Friday, January 28, 2011

Double Dynamite

(1951, 80 min.)

Starring Frank Sinatra, Groucho Marx, Jane Russell, Don McGuire, Howard Freeman, Nestor Paiva, Frank Orth, Harry Hayden, William Edmunds, Russell Thorson.

Screenplay by Melville Shavelson from a story by Leo Rosten from characters created by Mannie Manheim with additional dialogue by Harry Crane (and I think I left out a Hungadunga).

Directed by Irving Cummings.

Johnny Dalton (Sinatra) leads a boring life and that’s the way he likes it (or at least claims to). He’s got a nice woman, Mildred (Russell), but he refuses to marry her until their finances are solid enough to avoid any worry. He’s not even adventurous enough to take a chance on the pickled pig’s feet Emil (Marx), the waiter at his regular lunch place, attempts to foist on him. He figures if he just keeps slogging away at the bank, where both he and Mildred work, as well as the clueless manager (Hayden) and the lothario son (McGuire) of the bank’s owner (Freeman), eventually everything’s going to fall into place. But Mildred is getting tired of waiting, as is Johnny, though he won’t admit it.

One day while out walking, Johnny comes across two toughs roughing a guy up in an alley. They’re both bigger than him, but he manages to make enough noise to get them to run away. The victim, a pretty big guy himself with dark glasses he never removes (cult and mainstream veteran Paiva), tells him there’s no need to call the police, but that Johnny should come along so he can reward him. Next thing Johnny knows, he’s in a betting parlor; seems the man he saved is one of the most powerful crime figures in town, a super-bookie named ‘Hot Horse’ Harris, who has the unique ability to call the winner in any given horserace. He gives Johnny a cool $1000 reward, but then proceeds to bet that grand in race after race until Johnny finds himself with thousands of dollars he didn’t have a few hours before without ever having left the room. Reluctant to be involved at first, Johnny eventually realizes that he can now marry Mildred immediately, as well as buy her everything she’s ever wanted.

His newfound freewheelin’ ways hit a snag when he goes back to the bank and finds that a $75,000 deficit has been discovered and everyone is to be on the lookout for any employee who may be engaging in any unusual spending. Oops. Worse, he can’t give the real explanation for his newfound wealth because the betting parlor has disappeared. Johnny now has to hide the money until he can figure out, with Emil's help, what to do with it.

Given my moniker, you can probably guess why I chose to watch this. As such I feel I need to tell fellow Groucho-philes that while this is a pleasant enough flick, worth seeing should the opportunity fall into your lap, don’t feel the need to run out and comb through your local video stores (which in many areas would also require traveling back in time at this point, sigh). Frank plays the befuddled juvenile role in a way far removed from the tough guy image for which he would later become famous and Jane makes a cute ingénue, especially when playing drunk. But I use the two descriptives “juvenile” and “ingénue” quite deliberately, because, while old Julius gets off some really good lines here and there, this film mostly serves to illustrate what a Marx Brothers movie might have looked like had it not been a Marx Brothers movie; that is to say if their films had not been such a successful reversal of the Hollywood formula, taking the comics out of the relief position and using the romantic plot and its players as window dressing, the excuse to sing a few songs, and more or less act as a McGuffin around which the Brothers could turn the house upside down. What you get here is a pleasant diversion that actually gives you its “true love rises above” attitude without a single gookie for balance.

So, my Marx Brothers brothers, watch it, but watch it, if you follow. Groucho’s performance will give you a small treat, but only if you can ignore the film’s most egregious offense: Emil pretends to be a wealthy businessman to gain a meeting with the bank’s owner…and then doesn’t even insult him once!

This is the sort of behavior that finally brought down Freedonia, I'll have you know.

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