Monday, March 29, 2010

Movie Monday - The Milky Way

Sorry for the muddy pics. The print wasn't in the best shape, but I cleaned up the screen caps as well as I could.

In the 20's, Harold Lloyd was the biggest thing going. His films outgrossed both Chaplin's and Keaton's. He didn't have Chaplin's artistic sensibility, nor Keaton's pure physical skills, but he was a solid, prolific filmmaker, and his regular guy persona was more appealing than both of them put together.

Unfortunately, the one thing he had in common with Chaplin and Keaton is that his career didn't survive for long after the introduction of talkies. Which is too bad, because last week's "The Sin of Harold Diddlebock" and this week's film are okay. Both feature clever scripts, funny gags, and Lloyd's trademark appeal. They ultimately fall a little flat compared to the best comedies of the time, but they compare well to, say, the Three Stooges' pictures, whose iconic status is a little mystifying.

In "The Milky Way" from 1936, Harold Lloyd plays mild-mannered milkman, Burleigh Sullivan. The script is pretty good, based on a Broadway play, so the plot structure is more solid than most movie comedies of the time, and there's lots of clever wordplay. Lloyd makes an appealing leading man, and the scenes where he gets to play physical comedy work well, but his timing isn't so sharp when it comes to dialogue as his castmates.

The plot: Burleigh's sister, Mae, works as a hat check girl, where she catches the eyes of a couple of drunks.

Mae is played by Helen Mack, well known to fans of Famous Monsters of Filmland as Hilda from "Son of Kong." The two drunks are Speed McFarland (William Gargan) and his friend Spider, played by Lionel Stander (who also had a small but memorable role in last week's Lloyd film).

The two drunks accost Mae outside the club when milquetoast milkman Burleigh comes to the rescue.

There's a brief fight, and somehow Burleigh stays on his feet while Speed is knocked out, which causes quite a sensation. You see, Speed is the middleweight champion of the world.

The next day, Burleigh visits Speed and his manager, Gabby Sloan (Adolphe Menjou) to set things straight. Burleigh explains how his highly developed ducking skills enabled him to dodge Spider's punches with ease, which led to Spider knocking out Speed. The demonstration ends with Speed being knocked out a second time, just before a horde of reporters rushes in, making Burleigh an overnight celebrity.

So Gabby, desperate to rescue the reputation and income stream of the former champ, convinces Burleigh to be a fighter. Burleigh takes the job because he needs the money for his sick horse, Agnes.

Oh yeah, and in the process of calling a doctor for Agnes, Burleigh ends up in the boudoir of lovely and wholesome Polly, a manicurist with whom he falls in love.

Gabby's plan is to have Burleigh win a series of set-ups, paying fighters to lay down for Burleigh so as to get him a title fight with Speed, where Speed will knock Burleigh out and rescue his reputation. There are a couple of problems with the plan. Number one is that Burleigh is not a natural fighter.

Number two is that Speed falls in love with Mae and refuses to fight his brother-in-law. When Gabby suggests that Speed delay the marriage until after the fight, Speed declares "We can't, I mean, we don't wanna." Burleigh's sister got busy!

But success has gone to Burleigh's head, which leads to a schism with Polly, a conflict with Mae (who convinces Speed that her brother needs to be punched out), and a brawl with a society matron.

Okay, actually not that last one. In fact, Burleigh's teaching Mrs. Winthrop Lemoyne how to duck, in a pretty good scene that gets referenced a couple of times later in the film, as when Mrs. Lemoyne ducks a swing by the announcer as she takes the ring before the big fight.

As I said earlier, though the movie ultimately falls flat, it really shines in spots and makes me want to look up some more of Lloyd's talkies. I also want to look up "The Kid From Brooklyn," the remake from 1946 starring Danny Kaye.

Oh yeah, a couple of things that really struck me. Besides having Lionel Stander in common, there are a couple of scenes in "The Milky Way" that call to mind "The Sin of Harold Diddlebock." In one scene, Burleigh terrorizes a hotel lobby with a pet lion on a leash.

And in another, Burleigh busts out with a Diddlebock yell.

So yeah, the first couple of classic comedies were pretty pleasant surprises. But they're not all gems. Not by a long shot.

As you'll see next week.

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