It’s time to introduce our Fifth and Final Marx Brother, Zeppo.
Herbert Marx always felt like an afterthought. Born several years after his other siblings, he stayed home while they (and his mother) endlessly toured the country. Frenchie was also not the most hands-on parent, and too soft-hearted to be much of a disciplinarian. So it shouldn’t be surprising that Herbert became something of a juvenile delinquent, skipping school and roaming the streets of Chicago unsupervised, the way his brothers did in New York back at the turn of the century. Only instead of sneaking rides on streetcars and playing dice, Herbert was running with a genuine street gang, stealing cars and carrying a pistol.
When Minnie could spare him a thought, she despaired of his future. She felt the best way of saving him was to groom him for the family business as soon as possible. When they played Joliet in May of 1914, they were joined for a couple of performances by the adolescent Fifth Marx Brother, who in addition to being a heat-packing car thief, also had a passable “boy tenor” voice, and was quite happy to warble a few songs onstage when his mother asked. He also did a short tour of Michigan with the act in the summer of 1915. The chicken farm Minnie bought in 1917 to keep the older Brothers out of the draft had the added benefit of keeping her youngest off the mean streets…briefly.
It was during his sojourn on the farm that he finally earned his “o” nickname. Every Brother has his own story of where the name “Zeppo” came from, and none of them hold much water. The truth is, the older boys had been calling Herbert “Zip” for some time. Here’s why:
According to a story revealed many years later by Harpo’s son Bill, the label “Zip” came from a man suffering from microcephaly, and displayed at sideshows as a “freak” called Zip the Pinhead. His deformity included a deeply-receded forehead and a large, wedge-shaped nose that sloped straight into it, without the usual indentation between the eyes. Herbert also had a very distinctive nose bridge and slightly receding forehead. Nowhere near the point of deformity, but just different enough to be sensitive about as a young teen with self-esteem issues. And just the sort of thing that four much-older comedian siblings would delight in mercilessly teasing a little brother about. The taunting nickname “Zip” became “Zippo” to match his brothers’ names, and eventually evolved into “Zeppo.”
By the time he was seventeen, he had dropped out of school and was working as a mechanic for the Ford Motor Company (he demonstrated a remarkable aptitude for engineering and working with machinery from an early age). A steady job did not keep him out of Chicago pool halls and gambling dens. Like eldest brother Chico, Zeppo loved “action.” He had a head for numbers and a passionate love for playing cards and pursuing girls. “I’d have ended up in jail,” he confidently predicted. Minnie intervened to prevent that fate.
June 5, 1918…the phone rings in the Ford mechanic shop somewhere in Chicago. An insistent voice demands to speak to Zeppo. Zeppo is summoned, and wipes the grease off his hands, perhaps anticipating what is coming. “My mother called me…[and] said come home immediately,” remembered Zeppo. “I said, well I’m working. She says, well quit your job and come home immediately…And I said okay, so I came home…She says, your brother Gummo just joined the Army…you go and get packed and get on the train. Here’s the fare and go to Rockford, Illinois and join your brothers. You have to take Gummo’s place because I want the name of the Four Marx Brothers intact…So I acquiesced and joined the boys in Rockford, Illinois. I got right on, right on the stage. Didn’t know what the hell to do.”
Zeppo Marx, former auto mechanic and small-time Chicago hood, bravely faked his way through the last performances of Home Again ever staged (well, not quite — read on). “When I stepped out, Zeppo stepped in,” said Gummo. “I must say, though, that he was the only actor who ever had less talent than me.” The big question was what to do next.
Zeppo on board, 1918
From the Chicago Daily Tribune, Sept. 22, 1918: “The Four Marx Brothers, residents of this city, propose to eschew vaudeville, in which they are eminent, and take up musical comedy. At Grand Rapids September 28 [the show actually opened in Benton Harbor on the 26th] they will begin a career in The Street Cinderella, whose words are by Jo Swerling, once a good reporter for The Tribune…”
They decided to make an attempt at a “real” musical comedy. They commissioned an eager young scribe named Jo Swerling to write them an original self-contained show with a genuine plot and real characters. Gus Kahn and Egbert van Alstyne would provide the songs. Uncle Al would direct. Ads began to appear in Michigan newspapers for The Street Cinderella — “Minnie Palmer presents…a new farce comedy in three acts…beautiful girls, beautiful music, beautiful love story…”
The title went back and forth between The Street Cinderella and The Cinderella Girl, and it seems they settled on the latter at the last minute.No one remembers the plot, something about a romance between two “street singers.” No one remembers the characters the Brothers were supposed to play (presumably variations on their already established personas). When the curtain rose and the overture began playing at the Bell Opera House in Benton Creek, Michigan on September 26, 1918, the Four Marx Brothers stared out at a half-filled house. Deliberately half-filled. In a sight that would become depressingly familiar just over a hundred years later, every other seat was empty. Every other row was empty. The audience all wore masks over their noses and mouths.
The Marx Brothers’ newest show — meant to lift them out of the vaudeville ghetto and into legitimate theater — opened the same week as the deadly Spanish influenza epidemic hit the Midwest.
There was another problem: “It was a terrible act and we realized we couldn’t play it successfully,” said Groucho. It limped through two performances. Both times, according to Marx biographer Kyle Crichton, the Brothers did not bother to finish the storyline, going into their familiar Home Again material instead. All future bookings of The Cinderella Girl were cancelled, and it was written off as an expensive mistake. By mid-October, the flu epidemic had closed most of the country’s theaters anyway. The only thing that was salvageable from the experience, according to Groucho, was that actor Ed Metcalfe (who had the thankless role of “the policeman” in Home Again and also appeared in Cinderella Girl) introduced him to the works of Gilbert and Sullivan around this time. Groucho became possibly the world’s biggest G&S fan, obsessively listening to their comic operas, and collecting their material and memorabilia for the rest of his life.
Chagrined, the Brothers trudged back into vaudeville, and got themselves booked for the truncated 1918-19 season on the Keith-Albee Circuit. They sat down with Uncle Al, made a few updates to the old Home Again material, threw in some of the better Cinderella songs (not wanting to waste what they had spent good money on), and called the “new” show ‘N’ Everything.
Betty Marx had joined the act’s chorus, probably to keep an eye on Chico. One night as she was exiting the stage after a big musical number, Harpo spontaneously stretched out a foot and tripped her. She was sent scooting across the stage on her stomach as the audience roared. After the curtain, she took her hurt feelings to her brother-in-law, who did not exude sympathy. “What the hell are you complaining about?” said Harpo, scrubbing off his make-up. “You got a laugh, didn’t you?” You had to be tough to be a Marx.
Zeppo practiced diligently to replicate Gummo’s old “whirlwind dance.” His partner was initially Gene Maddox. When she left the act, one of the chorus girls, Ruth Johnson (sometimes rendered as “Johnstone,” and billed as “Ruth Tyrell”) was randomly promoted to take her place. She and Zeppo began casually dating…but Groucho had his eye on her. He bided his time, then pounced, stealing the shapely, strawberry blonde, snub-nosed chorus girl away from his little brother. You had to be tough to be a Marx.
As Minnie “Palmer” Marx began expanding her vaudeville production empire, Leo took more direct control of the Brothers’ act.
In 1911, a new fad was reinventing the face of vaudeville — the tabloid musical, or “tab” as they were quickly dubbed by the trade papers. In the words of Robert S. Bader, tabs were “truncated versions of popular Broadway and touring shows, reduced by cutting much of the dialogue, removing non essential characters, and leaving the musical numbers and just enough of the plot to maintain some semblance of the original idea of the show.” The more respectable vaudeville houses began clamoring for shows consisting of a couple of classy tabs, rather than a low-rent, crazy-quilt collection of short, unrelated acts. And fewer acts on a bill meant fewer salaries had to be paid and more profit for the theaters. When the craze got too popular, Broadway producers began cracking down on copyright violations. Even with vaudeville companies legitimately paying for the material, demand outweighed supply. This led to the creation of more tabs featuring original material.
And that’s what put the light bulb on in Leo’s head when he and his erstwhile performing partner George Lee joined forces with the Three Marx Brothers in the late summer of 1912. Leo decided that the school act could be polished, tweaked, and refined into a tabloid musical. They could then hire a few supporting acts, and sell the whole thing as a self-owned, self-contained package.
In its new form, the two parts of Fun in Hi Skule (the classroom and the recital) would be condensed into the first act. A newly-minted second act (created with a little help from Uncle Al) would be more comedy and music in the form of a ten-year-class reunion in honor of the retirement of Julius’ teacher character, now named Mr. Herman Green. Arthur kept his Patsy Brannigan character. The dim-witted class disrupter of the first act had grown into the local garbage man by the second. (“Patsy Brannigan the garbage man is here.” “Tell him we don’t want any.” When and where this big laugh-getting line was first used is yet another element of the early days that is awash in contradictory stories.) He also continued to refine his costume, which was growing less Irish stooge and more tramp-like clown. But despite “Patsy” no longer being explicitly Irish, ethnic stereotypes were still firmly entrenched in the world of vaudeville. Leo became the Italian student, Tony Saroni. George Lee, with his bigger performance style and firmer command of Yiddishisms, took over the role of the Jewish student, now named Ignatz Levy. Milton dug the name “Hans Pumpernickel” out of retirement, and became the German student in a pageboy/”Hansel”-style wig. Paul Yale remained as his “nance” character, but toned down the more overt homosexual mannerisms and became more of a prissy “mama’s boy” (the audience would gasp, then crack up when Yale, in his knee pants and heavily-rouged cheeks, opened his mouth and sang in a deep, manly baritone.) The main support act was the dancing Harris Brothers. And the “schoolgirl” chorus had expanded to fifteen young women, still including the trouper Dot Davidson, who had been with them since the end of 1910, possibly due to her passionate attachment to Yale.
The schoolroom act still comprised the first half of the revised show. Julius is at the center, apparently delivering a harsh lecture to Dot Davidson, while the schoolgirl chorus on the left points and laughs. Arthur, on the right, is also getting in on shaming Davidson. New cast member Leo is in the background, bullying the Harris Brothers. In front of them is “sissy” Paul Yale and Milton as the updated version of “Hans Pumpernickel”
The whole shebang was titled Mr. Green’s Reception, and it was the first time the Four Marx Brothers shared a stage. It ran a full forty minutes, and the Marx Brothers touring company now included a stage carpenter and property manager in addition to its cast, supporting acts, and chorus line. The cast appeared in white-tie evening dress for the second act. As was the case with most mid-level vaudeville acts, they did not tour with musicians (apart from those in already in the cast), but carried sheet music for all of their numbers, arranged for anything from a four-piece to a full dance orchestra, depending on the size of the theater and its resident house band.
Mr. Green’s Reception started its run in Chicago on September 5, 1912, and was eagerly booked by the WVMA circuit for the entire 1912-1913 vaudeville season. The big-time beckoned, tantalizingly near. But they had yet to attain name recognition. They weren’t stars quite yet. They would come to town, get the audiences roaring (Leo’s piano-playing, Arthur’s ever-improving harp solos…and the Harris Brothers’ clogging…were all considered highlights), earn decent reviews in the local paper, and then were forgotten about as soon as the act left town. Not for much longer.
From the Burlington, Iowa Hawkeye, Dec. 20, 1912: “Judge W.S. Winthrow cut short his luncheon period yesterday to unite in marriage Mr. S. Paul [Yale] and Miss Margaret [Dot] Davidson, two young people who are playing at the Garrick Theatre this week. The thespians secured a marriage license at 11 o’clock and asked if they might see the judge…”
Time was of the essence, as Dot was six weeks pregnant. It was at that same Garrick Theater where the Brothers had a run in with a particularly nasty theater manager, who, after several verbal altercations, ended up paying the group with several large sacks of pennies. As their train pulled out of town, according to Marxian legend, Arthur stood on the back platform of the last car, shook his fist at the receding town, and yelled “You lousy sonofabitch, I hope your goddamn theater burns to the ground!” “The next day, it did,” Julius always loved to recall. “And that’s why we decided not to let Harpo talk.” (As with any legend, there’s a kernel of truth — the Garrick Theatre really did burn down, but not until two months after the Brothers left town. And Arthur continued speaking onstage for at least another year-and-a-half.)
By the time the Garrick had been reduced to ashes in February of 1913, Mr. Green’s Reception was playing in South Bend, Indiana. South Bend was experiencing record low temperatures, and the St. Joseph River was choked with ice.
The Mr. Green’s Reception company, in costume — Julius as Mr. Green is in the back row with the girls. Milton, Leo, and Arthur are front and center. Paul Yale is clearly on the far right, but I can’t quite tell who is right next to him — I think it’s a Harris Brother, with George Lee on the far left, but I can’t be sure
A scrapbook clipping from the local South Bend paper (name & date unknown): “Mr. [Arthur] Marx was on the bank of the stream in the rear of the Orpheum Theatre with others of the Orpheum troupe when one of the women…bet him 50 cents that he was afraid to take a swim. ‘I’ll bet you another 50 cents.’ ‘And I another,’ answered two others. Before taking the plunge, Mr. Marx said: ‘That’s a dollar and a half when I get out, ain’t it?’ He then dove from the ledge of ice, clothes, hat, and all. He came to the surface with chattering teeth, exclaiming, ‘It’s not so bad.’”
Jumping into icy rivers was only one way to pass the time. Stories of the Brothers’ affairs with the chorus girls that came and went from their show, and their necessarily brief dalliances with local women, fill their biographies and autobiographies and are at this point impossible to verify, but it seems sex on the road was very much part of their routine. Sometimes, when it came to the local whorehouses, it was almost too easy. “The girls used to come watch us at the theater,” said Julius. “And if they liked us, they’d send a note backstage inviting us over after the show.” Presumably, the services were discounted or maybe even gratis.
Raising a stein at the curtain call for Mr. Green’s Reception— l. to r. Paul Yale, Leo, Arthur, Julius, Milton, George Lee
The company also had the novel idea of forming a baseball team, and when not performing, rehearsing the house orchestra, or pursuing women, took on local college teams — and usually lost big. (For the curious: Catcher — Julius. First base — Paul Yale. Second base — George Harris. Shortstop — Arthur. Third base — Leo. Left field — Milton. Center field — stage carpenter Fred Browning. Right field — George Lee. Pitcher — Victor Harris.) The uniforms proudly had “MARX BROS.” printed across the chest.
Mr. Green’s Reception toured another full year, and exhaustion was beginning to set in by the spring of 1914. The grind of the road and the close quarters caused tempers to grow short. George Lee, whom many reviewers had indicated was the “principal comedian” of the act, and also their best singer, had already found another job as a solo act for the following season, and would be leaving the Marx Brothers company at the end of the tour. With only a couple of months left to go, Lee demanded a raise. Not seeing the sense of giving more money to someone who was just going to be taking off soon, the Brothers refused. “As the size of his head grew, he decided his salary should grow with it,” said Julius. Lee abruptly quit in early April of 1914. Paul Yale and Dot Davidson took the opportunity to leave the act at the same time. They formed their own song-and-dance duo, Yale & Davidson, and occasionally worked as a supporting act for the Brothers through 1916.
Mr. Green’s Reception company out of costume. Milton is top center, with Paul Yale to the right. Just below them is Julius. Arthur and George Lee kneel in the foreground. Leo is off to the left
The Brothers hired some replacements, and the company finished out the season, but the situation left Julius with a realization:
“For the first time in our career we realized we could succeed as an act without any outside help. We didn’t need any more extraneous singers, dancers, and feeble comedians. We were now a unit. We were the Marx Brothers…we had finally freed ourselves from always having some outsider along to put us over, and from then on we were able to steam on under our own power.”
And it was during those closing days of the final Mr. Green’s Reception tour that Something Momentous happened…
It was the very beginning of the Platinum Age of Comics. When the newspaper hit the front step, many adult readers would flip right to the “funny pages,” skipping the depressing headlines to enjoy the adventures of the Katzenjammer Kids, Maggie and Jiggs, Mutt and Jeff, and Krazy Kat. In 1904, artist Gus Mager created a series of comic strip characters called “monks,” after their vaguely monkey-like faces. All the monks had names ending in “o.” For a brief period, these characters featured in a strip called Sherlocko the Monk, in which the title character solved mysteries. Sherlock Holmes creator Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle threatened a lawsuit, and in 1913 the title of the strip was changed to Hawkshaw the Detective (and the characters redesigned to look a little more human). But the impact of “Sherlocko” and his fellow monks remained. Vaudeville and popular culture in general went through a fad of nicknames ending in “o.”
This is said to be the only picture in existence of all five brothers and their parents together. Outside the theater in Joilet, Illinois, April 30, 1914
The Brothers always agreed it happened in Galesburg, Illinois, which would make it mid-May of 1914. They were sharing a bill with a monologist named Art Fisher. Over a round of backstage poker between shows, Fisher and the Brothers were idly discussing the “o” nickname phenomenon. As Fisher dealt the cards, he assigned each Brother an “o” name. “He named me Gummo,” said Milton, “because I had holes in my shoes and I’d wear rubbers, or gumshoes, over them even when it wasn’t raining.”
Arthur became “Harpo” for obvious reasons.
Leo became “Chicko,” because of his reputation for “chasing the chicks.” It was always intended to be pronounced as “Chick-o,” but at some point the “k” was dropped from the spelling, rendering it as “Chico” and resulting in many people pronouncing it “Cheek-o.” Although the Brothers used the original pronunciation, when people called him “Cheek-o,” the man himself never bothered to correct them. He happily answered to both.
There is some speculation that Julius’ new name — “Groucho” — may have come from the fact that he kept his cash in a “grouch bag,” which was a small drawstring pouch worn around the neck to prevent the petty theft that was a fact of life in a vaudeville touring company. But more likely, as even Julius admitted, it was because he was often in a surly mood and had a cynical overall attitude.
Art Fisher had made his impact on entertainment history, and promptly vanished. No researcher has ever been able to dig up exactly who he was or what became of him.
Even though it was intended as a momentary card-game joke, the Brothers were delighted with their new names, and began using them among themselves immediately. It was pretty funny for an afternoon. Then the days stretched into weeks and months. They persisted in using the names. Friends and family shrugged and began calling them by those names as well (even Minnie, who did not seem too bitter that her sons enthusiastically ditched the names she gave them). It would be ten years before the Marx Brothers used their new names as their professional stage billing, but to themselves and everyone who knew them, they were now and forever Chico, Harpo, Groucho, and Gummo. And that’s who they’ll be in these essays from this point forward.
As we saw in the previous entry, Julius Henry Marx had a passionate, all-consuming love for being onstage and entertaining an audience. His younger brother Milton most assuredly did not.
But Milton’s antipathy toward performing did not slow their mother, Minnie, down for one second. She was also consumed by a single-minded desire: making her sons famous. Julius was off to a good start. Now it was time to add another to the mix.
Acting in her new capacity as agent for her sons, Minnie struck up a personal friendship and professional relationship with Ned Wayburn, a well-known producer and choreographer who not only staged musical shows with fresh young performers, but also ran Wayburn’s Training School for the Stage (sometimes referred to as the “College of Vaudeville”), where ambitious but awkward stars-to-be could be receive instruction in singing, dancing, projection, and poise. Milton was immediately enrolled. How long he attended the classes is not remembered. How much good it did him is academic. In June of 1907, Milton and Julius (in matching white yachting suits) were on the road with a petite girl soprano in a pretty party dress named Mabel O’Donnell — a discovery of Wayburn’s — performing as Ned Wayburn’s Nightingales. Minnie accompanied the troupe as road manager. Mother-hen Minnie touring with her boys was a tradition that would continue long after O’Donnell had been forgotten. (Young Herbert was left under the loving but less-than-watchful care of Frenchie and Opie.)
A be-wigged Mabel O’Donnell, and her ardent suitor, Milton
Reviews were…mixed. “The young people in the act dress in white and sing with expression and some magnetism,” noted the New York Clipper. “Their voices are too immature to be measured by critical standards, and they evidently do not attempt to give any example of vocal ability.” Variety was a little kinder: “Two clean-cut, good looking boys and a little mite of a girl with a voice that seems about ten times too large for her make up a most pleasing singing trio. The voices blend well and are handled with judgment usually lacking in children.”Variety also noted that their white costumes needed to be sent to the cleaners.
By the end of the year, Ned Wayburn had over-extended himself. He had several expensive shows touring up and down the east coast that were returning negligible profits, so he was preparing to file for bankruptcy. As a result, he was not giving his Nightingales the attention that Minnie felt they deserved. She took over their management and bookings, took Wayburn’s name off the act (now they were “The Three Nightingales”) and, at some point in the spring of 1908, fired Mabel O’Donnell. According to Julius and Milton in later interviews, O’Donnell’s voice was a powerful instrument, but tended to wander off-key. She also, in Milton’s uncharitable memory, had a glass eye and had to wear a peek-a-boo wig that covered one side of her face, which hampered her constant lustful pursuit of Julius. In Julius’ even more uncharitable memory, she was “a fucking nuisance.” In O’Donnell’s defense, the few photographs in existence of her seem to depict a rather plain but perfectly normal-looking girl, and no review of their act ever mentioned off-key singing. (She definitely wore a wig, though.)
Lou Levy, a diminutive boy singer from Brooklyn a few years younger than the Marxes, became the third Nightingale, which may reveal the real reason O’Donnell was sent packing — an all-boy act could share a single room, saving money on accommodations.
This new version of The Three Nightingales did not sing a single note before they became The Four Nightingales. As always, stories about the reason for this expansion of the act are contradictory, but the most commonly accepted version is that the manager of the next venue where the Nightingales were booked — Henderson’s Music Hall in Coney Island — insisted he had hired a quartet, and a quartet is what had damn well better show up. No problem, decided Minnie. She would just put another son in the act. But even with three sons to choose from, realistic options were limited. Leo, now a talented “trick” pianist and the most obvious choice (even though, at twenty-one, he would be a little long in the tooth for a juvenile act), was counted out because he was actually working a semi-respectable job all the way over in Philly (more on that later). Herbert was…well, Herbert was seven. That left Adolph, who, at nineteen, had outgrown his childhood nickname of “Ahdie” — but wasn’t especially fond of the name “Adolph,” either.
Adolph was not quite the black sheep (Frenchie and Minnie could never be ashamed of any of their boys), but he was the oddity in an already odd family. Leo had an amazing head for numbers and could mentally calculate as quick as lightning. Julius was a voracious bookworm, and loved literature and history. Adolph was the Brother who left school the earliest (around his second year of second grade), and struggled with basic literacy. He wandered around the city, hopping on and off streetcars one step ahead of the ticket-takers, and worked dozens of odd jobs that would last only a few weeks or even just a day or two before he was let go for being a screw-up. He had all of Leo’s irresponsibility, but none of his drive. He was a dreamer and a naif. He could play piano well enough that his most steady job was playing accompaniment to the short silent films still called “flickers” at the nickelodeon.
And of all the Brothers, he was the only one who couldn’t sing.
This would seemingly be the minimal requirement for joining a singing quartet, but didn’t seem to faze Minnie at all as she stalked into the nickelodeon one day and insisted her almost-adult son stop what he was doing and come with her immediately as she sized him up for a white suit.
The Four Nightingales make their debut. Adolph clutches Lou Levy by the shoulder. The three men on the right are unidentified— Coney Island, June 1908
Adolph Marx — later known to the world as the silent comic genius Harpo Marx — made his professional stage debut on Coney Island on June 1, 1908 as part of The Four Nightingales. He was silent at that moment, too, having been instructed to lip-synch his part of “Darling Nelly Gray.” He had to be literally shoved onstage. “As I caught my balance, the thought sizzled in my mind. You’re not a boy anymore. You’re a man. Don’t let them know you’re scared,” Adolph recalled. “I came to a halt beside Lou Levy. And there They were. A sea of mocking, hostile faces across the footlights…With my first look at my first audience, I reverted to being a boy again. I wet my pants. It was probably the most wretched debut in show business.”
As is generally the case with a good Marx Brothers story, this may be exaggerated or totally fictional. (Julius remembers Adolph shitting his pants, so take it all with a grain of salt.) If Adolph’s little accident really happened, then the audience didn’t notice. The Four Nightingales were a success at Henderson’s Music Hall, and played there a full week. Then the road beckoned, and the boys (and ever-present Minnie) hit the circuit. York, PA…Lima, OH…Tampa, FL…Wheeling, WV…Richmond, IN…the road went on and on as 1908 turned to 1909. Adolph developed a passable enough singing voice to “growl” the bass parts. At the same time, Julius recalled that as he and Milton reached the end of their teens, their formerly sweet singing voices had begun to coarsen. Lou Levy had to carry the primary musical load as lead vocalist.
Ladies and gentlemen…the Four Nightingales: Milton, Lou Levy, Julius, and Adolph
Although The Four Nightingales’ show was essentially a musical act, comedy had been a part of it from the very beginning, when Julius would do a little between-song patter, often in a comic German accent (in imitation of Uncle Al.) An early review in a New Jersey paper stated that “Julius and Milton Marks [sic]…are not only good singers but clever comedians, too.” Not everyone was so appreciative. “[They] are wasting a good deal of valuable time in the exploitation of ineffectual comedy and dialogue,” read a later review. “The greater part of it could be dropped altogether, and the precious moments thus saved devoted to more singing.” (Evidently this reviewer did not share Julius’ disdain for their voices.) If the boys even read these reviews, it didn’t put them off their new direction. More and more comedy began creeping in, until Julius had developed his first full-blown comic character — “Hans Pumpernickel,” the German butcher boy. He ditched his white suit in favor of a grocer’s apron, a blonde wig (one of Minnie’s cast-offs), blacked-out teeth, and a basket of rubber frankfurters. His star turn was the comedic German song “Ist das Nicht Ein Schnitzelbank?”
From a theater manager’s report: “Four boys, three of them work straight, one eccentric. One of them is a good soloist and their quartet work is acceptable.”
Top to bottom: Julius, Adolph, Milton, Lou Levy
The very first Marx Brothers comedy sketch, circa 1908, “wasn’t built around much of an idea,” Julius said. “I pretended I was a German comedian. All comedians using German accents were called ‘Dutch comics.’ The accent came easily to me. We lived in Yorkville, a German neighborhood, my uncle, Al Shean, was a Dutch comic, and we were surrounded by breweries… The plot consisted of me as a butcher boy delivering wieners, asking Adolph and Milton (who were dressed as yachtsmen) how to get to Mrs. Schmidt’s house. While Milton pointed me in one direction, Adolph stole the wieners.”
The Marx Brothers, at the peak of their powers and over the course of their best Broadway shows and Hollywood films (to most fans, that’s roughly a single decade, 1925 to 1935) were an unstoppable juggernaut that essentially invented modern comedy, or maybe post-modern comedy. (Buster Keaton might share that honor, but he existed in his own peculiar silent bubble — the Marx Brothers loudly ran amok in society.)
Some have called their style anarchic. Some have said they are surreal (Salvador Dali was a big fan). Revolutionary. Ahead of their time. Anti-establishment antiheroes. They ended up as all of these things when viewed backwards through the lens of pop culture history, but they wouldn’t have called themselves any of those things at the time. They always said they were only trying to entertain. It just came out that way. And as Marx scholar Noah Diamond says, “They were never angry. They broke the rules just for the sheer joy of breaking the rules. I don’t know that they really had an agenda.”
As I put it in my one-shot Zeppo essay several years back, “the Marx Brothers were three Great Comedians — Groucho, with his cigar, painted-on mustache, and endless flow of wisecracks, insults and non-sequiturs, Harpo, the gifted silent clown who communicated through exaggerated facial expressions and horn-honking, Chico, the piano-playing sharpie with the inexplicable Italian accent — and one leftover.” (Poor Zeppo.)
For being one of the most famous and successful comedy teams in history, they were certainly the strangest. Those bizarre costumes. The fact that they worked best not as a full team, but in ones and twos (Groucho and Chico, Chico and Harpo, Groucho playing off a clueless victim of his rapier wit). The fact that one Brother was entirely unnecessary, and left the team part way through their film career with no effect whatsoever.
You can be strange, you can break the rules, you can tear down the walls of what’s accepted, but you don’t become a comedy legend unless you bring the goods. You have to be funny, and the Marx Brothers were certainly that. As proof, I submit my several years’ experience as an instructor of cinema studies…at the middle-school level. Talk about a tough crowd. I often did a semester on comedy, and always included a few of the best Marx Brothers movies. After a brief bit of skeptical silence as they adjusted to the creaky old black-and-white antiquity of what they were seeing, they would start to laugh. Yes, even the most jaded, TikTok-sated middle schooler will succumb to the charms of the Marx Brothers, if that middle schooler has at least a modicum of a sense of humor (most of them do).
In this series of essays, my plan is to explore the Marx Brothers’ entire career, but with particular emphasis on their early years and later years (hence the subtitle of “rise and fall.”) Of course, I will be touching on the classic movies that made them legends, but so many others have done that so many times (and so much better), that I feel like adding too much to that particular pile would be superfluous. The Brothers’ career peak may well be the shortest portion here. And I’ll try to avoid the most well-worn stories. Still, this will be the longest sustained piece of writing on a single topic that I’ve ever done, except for “This Used To Be My Playground” Parts 1-24, which were written piecemeal over eight years. (This still might beat that series on actual word count.) So if you’re not into the Marx Brothers, or don’t want to learn about the Marx Brothers, then I’m sorry for what’s going to be happening here for the next several months.
The problem with pursuing a straightforward examination of the Brothers’ lives and careers is that mundane facts are almost totally obscured by myth and apocrypha — mostly spun by the Brothers themselves. They were showmen, born and bred, and never let the truth get in the way of a good story. In their old age, both Groucho and Harpo wrote autobiographies that were chock full of exaggerations, mistaken memories, and outright fabrications, many of which were taken as gospel by fans and journalists of the time. It took a later generation of scholars to peel away the patina of legend and piece together as much of the real story as they could. But misinformation still proliferates, especially on the internet. As much as I can, I will use the most up-to-date, reliably researched sources. (The Holy Bee as amateur armchair researcher is greatly indebted to the legwork of these professional authors, and a full source list will be provided after the final entry of this series.) I will do my level best to get the history right, without relying on Marxian Tall Tales, and if that means there will be fewer funny stories that are only half-true (or less), then so be it. It’ll make for a slightly less entertaining read, but I’ll be able to sleep at night. (And so will you, after reading one of these essays!)
The title of this series comes from the working title of author Joe Adamson’s seminal work on the Marxes, Groucho, Harpo, Chico, and Sometimes Zeppo. (Evidently, Simon & Schuster editor Michael Korda hated cutesy, esoteric, or wordplay-based titles. Makes it fair game for the Holy Bee to swipe.)
So this will be, in a description I’ve used in the past, your typical Holy Bee mishmash. Part biography, part cultural history, part critical analysis, part rambling and musing.
Here we go…
The region known as Alsace has always been a victim of geographical tug-of-war. Hugging the western bank of the Rhine River, the area has been regarded at various times as the easternmost territory of France or the westernmost territory of Germany. Culturally, it is very French, but linguistically many of its inhabitants speak plattdeutsch — “low German.” In October of 1859, Alsace was firmly under the control of France, and in a Jewish commune known as Mertzwiller, Simon Marx was born to another Simon Marx (possibly spelled “Marrix”), an illiterate peddler and suspected bigamist who may have been married illegally to two women at the same time. Before the boy was twelve, the events of the Franco-Prussian War annexed Alsace on behalf of the new Imperial State of Germany — the Second Reich — and young Simon went from being French to being German overnight.
In a similar vein, before the Franco-Prussian War, the little seashore town of Dornum, just east of the Dutch border, was considered to be in the independent Kingdom of Prussia. After the Franco-Prussian War, it was considered to be in the newly consolidated German Empire. It was there, in the waning days of the old kingdom, that Miene Schoenberg was born in November of 1864 to distinctly un-orthodox Jewish parents.
Miene’s parents were Lafe and Fanny Schoenberg, who traveled through northern Germany and the Low Countries performing as a ventriloquist/magician and a singing harpist, respectively. Lafe had a reputation as a wily, philandering charmer, always on the lookout for a pretty girl or easy money, traits he would pass on to at least a few of his grandsons. The 1851 marriage of the rascally Lafe and the more proper Fanny was objected to by her parents — and had been scandalously preceded by the 1850 birth of their eldest daughter, Schontje. Schontje was turned over to Lafe’s parents to raise, and for whatever reason the Lafe/Fanny union was not blessed with any more children until 1858 — then they came very close together. In addition to Schontje, there was daughter Sara, who emigrated to New York well ahead of the rest of the family in 1872, daughters Celine (about whom nothing is known) and Jette (died at age three), and at least a few others who didn’t survive infancy. All we need to note for the future are daughter Hanchen (b. 1862), daughter Miene, son Abraham (b. 1868) and son Heinemann (b. 1873).
Fanny and Lafe, 1876, just before immigrating. Hanchen is between them, Abraham is in front of Fanny, and Heinemann is on Lafe’s lap. The fair-haired Meine is on the right.
Looking for greater opportunities, the Schoenbergs came to the melting pot of New York City between 1877 and 1879, and began the process of assimilation among the crowds of fellow immigrants in the Lower East Side. Lafe became “Louis” (although he never mastered English), Hanchen became “Hannah,” Meine became “Minnie,” and the boys, Abraham and Heinemann, became “Al Shean” and “Henry (‘Harry’) Shean.” (Fanny stayed Fanny.) Fifteen-year-old Minnie took a job in a sweatshop, assembling fur coats.
We don’t know if Schontje or Celine made the trip. If they did, it is likely they are partly responsible for the flood of “Schoenberg cousins” the Brothers remember going in and out of their household at all hours. We know that Sara married a Gustave Heymann, and had a bunch of little Heymanns roughly the same age as the Brothers.
Fanny and Lafe, 1880s
Simon Marx made his way to New York in 1880, and was taken in and apprenticed by an older cousin who worked as a tailor. He shed the name “Simon” and became “Sam,” but — although he spoke plattdeutsch and considered himself German — he happily went by the nickname of “Frenchie” for the rest of his days. He never mentioned nor gave much thought to his parents and a multitude of siblings and half-siblings he had left behind in the Old Country. (“Frenchie” or “Frenchy”? Looking through all the sources, it seems to be a 50-50 split. I’ll go with Harpo’s spelling from his autobiography.)
Minnie, at around sixteen years old
By late 1884 Frenchie was barely scraping by as a tailor. But there were other opportunities for a handsome, dapper, and gentlemanly young Alsatian — especially one who was a decent dancer. He picked up extra money moonlighting as an instructor at a dance hall, and that’s where he met the bright, vivacious Minnie, who had moved on from the sweatshop and was now selling straw hats. Romance blossomed, and Sam “Frenchie” Marx, 25, married Minnie Schoenberg, 20, on January 18, 1885. They bounced from apartment to apartment (always moving further uptown — away from the teeming, roughshod Lower East Side), and began to produce their remarkable offspring.
The first Marx brother never got to be a “Marx Brother” at all. Manfred Marx, born in January 1886, was dead by July, a victim of acute “enterocolitis” (inflammation of the digestive tract) and “asthenia” (overall weakness), brought on by either influenza or tuberculosis. Whatever bacteria or virus was at fault, Manfred became another statistic in the annals of urban 19th-century infant mortality. His parents were devastated, but in true immigrant spirit, they persevered — and all their subsequent children lived to see old age.
After poor lost “Mannie” came Leonard, born on March 22, 1887. Then came Adolph on November 23, 1888. The middle child, Julius Henry, was born on October 2, 1890. Little brother Milton arrived on October 21, 1892. (He was another sickly one — Minnie watched him like a hawk.) The “surprise baby,” Herbert, was born on February 25, 1901.
We know them as Chico, Harpo, Groucho, Gummo, and Zeppo.
Although the family always had its eyes on the future, Manfred’s death was not without reverberations that would echo for years. Minnie became incredibly protective. “Sam can cough all night, and I never hear him,” she once said. “But if one of my boys coughs just once, I’m wide awake.” And the first child born after Manfred — Leonard — was undoubtedly his mother’s favorite, spoiled and cosseted unabashedly. All the boys were born with fine blonde hair (and Minnie was known to have mixed peroxide with their shampoo) — except Julius, who sported woolly black locks from the get-go. That, and the slight cast to his left eye, always made him feel like a little bit of an outsider. Minnie referred to him as der Eifersuchtihe, “the jealous one.” His brothers’ hair eventually darkened in adolescence, but for Julius, the damage was already done.
The dominant Yorkville landmark was the massive Hell Gate Brewery. The Brothers’ grandfather taught them to tell time by looking out of their window towards the brewery’s clock tower
Every Marx Brother has a story about what a terrible tailor their father was (he supposedly refused to use a tape measure, preferring to guess his customers’ measurements), and also liked to spin tales about their poverty and life in the tenements. The reality was a little different. Yes, Frenchie preferred cooking and playing pinochle to cutting cloth, but he must have been earning something. By 1895, the family had settled into the top floor of a comfortable four-story brownstone at 179 East 93rd Street in the respectable German neighborhood of Yorkville — hardly a tenement. They stayed there for almost fifteen years, a far cry from the days of fleeing angry landlords in the Lower East Side when rent came due. The Marx family was solidly lower-middle class.
Which isn’t to say the apartment wasn’t very, very crowded.
Let’s take a look at the occupants of this address, circa 1900…
The stoop of the Marx family’s building as it appears today
The occupants of three rooms on one floor of 179 East 93rd Street included Frenchie, who was more likely to be found frying short ribs and cabbage or playing cards than plying his trade. (He didn’t have a shop. His big cutting table and scraps of fabric dominated the dining area during work hours, and were put away when it was time for dinner and/or a round of cards, which came earlier and earlier in the day as he got older.) There was Louis and Fanny (now “Opie” and “Omie” to the grandsons). There was thirteen-year-old Leo and eleven-year-old “Ahdie” — towheaded troublemakers who at the time could pass as twins, and were already showing a proclivity for prowling the neighborhood looking for action. There was nine-year-old “Julie,” somewhat sour and serious, usually to be found with a book in whatever private corner he could claim, or keeping an eye on seven-year-old Milton, who was frail and small for his age. Presiding over all of this was Minnie Marx, pregnant (or very soon to be) with Herbert, and beginning to concoct the dream of putting her precocious boys on the stage. (None of the Brothers bothered with school beyond their bar mitzvah, and their attendance was pretty spotty before that.)
And according to the Brothers’ collective memories, another constant presence was a Marx Sister — Pauline (“Polly”), aged sixteen. Actually, Polly was the daughter of Minnie’s sister Hannah, born in 1884 when Hannah was between husbands, and unofficially adopted by Frenchie and Minnie to keep things respectable. (For what it’s worth, Polly was listed in the 1900 census as residing with her mother and stepfather, but who knows what the actual situation was.)
The Marxes occupied the top floor
A total of eight people — and that’s just the baseline. It seems that Polly was a semi-permanent fixture, and Aunt Hannah and her second husband Uncle Julius were there so often they might as well have been residents. Plus there was an endless stream of Schoenberg cousins, family friends, Frenchie’s customers, and pinochle players trooping up and down the three flights of stairs at number 179. And somewhere among the clutter, human and otherwise, they managed to find room for Omie’s old harp and a second hand upright piano. (One of Julius’ favorite reading spots was draped over the back of the piano.)
The story goes that Minnie was for some reason convinced Uncle Julius was sitting on secret riches, and named her middle child after him in hopes of a future inheritance. The question mark in the story is that Hannah and Julius Schickler did not marry until two years after Julius Marx was born. But who knows, maybe the couple had been “courting” for a couple of years.
Julius and Adolph in front of 179 East 93rd Street, around 1900
The loss of Omie Fanny in 1901 was balanced by the arrival of baby Herbert, but gradually the fourth floor got some breathing room. Polly married young, to the nearest non-related male (one of Frenchie’s card-playing cronies, actually) and got the hell out of there as soon as she could. Teenaged Leo and Ahdie were spending less and less time under the family roof, out until all hours doing who-knows.
Julius was a touring vaudeville singer by the end of 1905. And Julius most assuredly did not get an inheritance from his eponymous uncle when he finally shuffled off sometime in the 1920s. Uncle Julius’ entire estate, grouched his nephew in his colorful autobiography, consisted of “a nine-ball he stole from a pool hall, his liver pills, and a celluloid dickey.” Plus, he died owing Frenchie eighty-four dollars.
Outside Center Center, April 13, 1976. Graham Chapman appears to have wandered off for a drink, and has been replaced here by Neil Innes
A year passes from the Holy Grail triumph…
Then the Pythons hit Broadway! After mulling it over, the Pythons accepted producer Arthur Cantor’s long-standing offer to perform in New York, and their stage show crossed the pond to the 2,257-seat New York City Center on West 55th Street.
Rehearsing the Mountie Chorus on “The Lumberjack Song”
They slightly revised their line-up of live material. The sub-standard “Cocktail Bar” and “Secret Service” were blessedly dumped, and the much funnier “Dead Bishop” and “Crunchy Frog” were added. “Blackmail” replaced “Spot the Brain Cell” as the game show parody. “Election Special” was swapped for “Courtroom” (which didn’t make the album, nor did the physical comedy tour-de-forces “Custard Pies” and “Ministry of Silly Walks” — but for some reason the super-physical “One-Man Wrestling” made the cut here and on Drury Lane). Beyond these small tweaks, the show was made up of familiar stuff. Neil Innes contributed two new songs, and Carol Cleveland was back in the fold, having missed the run of shows at Drury Lane.
The Pythons performed their show to sold-out houses from April 16 through May 2, 1976.
Monty Python Live at City Center
Released: May 3, 1976 (U.S. only)
Produced by Nancy Lewis
2. Gumby Flower Arranging
3. Short Blues (Neil Innes)
4. One-Man Wrestling
5. World Forum (Communist Quiz)
6. Albatross/The Colonel
7. Nudge Nudge
8. Crunchy Frog
9. Bruces/The Philosophers Song
10. Travel Agent
1. Camp Judges
3. Protest Song (Neil Innes)
4. Pet Shop (Dead Parrot)
5. Four Yorkshiremen
6. Argument Clinic
7. Death of Mary Queen of Scots
8. Dead Bishop
9. The Lumberjack Song
Arista wanted the live album out as soon as the show closed — literally. Monty Python Live at City Center was in record stores hours after the last curtain dropped. That meant the recordings had to be made early in the show’s run. Andre Jacquemin did not make the trans-Atlantic trip to capture the shows for posterity, so Nancy Lewis hastily arranged recording equipment and the personnel to operate it, and is credited as the album’s producer.
For the first time, the Pythons had to deal with a full-on, fanatical reaction by their audience — they were now American celebrities. When Americans go big, it can be scary. Fans screamed at them as if they were rock stars. The nightly sold-out crowd dressed up like Gumbys and lumberjacks. The Pythons were fawned over by the likes of Martin Scorsese and Leonard Bernstein. (At an after-show gathering, Bernstein asked Eric Idle to recite a few lines of “Nudge Nudge.” Idle responded by asking Bernstein to hum a few bars of Beethoven.) Their time offstage was a blur of photo sessions, interviews, autographs, limo rides, and boozy, late-night dinners at fancy steakhouses. “We didn’t take drugs but we drank a hell of a lot,” remembers Terry Jones. “In fact I can’t remember how much we drank precisely because of the amount we drank.”
As usual during a long stage run, Michael Palin lost his voice towards the end. Backstage, he was offered a stiff malt whiskey by Neil Innes. “Will it help my voice come back?” “No, but you won’t care anymore.” On the last night, Palin hoarsely croaked out his longest speech of the show, as the man who is applying for a grant to develop his silly walk. He heroically and painfully completed it, and there was a long pause, after which his sketch partner Cleese punked him by simply saying “I’m sorry…what was that again?”
One night, a short-haired and clean-shaven George Harrison fulfilled what he called a lifetime’s ambition by donning a Mountie jacket and hat, and joining the chorus of “The Lumberjack Song,” completely unrecognized by the audience. (He is known to have checked into hotels under the name Jack Lumber.) On another memorable occasion, someone chucked a two-foot long rubber dildo onto the stage during “Bruces.” “Oh, look, Bruce,” quipped Eric Idle. “One of those little American penises.”
Look carefully and you’ll spot a Mountie that looks an awful lot like a Beatle
Some say City Center doesn’t really merit inclusion the canon of “official” Monty Python albums, due to its very close similarity to Live at Drury Lane, and the fact that the sound quality was below their usual standard — hastily recorded, plagued with microphone issues, and without the loving supervision of Jacquemin. But Drury Lane never received a U.S. release until the 1990s CD box set, so City Center became the only audio representation of their live show for American consumers for almost twenty years. I certainly owned it years before I ever heard Drury Lane, and I consider it superior to the British release — sketchy audio aside — due to the substitution of stronger material.
The party atmosphere of the City Center shows was remembered fondly by all, even though several of them had the authentic New York experiences of being burgled or pickpocketed. And they did get some work done during a few bleary, hungover daylight meetings — they all committed to doing another movie in the near future, and agreed that it should be set in Biblical times. Some story and character ideas were thought up. A leisurely-paced development period was decided on, and they worked out a lengthy research and writing schedule that would accommodate their burgeoning solo careers.
Just as Matching Tie and Handkerchief was hitting British record stores at the end of ’73, the second draft of the Monty Python and the Holy Grail script had been completed, and producers and investors were being rounded up. The script still needed more work…and Python Productions needed an influx of cash. The prestigious 2,200-seat Theatre Royal in Drury Lane in London’s West End offered the Pythons good terms for performing their live show over a two-week residency in February.
Shaggy ’74 Python, captured with a fish-eye lens no less. Is that four or is it five buttons undone on Chapman’s shirt?
As soon as their Drury Lane run was announced, overwhelming demand caused the length of the residency to be doubled.
They fine-tuned the set list from their British/Canadian tour the previous year. The official title of their Drury Lane run was Monty Python’s First Farewell Tour (Repeat) (with “NOT CANCELLED” stencilled over the posters). The experience was less like a night at the theater, and more like a rock concert by a veteran band. The audience wasn’t necessarily there to see something original, they wanted the hits…
From February 26 through March 23, 1974, the Pythons trod the theatrical boards, night after night, as audiences lapped up (and often recited along with) “Nudge Nudge,” “Bruces,” “Travel Agent,” “Argument Clinic,” “Dead Parrot,” “The Lumberjack Song,” and plenty of other stuff. Neil Innes was on hand to provide some musical interludes, but regular Python supporting player Carol Cleveland was unavailable. Her parts were covered by Australian actress Lyn Ashley, who had done a few bits on the TV show, and at the time was married to Eric Idle. (Her credit at the end of the Flying Circus episodes in which she appeared simply read “Mrs. Idle.”) The audience was often dotted with celebrities, including members of the Beatles, the Who, and the Rolling Stones, but despite the theater having a designated “royal box,” no members of the royal family showed up. The royal box was occupied nightly by a pantomime dummy of Princess Margaret.
“It was the nearest any of us got to a proper job,” says Terry Jones. “We would kiss our wives good-bye, work the night shift in the theater, get roaring drunk afterwards, roll home and do it all over again the following night.” At least a few mornings were spent tightening the Holy Grail script into its third (and final) draft, which was completed on March 15.
On the final night, Jacquemin set up his recording equipment, and the result was Python’s first real live album (their 1970 debut album made for the BBC, although performed in front of a small audience, doesn’t really count). The atmosphere is audibly electric, with over-the-top enthusiasm from the crowd, and superbly-performed comedy classics from the cast. Neil Innes, caught up in the final-night excitement, improvised by singing several lines of “Climb Ev’ry Mountain” from The Sound of Music right in the middle of the “Election Special” sketch. The Pythons found the moment funny enough to leave on the record, and paid the necessary Rodgers & Hammerstein royalties.
Monty Python Live at Drury Lane
Released: June 28, 1974 (U.K. only)
Produced by Andre Jacquemin, David Howman, and Alan Bailey
3. Gumby Flower Arranging
4. Secret Service
5. One-Man Wrestling
6. World Forum (Communist Quiz)
7. Idiot Song (Neil Innes)
9. The Colonel
10. Nudge Nudge
11. Cocktail Bar
12. Travel Agent
1. Spot the Brain Cell
2. Bruces/Philosophers Song
3. Argument Clinic
4. I’ve Got Two Legs (Terry Gilliam’s Song on a Wire)
5. Four Yorkshireman
6. Election Special
7. The Lumberjack Song
8. Dead Parrot
A small amount of studio work was required later to put in some narration and links. These sorts of extra little clean-up tasks were usually taken on by good sport and all-around team player Michael Palin.
The Pythons were quite aware that the audiences that flocked to the Theatre Royal were there to see their favorite sketches, but they wouldn’t be Python if they didn’t include some surprises. The whole show opened with “Llamas,” an obscure, 90-second deep-cut sketch from the first series of Flying Circus, in which a group of flamenco guitarists and dancers provide a partly-sung public service announcement in Spanish about the dangers of the deadly aquatic llama, with much stomping, guitar strumming, castanet-clicking, and exaggerated rolling of rs. “Tiene dos orejas, un corazón, una frente y un pico para comer miel. Pero está provisto de aletas para nadar. Las llamas son más grandes que las ranas.” (“It has two ears, a heart, a forehead, and a beak for eating honey. But it is provided with fins for swimming. Llamas are larger than frogs.”) When the Pythons staged their massive reunion show at London’s O2 Arena in 2014, they chose to open with “Llamas.”
From the vault of really old material came “Four Yorkshiremen,” which would remain in every iteration of the Python stage show from that point forward. First written by Cleese and Chapman for 1967’s At Last the 1948 Show, the four Yorkshiremen of the title relax in comfort, sipping wine and wearing white dinner jackets as they compare, in thick Yorkshire accents, how deprived their childhoods were. (“There were a ‘undred and fifty of us living in a shoebox in t’ middle of t’ road.” “Cardboard box?” “Aye.” “You were lucky. We lived for three months in a paper bag in a septic tank.”) “Secret Service” was also lifted from the 1948 Show, but it didn’t have the staying power of “Yorkshiremen.” Another old sketch that became a beloved part of the Python Live repertoire, “Custard Pies,” was left off the album because it was just too visual. (A relic from Jones & Palin’s old Oxford Revue days, “Custard Pies” was so popular it was borrowed by the Cambridge guys for their revue),
Due to the fact the Michael Palin — the original performer of “The Lumberjack Song” — had often lost his voice by the end of a show, Eric Idle ended up taking over that closing number from him. “The plaid shirt and suspenders suited both of us,” Palin says. (He reclaimed the part for the O2 shows.)
The big misfire, in my opinion, is “Cocktail Bar,” a rejected (for good reason) third series sketch that re-writes “Crunchy Frog” into a collection of disgusting cocktails such as the “The Special” (with a “twist of lemming”), “Mallard Fizz,” “Dog Turd & Tonic,” and the “Harlem Stinger,” which if the audio is to be believed — no photos or videos of the sketch exist — features Terry Gilliam in blackface (or at least doing a cringe-inducing minstrel show voice). There’s also a few dated Nixon jokes. (The Pythons usually avoided using topical references.) It’s good to remind ourselves that not everything Python did is worthy of uncritical praise. Someone in the group liked this clunker enough to want it in the show, and it wasn’t voted down.
By the time Drury Lane was released in June of 1974, the Pythons had returned from rainy, windswept location filming in Scotland with the independently-produced Monty Python and the Holy Grail, co-directed by Gilliam and Jones, in the can. Months of editing work and previewing were needed to whip it into shape, and after summer holidays, the Pythons would be getting down to work on their fourth and final series for the BBC (without the participation of their most visible member, John Cleese, who was already formulating his plans for Fawlty Towers).
It must have been the spring of 1988…our family home was way out in the middle of nowhere, a rented farmhouse surrounded by thirteen acres of walnut trees. I was enduring a lengthy bus ride to and from the psychological threshing machine known as middle school. Due to our house’s isolated location, I spent the ages of 11 to 14 without cable. Just antenna-based stuff including the three big networks, a couple of regional UHF channels…and PBS. So I watched a little more public television than the average middle-schooler. In between all the nature shows and war documentaries would be an occasional short promo for something called Monty Python’s Flying Circus. I remember the promo being just a silly voice over a faux-Gilliam bit of cut-out, high-contrast photography where Jim Lehrer‘s head was replaced with Big Bird’s. I was a little intrigued, but didn’t yet go out of my way to try and catch the show. (The connection between Python and PBS will be explored in next month’s entry.)An older classmate would occasionally sing “I’m a lumberjack, and I’m okay/I sleep all night and I work all day,”but I never recall him saying where it came from, or singing any of the rest of it.
I had a little rabbit-eared TV in my bedroom. I used to stay up late to catch Saturday Night Live at 11:30 from under my covers. (It was the second season featuring the classic late 80s-early 90s cast of Dana Carvey, Phil Hartman, Jan Hooks, Jon Lovitz, etc.) One night before the show started, I got up and wandered out to fix my favorite late-night snack (a plus-sized bowl of pre-sweetened cereal), and I passed my Dad in the living room, in front of the big console TV in his favorite TV-watching position (laying on the carpeted floor on his side, head propped up on his elbow). On the screen was one of the weirdest things I’d ever seen. An English-accented narrator was breathlessly hyping footage of what appeared to be a film trailer — someone was on a random beach in a fur coat, having a life-or-death struggle with a stuffed lion. Yes, the first bit of Python that ever passed before my eyes was their series 2, episode 10 sketch “Scott of the Sahara.” (I wouldn’t say Dad was a real Python fan, but he had a sophisticated sense of humor and was a great devourer of all things PBS. Also, TV options were limited.) I went back in my room, and after awhile, decided to switch over to PBS, just in time for “Fish Licence.” I was hooked from that moment on.
Monty Python’s Flying Circus went into my regular viewing rotation at that point. It was on Saturdays at 11, just after a Tom Baker episode of Doctor Who* and just before SNL. Right after Python, PBS would usually show the minutes-long astronomy show Jack Horkheimer: Star Hustler, informing viewers of any observable events going on in the cosmos that week. Its spacey, cheesy closing theme was always my signal to switch over to NBC just in time for the SNL cold open. When our family splurged on a new VCR, I took the old one and hooked it up to my little TV. I wish I could say I captured all 45 original episodes, but my local PBS station was pretty inconsistent, often repeating an episode within weeks of the first time I saw it (and never once dipping into the first series). But by the time we moved away from that farmhouse and back to cable-ready civilization, I had amassed most of series four, some of series three, and a few episodes of series two on a collection of slightly fuzzy VHS tapes that I watched over and over.
As far as Python audio went, my birthday in 1989 yielded me the double-CD compilation The Final Rip-Off, and under the Christmas tree that year were vinyl copies of Live At City Center and Contractual Obligation Album. More on all of those in Part 4.Pretty soon I was in high school in a bigger town, where Python was very much a known thing, and I was finally among my tribe (and I made a few converts with all the zeal of a missionary — thanks entirely to my painstakingly compiled mixtapes of Python audio, as PBS had stopped showing them by the early 1990s.)
And now on with our main discussion…
The group’s first film, And Now For Something Completely Different — a re-filmed collection of their best TV sketches intended to introduce the group to American audiences via “college cinemas” (again, those existed?) — came out in September of 1971 after languishing on the shelf for almost a year. Producer Victor Lownes had managed to shop it to Columbia Pictures…who put it out in Britain only! This flew in the face of the original intent and the Pythons were horrified that re-hashed material was being shown on their home turf. However, it actually did moderately well at the box office in a country where they already had a built-in market (despite some people, as predicted, carping about a bunch of material already seen on TV being presented as “something completely different”). The initial concept of being released exclusively to American college cinemas was dropped somewhere along the line. Columbia seemed to have no interest in releasing it in the U.S.
In the summer of 1972, Nancy Lewis was the head publicist for Buddah Records, a New York label specializing in bubblegum pop and light R&B. Just a few years before, she had been living in London, and had been captivated by Monty Python’s Flying Circus on TV. When Tony Stratton-Smith came over to New York to meet with the head of Buddah Records, Neil Bogart, to secure a U.S. deal for Charisma artists, the eagle-eyed Lewis spotted Another Monty Python Record in the stack of albums he was carrying. She energetically advocated for the group, and Buddah Records agreed to put out the album (and at least one future album) in the States. (Eagle-eyed, but maybe not elephant-memoried — she always recalls seeing both Another and Monty Python’s Previous Record in the Stratton-Smith’s stack, but Previous hadn’t even been recorded yet.)
It was Neil Bogart who convinced Columbia Pictures to finally release And Now For Something Completely Different in the U.S that August, with Buddah Records helping to cover the cost of promotion as they released Another Monty Python Record at the same time. Prints of the film were shipped across the country…to radio stations, who were then responsible for arranging screenings. At times, tickets were literally given away.
The group as they appeared in And Now For Something Completely Different‘s “Dirty Fork” sketch (with the non-performing Gilliam photo-bombing on the right)
Not all that surprisingly, the film bombed, despite Buddah’s enthusiastic-if-misguided cross-promotion efforts. “Some idiot designed a poster with a happy snake with a funny hat on,” griped John Cleese. It’s not clear if the idiot in question worked for Columbia or Buddah, but the team made sure going forward that all graphics and visuals associated with the Pythons would come from the mind of Terry Gilliam, at least for the foreseeable future. (In all my research, I have not been able to find the image of the be-hatted snake that Cleese found so irritating.)
And Now For Something Completely Different was written off (for now), but the album…it was starting to get some attention from FM radio stations. “The albums never sold in enormous numbers, but they provided a wonderful base,” says Lewis. Large chunks of first-rate Python material began hitting the American airwaves, usually in the overnight hours in the big city markets. “That FM stoner crowd was quite important,” says Michael Palin. “U.S. television was very commercial and safe but with a lot of rock DJs, Python was exactly the sort of stuff they were looking for…WNEW in New York would play Python clips all the time.”
By this time, the Pythons had long finished producing their third series of Flying Circus, but it remained unaired (due to a crowded BBC schedule, and head office concern over some of the edgier content). They were gearing up to do an original 45-minute episode for German TV (their second), and decided it was time for another album.
On Monty Python’s Previous Record, original material had roughly equal time with material drawn from the TV show, this time from the third series which had finally started being broadcast at the time of the album’s recording. (One sketch, “Fish License,” they pulled from all the way back in the second series.) Once again, the Jones/Palin team were in the producer’s seat, but just as Terry Jones shepherded the the second album (much to his distress), Michael Palin stepped up and took point on this one, bringing in Andre Jacquemin.
Andre Jacquemin was a teenage apprentice working at a London studio under the supervision of an old-school recording engineer, Alan Bailey (whose claim to fame was engineering several Cliff Richard sessions and working for Radio Luxembourg). One day in 1971, on his way out to lunch, he fortuitously bumped into Michael Palin, who was shopping around for a studio to record some voiceovers. With Bailey being all booked up, Jacquemin took on the session himself — and deeply impressed Palin. “What Andre was doing with music and sound effects was incredible,” remembers Palin. The debacle of recording Another was probably pretty fresh in his mind. “I asked him if he wanted to help me make [the next] album. Thankfully, he says ‘Yes.’”
“Mike explained what he needed and pointed to a three-foot high pile of scripts,” says Jacquemin. “He said ‘Just take those home and have a look at them, then you can tell us when you want us and what you want us to do.’ The only thing that kept going through my head was, ‘Oh God! These are all Cambridge and Oxford graduates…all I had was a swimming certificate and a bicycle proficiency test in terms of qualifications, so I thought ‘oh, crumbs! I’m in big trouble here…’ Anyway, I embraced it and told them I’d put together a budget and let them know.”
The album cover was a typical Gilliam flight of fancy, and the original inner sleeve advertised completely fictional albums supposedly also available from Charisma Records, such as Friday Night is Bath Night by J.P. Gumby, and Party Time! by Princess “Piano” Margaret. (Sadly, later pressings had an inner sleeve featuring actual Charisma products, and another good joke was ruined by the men in suits.)
Included with the initial pressing was a small flexi-disc called “Teach Yourself Heath,” providing the record buyer with lessons on how to imitate the speech and mannerisms of Britain’s current Prime Minister. “Eric and I spent a day listening to Heath’s speeches,” says Palin. “At a certain point I went to sleep…I feel the record hasn’t done justice to the boredom and inanity of those party political speeches. If it is funny, thank Mr. Heath for that. It’s all him.”
Monty Python’s Previous Record
Released: December 8, 1972 (U.K.); ? 1973 (U.S.)
Produced by Michael Palin, Terry Jones, Andre Jacquemin, and Alan Bailey
2. Are You Embarrassed Easily?
3. A Book at Bedtime
4. Dennis Moore (Part 1)
5. The Money Programme
6. The Money Song
7. Dennis Moore (Part 2)
8. Dennis Moore Theme Song (Part 1)
9. Australian Table Wines
10. Dennis Moore Theme Song (Part 2)
11. Argument Clinic
12. How To Do It
13. Dennis Moore Theme Song (Part 3)
14. Pepperpots (How To Put Your Budgie Down)
15. Personal Freedoms (Jean-Paul Sartre)
16. Dennis Moore Theme Song (Part 4)
17. Fish Licence
18. Eric the Half-a-Bee
19. Radio Quiz Game
20. Travel Agent
1. A Massage from the Swedish Prime Minister (I)
2. Silly Noises
3. Anne Elk
4. The Yangtse Sketch
5. We Love the Yangtse
6. A Massage from the Swedish Prime Minister (II)
7. A Minute Passed
8. Eclipse of the Sun
9. Alistair Cooke
10. Wonderful World of Sound
11. Funerals at Prestatyn
12. A Massage from the Swedish Prime Minister (III)
13. A Fairy Tale (Happy Valley)
Beware starting this one with the volume too high. The listener is immediately jolted by the introduction on side one, which features Terry Jones screaming at the absolute top of his lungs “Not this record! Not this record! Not this record!” until the needle is pulled and we are lulled into a gentle attempt to get uptight British listeners over their innate embarrassment at certain words (“megaphone”) and sounds (which have to be heard to be appreciated, but they’re…rude.)
The well-known classics here are “Travel Agent” and “Argument Clinic,” but long-time fans will appreciate series three sketches such as “Anne Elk” (and her controversial theory about the brontosaurus), the Blue Peter parody “How To Do It” (“How to play the flute: blow here and move your fingers up and down there”), and the reappearance of Mr. Praline, who we last encountered trying to return a dead parrot to the pet shop. This time he’s applying for a license for his pet fish, Eric (a halibut). “Fish Licence” concludes with the only Python song to feature the deeply non-musical John Cleese singing a solo vocal part, “Eric the Half-a-Bee,” an album-only treat not included in the TV version of the sketch. It was never performed live, but you can always tell who’s a hardcore Python fan based on their deep love for this song. The running gag through side one is the adventures of Dennis Moore, a Robin Hood-style, 18th-century highwayman who can’t quite get the hang of redistributing wealth. More precisely, it’s Dennis Moore’s theme song that gets constantly revised. (The running gag through side two is a “massage from the Swedish prime minister” — but it doesn’t vary. Each time it appears, it says the exact same thing. Very un-Pythonlike, but there’s an explanation.)
“We were convinced Python wouldn’t go in America.” — Eric Idle
Variations on this statement have been uttered by all members of the Monty Python comedy team at one time or another, and it’s a statement to which I take patriotic exception. If that were true, if us stateside folks really were a bunch of provincial, close-minded xenophobic rubes who only wanted domestically-produced comedy on the level of The Three Stooges and Gilligan’s Island, then Python would have failed. (And by the way, Britain has their fair share of provincial, close-minded xenophobic rubes too.)
But they did not fail. They were — eventually — a resounding success. The Pythons are immortal because their material did work in the U.S. Unfair as it may seem, you don’t get multi-generation global approbation without breaking in America. No one outside the borders of the U.K. gives a tenth of a shit about British “superstars” like Cliff Richard (old) or Robbie Williams (relatively recent). Who? Exactly. (We might give Russell Brand a chance if he didn’t always look like he was soaking wet, or covered with a slick layer of shortening.)
I’ve written about Monty Python several times in these virtual pages, and I’ve always felt the need to start off with a little potted history on them. This time will be no different.
The Monty Python troupe consisted of Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, and Michael Palin. All were products of either Cambridge or Oxford University, where — while pursuing professional degrees in things like law (Cleese) and medicine (Chapman) — they honed their peformance chops in traditional live theater, sketch revue shows, and after-hours cabaret. (The lone exception was the Minnesota-born Terry Gilliam, who was a typical overachiever — in his senior year of high school he was simultaneously class president, head cheerleader, and editor of the school paper. His subsequent years at Occidental College made him “honorary Oxford” in the group’s eyes.)But all of them abandoned traditional career paths as the lure of show business proved too strong to resist.
BBC-TV was going through an unusually experimental and indulgent phase in the mid to late 1960s. One of their flagship shows was the satirical Frost Report, considered a landmark of topical, cutting-edge humor. John Cleese was doubling as a writer and as part of its ensemble cast. The BBC took a shine to the tall, angular comedian, and almost casually offered him a show of his own which, after a couple of years and many twists and turns, became Monty Python’s Flying Circus (with Cleese declining headliner status — he wanted to be regarded solely as part of the team.) The hastily-assembled Python group came into the BBC’s headquarters in the spring of 1969 with the most hilariously uninformative pitch imaginable — they admitted they had no idea what the format of the show would be, or if there would be musical numbers, or guest stars, or…anything, really. They just offered a shrug and a collective sheepish grin. The result was they were offered “only” thirteen episodes at first, and told to get on with it.
As Idle put it, “We didn’t know what we were doing, but we insisted on doing it.”
Early BBC photo session, 1969, missing Gilliam, whose role within the group hadn’t quite been decidedby the BBC publicity department
The BBC were not as far out on a limb as it may have appeared. Although the Pythons were still all quite young at this point (the oldest, Cleese, turned 30 a few weeks after the show’s premiere), this was not their first rodeo. Except for Gilliam, their American animator and illustrator, they were all veterans of the Frost Report writers’ room. Moreover, they had all been writer-performers on their own TV shows already. Cleese and Chapman put together 1967’s sketch comedy show At Last the 1948 Show(for ITV, not the BBC) and Idle, Jones, and Palin created a surreally anarchic children’s show,Do Not Adjust Your Set(1967-69) for Thames Television that had just as many adult fans as kids (distinguished solicitors and merchant bankers were said to have left work early to catch it each Thursday afternoon.) The fresh-off-the-boat Gilliam joined DNAYS as animator in its second series in 1968.
Did I say second “series”? Yes. As we all know, the Brits and the Yanks are two people separated by a common language. When they say “public school,” they mean “private school.” When we say “series,” we are referring to a TV show in its entirety. When they say “series,” they are referring to what we call a “season.” So Monty Python’s Flying Circus is divided into “Series 1” (13 episodes, 1969-70), “Series 2” (13 episodes, 1970), “Series 3” (13 episodes, 1972-73), and a truncated “Series 4” (6 episodes, 1974 — without Cleese, and with the title shortened to just Monty Python).
After a slow start, Monty Python’s Flying Circus gradually gained viewing numbers and was a critical hit in the U.K. by the end of its first series, and a popular hit by the end of its second. Could the brand be exported? The team themselves were skeptical, but knew they wanted to stretch their wings beyond the BBC.
The Pythons’ first shot at the American market was not their television show at all. It was a film (see below). It failed, confirming their suspicions.
Their second shot consisted of comedy albums. Those started getting people’s attention…
Yes, Python’s initial handful of American fans in the wild and woolly early 1970s thought of them as primarily purveyors of comedy albums, akin to the Firesign Theater and Cheech & Chong. It was actually vinyl LPs that got Monty Python’s trademark foot in the door of America — circulating through university dorm rooms and being played in the wee hours on progressive FM radio stations. Over the course of their lifespan as a full group (1969-83), Monty Python released ten albums, several of which are considered absolute masterpieces of original audio comedy, true companion pieces to their groundbreaking work in the television medium.
So with this series of essays, the Holy Bee hopes to put the development of those albums in the context of the group’s overall timeline and creative output…and explain how they helped in their American breakthrough.
Let’s start by asking why the Python team was so convinced their material would never fly in the United States.
It comes down to the supposed difference between “British humo[u]r” and “American humor.” What sets British humor apart from its trans-Atlantic counterpart that speaks the same language? The more I researched this question, searching through Quora, Reddit, and simply asking people, the less clear the distinction became. It’s often stated that British humor is distinguishable because it’s dryer, “smarter,” irony-based, darker, and so on. American humor is broader, more obvious, maybe a little gentler and more sentimental. But examples abound that none of these traits solely belong to one side, nor does breaking formula result in a smaller audience. And that’s not just a recent development. In America, the dry-as-a-boneButton-Down Mind of Bob Newhart won a Grammy as far back as 1960 and sold by the truckload. The cerebral comedy team of Nichols and May had lines around the block when they hit Broadway the same year. A little later, American films like MASH and Harold and Maude were wickedly smart and incredibly dark, and had great success at the box office. On the other side of the spectrum, sappy, generic sitcoms, unimaginative “comedic” variety shows, and — God help us — the hideous sucking chest wound of British humor known as Benny Hill were all over British television for decades and watched by millions. The deeply moronic Carry Onfilm series was a beloved British institution. American rednecks at the sports bar and British punters down the pub are a remarkably similar breed, and no one has a monopoly on a style of comedy.
Some say most British humor comes off as “smarter.”
But Python’s intellectualism is surface-only. Take, for example, the Monty Python sketch known as “The All-England Summarize Proust Competition,” a game show-style televised contest to see which contestant could verbally condense French modernist Marcel Proust’s seven-volume philosophical novel A La Recherche du Temps Perduin just fifteen seconds. Heady stuff…but, by their own admission, none of the Pythons had actually read Proust. They just knew him as a cool name to drop to sound smart. And lest we forget that the Pythons also excelled at lowbrow humor, the actual winner of the “All-England Summarize Proust Competition” was…“the girl with the biggest tits.” You don’t have to have graduated Oxford to laugh at the premise and the naughty punchline.
On the other hand, what happens when you eschew any level of smartness and go for pure silliness? Well, you get the Goodies — another British comedy team (Tim Brooke-Taylor, Bill Oddie, Graeme Garden) with identical backgrounds to the Pythons (Oxbridge educations followed by a comedy-writing apprenticeship at the BBC), and whose lifespan as a team was almost identical as well — but they dropped all pretensions of engaging their audience on an intellectual level…and their comedy suffered. Frankly, the Goodies often crossed the line from silly to flat-out stupid. And it was fake stupid (as opposed to Benny Hill, who at least came by his stupidity honestly). These were guys as smart as the Pythons, but deliberately dumbed themselves down. It backfired, and they ended up with no shelf life. (The Pythons have always been good friends with the Goodies, who were all incredibly talented individuals, and their creative paths have crossed several times on other projects. Also, RIP Tim Brooke-Taylor, co-creator of At Last the 1948 Show with Cleese and Chapman, and an early casualty of Covid-19 in April of 2020.)
So it seems that British humor is simultaneously smarter and sillier, referencing Proust, Sartre, and Bergson one moment, then making boob jokes the next. But this hybrid intellectual/silly/surreal blend — or at least its acknowledgement as the modern definition of “British humor” by Americans — may actually originate solely with Monty Python. It’s the reason the term “Pythonesque” is now in the Oxford English Dictionary. They were true originals, or at least the ones who put the pre-existing parts together for the first time.
The Pythons’ uniqueness led to their success, and ultimately proves that the gap between “British humor” and “American humor” is really no gap at all — Americans can do smart references, cutting irony, and dry sarcasm. And the Brits can do the broad, the formulaic, and the sentimental. In fact, both sides do all of those things an awful lot.
In the end, I think the perceived “gap” is explained by three very simple things.
1) The British — now and forever, upper class to working class — love cross-dressing and believe it’s inherently hilarious. Some Like It Hot aside, Americans have always been a little conservative about playing with gender. (And speaking of class, Americans really don’t get Britain’s all-consuming obsession with class levels.)
2) The use of terminology, slang, and cultural references that would only be recognizable to someone living in the British Isles.
3) Most importantly — stubborn American resistance to the English accent. I personally know people who claim even the clearest, most precise “received pronunciation” English accent makes them throw up their hands and insist everything being said is incomprehensible. And any English accent of any region sounds off-puttingly stuffy and pretentiously “smart” to many American ears. We still seem to have an inferiority complex when comparing ourselves to our supposedly more sophisticated English cousins — and the accent triggers it. Many will shut their ears and not even try, thinking it’s somehow above them. (In comedy, at least. Historical costume dramas seem to get a free pass. The accent suddenly makes sense in that context. And notice I’m specifically referring to English accents here. Irish, Welsh, and Scottish accents provide their own special array of befuddlement for us.)
So…the first series of Flying Circus had concluded in January 1970, to critical plaudits and increasing ratings. The group was deep into writing and assembling material for the second series when the BBC decided there was a market for an audio recording of the highlights of the show so far. The easiest thing would have been to just make a vinyl release of edited audio from the actual episodes, perhaps with a little helpful narration (which was common practice for BBC Records), but the Pythons insisted on re-recording the material. The BBC, somewhat surprisingly, agreed.
Not long before the recording date, the Pythons were dismayed to discover that the recording was not to be made in the controlled confines of a proper recording studio with state-of-the-art stereophonic equipment, but to be made in a theater in front of a live audience — old radio show-style.
Monty Python’s Flying Circus
Released: November 6, 1970 (U.K. only)
Produced by Ian MacNaughton
1. Flying Sheep
2. A Man with Three Buttocks
3. Crunchy Frog
4. Nudge Nudge
5. The Mouse Problem
6. Buying a Bed
7. Interesting People
8. Barber Shop
9. The Lumberjack Song
10. “It’s the Arts” Interview: Sir Edward Ross
1. “It’s the Arts” Interview: Arthur “Two Sheds” Jackson
2. Children’s Stories
3. The Visitors
5. Mr. Hilter
6. The North Minehead By-Election
7. Me, Doctor
8. Pet Shop (Dead Parrot)
“Classic” sketches — the ones every Python fan can recite by heart — include the gross-out perennial “Crunchy Frog,” everyone’s favorite innuendo-fest “Nudge Nudge,” “The Lumberjack Song,” “Self-Defence” (or, “How to defend yourself against someone carrying different kinds of fresh fruit”), and the mighty “Pet Shop (Dead Parrot).”
By the end of 1963, Peter Sellers was a physical and mental time bomb. He and Blake Edwards had vowed never to work together again after the second Clouseau movie, A Shot In The Dark.
Sellers was never properly diagnosed or treated, but in examining the behavioral symptoms he began manifesting from late 1963 onward, his biographers seem to think he had schizoaffective disorder — perhaps the worst case suffered by anyone of any level of fame.
Somehow, his career continued successfully, at least for a time. Riding a wave of public sympathy after a near-fatal series of heart attacks in April 1964, and refusing to acknowledge any mental issues publicly or privately, he spent the remainder of the 1960s starring in various international productions of erratic quality but with big budgets, beautiful women, and unmistakable glamour.
Post-heart attack, Swinging Sellers in the Sixties, with his Swedish model wife
Behind the scenes, he was crumbling. His hasty 1964 marriage to Britt Ekland collapsed under his paranoia and abuse. His kids grew terrified of his volcanic rages on the occasions he demanded obedient visits from them. He lashed out unpredictably and threw infantile tantrums. He became totally reliant on the guidance of a bogus “psychic advisor,” Maurice Woodruff. He heard voices. He subjected colleagues to dozens of his bizarre whims. He was terrified of the color purple — it was not allowed to be worn in his presence, and his assistants would check his hotel rooms in advance and remove any trace of violet.
In the meantime, Blake Edwards married Julie Andrews, and made one decent film (1965’s The Great Race) to his usual ratio of stinkers.
Newlyweds Blake Edwards and Julie Andrews
Sellers and Edwards buried the hatchet to work on 1968’s The Party — an arguably funnier, or at least warmer, film than any of the Pink Panthers,but difficult to watch these days because Sellers is slathered in brown make-up and thick eyeliner. His character, the well-meaning but Clouseau-clumsy Hrundi V. Bakshi, is a thickly-accented collection of South Asian stereotypes.
Once again, Edwards and Sellers hated each other by the end of it.
Around the same time, the Panther series’ original production company, the Mirisch Corporation, decided that a third film in the series would be worth doing. When both Sellers and Edwards declined to participate, the project went forth anyway. The production company believed that the character of Inspector Clouseau was the true star, bigger than any actor who happened to portray him. They went into production on a new Clouseau movie without Edwards or Sellers (or Mancini). Bud Yorkin would direct.
Arkin is a great actor, but in 1968’s Inspector Clouseau he was badly miscast, failing to acquit himself convincingly as the title character. He is alternately sleepy (in an attempt to replicate Sellers’ deadpan), or shouting hysterically. His round baby face (he looks a decade younger than his 34 years) just appears wrong under the inspector’s trademark hat. Arkin aside, the film itself is not any worse than any of the other Panthers before and after, and shares several traits — overlong “slapstick” setpieces that go nowhere, clunky direction (if anything, Yorkin has a touch of subtlety Edwards lacks), and a solid supporting cast working very hard.
Had Sellers played the part, it is likely that Inspector Clouseau would be considered a worthy entry in the series. But it was a flop with the critics, and though box office numbers are unavailable, they clearly weren’t strong. The series was dropped… for the moment.
Edwards had burned most of his Hollywood bridges with the Darling Lili fiasco, and was hunkered down in London trying to figure out how to resurrect his shattered career. Sellers hit the skids around the same time, appearing in a run of films of such appallingly low quality that one of them, Ghost in the Noonday Sun, was considered unreleasable and shelved.
Enter Sir Lew Grade, the British mega-mogul of ITC Entertainment, a colossus of both film and television. He wanted Julie Andrews to star in one of his TV specials, and if that meant giving her down-and-out husband a two-movie deal, it was a price he was willing to pay. The first film was another underwhelming dud (the overwrought romantic drama The Tamarind Seed). Sir Lew then tactfully suggested a return of Inspector Clouseau as the second film in the deal. At this point, neither Edwards nor Sellers was in a position to decline.
The Return of the Pink Panther (1975)
Written by Blake Edwards & Frank Waldman
Produced by Blake Edwards for ITC Entertainment
Released through United Artists
Over the years, Return is the film in the series I’ve seen the most often. For decades, ITC held its copyright separately from every other Panther film, and as a result, it played on TV far more often than the others (which is to say, it was on a lot — the other films were certainly no strangers to TV airings). It was always my favorite. Sellers — older and a little more hangdog than in the ‘60s films — still plays the role with total commitment. He has a new schtick (briefly depicted in Shot) in these ‘70s revival films: Master of Disguise, and his elaborate get-ups can be pretty amusing. His bizarre version of a French accent hasn’t yet worn out its welcome, and he is always adding little grace notes to what is sometimes a sledgehammer style of physical comedy.
The film opens strong. The Pink Panther diamond is swiped from a heavily-guarded Lugash museum in a well-staged robbery sequence that clearly influenced later films like Entrapment and the Ocean’s series.
We then are re-introduced to Clouseau in Paris, busted down to a foot patrol officer, and he has a funny encounter with a street musician and a chimpanzee “minkey,” all while a bank is robbed behind his oblivious back.
He is about to be suspended for six months by the still-twitching Chief Inspector Dreyfus (evidently reinstated after going off the deep end in Shot) when the call comes from the Lugashi government: they want their diamond recovered by the detective who helped find it the first time. Clouseau is bumped back up to the rank of Inspector and put on the case, all the while dodging (usually accidentally) a mysterious assassin. (And Dreyfus has a good bit of comic business with a cigarette lighter all too realistically shaped like a handgun.)
The solid opening is marred only by another instance of Clouseau getting ambush-attacked (on his orders) by his loyal Chinese valet Cato, as usual wrecking his apartment in the process. The sequence has lots of unnecessary slow motion, is awkwardly timed and staged (an Edwards trait), and relies on nothing more than pain and destruction for humor (another Edwards trait).
Also racism, as Cato here and in most other Panther movies is beaten, denigrated, and referred to by Clouseau as his “little yellow friend.” I don’t usually agree, artistically speaking, with judging the standards of a bygone era by the standards of a more enlightened era, but this sort of thing does make the original Panther series a tad uncomfortable to share with your kids.
The chief suspect in the robbery is the jewel thief who stole the diamond twelve years ago — Sir Charles Litton (“the notorious Phantom”), now retired and living in Nice. David Niven as Litton is replaced here by the younger, spryer Christopher Plummer, who does a great job in the role (ED NOTE: and died right as I was writing this — RIP), and the twist is — he didn’t do it. He flies off to Lugash to personally investigate and clear his name, and sends his beautiful wife, Lady Claudine Litton (Catherine Schell), to Switzerland to distract the dogged Clouseau, who falls for the bait without question. The film begins intercutting between the two sets of characters, and loses momentum.
Christopher Plummer and Catherine Schell as Sir Charles and Lady Claudine Litton
The sequences of Litton infiltrating the seedy underworld of Lugashi organized crime and their government’s secret police were shot on location in Morocco, and are generally pretty dull. They have no real comedic elements at all — unless you count Pepi. Graham Stark’s role here is the sweaty, sniveling, deeply unpleasant henchman Pepi, who over the course of the film, gets every finger on one hand broken in different painful ways. Again, this is Edwards’ idea of “comedy.”
Graham Stark (“Pepi”) and Christopher Plummer
Things are livelier in the Gstaad, Switzerland location, with Clouseau infiltrating the luxury hotel where Lady Litton is staying. He first tries to inspect her room while she’s out, disguised as a housekeeper. As usual, the sequence — based around his slapstick struggle with an elaborate vacuum cleaner — goes on way too long with very little payoff.
Much more successful, humor-wise, is Clouseau’s attempt to directly question his quarry in the hotel’s bar, disguised as a nightclub swinger (“Guy Gadoire”) in oversized shades and a blinding red sport coat, with a drooping handlebar mustache. He loses one handlebar early on (after getting punched in the face by an over-enthused go-go dancer), and continues with his usual obliviousness, much to Lady Litton’s amusement. Rumor has it that Catherine Schell as Lady Litton was genuinely laughing at Sellers’ improvised antics throughout the film, and those takes were used because it would have been the character’s realistic response to Clouseau’s fumbling.
All these situations are eventually resolved — Clouseau is credited with the diamond’s recovery, nobody seems to bother to try and prosecute the actual thief (yes, the identity is revealed and no one seems to care), and Clouseau’s mysterious would-be assassin is revealed as Chief Inspector Dreyfus, who is committed to a padded room in an insane asylum as the credits roll.
The funny moments of The Return of the Pink Panther are outnumbered by the unfunny moments by about three-to-one, and are usually the small throwaway jokes rather than the elaborately staged setpieces. (An example: Clouseau gets in a cab and instructs the driver “follow that car!” The driver hops out and sprints after the car on foot.) Compared to what was coming after it, Return was a masterpiece.
Upon its release in May 1975, The Return of the Pink Panther was a smash, restoring both Edwards and Sellers to bankability. They decided to go all in, and began shooting the next movie in the series almost immediately.Continue reading →
Blake Edwards (1922-2010) was a film director. Heck, probably even a “major” film director. He may not be a household name, but most people who know a little about movies know who he was. He won a Special Academy Award in 2004 “in recognition of his writing, directing and producing an extraordinary body of work for the screen.” That’s as may be. But if I were to ask someone familiar with that body of work to name a great — great — Blake Edwards movie, there may very well be a long pause as they struggle to think of one.
They will likely come up with Breakfast At Tiffany’s. Sorry, no. That’s perhaps the most overrated “classic” film in cinema history.If you want to experience the effervescent magic that was Audrey Hepbrun, watch Sabrina. Or Roman Holiday. Or even Charade. All exponentially better films than the limp, vapid Tiffany’s — and all containing 100% less Mickey Rooney in yellowface as Hepburn’s buck-toothed “Japanese” landlord — a walking, talking ethnic slur that was vulgar even by early 1960s standards (which weren’t high.)
Some people old enough to remember it might dredge up Edwards’ box-office smash 10. But “sex comedies” have a hard time standing the test of time. Sex comedies rely on actions and reactions based around attitudes, mores, and societal standards, all of which change, sometimes rapidly. 10 is a total relic of the late 1970s — just as fossilized (and fun to watch) as your standard pile of dinosaur shit. (And be honest — it wasn’t even all that good at the time. People just lined up in their flares and Hush Puppies to see Bo Derek in beaded cornrows frolicking on the beach.)
Fewer people will come up with his true masterpiece — Days of Wine and Roses, not a comedy at all, which may be the secret to its success. Edwards was a restless, melancholy soul who fought a lifelong battle with depression, pill addiction, and deep-seated anger issues, and this harrowing look at alcoholism tapped into whatever brilliance Edwards contained as a filmmaker. And make no mistake, Edwards did display flashes of brilliance. He made some good movies in spite of his own tendencies (A Shot in the Dark is a good example.) But mostly, he was the poor man’s Billy Wilder. Top of the second tier, sure. Best of the bench players. But the inescapable whisper of “hack” hangs around his legacy like an anchor chain.
But far ahead of all the Tiffanys and 10s and even Victor/Victorias in many people’s memories is The Pink Panther and its endless train of sequels…all helmed by Blake Edwards. If, like me, you’re a child of the 80s and not old enough to have seen the bulk of them in their original theatrical runs, you remember them as endlessly airing on weekend afternoon TV, and as cable movie channel staples.
The series’ central figure — the hopelessly inept Inspector Jacques Clouseau of the Sûreté, as portrayed by British actor Peter Sellers — has become an iconic comedic character. Austin Powers, Derek Zoolander, and Ron Burgundy are all his spiritual children. The Pink Panther movies inspired a cartoon show, and enough nostalgic affection to support a hideous 2006 remake starring Steve Martin (who should really know better), and an even more hideous 2009 sequel to the remake.
Revisiting the original films today, how do they hold up?
Not all that great.
And it comes down to the fact that Edwards’ idiosyncratic take on comedy is completely joyless.“Comedy is pain” has always been Blake Edwards’ motto. I just wish he wasn’t always so literal about it. Maybe that’s why his comedies are generally so painful to watch — he includes the audience a little too much in his characters’ suffering.
In Edwards’ films, acts of physical comedy play out in long takes and wide shots. “I see things like a proscenium,” he has said. His characters are always in motion, but moving clumsily. Awkwardly. There is no comedic grace. The characters shuffle around almost sadly, and the only sounds are thuds and rustlings, and the characters’ audible exhalations and grunts as they bump into each other, inanimate objects, and the ground. Edwards might say that’s a kind of purity. But it’s labored and comes off as rather amateurish. Yes, some of the audience may laugh. But a lot of them just shift uncomfortably in their seat and ask themselves Is this supposed to be funny? There’s a reason why for every box-office success, Edwards’ filmography has roughly three catastrophic…and I mean catastrophic…bombs. Who knew a comedy could practically bankrupt a studio? (See Darling Lili. Better yet, don’t.)I decided to take some of my COVID-19 quarantine downtime last summer to re-watch the whole Pink Panther series. One of the things that makes quarantine bearable is that you can still count on essential workers to bring you ridiculous shit, such as the Pink Panther series Blu-Ray set. You might have to wait an extra couple of days. (It actually got here quicker than I expected, placed with care on my porch by a masked and gloved van driver. “Essential workers” should have been Time Magazine’s Person [People] of the Year.)
The Pink Panther (1963/64)
Written by Blake Edwards & Martin Richlin
Produced by the Martin Jurow for the Mirisch Company
Released through United Artists
First off, was The Pink Panther a 1963 film or 1964 film? IMDB and Wikipedia firmly list it as 1963, which it was — in a handful of European countries, where The Pink Panther made its bow in late December of that year. It had a single showing in Boston on New Year’s Eve. But its wide British release was in January of ‘64, and its wide U.S. release wasn’t until March. The AFI and several other film websites call it a 1964 film.
The basic outline of the story is that a French police inspector, Jacques Clouseau, is hot on the trail of an international jewel thief known as the Phantom, the alter ego of English playboy Sir Charles Litton. Litton (sometimes rendered as “Lytton”) has his eye on a massive diamond called the Pink Panther, property of the deposed Princess Dala of Lugash. Clouseau is trying to stop the Phantom before he strikes again, not knowing that his own wife, Simone, is the Phantom’s accomplice…and mistress. When everyone comes together (along with Litton’s louche and irresponsible American nephew, George) during a skiing holiday, complications ensue. Hilarity, sadly, does not.
David Niven was deservedly top-billed in The Pink Panther, and his dashing character, Sir Charles Litton (“the notorious Phantom”), was envisioned by Edwards and the Mirisch Company to be the lead in a potential series of comedic heist films. A series indeed came about, but not as originally envisioned…and not with the Phantom as the main character.
By 1963, the name “David Niven” was synonymous with class, wit, and charm, but at 53, he was getting visibly long in the tooth. Litton was supposed to be irresistible to women, but after a lifetime spent in smoky cocktail parties, Niven’s physical appearance was growing somewhat wizened. His deeply-lined face, snaggled nicotine teeth, and slight cast to his left eye make him more than a little…hobgoblin-ish. I guess his money might be irresistible.
Apart from being something of a vehicle for Niven, the film was designed to be very much an ensemble piece, and it originally had a totally different cast. Peter Ustinov was to play the dogged-but-oblivious Inspector Clouseau (the original script indicated this was a mostly non-comedic straight role — presumably Ustinov’s portly and dignified bearing would give the character a more Hercule Poirot-style persona). Ava Gardner was to be the devious and deceptive Simone Clouseau, and Edwards hoped to get his recent collaborator Audrey Hepburn on board as Princess Dala.
Peter Sellers as Clouseau
Hepburn, already with an eye on semi-retirement, declined the part outright. Ava Gardner accepted, then left the project when the Mirisch Company would not meet her diva-like demands for an army-sized personal staff. Ustinov bailed for unknown reasons right before cameras rolled (and triggered a nasty lawsuit). Two European “model-actresses” (Claudia Cardinale and the mononym’d Capucine) were fitted into the female roles, and at the last possible minute, Edwards offered the role of Inspector Clouseau to Peter Sellers.
As the film opens, gilded lettering spelling out “Once Upon A Time…” fills our field of vision in glorious, vibrant Technirama. Edwards can certainly set up a mise en scene, he clearly has a flair for sumptuous colors, and a good eye for widescreen framing (which can be challenging.) The rich photography in The Pink Panther as envisioned by Edwards and carried out by cinematographer Phillip Lathrop is beyond reproach. (What plays out in front of the camera is the issue.)
We begin with a prologue set twenty years in the story’s past in the fictional Middle Eastern country of “Lugash” — the king is presenting his daughter with a large diamond. It is pointed out that, like many massive diamonds, this one has a flaw. If one looks into the center of the jewel, there is a pinkish discoloration which is shaped like a leaping panther.
At this point, the film reveals one of its other major assets — the jazzy opening theme by composer Henry Mancini. Dominated by the tenor saxophone of Plas Johnson, it is instantly recognizable to multiple generations, and is film music at its finest. The “Pink Panther” theme plays over the very amusing title animation, supervised by Warner Bros. legend Friz Freleng, featuring a mischievous embryonic version of the Pink Panther cartoon character (at this point still very cat-like, frequently sitting on all four paws, and suavely knocking ash off his long cigarette holder). It’s easy to see how this character got spun off into his own series of theatrical shorts beginning later in ‘64, then his own long-running animated TV series by 1969.Continue reading →