50 MILLION FRENCHMEN, 1931
Peter Forbes, a young American millionaire, journeys to Paris and bets his friends Billy Baxter and Michael Cummins that he can live without his money for a month and, while doing so, get engaged to Looloo Caroll, a young woman he adores. She is in Paris with her parents and her best friend Joyce. The catch is that Peter has one month, until July 4, to throw their engagement party at the Chateau Madrid. Trying to woo Looloo while penniless, he endures humiliation. His first job is as a tour guide, but much to his dismay, he has caught the eye of Violet Hildegarde, a fur-buyer who sends risqué French postcards to her children ("Where Would You Get Your Coat?"). An aspiring singer, May DeVere, also becomes interested in Peter. Since Peter has no time, Looloo and Billy have begun flirting.
CLICK HERE and watch 2009 MOVIES FOR FREE!
Although I would describe myself as a filmbuff, I am also a comedy buff. Comedy is my favorite movie genre and unlike most modern, casual movie fans, I take great pleasure in hunting down and watching comedies made by comedians and comedy teams which time has forgotten. I enjoy introducing readers to the work of such comics as Harry Langdon and the comedy team of Wheeler & Woolsey. Now I would like to expand upon that even further. This time I would like to discuss the comedy team of Olsen & Johnson.
I find it sad that so many entertaining films and movie stars get left behind and are dropped out of the public's sight. Many times these films are quite good but were perhaps a bit too ahead of their time. Sometimes there are copyright issues or films are believed to be lost.
None of that happened with this team. The team consisted of Ole Olsen, the straight man of the group. He is the slightly taller, slightly skinner one, and Chic Johnson, the more rotund one, known for his high-pitched laugh. They started off on vaudeville doing a musical act. Olsen on the violin and Johnson on the piano. Of their act it was said "no joke too old, no song too corny". They started to pick up some success and found themselves appearing on the radio. Naturally this gave them a wider audience. Eventually they were signed to a contract with Warner Brothers and later Universal.
Their brand of humor came to be known as "nut" humor. It was extremely off-the-wall. Think of the Marx Brothers mixed with the Ritz Brothers. Their comedy thrived on chaos. It is said their best work was on the stage where they could feed off the audience and ad-lib. Films confined them too much. They had to tone it down and couldn't be as spontaneous. One of their biggest hits was "Hellzapoppin", a stage play in 1938 and later made into a film at Universal in 1941. Several film historians claim that was their best film.
In total the team appeared in 9 films starting with "Oh Sailor Behave" (1930) and ending with "See My Lawyer" (1945). Strangely nothing happened to the team. Usually a team stops making films if one of them dies or becomes sick. They actually kept on working though back on stage and even hosting a short lived television program. So their style of humor wasn't completely out of date. Perhaps they simply lost interest in doing movies and not the other way around. Some of their other films include "Country Gentleman" (1936) and "Ghost Catchers" (1944).
"50 Million Frenchmen" (1931) was the team's second film. It was based on a Broadway musical from 1929 written by Herbert Fields and E. Ray Goetz with a musical score by Cole Porter. The play ran for 254 performances and featured such songs as "You Do Something To Me" and "You've Got That Thing". By the time the film was about to be released musicals had actually fallen out of the public's taste, after only two years, the first musical was the "Best Picture" Oscar winner, "The Broadway Melody" (1929). Because of this, Warner Brothers decided to scrape all the songs. So instead of a Cole Porter musical the film became a strict Olsen & Johnson vehicle. Cole Porter devotees (which I am among. Porter is my favorite composer) have ill feelings about this. This is the only feature length film adaptation of the stage play and no songs were sung, though "You Do Something To Me" and "You've Got That Thing" can be heard in the background.
In the film Ole Olsen plays Simon and Chic Johnson is Peter. A couple of American detectives in France. They happen to meet millionaire Billy Baxter (Lester Crawford) who has made a wager with Jack Forbes (William Gaxton) that he cannot win the hand of Lu Lu Carroll (Claudia Dell) in two weeks without the use of his money. You see, Jack is a millionaire playboy type. Billy feels the only way Jack can get women is by flaunting his money. Without it, Billy thinks Jack would strike out. So Billy hires Simon and Peter to trail Jack and make sure he doesn't write home for money and burrow from any of his friends.
Peter is a shirt chasing, fun loving kind of guy, always looking for a good time. Think along the lines of Harpo Marx, only with dialogue. Whereas Simon is the more serious of the two. He wants to pay attention to their job. They will have plenty of time to have fun after they get paid.
In some way "50 Million Frenchmen" suffers from the problems most musical comedies starring famous teams suffer from. The comedy team is really comic relief. The main emphasis of the plot is the love story and whether or not Jack can get Lu Lu to fall in love with him in two weeks. Most of the time viewers get mad because they have to sit through a stale love story and wait to see their favorite comedy team, which is why you probably decided to watch the film in the first place. But "50 Million Frenchmen" is a worthwhile film and here's way. First of all, even the love story has comedic elements to it. William Gaxton gives a light-hearted performance. So we don't get a mushy performance with a cliche love story, though you will be able to guess what happens. The love story doesn't take itself too serious. Thus we are not without comedy even when the team is not on-screen. The film is also pretty short. "5o Million Frenchmen" is only 70 minutes. So the plot is not delayed. Events move briskly and keep our interest. And finally, when Olsen & Johnson are on-screen they brighten up the movie. They have some good moments, though, you do wish they had more screen time.
Some of the best comedic moments happen when Peter and Simon are mistaken for male escorts (!), this is one of those "pre-code" Hollywood films. Trying to escape from the angry ladies, they disguise themselves as a magician's (Bela Lugosi in an unbilled cameo!) assistants. They will do a trick where Peter is placed in a basket while Simon sticks swords through it. There will be a trap door for Peter to escape in and he is suppose to scream in pain when the swords go through. The cue for Simon to start will be two taps from Peter. Unfortunately Peter taps too fast and the trick door doesn't open. Another good sequence is the film's climatic chase scene. The boys get in a few good laughs here running away from a gang of policemen through all sorts of obstacles.
Besides Olsen & Johnson also providing laughs is Helen Broderick as Violent, another American on holiday in Paris. She is looking to get into trouble, and I mean of a sexual nature. She wants to see the seedy side of Paris, but nothing seems to offend her. Broderick is probably best known to classic movie lovers for her roles in two Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers' musicals; "Top Hat" (1935) and "Swing Time" (1936), playing the wise-cracking best friend.
The film was directed by Lloyd Bacon, who would directed another Olsen & Johnson film, "Gold Dust Gertie" (1931). He was also behind a few Joe E. Brown comedies (another talented forgotten comic) including one of Brown's best "You Said A Mouthful" (1932) with a young Ginger Rogers. And he did the great musical "42nd Street" (1933) and a Dennis Morgan, Rita Hayworth comedy "Affectionately Yours" (1941) which isn't very good. But nothing in "50 Million Frenchmen" seems to suggest the work of a director. The movie is shot pretty conventionally, merely placing the camera in front of the action and not moving it. I suppose everyone was still getting used to working with sound.
"50 Million Frenchmen" is a bit of a rarity. I honestly don't know if the film can be found on VHS (totally forget DVD). I happened to see it many years ago on TCM (Turner Classic Movies). To my knowledge it has not played since. But, if you were to see it, that would probably be the only place you would. Though you can buy some Olsen & Johnson comedies online by visiting the website, http://www.moviesunlimited.com/. They have pretty reasonable prices, you can find some titles for as low as $7. Though I cannot comment on the quality of these copies.
The film was originally released in technicolor but for some reason all that exist is a black&white version. It is unknown if the technicolor print exist anywhere. For those Cole Porter devotees, you might take some pleasure in knowing a two-reeler adaptation of the play was made entitled "Paree, Paree" (1934) starring Bob Hope. It too can be seen on TCM from time to time.
I haven't seen all of Olsen & Johnson's comedies, so I can't say if this is one of their best films or not. But, I will say I think it can be a good introduction into the team's work, if you can find it. It is a shame they and so many other comics are forgotten today. Those who enjoy the work of Laurel & Hardy, the Marx Brothers or Abbott & Costello should check out this comedy team. I think you'll find something to enjoy.
50 MILLION FRENCHMEN