Wednesday, January 25, 2012

The Three Musketeers (1939)

“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 for a list of titles.


Page said...

When I first saw that you were doing The Three Musketeers I immediately thought of Gene Kelly and crew. I should have known from our category that it was to highlight The Ritz Brothers.

You might recall, during our films of 1939 Blogathon I did a trio of posts and The Gorilla was one of them. It was my first introduction to The Ritz Brothers. I guess I'm in the 'not such a fan' camp but to be fair I shouldn't judge their talents, appeal on just one film.

Your write up has given me a lot to think about and the next time I see this film airing or perhaps another of this trio of comedians, I'll watch with an open mind! : )

As always, a fun and informative write up! Loving that our fellow bloggers have chosen comedy teams to highlight during this Blogathon.

Oh, and glad to see Zanuck had such a great sense of humor. Thinking outside of the box to turn this one into a spoof.


Kevin Deany said...

Page, I well remember your post on "The Gorilla", and if that film had been my introduction to the Ritz Brothers I would never have returned for a second viewing.

And I can very easily see and understand why some people wouldn't like them. They can grate on me too. But like I said, they could be very, very funny, like "The Three Musketeers."

Caftan Woman said...

If all anyone ever saw of the Ritz Brothers was "The Three Musketeers", they would be fans. I too have a hot and cold relationship with the trio, but have been known to stick up for them when the internet world starts to bring them down.

PS: You quoted my favourite bit from "The Music Man". Harold slays me when he drops the name "Rudy".

Excellent choice and post.

Rick29 said...

Kevin, I so agree with the following lines from your marvelous review: "when they were at the top of their game, they could be very funny" and "I couldn’t tell the difference between Harry, Jimmy and Al Ritz if my life depended on it." The truth is that THE THREE MUSKETEERS is the only Ritz Brothers film I've seen. The first time I saw it, I wasn't prepared for a buffonish trio of Athos, Portos, and Aramis impersonators..but, after deciding to go with it, I laughed at many of the gags. I mean, it's not to be amused at the sight of chicken soup being used as a weapon. In the end, the film (to quote you again) "very silly but undeniably funny." Three quotes from the same review--that's impressive, Kevin!

FlickChick said...

Uh oh - yet another movie featured in this blogathon that I have to out on my list. Somehow, I have managed to be absent the day the Ritz Brothers films are shown, but after reading your post, I will have to remedy that. They sound like the cat's pajamas!

Grand Old Movies said...

Really perceptive analysis of the Ritz trio - they do run hot and cold, even in the same film, as you point out. And, as you note, they don't have separate, developed comic personalities like the Marx Bros or Wheeler & Woolsey, so they are hard to tell apart (Harry is usually the one in the middle, mugging the most). Their drag routine in 'On the Avenue' is hilarious (and I do think their "Here Pussy Pussy" number from 'The Goldwyn Follies' very funny, particularly with the double-entendre lyrics). I remember watching their version of "The Three Musketeers" as a kid, which is probably the best way to be introduced to them - their slapstick mugging does seem as if it would appeal to younger audiences.

KimWilson said...

Kevin, I am unfamiliar with the Ritz brothers. Like Page, I thought you might be doing another version of The Three Musketeers.

BTW, why aren't you following me...looked at your sidebar--no love for Kim?

Dawn said...

I have not yet seen this film, but it sounds like it has a lot of good natured charm.

Kevin Deany said...

Thank you everyone for commenting. CW, glad you liked "The Music Man" reference.

Rick, thanks for the nice compliment. I remember that the late British film historian, Leslie Halliwell, liked the film enough to include it in his "Halliwell's Hundred" book.

Flick Chick, I also need to check out more Ritz Bros. movies. I've never seen any of their Universal titles, and only a couple of the Fox titles. Hope to remedy this soon.

Kim, of course there's love for you. I need to update my followers section.

Dawn, thanks for stopping by. I hope you get the chance to see the film sometime.

GOM, thanks for the ID on Harry. I know Harry is the brother that's probably celebrated over the others, and assumed that was him, but wasn't sure.

R. D. Finch said...

Kevin, I've heard of the Ritz Brothers but to my knowledge have never seen them in anything. But your post makes them seem interesting enough, at least in this movie, to give them a try. I have "On the Avenue" in my Netflix queue (I've slowly been trying to catch up on the Fox musicals), and after reading this will move it up the queue to get a look at them. A well-written and amusing post. I'm impressed that the blogathon has inspired so many people to do what you've done--to spotlight personal favorites that deserve to be better known.

Kevin Deany said...

R,D, as I said they're pretty funny in "On the Avenue"...part of the time. Othertimes they're not. Which I guess pretty sums up the Ritz Brothers.

"On the Avenue" is lots of fun, with one great Irving Berlin song after another. It's one of my favorites.

whistlingypsy said...

Kevin ~ I’m sorry I missed your post on Thursday, but it certainly was worth the wait. I’m disappointed that I can’t add my admiration for this film, because I have not seen it, yet. My introduction to the brothers Ritz was in a film so long ago I can’t recall the name or the plot, but I think the number involved a cardboard train on a stage. I’m fascinated by the idea of The Ritz Brothers in “The Three Musketeers” as the title characters (if only by mistaken identity). A cast that includes Don Ameche; Binnie Barnes; John Carradine and Gloria Stuart and the boys in their version of Morris dancers, I’m checking the TCM Guide now. Thank you for this excellent addition to the blogathon, and a wonderful reminder of an overlooked comedy trio (also appreciate the stipulations regarding their comedy style).

Classicfilmboy said...

Hmmmm ... after Page's dissection of "The Gorilla," I'm not sure I wanted to see the Ritz Brothers. Now I do, thanks to your review. Yet another film to put on the list!

Kevin Deany said...

Whistling Gypsy, a cardboard train on a stage? Doesn't ring a bell, but I've only seen a handful of their movies. I wonder if it was another movie they made Don Ameche, "You Can't Have Everything" with Alice Faye?

Brian, yeah, I agree with you on "The Gorilla." It's pretty painful. But they're other 1930 movie - "The Three Musketeers" - is much better.

Juanita's Journal said...

This movie did not impress me.

Kevin Deany said...

Juanita, believe me, many people share your view. I'm friends with some pretty hard core movie buffs and I ran this one night about 10 years ago. One of them got up about halfway through and left, and he sits through everything. So you're not alone in your views of this film. Thanks for stopping by.

Dees Stribling said...

I'll have to give the Ritz Bros. version of The Three Musketeers a go. The little I've seen of the brothers never did impress me, but it sounds like it's worth a look.