screenplay).

The Tenenbaums are a family of geniuses after the genius has worn off. They live in their own Manhattan castle, in the form of a wonderful old corner brownstone. (The actual house they used was on West 144th Street, in Harlem.) The place is chock-filled with specific and meaningful artifacts, each of which speaks to us — at least, those artifacts that we are able to register as the camera and the dialogue whirl by. Anderson, in a booklet which accompanies this Blu-ray, notes that the film "contains more perhaps unnecessary visual detail than both of my previous films combined." (Criterion, most happily, provides a six-page insert with three-dozen hand-drawn preliminary sketches, designs and groundplans by Eric Chase Anderson, brother of the director. For fans of the film, this is indispensable.)

Also included is an incisive essay by Kent Jones in which he suggests that "The Royal Tenenbaums" has its stylistic roots in the films of Preston Sturges mixed in with Orson Welles' "The Magnificent Ambersons," Salinger's short stories, and decades-worth of New Yorker cartoons. Well put, I say.

The actors are, each and every one, magical; it's just that kind of film. One that you will be glad to watch repeatedly, with so many layers to be seen. And savored.

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Cover art for "Metropolitan"
An entirely different slice of New York — real, or perhaps imagined — is served in the 1990 sleeper Metropolitan [Criterion]. This first-time film from director/writer/producer Whit Stillman follows a group of debutantes and their escorts — home from their first semester of college — through a Christmas week of society balls at the Plaza, plus late-night after-parties on upper Park Avenue.

This setup, in a different time and place, might have served as the springboard for any sort of jolly comedy; back in the '30s it would have been "Dinner at Eight" for 20-year-olds. But Stillman — who clearly knows this world — was looking at something more like the disintegration of civilization. The civilization of debs and their dates, anyway. The more analytical of the group know, even as they go through the paces, that they are dinosaurs: WASP preppies embarking on a world in which privileged pedigree no longer brings privilege.

"Metropolitan" tells of an outsider — a Princeton lad (Edward Clements) whose Park Ave. father has disowned him, at the behest of a wicked stepmother — who is drafted into a group of revelers as a much-needed escort. His relationship with the most vulnerable of the girls (Carolyn Farina) — sweet and warm and a wallflower — provides the plot. Farina gives a wonderful performance, as does Clements; both are first-time actors, as are most of the principals.

Stillman made the film, on location in New York for $225,000, which in 1990 was a minimal amount. (While the comparison might be meaningless, "Ghost" — which beat out Stillman in that year's best screenplay race — had a budget of $22,000,000.) "Metropolitan" has heart, and wit, plus charm and warm laughter. And a sense of social malaise which speaks knowingly and ruefully of the end of a world.

(Steven Suskin is author of "Show Tunes," "The Sound of Broadway Music: A Book of Orchestrators and Orchestrations," "Second Act Trouble," the "Broadway Yearbook" series and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He also pens Playbill.com's Book Shelf and On the Record columns. He can be reached at Ssuskin@aol.com.)

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