Friday, March 5, 2010
Let's Get Nautical
Watching The Lady Eve last Wednesday I was reminded time and again of the brothers Marx. Not only because both Sturges and the Marxes are ribald and witty comedians of the highest order, or because the fine Robert Greig shows up as a butler in both Eve and Animal Crackers, but because of the setting aboard an ocean liner. My second favorite Marx film, the gangster spoof Monkey Business, spends a majority of its screen time aboard a boat where the brothers are stowaways, while the courtship of Charlie and Jean in The Lady Eve does the same. I have watched Monkey Business dozens of times since childhood and I think the reason I gravitate to it more than any other Marx film, Duck Soup withstanding, is that setting. Sure, the wonderful stateroom scene which is probably one of the best moments in the Marx's career is found in A Night at the Opera and the oceanic scenes are the best in that picture, but they just don't spend enough time on that damn boat! There is something so grand and otherworldly about seeing these opulent liners with their elegant ladies and refined gentlemen, albeit being bombarded with the anarchy of Groucho and the gang, that transports me. I long for that sense of style.
The more I got to thinking about it, the more I realized how many of my favorite comedies take place on boats. Some of which just happen to be former Metro Classics. For example:
Ballet star Pete Peters falls ever-so gracefully for the beautiful Linda Keene aboard a boat sailing for New York in the Astaire and Rogers musical Shall We Dance.
The gold-digging Lorelei and Dorothy get wined and dined aboard a cruise ship in Howard Hawks's hilarious Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Hey look Charles Coburn's here too!
Charlie Chaplin and Edna Purviance play downtrodden lovers aboard an America-bound liner in the Immigrant, Chaplin's best short.
And then there is Buster Keaton. Keaton was a man obsessed with the mechanics of filmmaking and his love of technology and manufactured objects permeates his films. Boats, being huge monuments of man's ingenuity and achievement, appear time and again in Keaton's work, not just in Steamboat Bill, Jr. There is the great feature The Navigator where Buster and the gorgeous Kathryn McGuire play two rich fops left alone on a large cruiser ship. The movie is basically a sustained hour-length gag of Buster vs The Boat. And then of course there is the Boat, a delightful little short where Buster builds the titular star, a rickety little vessel named the Damfino.
Steamboat Bill, Jr doesn't actually spend that much time on the boat. Not nearly as much as the Navigator or The Boat, but its profound impact upon the future of oceanic comedies was solidified during the very year it was released when two young upstart animators, Ub Iwerks and Walter Disney, spoofed Steamboat Bill, Jr with a revolutionary sound cartoon starring a plucky little mouse named Mickey. Steamboat Willie is not the best animated short of all time, nor the best Disney short. Hell, it's not even the best Mickey short (my money's on the fantastic Two-Gun Mickey) but it is undeniably one of the most important and influential films in cinema history. Not only did it usher in an artistic and commercial media giant, it galvanized the entire animation industry to step up its game and provided live-action films of the era with a template for what sound could achieve in motion pictures.
The question of Steamboat Willie's rights has been bandied about for quite awhile now. Many think that the film has entered the public domain. Unfortunately we're too afraid of the Disney legal department to try and screen the film before Wednesday's Keaton extravaganza (plus, we're running two shorts before the feature anyway) so I humbly present this pre-game warm-up to you, our loyal readers. Put on your cravat, your top hat and tails, and take a stroll on the observation deck. Toot toot!