The Road to Get Back: The Beatles in the Fall & Winter of 1968 (A Prequel, Part 2)

Continuing our look at what the individual Beatles were up to in the short but fascinating (to me at least) gap between finishing the White Album (October 17, 1968) and regathering to begin the “Get Back” project (January 2, 1969). In the last entry, we checked in with Ringo and George. We will now carry on with Paul and John.

Paul…

Like John, Paul at this time was in the throes of a new and rapidly deepening relationship. For the last three weeks of White Album recording, he had been sharing his home with a blonde New York native named Linda Eastman.

Paul first met Linda on May 15, 1967 at the Bag O’Nails nightclub in London. Linda, a divorcee with a young daughter, had been making a name for herself as a rock photographer, and was in London working on a glossy photo book, Rock and Other Four-Letter Words. She knew Brian Epstein’s assistant, Peter Brown, socially from his frequent trips to New York. When she came to London, she looked up Brown who, in turn, introduced her to Paul. Four days later, on May 19, she finangled an invitation from Brown to attend the exclusive launch party of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band at Epstein’s luxurious Belgravia flat, where she took several photos, and was photographed herself, deep in conversation with Paul.

Linda returned to the U.S. and a year passed…John and Paul traveled to New York in mid-May 1968 for a series of interviews and publicity appearances to formally introduce their media company, Apple, to the American press. Linda was in attendance at the May 14 press conference at the Americana Hotel. She managed to slip Paul her phone number on the only bit of paper she could come up with — a blank check. He called her the next day so she could accompany the two Beatles’ entourage on the limo ride to the airport. Paul returned to the U.S. the following month to handle some more Apple business in Los Angeles. He invited Linda to fly across the country and join him for a few days, which she promptly did. When Paul returned to London on June 25, the White Album sessions had finally begun in earnest after a fitful start.

Paul had numerous flings and was seen with a variety of girlfriends that summer (his long-time, on-and-off relationship with actress Jane Asher was by then permanently off), but he admitted his mind kept drifting back to the groovy, laidback blonde photographer, who loved animals, rock music, and marijuana, all things close to his own heart. She came from a wealthy family, so she wasn’t interested in his money. He felt relaxed around her in a way he felt with no one else. As his relationship with the other Beatles worsened, he made a decision. He broke things off with all the other girls he had been seeing and summoned Linda to London — to stay with him permanently. When she arrived at his home at 7 Cavendish Avenue on September 23, 1968, she was told Paul wasn’t at home — he was at Abbey Road (a short walk away) working with The Beatles on the track “Happiness Is A Warm Gun.”

“Happiness Is A Warm Gun,” September 23-24, 1968

She headed over to the studio, and pulled out her ever-present camera to capture the band at work. The following night’s session ended around 2:00 am. The fans that always gathered around his home’s front gates remember that it was a warm night, and Paul was so happy that he serenaded them with “Blackbird” from his open upstairs window.

On October 20, 1968, three days after the White Album was finished, Paul and Linda flew back to New York so Paul could meet Linda’s daughter, Heather (almost six years old), for the first time, and to begin transferring their lives from Manhattan to London. As the couple packed up all of her belongings and made the multitude of other arrangements such a move would necessitate, they lived a simple life at Linda’s soon-to-be empty apartment on East 83rd Street. They wandered the city on foot and by subway. Paul bought an old Army overcoat, and began growing the lush black beard that would earn compliments at the start of the “Get Back” sessions, and would be admired by Beatles fans to this very day, despite the brevity of its existence. (It was shaved off as soon as the sessions were over, right around the time John began growing out his. They practically traded facial hair over four weeks in February ’69. The McCartney Beard returned the next autumn, and then off and on through early ‘71. Apart from two unfortunate mustache dalliances in ‘74 and ‘79, he’s been clean-shaven, publicly at least, ever since.) Many New Yorkers doubtlessly recognized him, but they were too cool and sophisticated to bother him, so he could wander the city unmolested. Song fragments that reflected his upbeat mood began rattling around his head. “Out Of College” and “One Sweet Dream” would eventually make up two of the three sections of the mini-medley “You Never Give Me Your Money” on Abbey Road, and “I’ve Got A Feeling”, would soon be blended with a composition of John’s.

The newly-minted family unit returned to London on October 30 (after an overnight visit to Jamaica).

Of all The Beatles, Paul was the only one who chose to make his main residence in the middle of London. But when he finally acquired a country retreat in 1966, it was really a retreat. High Park Farm in Scotland was as remote from London and the hassles of Beatlemania as you could get in the British Isles — almost two hundred acres on the western Highlands peninsula known as Kintyre, centered around a three-room stone cottage with a tin roof, no heat apart from the iron cooking range and a couple of hearths, and no running water.

The High Park Farm cottage as it appeared in the late 1960s. At least there were some primitive electrical lines.

Paul, Linda, and Heather made the trip to High Park Farm on November 5. Conditions were so primitive — Paul had made his own furniture out of scrap wood and potato boxes — that any visit there was basically a camping trip. According to one biographer’s account, nature-loving Linda’s enthusiastic embrace of the place “resolved any lingering doubts Paul may have had about commitment and monogamy.” The trio stayed for two weeks, rambling around the property, which included the remains of a prehistoric hill fort, an ancient standing stone, burns and streams, a herd of sheep tended by hired locals, and a healthy population of rabbits and foxes. From nearby Ranachan Hill, the coast of Ireland was visible on a clear day. 

Paul was back in London by November 20 to record an in-depth interview for Radio Luxembourg to promote the imminent release of the White Album. Paul & Linda continued to be free spirits, taking day trips out of London, refusing to look at road signs and trying deliberately to get lost. This led to Paul writing “On Our Way Back Home” (later to become “Two Of Us”), which, along with “I’ve Got A Feeling,” would be a highlight of the early “Get Back” sessions. 

In late November, Paul invited director Michael Lindsay-Hogg, at that point already in pre-production for a Rolling Stones TV special, to a meeting at Apple, where he offered him the job of directing the film of the “Get Back” concert and its attendant rehearsals in January. Paul and Lindsay-Hogg continued to meet intermittently for the rest of the year, although it’s clear from the conversations in the Get Back documentary not much was resolved ahead of time. (In his memoirs, Lindsay-Hogg remembers all four Beatles attending most of these meetings, but the historical record shows this is highly unlikely, if not a total impossibility. Take memoirs written decades after the fact with a huge grain of salt.)

Beginning on November 22 and running through early December, Paul busied himself producing the first album of his own Apple discovery, Welsh folk singer Mary Hopkin, whose McCartney-produced debut single from August, “Those Were The Days,” topped the British charts. The collection of songs chosen for the album was a mix of old standards and some new originals penned by the likes of Donovan and Harry Nilsson. Paul played on a couple of tracks, but mostly kept himself in a supervisory role up in the studio control room. It is also likely that he taped his message for The Beatles’ Christmas fan club disc during these sessions, busking on an acoustic guitar and improvising some holiday-themed lyrics. The resulting album, Post Card, came out in February 1969, reaching #3 on the U.K. charts.

Glyn Johns, an experienced and respected recording engineer who had worked frequently with The Rolling Stones, remembers Paul contacting him in early December to hire him for the “Get Back” sessions, since they wouldn’t be using the EMI Studios at Abbey Road (or its engineering staff) for the project.

With the Hopkin album wrapped, on December 11 Paul and family flew to Portugal on the spur of the moment to stay with writer Hunter Davies, whose authorized biography of the band had just been published. Davies had invited them via postcard to his villa in Praia da Luz in the southern coastal region known as the Algarve. Linda had recently discovered she was pregnant, and during their time in Portugal they made the decision to get married early in the New Year. They stayed with Davies through December 21.

Paul in Portugal, December 11-21, 1968

Paul, Linda, and Heather spent Christmas with Paul’s father, Jim, and his step-mother and step-sister at the house Paul had bought for them (called “Rembrandt”) in the village of Gayton, near Liverpool.

Paul with his dad Jim, Christmas 1968

John and Paul met up at Paul’s house on Cavendish Avenue at least once in late December, just before the “Get Back” sessions began, and worked out some rough song arrangements ahead of time. When they arrived at Twickenham on January 2, their two separate compositions, “I’ve Got A Feeling” and “Everyone Had A Hard Year” had already been combined into one song.

In Beatles News…

The Beatles, a double album consisting of thirty tracks recorded between May 30 and October 14, hit store shelves on November 22, 1968. Its blank white cover with a slightly crooked, faintly embossed title was intended as a direct contrast to the colorful psychedelia of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and caused the album to immediately be re-christened by the public as “The White Album,” and its actual title was almost never used thereafter. The cover (and the photo collage poster included inside) was designed by artist Richard Hamilton. The first few million pressings of the LP were also individually numbered. (Ringo snagged #000001.) It reached number one on the album charts by December 7, where it remained for seven weeks. (It was still number one when the “Get Back” sessions began.)

In the midst of the promotional push for the White Album (which The Beatles themselves did little for, apart from a few radio interviews), Apple’s search for a proper concert location for the “Get Back” project continued. “We’ll say what we want, then find out if we can,” is how Apple press officer Derek Taylor summed up Apple’s underlying philosophy regarding the project (and most things).

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The Road to Get Back: The Beatles in the Fall & Winter of 1968 (A Prequel, Part 1)

So that’s it for the Marx Brothers…one of the most in-depth research/writing projects I’ve ever done…I spent almost a year on it (off and on, because I do have a life, despite all evidence to the contrary), and I hope it went down OK.

Now things are going to get real Beatle-y around here for a while (casting another load of doubt on the whole “having a life” statement)…

The big question in writing an introduction to something like this is, how much does the reader already know? How much do I recap and rehash? Odds are if you’re reading this, you’re probably something of a Beatles fan to begin with and know at least the basics of their “Get Back”/Let It Be project as it fits into the overall (semi-mythical) Canonical Beatles Narrative:

1. After the tense and fractious sessions for The Beatles (universally known as “The White Album,” which I will call it from this point on) in the summer and fall of 1968, the group wanted to return to basics and do a one-shot concert of all-new material as a simple, stripped-down four-piece band, with an accompanying TV show and album, and without heavy production or a bunch of outside musicians.

2. To that end, in January of 1969 The Beatles gather for a series of filmed rehearsals on a cavernous, mostly empty soundstage at Twickenham Studios, which demonstrate the bitter atmosphere of the White Album sessions has continued.

3. A strung-out John takes little interest in the proceedings as he is totally infatuated with 1) girlfriend (soon to be wife) Yoko Ono, who attends all the sessions attached to his side, and 2) a dangerous flirtation with heroin. Paul tries to keep things on the rails and comes off as domineering. George, fed up with the lack of interest shown in his songs, and with being told what to play and how to play it by Paul, quits the band a week into the rehearsals.

4. George is coaxed back with the promise of a scaled-down version of the project. The “no outside musicians” rule is bent by adding keyboardist Billy Preston to fill out the sound (overdubs on the album are still a no-no at this stage). Preston’s good-natured presence and the conditions of George’s return have relieved a lot of pressure. Once the location switches from the dreary Twickenham soundstage to their home base at Apple, the mood improves noticeably. The sessions are quickly wrapped up, and the climactic concert is performed on the roof, out of sight of the mostly-puzzled Londoners below.

5. The songs are scheduled to come out on an album titled Get Back in the summer of 1969, but everyone is thoroughly sick of the project and its bad vibes, and it’s shelved at the last minute in favor of (temporarily) burying the hatchet in order to start work on Abbey Road, which comes out in September 1969 to universal acclaim.

Before it was cancelled, the intended Get Back album made it as far as a cover design, parodying the photo and text of The Beatles’ first British album Please Please Me

6. Re-titled Let It Be, the former “Get Back” album is heavy-handedly remixed by Phil Spector. The accompanying 80-minute documentary is edited in such a way that it seems to capture a bored band’s dissolution, and is considered depressing and dreary by just about everyone who watches it. Album and film come out in May 1970, and are viewed as The Beatles’ swan song (even though the superior Abbey Road was recorded after it).

7. About fifty years later, acclaimed director Peter Jackson wonders if there’s something in the almost sixty hours of footage captured by original director Michael Lindsay-Hogg that maybe tells a different story. He goes back, digitally cleans and brightens up the grainy old film, and pieces together an entirely different documentary that shows there were a lot of good, fun moments in those sessions, that the band members didn’t seem to hate each other, and that there was still some joy left in The Beatles’ tank.

And I just went and recapped it, didn’t I?

Speaking of recapping, one of the more underrated elements in Peter Jackson’s three-part, eight-hour documentary The Beatles: Get Back is its opening montage — succinctly summarizing the history of The Beatles in a little under eleven minutes. The rest of the documentary is given over to the January 1969 rehearsal/recording sessions, but the average viewer will find that they have been given the proper context, and the stage is set to see how these sessions play out.

I am not the average viewer. When it comes to The Beatles, I get a little detail-obsessed, as we’ll see here and in the next couple of entries. 

After that short opening sequence, we are dropped in right on the first day’s rehearsal on January 2, 1969, fly-on-the-wall style, watching the band members arrive and wish each other Happy New Year. I began wondering, when did they last see each other? What happened in the relatively short amount of time between the White Album sessions and the “Get Back” sessions? What were the just-passed holidays like for them? They weren’t exactly starting this project with a bumper crop of much-needed new songs. Had they been writing? What recent experiences were on their minds when they sat down and noodled the first few notes of an embryonic “Don’t Let Me Down” on Day One?

It turns out the time between the end of recording the White Album and the beginning of “Get Back” (only about ten-and-a-half weeks!) was quite eventful, professionally and especially personally, for all of them, and is a little-explored area of Beatles history. 

[NOTE: Although I’ll refer to the project as “Get Back,” that song would not be composed until January, and the sessions would not be referred to by that name until after they were over.]

In the summer of 1968, Ringo (who, of all The Beatles, seemed to have the most potential as a film actor) accepted the co-starring role in an upcoming film starring Peter Sellers, whom Ringo had known socially for some time. The film, titled The Magic Christian and based on a satirical novel by Terry Southern (who also penned the script), wasn’t due to begin shooting until late January of 1969. In hectic Beatle-time, where every day was packed, that seemed like a million years in the future. The date eventually snuck up on them, as we’ll see.

The germ of the idea of a return to live performance came from shooting a promotional film for their summer single, “Hey Jude/Revolution” at Twickenham Film Studios on September 4, 1968 in front of — and at the end of “Hey Jude,” surrounded by — a live audience.

The film was directed by former Ready, Steady, Go! director Michael Lindsay-Hogg, who had also directed The Beatles’ “Paperback Writer/Rain” promos back in 1966. For the first time since their pre-fame days, hysterical screams did not drown out the music. Their teenage fans from the old moptop era were growing older and more sophisticated, and wanted to actually listen.

Though not a fully “live” performance — they did some takes with the vocals live, but all the instruments had been pre-recorded — the filming was a nice break from the White Album sessions, and sparked a desire to do at least one real concert as soon as possible. (That desire was sparked mainly in Paul, who initally suggested popping up unannounced in pubs and small nightclubs under an assumed name. John and George immediately dismissed that idea out of hand, but were open to a single performance. It was quickly decided that the songs performed would be the debut of all-new original material, something they had never done before, which appealed to group’s sense of novelty and distaste for repeating themselves artisically.)

Preliminary arrangements and some pre-planning for the show began almost immediately at The Beatles’ new self-owned management/multi-media company, Apple Corps Ltd., located at 3 Savile Row in the heart of London’s garment district. Since original manager Brian Epstein’s death the previous year, “preliminary arrangements” and “pre-planning” were not really The Beatles’ (or Apple’s) strongest areas. Often guilty of a blithe disinterest in their affairs ouside of making music, The Beatles always expected things to just sort of fall into place — not knowing that it used to be Epstein, working feverishly behind the scenes, who made everything happen according to their whims. The concert idea aimlessly drifted around for awhile, with a few idle stabs at making specific plans. Finishing the in-the-works album was the priority.

Finishing the White Album, September-October 1968

The last time all four Beatles were together before the “Get Back” rehearsals was likely October 13, 1968 at EMI Studios in St. John’s Wood, London. (Although its address was Abbey Road, the building itself would not be officially renamed “Abbey Road Studios” until 1970.)

It was one of the last recording sessions for the White Album. The final song for the album, John’s beautiful “Julia,” was recorded that day, along with mono and stereo mixing for several songs as the album was nearing completion. “Julia” was a solo performance by John on his acoustic guitar, with none of the other Beatles performing, but as per established custom, it is almost certain they were all in the studio — once a session was underway, inspiration could strike, or a song could need a new overdub. (An EMI staff member remembers Ringo often sitting in the studio’s reception area reading a newspaper while the others worked on non-drum business. Ringo himself remembers Sgt. Pepper as “the album where I learned to play chess.” But he was dutifully on the premises if needed.)

Paul runs the mixing console as George Martin and Ringo observe, October 1968

But sometimes, a well-earned vacation just can’t wait…Ringo left on holiday the following day, October 14, which saw more mixing and the final overdubs for George’s “Savoy Truffle.”

And then there were two…with all recording officially finished, George left on business on October 16. Beginning at five that evening, and running until five the following evening, John, Paul, and Beatles producer George Martin supervised all of the final cross-fades, edits, and sequencing for the sprawling double album. 

John & Paul working out the White Album running order, October 16-17, 1968

No doubt exhausted after a 24-hour work cycle, a bleary-eyed John and Paul walked out of the studio doors in the early evening of October 17 leaving a completed album ready for mastering and release. Beatle business continued whirring away at Apple, including (minimal) planning of the still-nebulous concert, but The Beatles themselves would follow their own separate paths for awhile.

Ringo…

The least busy during this “time off” was, perhaps unsurprisingly, Ringo Starr. 

George’s forthcoming stomping out of the band in January became more well-known, but it was Ringo who actually quit the band first (and for almost twice as long), back in August, when he could no longer bear the arguments and dysfunction of the White Album sessions. He escaped to the Mediterranean with his wife, Maureen, and two young sons, Zak and Jason. There they were granted the use of Peter Sellers’ yacht and its crew as it cruised around the island of Sardinia. Ringo’s famous story about the yacht captain telling him about octopi (who are quite intelligent for mollusks) gathering stones and colorful shells to make seafloor “gardens,” which inspired his Beatles composition “Octopus’s Garden,” may date from this trip. (“May”? See below.) After two weeks of sunshine and reflection, and an apologetic telegram from the other three (“come on home, we love you”), he re-joined the band the day before the “Hey Jude/Revolution” filming, and subsequent completion of the White Album. (They had recorded “Back in the U.S.S.R.” and “Dear Prudence” in his absence, with the other three — mainly Paul — filling in on drums.)

Ringo had fallen in love with Sardinia, and decided to repeat the whole experience (in a happier frame of mind). He and Maureen packed up the family again and departed London on October 14. Some sources say he borrowed Sellers’ yacht once more, and the octopus story dates from this second visit. (I lean toward believing it did happen on the second trip — the way he bashfully shows off a fragment of the song during the “Get Back” rehearsals speaks to it being a new creation, something that happened while they were apart from each other.) 

Ringo and company arrive at the Costa Smeralda, Sardinia, on October 14, 1968

The Starkey family returned on October 28 to face the daunting prospect of packing up and moving house. 

Since the money started really rolling in back in early ‘65, John and Ringo had lived less than a mile apart, each in rambling mock-Tudor…well, not quite mansions, but certainly damn big houses, located in the exclusive St. George’s Hill area near the village of Weybridge, just under twenty miles southwest of London. The region was known as the “stockbroker’s belt” due to it being a comfortable country retreat for wealthy London businessmen. John’s house — “Kenwood” — is well-known in Beatle lore for being the site of many songwriting sessions with Paul, for the music room up in the attic where he experimented with instruments and tape reels (and various substances), and for the tiny sunroom annex where he read, wrote, lounged, and stared at the muted telly for inspiration. John had been photographed many times in and around Kenwood, despite his claims that he didn’t care much for the place, being too bourgeois and staid for his restless nature. 

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Stars of Bedlam: The Rise & Fall of the Marx Brothers (Part 11)

Chico on his endless tour, 1946

The Sidewalk, it was called, and then a little later, Diamonds in the Sidewalk. It was a treatment written by Ben Hecht as a project for Harpo. Like many, Hecht saw potential in Harpo as a solo star, a silent clown in the mold of Charlie Chaplin. Of course, by 1946, Chaplin was speaking on film, and Harpo was nearing sixty years old, so it may have been a little late to jump into this kind of thing. 

Ben Hecht

Ben Hecht was a veteran screenwriter who had befriended the Marx Brothers in their early Hollywood days, and made many uncredited contributions to their scripts at both Paramount and MGM. In the years leading up to World War II, he was also an incredibly fervent Jewish activist to the point of radicalism, supporting the Zionist movement and even armed resistance to the British occupation of Palestine. In these endeavors, he had the moral and financial support of Harpo, with whom he had grown close. After the war, when his attention returned to his day job, Hecht took an original story outline from Harpo, and began putting together a scenario to showcase Harpo’s talents.  

The last of the Marx Brothers’ offspring was Melinda Marx, born to Groucho and Kay on August 14, 1946, when A Night in Casablanca was still doing good business in theaters. Since its release, Groucho had earned a living with magazine articles, paid endorsements, and radio guest spots. One film offer came his way, and he jumped on it. It would be his first solo movie role, co-starring with Carmen Miranda in Copacabana. 

Copacbana, 1947

After A Night in Casablanca, Harpo returned to retirement. Or semi-retirement. Every so often, he would accept an offer to perform, usually on behalf of a charity or fund-raiser for a good cause. (Sometimes the cause was helping Chico.) “Dad performed only when he had the urge,” Harpo’s son Bill said. “He’d work his ass off for a day or an evening. At the end of it, he’d say ‘I feel better. I had to get out in front of people again.’” A far cry from the terrified, non-singing Nightingale who wet himself at his stage debut in 1908.

Chico, Gummo, & Harpo, early 1950s

During the war years, the ever-restless Zeppo had gradually extricated himself from the agency he ran with Gummo. He began breeding thoroughbred horses, became one of the largest citrus ranchers in the Coachella Valley, and when those weren’t enough, he established an engineering company called Marman Products, specializing in clamps and coupling devices. At its height, Marman employed several hundred workers, and supposedly produced the clamps that held the atomic bombs in place in the B-29s until they were dropped over Hiroshima and Nagasaki. (An often-repeated fact that I have been unable to confirm. So I’ll just repeat it like everyone else.)

The end of the Marx, Miller, and Marx theatrical agency seems to be shrouded in mystery. No one can agree when Gummo officially closed up shop. Robert S. Bader has the agency ending as early as October of 1947, while Simon Louivsh called it a “slow wind-up,” finally ending around 1952. Another source says it was bought outright by MCA in 1949. Whatever the case may be, Gummo continued to be his brothers’ personal agent and manager when called upon.

Chico & Mary Dee

Chico was finally feeling his age. He walked with a distinct stoop, was often short of breath, and needed a nap in his dressing room between performances. He still delighted in pointing out a sign backstage at the Roxy Theater in New York that read “Any Girl Found On Chico Marx’s Floor Will Immediately Be Fired,” but that may have been an historical curio by 1947. In other areas, he showed no signs of slowing down. He traveled in the company of his new companion, Mary Di Vithas, known as “Mary Dee,” whom everyone agreed bore a striking resemblance to ex-wife Betty. In March of 1947, he suffered a heart attack in Las Vegas, and was sidelined for a while, but his raging gambling addiction needed to be fed, so he was soon back on the road*. He and his band performed in Germany and England later in 1947, and then toured Australia in the spring of 1948. He returned returned to Europe for a grueling five-month tour in 1949, including a four-week residency at the London Palladium as a double act with Harpo. (Harpo prepared for the gig by going to the U.K. early and doing solo shows in Leeds and Glasgow.)

John Guedel, who helped make Groucho a very rich man

Bob Hope was hosting a star-studded, one-shot radio special sponsored by Walgreens drugstore in April of 1947. The show began to run long, and guest star Groucho was getting irritated and impatient waiting for his cue. When it finally came, he ignored the script and began a long and hilarious improvisation with Hope. Listening backstage was John Guedel, producer of Art Linkletter’s game show People Are Funny (and inventor of the concept of a “re-run.”) He was struck by Groucho’s skill at ad-libbing, and realized that Groucho’s failures in radio were due primarily to sticking to the rather corny scripts that dominated radio variety in those days. Guedel approached Groucho about hosting his own radio game show, one where he could improvise freely. Groucho was dubious, but agreed to look at whatever proposal Guedel came up with. 

Guedel concocted a game show where the game itself — a fairly straightforward quiz — was secondary to Groucho’s personality and interaction with the guests. He called it You Bet Your Life, and offered to go fifty-fifty with Groucho in ownership of the format. Groucho still had his doubts. “I don’t know if I can do the glad-hand bit and be sincere,” he told Guedel. He told others hosting a quiz show was “like slumming.” Still, he accepted Guedel’s offer and preparations were made, including a test recording to shop around to sponsors. Gummo handled all the financial arrangements.

Groucho’s first solo film, Copacabana, was released in May of 1947. “Solo” in the sense of without his brothers, he still had to contend with the hyperactive presence of Carmen Miranda, the Brazilian singer famous for wearing fruit on her head. Groucho played her shady agent in his usual style. He still sported a fake mustache, only instead of a swipe of greasepaint, it was a proper paste-on job. Copacabana was a fairly solid musical comedy that was more of a showcase for Miranda, and got decent reviews at the time, but it was far from a classic. “The only reason I took the job is because it was the only one offered to me,” said Groucho. “Except for making a Marx Brothers picture, something I have no more desire for or interest in.” United Artists saw potential in Marx-Miranda as a comedy team for future films, but Groucho demurred. Movies were clearly not going to be a major part of his career going forward, so it’s a good thing the You Bet Your Life deal had come along. 

In the meantime, Ben Hecht’s treatment for Harpo, Diamonds in the Sidewalk, was crawling its way towards becoming a reality. Hecht, who was very in demand, wrote a rough screenplay, then opted out of further participation. Subsequent rounds of the of screenplay went through a rogue’s gallety of writers, with two (Frank Tashlin and Mac Benoff) ending up with the credit. Early on, Chico was added to the story in a supporting role. By the time You Bet Your Life was about to hit airwaves, Groucho had grudgingly agreed to a small cameo appearance. Adding the other Brothers was at the insistence of producer Lester Cowan. “It was never designed as a Marx Brothers film,” insisted director David Miller. Nevertheless, before the project even left the early screenplay phase, all three brothers were on board. 

Early days of You Bet Your Life, ABC, Fall 1947

You Bet Your Life premiered on the smallest of the three radio networks, ABC, on October 27, 1947 to the smallest of audiences (it was ranked 96th in the weekly ratings). But they tinkered with the format, added the “secret word” that could gain contestants bonus cash, and hired a straight-laced announcer named George Fenneman that Groucho could play off of like a “male Margaret Dumont.”

Radio shows could now be pre-taped, so each episode of You Bet Your Life, which sometimes rambled on for almost ninety minutes in the studio, could be edited down to a tight 24 minutes containing only the best bits. Although Guedel’s initial interest in Groucho had been due to his ad-libbing skills, You Bet Your Life could be said to be semi-improvised at best. The contestants were pre-interviewed extensively, and Groucho was given an array of witty remarks by his writers based on the contestants’ responses and personalities. (Of course, he could always choose to go rogue as the tape rolled, which he often did.)

Groucho humbly accepted most of the much-younger Guedel’s suggestions and advice. “All your shows have been successful,” he told Guedel. “I’ve lost every sponsor I’ve ever had.” Groucho drew one line in the sand — he refused to put on the old frock coat and greasepaint mustache for the studio audience. “That character is dead,” he insisted. Instead, he grew a real mustache (later augmented with a thin, subtle toupee that hardly seemed worth the effort of putting on).

You Bet Your Life’s listening audience grew slowly but steadily. When their contract with ABC expired in 1949, Marx and Guedel were offered a small fortune to jump to CBS, where the show entered the top ten and stayed there for years.

The Marx Brothers, 1948

Diamonds in the Sidewalk was re-titled Love Happy, and Mary Pickford, the former silent film star and one of the founders of United Artists, joined Lester Cowan as producer. Groucho’s cameo appearance had grown into a full supporting part in the most recent draft of the script. His old greasepaint mustache character was indeed gone, replaced by the much more normal-looking character of Sam Grunion, private eye. Grunion was intended to be a framing device, appearing only at the beginning and end of the picture as he talked to the camera, introducing and wrapping up the Harpo storyline.

The main story features Harpo as a loveable tramp who provides stolen food to a poor, struggling song-and-dance troupe (featuring Chico as “Professor Faustino”). Little does he know that one of the cans of sardines he pilfers contains a stash of smuggled diamonds, and the smugglers want them back.

Sam Grunion, Private Eye

Love Happy started shooting in August of 1948 with David Miller at the helm, and Harpo with the bulk of the screen time. Harpo soon found he did not get along with the abrasive Cowan, which led to a tense atmosphere on set. Cowan ran the production on a shoestring, and had to completely shut it down at least once due to lack of funds. Cowan’s solution was to re-tool the chase sequence at the end to be set among the city rooftops, and literally sold the billboards seen in the background to companies for in-movie advertising. 

As if to atone for “slumming” on a quiz show, Groucho was also working on something on a somewhat higher artistic plane. He put the finishing touches on the play he had been writing, off and on, with Norman Krasna for several years, and declared it ready for production. The problem was, no one who read it liked it all that much. Time For Elizabeth lacked Groucho’s trademark bite. It was a mild-mannered domestic comedy about a man who takes an early retirement to Florida, only to find retirement doesn’t agree with him. The leading role was intended to be played by Groucho himself, but his commitment to You Bet Your Life ruled out that option. Groucho and Krasna put up their own money, and Krasna would direct. Otto Kruger was cast in the lead, and Time For Elizabeth opened at the Fulton Theater on Broadway on September 27, 1948. It managed eight performances before closing in the face of reviews that ranged from dismissive to scathing. 

The cast of “It’s Only Money,” as it was called in 1948

Groucho did not have time to brood over the play’s failure. In addition to recording his quiz show, he filmed his scenes for Love Happy, and as soon as those were done, headed over to RKO Studios through the end of the year to co-star in a comedy with Jane Russell and Frank Sinatra called It’s Only Money. RKO had just been purchased by Howard Hughes, and once completed, It’s Only Money gathered dust on the shelf while Hughes spent the next few years reorganizing the company in his usual obsessive but disordered manner.

One of the only times in Love Happy when Groucho is onscreen with another Brother

Over at General Service Studio, the unpleasant experience of filming Love Happy finally came to an end for Harpo and Chico in January 1949, with two days of reshoots in February. The film sat in limbo while Lester Cowan scraped together enough funds to complete post-production work. He decided Groucho should appear throughout the film, so bits and pieces of the Sam Grunion framing device were cut out and edited into random places throughout the story. Groucho also provides narration due to the film’s total lack of coherence at times.

Love Happy went into extremely limited release in October 1949, then it was pulled by United Artists for more editing. It received its nationwide release on March 3, 1950. Unlike A Night in Casablanca, it was not a late-period success. Audiences ignored it and critics panned it. Neither Harpo nor Groucho mentioned it in their memoirs. Everyone wanted to forget its existence. Executive producer Mary Pickford did forget its existence. (When asked about the film years later, her response was “Love what?”) By coincidence or not, it was the last film she ever produced. The only thing that could be said for it was that Marilyn Monroe appeared as one of Grunion’s prospective clients at the end of the movie. It was her third film. She had two lines.

Groucho & Marilyn

Is Love Happy a true Marx Brothers movie? I vote No. It was conceived and planned by Harpo and Hecht as a solo turn for Harpo. It was only billed as “the Marx Brothers” because Cowan broke the contractual agreement that forbade him from doing so. Chico is tacked on. Groucho is a tack-on to a tack-on. Groucho isn’t even really “Groucho” anymore, although his old caricature is used in the film’s publicity material.

And all three Marx Brothers never share a single scene together. I will die on the hill of there being only twelve Marx Brothers movies. But…it’s listed in all the Marx Brothers movie books alongside the others. So I’ll express my disdain for it by calling it even less watchable than Room Service.

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Stars of Bedlam: The Rise & Fall of the Marx Brothers (Part 10)

Go West has again been postponed. I don’t know why the studio doesn’t come right out and say they’re afraid to make it.” — Groucho in a letter to his son Arthur

The Marx Brothers’ most recent movie, At the Circus, had lost money at the box office, so there was a lot riding on their next one. Go West was described pre-emptively by Groucho as “another turkey.” There were a lot of delays and head-scratching as MGM tried to figure out how to make the turkey profitable. With their usual lack of imagination and love of the formulaic, MGM decided the best bet was to repeat the exact same recipe as At the Circus, and just hope audiences would respond better. Same hack director (Eddie Buzzell). Same inexpensive rookie writer (Irving Brecher, still honing his craft). Same theft of the plot from another movie. Only instead of ripping themselves off (At the Circus was essentially the same story as A Day at the Races), the next Marx Brothers movie would steal the plot from Laurel & Hardy’s Way Out West

Eddie Buzzell

Go West, as an idea at least, had been kicking around for a while, begun in conjunction with A Day at the Races when Irving Thalberg was still in charge of the Marx Brothers’ output. Like several Marx Brothers movies (and probably many other comedies of the time), the process began with the title and worked from there. The first draft of Go West was written by old Marx friends Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby, and submitted on August 19, 1936. Thalberg was dead less than a month later, and the project was shelved. When it was revived in late 1939, the Kalmar & Ruby script (basically “A Day at the Rodeo”) was dumped, and Brecher was back to just a title. He decided to make it a period piece, set in the actual Old West. John Carroll and Diana Lewis were cast as the yet-again entirely unmemorable romantic leads, and Opera’s Walter Woolf King returned as the bad guy. Margaret Dumont sat this one out. The production supervisor was Louis B. Mayer’s nephew Jack Cummings.

“Our picture is becoming a garbage can for the studio,” wrote Groucho to Arthur Sheekman. “[Diana Lewis] is no Helen Hayes, [and] happens, by an odd coincidence, to be William Powell’s wife. The unit manager is Cummings’s cousin, and his assistant is a son of Bill Goetz, who happens to be Mayer’s son-in-law. So you see the only ones in the picture who are not related to anyone except to each other are the Marx Brothers.”

Jack Cummings set the budget and signed off on the various departments’ choices, and then proceeded to do not much else, except approve of the one good idea applied to Go West’s pre-production process. It was another repeat — taking the key comedy routines on tour and playing them to audiences to gauge how well they worked and where (and how long) the laughs were. Scenes from Go West played in Joliet, Toledo, Detroit, Chicago, and L.A. from April 28 through May 27, 1940. Shooting Go West occurred from July to October of 1940. (As we’ve seen, such lengthy shooting schedules were by no means uncommon at MGM, even for a 90-minute comedy.)

Groucho’s character, S. Quentin Quale (a play on “San Quentin quail,” which was a slang term for underage jailbait) randomly meets up with Chico and Harpo, playing brothers Joe and Rusty Panello (finally a decent name for Harpo’s character — don’t get used to it) in a train station, where they attempt to out-fleece each other over ten dollars. The plot revolves around a land deed in the Panellos’ possession that was formerly worthless, but suddenly becomes valuable when a railroad company wants to put a line through the property.

There is another attempt to replicate the Night at the Opera stateroom scene (this time in a crowded stagecoach), and a frenetic chase on and around a moving train, which a lot of the old Marx Brothers books tout as a highlight of their filmography, but isn’t incredibly impressive to modern eyes. Technically well-staged for its time (there’s a lot of processed rear projection mixed in with a little location work in scenic Tuolumne County), its worst crime is it just isn’t all that funny. The best the sequence can do is have Harpo act as a human coupling between a pair of train cars, his limbs stretching like Silly Putty in a very cartoonish fashion. The whole thing is not exactly Il Trovatore getting destroyed or Freedonia going to war (or even the Huxley vs. Darwin football game). 

Irving Brecher was getting better. He had gone on the tour with them, and the Brothers had grown to trust him. (The one moment of drama people remember from the production was Buzzell walking off the set in a huff when one of the Brothers went not to him but to Brecher one too many times for feedback on their performance.) Although nothing is on the Kaufman-Ryskind or Kalmar-Ruby level, the dialogue has a sprightly crackle all the way through, an element missing from the last two or three Marx movies. The touring clearly worked, and Brecher’s Best Screenplay Oscar nomination (for Meet Me in St. Louis) was only four years away. Although he once again received sole screenplay credit, Brecher’s work was said to be augmented by Arthur Sheekman, Nat Perrin, and Dore Schary. The result was a fairly passable piece of 1940 comedy. (Yes, damning with faint praise, but we take what we can get from 40s-era Marx material.)

I’ll never be a fan of mid-century movie songs, but here they are at least integrated into the story well and don’t stop the whole thing dead in its tracks. In fact, I’ll say that Go West’s songs are among the strongest in the Marx Brothers’ oeuvre, ranging from legitimately entertaining (the dancehall girl’s “You Can’t Argue With Love”) to low-key pleasant (the romantic couple’s duet “Ridin’ the Range”).

It seems no old comedy film can exist without some kind of racially offensive sequence, and Go West’s handling of interactions with Native Americans is fairly typical for the era. But it at least acknowledges the poor treatment Native Americans received at the hands of the white man (“Who put your head on the nickel, and then took the nickel away?”) and doesn’t quite make the modern viewer want to claw up the carpet and crawl under it the way Races and Circus does in similar situations.

And they’ve managed to dial in Groucho’s wig a little better. It’s frequently under a hat, but when it isn’t, at least it no longer looks like Groucho has the gutted carcass of a Scottish Terrier strapped to his head the way he did in At the Circus. (According to Groucho, there was an attempt to work with his natural hair in the lengthy run-up to shooting the film. “My theatrical career has dwindled to being fitted once a week for a pair of early-American pants and having my hair dyed every three weeks. This is a fine comedown for man who used to be the Toast of Broadway.”) Sadly, Groucho’s character is once again a flailing, cowardly object of ridicule, which seems to be Buzzell’s and Brecher’s preferred mode in which to present him (he was slightly worse in Circus).

Go West hit theaters on December 6, 1940, and failed to recoup its production costs — their third movie in a row to flop. The writing was on the wall. With one film left on their contract, the Brothers began planning for the next stage of their careers. Harpo was the only one seriously considering full retirement. He had made some good investments, and was anticipating expanding his family with more adoptions. But Chico always needed the money, and Groucho always needed the applause, so Chico began setting up a tour with a jazz band, and Groucho figured he might make his living in the thriving medium of radio. (Around this time he put together a pilot for a family situation comedy with Irving Brecher, but it didn’t sell until three years later, under the title The Life of Riley, with the role intended for Groucho played by the warmer and less acerbic William Bendix.)

But first there was that one final, pesky movie left to do for MGM.

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Stars of Bedlam: The Rise & Fall of the Marx Brothers (Part 9)

The production of A Day at the Races went into limbo as funeral arrangements were prepared for Irving Thalberg, the film’s heretofore production supervisor and the Marx Brothers’ champion at the otherwise indifferent MGM. “After Thalberg’s death, my interest in the movies waned,” Groucho said. “The fun had gone out of picture making.”

The Fall begins…

While waiting for shooting to restart, Groucho and Chico did another pilot for another radio show. It didn’t get picked up by a network, but would have almost disastrous consequences (more on that later).

Harpo used the suddenly available downtime to get married. For almost four years he had been dating Susan Fleming, a former Ziegfield girl and actress who’d had a featured role in the W.C. Fields comedy Million Dollar Legs (earning her the very creative nickname “The Girl with the Million Dollar Legs” by the Paramount publicity department — someone probably got a raise for thinking that one up). She confessed to being utterly fascinated by Harpo, and proposed at least three times. He always demurred, saying he enjoyed the relationship as it was, and why mess with a good thing? (He was also very aware that his brothers — Gummo aside — all had problematic marriages.) While he was away touring with Scenes From A Day at the Races, Fleming took it upon herself to begin totally redecorating the interior of the Beverly Hills house he shared with a menagerie of dogs, cats, birds, turtles, a squirrel monkey, and roommate Oscar Levant. Harpo took it as a sign (as it was undoubtedly intended to be). “Susan’s a lovely person, and deserves a good husband,” Levant told him. “You’d better marry her before she finds one.” The couple were married on the spur of the moment by a justice of the peace on the second floor of an Orange County firehouse on September 28, 1936. The groom was just shy of 48 years old. Levant moved out, and the Girl with the Million Dollar Legs moved in. As was typical of the era, she retired from show business upon becoming Susan Marx. (As for the more than twenty-five films she appeared in, she felt “they were all junk” anyway.)

Harpo and Susan Marx

Shooting resumed on A Day at the Races in December, with A Night at the Opera’s Margaret Dumont, Sig Ruman, and Allan Jones all returning in similar parts, joined by a newcomer in the ingenue role, Maureen O’Sullivan. The Marx Brothers’ future at MGM would be a short one, if they had any say about it. Their contract with MGM was technically a contract with Thalberg’s production unit within MGM. Thalberg’s brother-in-law, Lawrence Weingarten (whose tone-deaf micromanagement of Buster Keaton’s early MGM work literally drove Buster crazy), took over as production supervisor on the film. The Brothers already knew they wanted out. Louis B. Mayer now had no rival for creative control of MGM’s output, and any supervisor assigned to the Marx Brothers would undoubtedly be a second-rate Mayer yes-man. The terms of their contract stated they could withdraw from their association with MGM if Thalberg were “incapacitated” for longer than four months. Seeing as how Thalberg’s incapacitation was more or less permanent, the Brothers seized the opportunity to escape having to work for the despised Mayer. 

On the set of A Day at the Races

But before they could go anywhere, they had to finish A Day at the Races. Director Sam “Twenty Takes of Each Shot” Wood moved at his usual plodding pace (and ranted against Roosevelt to anyone who couldn’t escape his presence), script revisions necessitated endless re-shoots, and as the filming wore on, Groucho — whose marriage to Ruth was falling apart — fell in love with his co-star. Maureen O’Sullivan was a vivacious, twenty-five-year-old Irish-born brunette who was famous at that time for playing Jane in the Johnny Weissmuller series of Tarzan films. O’Sullivan remembered Groucho’s advances as only a friendly flirtation, but others on the production recall Groucho being besotted in a way that was very out of character for him. “I was crazy about her,” he admitted. Groucho seemed to be going through something of a mid-life crisis as his marriage deteriorated and his kids grew older. Although O’Sullivan had fond memories of Groucho, she diplomatically remarked that he wasn’t her type, as he couldn’t hold a normal conversation. “His life was his jokes,” she said.

Maureen O’Sullivan

Compounding Groucho’s erroneous tree-barking was the fact that O’Sullivan had married director John Farrow only sixteen days before Harpo’s nuptials the previous September. (The couple would produce daughter Mia Farrow and six other children). It’s hard to imagine two more opposite types than the steely-eyed, sandy-haired, intensely serious John Farrow and Groucho Marx. 

(Off-topic aside: Remember all that hoopla a couple of years back about Mia’s son Ronan actually being fathered by her ex-husband Frank Sinatra and not Woody Allen? Complete with side-by-side photos of Ronan and Frank? There was indeed a resemblance, but you know who else looked an awful lot like Ol’ Blue Eyes? Grandfather John Farrow. The genetics are clearly in place without resorting to dreamed-up paternity conspiracy theories.)

Filming A Day at the Races continued until April 1937, when Wood finally called a wrap. Groucho gave up his hopeless pursuit of O’Sullivan, and booked a trip on an ocean liner to Hawaii to see if he could salvage his relationship with Ruth. They had fallen into a vicious cycle. He was embarrassed by her limited intellect and heavy drinking, and made cutting and disparaging remarks to her constantly. This only fueled her growing alcoholism. The Hawaiian sojourn was a disaster, marked by Groucho’s seasickness and constant ill temper, which drove a boozed-up Ruth into a fling with an onboard dance instructor. It was the end of the marriage, emotionally if not yet legally. 

A Day at the Races was released on June 11, 1937. After all those drafts from all those writers, the final screenwriting credit went to George Seaton, Robert Pirosh, and George Oppenheimer. Oppenheimer’s position was originally occupied by Al Boasberg, who objected to being in third place. Not only that, he demanded a special credit reading “Comedy Scenes & Construction by Al Boasberg.” MGM refused, and Boasberg asked that his name be removed from the film entirely. It was, and its place was taken by Oppenheimer. Boasberg did not have long to nurse his hurt feelings. He dropped dead of a massive heart attack exactly one week after the film’s release.

It’s easy to see why Boasberg wanted special credit for the comedy scenes. They’re pretty decent (although not Paramount or Opera level), but they’re not integrated into the main story very well. As they play out, they might as well have a flashing sign on them reading “COMEDY SCENE.” In fact, the comedy scenes (road-tested and audience pre-approved, remember) could be lifted out of the film and shown separately and out of context, and land with the same effectiveness (which is pretty much what the pre-filming tour did).

“Either he’s dead or my watch has stopped”

The plot revolves around a failing sanitarium in the resort community of Sparkling Springs, adjacent to a casino and racetrack. Judy Standish (O’Sullivan) has inherited the facility, and can’t make it turn a profit. If she can’t come up with $5000 by the end of the month, the property will be shut down and get turned into another casino. Judy’s employee, Tony (Chico), proposes getting the money from one of the sanitarium’s few patients, the wealthy (and slightly unhinged) hypochondriac Mrs. Upjohn (Margaret Dumont). Upjohn insists that the only person who can treat her is “Dr. Hugo Z. Hackenbush” (Groucho — whom she doesn’t realize is actually a veterinarian), and if he can be summoned to the sanitarium to be her personal physician, she will consider bailing them out.

Tony gets Hackenbush on board, but the good doctor has to keep his actual profession secret from Judy’s crooked business manager and his associates. In the meantime, Judy’s boyfriend Gil (Jones) has rather stupidly pinned his hopes on a racehorse he bought with what remained of his savings. Stuffy (“Stuffy”?! — Harpo’s character names continue to get worse and worse) is a recently fired jockey who throws his lot in with the sanitarium-saving crew. Sig Ruman shows up as a Viennese doctor out to expose Hackenbush, leading to a slapstick medical “examination” of Mrs. Upjohn. There is an attempt to replicate A Night at the Opera’s chaotic stateroom scene with a chaotic wallpaper-hanging scene. There is an elaborate (i.e., way too long) “water carnival” sequence that serves as a musical interlude: Harpo’s harp, Chico’s piano, and Jones’ singing. O’Sullivan is no singer as Kitty Carlisle was, so there’s no duet. Jones just holds her by the shoulders and croons “Tomorrow Is Another Day” directly into her face as tears stream down it. (Is she crying over the potential loss of her sanitarium, or because Jones won’t let her escape this nightmare of a ballad?)

As the film moves (slowly) towards its conclusion, there is an uncomfortable sequence between Harpo and a community of Black stable workers that was clearly intended as a bit of sympathetic ‘30s progressivism, but now is tough to watch. Unlike the turgid “Tomorrow Is Another Day,” the jazz-based music in this sequence is quite good, and there is a jitterbug dance sequence that would otherwise be exhilarating, but the whole thing carries a heavy whiff of minstrelsy. (Yes, blackface is involved.) 

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Stars of Bedlam: The Rise & Fall of the Marx Brothers (Part 8)

Duck Soup takes place in the Ruritanian-style fantasy country of Freedonia — where everyone speaks perfect English and the entire government is funded from the pocketbook of a rich widow, Mrs. Teasdale (Maragret Dumont). She insists, for reasons that are entirely unfathomable (always the sign of a good Marx Brothers plot), that she will no longer underwrite the country’s budget unless Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho) is installed as the head of state. Chico and Harpo are spies in the employ of Freedonia’s rival country, Sylvania, where the foreign ambassador Trentino (Louis Calhern) seems to be running the whole show, and has designs on annexing Freedonia. The first two thirds of the film concern the avoidance of war…then the war inevitably comes.

Although Zeppo once again is relegated to the nothing role of Groucho’s secretary, by virtue of being an official Marx Brother he does get to participate in the big musical number that accompanies Freedonia’s declaration of war. The exuberant setpiece is an ironic take on jingoistic pride and misplaced enthusiasm many feel when sending soldiers off to a possible gruesome death. Those who are thrilled and excited by such things are rarely those who have to do the actual fighting (and we are treated to the sight of the entire Freedonia parliament doing handstands in the midst of their fervor). At least Groucho isn’t above joining in the combat, although at one point he makes the mistake of machine-gunning his own troops. (When Zeppo points this out, Groucho hands him five dollars and tells him to “keep it under your hat.”) The war is won when they’re able to pin down Ambassador Trentino and pelt him with fruit. 

Was it all too much? Had the Marx Brothers finally crossed the line? When the film was released on November 17, 1933, the reviews were tepid and the box office returns were below expectations (although it did turn a tidy profit and was not the complete bomb that it was later alleged to be — in fact it was the studio’s fifth-highest grosser that year). Paramount was still salty over the Marxes’ attempt to sue them earlier that year, and now that their three-picture contract was fulfilled, they used the mediocre performance of Duck Soup as a reason not to offer them another contract. 

“Rufus T. Firefly” — President of Freedonia

Since the primitive days of 1933, Duck Soup has climbed its way up the Marx Brothers filmography ladder, and it regularly appears in “Best Comedies of All Time” lists, usually in the top five. Its darkly cynical, anti-war tone struck home with younger generations, and many felt that being directed by a true filmmaking artist (McCarey went on to win two Best Director Oscars for The Awful Truth and Going My Way) paid off handsomely for the Marx Brothers. Some latter-day Marx fans have taken it down a notch or two because they feel McCarey heavy-handedly imposed too much of his own imprint onto the team (silly montages, overly-cartoonish sight gags, and some recycled Laurel & Hardy bits, including the title itself), but it doesn’t look like Duck Soup is going to be knocked off its perch any time soon.

Despite the anti-McCarey carping from some corners, my opinion is that Duck Soup is indeed their best movie. Whatever influence McCarey may have had, it definitely still feels like high-octane Marx Brothers, and it’s still the film I would show (and have shown) to someone who has never seen the team to demonstrate them to their best advantage (despite the lack of the piano and harp solos — those can be introduced when your new viewer inevitably wants to watch more Marx Brothers). Duck Soup is responsible for creating newly-minted Marx fans by the thousands over the years. Sadly, no Marx Brothers picture is perfect (“The Marx Brothers have never been in a movie as wonderful as they are,” said film critic Cecelia Ager), but minute-by-minute and line-for-line, Duck Soup is their funniest picture. The Kalmar & Ruby surrealism has reached the height of absurdity, and for the most part, I enjoy McCarey’s hyper-visual style. (Yes, I could have done without the rather lame “going-to-war” montage that follows the superlative musical number.)

Master spies Chico and Harpo confer with Ambassador Trentino

And as a reward for making their funniest picture, they were essentially fired by Paramount. 

With no prospect of another movie in the foreseeable future, the Marx Brothers scattered into solo activities. In December of 1933, Harpo traveled to the Soviet Union, briefly passing through Nazi Germany, which terrified him. For the first time since the Bolshevik Revolution, the U.S. had opened diplomatic relations with the U.S.S.R. and Harpo’s brief tour was arranged by his friend Alexander Woolcott as a goodwill gesture between the two nations. Harpo performed at the Moscow Art Theatre and the Leningrad Music Hall. His silent comedy antics (playing off two Russian-speaking co-stars, and having no idea what they were actually saying) were well-received, but it was his harp playing that truly brought down the house. 

Gummo, around the time he became an agent

Zeppo used the Marx Brothers’ period of unemployment to fulfill his long-burning desire to jump ship. His departure was officially announced in Variety on March 31, 1934. After bouncing around a bit, by 1935 he had partnered with his brother-in-law Allan Miller and set up a theatrical agency. Not long after, Marx & Miller hired Gummo, becoming Marx, Miller & Marx. Initially, the agency deliberately avoided anything to do with the three performing Brothers, and built an impressive roster of non-Marx clients.

Now it was the Three Marx Brothers for the first time since 1911.

Except for a brief return with Chico to radio that spring (the show, titled The Marx of Time, was an audio parody of newsreels and only lasted eight episodes), Groucho was at loose ends. He packed his family off to a luxury cabin in the Maine woods for the entire summer and pondered his future. He soon grew bored, and took a week-long role in a local summer stock production of Twentieth Century. Maybe it was time to retire the greasepaint mustache and look into more legitimate areas of performance.

Chico had spent the layoff since Duck Soup going to the racetrack and playing cards. This time his proclivities paid off. He got into a card game with MGM production chief Irving Thalberg.

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Stars of Bedlam: The Rise & Fall of the Marx Brothers (Part 7)

Most fans mentally divide the Marx Brothers’ films into a few distinct chronological categories:

The New York Paramounts / Stage Adaptations (The Cocoanuts, Animal Crackers)

The Hollywood Paramounts (Monkey Business, Horse Feathers, Duck Soup)

The Thalberg MGMs (A Night at the Opera, A Day at the Races)

The Odd One Out (Room Service, an adaptation of a non-Marx play done for RKO Pictures)

The Lesser MGMs (At the Circus, Go West, The Big Store)

The Post-Retirement Reunions (A Night in Casablanca and Love Happy, although the latter’s status as a true Marx Brothers film is disputed)

We have reached what many fans and film scholars regard at the Marx Brothers’ peak, the Hollywood Paramounts and the Thalberg MGMs. As indicated in Part 1, this will likely be the shortest segment of this essay series, as we are really exploring how the Marx Brothers came to be film comedy icons (the Rise, Parts 1-6), and what became of them when quality control started slipping and they decided to retire from cinema screens (the Fall, Parts 9-11). I use “Fall” only because it goes with “Rise,” and not because they made some catastrophic mistake or had some embarrassing failure that caused audiences to turn away. It was just that the material thrown their way by a studio that no longer cared about them had become inarguably sub-par, and the Brothers had lost interest in the whole movie-making thing anyway.

So in discussing the run of their best Hollywood-era movies, I will try to keep it brief. I will go light on summaries and well-worn anecdotes. You can find those in any number of books. My goal is to take a quick (well, quick for me) look at how these films fit into the overall trajectories of their lives and careers, and maybe give a few personal thoughts and opinions.

As the door closed on 1930, the Marx Brothers had Hollywood in their sights. But first, a return to the stages of London with a revue called The Schweinerei, a mixed-bag collection of highlights from all three of their stage shows, which had already toured some U.S. cities that fall. Their new three-picture contract with Paramount was signed on board the S.S. Paris right before it sailed for the U.K. on Christmas Eve.

Another situation to be dealt with before they sailed away for a month’s residency in England was coming up with an idea for a radio show. To that end, the Brothers contracted fledgling but soon-to-be-legendary humorist S.J. Perelman and I’ll Say She Is writer Will B. Johnstone to come up with some ideas. After thinking of and rejecting a number of premises, the writers presented their final scenario to the team right before they left — how about the Marx Brothers as four stowaways on an ocean liner? Groucho declared the idea was too good to be wasted on a mere radio show, and should in fact be the plot of the first movie on their new contract. Before they were really aware of what was happening, the radio show was on the back burner, and Perelman and Johnstone were on a train to California to bang out a screenplay. 

Herman Mankiewicz

The pair of writers reported to the office of the Marx Brothers’ new producer — their old Algonquin crony from the I’ll Say She Is days, the hard-drinking, acid-tongued Herman “Mank” Mankiewicz, a former drama critic who had come west in 1925 to try his hand at screenwriting. He found the comfortable Hollywood lifestyle quite appealing (and profitable). “Millons are to be grabbed out here and your only competition is idiots,” he wrote to Ben Hecht. Mank quickly rose through the ranks at Paramount and was put in charge of the Marx Brothers, whom he knew well. (Groucho used to come over to his house in New York and say to his wife “Hi Mrs. Mankiewicz! Can Herman come out and play?”). He was brutally honest with their new writers: “[The Marx Brothers] are mercurial, devious, and ungrateful. I hate to depress you, but you’ll rue the day you took this assignment.”

In the modern era, comedy is very proprietary. Stand-ups write their own material (and guard it fiercely). Sketch troupes write their own sketches. As tempting as it is for a modern audience to want to believe that the Marx Brothers came up with all of that wonderful material themselves, the truth of the matter is they were performers first and writers…not even second (except possibly Groucho, who always had literary ambitions). And this was par for the course for just about every comedy act up through the 1960s*. Jack Benny, George Burns, Milton Berle, Bob Hope  — all considered comedy giants, and all had teams of writers to provide their funny lines. The fact that the Marx Brothers did too doesn’t mean they weren’t capable of coming up with brilliant stuff off the tops of their heads — that’s what people remembered most about their stage act after all, the ad-libbing. But when it came down to it, the Marx Brothers knew the value of written material, even if they didn’t always adhere to it faithfully.

S.J. Perelman

Upon their return to the United States, the Marx Brothers almost immediately headed to Los Angeles. Exhausted after a long ship and train journey, and the hassles of setting up their new living arrangements, the Brothers and a few associates were invited to a reading of their new script by Perelman and Johnstone at 8:30 on a Friday night at the Roosevelt Hotel. Not an ideal time to be receptive to a comedy script, and the first person to actually show up was Mankiewicz at 9:45. To put it mildly, it did not go well. (“I would have shot myself by page twenty-five,” said writer and friend-of-Groucho Arthur Sheekman, who witnessed the ill-fated reading). Chico and Harpo went to their default mode — sound asleep. Groucho listened silently the whole way through, then gave his two word verdict — “It stinks.”

So, the script needed work, it was all hands on deck, and a pattern for Marx Brothers script writing was set.

Marx Brothers movies (the better ones, at least) were written in a way remarkably similar to modern sitcoms. The writers who would receive official onscreen credit would craft the story, basic dialogue, and hopefully more than a few good jokes and funny bits. Then the script would run the gauntlet of the “writers’ room,” where a round-table of scribes would punch up the dialogue, cram in more jokes and bits (as many as they could fit), and polish it to a high sheen. In addition to giants like Kaufman or Perelman whose names ended up prominently in the credits, the list of uncredited or partially-credited contributing writers would include guys like Sheekman, Nat Perrin, Grover Jones, vaudevillan Sol Volinsky, cartoonist J. Carver Pusey, legendary gag man Al Boasberg, animator Frank Tashlin, silent comedy icon Buster Keaton, Ben Hecht, Uncle Al Shean (who supposedly was paid $5000 for one line), and of course the Brothers themselves, who were always tweaking and improving lines.

Some of the Monkey Business writers, 1931. L. to r. Groucho, Sol Volinsky, S.J. Perelman, Will B. Johnstone, Arthur Sheekman

Although Mankiewicz was known to drop by the script conferences from time to time and contribute, he was a pretty hands-off producer. When the writing team came to him for guidance on the plot, he told them “If Groucho and Chico stand against a wall and crack funny jokes for ninety minutes, that’s enough of a plot for me.” When he inevitably got fed up with the writers’ questions interrupting his afternoon boozing sessions, he would yell at them to “get back to [their] hutch,” and if they were good he would bring them “a lettuce leaf to chew on.” “If [Mank] had any loveable qualities,” said Perelman, “he did his best to hide them.” Groucho said, “Herman was a good writer, but he didn’t like to work. He would rather play cards, drink, and get laid [who wouldn’t? — Ed.]. He had a lot of talent but he never used it. He was a character. I think he finally got thrown out of Paramount because he was loaded all the time.” (Mank returned to screenwriting after he washed out as a producer, and his script for 1941’s Citizen Kane won the Oscar, evidently utilizing some of the talent Groucho mentioned.) 

Harry Ruby explained that the Marx Brothers didn’t ad-lib much on film, for a very basic reason: “There’s no audience to react. Of course, you couldn’t stop them from ad libbing, but they didn’t carry on the way they did on stage…On stage, there was no one to control them. You couldn’t stop the show and tell them to calm down. But on the set they knew the director could call a halt to shooting and tell them to cut it.” According to Joe Adamson, Groucho found another type of audience. Since the material had not been tested over the course of several hundred live shows as with their first two movies, he would worry when too many takes of a scene caused the sound and lighting crew to no longer have to stifle their laughter at a line or joke. He would then huddle with the writers, or think of something himself, to break up the technicians again.

Thelma Todd

Groucho in particular was insistent early on in the production process that there be no Margaret Dumont in Hollywood. She represented the old days, and would not fit into their new phase. The team now wanted glamour and sex appeal. The female lead in their first Paramount picture would be a young, modern woman and would be played by Thelma Todd. Todd’s formidable combination of “ice cream blonde” looks and comedic acting skills would definitely be an asset to the Marxes’ new cinematic incarnation. (Dumont’s sidelining — about which she felt both a little hurt and a little relieved — would be temporary.)

Norman Z. McLeod

Filming began on the stowaway story — titled Monkey Business, with an entirely re-written script — in early April of 1931. Animal Crackers director Victor Heerman was tied to Paramount’s New York studio, so they were assigned a new Hollywood-based director, Norman Z. McLeod. McLeod was a genial, soft-spoken former animator who generally let the Marx Brothers have their way, got the shots when he could, and went on to have a pretty solid musical-comedy directing career (It’s A Gift, Topper, Road to Rio, The Paleface, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, among others)

It is quite clear that Monkey Business is not just a filmed play like their first two movies, but a creation of pure cinema. The camera is finally unleashed, able to follow the Brothers wherever they go — and they went all over. They are nameless agents of chaos. Far from avoiding attention as stowaways, they rampaged across that ocean liner, insulting the captain and taunting the crew. They even got themselves entangled with dangerous gangster Alky Briggs (veteran screen villain Harry Woods) and his beautiful “bad girl” wife (Todd). Zeppo is given his best part yet in a Marx Brothers project — he is the romantic lead! Although he’ll never win an acting prize, he manages to generate some flickers of onscreen charm as he wins the heart of the “good girl” (Ruth Hall) and defeats Alky Briggs in a round of (rather unconvincing) fisticuffs in the climax.

The pace of the film is quickened quite a bit (Animal Crackers is measured and The Cocoanuts is absolutely leaden by comparison). There is just enough time for the piano and harp numbers (there are no “real” songs to be found — any other music is background, or used solely for humorous purposes). For the final third of the story, they are off the ocean liner and engaging in what was already becoming a Marx Brothers trope — disrupting some kind of fancy-dress function. The whole thing streaks across the finish line in a little under eighty minutes. 

Monkey Business was released on September 19, 1931, and it was a very much a success — but it slightly underperformed Animal Crackers at the box office. The ever-pessimistic Groucho was once again convinced the team was finished and once again began planning an early retirement, but Paramount was happy with the returns, and plans for the second film on their contract proceeded apace. 

Monkey Business is the film from their “peak period” that I probably watch the least. The gangster subplot is a little labored, and the dialogue (though it definitely has its moments) is a notch below Animal Crackers and a notch-and-a-half below the next two films, lapsing too often into old-fashioned corny jokes that seem beneath them, and Perelman’s (who was still finding his voice) sometimes tortured wordplay. Still, it’s better than The Cocoanuts, and astronomically better than their later MGM films.

Vaudeville was all but dead, but the Marxes simply could not shake their addiction to performing live, or more likely, the quick and lucrative paydays live shows provided. In a now-established pattern, they filled a couple of months between films with a short tour of the few remaining vaudeville houses, this time performing the Napoleon scene from I’ll Say She Is. The $10,500 a week they earned for Napoleon’s Return broke records for a vaudeville salary, although one review called the performance “perfunctory.”

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Stars of Bedlam: The Rise & Fall of the Marx Brothers (Part 6)

A performance of The Cocoanuts is underway…at the start of the second act, Groucho walks up to the footlights, peers into the crowd, and asks solemnly “Is there a doctor in the house?” A man stands up and waves his hand. “I’m a doctor!’

Long pause.

“So…how do you like the show so far, doc?”

Although noted for their boundary-pushing and rule-breaking, as professional touring entertainers, the Marx Brothers always liked to have a bit of a template to work within, if for nothing else as something to ignore or violate when the mood struck them. Part of that structure was an external target, some authority or establishment figure for their antics to knock down a few pegs. During the Brothers’ vaudeville days, in both Home Again and On the Mezzanine Floor, that figure came in female form — an elegant but stuffy dowager. A haughty grand dame, perfect for insulting, offending, shocking, and sometimes downright manhandling and/or trampling. In Broadway’s The Cocoanuts, this “straight woman” was personified by the snobbish Mrs. Potter, and was played to perfection by Margaret Dumont, who would appear with the Brothers in most of their stage and screen appearances for the rest of their careers. She was an irresistible mark — nose in the air, speaking her dialogue with an operatic trill, and rolling her r’s like a true denizen of the legitimate stage.

Maragret Dumont

According to Marxian legend, Dumont’s acting skills were not exactly stretched by the roles she was given in their plays and films. The Brothers, especially Groucho, insisted she really was the prim, overly dignified, easily-shocked figure she portrayed. Groucho went as far as saying she didn’t really get the jokes she was constantly the butt of, and was only dimly aware she was performing in comedies. 

She was born Daisy Baker in Brooklyn in 1882, but re-named herself “Daisy Dumont” and cut her performing teeth as a showgirl and singing comedienne on the same collection of vaudeville circuits as the Brothers’ old Nightingales act a few years before them. Although she burnished her resume with appearances on the stages of Paris and London, there is no evidence she ever left the U.S. She married a wealthy heir to a sugar-refining business and temporarily retired from the stage in 1910. As the socialite wife of Mr. John Moller Jr., she put on the dignified manners and pompous airs that would come to characterize her later persona. When her unfortunate husband was disinherited, and died not long after during the 1918 flu epidemic, the flat-broke Mrs. Moller was forced to take up her earlier vocation, and returned to the stage under the name “Margaret Dumont.” Her showgirl days long behind her, the stout, middle-aged Dumont spent the early 1920s toiling in supporting parts in several unmemorable Broadway productions.

Fortune smiled on everyone involved when Sam Harris cast her as Mrs. Potter in The Cocoanuts. She was the perfect foil for the Marx Brothers. The rest is history.

Was she as clueless as Groucho insisted? Almost certainly not. She had few close friends or family to corroborate or disavow the Brothers’ portrayal of her. Although she did carry herself with an exaggerated regal bearing even offstage, and was described by Cocoanuts co-author Morrie Ryskind as a little naive, it should be remembered Dumont was a professional actress with a long history of working in comedy going back to the turn of the century. The one in-depth interview she gave indicates her awareness of what she brought to the team: “Working with the Marx Brothers is an art. It requires a great deal of study and concentration to remain at perfect ease when they spring surprise lines…It wasn’t easy, at first, to keep a straight face at all times…But please don’t refer to me as their stooge. It’s a terrible word, isn’t it?” In other words, Margaret Dumont knew exactly what she was doing.

The Cocoanuts finished its run on Broadway in August of 1926, and headed out on tour that fall. The play stayed on the road all the way through February of 1928, and even beyond that, the Brothers did a forty-five minute truncated version of the show, called Spanish Knights, for a limited vaudeville run that spring (only in the biggest and most prestigious houses in L.A., San Francisco, and the Chicago area). During that busy time, Zeppo Marx got married, Groucho and Ruth had a second child (daughter Miriam), George S. Kaufman managed to complete and stage two non-Marx plays…and sound came to motion pictures. The William Morris Agency began shopping for a film deal for The Cocoanuts now that the all-important dialogue could actually be heard. 

Zeppo’s Wedding

During the seemingly never-ending road tour, Zeppo’s new wife Marion Benda (who, for murky reasons, shared her very distinctive stage name with Rudolph Valentino’s mistress), formerly a chorus girl in the show (naturally — they never seemed to look too far for spouse material), was elevated to the role of Penelope, one of the show’s main villains. Poor Zeppo found himself in the unenviable position of being an official Marx Brother, but having a smaller part and less dialogue than his recently-promoted bride

Kaufman and Ryskind were corralled into writing another musical comedy for the Brothers to see if the team could pull off the hat trick — conquering Broadway for the third consecutive time. 

They did.

Morrie Ryskind

Rehearsals for Animal Crackers began in the late summer of 1928. The Marxes vowed to work hard, pay attention to the director and choreographer, and stay on script as much as possible (at least until they had it memorized). The vow lasted almost a week before they once again began making a mockery of anything like stagecraft or discipline. “It was not that they were emboldened by optimism and a sense of security in their own talents. They simply could not help themselves,” writes Groucho biographer Stefan Kanfer. “They looked at the stage as a vast toy store full of pretty girls, props, lights, straight men and women, and, the greatest plaything of all, a script to be tossed around and pieced together again.”

Seconds before the curtain went up on the very first try-out performance in Philadelphia, Groucho casually turned to nervous co-star Maggie Irving and remarked, “You don’t expect to get cues from me tonight, do you?”

The 44th Street Theatre, later converted to the Stage Door Canteen

After a month in Philadelphia, Animal Crackers opened at the 44th Street Theatre in New York City on October 23, 1928. The plot concocted by Kaufman and Ryskind (who was officially credited as co-author for the first time) dealt with a posh weekend house party hosted by Mrs. Rittenhouse (Dumont). One guest of honor is Roscoe W. Chandler (Louis Sorin), a distinguished art collector who plans on displaying his most recent acquisition, After the Hunt, by the revered artist “Beaugard.” The other key guest is Captain Jeffrey T. Spaulding (Groucho) an “African explorer” invited to regale the guests with tales of his exploits in the jungle, even though anyone with half a brain can tell he’s a complete charlatan. (Chandler, too, is actually a fraud, but a more subtle one.) Chico is on hand as the party’s resident pianist and bandleader Emanuel Ravelli, and Harpo is a mysterious guest known only as “The Professor.” Zeppo has a few lines as Groucho’s secretary, Jamison (the same name he had in The Cocoanuts.) What little actual narrative there is revolves around the theft of the Beaugard painting, and the budding romance between Mrs. Rittenhouse’s daughter and a young aspiring artist (the two plot threads are indeed related.)

Groucho as Capt. Jeffrey T. Spaulding, Broadway, 1928

As usual no one cared a fig about the plot. Kaufman and Ryskind now had a Marx Brothers Formula — five major comedy scenes showcasing the Brothers and giving plenty of room for them to improvise and wreak their usual havoc, a handful of “supporting” scenes to propel the narrative (to be tolerated and gotten through as quickly as possible), all linked by songs. The final comedy scene should be a lavish “big finish.” In the case of Animal Crackers, the closing sequence was another “fancy dress ball,” a repeat of Cocoanuts (and borrowing many elements from the I’ll Say She Is Napoleon scene), with French royal court regalia replacing the Spaniard costumes. The song performed was “We’re Four of the Three Musketeers.” (“Eeny!” “Meeny!” “Miney!” Honk!). Somewhere along the line, Harpo yet again drops purloined silverware from his raincoat sleeve for the 10,000th time. It never seemed to get old.  

The facy dress finale of the stage version of Animal Crackers, cut from the film version

This time, the songs were provided by Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby, a journeyman songwriting team who had begun in vaudeville, then had worked frequently on Broadway since the start of the decade. They scored an Irving Berlin-sized hit with “Who’s Sorry Now?” in 1923, and became great friends and frequent collaborators with the Brothers, with whom they shared an anarchic sense of humor. 

Harry Ruby & Bert Kalmar

The Marx Brothers played sold-out house after sold-out house. Audiences left the 44th Street Theatre completely wrung out, happily singing Kalmar & Ruby’s “Hooray for Captain Spaulding,” which in later years would become Groucho’s theme song, along with its companion piece, “Hello, I Must Be Going.”

After a brief flirtation with United Artists, the offer for the film rights to The Cocoanuts arrived on the desk of Adolph Zukor, president of Paramount Pictures. The whole package — story, the songs, and the services of the Marx Brothers, now an unqualified stage sensation — could all be his for a mere $75,000. Zukor still balked at the price. A meeting was arranged by Walter Wanger, head of Paramount’s New York office, between the irascible, tight-fisted Zukor and Zeppo Marx, who laid on the flattery to Zukor so thick (“You’re the one showman in the world!”) that a deal was easily reached — for $100,000. Zukor was so bowled over by Zeppo’s sweet-talk, he seemed not to notice the $25,000 increase that was slyly slipped in. Wanger watched the whole thing go down in absolute astonishment. (Some sources say it was Chico who pulled off this deal, but Wanger remembers it being Zeppo.) Veteran Paramount director Monta Bell had recently been promoted to producer, and was put in charge of shepherding The Cocoanuts from stage to screen. Morrie Ryskind was tapped to turn the stage script he had written with Kaufman into a filmable screenplay.

Early sound films were a technical nightmare to shoot. There was no way to post-synch tracks of audio, so everything had to be recorded live on set — including the music. A full orchestra was always just off-camera, waiting for its cue. Huge, primitive condenser microphones were hidden all over the set (picking up even the slightest rustle of paper — which is why all the papers on the set of the Cocoanuts film were soaked in water before a take, creating a pretty odd visual for sharp-eyed viewers). The cameras and their operators were sealed in huge wooden boxes, and filmed through thick glass windows, to keep the sound of their motors from drowning out the dialogue. The cameramen would need frequent breaks to avoid heat stroke or asphyxiation. 

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Stars of Bedlam: The Rise & Fall of the Marx Brothers (Part 5)

Will B. Johnstone’s day job was as a brilliant political cartoonist for the New York World. The image of the “American taxpayer” as a naked man wearing a barrel on suspenders? That was created by him. His sideline was writing lyrics, and later books and lyrics, for B-grade Broadway musicals. His younger brother Tom composed the tunes. Joseph M. Gaites was a failed playwright who eventually found success as a producer of C-grade Broadway musicals. After one of his shows was inevitably savaged by the New York critics and closed after a handful of performances, he would put it on the road, cutting as many corners as possible in the cost of the production (it was said that the “M” in his name stood for “Minimum”). All he had to do was hype that the show was “direct from Broadway” and all the rubes from Tucson to Tulsa to Tampa Bay would line up in droves to see a “real Broadway musical.” Gaites would scrape his money back, and start all over again with a new show.

As a team, Johnstone and Gaites saved the Marx Brothers, who themselves were not far from wearing barrels on suspenders at this point.

Johnstone and Gaites first collaborated on Take It From Me. Out of the gate, it was their biggest success, getting halfway-decent reviews, and touring the sticks for a number of years thereafter. Next, Gaites signed up Kitty Gordon, once a major Broadway star who had left the stage for the lure of silent pictures. When she failed to make a cinematic impact after several years of trying, she announced a return to theater in late 1919. Johnstone was tasked with writing her big comeback vehicle. He came up with Love For Sale. Noah Diamond writes, “Johnstone’s idea was not, in itself, much of an idea. But get used to it: A bored heiress is looking for thrills, and each scene depicts an attempt to thrill her. In the end, she learns the greatest thrill is the thrill of love. It was a flexible revue plot, which could accommodate any kind of song, sketch, or specialty.” The bored heiress, identified as “the Beauty,” was wooed by a series of eight suitors, identified by the well-known bit of children’s doggerel — “Rich Man, Poor Man, Beggar Man, Thief; Doctor, Lawyer, Merchant, Chief” — each offering a unique thrill. 

Will B. Johnstone

Love For Sale was a flat failure — it did not make it out of tryout performances in Detroit, but Johnstone and Gaites filed the idea away as they moved on to their next production, the modesty-successful Up in the Clouds. In 1922, they cut Love For Sale to tabloid length and re-titled it Gimme A Thrill…and put it on the Shubert vaudeville circuit, the very same ineptly managed money-hole that the Marx Brothers were currently touring — and circling the drain — with. Gaites ended up losing $10,000 on the endeavor. 

With both Gimme A Thrill and the Marx Brothers’ Twentieth Century Revue dead in the water by the spring of 1923, everyone went back to New York to lick their wounds and ponder their future in live theater. At some point the Brothers, in pure desperation, contacted Ned Wayburn, the man who first put teenaged singers Groucho and Gummo into vaudeville as “Ned Wayburn’s Nightingales” back in 1907. The Brothers hoped their old mentor could set something up for them. The best Wayburn could do when put on the spot was introduce them to the Johnstone brothers, and hope for something to spark. Will B. agreed that the Marx Brothers might be a good act to write something for.

At almost the exact same time, Philadelphia businessman James P. Beury, heir to a coal-mining fortune, pulled the name of Joe Gaites out of his lengthy list of contacts to see if there was anything Gaites could provide to put on at the Walnut Street Theatre for the normally-dormant summer season. Beury had bought the Walnut Street Theatre as a sound investment. Musical theater was having a strong run in Philly in the early ‘20s, and the Walnut Street Theatre had historical significance. It was (and remains) the oldest continuously operating theater in the United States, running shows since 1808. Beury had installed air conditioning during his recent renovation, and wanted to capitalize on it. (In those days, “air conditioning” meant blowing massive fans over equally massive blocks of ice.) 

Gaites agreed to come up with something. He got in touch with Johnstone, and thriftily pushed him for a resurrection of the pre-existing Love for Sale/Gimme A Thrill book and songs, mostly as a way to get some use out of the scenery and costumes he had been storing. Johnstone admitted with a little polish and a few additions, they might be onto something. One of the additions could be the Marx Brothers, but Johnstone wasn’t quite sure. It turns out that Will B. Johnstone may have been the only human being in the tri-state area who had never seen the Marx Brothers perform. The Brothers made a quick deal with the Premier Theatre in the outskirts of Brooklyn, hastily rustled up a Sunday afternoon audience, and played a one-off show (without a chorus) specifically for Johnstone on April 15, 1923. They passed the audition. Johntsone figured they could easily be worked into the show. (Stories of Chico setting up the show with Beury and/or Gaites over a poker game, or through running into Johnstone randomly in front of the Palace Theatre, appear to be — guess what? — totally apocryphal. The story of a besotted Beury wanting a show that summer to put his mistress, an aspiring dancer, into is also pretty dubious.)

“Lotta Miles”

The show was a revue. The Marx Brothers would be a segment of a much larger cast, incorporating several other comedic and musical acts, including an onstage jazz band, the Yerkes Happy Six. There was also a “sister” act — the Melvin Sisters. The Brothers were initially billed only as “featured performers.” Officially they were cast as Lawyer, Poor Man, Beggar Man, and Merchant (later Doctor). You can probably sort out who was who. The longest-running actress in the part of Beauty was the aptly named “Lotta Miles” (her stage name came from her tenure as a model for Kelly-Springfield Tires — her real name was Florence Reutti). The rest of the cast was filled out mostly by performers who had been in Up in the Clouds. (Reliable old Ed Metcalfe reprised his role as a Theatrical Agent/“Rich Man” as soon as the show hit the road.)

The show’s official book has not survived, but there is a 23-page typescript summary with some dialogue that has been preserved, and allows us to piece things together. After the big opening musical number, the show would start with the Brothers’ sure-fire Theatrical Agent’s Office sketch, and two new bits of original business were created to showcase their comedy — a “courtroom” sketch that would be the centerpiece of Act One (with an additional built-in poker routine from On the Balcony), and would once again feature Harpo dropping silverware from his sleeve, and the big Act Two closer — a sketch entitled “Napoleon’s First Waterloo.”

Co-written by Johnstone and Groucho, who at last was elevated to the long-desired level of Professional Writer, the sketch depicts Napoleon (Groucho) bidding farewell to Josephine/Beauty multiple times and leaving her room…then returning on some pretense, sending her three suitors (the other Brothers) scrambling for a hiding place. Both the courtroom sketch and the Napoleon sketch strayed pretty far afield from the “give the heiress a thrill” plot, but no one cared — it was just a revue. (All right, if you must know, the courtroom sketch was slotted in as part of Beauty’s thrill of being a criminal, and the Napoleon sketch came from Beauty’s thrill of…well, being put in a hypnotic trance and made to believe she is Josephine. See how flimsy these revue plots were? Just an excuse to have a courtroom sketch and a Napoleon sketch.) As indicated, Beauty realizes love is the biggest thrill, and ends the show after the last big musical number in the arms of the various handsome male leads who assayed the role of the Chief during the show’s run (including, briefly, Chico’s old partner Arthur Gordoni). What he was supposed to be the Chief of is never really explained. The harp and piano numbers were mixed in there somewhere, too. The show ran two hours and forty minutes on a fast night. 

The revamped show received its third title — I’ll Say She Is — and was initially created to play a summer season at a specific theater in Philadelphia, but everyone knew what was at stake — everyone had their sights on the Great White Way. Nothing about it elevated it above the type of stuff they had been doing in vaudeville since 1911 except budget and running time…and the location where it was hoped to be performed in the near future. I’ll Say She Is was really nothing more than “Vaudeville Storms Broadway.” (The new title was the proper response to the question “Isn’t she a beauty?”) Robert Bader: “I’ll Say She Is was truly a salvage project — with story lines, scenery, and costumes from four different shows and a quartet of blacklisted stars who couldn’t work anywhere else.” The director was Eugene Sanger, and the choreographer was Vaughn Godfrey, neither of whom merited much mention in the reviews or in the Brothers’ memories. “This was an age in which theater directors functioned mostly as traffic cops,” explains Noah Diamond. “The producer had the creative vision; the director told the cast where to stand.” 

Excerpts from the Napoleon sketch as they appeared in Noah Diamond’s off-Broadway reconstruction/revival of I’ll Say She Is

After a shakedown run in Allentown, I’ll Say She Is opened at the Walnut Street Theatre on June 4, 1923 and it was a sensation. It played through the end of August. (It may have helped that the newly air-conditioned theater was the only open theater in town during the dog days of summer, but love for the show from critics and audiences seemed genuine.) For the show’s extended national tour through the rest of 1923 and into 1924, the Marxes had to hold their noses and deal with the Shubert Company again, who owned many of the theaters in which they would be appearing. Their “o” nicknames began cropping up some of the reviews (as they had sporadically since 1917), but were mentioned as being their onstage characters (no one paid much attention to the “Lawyer, Merchant” nonsense) rather than the actors themselves.

Just in case there’s some nugget of truth to the Beury-and-the-Showgirl story (Harpo and Groucho both told it in print several times — still no guarantee of veracity), I’ll relate this anecdote: Right before I’ll Say She Is kicked off its tour, it needed another $10,000 for various expenses and re-tooling. The company went to James Beury with their hands out. There were two complicating factors regarding Beury’s darling chorine (known as “Ginny”), and they needed to be dealt with at this point: 1) Ginny had also been sleeping with Harpo that whole summer, and 2) she was a worse dancer than even Groucho’s wife, Ruth. (“Ginny got more laughs than we did,” said Groucho.) Harpo was talked into breaking it off with her for the good of all involved, but the second situation was not so easily remedied. Groucho semi-facetiously suggested hiring someone to break her legs. Chico responded that she danced as if she had at least one leg broken already. Ginny solved the situation herself by telling Beury she’d fallen in love with a Walnut Street Theatre house musician, and considered her relationship with Beury to be at an end. Now Beury threatened to withhold the $10,000 unless Ginny was fired. The Brothers pretended to be very sad at the situation, while secretly rejoicing at their good fortune.  

The show proved its worth on a grueling tour, and after a triumphant return residency at Walnut Street in April 1924, I’ll Say She Is was prepped for the big jump to Broadway. Gaites stepped aside, and handed total control of the production of Beury, formerly just the financier. Beury pumped the kind of money into the production that “Minimum” Gaites never would — costumes and scenery were refurbished or replaced, and the onstage jazz band was upgraded to the classy Nat Martin and His Orchestra. Both Groucho and Harpo confessed to last-minute jitters. “We’re not good enough,” Groucho told Chico. “We wouldn’t be a hit on Broadway. We’re vaudeville actors.” “I was a realist,” wrote Harpo in his memoirs. “I kept hearing the words: Sorry, boys — you’re shut. But what the hell…it was going to be fun while it lasted.” Only Chico remained cheerfully optimistic, as usual. Maybe Zeppo did too, but nobody asked him, as usual.

Publicity photo for the Marx Brothers’ Broadway debut, 1924.

I’ll Say She Is officially put the Marx Brothers on Broadway on May 19, 1924. The road show proved beyond a doubt that the show’s draw was the Brothers. They were no longer “featured players.” The were now billed above the title — their name literally in lights, but still as “JULIUS, ARTHUR, LEONARD and HERBERT — THE MARX BROS. in I’LL SAY SHE IS.” The “Four” had been dropped, perhaps indicating Zeppo was already getting restless as fourth banana. The theater was the Casino, on the corner of Broadway and 39th Street. Built in 1882 and owned by the Shuberts, the 1,300-seat Moorish theater boasted the first electric lights in a New York theater, the first public roof garden, and the first chorus line. By 1924, however, it had seen better times. The Brothers later referred to it as “a dump.” (The Casino met the wrecking ball in 1930.)

The Casino Theatre

Still, they were on Broadway at the height of the Roaring Twenties. It was the culmination of Minnie’s dreams, and “of twenty years of scheming, starving, cajoling, and scrambling,” as Groucho said. The only thing that marred the big premiere was her tumbling off a chair on which she was standing to get fitted for her opening-night dress. The resulting fractured ankle was considered only a mild annoyance, and she was ceremoniously carried to her front-and-center seat by a team of ushers. 

The costumed brothers pose with their mother, Minnie

Alexander Woollcott

The reviews hit the newsstands the next morning. They were an almost-universal smash. The chorus of approbation was led by the New York World’s distinguished top theater critic Alexander Woollcott, one of the most-quoted men of his generation. Woollcott praised the show in general, but reserved several lines of particularly fulsome praise for Harpo. This was not unusual for the era. Smartass Groucho is usually the modern viewer’s favorite, but at the time, his caustic wisecracks and non-sequiturs were often a little rough-edged for audiences to fully embrace. It was Harpo, the child-like silent clown and brilliant harpist who won the affection of the old-fashioned folks whose tastes were still rooted in the 19th century. In his review for Life magazine, Robert Benchley said “The pantomime of Mr. Arthur Marx…is 110 proof artistry. To watch him…at any moment of during the show, is to feel a glow at being alive in the same generation.” 

Woollcott made his way backstage at the Casino after his second viewing of the show to meet Harpo. Woollcott, whose acid pen had gotten him banned from several Broadway theaters, was completely disarmed by Harpo. Groucho (and others) took things to their logical conclusion and flat-out stated that Woollcott was literally in love with Harpo. (Woollcott’s sexuality was certainly always a gray area, and their eventual friendship was very close, but it is unlikely Harpo reciprocated any romantic feelings.) Woollcott invited Harpo for a round of poker, and pretty soon, the semi-literate Marx Brother had a seat at the most literate place in the nation — the Algonquin Round Table.

The Algonquin Round Table was a daily lunch meeting at the Algonquin Hotel on West 44th Street among New York’s elite columnists, playwrights, and critics literary and theatrical. Although the group was informal, Woollcott, Franklin P. Adams, Robert Benchley, Dorothy Parker, Heywood Broun, George S. Kaufman, Harold Ross, Robert Sherwood, Marc Connelly, and Ruth Hale were considered the more regular members, and several others came and went (Herman “Mank” Mankiewicz was always welcome before he high-tailed it to Hollywood, and novelist Edna Ferber came on Saturdays.) The group met regularly throughout the 1920s, playing cribbage, sipping flasks of illegal booze, setting up collaborations with each other (Ross used the group’s talents as a springboard for his creation of The New Yorker magazine), and most fun of all…affectionately insulting each other in the wittiest ways possible. Woollcott remarked on Dorothy Parker’s newly-bobbed hair: “You look almost like a man.” Her reply: “So do you.” (Historical due diligence: this bit of repartee has been attributed to others. But we want so badly for it to be Woollcott and Parker.) After lingering over their fried oysters and barbed repartee for an hour or two, they would wander back to their Vanity Fair or newspaper offices to concoct some brilliant piece that would ripple through America’s intelligentsia.

Harpo was not much of an insulter (that was Groucho’s territory), but began taking more and more lunches with his new literary pals at the Algonquin, mostly just sitting quietly and listening, which definitely would have marked him as odd-man out. If you couldn’t keep up, you were phased out of the group. But Harpo seemed to get a free pass, and became a kind of serene mascot in the eye of the hurricane (or the “vicious circle” as the group was sometimes called). The New York papers picked up on his Algonquin association, and one even had the audacity to call Harpo “the brains of the Marx Brothers.” Groucho, furious (and perhaps a tad envious), responded that “there is no brains in the Marx family, and…if there was, it most certainly wouldn’t be Harpo.”

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Stars of Bedlam: The Rise & Fall of the Marx Brothers (Part 4)

Zeppo, 1912

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.

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