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. 

Into this infant art form dropped the Marx Brothers. Cameras began rolling on The Cocoanuts on February 4, 1929. Many early sound films featured Broadway stars, who had good voices. (And the new technology was the death knell for the careers of several silent film stars, who had annoying lisps, stutters, and other impediments to speaking clearly in the “talkies”.) The catch was that a lot of Broadway performers were unwilling or unable to leave New York in order to make their films in Hollywood. This category included the Marx Brothers, who fully intended to continue performing their smash Animal Crackers at the 44th Street Theatre while simultaneously making their cinematic debut. To alleviate this problem, Paramount had film studio facilities ready to go in Astoria, Queens. The Brothers would shoot four days a week (on Wednesdays they performed matinees of Animal Crackers), hastily remove their film costumes and make-up, then grab a taxi and race into Manhattan to apply stage costumes and make-up in time for the curtain of their evening performance. Who says the Marxes didn’t have a work ethic?

Robert Florey

French-born Robert Florey was the director, assisted by former dancer Joseph Santley on the song-and-dance sequences ported over from the stage version. Florey did not always find the experience a pleasant one. “I’d be dishonest if I said I was overwhelmed with enthusiasm for the project,” he remarked dryly. The Marx Brothers treated the filmmaking process with the same respect they treated mounting a stage show. “You couldn’t direct the Marx Brothers,” Florey continued. “They did what they did and that was it…I photographed it to the best of my ability.” 

If Chico wasn’t needed for a shot in the next half-hour, he would often disappear to the nearby Jamaica Racetrack to bet on the ponies, or to a little Italian restaurant he had discovered that sold illegal wine (Prohibition was in full swing). Harpo would fall asleep in his dressing room, an understandable habit based on the hours they were working. Lord knows where Zeppo would go, but Florey remembers how infrequently he was actually on set. Groucho would harangue Florey, cinematographer George Folsey, and anyone else in his crosshairs with his usual litany of complaints and insults, and was constantly changing his lines and positions, making a mess of the carefully-planned continuity that was needed to edit together a coherent film. Coherence be damned. (Folsey would go on to be one of the best cinematographers in the business, and was also a favorite target of Harpo, who would insist on calling him “Bob” and was always “borrowing” the belt off his pants, which was never returned.)

And Groucho’s greasepaint mustache was once again a matter of some controversy. In the sophisticated world of cinema realism, either Walter Wanger or Monta Bell explained, a greasepaint mustache was simply not acceptable. Groucho doesn’t remember who told him this, either. “I just told whoever it was to go fuck himself.” A little powder was applied to the greasepaint to tone down its shine under the glaring soundstage lights, and nothing more was said about it forever after.

“My main job was to keep them in camera frame,” said Florey. “With the way the Marx Brothers carried on, one or two of them always walked out of camera range…I had five cameras going at all times. They weren’t really disciplined.” But he adds a conciliatory note: “They were clever performers and I enjoyed working with them. Although at times I may have wondered what I was doing there.” The multiple cameras also allowed some innovation in filming some of the dance sequences from unusual angles, including directly above, which is sometimes credited as influencing Busby Berkeley a few years later.

Paramount’s Astoria Studios, Queens, NY. It’s still in use today, mostly for televsion, and is currently home to the production of Sesame Street

In spite of many daily delays, caused by technical limitations and/or Marxian indifference to what they were supposed to be doing, the film wrapped on March 2, after only four weeks’ shooting. The relative speed of production was probably because it was filmed almost “live” — long takes in wide shots. Two weeks later, Gummo, now making good money in the garment industry, married young widow Helen (Theaman) Von Tilzer, and adopted her infant daughter, Kay. This left Harpo as the last bachelor among the Brothers, which suited him fine. Like his siblings, he loved the company of women — as many different ones as possible — and wanted to continue his pursuits guilt-free.

Animal Crackers closed on Broadway on April 6, although it could have easily continued (always leave them wanting more). As they did with The Cocoanuts, they put on a shortened version (“Scenes from Animal Crackers”) for vaudeville audiences in the New York area while a national tour of the full play was being prepared for later that year. 

The film version of The Cocoanuts had its gala New York premiere in May of 1929 at the Rialto Theatre. Not quite seizing their moment of triumph, the Marx Brothers were horrified at how they appeared and sounded on screen, and initially tried to buy the film back from Paramount. “It’s going to ruin our careers,” the pessimistic Groucho reportedly wailed. Luckily, cooler heads prevailed, and it was explained that films and live shows were two very different things, and that the film version of The Cocoanuts was just fine — damned good, even (by 1929 early-talkie standards). But it is clear that the Marx Brothers’ performances are hesitant and somewhat muted compared to what would come just one year later. Bob Gassel, host of the Marx Brothers Council podcast, hit the nail on the head when he compared The Cocoanuts to the pilot episode of a TV series. It’s recognizable, but not quite there yet.

[For plot details on The Cocoanuts, see the discussion of the play in Part 5.]

So…modern-day comedy fans beware. The Cocoanuts was conceived by Kaufamn and Ryskind, and performed by the Brothers, knowingly and deliberately, as a true Broadway musical. Generous amounts of time and attention were spent on making the musical numbers and dance routines as elaborate as possible, and the comedy portions — the only parts most of us care about nowadays — were set-pieces, placed like jewels in a song-and-dance crown. In order to get to an acceptable running time, Ryskind’s film adaptation did jettison a whopping ten of the stage show’s fifteen original songs, keeping two as brief interludes, and only three as full-fledged numbers. (Three too many, if you ask the Holy Bee, whose distaste for movie musicals has been long established in these virtual pages.) But the film’s origins as a musical stage play remain very much in evidence, and a dazzlingly spectacular musical play at that, with not just one but two full chorus lines — the Gamby-Hale Girls and the Allan K. Foster Girls. Chico must have had a field day.

Whatever torn-from-the-headlines cultural relevance the 1925 Florida land boom may have had when the stage show premiered was long gone. It would be like making a 2022 movie based on the 2018 MegaMillions jackpot, evidently the most-viewed story on that year.

The Cocoanuts is a relic, and can be a tedious experience for a modern viewer. Especially if, like anyone still drawing breath in the 21st century, you’re really not a fan of the mannered, warbly singing style of 1920s-30s musicals. As the young female lead, Mary Eaton, a veteran dancer from the esteemed Ziegfeld Follies shows, gives a serviceable performance, but she’s dragging a safe when she performs with her romantic partner.

Shaw & Eaton

The mannequin known as Oscar Shaw, with his creepy, constipated grin and bullet-proof hair looks moments away from aging into Fred MacMurray, only with 90% less affability and charm. He’s spackled with so much make-up — to disguise the fact he’s 41 and still clinging to “young lover” roles — he looks like a mime. Harvey Yates (as played by Cyril Ring, who went on to play literally hundreds of parts like “Man in Railroad Station” and “Nightclub Patron” through the 1940s) is the most sad-sack, slump-shouldered, milksop “villain” in cinema history. His accomplice Penelope (Kay Francis) provides the real spark, and gives far and away the best non-Dumont supporting performance in the film. (Unlike Dumont, none of these folks were in the original stage Cocoanuts, all being Paramount contract players plugged into the roles.)

The Marx Brothers’ first movie scene together

Groucho’s opening monlogue, usually a highlight of any Marx Brothers film, is dead in the water. Instead of his fripperies, self-contradictions, and logical twists sounding like the beautifully barbed and surreal non-sequiturs of later performances, in The Cocoanuts the speech just sounds poorly written and flatly delivered. With multiple cameras grinding away on long takes, no one wanted to go back and start from the top, so fluffed lines and dropped cues are all over the place. Groucho even almost calls Chico by the name of his Animal Crackers character (“Ravelli”), but catches himself after the first syllable. (“Look, Rav — uh, look…”)

Hard pass

The first cut ran well over two hours, and approximately forty-five minutes of footage was chopped before release. Most of the excised material established the relationships between all the characters, leaving the audience more than a little bewildered as to who the hell all these people are, how they know each other, and why they’re doing what they’re doing. The film still moves sluggishly compared to their later work.

But…if you can make it past the awkward opening, the awful first song (“When My Dreams Come True,” not included in the stage version, but written specially for the film by Irving Berlin, who was probably glad to get rid of it), and the first two (or is it three?) dance numbers, The Cocoanuts picks up a little momentum. Groucho’s first confrontation with Margaret Dumont is an early classic, a perfectly delivered Groucho-nonsense rant about alligator pears and cattle-breeding (“nothing personal” he assures the statuesque Dumont). When Chico and Harpo finally show up almost twenty minutes in (!), we have ourselves the rough outline of a Marx Brothers movie — embryonic and in need of tightening up as it may be. But if you compare The Cocoanuts to any other sound comedy from 1929, you realize how innovative, unorthodox, and impactful it must have been for audiences of that era.

Chico, Harpo, and a chorus line of bellhops

As I re-watched The Cocoanuts for this essay, I found myself smiling and even laughing out loud more than I expected. Chico dazzles in his first filmed performance on piano. Harpo plays his harp, and treats us to a brief run on his second instrument, the clarinet. (Or I guess it’s his third after his sub-Chico piano skills — and it’s a good thing it is his third, as Matthew Coniam writes, sparing us the name “Clarinetto.”) Unfortunately, the good stuff keeps getting interrupted by more goddamn dance numbers and multiple reprises of “When My Dreams Come True.” (“Monkey Doodle-Do,” despite its execrable title, is actually a nice little jazzy/fox-trot number that has “1920s” all over it.)

The Spanish costume ball — Groucho and Chico play tic-tac-toe on the undershirt of Hennessey, the beleagured hotel detective

The Cocoanuts opened nation-wide on August 3, 1929. It got a lot of repeat business, as people returned to the movie theater two or three times to catch all the rapid-fire dialogue, just as they did when the show was on Broadway. It ended up being one of Paramount’s top grossers of the year. Groucho could relax. He relaxed for about two months (even bought a snazzy new car, an incredible indulgence for the notorious cheapskate).

Groucho riding high — for the moment — in his 1929 Packard 640 Custom 8 Runabout, with a rumble seat and a special alcove for a bag of golf clubs. The car for a man without a care in the world…

Then the stock market crashed. He lost a fortune, and would never truly relax again.

The road show of Animal Crackers was scheduled to open in New Haven, Connecticut on September 20, 1929. Rehearsals were held in their old I’ll Say She Is stomping grounds, the Casino Theater, and were attended on September 13 by Frenchie and Minnie. They had surely seen Animal Crackers a few times by this point, but this was a special pre-tour goodbye visit, and Frenchie reliably dissolved into gales of laughter any time he watched his sons perform. Minnie jokingly offered her services as a chorus girl. “You’re too young-looking,” Chico told her. After proudly watching their boys run through their material, the Marx parents went to Zeppo and Marion’s Upper East Side apartment for a big meal and a few rounds of ping-pong. In the car on the way back to their home in Richmond Hill, Queens, Minnie began feeling ill. As they crossed the Queensborough Bridge, she slumped over, numb on one side and semi-conscious. The success of their sons made them well-off enough to afford a chauffeur, so Frenchie was able to jump out of the car and stop traffic in both lanes as the driver made a dangerous mid-bridge U-turn. They then proceeded at top speed back to Zeppo’s, where a doctor and the rest of the family were summoned. Despite the doctor’s best efforts, Minnie Marx died of a cerebral hemorrhage later that night at the age of 64, surrounded by the Brothers she created in every sense of the word. 

Minnie Schoenberg Marx, 1864-1929

The show must go on…

Animal Crackers toured from September 1929 through April 1930, with the expectation of filming it as their second feature at the end of the road show run. Sure enough, almost as soon as they had unpacked from the tour, they were before the cameras again at Paramount’s New York studio in Astoria. Shooting the film version of Animal Crackers commenced on April 28 and ran through June (twice as long as the time given to Cocoanuts), with a different director at the helm.

Victor Heerman

Victor Heerman would direct the film version of Animal Crackers. He had the reputation of being a strict taskmaster and a company man who would keep the unruly Brothers on set and on the clock. While he may have been all of that, he was also a long-time fan of the group (unlike Robert Florey), and had the revolutionary idea that Marx Brothers comedy routines should not be interrupted by musical numbers. Heerman had every production number ruthlessly excised, leaving only one “straight” song for the romantic couple to sing (probably at the insistence of Paramount, who got a cut of the sheet music and recording sales). Every other bit of music would be comedy numbers performed by the Marxes, or Harpo and Chico’s instrumental pieces. Not even the big costume ball finale, with what many thought was their best song ever (“We’re Four of the Three Musketeers”), survived the transition from stage to screen. In Morrie Ryskind’s final shooting script, characters were dropped and subplots were discarded.

Publicity photo for Animal Crackers, 1930

Far from being appreciative, the Brothers were appalled that someone was messing with the sacred Formula. For all of their vaunted “anarchy” and “deconstructionism,” they could be a little hidebound and conservative regarding their time-tested material. Don’t fix what isn’t broke. But Heerman knew he could make their film move faster and be funnier. It took some time, and some screenings of test footage, but the Marxes came to realize that Heerman was right. He earned their respect (even though Groucho referred to him as a “short, fat gentile”), and they were on what passed as their best behavior for most of the shoot. They still struggled with making it to the set on time, but the oft-told story of Heerman building four cells with locking doors to keep them from scampering off was nonsense. (It had its origins in the fact that there was a jail cell set on the next stage over that was sometimes used as a dressing room for the Animal Crackers company.) 

Sound film technology was growing by leaps and bounds, and the Paramount cameras were no longer locked in boxes. Heerman had a more natural understanding of the Brothers’ comedic rhythms, and as a result, Animal Crackers is the first movie where the Marx Brothers really feel like the Marx Brothers. Even their costumes are finally fully realized. Although his initial appearance is in a pith helmet and explorer’s boots and jodhpurs, Groucho spends the rest of the film in the final form of his iconic dark suit with a swallow-tail coat and square-tipped necktie (what was with that weird bow-tie thing he was wearing in Cocoanuts?) Chico is forever enshrined in his Tyrolean hat, curly black wig, slightly too-small corduroy jacket, and checked pants. Harpo’s outfit had been set for awhile, but the costume designer lightened his curly red wig so it photographed better. Blondes have more fun, after all. Zeppo wore whatever was in his closet that morning. 

[For plot details on Animal Crackers, see the discussion of the play above.]

Although The Cocoanuts can elicit a few laughs from hardcore Marx fans, I’d estimate Animal Crackers is roughly five times as funny. For the first two-thirds of its running time, the comedy just keeps on coming. From this point forward, it’s going to be very difficult to resist quoting favorite routines at length. (You all know them, and if you don’t, watch the movies!) Groucho dominates the proceedings as usual, and Harpo works his magic, but in Animal Crackers we’re reminded how good a comedian Chico was as well, and how integral he was to the team. Apart from his verbal jousts with Groucho, he’s also excellent at commenting on the actions of Harpo’s inscrutable “Professor” — whether he’s belting Mrs. Rittenhouse multiple times in the midsection (“She can’t take it there” Chico cheerfully observes as Dumont is literally lifted off her feet), or blatantly cheating at bridge by pulling multiples aces of spades from his sleeve (Chico calls out each one: “Ace of spades…ace of spades…ace of spades…he plays a good game…”).  

The bridge game, the Holy Bee’s favorite Groucho-less Marx Brothers scene. Maggie Irving is on the left. She was a major presence in the stage version, but her role was cut to almost nothing in the film

And what of the young romantic couple that the Unwritten Laws of 1920s/30s Movies stated had to be in every comedy, no matter how unnecessary? At least Hal Thompson has the advantage of simply being bland and nondescript, unlike the actively unpleasant Oscar Shaw. Lillian Roth, a rising young starlet who had ambitions of being a Great Dramatic Actress, hams it up shamelessly in a part that, as Joe Adamson says, “she couldn’t bring herself to take seriously.” Roth allegedly was a temperamental diva on the set of her last Hollywood film, and the Paramount brass shipped her east to be “kicked in the rear by the Marx Brothers until [she] learn[ed] to behave.” Although she played the whole role as a send-up, Roth had a feisty spark and natural charisma that Mary Eaton lacked. She ended up having fun, and it shows. (It probably helped that her sister Ann was sent to New York with her to be one of the party guests in the film. She was immediately pounced on by Chico. Unlike multitudes of others, it wasn’t just a one-nighter, and Chico and Ann Roth saw each other off and on for several years.)

Lillian Roth

Many years, husbands, and pills later, Lillian Roth penned the very first tell-all celebrity memoir about her struggles with mental health and substance abuse. I’ll Cry Tomorrow was adapted into a film, and Susan Hayward was nominated for the Best Actress Oscar for her portrayal of Roth. 

Animal Crackers is more fluid than its predecessor, but it is still clearly a filmed play. The only noteworthy flaw, in my opinion, is that it is slightly overlong, even with Heerman’s cuts in the story, and his (correct) dictum that comedy films should be brief. The last section drags a bit, but it’s a minor complaint. Animal Crackers holds up as their first true classic. It was released on September 6, 1930, to the predicted brisk business and glowing reviews.

Endless options now opened themselves up to the Marx Brothers. They had three hit Broadway shows and two hit movies under their collective belt. What next? A fourth Broadway show was always speculated about. (At this point, they saw movies as a profitable sideline, but they never warmed to the tedium of the filmmaking process, and their hearts were still in live performance.) They began planning a radio series. Paramount dangled a lucrative three-picture deal in front of them — the catch being they would have to go out to Hollywood to film this time, and work with original screenplays rather than the safety of stage adaptations. Well, why not? It was only three movies, after all, and the California weather would be a treat.

The Marx Brothers had Risen…

In the next entry…The Pinnacle.

And then, the bittersweet Fall.


Filed under Film & TV

2 responses to “Stars of Bedlam: The Rise & Fall of the Marx Brothers (Part 6)

  1. Ed Rascati

    Really enjoying this! When can we expect #7??

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s