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 (or on a solo European promotional trip for A Night at the Opera, their memories differ), 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. 

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. The 300-pound comedy giant 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 a guy named 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, silent comedy icon Buster Keaton, 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. The tuxes were allegedly made for them by their dad, Frenchie. (In his book, Groucho says the photo dates from their final vaudeville run at the Palace in 1922, but Groucho didn’t have the best memory in his old age, and Chico’s hairline looks pretty post-vaudeville)

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.”) 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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Stars of Bedlam: The Rise & Fall of the Marx Brothers (Part 3)

Minnie “Palmer” — “Chicago’s only lady producer”

As Minnie “Palmer” Marx began expanding her vaudeville production empire, Leo took more direct control of the Brothers’ act.

In 1911, a new fad was reinventing the face of vaudeville — the tabloid musical, or “tab” as they were quickly dubbed by the trade papers. In the words of Robert S. Bader, tabs were “truncated versions of popular Broadway and touring shows, reduced by cutting much of the dialogue, removing non essential characters, and leaving the musical numbers and just enough of the plot to maintain some semblance of the original idea of the show.” The more respectable vaudeville houses began clamoring for shows consisting of a couple of classy tabs, rather than a low-rent, crazy-quilt collection of short, unrelated acts. And fewer acts on a bill meant fewer salaries had to be paid and more profit for the theaters. When the craze got too popular, Broadway producers began cracking down on copyright violations. Even with vaudeville companies legitimately paying for the material, demand outweighed supply. This led to the creation of more tabs featuring original material.

And that’s what put the light bulb on in Leo’s head when he and his erstwhile performing partner George Lee joined forces with the Three Marx Brothers in the late summer of 1912. Leo decided that the school act could be polished, tweaked, and refined into a tabloid musical. They could then hire a few supporting acts, and sell the whole thing as a self-owned, self-contained package.

In its new form, the two parts of Fun in Hi Skule (the classroom and the recital) would be condensed into the first act. A newly-minted second act (created with a little help from Uncle Al) would be more comedy and music in the form of a ten-year-class reunion in honor of the retirement of Julius’ teacher character, now named Mr. Herman Green. Arthur kept his Patsy Brannigan character. The dim-witted class disrupter of the first act had grown into the local garbage man by the second. (“Patsy Brannigan the garbage man is here.” “Tell him we don’t want any.” When and where this big laugh-getting line was first used is yet another element of the early days that is awash in contradictory stories.) He also continued to refine his costume, which was growing less Irish stooge and more tramp-like clown. But despite “Patsy” no longer being explicitly Irish, ethnic stereotypes were still firmly entrenched in the world of vaudeville. Leo became the Italian student, Tony Saroni. George Lee, with his bigger performance style and firmer command of Yiddishisms, took over the role of the Jewish student, now named Ignatz Levy. Milton dug the name “Hans Pumpernickel” out of retirement, and became the German student in a pageboy/”Hansel”-style wig. Paul Yale remained as his “nance” character, but toned down the more overt homosexual mannerisms and became more of a prissy “mama’s boy” (the audience would gasp, then crack up when Yale, in his knee pants and heavily-rouged cheeks, opened his mouth and sang in a deep, manly baritone.) The main support act was the dancing Harris Brothers. And the “schoolgirl” chorus had expanded to fifteen young women, still including the trouper Dot Davidson, who had been with them since the end of 1910, possibly due to her passionate attachment to Yale. 

The schoolroom act still comprised the first half of the revised show. Julius is at the center, apparently delivering a harsh lecture to Dot Davidson, while the schoolgirl chorus on the left points and laughs. Arthur, on the right, is also getting in on shaming Davidson. New cast member Leo is in the background, bullying the Harris Brothers. In front of them is “sissy” Paul Yale and Milton as the updated version of “Hans Pumpernickel”

The whole shebang was titled Mr. Green’s Reception, and it was the first time the Four Marx Brothers shared a stage. It ran a full forty minutes, and the Marx Brothers touring company now included a stage carpenter and property manager in addition to its cast, supporting acts, and chorus line. The cast appeared in white-tie evening dress for the second act. As was the case with most mid-level vaudeville acts, they did not tour with musicians (apart from those in already in the cast), but carried sheet music for all of their numbers, arranged for anything from a four-piece to a full dance orchestra, depending on the size of the theater and its resident house band. 

Mr. Green’s Reception started its run in Chicago on September 5, 1912, and was eagerly booked by the WVMA circuit for the entire 1912-1913 vaudeville season. The big-time beckoned, tantalizingly near. But they had yet to attain name recognition. They weren’t stars quite yet. They would come to town, get the audiences roaring (Leo’s piano-playing, Arthur’s ever-improving harp solos…and the Harris Brothers’ clogging…were all considered highlights), earn decent reviews in the local paper, and then were forgotten about as soon as the act left town. Not for much longer.

From the Burlington, Iowa Hawkeye, Dec. 20, 1912: “Judge W.S. Winthrow cut short his luncheon period yesterday to unite in marriage Mr. S. Paul [Yale] and Miss Margaret [Dot] Davidson, two young people who are playing at the Garrick Theatre this week. The thespians secured a marriage license at 11 o’clock and asked if they might see the judge…”

Time was of the essence, as Dot was six weeks pregnant. It was at that same Garrick Theater where the Brothers had a run in with a particularly nasty theater manager, who, after several verbal altercations, ended up paying the group with several large sacks of pennies. As their train pulled out of town, according to Marxian legend, Arthur stood on the back platform of the last car, shook his fist at the receding town, and yelled “You lousy sonofabitch, I hope your goddamn theater burns to the ground!” “The next day, it did,” Julius always loved to recall. “And that’s why we decided not to let Harpo talk.” (As with any legend, there’s a kernel of truth — the Garrick Theatre really did burn down, but not until two months after the Brothers left town. And Arthur continued speaking onstage for at least another year-and-a-half.)

By the time the Garrick had been reduced to ashes in February of 1913, Mr. Green’s Reception was playing in South Bend, Indiana. South Bend was experiencing record low temperatures, and the St. Joseph River was choked with ice.

The Mr. Green’s Reception company, in costume — Julius as Mr. Green is in the back row with the girls. Milton, Leo, and Arthur are front and center. Paul Yale is on the far right, his arm around a Harris Brother, with George Lee on the far left. Looks like the other Harris Brother volunteered to take the picture

A scrapbook clipping from the local South Bend paper (name & date unknown): “Mr. [Arthur] Marx was on the bank of the stream in the rear of the Orpheum Theatre with others of the Orpheum troupe when one of the women…bet him 50 cents that he was afraid to take a swim. ‘I’ll bet you another 50 cents.’ ‘And I another,’ answered two others. Before taking the plunge, Mr. Marx said: ‘That’s a dollar and a half when I get out, ain’t it?’ He then dove from the ledge of ice, clothes, hat, and all. He came to the surface with chattering teeth, exclaiming, ‘It’s not so bad.’”

Jumping into icy rivers was only one way to pass the time. Stories of the Brothers’ affairs with the chorus girls that came and went from their show, and their necessarily brief dalliances with local women, fill their biographies and autobiographies and are at this point impossible to verify, but it seems sex on the road was very much part of their routine. Sometimes, when it came to the local whorehouses, it was almost too easy. “The girls used to come watch us at the theater,” said Julius. “And if they liked us, they’d send a note backstage inviting us over after the show.” Presumably, the services were discounted or maybe even gratis.

Raising a stein at the curtain call for Mr. Green’s Reception — l. to r. Paul Yale, Leo, Arthur, Julius, Milton, George Lee

The company also had the novel idea of forming a baseball team, and when not performing, rehearsing the house orchestra, or pursuing women, took on local college teams — and usually lost big. (For the curious: Catcher — Julius. First base — Paul Yale. Second base — George Harris. Shortstop — Arthur. Third base — Leo. Left field — Milton. Center field — stage carpenter Fred Browning. Right field — George Lee. Pitcher — Victor Harris.) The uniforms proudly had “MARX BROS.” printed across the chest.

Mr. Green’s Reception toured another full year, and exhaustion was beginning to set in by the spring of 1914. The grind of the road and the close quarters caused tempers to grow short. George Lee, whom many reviewers had indicated was the “principal comedian” of the act, and also their best singer, had already found another job as a solo act for the following season, and would be leaving the Marx Brothers company at the end of the tour. With only a couple of months left to go, Lee demanded a raise. Not seeing the sense of giving more money to someone who was just going to be taking off soon, the Brothers refused. “As the size of his head grew, he decided his salary should grow with it,” said Julius. Lee abruptly quit in early April of 1914. Paul Yale and Dot Davidson took the opportunity to leave the act at the same time. They formed their own song-and-dance duo, Yale & Davidson, and occasionally worked as a supporting act for the Brothers through 1916.

Mr. Green’s Reception company out of costume. Milton is top center, with Paul Yale to the right. Just below them is Julius. Arthur and George Lee kneel in the foreground. Leo is off to the left

The Brothers hired some replacements, and the company finished out the season, but the situation left Julius with a realization:

“For the first time in our career we realized we could succeed as an act without any outside help. We didn’t need any more extraneous singers, dancers, and feeble comedians. We were now a unit. We were the Marx Brothers…we had finally freed ourselves from always having some outsider along to put us over, and from then on we were able to steam on under our own power.”

And it was during those closing days of the final Mr. Green’s Reception tour that Something Momentous happened…

It was the very beginning of the Platinum Age of Comics. When the newspaper hit the front step, many adult readers would flip right to the “funny pages,” skipping the depressing headlines to enjoy the adventures of the Katzenjammer Kids, Maggie and Jiggs, Mutt and Jeff, and Krazy Kat. In 1904, artist Gus Mager created a series of comic strip characters called “monks,” after their vaguely monkey-like faces. All the monks had names ending in “o.” For a brief period, these characters featured in a strip called Sherlocko the Monk, in which the title character solved mysteries. Sherlock Holmes creator Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle threatened a lawsuit, and in 1913 the title of the strip was changed to Hawkshaw the Detective (and the characters redesigned to look a little more human). But the impact of “Sherlocko” and his fellow monks remained. Vaudeville and popular culture in general went through a fad of nicknames ending in “o.”

This is said to be the only picture in existence of all five brothers and their parents together. Outside the theater in Joilet, Illinois, April 30, 1914

The Brothers always agreed it happened in Galesburg, Illinois, which would make it mid-May of 1914. They were sharing a bill with a someone named Art Fisher. Over a round of backstage poker between shows, Fisher and the Brothers were idly discussing the “o” nickname phenomenon. As Fisher dealt the cards, he assigned each Brother an “o” name. “He named me Gummo,” said Milton, “because I had holes in my shoes and I’d wear rubbers, or gumshoes, over them even when it wasn’t raining.” 

Arthur became “Harpo” for obvious reasons. 

Leo became “Chicko,” because of his reputation for “chasing the chicks.” It was always intended to be pronounced as “Chick-o,” but at some point the “k” was dropped from the spelling, rendering it as “Chico” and resulting in many people pronouncing it “Cheek-o.” Although the Brothers used the original pronunciation, when people called him “Cheek-o,” the man himself never bothered to correct them. He happily answered to both. 

There is some speculation that Julius’ new name — “Groucho” — may have come from the fact that he kept his cash in a “grouch bag,” which was a small drawstring pouch worn around the neck to prevent the petty theft that was a fact of life in a vaudeville touring company. But more likely, as even Julius admitted, it was because he was often in a surly mood and had a cynical overall attitude. 

Art Fisher had made his impact on entertainment history, and promptly vanished. No researcher has ever been able to dig up exactly who he was or what became of him. (The blog From the Marxives has identified a vaudevillian named Art Fisher performing a “cowboy mimic” act, but he pretty much disappears from the record after 1912.)

Even though it was intended as a momentary card-game joke, the Brothers were delighted with their new names, and began using them among themselves immediately. It was pretty funny for an afternoon. Then the days stretched into weeks and months. They persisted in using the names. Friends and family shrugged and began calling them by those names as well (even Minnie, who did not seem too bitter that her sons enthusiastically ditched the names she gave them). It would be ten years before the Marx Brothers used their new names as their professional stage billing, but to themselves and everyone who knew them, they were now and forever Chico, Harpo, Groucho, and Gummo. And that’s who they’ll be in these essays from this point forward. (Family members tended to drop the “o”s — to relatives and spouses they were Grouch, Chick, Harp, and later, Zep. Gummo remained “Gummo” in all cases. I guess calling someone “Gum” just sounded too odd.)

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Stars of Bedlam: The Rise & Fall of the Marx Brothers (Part 2)

As we saw in the previous entry, Julius Henry Marx had a passionate, all-consuming love for being onstage and entertaining an audience. His younger brother Milton most assuredly did not.

Milton, around the time he became a Nightingale

But Milton’s antipathy toward performing did not slow their mother, Minnie, down for one second. She was also consumed by a single-minded desire: making her sons famous. Julius was off to a good start. Now it was time to add another to the mix. 

Acting in her new capacity as agent for her sons, Minnie struck up a personal friendship and professional relationship with Ned Wayburn, a well-known producer and choreographer who not only staged musical shows with fresh young performers, but also ran Wayburn’s Training School for the Stage (sometimes referred to as the “College of Vaudeville”), where ambitious but awkward stars-to-be could be receive instruction in singing, dancing, projection, and poise. Milton was immediately enrolled. How long he attended the classes is not remembered. How much good it did him is academic. In June of 1907, Milton and Julius (in matching white yachting suits) were on the road with a petite girl soprano in a pretty party dress named Mabel O’Donnell — a discovery of Wayburn’s — performing as Ned Wayburn’s Nightingales. Minnie accompanied the troupe as road manager. Mother-hen Minnie touring with her boys was a tradition that would continue long after O’Donnell had been forgotten. (Young Herbert was left under the loving but less-than-watchful care of Frenchie and Opie.)

A be-wigged Mabel O’Donnell, and her ardent suitor, Milton

Reviews were…mixed. “The young people in the act dress in white and sing with expression and some magnetism,” noted the New York Clipper. “Their voices are too immature to be measured by critical standards, and they evidently do not attempt to give any example of vocal ability.” Variety was a little kinder: “Two clean-cut, good looking boys and a little mite of a girl with a voice that seems about ten times too large for her make up a most pleasing singing trio. The voices blend well and are handled with judgment usually lacking in children.” Variety also noted that their white costumes needed to be sent to the cleaners.

Their centerpiece number was “Love Me and the World is Mine.”

O’Donnell and Julius

By the end of the year, Ned Wayburn had over-extended himself. He had several expensive shows touring up and down the east coast that were returning negligible profits, so he was preparing to file for bankruptcy. As a result, he was not giving his Nightingales the attention that Minnie felt they deserved. She took over their management and bookings, took Wayburn’s name off the act (now they were “The Three Nightingales”) and, at some point in the spring of 1908, fired Mabel O’Donnell. According to Julius and Milton in later interviews, O’Donnell’s voice was a powerful instrument, but tended to wander off-key. She also, in Milton’s uncharitable memory, had a glass eye and had to wear a peek-a-boo wig that covered one side of her face, which hampered her constant lustful pursuit of Julius. In Julius’ even more uncharitable memory, she was “a fucking nuisance.” In O’Donnell’s defense, the few photographs in existence of her seem to depict a rather plain but perfectly normal-looking girl, and no review of their act ever mentioned off-key singing. (She definitely wore a wig, though.)

Lou Levy, a diminutive boy singer from Brooklyn a few years younger than the Marxes, became the third Nightingale, which may reveal the real reason O’Donnell was sent packing — an all-boy act could share a single room, saving money on accommodations. 

This new version of The Three Nightingales did not sing a single note before they became The Four Nightingales. As always, stories about the reason for this expansion of the act are contradictory, but the most commonly accepted version is that the manager of the next venue where the Nightingales were booked — Henderson’s Music Hall in Coney Island — insisted he had hired a quartet, and a quartet is what had damn well better show up. No problem, decided Minnie. She would just put another son in the act. But even with three sons to choose from, realistic options were limited. Leo, now a talented “trick” pianist and the most obvious choice (even though, at twenty-one, he would be a little long in the tooth for a juvenile act), was counted out because he was actually working a semi-respectable job all the way over in Philly (more on that later). Herbert was…well, Herbert was seven. That left Adolph, who, at nineteen, had outgrown his childhood nickname of “Ahdie” — but wasn’t especially fond of the name “Adolph,” either. 

Teenaged “Ahdie”

Adolph was not quite the black sheep (Frenchie and Minnie could never be ashamed of any of their boys), but he was the oddity in an already odd family. Leo had an amazing head for numbers and could mentally calculate as quick as lightning. Julius was a voracious bookworm, and loved literature and history. Adolph was the Brother who left school the earliest (around his second year of second grade), and struggled with basic literacy. He wandered around the city, hopping on and off streetcars one step ahead of the ticket-takers, and worked dozens of odd jobs that would last only a few weeks or even just a day or two before he was let go for being a screw-up. He had all of Leo’s irresponsibility, but none of his drive. He was a dreamer and a naif. He could play piano well enough that his most steady job was playing accompaniment to the short silent films still called “flickers” at the nickelodeon. 

And of all the Brothers, he was the only one who couldn’t sing. 

This would seemingly be the minimal requirement for joining a singing quartet, but didn’t seem to faze Minnie at all as she stalked into the nickelodeon one day and insisted her almost-adult son stop what he was doing and come with her immediately as she sized him up for a white suit. 

The Four Nightingales make their debut. Adolph clutches Lou Levy by the shoulder. The three men on the right are unidentified — Coney Island, June 1908

Adolph Marx — later known to the world as the silent comic genius Harpo Marx — made his professional stage debut on Coney Island on June 1, 1908 as part of The Four Nightingales. He was silent at that moment, too, having been instructed to lip-synch his part of “Darling Nelly Gray.” He had to be literally shoved onstage. “As I caught my balance, the thought sizzled in my mind. You’re not a boy anymore. You’re a man. Don’t let them know you’re scared,” Adolph recalled. “I came to a halt beside Lou Levy. And there They were. A sea of mocking, hostile faces across the footlights…With my first look at my first audience, I reverted to being a boy again. I wet my pants. It was probably the most wretched debut in show business.”

Business card

As is generally the case with a good Marx Brothers story, this may be exaggerated or totally fictional. (Julius remembers Adolph shitting his pants, so take it all with a grain of salt.) If  Adolph’s little accident really happened, then the audience didn’t notice. The Four Nightingales were a success at Henderson’s Music Hall, and played there a full week. Then the road beckoned, and the boys (and ever-present Minnie) hit the circuit. York, PA…Lima, OH…Tampa, FL…Wheeling, WV…Richmond, IN…the road went on and on as 1908 turned to 1909. Adolph developed a passable enough singing voice to “growl” the bass parts. At the same time, Julius recalled that as he and Milton reached the end of their teens, their formerly sweet singing voices had begun to coarsen. Lou Levy had to carry the primary musical load as lead vocalist. 

Ladies and gentlemen…the Four Nightingales: Milton, Lou Levy, Julius, and Adolph

Although The Four Nightingales’ show was essentially a musical act, comedy had been a part of it from the very beginning, when Julius would do a little between-song patter, often in a comic German accent (in imitation of Uncle Al.) An early review in a New Jersey paper stated that “Julius and Milton Marks [sic]…are not only good singers but clever comedians, too.” Not everyone was so appreciative. “[They] are wasting a good deal of valuable time in the exploitation of ineffectual comedy and dialogue,” read a later review. “The greater part of it could be dropped altogether, and the precious moments thus saved devoted to more singing.” (Evidently this reviewer did not share Julius’ disdain for their voices.) If the boys even read these reviews, it didn’t put them off their new direction. More and more comedy began creeping in, until Julius had developed his first full-blown comic character — “Hans Pumpernickel,” the German butcher boy. He ditched his white suit in favor of a grocer’s apron, a blonde wig (one of Minnie’s cast-offs), blacked-out teeth, and a basket of rubber frankfurters. His star turn was the comedic German song “Ist das Nicht Ein Schnitzelbank?”

From a theater manager’s report: “Four boys, three of them work straight, one eccentric. One of them is a good soloist and their quartet work is acceptable.” 

Top to bottom: Julius, Adolph, Milton, Lou Levy

The very first Marx Brothers comedy sketch, circa 1908, “wasn’t built around much of an idea,” Julius said. “I pretended I was a German comedian. All comedians using German accents were called ‘Dutch comics.’ The accent came easily to me. We lived in Yorkville, a German neighborhood, my uncle, Al Shean, was a Dutch comic, and we were surrounded by breweries… The plot consisted of me as a butcher boy delivering wieners, asking Adolph and Milton (who were dressed as yachtsmen) how to get to Mrs. Schmidt’s house. While Milton pointed me in one direction, Adolph stole the wieners.” 

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Stars of Bedlam: The Rise & Fall of the Marx Brothers (Part 1)

The Marx Brothers, at the peak of their powers and over the course of their best Broadway shows and Hollywood films (to most fans, that’s roughly a single decade, 1925 to 1935) were an unstoppable juggernaut that essentially invented modern comedy, or maybe post-modern comedy. (Buster Keaton might share that honor, but he existed in his own peculiar silent bubble — the Marx Brothers loudly ran amok in society.)

Some have called their style anarchic. Some have said they are surreal (Salvador Dali was a big fan). Revolutionary. Ahead of their time. Anti-establishment antiheroes. They ended up as all of these things when viewed backwards through the lens of pop culture history, but they wouldn’t have called themselves any of those things at the time. They always said they were only trying to entertain. It just came out that way. And as Marx scholar Noah Diamond says, “They were never angry. They broke the rules just for the sheer joy of breaking the rules. I don’t know that they really had an agenda.”

As I put it in my one-shot Zeppo essay several years back, “the Marx Brothers were three Great Comedians — Groucho, with his cigar, painted-on mustache, and endless flow of wisecracks, insults and non-sequiturs, Harpo, the gifted silent clown who communicated through exaggerated facial expressions and horn-honking, Chico, the piano-playing sharpie with the inexplicable Italian accent — and one leftover.” (Poor Zeppo.)  

Groucho (Julius)

For being one of the most famous and successful comedy teams in history, they were certainly the strangest. Those bizarre costumes. The fact that they worked best not as a full team, but in ones and twos (Groucho and Chico, Chico and Harpo, Groucho playing off a clueless victim of his rapier wit). The fact that one Brother was entirely unnecessary, and left the team part way through their film career with no effect whatsoever. 

You can be strange, you can break the rules, you can tear down the walls of what’s accepted, but you don’t become a comedy legend unless you bring the goods. You have to be funny, and the Marx Brothers were certainly that. As proof, I submit my several years’ experience as an instructor of cinema studies…at the middle-school level. Talk about a tough crowd. I often did a semester on comedy, and always included a few of the best Marx Brothers movies. After a brief bit of skeptical silence as they adjusted to the creaky old black-and-white antiquity of what they were seeing, they would start to laugh. Yes, even the most jaded, TikTok-sated middle schooler will succumb to the charms of the Marx Brothers, if that middle schooler has at least a modicum of a sense of humor (most of them do).

Harpo (Adolph/Arthur)

In this series of essays, my plan is to explore the Marx Brothers’ entire career, but with particular emphasis on their early years and later years (hence the subtitle of “rise and fall.”) Of course, I will be touching on the classic movies that made them legends, but so many others have done that so many times (and so much better), that I feel like adding too much to that particular pile would be superfluous. The Brothers’ career peak may well be the shortest portion here. And I’ll try to avoid the most well-worn stories. Still, this will be the longest sustained piece of writing on a single topic that I’ve ever done, except for “This Used To Be My Playground” Parts 1-24, which were written piecemeal over eight years. (This still might beat that series on actual word count.) So if you’re not into the Marx Brothers, or don’t want to learn about the Marx Brothers, then I’m sorry for what’s going to be happening here for the next year or so. (Yes, it’s that long, and the site only updates once a month. I’d like to go faster, but I have a job, a life, computer games to play, golf to watch, etc.).

Chico (Leonard)

The problem with pursuing a straightforward examination of the Brothers’ lives and careers is that mundane facts are almost totally obscured by myth and apocrypha — mostly spun by the Brothers themselves. They were showmen, born and bred, and never let the truth get in the way of a good story. In their old age, both Groucho and Harpo wrote autobiographies that were chock full of exaggerations, mistaken memories, and outright fabrications, many of which were taken as gospel by fans and journalists of the time. It took a later generation of scholars to peel away the patina of legend and piece together as much of the real story as they could. But misinformation still proliferates, especially on the internet. As much as I can, I will use the most up-to-date, reliably researched sources. (The Holy Bee as amateur armchair researcher is greatly indebted to the legwork of these professional authors, and a full source list will be provided after the final entry of this series.) I will do my level best to get the history right, without relying on Marxian Tall Tales, and if that means there will be fewer funny stories that are only half-true (or less), then so be it. It’ll make for a slightly less entertaining read, but I’ll be able to sleep at night. (And so will you, after reading one of these essays!) 

Zeppo (Herbert)

The title of this series comes from the working title of author Joe Adamson’s seminal work on the Marxes, Groucho, Harpo, Chico, and Sometimes Zeppo. (Evidently, Simon & Schuster editor Michael Korda hated cutesy, esoteric, or wordplay-based titles. Makes it fair game for the Holy Bee to swipe.)

So this will be, in a description I’ve used in the past, your typical Holy Bee mishmash. Part biography, part cultural history, part critical analysis, part rambling and musing.

Here we go…

The region known as Alsace has always been a victim of geographical tug-of-war. Hugging the western bank of the Rhine River, the area has been regarded at various times as the easternmost territory of France or the westernmost territory of Germany. Culturally, it is very French, but linguistically many of its inhabitants speak plattdeutsch“low German.” In October of 1859, Alsace was firmly under the control of France, and in a Jewish commune known as Mertzwiller, Simon Marx was born to another Simon Marx (possibly spelled “Marrix”), an illiterate peddler and suspected bigamist who may have been married illegally to two women at the same time. Before the boy was twelve, the events of the Franco-Prussian War annexed Alsace on behalf of the new Imperial State of Germany — the Second Reich — and young Simon went from being French to being German overnight. 

In a similar vein, before the Franco-Prussian War, the little seashore town of Dornum, just east of the Dutch border, was considered to be in the independent Kingdom of Prussia. After the Franco-Prussian War, it was considered to be in the newly consolidated German Empire. It was there, in the waning days of the old kingdom, that Miene Schoenberg was born in November of 1864 to distinctly un-orthodox Jewish parents. 

Miene’s parents were Lafe and Fanny Schoenberg, who traveled through northern Germany and the Low Countries performing as a ventriloquist/magician and a singing harpist, respectively. Lafe had a reputation as a wily, philandering charmer, always on the lookout for a pretty girl or easy money, traits he would pass on to at least a few of his grandsons. The 1851 marriage of the rascally Lafe and the more proper Fanny was objected to by her parents — and had been scandalously preceded by the 1850 birth of their eldest daughter, Schontje. Schontje was turned over to Lafe’s parents to raise, and for whatever reason the Lafe/Fanny union was not blessed with any more children until 1858 — then they came very close together. In addition to Schontje, there was daughter Sara, who emigrated to New York well ahead of the rest of the family in 1872, daughters Celine (about whom nothing is known) and Jette (died at age three), and at least a few others who didn’t survive infancy. All we need to note for the future are daughter Hanchen (b. 1862), daughter Miene, son Abraham (b. 1868) and son Heinemann (b. 1873). 

Fanny and Lafe, 1876, just before immigrating. Hanchen is between them, Abraham is in front of Fanny, and Heinemann is on Lafe’s lap. The fair-haired Meine is on the right.

Looking for greater opportunities, the Schoenbergs came to the melting pot of New York City between 1877 and 1879, and began the process of assimilation among the crowds of fellow immigrants in the Lower East Side. Lafe became “Louis” (although he never mastered English), Hanchen became “Hannah,” Meine became “Minnie,” and the boys, Abraham and Heinemann, became “Al Shean” and “Henry (‘Harry’) Shean.” (Fanny stayed Fanny.) Fifteen-year-old Minnie took a job in a sweatshop, assembling fur coats. 

We don’t know if Schontje or Celine made the trip. If they did, it is likely they are partly responsible for the flood of “Schoenberg cousins” the Brothers remember going in and out of their household at all hours. We know that Sara married a Gustave Heymann, and had a bunch of little Heymanns roughly the same age as the Brothers.

Fanny and Lafe, 1880s

Simon Marx made his way to New York in 1880, and was taken in and apprenticed by an older cousin who worked as a tailor. He shed the name “Simon” and became “Sam,” but — although he spoke plattdeutsch and considered himself German — he went by the nickname of “Frenchie” for the rest of his days. He never mentioned nor gave much thought to his parents and a multitude of siblings and half-siblings he had left behind in the Old Country. (“Frenchie” or “Frenchy”? Looking through all the sources, it seems to be a 50-50 split. I’ll go with Harpo’s spelling from his autobiography.)

Minnie, at around sixteen years old

By late 1884 Frenchie was barely scraping by as a tailor. But there were other opportunities for a handsome, dapper, and gentlemanly young Alsatian — especially one who was a decent dancer. He picked up extra money moonlighting as an instructor at a dance hall, and that’s where he met the bright, vivacious Minnie, who had moved on from the sweatshop and was now selling straw hats. Romance blossomed, and Sam “Frenchie” Marx, 25, married Minnie Schoenberg, 20, on January 18, 1885. They bounced from apartment to apartment (always moving further uptown — away from the teeming, roughshod Lower East Side), and began to produce their remarkable offspring.

Frenchie Marx

The first Marx brother never got to be a “Marx Brother” at all. Manfred Marx, born in January 1886, was dead by July, a victim of acute “enterocolitis” (inflammation of the digestive tract) and “asthenia” (overall weakness), brought on by either influenza or tuberculosis. Whatever bacteria or virus was at fault, Manfred became another statistic in the annals of urban 19th-century infant mortality. His parents were devastated, but in true immigrant spirit, they persevered — and all their subsequent children lived to see old age.

After poor lost “Mannie” came Leonard, born on March 22, 1887. Then came Adolph on November 23, 1888. The middle child, Julius Henry, was born on October 2, 1890. Little brother Milton arrived on October 21, 1892. (He was another sickly one — Minnie watched him like a hawk.) The “surprise baby,” Herbert, was born on February 25, 1901. 

We know them as Chico, Harpo, Groucho, Gummo, and Zeppo.

Although the family always had its eyes on the future, Manfred’s death was not without reverberations that would echo for years. Minnie became incredibly protective. “Sam can cough all night, and I never hear him,” she once said. “But if one of my boys coughs just once, I’m wide awake.” And the first child born after Manfred — Leonard — was undoubtedly his mother’s favorite, spoiled and cosseted unabashedly. All the boys were born with fine blonde hair (and Minnie was known to have mixed peroxide with their shampoo) — except Julius, who sported woolly black locks from the get-go. That, and the slight cast to his left eye, always made him feel like a little bit of an outsider. Minnie referred to him as der Eifersuchtihe, “the jealous one.” His brothers’ hair eventually darkened in adolescence, but for Julius, the damage was already done.

The dominant Yorkville landmark was the massive Hell Gate Brewery. The Brothers’ grandfather taught them to tell time by looking out of their window towards the brewery’s clock tower

Every Marx Brother has a story about what a terrible tailor their father was (he supposedly refused to use a tape measure, preferring to guess his customers’ measurements), and also liked to spin tales about their poverty and life in the tenements. The reality was a little different. Yes, Frenchie preferred cooking and playing pinochle to cutting cloth, but he must have been earning something. By 1895, the family had settled into the top floor of a comfortable four-story brownstone at 179 East 93rd Street in the respectable German neighborhood of Yorkville — hardly a tenement. They stayed there for almost fifteen years, a far cry from the days of fleeing angry landlords in the Lower East Side when rent came due. The Marx family was solidly lower-middle class. 

Which isn’t to say the apartment wasn’t very, very crowded.

Let’s take a look at the occupants of this address, circa 1900…

The stoop of the Marx family’s building as it appears today

The occupants of three rooms on one floor of 179 East 93rd Street included Frenchie, who was more likely to be found frying short ribs and cabbage or playing cards than plying his trade. (He didn’t have a shop. His big cutting table and scraps of fabric dominated the dining area during work hours, and were put away when it was time for dinner and/or a round of cards, which came earlier and earlier in the day as he got older.) There was Louis and Fanny (now “Opie” and “Omie” to the grandsons). There was thirteen-year-old Leo and eleven-year-old “Ahdie” — towheaded troublemakers who at the time could pass as twins, and were already showing a proclivity for prowling the neighborhood looking for action. There was nine-year-old “Julie,” somewhat sour and serious, usually to be found with a book in whatever private corner he could claim, or keeping an eye on seven-year-old Milton, who was frail and small for his age. Presiding over all of this was Minnie Marx, pregnant (or very soon to be) with Herbert, and beginning to concoct the dream of putting her precocious boys on the stage. (None of the Brothers bothered with school beyond their bar mitzvah, and their attendance was pretty spotty before that.)

And according to the Brothers’ collective memories, another constant presence was a Marx Sister — Pauline (“Polly”), aged sixteen. Actually, Polly was the daughter of Minnie’s sister Hannah, born in 1884 when Hannah was between husbands, and unofficially adopted by Frenchie and Minnie to keep things respectable. (For what it’s worth, Polly was listed in the 1900 census as residing with her mother and stepfather, but who knows what the actual situation was.)

The Marxes occupied the top floor

A total of eight people — and that’s just the baseline. It seems that Polly was a semi-permanent fixture, and Aunt Hannah and her second husband Uncle Julius were there so often they might as well have been residents. Plus there was an endless stream of Schoenberg cousins, family friends, Frenchie’s customers, and pinochle players trooping up and down the three flights of stairs at number 179. And somewhere among the clutter, human and otherwise, they managed to find room for Omie’s old harp and a second hand upright piano. (One of Julius’ favorite reading spots was draped over the back of the piano.)

The story goes that Minnie was for some reason convinced Uncle Julius was sitting on secret riches, and named her middle child after him in hopes of a future inheritance. The question mark in the story is that Hannah and Julius Schickler did not marry until two years after Julius Marx was born. But who knows, maybe the couple had been “courting” for a couple of years.

Julius and Adolph in front of 179 East 93rd Street, around 1900

The loss of Omie Fanny in 1901 was balanced by the arrival of baby Herbert, but gradually the fourth floor got some breathing room. Polly married young, to the nearest non-related male (one of Frenchie’s card-playing cronies, actually) and got the hell out of there as soon as she could. Teenaged Leo and Ahdie were spending less and less time under the family roof, out until all hours doing who-knows. 

Julius was a touring vaudeville singer by the end of 1905. And Julius most assuredly did not get an inheritance from his eponymous uncle when he finally shuffled off sometime in the 1920s. Uncle Julius’ entire estate, grouched his nephew in his colorful autobiography, consisted of “a nine-ball he stole from a pool hall, his liver pills, and a celluloid dickey.” Plus, he died owing Frenchie eighty-four dollars. 

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Monty Python: The Albums (Part 4)

Outside Center Center, April 13, 1976. Graham Chapman appears to have wandered off for a drink, and has been replaced here by Neil Innes

A year passes from the Holy Grail triumph…

Then the Pythons hit Broadway! After mulling it over, the Pythons accepted producer Arthur Cantor’s long-standing offer to perform in New York, and their stage show crossed the pond to the 2,257-seat New York City Center on West 55th Street.

Rehearsing the Mountie Chorus on “The Lumberjack Song”

They slightly revised their line-up of live material. The sub-standard “Cocktail Bar” and “Secret Service” were blessedly dumped, and the much funnier “Dead Bishop” and “Crunchy Frog” were added. “Blackmail” replaced “Spot the Brain Cell” as the game show parody. “Election Special” was swapped for “Courtroom” (which didn’t make the album, nor did the physical comedy tour-de-forces “Custard Pies” and “Ministry of Silly Walks” — but for some reason the super-physical “One-Man Wrestling” made the cut here and on Drury Lane). Beyond these small tweaks, the show was made up of familiar stuff. Neil Innes contributed two new songs, and Carol Cleveland was back in the fold, having missed the run of shows at Drury Lane.

The Pythons performed their show to sold-out houses from April 16 through May 2, 1976.

Monty Python Live at City Center 

Released: May 3, 1976 (U.S. only)

Produced by Nancy Lewis

Track Listing:

Side One

1. Llama

2. Gumby Flower Arranging

3. Short Blues (Neil Innes)

4. One-Man Wrestling

5. World Forum (Communist Quiz)

6. Albatross/The Colonel

7. Nudge Nudge

8. Crunchy Frog

9. Bruces/The Philosophers Song

10. Travel Agent

Side Two

1. Camp Judges

2. Blackmail

3. Protest Song (Neil Innes)

4. Pet Shop (Dead Parrot)

5. Four Yorkshiremen

6. Argument Clinic

7. Death of Mary Queen of Scots

8. Dead Bishop

9. The Lumberjack Song

Arista wanted the live album out as soon as the show closed — literally. Monty Python Live at City Center was in record stores hours after the last curtain dropped. That meant the recordings had to be made early in the show’s run. Andre Jacquemin did not make the trans-Atlantic trip to capture the shows for posterity, so Nancy Lewis hastily arranged recording equipment and the personnel to operate it, and is credited as the album’s producer.

For the first time, the Pythons had to deal with a full-on, fanatical reaction by their audience — they were now American celebrities. When Americans go big, it can be scary. Fans screamed at them as if they were rock stars. The nightly sold-out crowd dressed up like Gumbys and lumberjacks. The Pythons were fawned over by the likes of Martin Scorsese and Leonard Bernstein. (At an after-show gathering, Bernstein asked Eric Idle to recite a few lines of “Nudge Nudge.” Idle responded by asking Bernstein to hum a few bars of Beethoven.) Their time offstage was a blur of photo sessions, interviews, autographs, limo rides, and boozy, late-night dinners at fancy steakhouses. “We didn’t take drugs but we drank a hell of a lot,” remembers Terry Jones. “In fact I can’t remember how much we drank precisely because of the amount we drank.”

As usual during a long stage run, Michael Palin lost his voice towards the end. Backstage, he was offered a stiff malt whiskey by Neil Innes. “Will it help my voice come back?” “No, but you won’t care anymore.” On the last night, Palin hoarsely croaked out his longest speech of the show, as the man who is applying for a grant to develop his silly walk. He heroically and painfully completed it, and there was a long pause, after which his sketch partner Cleese punked him by simply saying “I’m sorry…what was that again?” 

One night, a short-haired and clean-shaven George Harrison fulfilled what he called a lifetime’s ambition by donning a Mountie jacket and hat, and joining the chorus of “The Lumberjack Song,” completely unrecognized by the audience. (He is known to have checked into hotels under the name Jack Lumber.) On another memorable occasion, someone chucked a two-foot long rubber dildo onto the stage during “Bruces.” “Oh, look, Bruce,” quipped Eric Idle. “One of those little American penises.”

Look carefully and you’ll spot a Mountie that looks an awful lot like a Beatle

Some say City Center doesn’t really merit inclusion the canon of “official” Monty Python albums, due to its very close similarity to Live at Drury Lane, and the fact that the sound quality was below their usual standard — hastily recorded, plagued with microphone issues, and without the loving supervision of Jacquemin. But Drury Lane never received a U.S. release until the 1990s CD box set, so City Center became the only audio representation of their live show for American consumers for almost twenty years. I certainly owned it years before I ever heard Drury Lane, and I consider it superior to the British release — sketchy audio aside — due to the substitution of stronger material. 

The party atmosphere of the City Center shows was remembered fondly by all, even though several of them had the authentic New York experiences of being burgled or pickpocketed. And they did get some work done during a few bleary, hungover daylight meetings — they all committed to doing another movie in the near future, and agreed that it should be set in Biblical times. Some story and character ideas were thought up. A leisurely-paced development period was decided on, and they worked out a lengthy research and writing schedule that would accommodate their burgeoning solo careers.

A few years pass…

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