Category Archives: Film & TV

Act Naturally: The Films of the Solo Beatles (Part 2)

Terry Southern

In post-WWII France, an unlikely friendship developed between two American students studying at the Sorbonne on the G.I. Bill — one a sad-eyed Texan with a taste for the darkly absurd, the other a voluble New York dilettante who fancied himself a poet. The Sorbonne had no set schedule of classes, just the requirement to defend your thesis, and attendance-optional lectures from the likes of Sartre, Camus, and Cocteau. That left the two young men plenty of free time to linger in Parisian coffee shops, cinemas, and jazz clubs.

Terry Southern and Mason Hoffenberg were the original platonic ideal of the insufferably pretentious hipster — shamelessly appropriating jazz lingo (“dig this, man”), and passing sneering judgment on the bourgeois and “square” while actually doing or producing very little themselves. Southern finally broke free of this mold and became a writer of some repute (and became self-aware enough to satirize his own hipsterism in several of his stories). Hoffenberg, however, went on to do next to nothing, except a shitload of heroin. He managed to latch on the entourages of various rock stars in the ‘60s and ‘70s as a kind of amusing junkie mascot. I challenge you to find anyone with a Wikipedia entry who has done less to earn it. 

Mason Hoffenberg

By the mid-1950s, Southern was scratching out a living in Geneva, Switzerland as a writer of increasingly surreal short stories, while Hoffenberg remained in Paris, writing erotic fiction under a pseudonym for the notorious Olympia Press. Some of Southern’s writing also skirted the boundaries of what was then considered acceptable, such as his unpublished (and pretty much unpublishable) story about a beautiful, naive college student named Candy Christian who, according to Southern, is “compassion incarnate…so filled with universal love that she gave herself fully and joyfully…to a demented hunchback.” Southern circulated the grotesque sex tale among his associates. He fleshed it out a bit at Hoffenberg’s suggestion, and it eventually captured the attention of Maurice Girodias, head of Olympia Press, who thought it might be a suitable product for what was then still called the “dirty book” market. It became a collaboration between Southern and Hoffenberg, who would exchange character details and plot points via mail. Even those generously disposed towards Hoffenberg have to admit that the original correspondence (which has been preserved) shows that he contributed very little that made its way into the finished work, and that it was mostly Southern’s prose that ended up being published by Olympia Press. (In the final version, it seems Hoffenberg contributed one character arc and the novel’s ludicrous last few pages — a “climax” not used in the film version.)

Candy, original Olympia Press edition

Candy was published in 1958 under the name “Maxwell Kenton,” and was promptly banned in both the U.S. and France. The flimsy plot is a series of encounters between the titular (heh heh) Candy, who is encouraged by her respected philosophy professor go out and “give her love” freely, and a collection of degenerate authority figures bent on exploiting her attempts to do just that, including (but not limited to) that same professor (of course), her own uncle (who happens to be her father’s identical twin for an extra layer of perversity), and several doctors and therapists, including masturbation proponent Dr. Krankeit (Hoffenberg’s contribution.) The self-contained hunchback story that started the whole thing is now Chapter 10, and it’s the stand-out sequence of a tiresomely repetitive series of seductions/rapes, in both the extremity of its twistedness, and in that the psychotic hunchback does not desire Candy physically (at first), but merely wants to rob her. 

Putnam hardcover, 1964

Candy was finally published legitimately in the U.S. under Southern’s and Hoffenberg’s real names by Putnam in 1964. Southern had long since moved on with his life and career by then, and by his own admission, Candy was a one-joke premise that went on too long. Having read the thing myself (it’s a $3.99 Kindle if you look for it under the Kenton name), I couldn’t agree more. Candy is an incredibly tedious read. (As for it being a send-up of Volatire’s Candide? Probably hogwash. It seems someone decided on that interpretation after the fact, and Southern and Hoffenberg simply went along with it to give their project a whiff of intellectualism. “Yes, of course, it’s a send-up of Candide.”)

Then someone decided to turn it into a movie.

Maverick United Artists director/producer Frank Perry (David and Lisa) thought the book’s notoriety and popularity (it somehow reached number one on the bestseller list in America without anyone admitting to having bought a copy) gave it great potential as a film, even as it was making its way through lawsuit hell over various copyright and intellectual property issues between the authors, Olympia, and Putnam. (You can read about all that legal stuff in excruciating detail in Nile Southern’s The Candy Men.) How would the blatantly pornographic novel be translated into something that was showable on a pre-ratings, mid-’60s cinema screen? Well, that was a problem for the screenwriter.

Perry thought the logical solution was to hire Terry Southern himself (by then hot off co-scripting Dr. Strangelove) to write the screenplay, and he got through three drafts fueled by Scotch and amphetamines before the U.A. deal fell through. The copyright nightmare was unresolved, and Southern’s script was still far too outrageous.

Christian Marquand

Enter Christian Marquand. A French actor (And God Created Woman, The Flight of the Phoenix) and close friend of Marlon Brando (Brando named his ill-fated son after him), Marquand came sniffing around the property as a vehicle for him to fulfill his directorial ambitions. As soon as the legal situation was resolved in early 1967, Marquand pounced. His celebrity contacts would attract the necessary financial backing. Brando would certainly be in it, and Marquand said he had both Richard Burton and Peter Sellers on board. On that basis, a Libyan-born financier and studio owner named Robert Haggiag agreed to produce.

The Candy movie got the green light. Southern’s too-explicit script was dumped in favor of a tamer version by Buck Henry. Henry, co-creator of TV’s spy spoof Get Smart, was, like Southern, on a pretty hot screenwriting streak, having just finished writing The Graduate. Henry used the basic premise of the book and some of the characters, then tossed the rest with Marquand’s blessing. “We’re going to throw the book away, and dig in,” said Marquand proudly, eager to put his own auteur stamp on the material.

While Candy was in pre-production, the Beatles released Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, which featured none other than Terry Southern among the crowd on its iconic cover.

Peter Sellers dropped out of the project in favor of an instantly-dated hippie flick, I Love You, Alice B. Toklas (if he had ever actually agreed to be in Candy to begin with), but Richard Burton dutifully made an appearance, and Brando’s presence was a given. A gaggle of other celebrities who thought it might be fun to goof around in an adaptation of one of the decade’s most notorious books eagerly signed on to play the story’s ensemble of grotesques. Everyone converged on the sound stages of Haggiag’s Dear Studios in Rome in December of 1967 for what was sure to be a wild time.

Joining them was Ringo Starr.

Ringo as Emmanuel

Ringo had fulfilled his Beatle duties for the year. Sgt. Pepper had been a triumph that summer. Their plotless, psychedelic 50-minute TV movie Magical Mystery Tour was in the can after a September/October shoot, ready for a poorly-received Boxing Day premiere. Their new single, “Hello Goodbye,” had been released on November 24 (it shot to #1 and stayed there for seven weeks), and the Magical Mystery Tour soundtrack would hit British shops on December 8. Ringo’s last official band work before jetting off to Rome was to shoot a promo film for “Hello Goodbye,” featuring the Beatles performing the song in their Sgt. Pepper uniforms, on November 10, and taping their annual Christmas message for their fan club on November 28.


Released: December 17, 1968 (U.S.)

Director: Christian Marquand

Producer: Robert Haggiag

Screenwriter: Buck Henry, based on a novel by Terry Southern and Mason Hoffenberg

Studio: ABC Pictures, Corona Cinematografica, Dear Films, Selmur Productions, distributed by Cinerama Releasing Corp.

Cast: Ewa Aulin, John Astin, James Coburn, Marlon Brando, Richard Burton, Charles Aznavour, Elsa Martinelli, Walter Matthau, Ringo Starr, John Huston, Anita Pallenberg, Sugar Ray Robinson, Enrico Maria Salerno, Umberto Orsini, Joey Forman, Fabian Dean, Buck Henry

No one seems to remember how a role in Candy came to Ringo in the first place. It may have been through his friendship with Peter Sellers. Ringo recalled in an on-set interview that an unnamed “they” offered him the role of Emmanuel the gardener. “They didn’t offer me a choice [of parts]. They only asked me to play the lust-mad Mexican gardener.” Ringo seems to have taken the part to have a bit of a break from the Beatles (even with no touring, ‘67 was a busy year), it fit his schedule, and because someone simply asked him to be in it. Like almost everyone else on the planet, he had read the book. “I thought, ‘You’re joking. How can they make that into a film?’ ‘Randy’ isn’t the word for it. [Making the film] was the mind-blowing experience of my life. I was filming with Marlon Brando, Richard Burton…wow!” He then added he would really preferred to have played the hunchback.

Ewa Aulin and Ringo in Rome, December 1967

Ringo arrived in Rome on December 3, 1967. His chestnut hair was given a hasty black dye job, and it was decided that the mustache and soul patch he had been sporting all year suited the character quite well. He was in front of the cameras beginning December 7. He filmed for just over a week, wrapping his part on the 16th, and returning to London on the 17th. Some of his co-stars, like James Coburn, remember the Candy shoot — nostalgically — as an undisciplined, freewheeling parade of bad behavior very suited to the era and the material. Although he already had a reputation as something of a party animal, no one recalls Ringo participating in the bacchanalia of sex and drugs that permeated the shoot. He spent most of his after-hours time hanging out with Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor on their yacht. Long after Ringo had finished his part, the production moved to New York and California for location shooting, and finally wrapped in April of 1968.

Ewa Aulin

Amid all the celebrities on display, who would be the film’s anchor? Who would play Candy? Haggiag and Marquand chose Ewa Aulin of Sweden. A petite, wide-eyed, pouty-lipped blonde, Aulin certainly had the “sex kitten” look, but her grasp of English was tenuous at best. Southern was disappointed. He felt Candy should be an all-American apple pie Midwesterner. But he knew the film adaptation was beyond his control, and Marquand wanted Candy to have a more “universal” quality. Aulin was Miss Teen Sweden of 1965, and Miss Teen International of 1966. Naturally, she attracted the attention of a bevy of slightly shady European film producers, and had appeared in a couple of low-budget Italian films which put her on Haggiag’s radar. 

According to some sources, Aulin had the same effect on her co-stars as Candy had on the characters they played. She was hit on constantly, and one actor’s groping “attention” — let’s just call him “Harlon Frando” — shocked even the other cast members, who were not exactly models of restraint. (Glad to report that Ringo by all accounts was a perfect gentleman, and Aulin spoke of him fondly later.)

Buck Henry

The actors all seem as if they had just glanced at the script for the first time right before the cameras rolled (this may indeed have literally been the case in a few instances). Not that it was much of a script anyway. Buck Henry’s considerable gifts have deserted him here. (“I wish I had written a better script,” Henry frankly admits in one of his last interviews before his death in 2020.) The dialogue is clunky and not particularly funny. It is supposed to be a comedy, but it mistakes eccentricity for humor. Admittedly, the eccentricity can be fun to watch in a few sequences, but there’s no earthly reason for the official cut of Candy to run just over two hours. 

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From the Archives, 2008 — The Holy Bee’s Top 5 Monster Movies

The Films of the Solo Beatles series will continue in March (hopefully). January turned out to be an unexpectedly busy month, so watching those films, taking notes, researching their production and other minutia, and then writing it all up in a breezy 5000+ words just wasn’t in the cards. 

The following article originally appeared in the Idle Times zine, Issue #1 (Fall 2008). Please note that some strident opinions have softened or changed entirely over the last decade-and-a-half, and there are some turns of phrase I would not have chosen at a later point in my writing “career.”

“There were giants in the earth in those days, and also afterward…” — Genesis 6:4

“Everybody said there was no honed iron hard enough to pierce him through, no time-proofed blade that could cut his brutal blood-caked claw…” — Beowulf, l.983-89

Human beings are by nature vulnerable. We have no thick hide, no tusks (unfortunately — wouldn’t that be cool?), nor any natural camouflage. We’re just six-foot tubes of delicious pink meat. All we have to protect ourselves is our comparatively turbo-charged brains — which is a double-edged sword. We have the mental ability to dominate the natural world, but also the ability to scare ourselves by imagining the most unnatural horrors.

When primitive humans huddled around the fire, they told tales of what lurked beyond the sheltering ring of light. Shaggy or scaly things, with sharp claws and dripping fangs. Waiting for a dim-witted or simply unlucky Cro-Magnon to wander just far enough into the darkness…

The best monster movies tap into this primal fear that’s been hard-wired into our psyches. So, what truly defines a “monster movie”? First of all, it doesn’t necessarily have to be a “horror” movie (although it helps), it just needs to make us humans feel very, very defenseless. Monsters should be an external threat. None of this “the-worst-monster-is-inside-us” psychological bullshit. So Hannibal Lecter, Joan Crawford, and their ilk are out. (Sorry, Mommie Dearest fans.) Monsters are also a very corporeal threat. Scary as they can be, ghosts are not monsters. Not even if they can wreak havoc in the physical world. No poltergeists, demons that make you do unspeakable things with a crucifix, or Freddy Krugers. The jury’s still out on whatever the hell Jason Voorhees and Michael Myers are. They are certainly physical, but their inability to be permanently killed suggests ghosts or “undead” as opposed to human. But it’s a moot point because 1) their movies are really shitty (except for the first Halloween), and 2) I am officially declaring the “Unkillable Slasher” film to be its own separate genre, and you can read all about it in the Things That Suck ‘zine. But not here.

So to sum up, a monster should be able to eat you, stomp on you, or at the very least, carry you off

#5 — The Undead


The performance by Boris Karloff as Frankenstein’s Monster was a double triumph. It combined a simple sensitivity with the ever-present threat of hulking brutality. The make-up designed by Jack Pierce is positively iconic. No modern audience can think of the Monster without picturing the lank black hair over a squared-off skull, the green-tinted skin, the neck bolts — all from the imagination of Pierce. (Why green make-up? It photographed as the perfect shade of corpse-like gray on black-and-white film. Gray make-up would look too white. Some color stills were released to the press, and the Monster has been imagined as green ever since.)

Bride of Frankenstein ranks slightly above the 1931 original in most people’s opinion because it incorporates a lush score (like many early talkies, the original had no music), its eerily beautiful set design, and visionary director James Whale’s imagery and highly theatrical humor. For those of you who dig subtext, watch for all the religious themes and iconography, and the homosexual undercurrents. Ernest Thesiger as Dr. Pretorious might as well be credited as the first openly gay leading character in film history. (No, he doesn’t come right out and say it — this was 1935, after all. But some of his cleverly insinuating dialogue and the entire physicality of his performance left no one in any doubt, even in 1935.)

When it comes right down to it, as dated as they sometimes seem, all monster movies owe a tip of the hat to the classic Universal Studios monsters of the 1930s and ‘40s. Human-sized, awash in pathos, these creatures did not ask to be what they are — but if you cross them they will fuck you up.

#4 — The Hubris of Man


Saturday night/Sunday morning. 3 AM. Can’t sleep. Sandwiched between infomercials and increasingly desperate Girls Gone Wild ads, one can usually find an old monster movie. Count yourself lucky if it’s Godzilla, King of the Monsters. (Count yourself cursed if it’s the 1998 travesty of a remake.) GKOM is the U.S. version of the 1954 Japanese original Gojira, about nuclear fallout that brings to life an enormous mutant dinosaur. The film was Americanized by toning down the bitter recriminations over Hiroshima, and adding footage of Raymond Burr as an American reporter (“Steve Martin ”) in Japan. He interacts with the Japanese cast through the use of body doubles and clever editing, and the process is surprisingly well done.

Despite the editor’s scissors’ careful elimination of too many references to a certain country using a certain weapon on a certain other country, make no mistake, Godzilla is clearly an atomic-powered monster. And he’s not the friendly nuclear dino of later sequels, defending the Home Islands against other mutant threats. No, in ‘56 he’s pissed. He rages, stomps, sinks ships, and burns thousands of innocents to a crisp with his radioactive halitosis. The lesson here is that there are Some Things In Which Man Is Not Meant To Meddle, and splitting the atom may just be one of them. Godzilla’s first appearance is quite late into the film, setting a pattern that all good monster movies of the future follow. Show little glimpses, show some damage and casualties, build up the tension before the big reveal. There’s no way to avoid the fact that the “big reveal” here reveals a guy in a rather cheap-looking rubber lizard suit, but if your powers of disbelief-suspension are strong enough, you’ll go along with it.

Collector’s Note: After decades of unavailability, the 1954 original can finally be obtained as a bonus disc included with the 2006 GKOM DVD. At the risk of angering purisits, it’s no better than the U.S. re-cut. It’s about 15 minutes longer, and most of that is emotional discussions about atomic energy. 

#3 — The Thing From “Out There”

ALIEN (1979)

“In space, no one can hear you scream,” ran one of the greatest taglines in cinema history. We’re talking primal fear, remember, and fear of the dark is one of our most basic. It’s why those cavemen huddled close to that fire. It’s why the majority of children sleep with the soft glow of a favorite cartoon character glimmering in a nearby outlet. It’s why me, a grown-ass man, will pop on my bedroom TV after a particularly vivid nightmare. Why do we fear the dark? BECAUSE WE CAN’T FUCKING SEE ANYTHING IN IT. It doesn’t get any more basic than that. Who knows what’s lurking where we can’t see. Escaped circus animals, psychotic dismemberment aficionados off their meds, and…monsters. There’s always that possibility. We know there’s “no such thing,” but that assuredness slips just a tad in the dark, doesn’t it? And what is outer space but airless, silent, eternal dark? Midnight that goes on to infinity. And our confident daytime knowledge that there’s no such thing as monsters isn’t worth a bronzed turd, because we don’t know what such things could be…out there

Maybe aliens are gentle, elf-like beings with glowing fingertips and hearts, and big, expressive anime eyes. Or maybe aliens are slavering, nine-foot insectoid beasts with a double set of jaws and a taste for human flesh, not to mention the ability to move at blinding speeds and lay their eggs in live human hosts by ramming an ovipositor down their throats, which “hatch” several days later in Technicolor glory right as the human host is sitting down for a nice meal after recovering from the earlier (very traumatic) ovipositor incident. 

Guess which one this movie’s about?

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Act Naturally: The Films of the Solo Beatles (Part 1)

Prologue: A Hard Day’s Night, Help!, and Ringo the Actor

When I was a super young Beatles fan in the early ‘80s (age 7-10 or so), there wasn’t much beyond the music itself and a couple of books out there to feed my fandom. So when PBS decided to show the 1982 documentary The Compleat Beatles a few years after it came out, I made sure I was rolling VHS tape on it. In subsequent years, I literally wore out the tape watching and re-watching it. It ended with a brief summary on the activities of each individual Beatle after the break-up. Here’s Ringo’s:

That always puzzled me. “An acting career in Hollywood?” I went to the movies a lot as a kid, and I’d never seen any movie starring Ringo Starr. This statement was also echoed in the handful of Beatles books I had collected. Everyone agreed without contradiction that Ringo became an actor in the 1970s.

As it turns out, this is a bit of an overstatement. Ringo’s acting career never amounted to much, and the film work he did was pretty well removed from anything that can be described as “Hollywood.” 

But thinking about all this recently did get me interested in exploring the work of the solo Beatles on film, one element of their careers that I never delved into all that much.

Collectively, the Beatles were movie stars by the middle of 1964.

There was once a time (the mid-20th century) when a popular singer could reach such a level of universal fame that they would be elevated past being a mere “singer,” to become an “entertainer.” They would be expected to not only sing and continue to sell records by the bushel, but also act in films, and appear on television (frequently poking good-natured fun at themselves in comedy sketches and the like). Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, and several others made the cross-over. It was all just homogenous “show business” at a certain point. By the early 1960s, even bands like the Beatles were expected — almost required — to follow the established path. Of course, it was bands like the Beatles and their contemporaries who put an end to this kind of thing by creating the world of modern rock and rebelling against old-school showbiz traditions. But in their early years, they really felt they had no choice but to play along. In October 1963 (when they had been famous in Britain for less than a year and hadn’t broken in the US at all), Beatles manager Brian Epstein signed them to a three-picture deal with United Artists.

It didn’t matter that none of the Beatles expressed an iota of interest in acting, because United Artists didn’t have an iota of interest in the Beatles as actors. They wanted the lucrative rights to the soundtrack album, which they hoped to cash in on before the Beatles fad died (as everyone was certain it would, any week now). Someone could have filmed the Beatles reading the phone book against a blank wall, and as long as some songs were interspersed in there, UA would be happy. Luckily, that’s not what happened.

What happened was they ended up making a really good movie. 

While contract negotiations were underway, United Artists producer Walter Shenson had a lunch with Richard Lester, who had just directed the Mouse That Roared sequel (The Mouse on the Moon) for Shenson and UA. When Shenson mentioned he would likely be handling an upcoming Beatles film, Lester eagerly asked if he could direct it. Shenson thought it was a wonderful idea.

Lester — described by singer/writer/eccentric George Melly as “an amiable space creature, very thin, with a great domed bald head, tiny childlike features and large kind eyes” — was born in Philadelphia, but had been working in television in the UK since the early 1950s, and had a couple of feature films under his belt by late 1963. He was 31 years old when he took on the Beatles’ first film, very youthful by today’s standards, but in the world of early ‘60s pop music, where both artists and fans were in their teens or not much past, he was an “adult.” A sophisticated lover of classical music who was a decent hand on the piano, no less. But unlike a lot of other “adults,” he did not necessarily look down on pop music, and the Beatles were on his radar pretty early. And when the Beatles heard Lester had been tapped to direct their movie, they approved wholeheartedly. They knew Lester had directed The Running Jumping & Standing Still Film, a surreal short featuring their comedy idols, Goon Show stars Spike Milligan and Peter Sellers. 

Richard Lester

Lester brought in Liverpool playwright Alun Owen to craft a script. Owen traveled with the band during their two-day trip to Ireland (November 7-8, 1963), and was able to distill their personalities and transcribe some of their witty remarks into his Oscar-nominated screenplay, which was an exaggerated “day in the life of the Beatles.” Aware that the group had no experience as professional actors, Owen made sure that no Beatle had more than one line at a time. Lester had a tight schedule (six weeks in March and early April 1964) and a microscopic budget, but he used the limitations to his advantage, presenting the band in a gritty, black-and-white, semi-documentary style.

When A Hard Day’s Night hit cinemas in the summer of ‘64, the established film critics found themselves astonished that they actually enjoyed a movie about a bunch of pop musicians. Their positive reviews carried almost a puzzled air. Could this be possible? Lester’s film was fast-paced, inventive, and a great example of deadpan British humor. All of the Beatles acquitted themselves quite well, but one member was always singled out by the critics for individual praise — Ringo Starr. Ringo had a lengthy solo sequence two-thirds of the way through the film. Feeling put-upon by his bandmates, he ditches rehearsals to go on a lonely ramble along the Thames. He projects an air of melancholy and vulnerability, and the viewers’ hearts go right out to him. (His secret to “acting” this scene? He had been partying all night the night before, never went to bed, and was sleepy and hungover as the cameras rolled early in the morning.)

Although all the Beatles were natural performers — they just exuded charisma — everyone decided that Ringo was the one who had the potential to be a true actor. So he became the central figure (not exactly “star”) of the Beatles’ next film, 1965’s Help! Lester was once again at the helm, and engineered a complete departure from the Hard Day’s Night style — this time he went with glorious Pop Art color, and a pretty silly “story” (originally concocted as a Peter Sellers vehicle) about a cursed ring on Ringo’s finger. It was essentially a live-action cartoon, and the critics weren’t quite as effusive as they were for A Hard Day’s Night. But the music was as good as ever, spoofing the globe-trotting James Bond series was fun, and once again Ringo was noted for the special quality he brought to the screen. The band even paid tribute to the budding Brando in their midst by recording a cover of Buck Owens’ “Act Naturally” with Ringo singing lead. They enjoyed a good working relationship with Lester, and considered him a friend.

There was one more film left on their United Artists contract, and if they followed the pattern of 1964 and 1965, then they would produce a film (and accompanying soundtrack album) for a summer 1966 release. 

It did not come to pass.

A Talent For Loving and Up Against It

In the 1500s, an Aztec curse is placed on a Spanish conquistador…he and all of his descendants until the end of time will be consumed by insatiable lust from the moment of their first carnal encounter. Flash forward three centuries…Mexico, 1871. A prosperous ranch owner (and victim of the curse) is trying to marry off his virginal daughter before the curse “ruins” her. A series of competitions between two young ranch hands will determine which one has enough physical stamina to meet her needs and keep her honorably faithful in the bonds of matrimony…

This is the plot of A Talent For Loving or, The Great Cowboy Race, a 1961 novel by Richard Condon (famous at the time as the author of The Manchurian Candidate). It was an interesting attempt to combine a post-modern Western tale with an irreverent sex farce. In an odd move, Brian Epstein secured the film rights, envisioning this as a potential vehicle for the Beatles.

At what point “Beatles” and “Old West comedy about nymphomania” blended together in Brian Epstein’s mind is unclear (or maybe it was someone else’s suggestion), but it seems that the Beatles were big western fans, and evidently they had been bitten by the acting bug. They wanted to play actual characters instead of “the Beatles.” A screenplay written by Condon and his wife Evelyn was completed by March 1965 (literally while Help! was shooting), and it was hoped they could film in September. “No reason why Liverpool lads shouldn’t be out there [in the West],” said Condon confidently, “complete with accents, lariats, and six-shooters.” Walter Shenson was brought into the picture that summer, confirming this was to be the Beatles’ third UA release. But the film went into re-write hell — it seems it was more difficult than anticipated to incorporate four Liverpudlians into a western set in Mexico. The September shooting window came and went, because no one was happy with the script. By December, the project was dead. Times were changing fast, the Beatles were growing artistically by leaps and bounds, and they had soured on the idea of “playing cowboys” in a comedy. They also had genuine concerns about recording an appropriate soundtrack (19th-century Mexican balladry was not their forte). If they had to do another movie, they wanted something modern and cutting-edge. Epstein and Shenson went back to script hunting, still hoping to get a Beatles film into theaters sometime in 1966.

Any time the Beatles’ possible participation in a western comes up in discussion on a website, it is universally accompanied by one or more of these cowboy-themed images from a September 1964 photo shoot at the end of their summer tour of the US

[A Talent For Loving was eventually made in 1969, with Shenson still producing. It starred Richard Widmark (playing a middle-aged Civil War vet), Cesar Romero (playing the ranch owner), and Topol (playing a Mexican generalissimo with as much subtlety as the Frito Bandito). Obviously, none of these parts were suitable for the Beatles. I can only speculate that the two cowboys in competition for the rancher’s daughter would have become four cowboys, the four cowboys would also be British immigrants, and the parts would be much more fleshed out and important than the two hunky empty hats in the released version. Good ol’ Ringo probably would have been the victor.] 

It soon became apparent that there would be no 1966 Beatles movie, but a contract was a contract, and there was always 1967. In late ‘66, Walter Shenson commissioned writer Owen Holder to craft a script that would meet the “modern, cutting-edge” requirement. Holder came up with Shades of a Personality, the story of a young man (Holder envisioned Lennon in the lead role) with three separate personalities, to be embodied by the other three Beatles. (Classic rock fans will recognize this as very similar to the Who’s 1973 concept album Quadrophenia.)

Holder’s script was met with little enthusiasm from the group. They really did not want to do another “Beatles” movie at this point. So desperate were they to not appear in front of the cameras that they tried to give United Artists an independently-produced animated film that had their likenesses (but not their actual voices) and a few new songs. (Yellow Submarine was distributed by UA in 1968, but it did not fulfill their contract.)

Joe Orton

Hoping to entice them with edgiest of cutting-edge, Brian Epstein gave the Holder screenplay to Joe Orton for a re-write. Orton was the “bad boy” of British theater at that time. Plays like Loot and What the Butler Saw caused a sensation due to their explicitness and dark-humored nihilism. Orton began working on the Beatles project in January of 1967. He injected the material with a healthy dose of sadomasochism, polyamory, and gay subtext. He submitted the revised script — now called Up Against It — to the Beatles’ management. After several months with no word, the script was simply returned to him without comment. Free to entertain other options on the script, Orton was due to attend a meeting with producer Oscar Lowenstein and director Richard Lester on August 9, 1967. His body was discovered that day in his London flat, having been bluedgeoned to death by his boyfriend Kenneth Halliwell (whose body was nearby — he committed suicide by overdose). Eighteen days later, Brian Epstein died of an accidental overdose. (Paul McCartney admitted in 1997 that the Beatles had been frightened off the Orton project by the homosexual themes in the script.)

Less than two months after the death of their manager, the very first solo Beatle film would be released. 

Here’s my format for discussing the films of the solo Beatles:

No TV movies, no concert films, no documentaries, no popping up as themselves in a cameo. These are narrative films released in cinemas in which they play a character. (I fudged it a little on Give My Regards to Broad Street in which Paul McCartney plays a “fictional” rock star that, based on all observable evidence, is pretty much “Paul McCartney.”) I will watch each film in its entirety at least once, most of them for the first time in many years, and a few of them for the first time ever. Release dates will generally be for the British release, unless otherwise noted.

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“A Christmas Story Christmas” Story

I’m always suspicious of people who claim to have no holiday traditions, although mine tend more towards “personal holiday observances, usually based around specific dates, that no one else really participates in.” I wrote about a bunch of them in some of my very first entries on this website, spreading them over three 2008 entries at a total length that would barely be half of a single 2020s-era entry. Obviously, much has changed since then. I’ve grown more long-winded in my website pieces, and more lax in observing many of my old traditions. However, the following five remain pretty iron-clad.

1. No Christmas music until after Thanksgiving. But as soon as the dishes are cleared away, I consider it open season for “Good King Wenceslas.” The Christmas Spotify playlist is usually on the car stereo driving home from Thanksgiving dinner.

2. Christmas lights on the house no later than the Sunday after Thanksgiving (weather permitting). This is often something I really have to force myself to do, tearing myself away from my fireside end of the sofa, my book, and the muted football game on TV to clamber around on a rickety ladder and almost plummet to a paralyzing injury at intervals that come closer together as the years roll on.

3. (Real) Christmas tree acquired and decorated on whatever weekend is closest to December 10. Any sooner and it dries up no matter how carefully I check the water level, any later and why bother? 

4. Making a shepherd’s pie at some point in December (usually between the 20th and 23rd).

5. Having a bunch of Christmas-themed stuff on the TV. Cheesy variety specials, Christmas episodes of sitcoms, classic movies, you name it.

I say “having it on” instead of “watching,” because it’s usually just atmospheric background to my reading, computer gaming, or puttering around the house. I am a world-class putterer, and lately I’ve taken to doing it with my half-moon reading glasses perched on the end of my nose. Jesus, I’m old. Am I really the same person who used to go to Primus concerts with dyed blue-black hair (Manic Panic!) and army surplus pants tucked into shin-high black boots? I did scrupulously avoid the mosh pit, so I guess I was always kind of soft. But at least I was young and soft. (That didn’t sound quite right, but I’m leaving it in.)

One of the movies in the holiday rotation is A Christmas Story. Little regarded upon its initial theatrical release in November 1983, it has since become a holiday television staple in households across the country. So popular were its frequent airings on cable stations that Turner Broadcasting began showing it marathon-style — “24 Hours of A Christmas Story” — in 1997. For the last 25 years, starting at 8pm Christmas Eve and concluding at 8pm on Christmas Day, you could tune in and get your fill of Ralphie and his Red Ryder BB gun (with a compass in the stock and “this thing which tells time.”) You’d be joining roughly fifty million others.

Like Christmas music, the viewing of Christmas material on TV is strictly forbidden until after Thanksgiving. But this year, I violated tradition by watching A Christmas Story way outside of its normally-accepted viewing slot because I wanted to watch its brand-new sequel, A Christmas Story Christmas, the day it dropped on HBO Max. Watching a new sequel without a re-watch of the original is a violation of the Holy Bee Code.

As the consistently high annual ratings for the marathon have proven, the Christmas Story phenomenon is a powerful thing, and it’s woven firmly into the fabric of American culture. Even if you haven’t seen the film, it might feel like you have — it’s the story of nine-year-old Ralphie and his quest to get a BB gun for Christmas, while also dealing with his perpetually hassled mom and intimidating dad (only ever referred to as “the Old Man”), along with various other childhood dramas. You’ve probably heard about the notorious “fra-gee-lay” leg lamp, the tongue frozen to the flagpole, and the oft-repeated “you’ll shoot your eye out” catchphrase. 

Full disclosure — I am not any kind of die-hard Christmas Story fanatic. It’s just tossed in with all the other holiday viewing for me. If it hasn’t been a part of a family tradition for years, this mild little period-piece comedy may actually be kind of a hard sell for new viewers who will undoubtedly wonder what all the fuss is about. But I did grow up with A Christmas Story, and I did get a warm tingle when I heard they were making a proper sequel. (And it just dawned on me that my Subscribe button is emblazoned with “I triple-dog dare you.” Maybe I am a die-hard fan.)

Wait, a “proper” sequel? Were there improper sequels? Yes, actually. Three of them, and they all failed for their own reasons, but mainly due to the issue that A Christmas Story Christmas intends to correct. 

Never much liked the original poster, which failed to capture the true tone of the film — it made it look far too “wacky” and/or “zany,” the kind of movie where you’re just waiting for someone to get hit in the nuts and go cross-eyed.

The Christmas Story juggernaut started with Jean Shepherd (“Shep” to his legion of fans), a fixture of New York late-night talk radio from 1955 to 1977. Shep built a dedicated following by spinning lengthy first-person yarns about his alter ego, “Ralphie,” Ralphie’s family (“the Parkers”), and his experiences growing up in America’s heartland in a bygone era. You can get a taste of Shepherd’s engaging vocal style from his narration of A Christmas Story, portraying the unseen-but-constantly-heard adult Ralphie. 

Although he insisted the tales were pure fiction and not autobiographical, elements of Shepherd’s real life always crept in. He really did have friends named Flick and Schwartz and a kid brother named Randy, he did go to Warren G. Harding Elementary School, and the name of his actual hometown — Hammond, Indiana (just across the state line from Chicago) — isn’t too far off from the fictional Midwestern town, “Hohman, Indiana,” that he created for his stories. He made the character of Ralphie a few years younger than himself to better align Ralphie’s childhood and adolescence with the Depression and the war years.

Jean Shepherd

What really blew people’s minds was that Shepherd told these stories off the top of the head. He prided himself on never relying on pre-written scripts, and could extemporize, ad-lib, spin off into side stories, and then tie it all up in a neat conclusion right as his closing music began to play. As his popularity grew, he began speaking tours of college campuses where audiences could verify this skill with their own eyes. 

Someone finally asked Shep to put some of his favorites down in writing, and one of the first stories published was the one that provided the framework for A Christmas Story. “Duel in the Snow or, Red Ryder Nails the Cleveland Street Kid” appeared in Playboy magazine in 1964. (Playboy also sent him as a correspondent to tour with the Beatles for a few days later that year. A middle-aged jazz snob by then, Shep never warmed to their music, but admitted they were great fun to hang out with.)

Enough stories appeared in Playboy over the next two years to compile into a book. The result, In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash, was published in 1966. Often described as a “story collection” or “anthology,” Shep always proudly referred to it as a novel. Despite this claim, it is pretty episodic, with the self-contained stories appearing as reminiscences between adult Ralphie and Flick during Ralphie’s return visit to his hometown. Only “Duel in the Snow” is Christmas-themed, and the other stories bounce around chronologically, with Ralphie depicted as anywhere from seven to fourteen, depending on the chapter. 

Two sequels, Wanda Hickey’s Night of Golden Memories and Other Disasters (1971) and A Fistful of Fig Newtons (1981) continue the mixed bag of stories about a (mostly older) Ralphie. 

Shepherd’s radio monologue about Flick getting his tongue frozen to a flagpole (a story that never made it into print) turned aspiring young filmmaker Bob Clark into a lifelong Shepherd fan. The eventual Christmas Story director contacted Shep as early as 1970-71 about making a film based on his stories, but it was a long road to production. They got as far as writing a screenplay, but no studio was interested. 

The first attempt to tell a Ralphie Parker tale that made it to a screen was the TV movie The Phantom of the Open Hearth, which aired on December 23, 1976 as part of the PBS anthology series Visions. Shep wrote the script, and established a formula: a main throughline based on a key story from one of his books (in this case, the title story of Wanda Hickey), supplemented by secondary plot threads drawn from other stories (the leg lamp story from In God We Trust is first seen onscreen here) and from various unpublished monologues, all tied together by his voiceover narration.

James Broderick, the first Old Man

The Phantom of the Open Hearth led to two (or three, kind of) more PBS adaptations, and they’re just this side of watchable if you can handle dingy, PBS-level production values, a much slower pace, and a few glaring differences from our beloved Christmas Story. The PBS Ralphie (re-cast each time) is depicted as an athletic, self-assured high school junior — a far cry from the awkward, needy, bespectacled little kid we’re used to. Flick comes off as a potentially dangerous criminal thug. Craggy character actor James Broderick (known for the ABC drama Family from the same era) is no Darren McGavin, but makes a pretty decent Old Man. (Just like no one is going to surpass Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter, you have to hand it to Brian Cox, who was the first actor to play the character — and did a good job — in the 1986 TV movie Manhunter.) Barbara Bolton as Mrs. Parker is the only lead actor to appear in all three, but she doesn’t exude a lot of personality, and only reminds the viewer of how much spark Melinda Dillon brought to the role. And, like most 1970s productions set in a previous era, no one would commit to period-accurate haircuts, so everyone kept their bushy ‘70s hair. (Another example: any given episode of M*A*S*H.) (The Phantom of the Open Hearth was re-cast and re-shot as a possible pilot for an ABC series in 1978, but it was never shown.)

Broderick and a way-too-studly Matt Dillon

Another PBS anthology series, American Playhouse, aired the second Shepherd adaptation. The Great American Fourth of July and Other Disasters hit TV screens on March 16, 1982, based around more In God We Trust stories. James Broderick returns as the Old Man (it was one of his final roles, he died later that year), and the characterization of Ralphie as “cool teen” reaches its zenith — he is played by none other than Matt Dillon. Like its predecessor, The Great American Fourth of July is acceptable, but nothing great. I was particularly disappointed that one of my favorite Shepherd stories, “The Endless Streetcar Ride Into the Night and the Tinfoil Noose” (about Ralphie on a blind date), was staged and shot in such a clunky and cumbersome way that it drained the story of its slow-building tension and brilliant comedic payoff. 

Katherine Kahmi as Josephine Cosnowski.

The Star-Crossed Romance of Josephine Cosnowski was based mainly on Wanda Hickey material, and it aired on American Playhouse on February 11, 1985, after A Christmas Story had been ignored in theaters, but just before its big rediscovery as a TV treasure. Romance is a notch below the first two in terms of budget, humor, and performances. Despite the presence of a few vintage cars and kitchen appliances, all attempts to give it a period feel have been abandoned. The object of Ralphie’s affection looks more like Brenda Walsh from 90210 than anyone who would have breathed 1940s air. The usually reliable George Coe is a low-key, somewhat placid Old Man, with none of the bluster the part requires. (Coe is known to a later generation as the voice of Woodhouse on Archer.)

Bob Clark

Nobody ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American public, someone once said (it evidently wasn’t H.L. Mencken), and sure enough, Bob Clark’s Porky’s was a box office smash in 1982, giving Clark the clout to make whatever he wanted as his next project. He chose the Christmas-themed script he wrote with Shepherd many years earlier. Clark, who got his start in low-budget exploitation and slasher flicks, will likely never be in the Pantheon of Great Directors. He usually painted in the broadest strokes possible, and had a tendency to aim low in his comedy. But A Christmas Story has a subtlety that most of his other films lack. He was a potentially solid director (his pre-Porky’s Sherlock Holmes pastiche Murder By Decree was quite good) who had the misfortune to have directed mostly terrible films: The powerfully stupid Porky’s and its even worse sequel, feeble comedies like Rhinestone and Loose Cannons, whatever the hell Turk 182! was supposed to be, and the absolutely execrable Baby Geniuses, which played at the theater where I once worked and inspired more walk-outs than any other movie I can name. And those are just his movies people may have heard of. But not everyone can be Stanley Kubrick (luckily for Shelley Duvall), and Clark, by all accounts a genuinely nice man, had a personal warmth comes through in A Christmas Story’s informative commentary on the DVD. The kids in the cast loved him (unlike The Goonies’ cast, who were always a little afraid of grumpy old Richard Donner), and he clearly poured his heart into A Christmas Story. I was very sad to hear of his tragic death in a head-on collision on the Pacific Coast Highway back in 2007.

The film was shot from January to March of 1983, mostly in and around Toronto. The department store scenes were done at the actual Higbee’s in Cleveland. Another Cleveland location was the Parker house, located at 3159 West 11th Street. The interior scenes were shot on a Toronto soundstage, so the Cleveland location was for exterior shots only. It was purchased in 2004 by a California entrepreneur (who specialized in the production of replica leg lamps) and restored to resemble the house — inside and out — as it appeared in the film. Adjoining houses were converted into museum and gift shop space. (As of this writing, the whole complex is up for sale.)

A Christmas Story’s studio, MGM, did not seem to have much confidence in the final result. They put it into theaters in mid-November with little promotion, and it was mostly gone from screens by Christmas week itself. It wasn’t the box-office dud that legend later described it as, but its success was modest at best. It picked up a little traction when it showed on HBO and was released on VHS in 1985. Then came the turning point — a near-broke MGM sold most of its film library to Ted Turner in 1986, and A Christmas Story began its run on Turner-owned stations that holiday season. That’s when my family first watched it. It already felt like tradition by the following year. But don’t call it nostalgic. Both Clark and Shepherd insisted the film does not fit that description. “It’s not nostalgia. It’s an odd combination of reality and spoof and satire,” said Clark. Maybe that’s why newcomers to the movie are sometimes a little put off.

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Apple Scraps: The Odds & Ends of “Get Back”

Will I ever write a one-part Holy Bee entry again? This one was intended to be a one-shot. A throwaway, even. Just some random observations and lots of images. But my usual over-writing and lack of editing discipline caused it to bloat up, as if it had eaten fistfuls of instant mashed potato flakes right out of the box (don’t do that). To quote Abraham Lincoln, “As the preacher said, ‘I could write shorter sermons, but once I get started I get too lazy to stop.’”

I toyed with idea of dividing it into two entries.

But no! It’s staying a one-parter because it’s a stupidly indulgent entry, and just not worth spreading over two monthly installments. Word count-wise, I managed to keep it on par with a typical entry here, but all these pictures…your scrolling wheel may wear out before you get to the end. Read with caution.

Anyway, on with it…

Get Back, Peter Jackson’s landmark three-part series on the filming & recording sessions that ultimately produced the Beatles’ Let It Be album and documentary, has been out for almost a year now. It has inspired websites and podcasts to do recaps, reviews, and “deep dive” analyses of the development of the songs, and especially the interpersonal relationships and late-period band dynamics that give this project such dramatic heft. And everything from George Harrison’s color-coordinated outfits to the copious amounts of toast the band consumed (the toast rack seemed to be an essential piece of studio equipment) has been remarked upon many times.

I will try to avoid the most talked-about and analyzed stuff because I’m almost a year too late to that party. Mostly, I want to look at the little things that I noticed, or wondered about. 

I mean, really inconsequential things. This is going to get ridiculous.

It’s all about clutter in the background or quick cutaways, and little bits of dialogue that didn’t get heavily mentioned, or mentioned at all, in the hundreds of other reviews and recaps. My observations are really lopsided towards Part 1, just because there was so much being introduced. Part 3 is almost non-existent here because there wasn’t much new to notice, a big part of it was taken up with the rooftop concert to which I have little to add, and frankly, I was getting a bit burned out by my “micro-watching” of this whole thing.

I will assume the reader is familiar with the overall story of the “Get Back” sessions, or has watched the documentary already, so let’s jump right in.

Part 1 – 12:42 — Does the Hare Krishna (identified as Shyamasunder Das) randomly hanging out on the Twickenham set really keep his few worldly possessions in a tartan handbag from Freddy, a high-end Paris gift shop?

Also, why exactly is he there? Clearly it’s at George’s invitation. After an initial meeting the previous month, George, whose interest in Eastern religion and philosophy was passionate, agreed to help the small religious group set up a London temple. Upon Paul’s arrival for the session, he and John dismissively refer to Shyamasunder with a few lines of dialogue from A Hard Day’s Night (“Who’s that little old man?”). Although a tacit supporter of the Krishnas (he let several stay on his property later that year), John finally makes the offhand remark, “It’s a bit daft him being up there, isn’t it?” Daft or not, a couple of Hare Krishnas come and go through the first few days of the Twickenham sessions.

1 – 13:12 — Sticker Time! (1): The Bassman sticker makes its first appearance. The sticker was originally included with the Fender Bassman amplifier that was part of a sweet deal made with Fender the previous summer. The company would send along instruments and amps they thought the Beatles would like, and also fulfill their requests — all for free, in the hopes of getting some promotion or endorsements, or even just having the Beatles be seen using the equipment. At some point Paul peeled off the sticker and applied it to his Hofner “violin” bass, where it stayed through the rooftop concert.

1 – 14:15 — Sticker Time! (2): Both Ringo’s rack tom-tom and his floor tom-tom sport a “Drum City” sticker. Drum City was located at 114 Shaftesbury Avenue in London, and naturally enough, it’s where Ringo got all of his drums starting in 1963. At that time, he acquired his signature Ludwig set with the black oyster pearl finish. Drum City owner Ivor Arbiter designed the world-famous “Beatles” logo to go on the bass drum head for an additional £5 “artwork fee.” Ringo’s most recent Ludwig kit from Drum City was acquired in September of 1968, and for the first time broke away from the black oyster pearl, going with a natural maple finish. 

1 – 15:28 — John’s propensity for wordplay twists the title of his section of “I’ve Got A Feeling” from “Everybody Had A Hard Year” to “Everybody Had A Hard-On.” Paul adds to it “…except me and my monkey,” referring to the White Album song. John’s delighted smile when Paul nails the punchline is one of my favorite moments. (And the Beatles were nothing if not self-referential. They knew their own history very well and were fond of reminiscing, at least at that point.)

1 – 17:42 — Assistant roadie Kevin Harrington distributes orange drinks. Too thin and translucent to be orange juice, not fizzy enough to be mimosas or proper orange soda, this must be one of those weird British drinks that they seem to enjoy as flat and tepid as possible. My guess is it’s “orange squash” of the type made by British brand Robinsons.

1 – 18:44 — Paul seems to have taken up cigar-smoking, probably under the influence of director Michael Lindsay-Hogg, who was seen puffing on one in the opening few minutes, and perhaps brought a box to share. Paul’s cigar habit did not seem to last beyond the “Get Back” sessions, and even by the time they switched over to their Apple studio, he was mostly back to cigarettes (with one or two exceptions). 

1 – 19:28 — George waves off a tray of sandwiches, presumably ham and/or roast beef, saying “we don’t eat these.” He’s either facetiously referring to himself with the royal “we,” having been a vegetarian for a while at this point, or referring to himself along with John and Yoko, who stick to a Japanese macrobiotic diet. George does graciously offer a sandwich to Paul, who is still a few years away from going veggie himself, before they’re whisked away by one of the army of people who are hanging around off to the side of the action. 

1 – 19:33 — A cutaway to the supplement/dessert for the sandwiches, now their only snack option: a tray full of, in John’s words, “dry buns” and what appear to be currant or chocolate chip scones. There’s something chocolate-covered, and something cream-filled, but…the Twickenham commissary whiffed it on this one. The tray rests on the drum riser incongruously next to a copy of the Robert Johnson album King of the Delta Blues Singers, a compilation released in 1961, and a major influence on the early British R&B scene. (John goes on to call what’s on the tray “rock cakes.”) Eventually, the snack of choice for the sessions ends up as toast. So. Much. Toast.

1 – 21:18 — Lindsay-Hogg rather tastelessly jokes that Paul should get a wide-brimmed hat and grow payot (the ringlet sideburns) to go with his black beard, implying that he looks like a Hasidic Jew. “That way we could do [the show] in Israel!” Paul is quite clearly not amused. (Many have remarked on Lindsay-Hogg’s talent for putting his foot in his mouth and not realizing it at all. I know I’m in the minority, but I actually grew kind of fond of Lindsay-Hogg and his upper-class twittery.)

1 – 23:45 — George cracks open the new issue (#66) of The Beatles (Monthly) Book. This was the official fan magazine of the group, established in August of 1963 by publisher Sean O’Mahoney. The Beatles Book issues are now hugely valuable to researchers, as they contain tons of exclusive features, essays, and interviews unavailable anywhere else, written as events were actually happening, before fading memories and the patina of legend hampered secondary historical sources. Issue #66 (January 1969) contained a look back at how the Beatles spent all their New Year’s Days going back to 1962, an account of George’s visit to the U.S. the previous fall written by roadie Mal Evans (who had gone with him), and other bits and pieces. (#77 — December 1969 — was the final original issue, although it has been periodically revived.)  

1 – 29:55 — George’s seemingly random remark — “The Animals reunited” — is true. The British R&B band’s original incarnation ended in December of 1966, but they reunited for a single charity show in their hometown of Newcastle a few weeks before the “Get Back” sessions. 

1 – 37:05 — The arrival of the Lowrey Heritage DSO-1 organ. George was very much inspired by The Band at this time, which had a Lowrey-heavy sound, so it may have been trucked in at his suggestion. However, the Beatles were no stranger to the Lowrey — it was the organ on “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds” (set up to sound like a celeste).

1 – 48:10 — For the first time, the idea of adding a fifth instrumentalist to the line-up is mentioned. Since the idea was to have no overdubs on these songs, an extra pair of hands, especially on keyboards, would fill out the sound. (Session pianist Nicky Hopkins, who had played on “Revolution,” is suggested.)

1 – 50:56 — John and Paul take each other’s musical critiques quite well. Paul repeatedly calls the chord changes in “Don’t Let Me Down” “corny” (in this context meaning “clichéd”), and says that the lyrics “aren’t that good.” John simply nods and agrees that the song needs more work. (John bristles more at George’s criticisms, however, but George is blunter, calling the song “shit” at one point.) 

1 – 51:11 — As they continue to work out the arrangement of “Don’t Let Me Down,” they are adding some misguided call-and-response backing vocals. One thing I’ve noticed when listening to Beatles outtakes and works in progress is that they always seem tempted to over-complicate, and add frills and filigrees as they work their way through the song. Once it’s out of their system and they’re confident in the basic arrangement, they strip all that away and the final released version is perfect.

1 – 1:13:41 — The first appearance of the Fender VI six-string bass. Like the Bassman amplifier, it was “gifted” to the Beatles by Fender as part of a marketing push. It was first seen when George Harrison wielded it during the “Hey Jude” promo film (although he didn’t actually play it on the recording).

When the “Get Back” sessions rolled around, the band found themselves in a conundrum. Paul was both the Beatles’ bass guitarist and main pianist. In an ordinary recording session, this was no problem. He would just play one on the basic track and overdub the other later. But their current project had a “no overdubs” rule, and a couple of McCartney’s new songs were heavily piano-based. What to do? Enter the Fender VI. With its six strings, it felt familiar and comfortable to a traditional guitarist like John or George, and could produce some nice, rounded bass tones, especially when played through the Bassman amp. So during Paul’s “piano” songs (“Let It Be” and “The Long And Winding Road” specifically), John strapped on the Fender VI. (He’s not the steadiest of bassists, and later jokingly laments he was only given “two notes” on “Let It Be.”)

1 – 1:17:32 — It didn’t take long to realize the band simply did not have enough new material for the “Get Back” project. They had already dredged up one of John’s pre-Beatles teenage compositions (“One After 909”) to good effect, but they were still scrambling. Then they remembered John’s very pretty “Across The Universe” from an early ‘68 session. The song had sort of fallen through the cracks, and was given away to be included on a charity compilation album for the World Wildlife Fund. Then the charity album itself sort of fell through the cracks as well. “Across The Universe” was ripe for rediscovering…but no one could remember quite how it went. The only copy of the song they had was an acetate demo disc. Someone arranged to have a small portable record player delivered to Twickenham so they could play the disc and re-learn the song. If you’re the Beatles, simply ask for something — anything — and odds are it will be delivered on a silver platter in a matter of hours, or less. (The charity album eventually came out in December 1969, adapting a line from Lennon’s song as its title — No One’s Gonna Change Our World.)

“Across The Universe” made its debut here, in December 1969. It was also included on the Let It Be album six months later

1 – 1:22:08 — In January of 1969, there were only four television channels in England. BBC1, BBC2, ITV, and, as of July 1968, Thames TV. So viewing options were limited. Chatter on Beatles studio outtakes reveal that, if they’d had the previous night off, that night’s television programs were a favorite topic of conversation, since they were dedicated telly-watchers and odds were they’d all watched the same thing. George came in at the start of this day’s rehearsal with a new song about human ego, “I Me Mine,” inspired by a pair of shows he’d watched. As he described one of them in detail — an episode of the sci-fi anthology series Out Of The Unknown — it started to dawn on me that this was the exact same plot as the 1992 mega-turkey Freejack, starring Emilio Estevez and the Beatles’ friend Mick Jagger. (Both the episode and Freejack were based on the 1959 novel Immortality, Inc. by Robert Sheckley.) Yes, I saw Freejack in the theater back in the day.

NOTE: Unlike John, who had a bad case of writer’s block during these sessions, George had been quite prolific, at a rate of almost a song a day. Much has been made of John and Paul’s dismissal of George’s songs at this point, but he had been creating deliberately delicate, down-tempo, contemplative numbers that — by his own admission — were completely unsuitable for the type of live show they were attempting.

1 – 1:25:46 — John’s writer’s block is addressed in a kidding-but-not-kidding exchange between him and Paul as they test microphones. (John: “When I’m up against the wall, Paul, you’ll find I’m at my best.” Paul: “I wish you’d come up with the goods.” John: “Look, I think I’ve got Sunday off.”)

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

Chico on his endless tour, 1946

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

Ben Hecht

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

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

Copacbana, 1947

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

Chico, Gummo, & Harpo, early 1950s

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

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

Chico & Mary Dee

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

John Guedel, who helped make Groucho a very rich man

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Marx Brothers, 1948

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

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

Sam Grunion, Private Eye

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Groucho & Marilyn

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

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

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

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

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

Eddie Buzzell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Fall begins…

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

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

Harpo and Susan Marx

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

On the set of A Day at the Races

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

Maureen O’Sullivan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Rufus T. Firefly” — President of Freedonia

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

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

Master spies Chico and Harpo confer with Ambassador Trentino

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

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

Gummo, around the time he became an agent

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Herman Mankiewicz

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

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

S.J. Perelman

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thelma Todd

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

Norman Z. McLeod

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

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

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

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

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

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

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