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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » Straight, Place and Show (Fox Cinema Archives)
Straight, Place and Show (Fox Cinema Archives)
Fox Cinema Archives // Unrated // September 11, 2014
List Price: $19.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Paul Mavis | posted January 10, 2015 | E-mail the Author
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That's it--I give up on The Ritz Brothers. 20th Century-Fox's Cinema Archives line of hard-to-find library and cult titles has released Straight, Place and Show (titled on-screen as "Damon Runyon's Straight, Place and Show"), the 1938 comedy from Fox, based on an unproduced play Runyon co-wrote, and starring The Ritz Brothers, Richard Arlen, Ethel Merman, Phyllis Brooks, George Barbier, and Willie Best (for about 10 seconds). An hour and change in length, Straight, Place and Show's pace is appropriately zippy for an unpretentious laugher, but there's no getting around the fact that the central premise pulls up lame, and worse: The Ritz Brothers just aren't all that funny (...at least not here). No extras for this clean black and white fullscreen transfer.

"Society horsewoman" Barbara Drake (Phyllis Brooks), primarily enamored with her horse, Playboy, has managed to find some room in her heart, too, for "noted gentleman rider" Denny Paine (Richard Arlen). Meanwhile, on the other side of town, The Ritz Brothers (Themselves) are running a pony ride in an abandoned city lot, when they get a tip from professional gambler "Lucky" Braddock (Sidney Blackmer) on a sure thing: Yankee in the fifth. Scrabbling together a ten dollar bet, the boys somehow manage to flub it, and bet on Playboy...who brings the boys a payoff of over $3,000 Depression-era dollars. Rich now, with fancy duds, an elaborately embossed car, and a ranch out in the sticks, the boys plan to keep betting on Playboy, to further line their pockets. Unfortunately, Playboy hits a losing streak...which is good news to Denny, because he bet with fiance Barbara that if the horse didn't win another race, he would take possession of it--a bet that, when the payoff comes, infuriates the initially willing Barbara (no, you're right: it doesn't make any sense). When Denny gives the horse to the boys (that's one way to win your fiance's heart), the marriage is off for Barbara, who seeks then to stake The Ritz Brothers in turning Playboy into a steeplechaser.

Just as cross-reference to my own negative reaction to Straight, Place and Show, I looked for info on how this short B comedy from The Ritz Brothers fared with critics and audiences back in '38--with the only reference I could find being a note in an Ethel Merman biography stating it was a flop with both ticket buyers and reviewers. No surprise there. Apparently, The Ritz Brothers were, by this point in their Fox contract, deeply disappointed in the material being given to them (I'll bet they thought they were going to get the Thalberg/The Marx Brothers Metro treatment...when Zanuck's handling of them at Fox was closer to Harry Cohn and The Three Stooges over at Columbia). The brothers Ritz would famously walk out on Zanuck the following year, over the script for The Gorilla (after scoring their greatest movie success the same year with The Three Musketeers), with a subsequent move to Universal that did nothing to stem their downward-spiraling movie career. But blaming the material doesn't answer why Straight, Place and Show is so poor.

Granted, the movie itself is a mess. Sure, Straight, Place and Show has a zippy pace, thanks to director David Butler's (Road to Morocco, TV's Leave It to Beaver) no-nonsense helming. However, it also looks like it was cut to ribbons by someone at the front office, with obvious, sometimes incomprehensible holes in its choppy construction (Merman's entire reason for being in the movie is probably the biggest one). Then again...maybe the blame lies with the frankly ridiculous screenplay from M.M. Musselman (Kentucky Moonshine, The Bride Came C.O.D.) and Allen Rivkin (The Farmer's Daughter, Dead Reckoning), with "additional dialogue" from songwriter Lew Brown. There are only two "good" scenes in Straight, Place and Show that work on their own...and they're both arbitrary drop-in musical numbers featuring the Merm (she knocks them both out of the park; watch the last one, Why Not String Along with Me?, where Arlen can't hide his delight in her funny delivery). So much for story construction. Like a shabbily-fabricated knock-off of a M-G-M Marx Bros. movie, Straight, Place and Show features a romantic couple that's supposed to give us a break every now and then from the comedians, but Arlen's and Brooks' characters are so poorly designed and written, one is tempted to look at those screen credits again, and question how pros like Musselman and Rivkin could so badly fumble. Their plot is just as insipid--I don't even get the bet the two lovebirds make, nor the arbitrary stipulation Arlen puts on the brothers not selling Playboy...after he just sold him--with the thinnest of a premise in which to hang the alternating comedy and romance scenes.

But you know what? Skip all that. Because The Ritz Brothers are here. They're funny enough that we won't care how misguided all the rest of the movie is, right? Wrong. If The Marx Brothers or The Three Stooges were here instead (or maybe even Olsen and Johnson or Wheeler and Woolsey...on second thought: skip them, too), we'd forgive a lot of what's wrong with Straight, Place and Show, because those comedians deliver. When reading defenders of The Ritz Brothers, I always seem to see this caveat: "You either love 'em or hate 'em. " Now, you hear that, too, with The Three Stooges, but it's a demonstrable, certifiable fact that if you don't like The Three Stooges, you have zero sense of humor (you never read that "either/or" for The Marx Brothers). There's a reason The Stooges and The Marx Brothers are playing to this day in revival theaters and on TV and other media: they're still funny, even to a smart phone-raised kid who may initially look at those early black and white efforts the same way a visiting Martian might peer incomprehensively at today's Earthly doings. And no, it's not an "intellectual" bias against the simple Ritz clowning, either. If that were the case, I'd hate The Stooges' savage, primitive--and ungodly hilarious--slapstick (I love The Marx Brothers, too...but it can get pretty nauseating the way they have been feted and fawned over by the intelligentsia, who possessively regard them as "theirs," while looking down on all other comers--if I read one more time about how erudite Groucho was...).

No, quite simply: The Ritz Brothers aren't funny. At least not to me, in the few outings I've seen. I didn't grow up watching their movies, but I keep reading where giants like Sid Caesar and Mel Brooks and Jerry Lewis consider the brothers geniuses (or at least Harry Ritz), so I keep warily trying out their movies, hoping I'll see what those comedy icons saw. Well...whatever it was, it ain't here in Straight, Place and Show. As far as I can tell, The Ritz Brothers' entire act consists of the three brothers dancing in synch, while Harry, crossing his eyes, squeals and effeminately minces around--which is amusing for about one minute, and then...nothing (who frankly cares what the other two depressingly anonymous brothers are doing?). They're not even skilled with the patter and slapstick. In Straight, Place and Show, the brothers have a few bits of slapstick and wordplay--not as many as you might think for a showcase built around them--that are shockingly mediocre in execution (the bell-ringing bit was the worst, while the three telephoning each other was only marginally better). By the end of Straight, Place and Show, the best the writers and the Ritz team can come up with is a sad, anemic A Day at the Races knock-off finale, with Harry on a horse, falling all around on his saddle. Now, I viewed Straight, Place and Show with my youngest daughter. In addition to all the new stuff she watches, she'll catch some of my old movies, too. She loves Abbott & Costello, The Stooges, Laurel and Hardy, and of course The Little Rascals. She didn't, however, love The Ritz Brothers. She didn't laugh once, not even at Harry Ritz at his most juvenile and base-line accessible. Neither did I.

The Video:
The fullscreen, 1.37:1 black and white transfer for Straight, Place and Show looks excellent, with solid blacks, crisp image and contrast, and few anomalies.

The Audio:
The Dolby Digital English split mono audio track is a little squelchy, but not too obtrusive. No closed-captions or subtitles.

The Extras:
No extras for Straight, Place and Show.

Final Thoughts:
The Ritz Brothers aren't funny. Okay, okay: maybe they're funny in one of their movies I haven't seen. But I'm at four and counting now...and I'm not holding my breath. The rest of the movie is woefully subpar, as well. Skip Straight, Place and Show.

Paul Mavis is an internationally published movie and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.

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