Sunday, August 4, 2013

Mill Creek comedy classics #46: "We're in the Legion Now" (1936)

Mill Creek's print of We're in the Legion Now is in "full natural color." Two of them, in fact: black and white.

The flick: We're in the Legion Now (Grand National Pictures, 1936) [buy the set]

Current IMDb rating: 5.7

Director: Crane Wilbur (directed The Bat with Vincent Price; wrote The House of Wax, also with Price, plus Mysterious Island and more; as an actor, appeared in the original 1914 Perils of Pauline)

Actors of note: Reginald Denny (suave British actor who appeared in Hitchcock's Rebecca, the 1966 Batman movie with Adam West, Cat Ballou, Of Human Bondage, and much more; his work with remote control aircraft led first to his own model plane company and then to target drones that were actually used by the U.S. Army in WWII), Esther Ralston (Lonely Wives), Vince Barnett (All Quiet on the Western Front, Scarface [1932 version], the Marx Brothers' Horse Feathers), Eleanor Hunt (Ernst Lubitsch's The Merry Widow; had been briefly promoted from chorus girl to leading lady but was then downgraded to supporting player), Claudia Dell (A Bride for Henry), Robert Frazer (White Zombie), Rudolph Anders (Chaplin's The Great Dictator, Lubitsch's To Be or Not to Be), Frank Hoyt (literally nothing else; one and done, baby)

This is Reginald Denny, the actor, not the
guy who was beat up during the LA riots.
The gist of it: Two gangsters, witty Englishman Dan Linton (Denny) and crude, tough-talking American Spike Conover (Barnett), are living it up in Paris while their fellow mobsters are being locked up in a major police dragnet. While in gay Paree, the two meet a couple of attractive blondes, Louise Rillette (Ralston) and Yvonne Cartier (Dell), but are disappointed to learn that Louise is married to grouchy Captain Rillette (Frazer) of the French Foreign Legion. Louise and Yvonne encourage Dan and Spike to join the Legion themselves for "relaxation" and "scenery." The boys are reluctant... until another gangster comes gunning for them, which causes them to sign up for a five-year hitch.

Once enlisted and shipped off to Morocco, they flagrantly violate every rule and constantly disrespect authority, which means they're "under arrest" most of the time. Before the feds back home seize their bank accounts, though, they still manage to live in high style. They bribe an officer, Sgt. Groeber (Anders) to avoid active duty and socialize with American nightclub singer Honey Evans (Hunt), who has been performing in Morocco. But after one incident, during which they save Louise and Yvonne from a group of Arabs who meant to take them hostage, Spike and Dan are found guilty of being in the wrong damned place at the wrong damned time and are sentenced to six months of hard labor under the eye of insane, power-mad Adjutant Cartellini (Hoyt), who gleefully works men to death in the hot sun.

Luckily, the day is saved when Arabs attack the labor camp, kill Cartellini, and engage the Legionnaires -- plus Captain Rillette, Louise, and Yvonne, who happen to be visiting -- in a shooting war, giving Dan and Spike a chance to demonstrate their bravery and resourcefulness in battle.

Real-life legionnaires in Morocco.
My take: Phew! That's a lot of plot for a movie that doesn't even run a full hour. We're in the Legion Now is all over the place, jumping around from one plot thread to the next without a great deal of continuity. Much of the middle of the movie has Dan and Spike competing for the affections of Honey Evans, a singer who must not be that great because we never get to hear her sing one note. But then, this subplot is abandoned without explanation.

The film has several major shifts in tone, too, and becomes remarkably grim and violent for a stretch. This is especially jarring because Barnett gives a very stylized, cartoony performance and indulges in lots of slapstick-style humor near the beginning. (For some reason, Spike really loves to throw empty bottles around.) The best way to describe this movie is as a queasy combination of Abbott and Costello in the Foreign Legion (1950) and The Hurt Locker (2008). Frankly, I'm going to have to plead ignorance when it comes to the French Foreign Legion, because virtually all I know about that organization comes from cartoons and sketch comedy. What beef the French have with the Arabs, I don't know, and why they should round up a bunch of foreigners to do their fighting for them is beyond me. This movie seemed mostly to be filmed on Los Angeles soundstages, with some stock footage of Morocco edited in for good measure.

This was a head-scratcher. I wasn't bored by it, just a little baffled. The entire time I was watching this film, I kept thinking of a very funny little one-panel cartoon by the great Sam Gross. In it, a group of Legionnaires are marching across the desert. At the back of the line, one says to the other: "I'm trying to forget about a girl, but it's hard. Her name is 'Sandy.'"

Is it funny: At the beginning, sure. For two guys who are supposed to be laying low, Dan and Spike make not the slightest effort to be inconspicuous. When they go out on the town in Paris, for instance, they dress like Rich Uncle Pennybags from Monopoly, then Spike orders a magnum of champagne (or maybe it was cognac) and guzzles it down as if it were tap water. After that, it's fun to watch the boys get on the nerves of their humorless superior officers in the Legion.

But the movie takes a permanent nosedive into seriousness when the two protagonists are sent to that forced-labor camp. The finale of the movie is action-packed and nearly joke free. I kind of wish We're in the Legion Now had remained a feather-light military farce, more like Hay Foot. That film was no masterpiece, but it was more fun to watch than this one.

My grade: C+

P.S. - The Arabs in this film are depicted every bit as sensitively as you'd expect for a movie from 1936. When one guy says, "Praise Allah!" you know he's bad news. And there's a really cringe-inducing scene when Spike goes gaga for Honey Evans because she's "the first white woman" he's seen in months. Yeah.

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