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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Herman Mankiewicz

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

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

S.J. Perelman

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thelma Todd

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

Norman Z. McLeod

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

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

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

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

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

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

While the Marxes were on the road, Mankiewicz rounded up most of the same crew for the next film. Norman McLeod agreed to take them helm again. Thelma Todd was invited back, and S.J. Perelman — whose ambition was growing beyond writing for other people, and who was increasingly at odds with Groucho — somewhat reluctantly began work on a new scenario. Will B. Johnstone also signed on for another go-round, and a pair of new co-writers were added — Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby, the songwriting team from Animal Crackers who were now eager to earn crazy Hollywood money in the world of screenwriting. (Their scripting debut was 1930’s Check and Double-Check, a blackface Amos ‘n’ Andy film the less said about which the better.)

The Brothers and McLeod

The next film for the Marx Brothers would be called Horse Feathers, and set in the world of higher education. A less appropriate setting for the grade school dropout Brothers could not be imagined, and therefore it is perfect. A lot of modern audiences don’t realize that Horse Feathers is actually a genre parody. “College movies” were a huge presence in the later silent and early sound eras, and many of the references in Horse Feathers weren’t as much references to college life itself as to the proliferation of movies about college life and their then-familiar cliches. The students (who all looked about 35 years old) wore beanies and waved pennants, the professors were all elderly and wore muttonchops and mortarboards, perhaps one of the guys succumbed to the charms of the “college widow,” and everyone was passionately attached to the outcome of the “big game.”

Thelma Todd was cast as the college widow…and just what the hell was a “college widow”? The term came from an old stage play, and it referred to the young trophy wife of a much-older and now-deceased faculty member, who continued to live on or near the college campus in order to avail herself to the yearly incoming crop of handsome and naive young men.

Groucho plays Huxley College’s new president, Professor Quincy Adams Wagstaff, and Zeppo is his son Frank, a student athlete who is besotted with Todd’s character, Connie Bailey. The plot revolves around purloined football signals and the shady hiring of “ringer” players for the big game between Huxley and its rival school, Darwin. (Thomas Henry Huxley was a 19th century biologist who was a strong advocate of Charles Darwin’s theories, so it’s a little odd that his name was applied to the school that was Darwin’s on-screen opponent here.) Chico works at a speakeasy (where the password is, of course, “swordfish”), and he partners with Harpo (the local dogcatcher) in supplying the thirsty college community with illegal hooch. The pair are mistaken by Groucho for a pair of ace football players-for-hire, and the mayhem commences. 

Almost as soon as shooting started, it had to be halted. Chico was in a serious car accident on April 9, 1932, shattering his knee, breaking several ribs, and putting him in the hospital for a lengthy stay. McLeod filmed without Chico as long as he could, then shut down production for several weeks. Upon Chico’s return, a lot of his performance was from a chair or his piano bench. For the action-packed “big game” climax filmed on the football field of Occidental College, they had to go with a rather obvious body double in several shots. (Notice in a few of the football scenes, “Chico” is almost a head taller than the other Brothers.)

Horse Feathers sets the Marx Brothers on the road to pure surrealism, thanks to Kalmar & Ruby. Things that simply can’t happen in the boring old real world happen all the time in the world of Kalmar & Ruby. (Example: Groucho tells Harpo he can’t “burn the candle at both ends.” Harpo proves him wrong by producing a literal candle burning at both ends from the depths of his raincoat. Groucho just shrugs. “I knew there was something you couldn’t burn at both ends, I thought it was a candle.”) The absurdity is also found in the dialogue, which ties itself in knots of illogic and somehow sounds like it’s making perfect sense. Kaufman & Ryskind were very good, Perelman “could write a good joke,” as Groucho said, but Kalmar & Ruby had the magic touch when it came to cascading torrents of Marxian dialogue. 

Kalmar & Ruby did double duty, putting on their songwriting hats to concoct the film’s running musical theme, the catchy ear-worm “Everyone Says I Love You.” Each Marx Brother gets to sing a verse in various parts of the film, reflecting their characters. Zeppo sings the sincere verse, Chico sings a jaunty, sprightly verse accompanying himself on the piano, Groucho’s verse is cynical (and features him playing his rarely-seen guitar), and Harpo’s is partly whistled, and partly played on his harp. For once, an essentially non-comedic song augments a Marx Brothers film rather than bringing it to a screeching halt, and the song is one that is still indelibly associated with the Marxes. Groucho’s opening song, “Whatever It Is, I’m Against It” has been a rallying cry for rebels, contrarians, and iconoclasts ever since the film’s release. 

The heavily (and poorly) edited apartment scene

Even allowing for McLeod’s usual snappy pace, the film is incredibly short — a mere 68 minutes. Or at least that’s the only version modern audiences can see. Its original release print was probably several minutes longer, but some bits and pieces have been excised. The Hays Code, which clamped down on “objectionable” material (sex, violence, anything fun or interesting) in Hollywood films, went into effect in 1934. (Pre-Code movies could get away with quite a bit. Chico’s daughter Maxine remembers being taken to the movies regularly as a little girl by Frenchie, and his frequent admonishment: “Don’t tell der Mama vhat you saw, ja?”) Like many popular films in the pre-TV/video era, Horse Feathers went into theatrical re-release a few times, and was at that point subject to Code restrictions. To wit: As multiple Brothers attempted to seduce Connie Bailey in her apartment, some of the dialogue was considered a little too “racy” and was snipped out — quite clumsily, too.

A few sequences with Harpo as dogcatcher were also tossed for no clear reason. The original, wonderfully nihilistic ending, with the Marx Brothers calmly playing cards as the college burns down around them, didn’t even make the original release, although still photos of the scene exist. A few portions were removed just because of careless damage to the print. The original film negative has been lost for years, so the version of Horse Feathers that currently exists, even on its pristine-as-possible Blu-ray edition, is the choppy, post-Code copy. (The Hays Code held sway for almost twenty-five years, then began being gradually ignored, and was finally replaced with our familiar but equally stupid MPAA rating system at the end of the 1960s.)  

Zeppo, as in Monkey Business, has a solid role, functioning as a real member of the team (sadly for the last time). If only they had found room for Margaret Dumont somewhere in story, and if only the un-chopped verison existed (especially with that awesome original ending), then the Holy Bee would consider Horse Feathers the quintessential Marx Brothers movie. 

The release of Horse Feathers on August 19, 1932 was accompanied by a feature article in Time magazine (dated August 15) with the Brothers on the cover. If we want to narrow the Marx Brothers’ peak to as narrow a moment as possible, it was that week. They were the undisputed Kings of Comedy. 

True to Mank’s prediction, S.J. Perelman did rue the day he took on the task of being a Marx Brothers writer. He permanently soured on his association with the team as time went on, mostly because people wouldn’t stop asking him about them. (A posthumous collection of his reminiscences was titled Don’t Mention the Marx Brothers.) Will B. Johnstone was also ready to move on. That left Kalmar & Ruby as the Marxes’ chief writers. 

But production of their next film began under a cloud of uncertainty. More on that presently.

For the first time in a long time, there was no post-movie stage tour. The financially shaky Paramount Pictures wanted another picture as soon as possible, plus the Marx Brothers were falling in love with the Good Life in sunny SoCal. They joined country clubs, replaced their rented residences with purchased homes in Beverly Hills, and established separate social circles. Years and years of touring vaudeville together in close quarters had given them more than enough of each other’s company. Groucho preferred associating with comedy writers and columnists, Harpo was swept up into William Hearst’s San Simeon party crew, and Chico hung out with everyone from studio presidents to railroad hobos, from Bel Air to Tijuana, as long as they gambled. 

Chico, early 1930s. Quite handsome when out of costume, he was an incorrigable womanizer, a reckless gambler, and was said to wield a devastating amount of charm
Harpo, early 1930s. When out of costume, he was also pretty dapper
Groucho & family, early 1930s
Arthur Sheekman, Groucho’s favorite writer and best friend

Their interim project was the long-promised radio series, which finally surfaced as Flywheel, Shyster, and Flywheel. Sponsored by Standard Oil, the series aired on the NBC Blue network as the Monday night installment of the Five-Star Theater series of nightly programs. The show was scripted by Arthur Sheekman, Nat Perrin, George Oppenheimer, and Tom McKnight. It starred Groucho as seedy lawyer Waldorf Flywheel and Chico as his assistant, Ravelli (his Animal Crackers name). Harpo’s silent character was not really useable on radio, although he received a handsome paycheck for doing nothing since Standard Oil technically contracted the whole team. (Some references to his presence, along with some horn honks, were written into early drafts of the first few scripts, but the idea was dropped as pointless.) Zeppo also opted out. He was desperate to leave the team at this point, and was exploring his options in screenwriting, talent management, and the world of venture capitalism. (Unlike Harpo, he was not paid for his non-participation in the radio show, because he wasn’t even a junior partner — he was a salaried employee of his older brothers. No wonder he wanted out.) 

Groucho and Chico initially committed to a lengthy stay in New York to produce the series, since NBC did not have a broadcasting facility in Los Angeles (pre-recording was not a thing yet — radio was all done live). Even Harpo rented himself a Manhattan apartment as the possibility of shooting the next movie back at Paramount’s Astoria studio was seriously discussed. But the film was delayed, everyone quickly got fed up with being away from their luxurious California homes, and Frenchie (who was living with Zeppo) was growing frail. After seven New York episodes, NBC agreed to broadcast from a makeshift radio studio set up on an empty soundstage at RKO Studios in Hollywood.

Flywheel, Shyster, and Flywheel aired from November 1932 through May 1933. The writers boldly raided earlier Marx Brothers films for plotlines and jokes (in an era before repeated viewings on TV and home video, who would really remember?), and some of the new jokes would be recycled in the next film. Although the Marx Brothers’ show garnered respectable if not spectacular ratings, Five-Star Theater as a whole was not renewed by Standard Oil for another season.

Two weeks before the last episode of Flywheel, Shyster, and Flywheel aired, 73-year-old Frenchie, after a number of health scares over the past few months, succumbed to chronic heart and kidney problems.

Sam “Frenchie” Marx, 1859-1933

Another casualty of hard times during the spring of 1933 was Gummo’s New York dress company. The fifth Marx Brother was now at loose ends. He decided on a return to show business — this time behind the scenes. He had been helping his siblings with their business affairs for a few years already, so at this point he hopped a plane to Hollywood with his family (by now including a three-year-old son, Robert), got himself a low-key job in the distribution department at Universal Studios, and continued to work on the side as the Marx Brothers’ de facto financial adviser.

Chico greets Gummo as he gets off the plane to re-join the family fold, albeit in an unofficial capacity, July 1933

And the next film? Pre-production was not going well.

It was the height of the Great Depression, and Paramount Pictures was on the verge of bankruptcy. They asked the Marx Brothers, in the spirit of generosity, to take a voluntary pay cut for their next film. The Brothers’ laughter could probably be heard all the way to Malibu. The idea was dismissed out of hand, seeing as how the team’s box office success was one of the reasons Paramount wasn’t bankrupt already.

In the meantime, the Brothers were being sued by the William Morris Agency for money owed them for Monkey Business. The Brothers responded by stating that no money was owed because they had personally made the Paramount deal for themselves without any involvement whatsoever from the agency. (According to Joe Adamson, the Brothers’ official court-filed response to the agency’s lawsuit was stricken from the legal record for being “frivolous.” One wonders what choice words were actually in the document.) The Brothers then proceeded to counter-sue the William Morris Agency because they believed the agency was over-paid for The Cocoanuts and Animal Crackers. As long as they were feeling litigious and had a legal team at the ready, they went ahead and sued Paramount for the shady accounting practice of writing off the losses of some of the studio’s box-office failures against the successful Marx movies (reducing the team’s percentage-based payouts), and moving their contract from holding company to holding company. In their defense, Paramount was doing all this out of desperation to avoid going under, but it was still unethical and the Brothers were not too sympathetic to the studio’s plight.

Under this mood of discord and hostility, Kalmar & Ruby labored on the next screenplay, with fading hopes that it would actually be produced. Their first attempt, titled Cracked Ice, was entirely and unceremoniously deposited in the incinerator. Their next attempt, Grasshoppers (or Firecrackers — the title seemed to change daily) wasn’t much of an improvement. The Marx Brothers at this point decided to wash their hands of Paramount, and go it alone. They announced their first film as independent artists would be an adaptation of the Kaufman & Ryskind play Of Thee I Sing, a scathing political satire of the American presidency with songs by Gerorge Gershwin. A great idea, actually, but it never came to pass.

Miraculously, the Paramount issue was resolved relatively quickly (amazing what a $100,000 settlement can do), and the Brothers agreed to return to the lot and fulfill their three-picture contract. Their dalliance with the possibility of doing a film version of Of Thee I Sing put the notion of political satire in the air, and insipred Kalmar & Ruby, who were at this point aided by Arthur Sheekman and Nat Perrin. The resulting collaboration, now titled Duck Soup, told the story of two rival countries on the brink of war and became possibly the Marx Brothers’ greatest cinematic moment, despite (or because of) its rocky and ill-starred origins.

Leo McCarey

Norman McLeod would have been the natural choice to direct (in fact, the Marxes wanted him to break his Paramount contract to direct Of Thee I Sing), but Duck Soup’s delays caused scheduling conflicts, and he had to bow out. His replacement was considered quite the “get” — a veteran who had already built a reputation as one of the most gifted comedy directors in the business. Leo McCarey got his start at the Hal Roach studios writing for the Our Gang series, then moved on to a collaboration with the underrated Charley Chase, and had the genius idea of teaming up Stan Laurel with Oliver Hardy and guiding them through their formative years as a duo. He was considered the absolute master of silent comedy two-reelers, and made a smooth transition into feature-length sound films. For the first time, the Marx Brothers would be working with a director who had a personal style and vision as unique as their own. Would it work?

Duck Soup represents a reappraisal of the Marx Brothers formula. Margaret Dumont was brought back as the stodgy straight woman, and Thelma Todd was not involved. It’s tempting to think she might have been invited back someday, but she died a couple of years later from carbon monoxide poisoning under circumstances that raised more than a few questions. A grand jury ruled her death a suicide, but no one who knew her believed that she was in any way suicidal, and that hasty verdict is generally disregarded by most film historians these days. Which leaves “tragic freak accident” or “foul play” as the only viable options. (The Holy Bee believes that Hal Roach’s recollection may come closest to the truth, but her death is unlikely to be solved this far down the timeline.)

There would be no romantic sub-plot with an attractive young couple, even though Zeppo had adequately filled that role in the last two movies. Zeppo was demoted to being Groucho’s secretary again.

The welcome return of Margaret Dumont

And finally, in a long-threatened move, there would be no piano solo or harp solo. There were attempts to excise them from Monkey Business and Horse Feathers as well, for being time-consuming and uncinematic. Harpo would always convince the writers to at least slip the harp solo back in, prompting Chico to yell at Mank or whoever was responsible “What’s all this about Harpo playing the harp, huh? If that sonofabitch touches that harp just once, I’m gonna do my piano number!” This time, McCarey stood firm. The solos were out.

Shooting finally started on Duck Soup in early July of 1933.

Filming Duck Soup — McCarey borrows Harpo’s top hat as a wigless Chico looks on

The film’s reputation has grown exponentially as the decades have passed. Produced during a time when Hitler was on the rise in Germany, Mussolini had been dominating Italy, and the global situation was growing precarious, Duck Soup has been hailed an ahead-of-its-time skewering of fascism, a mockery of the braindead pomposity of politcal regimes, and an expose of the ultimate futility of war. Is this what the Marxes and their writers intended?

Probably not. Duck Soup writer Harry Ruby, likely speaking on behalf of the Marx Brothers and the whole production team, has repeatedly stated that the intent was only to make an entertaining comedy. There was no deeper agenda.

But it can’t be argued how the film ultimately came off. Sometimes you make a profound anti-fascist politcal satire by accident.

*It’s a poorly-kept secret that a few big-name stand-ups still employ outside writers, and try to keep it hushed up. I’m looking at you, Ron White and George Lopez.

2 Comments

Filed under Film & TV, History

2 responses to “Stars of Bedlam: The Rise & Fall of the Marx Brothers (Part 7)

  1. Chris

    Absolutely outstanding website. Am thoroughly enjoying your Marx Brothers history. Learning a lot and the pictures and your own sense of humor are priceless. Keep it up!

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