Thursday, June 13, 2013

Mill Creek comedy classics #9: "Niagara Falls" (1941)

These posters certainly make Niagra Falls look like a class act.

The flick: Niagra Falls (United Artists, 1941) [buy the set]

Current IMDb rating: 6.0

Director: Gordon Douglas (Them!, In Like Flint, Viva Knievel!)

Actors of note: Marjorie Woodworth (It Should Happen to You), Tom Brown (TV's Gunsmoke, Days of Our Lives, General Hospital), Zasu Pitts (All Quiet on the Western Front, It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World, Greed), Slim Summerville (All Quiet on the Western Front, Jesse James), Rand Brooks (Gone with the Wind, In Like Flint)

The gist of it: A romantic comedy of errors ensues when a squabbling young man and woman (Brown and Woodworth), only recently acquainted after a traffic accident, wind up at the Falls View Hotel in Niagara Falls at the same time purely by coincidence, and everyone simply assumes them to be newlyweds! After all, why else would they be in the honeymoon capital of the world? Particularly intent on forcing this young "couple" to get along is Sam Sawyer, a newlywed himself but no spring chicken. While Sam goes to truly insane lengths to keep these lovebirds together, his poor neglected bride Emmy (Pitts) waits alone in the bridal suite. Meanwhile, the hotel's increasingly flustered manager, Mr. Potter (Brooks), tries to sort all this out.

My take: Romantic comedies were every bit as contrived and unrealistic in 1941 as they are in 2013, but if Niagara Falls is any indication, they were funnier, faster,  and more joyous and inventive than the current breed. Today's romcoms tend to be made for and marketed to women, often in a cynical and pandering manner, but I think both genders are likely to get a kick out of Niagara Falls, a farce which keeps escalating and escalating, much like an episode of Seinfeld or Fawlty Towers. Now, keep in mind, this is a silly, inconsequential "B" movie, obviously made quickly and cheaply. It is utterly unpretentious and aims only to entertain. Those looking for substance are advised to seek elsewhere.

Some may be put off by the characters' outdated morality, including their horror at the very thought of an unmarried couple sharing a hotel room, but Niagara Falls is not preachy or prudish in the least. Yes, some of the hotel guests express outrage at the sins they think are being committed by Brown and Woodworth, but the movie considers these bluenoses to be just as silly and illogical as all the other characters in the script. While seemingly chaste, Niagara Falls is chock full of sexual innuendo. Though never actually mentioned, sex is the #1 subject on the minds of most of the film's characters. Underneath it all, though, there is a genuine sweetness to this film that I found extremely charming.

Hal Roach at one end of his career and the other.
By the way, I have not yet even mentioned his name in this project, but now is as good a time as any to discuss the career of Hal Roach (1892-1992), the movie mogul whose self-named company produced this film, plus Hay Foot and many more of the comedies in this set. A stocky, solidly-built New Yorker born to Irish immigrant parents, Roach started out as an actor in silent pictures but soon realized his place was behind the scenes. He parlayed a small inheritance into what would become one of the great comedy empires of the Twentieth Century, starting his own company and launching the screen careers of many funnymen, including Harold Lloyd, in the process. Hal Roach Studios, as his enterprise was known, was most famous for producing the films of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy -- who had been working separately until Roach (or Leo McCarey, depending whom you believe) paired them up -- and the beloved Our Gang series of one-reel kiddie comedies which would later be repackaged for television as The Little Rascals. (Heard of them, rookie? I thought so.)

Though most famous for his short films, Roach also experimented with what he called "streamliners," middle-length films that were meant to play as the bottom half of a double bill with a more prestigious feature. Hay Foot and Niagara Falls are both examples of such "streamliners." After his style of comedy went out of fashion in the late 1940s and his company plunged into debt, Roach switched gears and started cranking out television shows, mostly comedies like The Abbott and Costello Show but occasional action series like Racket Squad. In 1955, he turned the reins of the company over to his (by all accounts) untalented son, Hal, Jr., who ran it into the ground after only six years. A Canadian company would later buy the name "Hal Roach Studios" and continue the business, this time making TV shows like Kids Incorporated and dabbling in the digital colorization of films. Hal himself had nothing to do with this, having given up his stake in the company decades earlier.

Undaunted, the great man spent the rest of his life working as a consultant on projects related to his glory days and plotting his comedy comeback. He lived to be a hundred years old, outlasting two wives, several children, and most of the Our Gang/Little Rascals kids. In 1992, the last year of his life, he was given an honorary Oscar, but the producers of the show failed to provide him with a microphone and his comments went unheard. Thus ended the Hal Roach saga.

Slim and Zasu see the wrong kind of action.
Is it funny: Yes, very much so! Niagara Falls has a clever little script, zippy direction, an ace cast, and lots of eccentric flourishes which make it a fun watch. When the very first shot of a romantic comedy is of a sign which reads "Suicide Point," you know you're in for something unusual. That sign is part of a wraparound story in which the disgraced and befuddled Sam Sawyer works up the nerve to jump off a cliff, while the titular falls make their only appearance in the background. He's interrupted by a passing peanut vendor who wants to hear his tale of woe. The out-of-nowhere appearance of that vendor -- utterly nonplussed that his customer is contemplating suicide, by the way -- reminded me very much of The Simpsons. (Remember the hot dog vendor who followed Homer around?)

The rest of the film is what you'd expect from a bedroom farce: a series of misunderstandings abetted by ill-timed entrances and exits and characters talking at cross-purposes. Brown and Woodworth, while not outstanding, are generally ingratiating as the exasperated non-newlyweds. They start out arguing, of course, but soon enough they have to band together to try to escape from their deranged, gun-toting, would-be matchmaker. Brown sort of reminds me of a discount, off-brand Jack Lemmon. At one particular point, when he expresses his disdain for marriage to Woodworth, his image onscreen is replaced by that of an animated cartoon wolf, anticipating the animated scene from Annie Hall by almost four decades!

The minor characters at the hotel, both the staff and the other guests, are quite funny, too. I particularly liked a scene in which a restaurant patron tries to punch some sense into Brown and... well, I won't ruin the surprise, but the denouement is perfect. Just as well-realized is a delightfully low-key scene in which Sam, having been menaced by the weather and a pesky cat, climbs off a ledge (don't ask how he got there in the first place) and into the room of two strangers.

Much of the movie rests on the shoulders of Slim Summerville and Zasu Pitts, an older couple who have put off marriage (and, apparently, sex) for two decades and suffer an adorable bout of wedding night jitters. Summerville and Pitts, both quite loopy, play their parts to deadpan perfection. They both have expressive, comical faces and a good mastery of posture and body language. (Note particularly how Pitts drapes herself over furniture whenever she gets the chance.) They help make this film a sleeper and a keeper.

My grade: A-

P.S. - There is only one stereotypical Negro character in this film, a porter, but his scene is brief, restrained, and very gentle.