Million Dollar Legs

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Originally intended as a Marx Brothers movie, Million Dollar Legs is a comedy with humour verging on the surreal and is set in a familiar Marx Brothers world. Even so it’s probably too mad even for them.

It’s so familiar, in fact, that you might wonder if they read Joseph Mankiewicz’s original treatment for Million Dollar Legs and rejected it because there wasn’t enough meat in it for all the brothers but liked its basic outline enough to borrow it for Duck Soup, which came out the following year, 1933.

Duck Soup is the one where Groucho is the ruler of a bankrupt country called Freedonia, who goes to war to save his country’s economy. In Million Dollar Legs WC Fields is the ruler of a bankrupt country called Klopstokia, who goes to the 1932 Olympics in LA to save the country’s economy.

Both stories feature spies – Chico and Harpo Marx in Duck Soup, Ben Turpin (the silent movie star with the cross eyes) in Million Dollar Legs. But enough of the similarities. The plots diverge at this point and in any case Million Dollar Legs has enough originality and fizz to succeed on its own terms. It’s not just a warm up for the the Marx Brothers.

For one thing the romantic subplot is less drippy than the Marx Brothers ever managed and features actors who know what they’re doing. Jack Oakie plays the brush salesman with all the patter who runs (literally) into the daughter of the President of Klopstokia and falls in love with her instantly, as she does with him.

From here, plot shenanigans engineer Oakie and Fields together, apart and together again, and eventually the President comes up with a genius plan to use the brush salesman to head up his team of Olympic hopefuls – Klopstokians, it turns out, are physically remarkable in many ways. And off everyone heads to Los Angeles, where winning a haul of medals will save the economy for reasons that need not detain us.

The cast pose for a publicity shot
A publicity shot for Million Dollar Legs

Oakie is fast and funny and Susan Fleming, as the president’s daughter, is a natural with good comic timing, which is handy because she and Oakie carry much of the movie when Fields isn’t on the screen. Fleming would go on to marry Harpo Marx, incidentally.

There are three decent jokes in the first minute and the script keeps the comedy coming. Much of it is absurd – someone called Million Dollar Legs a Dada movie, for good reason. For example all the women in Klopstokia are called Angela and all the men are called George (neither is strictly true). And the President (Fields) keeps his perpetually mutinous cabinet in check with prodigious feats of physical strength. Arm wrestling before every cabinet meeting is mandatory.

They’re a good trio, Fields, Oakie and Fleming, but the killer final ingredient is Lyda Roberti as a Mata Hari-style femme fatale called Mata Machree, a pocket-rocket blonde no man can resist who’s hired by the cabinet to undermine the President’s plans. Roberti gets a musical number – “Take a look at the hottest thing in old Klopstokia,” Mata Machree vamps lasciviously. “It’s terrific when I get hot. It’s something terrible the gift I’ve got…”. Outdoing even Fields for scene-stealing oomph, Roberti’s act consisted of looking sexy while speaking the weirdest English (she was born in a circus and grew up all over the world so the weird English isn’t all an act).

Million Dollar Legs only lasts just over an hour and at that length it is just about perfect. Any longer and incredulity fatigue would probably set in. “A lunatic musical satire,” critic Pauline Kael called it. It was one of her favourite films. It’s a gem. How come it isn’t better known? Or put another way, how many times have you seen Duck Soup?

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© Steve Morrissey 2023

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