“Either you love them or you hate them. Ever since 1925 the bombastic Ritz Brothers have elicited this kind of strong audience response. Film critic Pauline Kael rates the antics of Harry Ritz alongside those of Marcel Marceau. Mel Brooks has called Harry Ritz the funniest man alive. Sid Caesar and other funnymen have expressed their debt to Harry and his brothers. Apparently there are just as many, among the press and the public, who’ve never found the Ritz trio amusing. But the majority rules, in show business and in life. The Ritz Brothers entertained audiences for six decades – and kept ‘em laughing long and loud enough to remain headliners all that time.” (From “Movie Comedy Teams” by Leonard Maltin, Revised and Updated Edition, 1985, Plume Books).
Put me in the love category, but with a small “l.” I’ve seen just as many Ritz Brothers routines that had me doubled over with laughter as I’ve sat there stone faced as they make their facial contortions and cringe-inducing grimacing. But when they were at the top of their game, they could be very funny.
One reason why the Ritz Brothers have not endured like other comedy teams from the era is their lack of personality. Unlike other comedy teams from the era, the brothers had no specific characteristics where differing personalities merged into a harmonious whole.
I couldn’t tell the difference between Harry, Jimmy and Al Ritz if my life depended on it. Not only do all three act alike, they all look alike. (Others would say they haven’t endured because they weren’t funny).
The Ritz Brothers were a highly successful stage act, incorporating comedy and synchronized dancing in their routines. Thanks to their growing popularity and drawing power wherever they appeared, Twentieth Century Fox signed them to a contact and put them in support of stars like Alice Faye and Sonja Henie.
I think they’re hilarious in their “Let’s Go Slummin on Park Avenue” number with Alice Faye in “On the Avenue” (1937) but then I generally laugh at grown men dancing in women’s clothing and making ridiculous faces. But a later number in the same film, a take-off on “Ortchi-Tchorniya” goes on for what seems like days and has me reaching for the mute button on the remote.
They were successful enough at Fox that the studio built some films around them, such as “Life Begins at College” (1937) and “Kentucky Moonshine” (1938). After being let go by Fox in 1940, they signed with Universal Pictures to appear in the film version of Rodgers and Hart’s “The Boys from Syracuse” (1940). That fell through, but the Ritz Brothers stayed at the studio and made several B musical comedies with titles like “Argentine Nights” (1940) and “Hi’Ya Chum” (1943). But Universal was raking in the cash with their Abbott and Costello comedies, so Universal was not interested in giving the Ritzes good scripts or productions.
Many movie fans know them from the haunted house comedy “The Gorilla” (1939) likely due to the film falling into public domain and being available on a number of cheap video and DVD labels. They’re pretty obnoxious in it, if memory serves. The less said about their routines in “The Goldwyn Follies” (1938), arguably one of the worst musicals from Hollywood’s Golden Age, the better.
I was probably spoiled in my introduction to the Ritzes as I first saw them in what many consider the trio’s best film, “The Three Musketeers” (1939), a good-humored take-off on the famous Alexandre Dumas novel.
I’ve seen the film several times now and am always impressed by how much director Allan Dwan crams into the film’s short running time of 73 minutes. Dwan and company manage to work in quite a bit of the Dumas story, and still have room for Ritz Brothers comedy routines and several song sequences.
The cast can’t be beat (though admittedly, the supporting cast isn’t given much to do thanks to the film’s short running the time.) For romantic leads, there’s a well-cast Don Ameche and his very pleasant light tenor voice as D’Artagnan and charming Pauline Moore, a familiar face from several Charlie Chan films, as Constance.
Villainy is provided by Binnie Barnes as Milady DeWinter, Lionel Atwill as DeRochefort and John Carradine as a conniving landlord. The royals are represented by Gloria Stuart as Queen Anne, Joseph Schildkraut as King Louis XIII and Lester Matthews as the Duke of Buckingham. In a bit of inspired casting, Miles Mander is Cardinal Richelieu.
The Ritz Brothers do not play the Musketeers, but three cooks who masquerade as the Musketeers. Athos (Douglas Dumbrille), Aramis (John King) and Porthos (Russell Hicks) come to a tavern where the Ritz Brothers are singing about preparing chicken soup, which I can guarantee was not in the original Dumas story.
The Musketeers toast all the kings of France named Louis, and pass out by the time they get to Louis XIII. The Ritzes dress up in their finery to see what they would look like as Musketeers. Of course they are mistaken for real Musketeers and fight off the Cardinal’s Guards with the help of D’Artagnan, who has come to Paris to join the Musketeers. While D’Artagnan fights off the Cardinal’s Guards with his sword, the Ritzes use the aforementioned chicken soup.
After that, we get a pretty standard telling of the famous Dumas story, familiar thanks to so many movie versions over the years. Of course, those versions don’t include a generally hilarious sequence here where the Ritz Brothers attempt to steal from Milady De Winter an incriminating letter that she has placed down the front of her…er…ahem….charms. Because they are Musketeers, and gentlemen, they have to be careful about how they retrieve the message.
Their solution is to hold her upside down and shake her violently until the letter drops out. Two other letters fall out until the third one turns out to be one they are looking for. “She’s a post office,” one of the brothers says.
One wonders if Binnie Barnes was cursing her agent a blue streak when these scenes were being filmed. No matter, as the sequence is a masterpiece of slapstick and kills me each time I see it.
The other highlight is a synchronized dance routine where the Brothers have cymbals placed on all over their bodies, which they clang against with cheerful abandon. It’s very silly but undeniably funny.
In addition to the comedy, we get several delightful songs, as good as anything one would hear in more traditional costume operettas. There’s a lively “Song of the Musketeers” and a beautiful ballad titled “My Lady” that stands with the best of Victor Herbert, Sigmund Romberg or Rudolf Friml (or Rudy Friml, as Professor Harold Hills calls him).
I was really impressed by the quality of the songs here and wanted to know more about the film’s songwriters, a team unfamiliar to me, composer Samuel Pokrass and lyricist Walter Bullock. I was saddened to read that Pokrass died in 1939, and “The Three Musketeers” was his penultimate assignment. (I want to stress that my opinion on the film’s songs put me distinctly in the minority).
All of 20th Century Fox’s studio sheen is here. The lighting and staging of the “My Lady” number equals musical sequences from more prestigious musicals and the sets and costumes make this probably the best-looking film the Ritz Brothers ever appeared in.
“The Three Musketeers” did see a DVD release. Before the economy went south, Fox Home Video had a Ritz Brothers collection in the works. I remember seeing it on the company’s web site. It was called something like A Box of Ritz Brothers. I don’t know what the titles were but several of them would have been making their home video debut. Regretfully, the box set never came to pass. (Again, many would say this was a good thing.)
I would have enjoyed having it around though. I would have laughed at some, but not all, of the Ritz Brothers routines, and it would be something to put on when wanting to get rid of annoying visitors who didn’t get any other hints it was time to go home. I think the Ritz Brothers would have approved.
I was very pleased to participate in the CMBA’s Comedy Classics Blogathon. I also urge my readers to not only visit these sites for the comedy movie blogathon, but on a regular basis. There’s always lots of fascinating insights and reading to be had at these sites on a regular basis. Visit http://clamba.blogspot.com/ for a list of titles.