Though director Edward Buzzell was never a household name, it is nonetheless a name that is known to send shudders down the spines of Marx Brothers aficionados. Buzzell was the director of the Marx’s two worst films, ‘At The Circus’ (1939) and ‘Go West’ (1940). Far from being a workman/hack who simply executed the lousy scripts (both by Irving Brecher), Buzzell clearly put his own vaudevlle-based stamp on the films, pushing Groucho to perform in a bizarre hyper-energized, over-caffeneted manner that robs him of all his previous subtle sarcasm, turning him into a witless buffoon. And the Marx Brothers weren’t the only classic team that Buzzell helped bury. In 1947 he directed William Powell and Myrna Loy in ‘Song Of The Thin Man’, the lousy final entry in that revered series of films. Buzzell began his career as a singer/entertainer in Vaudeville and came to Hollywood with the coming of sound, starring in the 1929 version of ‘Little Johnny Jones’, based on the turn-of-the-century musical by George M. Cohan. MGM had him under contract and later Columbia starred him in a handful of short comedies. One of the MGM projects he appeared in, ‘The March Of Time’ (1930), was an unfinished musical omnibus containing a large cast of MGM stars including Gus Edwards, Buster Keaton, Ramon Novarro, Bing Crosby, Marie Dressler and others. Alas, the fashion for these sort of musical grab-bag vehicles took a precipitous dive in 1930 and the studio decided to shut the film down before any more money could be spent (and most likely lost). In order to salvage something of the remains, several completed numbers were released as shorts including the above ‘The Devil’s Cabaret’. This four-plus minute ‘color tone novelty’ (as it’s billed) is enough to make you realize that MGMs decision to pull the plug was a sound one. It’s truly crappy–but it’s also a fascinating bit of arcana. Buzzell only appears in the last minute to deliver the film’s punchline and his work as a performer is about as impressive as his work as a director. To his credit, however, Buzzell appears to have had something producer-ish to do with the legendary Milton Berle television show of 1948. His last credit as a director was a strange English-made near-nudie sex comedy in 1961 called ‘Mary Had A Little…’, truly a subject for further research for somebody who needs to get out of the house more. He lived long, dying in 1985 at the age of 89. Despite my harsh words for him, I have hopes that somebody (maybe the Directors Guild?) sat him down and recorded a good long career history interview with him. Talent-free though he was, he certainly was in the thick of a fascinating slice of Vaudeville/Broadway/Hollywood history and worked with some of its greatest performers, even though most of them probably wished they’d never crossed paths with him to begin with.




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2 Responses

  1. Wow, what a bizarre piece. You’re right, it’s not at all good, but as an artifact of its time, it’s fascinating. Its uniform high-kicking chorus line at the start (on pointe, no less) is very much in the 1920s Broadway style of choreography (you can see a similar bit in the opening number of the 1930 film Whoopee), its stylistic zenith culminating in the Radio City Rockettes. I get the sense watching these early-sound-musical films that no one yet knows where to place the camera or dancers in relation to each other when filming a musical number–the one here still seems conceived in terms of an audience viewing a stage show. Buzzell at the end is a nonentity, as well as utterly charmless, and the punch line is lame. Still, I like the Cabaret-in-Hell idea; you wonder what Busby Berkeley, who really could stage movement and bodies for the camera, might have done with it.

  2. Great insight you offer as to the problems they had figuring out the combo of dance and camera. What might have looked expressive on stage appears flat (at least to modern eyes) when shot in this fashion. When you watch the opening dance number in ‘The Cocoanuts’ (bellhops doing that strange hand-gesture dance) and you see the dancers simply dance off the set as they would dance off the stage (with the camera simply recording them leaving) you realize how little the filmmakers understood the dynamic effect that well-staged dance could have when planned for and realized on film.

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