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

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

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

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

“Rufus T. Firefly” — President of Freedonia

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

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

Master spies Chico and Harpo confer with Ambassador Trentino

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

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

Gummo, around the time he became an agent

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

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

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

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

The biggest studio in Hollywood in the 1930s was Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. The mighty MGM could buy and sell low-rent outfits like Universal Pictures several times over. Movies were produced by MGM assembly-line style. Ideas were thought up (or adapted) by the scenarist department and, if approved, were assigned a “production supervisor,” and the nuts-and-bolts screenwriting began. If a script was developing to the supervisor’s satisfaction, the project went into pre-production with the design and costume department, was given a shooting schedule and a director chosen by the supervisor, and once shooting was over, was passed on to the editing and scoring departments. 

There could be dozens of films at various points in the pipeline at any given time — MGM averaged a film release per week — and everything was totally compartmentalized. MGM films were not a collaboration. Screenwriters often discovered they were unknowingly working on the same film as the screenwriter down the hall, and the supervisor would choose which one he thought worked best, or would mix and match. Directors were considered interchangeable technicians, not “artists” or “filmmakers,” and were often assigned to projects depending on what their general availability was. Once they finished one picture, it was passed along the line and they were handed a shooting script and a schedule for the following one, sometimes the very next day.

Louis B. Mayer

The MGM system produced movies that were well-crafted, crowd-pleasing, and undeniably profitable, but they would never be noted for their blazing originality. Romance, happy endings, and big stars were the MGM formula. “More stars than there are in the heavens” was the studio slogan in the 1930s. The formula was based around the old-fashioned, conservative tastes (and eye for the bottom line) of the head of studio operations Louis B. Mayer, but the day-to-day running of the assembly line was done by head of production Irving Thalberg.

Mayer may have had the vision, but it was Thalberg who carried it out. 

Thalberg was known as Hollywood’s “Boy Wonder.” He was driven to achieve as much as possible as soon as possible because he had been diagnosed with a serious heart defect as a child, and believed he would not live to see old age. He became the studio manager for Universal Pictures at the age of 20, and was head of production at MGM by 26. He prided himself on making films catered to the desires of the audiences paying to see them. Although this philosophy may have led to some creative blind spots, he innovated such things as sneak previews, audience polling, and re-shoots if certain scenes weren’t working for a crowd. He did double duty as both head of overall production and working as production supervisor on many individual films. In the latter capacity, he was very hands-on — personally casting, re-writing, and editing films under his supervision. If MGM films sometimes lacked imagination, it can’t be argued Thalberg insisted on the highest quality. Big stars were the obvious start, and MGM crews were well-trained. Their camera, lighting, and sound equipment were always the best money could buy, creating a sumptuous look that no other studio could replicate. MGM was the only studio to turn a consistent profit through the Great Depression, and it was largely due to Thalberg’s techniques. 

Although Chico would bet on anything, when in a relaxed mood, his favorite game was bridge. Bridge is an incredibly complex card game requiring two sets of partners, and consists of a number of deals progressing through four phases, with…oh, forget it. Even the first paragraph of its Wikipedia entry describing the basics of the game made my eyes glaze over by the third sentence. But for those who have mastered the intricacies of the game, it can be absolutely engrossing. There was a healthy sub-culture of bridge players in the Hollywood community in those days (Buster Keaton was considered one of the best), and at some point in the summer of 1934, Chico Marx and Irving Thalberg sat down with their partners for a rubber or two. Seizing the opportunity, Chico none-too-subtly suggested that Marx Brothers wouldn’t be averse to working for MGM. The initially cautious Thalberg agreed to at least take a lunch meeting with the three of them. 

At some point between the game and the meeting, Thalberg decided he would tackle the challenge of the Marx Brothers — perhaps because he had frequently been needled by his friend Hal Roach for having no “comedy sense.” Indeed, all of the films Thalberg had personally worked on had been dramas. The fiercely ambitious streak that drove Thalberg would delight in seeing Roach proved wrong.

Over lunch at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel, Thalberg said he was interested in taking on the Marx Brothers on behalf of MGM, then began picking apart the Brothers’ previous films with his usual analytical skill, at least in terms of pleasing an audience. He said the Marx Brothers’ humor appealed mostly to men, cutting their potential audience in half. He said the romance elements that would appeal to women were weak, or non-existent. He said their characters were “unsympathetic.” He said the movies lacked a legitimate story, that they weren’t about anything. In fact, he said they were actually too funny to truly be quality. (Groucho almost walked out in disgust at this point.) Audiences would still be laughing at the previous line when the next line would be delivered — a line which also may contain a good joke — that no one would hear. 

The Beverly Wilshire Hotel, where Irving Thalberg saved the careers of the Marx Brothers over lunch

Thalberg said that if the Brothers would agree to an MGM deal, he would help them craft a movie with a legitimate story, a compelling romance, great music, and all the usual MGM polish. Their characters would be softened around the edges a little. It would look good, sound good, and, as he put it, “would have half the laughs but make twice the money.” In hindsight, this all sounds terrible to the modern-day Marx fan. For us, the crazy ramshackle anarchy of the Paramount films was what made them who they were. The MGM deal really was the beginning of the end. But at the time, it sounded fine to the Brothers themselves. They certainly wanted their pictures to be successful, and had a vested interest in their own financial futures. Plus, they liked and trusted Thalberg. He was one of the most successful people in the business, and to have him on their side seemed like a great idea. It looked like Groucho’s greasepaint mustache would stick around awhile longer.

Irving G. Thalberg

Over the objections of Louis B. Mayer, who was as humorless as any human being that had ever drawn breath, MGM hired the Marx Brothers. (Mayer could object all he wanted, but had no real authority to stop Thalberg. Despite being technincally Thalberg’s “boss” and having his surname as part of the studio name, he was not “owner” or “president” of MGM at all — he was the studio manager, a salaried employee of Loew’s Inc., the company that actually owned MGM.) They would be assigned to Thalberg’s personal production unit. (Senior producers at MGM had their own units, a smaller version of the assembly line described above.) He even threw them an unprecedented fifteen percent of the gross profits for each picture, which doubtlessly appealed to Groucho, who always assumed the next financial disaster was just around the corner. The three-picture deal was signed on September 19, 1934. Production of their next film got underway almost instantly, with MGM staff writer James K. McGuinness assigned to come up with a story. He started with a title — A Night at the Opera — and worked from there. 

Thalberg immediately proved his worth. He made sure the Brothers adhered to the agreed-upon formula, but also listened to their input and even took some of their suggestions. They wanted Kalmar & Ruby back on board. Thalberg agreed, but also kept James McGuinness on the project, needing to have an MGM company man around to look after the plot and make sure things were done by the book. The first story draft was submitted as early as October 9, but the script itself was hard going, with draft after draft being cranked out, none of which bear much resemblance to the final product, except for a general association with opera and a part written early on for Margaret Dumont. 

True to his nature, in November Thalberg hired two more writers, George Seaton and Robert Pirosh, to work on an entirely separate version of the script without the knowledge of the other writing team. The subterfuge was shattered when they discovered they could hear each other through their shared office wall. The two teams bashed together what they had, and came up with a very thin, rough version of the plot of the film we know today. There was still much work to be done.

Thalberg at work. He was notorious for keeping people waiting for hours outside his office. When George S. Kaufman was asked what he thought of Los Angeles, he replied “On a clear day you can see Thalberg.”

Between the two of them, Thalberg and Groucho came up with the brilliant idea of taking scenes from the evolving screenplay out to live audiences as a kind of vaudeville-revival roadshow. This would replicate their old stage experience of seeing what worked and what didn’t, timing the solid “keeper” material to the length of laughs so no line would get stepped on, and altering words or lines to see if a slight change would get a bigger response. 

Before the show was considered road-worthy, the material needed another rewrite, this time from a fresh perspective. Around January of 1935, the authors of The Cocoanuts and Animal Crackers, George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind, were brought onto the project. The ever-reluctant Kaufman was lured with a $100,000 offer, but was still in no mood to take Thalberg’s order to do the job quickly. “Do you want it Wednesday, or do you want it good?” Kaufman snapped at him. Kaufman & Ryskind sorted through everything that had come before, tossed almost all of it, and pretty much wrote the script from scratch.

Al Boasberg (“the best-paid gag writer in Hollywood, a walking marvel of verbal firecrackers and yuk-getting wows,” according to writer Charles Samuels) was hired to do a final polish, and casting of the supporting parts began. Margaret Dumont had been part of the project almost since its conception. The romantic couple would be played by Allan Jones and Kitty Carlisle, chosen more for their voices (they would have to sing opera, after all) than their acting. Walter Woolf King would be the villain of the story, and Sig Ruman would be the secondary antagonist.

Scenes from A Night at the Opera opened in Salt Lake City on April 13, 1935. They performed four (sometimes five) fifty-minute shows per day on a “mini-tour” through Salt Lake City, Portland, and Seattle. Key comedy sequences were performed live, with the rest of the story told through a few projected slides. Morrie Ryskind and Al Boasberg sat with their notebooks and stopwatches, as far away as possible from each other while still being able to see the stage (they hated each other with a passion). The script was trimmed down, sequences were shifted, ad-libbed lines that got a big laugh were added, and long-time favorite lines were discarded because they flopped. Three more shows were performed in Santa Barbara for the MGM executives on May 11, and the material was finally deemed filmable.

Shooting began on A Night at the Opera on June 14, 1935. What should have been a pleasant experience due to a winner of a script and a lengthy onstage warm-up was brought down a little by Thalberg’s choice of director, Sam Wood. Wood had a good reputation as an efficient craftsman, but his colorless personality, by-the-numbers style, and lack of any real spark of independent creativity (not to mention his far-right, arch-conservative political opinions, which he wasn’t shy about sharing) set him on the path to a major personality clash with the Marx Brothers. Although not completely devoid of a sense of humor (he was no Mayer), he was one of those people who popped up from time to time in the Brothers’ professional lives who just didn’t find them funny. It was not a match made in heaven.

Sam Wood

Wood’s working method was to grind through every take of every scene twenty times, no matter what, no exceptions. His sole direction was “OK, gang, let’s get in there and sell ‘em a load of clams.” When pressed for anything else, he would say “I don’t know, I don’t know, just do it again.” The Brothers felt this killed any spontaneity in their performances, and it wasn’t as if the material hadn’t already been thoroughly tested. Joe Adamson: “It takes a moderate amount of energy to go through anything twenty times in a row, but when it’s exuberant Marx Brothers mania, and when each time you’re giving your all, knowing that this particular shot could just be the one, and sent to theaters all over the country as sole representative of all the work you’ve been going through, it begins to tax the very limits of your stamina. By the end of Take Four, there was nothing left that could be called funny.”

Unfortunately for the Brothers, this exhaustive overshooting was fully supported by Thalberg, so they did the only thing they could do: pepper Wood with complaints and insults, and a fusillade of humiliating practical jokes. “They made his life miserable,” confirmed Walter Woolf King. Wood tried to resign from the film several times, but was coaxed back by Thalberg, who knew his style was what was needed to keep the straight romance scenes just as prominent as the comedy, doggedly following the Thalberg Formula.

Groucho, Al Boasberg, Kitty Carlisle, and Sam Wood on the set at MGM

A Night at the Opera opens in Milan, Italy. Mrs. Claypool (Dumont), a social climber who wants to “get into society,” has hired Groucho (“Otis B. Driftwood”) as her manager to advise her in these endeavors. He has arranged to introduce her to Carl Gottlieb (Ruman), head of the New York Opera Company, and advises her to invest $200,000 to become a “patron of the arts” and secure her place among the elite. (As Allen Eyles points out in The Complete Films of the Marx Brothers, the fact that Groucho is actually doing something to earn his fee is an early indicator of Thalberg’s “softening” of their characters.) 

Groucho, Gottlieb, and Mrs. Claypool at the opera

Gottlieb wants to hire “the greatest tenor since Caruso,” Rodolfo Lassparri (King), to come and sing in New York. Groucho heads off to the La Scala Opera House, where the final performance of the season (Pagliacci) has just concluded, to make the deal. He mistakenly hires a low-ranking chorister, Ricardo Baroni (Jones), after an encounter with Baroni’s friend and “manager” Chico (“Fiorello”). Baroni is in love with soprano Rosa Castaldi. She is also the object of Lassparri’s affection, who turns out to be an obnoxious brute who beats up on his dresser Harpo (“Tomasso”). Luckily, Rosa suspects this and won’t give him the time of day. Groucho’s mistake is discovered, Lassparri is hired along with Rosa, and Baroni, Chico, and Harpo are left behind as the rest of the company sail for New York…or are they? No, they stow away on the ocean liner (shades of Monkey Business). High jinks and musical interludes ensue, including the return of the piano and harp solos. 

The famous stateroom scene

After getting in and out of trouble in New York (mostly in), Groucho is fired as Claypool’s manager, and teams up with Chico and Harpo to reunite Baroni with Rosa, and get him on stage to prove his talent in front of an audience. They do this by destroying a production of Il Trovatore (to Gottlieb’s apoplectic fury), abducting Lassparri and replacing him with Baroni. The villain is publicly humiliated, the hero gets the girl (and Lassparri’s job), all thanks to the helpful Marx Brothers. Happy endings all around. 

Shooting (and frequent re-shooting) continued on into September. Boasberg was kept on set to provide on-the-spot re-writes if needed. Once the “final” cut was assembled, it previewed poorly — several times. The film dragged. It seems the precisely-timed gaps to accommodate laughter were not so precisely-timed, and the film had lots of dead air. Still confident of success, Thalberg rolled up his sleeves and supervised the re-editing. He tightened the film up considerably, shortening pauses, taking out some lines, maybe a brief extraneous shot or two. Sometimes it came down to two seconds here, three seconds there — it’s amazing what microscopic trims like that can do for a movie’s pace when applied throughout the running time.

A Night at the Opera hit theaters on November 15, 1935. The Marx Brothers’ and Thalberg’s trust and belief in each other proved justified. The film was a massive hit. For all the futzing with the script over the course of nearly a year, Kaufman & Ryskind ended up with sole screenplay credit. Al Boasberg was briefly considered for an “additional dialogue” credit, but the idea was dropped. For all the carping about Sam Wood, he did deliver what Thalberg asked of him, on time and on budget, and damned if the film didn’t look good, meeting MGM’s exacting visual standards.

As expected, Thalberg’s influence is all over A Night at the Opera — but the Marx Brothers’ comedy material and performances are powerful enough to push through the gauzy veneer of class and romance. The obvious problem is we would like to see more of the comedy, but now it’s always at the service of the story. And it’s by no means a bad story (this time) — in fact, it’s kind of charming, and it does keep our interest in spite of ourselves, but it also means we get to see less of what we came for. The characters are indeed softened. Groucho is still full of wisecracks (some of them the best he ever delivered), but now also full of concern for the happiness of Rosa. Chico is still a schemer, but is now amiable and sentimental, and his schemes are at the service of his friend. More unforgivably, Harpo is turned into a puppy-eyed bullying victim, intended to shamelessly tug the audience’s heartstrings, and provide “motivation” for his acting out. The seemingly insane, semi-dangerous Professor from Animal Crackers would barely recognize himself in his later infantilized incarnation. Even the Brothers’ take-down of the Il Trovatore performance — welcome as it is — fulfills a story point, and is motivated by a desire to help the young couple, rather than the desire to cause chaos for its own sake.

These are all modern-day complaints. Audiences of 1935 ate it up and asked for seconds.

Kitty Carlisle

I have read that Allan Jones and Kitty Carlisle are great singers, but I’m no judge of those kinds of vocal performances. Fittingly, there’s lots of opera in the film, and even the centerpiece romantic duet “Alone” is performed in an operatic style that causes me to reach for the fast-forward button every time. My tolerance for opera doesn’t extend much past the snippets heard in the old Bugs Bunny cartoon “Long-Haired Hare.” (Even the much-lauded “What’s Opera, Doc?” gets kind of tedious for me after a few minutes.) From an acting perspective, Carlisle doesn’t leave much of an impression. She could give a good cry, and she filled the costume. That’s about it. (After her work on this movie, she quit film acting to focus on theater and opera, later popping up as a regular panelist on the long-running TV game show To Tell the Truth. Not long before she died in 2007, she remarked that not a day went by without someone asking her about the Marx Brothers.)

Allan Jones

The real surprise here is Allan Jones, doing an excellent job in only his second film appearance. His sleepy-eyed, sideways grin projects a laidback affability much different than the stiff, mannered performances of the Brothers’ early leading men, who existed almost entirely in their own separate subplots. Here, Jones mixes it up with the team and plays right along with them. He doesn’t quite keep up, but he gives it his best effort. Zeppo probably would have worked in the role, but Zeppo couldn’t sing like Jones.

The Marx Brothers proved to the world that they had one more classic film in them (personally I place it in their top four) — but it would be the last one.

Before the cash registers had stopped ringing for A Night at the Opera, Thalberg had plunged into work on the sequel. The first order of business was to put together the writing staff. The teams of Kalmar & Ruby and Kaufman & Ryskind were not brought back. Thalberg initially went with George Oppenheimer (from the Marx radio show Flywheel, Shyster, and Flywheel.) As usual, Thalberg wanted a loyal, rule-following MGM staffer on board, and Carey Wilson filled that role. George Seaton and Robert Pirosh (of the early Opera drafts) were added. If you want, you can read summaries and excerpts from these very early outlines and drafts in several Marx Brothers books, but I’ll spare you here. Rest assured, all these early ideas were irredeemably dreadful. It seems on Marx Brothers movies, enormous heaps of crap had to be written and discarded before the good stuff started flowing. But the good stuff would never flow again like it did on Opera and before, and it was taking longer and longer just to get to the “acceptable” level. Other writers were added, including Al Boasberg and Marx Brothers veteran Will Johnstone (of Monkey Business and Horse Feathers, “roped in like a prize steer” as Simon Louvish put it).  

Groucho filled all this time collaborating with a young protege, Norman Krasna, on a screenplay for a romantic comedy called Grand Passions. (It was eventually produced in 1937 by Warner Brothers with the title The King and the Chorus Girl, and sank like a stone. It was Groucho’s first and last foray into screenwriting.)

Chico and Harpo flank Al Boasberg

By February of 1936, the new film was set in a sanitarium and titled Peace & Quiet. It had been patched together from at least four separate screenplays and over a dozen outlines and treatments. It still wasn’t considered up to snuff. At this point, the studio turned in desperation to George S. Kaufman for some uncredited (but presumably well-compensated) assistance. Kaufman would not countenance another return to Hollywood. Instead, he dashed off some scene ideas, mailed them west, and cashed the check.

Kaufman’s specific contributions are unknown, but some notes made by Seaton and Pirosh (preserved in the MGM archives) indicate he was responsible for the horse-racing subplot. Although this wouldn’t exactly save the picture, it prompted a title change to A Day at the Races, making it a neat companion piece to A Night at the Opera. Kaufman’s ideas were patched in, and the final script, while no masterpiece, was considered complete enough to begin costume and set design, and casting. To the Brothers’ dismay, Sam Wood would return to direct, but they had to grudgingly admit they understood why. Their relationship thawed somewhat in the wake of Opera‘s success.

Wood rehearsing with Groucho, Harpo, and Chico

In keeping with the formula that worked for Opera, a tour was scheduled to test out the material. Maybe the show would spring to life in front of an audience. 

It did, kind of. Scenes from A Day at the Races played in five cities from July 13 through August 18, 1936. The Brothers discovered they were getting some solid laughs. Their usual line-tweakings and adjustments seemed to be working, and the laughs got bigger. They had it down to almost a literal science. Hector Acre: “One hundred gags were tested in each town and members of the audience filled out 30,000 ballot cards taken along by the troupe. By trial and error, 175 laughs were selected, with the seventy-five that got the best reaction scheduled to be used in the picture.”  During the final script conference back at the studio, Groucho recited a punchline about his watch — “I’d rather have it rusty than gone” — then consulted with Boasberg, who checked his notes and told him the word “missing,” statistically, got more laughs than “gone.” “Missing” went into the final shooting script. These types of adjustments were being made right up until they reported to the MGM lot for the first day of shooting, full of confidence that a repeat of Opera‘s tried-and-true formula would result in another hit.

Chico signing in for the day’s work at the stricty-regimented MGM

Shooting began on September 3, 1936, but had proceeded for less than two weeks when Sam Wood came on the set on the morning of September 15, tears in his eyes, and announced that Irving Thalberg had died.

Production shut down.

1 Comment

Filed under Film & TV, History

One response to “Stars of Bedlam: The Rise & Fall of the Marx Brothers (Part 8)

  1. Ed Rascati

    I’m loving these. Thanks so much!

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