Thursday, July 4, 2013

Mill Creek comedy classics #31: "The Milky Way" (1936)

Milk and funny: Harold Lloyd in The Milky Way.

The flick: The Milky Way (Paramount, 1936) [buy the set]

Current IMDb rating: 6.7

Director*: Leo McCarey (Duck Soup, The Bells of St. Mary's, An Affair to Remember; considered one of the all-time great comedic directors for his work with the Marx Brothers. W.C. Fields, Laurel & Hardy and Cary Grant; won Oscars for The Awful Truth [directing] and Going My Way [directing and writing]; four more nominations for directing, plus one nomination for Best Original Song)
*Uncredited fill-in directors: Leo's younger brother Ray McCarey (directed some Three Stooges, Laurel & Hardy, and Our Gang shorts but never approached his brother's fame), Norman Z. McLeod (big-time comedy director; worked with W.C. Fields, the Marx Brothers, and Bob Hope, plus did that one Twilight Zone episode with Buster Keaton)

Charles Lane: The man.
Actors of note: 
  • Harold Lloyd (regularly earned $1 million per picture for his 1920s silent comedies; he's the nerdy-looking guy hanging from the giant clock in Safety Last!; also appeared in The Freshman, The Kid Brother, and the original version of Ben-Hur)
  • Adolphe Menjou (Pollyanna, Stage Door, A Star is Born [1937 version], Kubrick's Paths of Glory, so much more)
  • Veree Teasdale (Adolphe Menjou's real-life wife at the time; appeared in Goodbye Love), Helen Mack (His Girl Friday, The Son of Kong)
  • William Gargan (The Animal Kingdom), George Barbier (Yankee Doodle Dandy, The Man Who Came to Dinner)
  • Dorothy Wilson (The Merry Widow, The Last Days of Pompeii)
  • Lionel Stander (Once Upon a Time in the West, 1941, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town; lent his famous gravelly voice to Transformers: The Movie; played Max on TV's Hart to Hart)
  • Charles Lane (everything, basically; 360+ TV and film credits from 1931 to 2006, including It's a Wonderful Life, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, The Music Man; episodes of TV's The Twilight Zone, I Love Lucy [frequent foil to Lucille Ball on all her series], The Andy Griffith Show, The Beverly Hillbillies, Soap, etc., etc., etc.), Marjorie Gateson (You'll Never Get Rich, Wife vs. Secretary)

The gist of it: Underachieving milkman Burleigh Sullivan (Lloyd) becomes a media sensation when he takes the credit for knocking out obnoxious middleweight champ Speed McFarland (Gargan), who had been harassing Burleigh's sister, Mae (Mack), on the street. In truth, it was Speed's own trainer, Spider (Stander), who had accidentally slugged the famed pugilist during a confusing melee, but Burleigh had always wanted to get his name in the papers and this seemed as good an opportunity as any. Scrawny Mr. Sullivan can dodge punches very well but can't throw one worth a damn. In Spider's words, Burleigh is "as soft as a bag of dead mice."

In order to save the disgraced boxing champ's reputation, Speed's sleazeball manager, Gabby (Menjou), decides to turn Burleigh into a celebrated fighter and rigs a series of matches for the milkman to "win" before a big rematch with Speed. Though dubious of his own (non-existent) boxing skills, Burleigh agrees to become a prizefighter in order to pay the medical bills of his beloved horse, Agnes. Gabby's plan works perfectly at first. The previously-unknown Sullivan "beats" his opponents easily, becomes a public hero, and truly begins to believe he is a great fighter. As the rematch approaches, the once-humble milkman has no idea he's about to be creamed.

Yes, here's the Harold Lloyd clock scene. Happy now?
My take: If people know one thing about film comic Harold Lloyd, it's that he hung from a giant clock in a movie once. Well, yes, he did. It was in a very successful 1923 silent feature called Safety Last! If people know two things about Harold Lloyd, other than the fact that he wore funny-looking round glasses, it's that he was a major silent star in the 1920s but never really made it in the talkies. That's true, too. After his last big silent hit, Speedy (1928), Lloyd made a series of under-performing sound features, including this one, before his early retirement in 1938. Luckily he'd invested his money wisely. The actor made one big comeback attempt in 1947 with The Sin of Harold Diddlebock, but that film (which is coming up in this very series!) was a money-losing disaster, one of Hollywood's biggest fiascos. His film career now really done, Harold Lloyd spent the rest of his life pursuing his twin passions: doing charity work for the Shriners and taking nude 3D photos of glamor models.

On the basis of the reasonably funny and well-made boxing comedy The Milky Way, I have to wonder why Lloyd never cut it in the era of talking pictures. He's at least as good at verbal comedy as he is at physical slapstick humor. Like seemingly every comedy from the 1930s and the 1940s, The Milky Way is nonstop, rapid-fire banter. The zingers fly fast and furious here, and Lloyd is more than able to keep up, although many of the best one-liners go to Gabby's deathly cynical mistress (and real-life wife). In a way, the appeal of The Milky Way is similar to that of Hay Foot. It's satisfying to watch the nerdy little guy make a chump out of the angry bruiser over and over again, and that's just what Lloyd gets to do in this film.

In fact, the only major wrong turn the film took, in my estimation, was turning Speed McFarland into a "good guy" near the end and having him romance Burleigh's sister, Mae. Speed's treatment of Mae at the beginning of the film is unacceptable and most likely unforgivable. He and Spider gang up on the much-smaller Mae, taunting her and playing keep-away with her hat. That's what sets the whole plot in motion. Lloyd's character, Burleigh, although lacking in physical prowess, is a ridiculously straight-laced do-gooder in the tradition of Underdog, Roger Ramjet, and Dudley Do-Right. (Like Underdog, he even has a sweet, virginal girlfriend named Polly!) Burleigh gets himself into this whole mess by defending his sister's honor, putting his own safety at risk in the process. After such an event, it's very difficult to believe that Mae would actually fall in love with Speed.

Anyway, even though this flick lost money, it must have made an impression on someone. It was remade as The Kid from Brooklyn in 1946 with our good buddy Danny Kaye and then again in 2004 as The Calcium Kid (cute title, huh?) with Orlando Bloom. Supposedly, two-time Oscar winner Anthony Quinn got his start in the movies as a fight spectator in The Milky Way. I wasn't trying to spot him, though. If you want to attempt it, my advice would be to search for Quinn's famous dark eyebrows. Those might stand out in a crowd.

Is it funny: It has its moments, definitely. Like any movie comedian worth his seltzer, Harold Lloyd has a knack for getting himself into the darnedest situations, i.e. trying to take a small horse with him in a taxi without the cabbie catching on and then pretending to sing to cover up the animal's constant neighing. As I mentioned, Gabby's worn-out, tough-as-nails mistress -- who, admirably, doesn't give a damn about any of the silly plot complications -- is a one-woman joke factory. If you like snarky putdowns and withering retorts, she's your gal. Not every comedy sequence is a winner, though. An early scene in which Burleigh interrupts his boss's presentation with loud hiccups (or "hiccoughs") was a laugh-free experience for me, as was a scene in which Gabby shares a sleeper car on a train with the annoying Burleigh, who keeps him up all night with his noisy, unfunny shenanigans. At that point, even I wanted to take a swing at the milkman.

My grade: B+

P.S. - No racial stereotypes per se here, but the film comes close a couple of times. One headline says that Burleigh has an "African sparring partner." Cut to: Harold Lloyd walking into a lobby with a lion. Ha! The only person "of color," as they say, is a porter or bellboy who has no lines and merely stands in the background briefly in one scene.