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Harold Lloyd  

 

THE MILKY WAY

Paramount, 1936.  Directed by Leo McCarey. Camera:  Alfred Gilks.  With Harold Lloyd, Adolphe Menjou, Verree Teasdale, Helen Mack, William Gargan, George Barbier, Dorothy Wilson, Lionel Stander, Charles Lane, Bull Anderson, Jim Marples, Milburn Stone, Paddy O'Flynn, Henry Roquemore, Arthur S. "Pop" Byron, Eddie Dunn, Larry McGrath, Jack Clifford, Jack Perry, Phil Tead, Jack Murphy, Bob Callahan, Anthony Quinn.

     
       
     
       

Wilbur Austin, the owner of the Sunshine Dairy, is giving his milkmen a pep talk, and congratulating those employees whose work has been outstanding.  Burleigh Sullivan is not among the honorees; instead, he manages to reduce the meeting to sheer mayhem with the distraction of his hiccups.  Burleigh's sister, Mae, works in a coat-check room in a local hotel, and often has to fight off drunken patrons.  This evening, two such customers wait for Mae outside, and delay her with their pranks.  Her brother arrives to her rescue, fighting off the men; when the dust clears, Burleigh has knocked out Speed, the middleweight boxing champion of the world!

The next morning, in a drunken haze, the champ cannot remember where he got his shiner when asked: "Er, I was shadow boxing..."  The headlines tell the actual tale:  Truck Driver Knocks Out Champion.  Gabby Sloan, the boxing coach and promoter, arrives in town when he hears of this, and is told that a giant heavyweight overpowered them; he prepares that story for the arriving press.  When scrawny Burleigh arrives, claiming responsibility, there is disbelief.  He tells of how, as a child, he learned to "duck" when other children swung at him, and how, now, the art is perfected.  Demonstrating, he again decks Speed, much to the delight of the press, which is busy snapping pictures.

Later, a shocked Gabby decides to send Speed's bodyguard Spider to proposition Burleigh, who is unwilling to give up his milk route, and manages to get Spider jailed.  When Speed tries to convince Burleigh, he is jailed, as well.  Gabby, expecting a coronary, gulps down some insomnia medicine.

In the meantime, Burleigh is frantic when his horse, Agnes, takes ill on the street; a girl named Polly lets Burleigh use her phone, and is impressed by his concern, but does not know that his fear is for a horse.  The next day, when Burleigh meets Polly in a barber shop, she gives him a manicure, and he falls in love.

Gabby, later, convinces Burleigh to train and fight Speed, the champ; what he does not disclose is that the whole plan is a set up, with fixed matches setting up the real championship bout. The only reason Burleigh agrees is because he needs hospitalization money for a pregnant Agnes.  After a period of ridiculously awkward training, the night of his first fight arrives, but Burleigh refuses to fight without his good luck charm—a lock of Agnes' hair.  When that is cleared up, he wins the first round.

Burleigh goes on a whirlwind cross-country tour, as "Tiger" Sullivan, and he wins each (fixed) fight.  When he arrives home, his success has gone to his head: he has gone from meek and innocent to fast-talking and overly confident, much to Polly's dismay.  The championship bout is approaching, but with a wrinkle:  Mae, Burleigh's sister, has fallen in love with Speed, and she learns about all the fixed fights, and the plans for the championship.  Despite her concern for her untalented brother, she decides that a good knocking out might be a blessing for Burleigh.  "Tiger" is accompanied by baby Agnes, who kicks Speed in the jaw.  While tending to him, Spider accidentally gives Speed a dose of Gabby's medication.  He mistakes the "insomnia" medicine for "some ammonia."  Burleigh wins the fight.

The owner of the Sunshine Dairy encourages Burleigh to retire undefeated, and makes him a partner.

Notes
Good reviews for The Milky Way:  The Film Daily, in its January 28,1936, critique, wisely noted that "The show is not all Lloyd's.  Adolphe Menjou, Verree Teasdale, and Lionel Stander come in for some good lines which they put over in a big way."  The April 1, 1936, issue of Variety stated, "The role of the timid milk wagon route-man who is catapulted into pugilistic fame and fortune is almost made to order for Lloyd and he plays it to the hilt."

Funny thing was, when The Milky Way was on Broadway, in the middle of 1934, and the idea of a film adaptation was mentioned, only one star was considered for the role of Burleigh Sullivan:  Jack Oakie.  According to the June 2, 1934 issue of The Citizen News, "Today, everything was as it should be in regard to the film version of the play.

The Hollywood studio of Paramount confirmed a report that its New York representatives had succeeded, after spirited bidding, in purchasing the screen rights, with Oakie in mind as the featured player...Hugh O'Connell has scored a smash hit in the leading role of the stage version, and those who have followed Oakie's career will doubtless agree...that he is the one and only actor for the picture adaptation.  The plot of The Milky Way reminds one strongly of The Social Lion, an early talkie in which Oakie played the role of a prize fighter, and in which he made an outstanding success."

Indeed, many intended for parts in the film adaptation did not appear in the film, with glowing substitutions:  the film was originally considered for Oakie and Gertrude Michael; Edward Everett Horton, Ida Lupino, Sally Blane, and Gail Patrick were replaced by Adolphe Menjou, Dorothy Wilson, Helen Mack, and Verree Teasdale.  Brian Donlevy and Max Baer were considered for leads as prizefighters; the Dionne Quintuplets were expected to appear in the picture, but did not.

The Milky Way was based on the play of the same name, with ran in 1934 for 47 performances, starring Hugh O'Connell as Burleigh, Brian Donlevy as Speed, Gladys George as Ann, and Leo Donnelly as Gabby.  Two radio adaptations:  Texaco Star Theatre performed an audio adaptation in 1940, with Joe E. Brown as Burleigh.  And, a little show called The Harold Lloyd Cornedy Theatre gave it a go over the NBC airwaves on February 18, 1945, with Robert Walker as Burleigh, and co-starring Jimmy Gleason and Eve Arden.  The Milky Way inspired a remake, The Kid from Brooklyn (1946), starring Danny Kaye as Burleigh, Walter Abel as Gabby, Eve Arden as Ann, Steve Cochran as Speed, and Lionel Stander reprising his role as Spider.  The film inspired an original song, aptly titled "The Milky Way," with lyrics by Tot Seymour, and music by Vee Lawnhurst, © 1935 by Popular Melodies, Inc.

Other songs featured in the film included "She's Got a Brother" (to the tune of "London Bridge"), "The Blue Danube Waltz," "For He's a Jolly Good Fellow," 'Yankee Doodle Dandy," "A Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight," "The Bear Went Over the Mountain," and "The Skater's Waltz" (such a fun moment in the picture, as Verree Teasdale teaches Harold Lloyd to spar in time with this lovely tune).

Production on The Milky Way was plagued by the health problems of Adolphe Menjou (stomach ailment), Verree Teasdale (colitis), and director Leo McCarey.  Despite these, there was no real serious delay.  However, there are conflicting reports on the directorial pinch hitters.  Daily Variety stated that brother Ray McCarey shot some sequences, while Liberty wrote that Norman McLeod (who directed The Kid from Brooklyn) finished the film.

As a result, The Milky Way cost $1,032,798.21 to produce, and grossed $1,179,192.  Harold was no longer his own producer, but a salaried player, for the first time since 1923.  Despite all the concessions, Harold considered the deal with Paramount a good one, for he would star in a high-budget film without risking his own capital.  Another plus was the choice of director:  Leo McCarey, arguably one of the best, and veteran of films starring, among others, Laurel and Hardy, The Marx Brothers, and W.C. Fields.  McCarey was a quirky, talented director, who found inspiration from a piano (omnipresent on his sets). He also demonstrated histrionics, providing the whinny for the costarring colt.

A humorous point in the film came even before the opening credit card:  a cow appeared within the famed Paramount logo, mirroring the MGM lion opening.  More animal trivia:  Agnes, the horse, was a "brunette" in real life, requiring the makeup skills of Wally Westmore and Max Asher to make her the light horse in the film.

Some points to look for in this film:  Harold duplicates the famed scissor-legged jig from The Freshman in his boxing technique.  Also, in his boxing trunks, we get a view of the bare arm of Harold Lloyd for the first time since before his 1919 bomb accident.  He had a special prosthesis designed that did not utilize the garter on the upper arm, but simply masked the rubber fingers.  In these scenes, Lloyd made certain that the right hand was not used actively.

The dairy industry had a field day with this, a major film centered around milk.  The slogan, "Here's your Borden milk, the Milky Way to health..." was accompanied by a cutout of Harold on the top of the bottle.

Harold Lloyd never forgot his roots, and never forgot the people who helped him along the way.  On January 10, 1907, Harold appeared in his first stage play, Tess of the D'Urbervilles, in which Lloyd Ingraham was the stage manager.  Harold returned the favor, as Ingraham was given a bit part, as a barber shop customer, in The Milky Way.

In May 1936, Harold filmed a series of scenes for the Paramount melodrama Hollywood Boulevard (1936), but his cameo was left on the cutting room floor.

The Harold Lloyd Encyclopedia,
by Annette D'Agostino Lloyd
McFarland & Company, Inc.,
 
Jefferson, NC and London, 2004