Category Archives: Film & TV

Stars of Bedlam: The Rise & Fall of the Marx Brothers (Part 5)

Will B. Johnstone’s day job was as a brilliant political cartoonist for the New York World. The image of the “American taxpayer” as a naked man wearing a barrel on suspenders? That was created by him. His sideline was writing lyrics, and later books and lyrics, for B-grade Broadway musicals. His younger brother Tom composed the tunes. Joseph M. Gaites was a failed playwright who eventually found success as a producer of C-grade Broadway musicals. After one of his shows was inevitably savaged by the New York critics and closed after a handful of performances, he would put it on the road, cutting as many corners as possible in the cost of the production (it was said that the “M” in his name stood for “Minimum”). All he had to do was hype that the show was “direct from Broadway” and all the rubes from Tucson to Tulsa to Tampa Bay would line up in droves to see a “real Broadway musical.” Gaites would scrape his money back, and start all over again with a new show.

As a team, Johnstone and Gaites saved the Marx Brothers, who themselves were not far from wearing barrels on suspenders at this point.

Johnstone and Gaites first collaborated on Take It From Me. Out of the gate, it was their biggest success, getting halfway-decent reviews, and touring the sticks for a number of years thereafter. Next, Gaites signed up Kitty Gordon, once a major Broadway star who had left the stage for the lure of silent pictures. When she failed to make a cinematic impact after several years of trying, she announced a return to theater in late 1919. Johnstone was tasked with writing her big comeback vehicle. He came up with Love For Sale. Noah Diamond writes, “Johnstone’s idea was not, in itself, much of an idea. But get used to it: A bored heiress is looking for thrills, and each scene depicts an attempt to thrill her. In the end, she learns the greatest thrill is the thrill of love. It was a flexible revue plot, which could accommodate any kind of song, sketch, or specialty.” The bored heiress, identified as “the Beauty,” was wooed by a series of eight suitors, identified by the well-known bit of children’s doggerel — “Rich Man, Poor Man, Beggar Man, Thief; Doctor, Lawyer, Merchant, Chief” — each offering a unique thrill. 

Will B. Johnstone

Love For Sale was a flat failure — it did not make it out of tryout performances in Detroit, but Johnstone and Gaites filed the idea away as they moved on to their next production, the modesty-successful Up in the Clouds. In 1922, they cut Love For Sale to tabloid length and re-titled it Gimme A Thrill…and put it on the Shubert vaudeville circuit, the very same ineptly managed money-hole that the Marx Brothers were currently touring — and circling the drain — with. Gaites ended up losing $10,000 on the endeavor. 

With both Gimme A Thrill and the Marx Brothers’ Twentieth Century Revue dead in the water by the spring of 1923, everyone went back to New York to lick their wounds and ponder their future in live theater. At some point the Brothers, in pure desperation, contacted Ned Wayburn, the man who first put teenaged singers Groucho and Gummo into vaudeville as “Ned Wayburn’s Nightingales” back in 1907. The Brothers hoped their old mentor could set something up for them. The best Wayburn could do when put on the spot was introduce them to the Johnstone brothers, and hope for something to spark. The two sets of siblings had similar senses of humor, and Will B. agreed that the Marx Brothers might be a good act to write something for.

At almost the exact same time, Philadelphia businessman James P. Beury, heir to a coal-mining fortune, pulled the name of Joe Gaites out of his lengthy list of contacts to see if there was anything Gaites could provide to put on at the Walnut Street Theatre for the normally-dormant summer season. Beury had bought the Walnut Street Theatre as a sound investment. Musical theater was having a strong run in Philly in the early ‘20s, and the Walnut Street Theatre had historical significance. It was (and remains) the oldest continuously operating theater in the United States, running shows since 1808. Beury had installed air conditioning during his recent renovation, and wanted to capitalize on it. (In those days, “air conditioning” meant blowing massive fans over equally massive blocks of ice.) 

Gaites agreed to come up with something. He got in touch with Johnstone, and thriftily pushed him for a resurrection of the pre-existing Love for Sale/Gimme A Thrill book and songs, mostly as a way to get some use out of the scenery and costumes he had been storing. Johnstone admitted with a little polish and a few additions, they might be onto something. One of the additions could be the Marx Brothers, but Johnstone wasn’t quite sure. It turns out that Will B. Johnstone may have been the only human being in the tri-state area who had never seen the Marx Brothers perform. The Brothers made a quick deal with the Premier Theatre in the outskirts of Brooklyn, hastily rustled up a Sunday afternoon audience, and played a one-off show (without a chorus) specifically for Johnstone on April 15, 1923. They passed the audition. Johntsone figured they could easily be worked into the show. (Stories of Chico setting up the show with Beury and/or Gaites over a poker game, or through running into Johnstone randomly in front of the Palace Theatre, appear to be — guess what? — totally apocryphal. The story of a besotted Beury wanting a show that summer to put his mistress, an aspiring dancer, into is also pretty dubious.)

“Lotta Miles”

The show was a revue. The Marx Brothers would be a segment of a much larger cast, incorporating several other comedic and musical acts, including an onstage jazz band, the Yerkes Happy Six. There was also a “sister” act — the Melvin Sisters. The Brothers were initially billed only as “featured performers.” Officially they were cast as Lawyer, Poor Man, Beggar Man, and Merchant (later Doctor). You can probably sort out who was who. Muriel Hudson was the first of several actresses who would appear as Beauty, but the longest-running actress in the part was the aptly named “Lotta Miles” (her stage name came from her tenure as a model for Kelly-Springfield Tires — her real name was Florence Reutti). The rest of the cast was filled out mostly by performers who had been in Up in the Clouds. (Reliable old Ed Metcalfe reprised his role as a Theatrical Agent/“Rich Man” as soon as the show hit the road.)

The show’s official book has not survived, but there is a 23-page typescript summary with some dialogue that has been preserved, and allows us to piece things together. After the big opening musical number, the show would start with the Brothers’ sure-fire Theatrical Agent’s Office sketch, and two new bits of original business were created to showcase their comedy — a “courtroom” sketch that would be the centerpiece of Act One (with an additional built-in poker routine from On the Balcony), and would once again feature Harpo dropping silverware from his sleeve, and the big Act Two closer — a sketch entitled “Napoleon’s First Waterloo.”

Co-written by Johnstone and Groucho, who at last was elevated to the long-desired level of Professional Writer, the sketch depicts Napoleon (Groucho) bidding farewell to Josephine/Beauty multiple times and leaving her room…then returning on some pretense, sending her three suitors (the other Brothers) scrambling for a hiding place. Both the courtroom sketch and the Napoleon sketch strayed pretty far afield from the “give the heiress a thrill” plot, but no one cared — it was just a revue. (All right, if you must know, the courtroom sketch was slotted in as part of Beauty’s thrill of being a criminal, and the Napoleon sketch came from Beauty’s thrill of…well, being put in a hypnotic trance and made to believe she is Josephine. See how flimsy these revue plots were? Just an excuse to have a courtroom sketch and a Napoleon sketch.) As indicated, Beauty realizes love is the biggest thrill, and ends the show after the last big musical number in the arms of the various handsome male leads who assayed the role of the Chief during the show’s run (including, briefly, Chico’s old partner Arthur Gordoni). What he was supposed to be the Chief of is never really explained. The harp and piano numbers were mixed in there somewhere, too. The show ran two hours and forty minutes on a fast night. 

The revamped show received its third title — I’ll Say She Is — and was initially created to play a summer season at a specific theater in Philadelphia, but everyone knew what was at stake — everyone had their sights on the Great White Way. Nothing about it elevated it above the type of stuff they had been doing in vaudeville since 1911 except budget and running time…and the location it was hoped to be performed in the near future. I’ll Say She Is was really nothing more than “Vaudeville Storms Broadway.” (The new title was the proper response to the question “Isn’t she a beauty?”) Robert Bader: “I’ll Say She Is was truly a salvage project — with story lines, scenery, and costumes from four different shows and a quartet of blacklisted stars who couldn’t work anywhere else.” The director was Eugene Sanger, and the choreographer was Vaughn Godfrey, neither of whom merited much mention in the reviews or in the Brothers’ memories. “This was an age in which theater directors functioned mostly as traffic cops,” explains Noah Diamond. “The producer had the creative vision; the director told the cast where to stand.” 

Excerpts from the Napoleon sketch as they appeared in Noah Diamond’s off-Broadway reconstruction/revival of I’ll Say She Is

After a shakedown run in Allentown, I’ll Say She Is opened at the Walnut Street Theatre on June 4, 1923 and it was a sensation. It played through the end of August. (It may have helped that the newly air-conditioned theater was the only open theater in town during the dog days of summer, but love for the show from critics and audiences seemed genuine.) For the show’s extended national tour through the rest of 1923 and into 1924, the Marxes had to hold their noses and deal with the Shubert Company again, who owned many of the theaters in which they would be appearing. Their “o” nicknames began cropping up some of the reviews (as they had sporadically since 1917), but were mentioned as being their onstage characters (no one paid much attention to the “Lawyer, Merchant” nonsense) rather than the actors themselves.

Just in case there’s some nugget of truth to the Beury-and-the-Showgirl story (Harpo and Groucho both told it in print several times — still no guarantee of veracity), I’ll relate this anecdote: Right before I’ll Say She Is kicked off its tour, it needed another $10,000 for various expenses and re-tooling. The company went to James Beury with their hands out. There were two complicating factors regarding Beury’s darling chorine (known as “Ginny”), and they needed to be dealt with at this point: 1) Ginny had also been sleeping with Harpo that whole summer, and 2) she was a worse dancer than even Groucho’s wife, Ruth. (“Ginny got more laughs than we did,” said Groucho.) Harpo was talked into breaking it off with her for the good of all involved, but the second situation was not so easily remedied. Groucho semi-facetiously suggested hiring someone to break her legs. Chico responded that she danced as if she had at least one leg broken already. Ginny solved the situation herself by telling Beury she’d fallen in love with a Walnut Street Theatre house musician, and considered her relationship with Beury to be at an end. Now Beury threatened to withhold the $10,000 unless Ginny was fired. The Brothers pretended to be very sad at the situation, while secretly rejoicing at their good fortune.  

The show proved its worth on a grueling tour, and after a triumphant return residency at Walnut Street in April 1924, I’ll Say She Is was prepped for the big jump to Broadway. Gaites stepped aside, and handed total control of the production of Beury, formerly just the financier. Beury pumped the kind of money into the production that “Minimum” Gaites never would — costumes and scenery were refurbished or replaced, and the onstage jazz band was upgraded to the classy Nat Martin and His Orchestra. Both Groucho and Harpo confessed to last-minute jitters. “We’re not good enough,” Groucho told Chico. “We wouldn’t be a hit on Broadway. We’re vaudeville actors.” “I was a realist,” wrote Harpo in his memoirs. “I kept hearing the words: Sorry, boys — you’re shut. But what the hell…it was going to be fun while it lasted.” Only Chico remained cheerfully optimistic, as usual. Maybe Zeppo did too, but nobody asked him, as usual.

Publicity photo for the Marx Brothers’ Broadway debut, 1924. The tuxes were allegedly made for them by their dad, Frenchie. (In his book, Groucho says the photo dates from their final vaudeville run at the Palace in 1922, but Groucho didn’t have the best memory in his old age, and Chico’s hairline looks pretty post-vaudeville)

I’ll Say She Is officially put the Marx Brothers on Broadway on May 19, 1924. The road show proved beyond a doubt that the show’s draw was the Brothers. They were no longer “featured players.” The were now billed above the title — their name literally in lights, but still as “JULIUS, ARTHUR, LEONARD and HERBERT — THE MARX BROS. in I’LL SAY SHE IS.” The “Four” had been dropped, perhaps indicating Zeppo was already getting restless as fourth banana. The theater was the Casino, on the corner of Broadway and 39th Street. Built in 1882 and owned by the Shuberts, the 1,300-seat Moorish theater boasted the first electric lights in a New York theater, the first public roof garden, and the first chorus line. By 1924, however, it had seen better times. The Brothers later referred to it as “a dump.” (The Casino met the wrecking ball in 1930.)

The Casino Theatre

Still, they were on Broadway at the height of the Roaring Twenties. It was the culmination of Minnie’s dreams, and “of twenty years of scheming, starving, cajoling, and scrambling,” as Groucho said. The only thing that marred the big premiere was her tumbling off a chair on which she was standing to get fitted for her opening-night dress. The resulting fractured ankle was considered only a mild annoyance, and she was ceremoniously carried to her front-and-center seat by a team of ushers. 

The costumed brothers pose with their mother, Minnie

Alexander Woollcott

The reviews hit the newsstands the next morning. They were an almost-universal smash. The chorus of approbation was led by the New York World’s distinguished top theater critic Alexander Woollcott, one of the most-quoted men of his generation. Woollcott praised the show in general, but reserved several lines of particularly fulsome praise for Harpo. This was not unusual for the era. Smartass Groucho is usually the modern viewer’s favorite, but at the time, his caustic wisecracks and non-sequiturs were often a little rough-edged for audiences to fully embrace. It was Harpo, the child-like silent clown and brilliant harpist who won the affection of the old-fashioned folks whose tastes were still rooted in the 19th century. In his review for Life magazine, Robert Benchley said “The pantomime of Mr. Arthur Marx…is 110 proof artistry. To watch him…at any moment of during the show, is to feel a glow at being alive in the same generation.” 

Woollcott made his way backstage at the Casino after his second viewing of the show to meet Harpo. Woollcott, whose acid pen had gotten him banned from several Broadway theaters, was completely disarmed by Harpo. Groucho (and others) took things to their logical conclusion and flat-out stated that Woollcott was literally in love with Harpo. (Woollcott’s sexuality was certainly always a gray area, and their eventual friendship was deep, but it is unlikely Harpo reciprocated any romantic feelings.) Woollcott invited Harpo for a round of poker, and pretty soon, the semi-literate Marx Brother had a seat at the most literate place in the nation — the Algonquin Round Table.

The Algonquin Round Table was a daily lunch meeting at the Algonquin Hotel on West 44th Street among New York’s elite columnists, playwrights, and critics literary and theatrical. Although the group was informal, Woollcott, Franklin P. Adams, Robert Benchley, Dorothy Parker, Heywood Broun, George S. Kaufman, Harold Ross, Robert Sherwood, Marc Connelly, and Ruth Hale were considered the more regular members, and several others came and went (Herman “Mank” Mankiewicz was always welcome before he high-tailed it to Hollywood, and novelist Edna Ferber came on Saturdays.) The group met regularly throughout the 1920s, playing cribbage, sipping flasks of illegal booze, setting up collaborations with each other (Ross used the group’s talents as a springboard for his creation of The New Yorker magazine), and most fun of all…affectionately insulting each other in the wittiest ways possible. (Woollcott remarked on Dorothy Parker’s newly-bobbed hair: “You look almost like a man.” Her reply: “So do you.”) After lingering over their fried oysters and barbed repartee for an hour or two, they would wander back to their Vanity Fair or newspaper offices to concoct some brilliant piece that would ripple through America’s intelligentsia.

Harpo was not much of an insulter (that was Groucho’s territory), but began taking more and more lunches with his new literary pals at the Algonquin, mostly just sitting quietly and listening, which definitely would have marked him as odd-man out. If you couldn’t keep up, you were phased out of the group. But Harpo seemed to get a free pass, and became a kind of serene mascot in the eye of the hurricane (or the “vicious circle” as the group was sometimes called). The New York papers picked up on his Algonquin association, and one even had the audacity to call Harpo “the brains of the Marx Brothers.” Groucho, furious (and perhaps a tad envious), responded that “there is no brains in the Marx family, and…if there was, it most certainly wouldn’t be Harpo.”

Continue reading

Leave a comment

Filed under Film & TV, History

Stars of Bedlam: The Rise & Fall of the Marx Brothers (Part 4)

Zeppo, 1912

It’s time to introduce our Fifth and Final Marx Brother, Zeppo. 

Herbert Marx always felt like an afterthought. Born several years after his other siblings, he stayed home while they (and his mother) endlessly toured the country. Frenchie was also not the most hands-on parent, and too soft-hearted to be much of a disciplinarian. So it shouldn’t be surprising that Herbert became something of a juvenile delinquent, skipping school and roaming the streets of Chicago unsupervised, the way his brothers did in New York back at the turn of the century. Only instead of sneaking rides on streetcars and playing dice, Herbert was running with a genuine street gang, stealing cars and carrying a pistol.

When Minnie could spare him a thought, she despaired of his future. She felt the best way of saving him was to groom him for the family business as soon as possible. When they played Joliet in May of 1914, they were joined for a couple of performances by the adolescent Fifth Marx Brother, who in addition to being a heat-packing car thief, also had a passable “boy tenor” voice, and was quite happy to warble a few songs onstage when his mother asked. He also did a short tour of Michigan with the act in the summer of 1915. The chicken farm Minnie bought in 1917 to keep the older Brothers out of the draft had the added benefit of keeping her youngest off the mean streets…briefly. 

It was during his sojourn on the farm that he finally earned his “o” nickname. Every Brother has his own story of where the name “Zeppo” came from, and none of them hold much water. The truth is, the older boys had been calling Herbert “Zip” for some time. Here’s why:

According to a story revealed many years later by Harpo’s son Bill, the label “Zip” came from a man suffering from microcephaly, and displayed at sideshows as a “freak” called Zip the Pinhead. His deformity included a deeply-receded forehead and a large, wedge-shaped nose that sloped straight into it, without the usual indentation between the eyes. Herbert also had a very distinctive nose bridge and slightly receding forehead. Nowhere near the point of deformity, but just different enough to be sensitive about as a young teen with self-esteem issues. And just the sort of thing that four much-older comedian siblings would delight in mercilessly teasing a little brother about. The taunting nickname “Zip” became “Zippo” to match his brothers’ names, and eventually evolved into “Zeppo.”

By the time he was seventeen, he had dropped out of school and was working as a mechanic for the Ford Motor Company (he demonstrated a remarkable aptitude for engineering and working with machinery from an early age). A steady job did not keep him out of Chicago pool halls and gambling dens. Like eldest brother Chico, Zeppo loved “action.” He had a head for numbers and a passionate love for playing cards and pursuing girls. “I’d have ended up in jail,” he confidently predicted. Minnie intervened to prevent that fate.

June 5, 1918…the phone rings in the Ford mechanic shop somewhere in Chicago. An insistent voice demands to speak to Zeppo. Zeppo is summoned, and wipes the grease off his hands, perhaps anticipating what is coming. “My mother called me…[and] said come home immediately,” remembered Zeppo. “I said, well I’m working. She says, well quit your job and come home immediately…And I said okay, so I came home…She says, your brother Gummo just joined the Army…you go and get packed and get on the train. Here’s the fare and go to Rockford, Illinois and join your brothers. You have to take Gummo’s place because I want the name of the Four Marx Brothers intact…So I acquiesced and joined the boys in Rockford, Illinois. I got right on, right on the stage. Didn’t know what the hell to do.”

Zeppo Marx, former auto mechanic and small-time Chicago hood, bravely faked his way through the last performances of Home Again ever staged (well, not quite — read on). “When I stepped out, Zeppo stepped in,” said Gummo. “I must say, though, that he was the only actor who ever had less talent than me.” The big question was what to do next. 

Zeppo on board, 1918

From the Chicago Daily Tribune, Sept. 22, 1918: “The Four Marx Brothers, residents of this city, propose to eschew vaudeville, in which they are eminent, and take up musical comedy. At Grand Rapids September 28  [the show actually opened in Benton Harbor on the 26th] they will begin a career in The Street Cinderella, whose words are by Jo Swerling, once a good reporter for The Tribune…

They decided to make an attempt at a “real” musical comedy. They commissioned an eager young scribe named Jo Swerling to write them an original self-contained show with a genuine plot and real characters. Gus Kahn and Egbert van Alstyne would provide the songs. Uncle Al would direct. Ads began to appear in Michigan newspapers for The Street Cinderella — “Minnie Palmer presents…a new farce comedy in three acts…beautiful girls, beautiful music, beautiful love story…”

The title went back and forth between The Street Cinderella and The Cinderella Girl, and it seems they settled on the latter at the last minute. No one remembers the plot, something about a romance between two “street singers.” No one remembers the characters the Brothers were supposed to play (presumably variations on their already established personas). When the curtain rose and the overture began playing at the Bell Opera House in Benton Creek, Michigan on September 26, 1918, the Four Marx Brothers stared out at a half-filled house. Deliberately half-filled. In a sight that would become depressingly familiar just over a hundred years later, every other seat was empty. Every other row was empty. The audience all wore masks over their noses and mouths.

The Marx Brothers’ newest show — meant to lift them out of the vaudeville ghetto and into legitimate theater — opened the same week as the deadly Spanish influenza epidemic hit the Midwest.

There was another problem: “It was a terrible act and we realized we couldn’t play it successfully,” said Groucho. It limped through two performances. Both times, according to Marx biographer Kyle Crichton, the Brothers did not bother to finish the storyline, going into their familiar Home Again material instead. All future bookings of The Cinderella Girl were cancelled, and it was written off as an expensive mistake. By mid-October, the flu epidemic had closed most of the country’s theaters anyway. The only thing that was salvageable from the experience, according to Groucho, was that actor Ed Metcalfe (who had the thankless role of “the policeman” in Home Again and also appeared in Cinderella Girl) introduced him to the works of Gilbert and Sullivan around this time. Groucho became possibly the world’s biggest G&S fan, obsessively listening to their comic operas, and collecting their material and memorabilia for the rest of his life.

Chagrined, the Brothers trudged back into vaudeville, and got themselves booked for the truncated 1918-19 season on the Keith-Albee Circuit. They sat down with Uncle Al, made a few updates to the old Home Again material, threw in some of the better Cinderella songs (not wanting to waste what they had spent good money on), and called the “new” show ‘N’ Everything. 

Betty Marx had joined the act’s chorus, probably to keep an eye on Chico. One night as she was exiting the stage after a big musical number, Harpo spontaneously stretched out a foot and tripped her. She was sent scooting across the stage on her stomach as the audience roared. After the curtain, she took her hurt feelings to her brother-in-law, who did not exude sympathy. “What the hell are you complaining about?” said Harpo, scrubbing off his make-up. “You got a laugh, didn’t you?” You had to be tough to be a Marx. 

Zeppo practiced diligently to replicate Gummo’s old “whirlwind dance.” His partner was initially Gene Maddox. When she left the act, one of the chorus girls, Ruth Johnson (sometimes rendered as “Johnstone,” and billed as “Ruth Tyrell”) was randomly promoted to take her place. She and Zeppo began casually dating…but Groucho had his eye on her. He bided his time, then pounced, stealing the shapely, strawberry blonde, snub-nosed chorus girl away from his little brother. You had to be tough to be a Marx.

Continue reading

Leave a comment

Filed under Film & TV, History

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Mr. Green’s Reception company, in costume — Julius as Mr. Green is in the back row with the girls. Milton, Leo, and Arthur are front and center. Paul Yale is clearly on the far right, but I can’t quite tell who is right next to him — I think it’s a Harris Brother, with George Lee on the far left, but I can’t be sure

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Arthur became “Harpo” for obvious reasons. 

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

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

Art Fisher had made his impact on entertainment history, and promptly vanished. No researcher has ever been able to dig up exactly who he was or what became of him. 

Even though it was intended as a momentary card-game joke, the Brothers were delighted with their new names, and began using them among themselves immediately. It was pretty funny for an afternoon. Then the days stretched into weeks and months. They persisted in using the names. Friends and family shrugged and began calling them by those names as well (even Minnie, who did not seem too bitter that her sons enthusiastically ditched the names she gave them). It would be ten years before the Marx Brothers used their new names as their professional stage billing, but to themselves and everyone who knew them, they were now and forever Chico, Harpo, Groucho, and Gummo. And that’s who they’ll be in these essays from this point forward. 

Continue reading

Leave a comment

Filed under Film & TV, History

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

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

Milton, around the time he became a Nightingale

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

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

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

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

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

O’Donnell and Julius

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

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

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

Teenaged “Ahdie”

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

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

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

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

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

Business card

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

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

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

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

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

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

Continue reading

1 Comment

Filed under Film & TV, History

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

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

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

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

Groucho (Julius)

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

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

Harpo (Adolph/Arthur)

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

Chico (Leonard)

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

Zeppo (Herbert)

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

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

Here we go…

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fanny and Lafe, 1880s

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

Minnie, at around sixteen years old

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Marxes occupied the top floor

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

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

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

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

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

Continue reading

1 Comment

Filed under Film & TV, History

Shots in the Dark: Blake Edwards’ Problematic Pink Panther Series (Part 2)

By the end of 1963, Peter Sellers was a physical and mental time bomb. He and Blake Edwards had vowed never to work together again after the second Clouseau movie,  A Shot In The Dark.

Sellers was never properly diagnosed or treated, but in examining the behavioral symptoms he began manifesting from late 1963 onward, his biographers seem to think he had schizoaffective disorder — perhaps the worst case suffered by anyone of any level of fame.

Somehow, his career continued successfully, at least for a time. Riding a wave of public sympathy after a near-fatal series of heart attacks in April 1964, and refusing to acknowledge any mental issues publicly or privately, he spent the remainder of the 1960s starring in various international productions of erratic quality but with big budgets, beautiful women, and unmistakable glamour. 

sellers2

Post-heart attack, Swinging Sellers in the Sixties, with his Swedish model wife

Behind the scenes, he was crumbling. His hasty 1964 marriage to Britt Ekland collapsed under his paranoia and abuse. His kids grew terrified of his volcanic rages on the occasions he demanded obedient visits from them. He lashed out unpredictably and threw infantile tantrums. He became totally reliant on the guidance of a bogus “psychic advisor,” Maurice Woodruff. He heard voices. He subjected colleagues to dozens of his bizarre whims. He was terrified of the color purple — it was not allowed to be worn in his presence, and his assistants would check his hotel rooms in advance and remove any trace of violet. 

In the meantime, Blake Edwards married Julie Andrews, and made one decent film (1965’s The Great Race) to his usual ratio of stinkers.

1333291-medium

Newlyweds Blake Edwards and Julie Andrews

Sellers and Edwards buried the hatchet to work on 1968’s The Party — an arguably funnier, or at least warmer, film than any of the Pink Panthers, but difficult to watch these days because Sellers is slathered in brown make-up and thick eyeliner. His character, the well-meaning but Clouseau-clumsy Hrundi V. Bakshi, is a thickly-accented collection of South Asian stereotypes. 

Once again, Edwards and Sellers hated each other by the end of it. 

Around the same time, the Panther series’ original production company, the Mirisch Corporation, decided that a third film in the series would be worth doing. When both Sellers and Edwards declined to participate, the project went forth anyway. The production company believed that the character of Inspector Clouseau was the true star, bigger than any actor who happened to portray him. They went into production on a new Clouseau movie without Edwards or Sellers (or Mancini). Bud Yorkin would direct.

Stepping into Sellers’ shoes as Clouseau was the rising newcomer Alan Arkin, who had received an Oscar nomination for his very first film, the Mirisch Corporation’s The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming (1966). 

Arkin is a great actor, but in 1968’s Inspector Clouseau he was badly miscast, failing to acquit himself convincingly as the title character. He is alternately sleepy (in an attempt to replicate Sellers’ deadpan), or shouting hysterically. His round baby face (he looks a decade younger than his 34 years) just appears wrong under the inspector’s trademark hat. Arkin aside, the film itself is not any worse than any of the other Panthers before and after, and shares several traits — overlong “slapstick” setpieces that go nowhere, clunky direction (if anything, Yorkin has a touch of subtlety Edwards lacks), and a solid supporting cast working very hard.

maxresdefault

Had Sellers played the part, it is likely that Inspector Clouseau would be considered a worthy entry in the series. But it was a flop with the critics, and though box office numbers are unavailable, they clearly weren’t strong. The series was dropped… for the moment.

Edwards had burned most of his Hollywood bridges with the Darling Lili fiasco, and was hunkered down in London trying to figure out how to resurrect his shattered career. Sellers hit the skids around the same time, appearing in a run of films of such appallingly low quality that one of them, Ghost in the Noonday Sun, was considered unreleasable and shelved. 

images-w1400

Enter Sir Lew Grade, the British mega-mogul of ITC Entertainment, a colossus of both film and television. He wanted Julie Andrews to star in one of his TV specials, and if that meant giving her down-and-out husband a two-movie deal, it was a price he was willing to pay. The first film was another underwhelming dud (the overwrought romantic drama The Tamarind Seed). Sir Lew then tactfully suggested a return of Inspector Clouseau as the second film in the deal. At this point, neither Edwards nor Sellers was in a position to decline.

MV5BOGE4ZDc2MjMtNGE1Zi00Y2VmLWI3ODctMGM0ZTc0ZmIyMzVkL2ltYWdlL2ltYWdlXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNzc5MjA3OA@@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,661,1000_AL_The Return of the Pink Panther (1975)

Written by Blake Edwards & Frank Waldman

Produced by Blake Edwards for ITC Entertainment

Released through United Artists

Over the years, Return is the film in the series I’ve seen the most often. For decades, ITC held its copyright separately from every other Panther film, and as a result, it played on TV far more often than the others (which is to say, it was on a lot — the other films were certainly no strangers to TV airings). It was always my favorite. Sellers — older and a little more hangdog than in the ‘60s films — still plays the role with total commitment. He has a new schtick (briefly depicted in Shot) in these ‘70s revival films: Master of Disguise, and his elaborate get-ups can be pretty amusing. His bizarre version of a French accent hasn’t yet worn out its welcome, and he is always adding little grace notes to what is sometimes a sledgehammer style of physical comedy.

The film opens strong. The Pink Panther diamond is swiped from a heavily-guarded Lugash museum in a well-staged robbery sequence that clearly influenced later films like Entrapment and the Ocean’s series.

We then are re-introduced to Clouseau in Paris, busted down to a foot patrol officer, and he has a funny encounter with a street musician and a chimpanzee “minkey,” all while a bank is robbed behind his oblivious back.

MV5BMTMxMDE1NzQ1N15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwMTQ0MTMyNA@@._V1_

He is about to be suspended for six months by the still-twitching Chief Inspector Dreyfus (evidently reinstated after going off the deep end in Shot) when the call comes from the Lugashi government: they want their diamond recovered by the detective who helped find it the first time. Clouseau is bumped back up to the rank of Inspector and put on the case, all the while dodging (usually accidentally) a mysterious assassin. (And Dreyfus has a good bit of comic business with a cigarette lighter all too realistically shaped like a handgun.)

MV5BMjEwNDAxOTI5MF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwNDQ0MTMyNA@@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,684,1000_AL_

The solid opening is marred only by another instance of Clouseau getting ambush-attacked (on his orders) by his loyal Chinese valet Cato, as usual wrecking his apartment in the process. The sequence has lots of unnecessary slow motion, is awkwardly timed and staged (an Edwards trait), and relies on nothing more than pain and destruction for humor (another Edwards trait).

MV5BMDgxMjY3NmEtNjg0YS00NDdiLTg5NDYtOTg4NjA0NGRlNjgwXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMTI3MDk3MzQ@._V1_SX1777_CR0,0,1777,755_AL_

Also racism, as Cato here and in most other Panther movies is beaten, denigrated, and referred to by Clouseau as his “little yellow friend.” I don’t usually agree, artistically speaking, with judging the standards of a bygone era by the standards of a more enlightened era, but this sort of thing does make the original Panther series a tad uncomfortable to share with your kids.

The chief suspect in the robbery is the jewel thief who stole the diamond twelve years ago — Sir Charles Litton (“the notorious Phantom”), now retired and living in Nice. David Niven as Litton is replaced here by the younger, spryer Christopher Plummer, who does a great job in the role (ED NOTE: and died right as I was writing this — RIP), and the twist is — he didn’t do it. He flies off to Lugash to personally investigate and clear his name, and sends his beautiful wife, Lady Claudine Litton (Catherine Schell), to Switzerland to distract the dogged Clouseau, who falls for the bait without question. The film begins intercutting between the two sets of characters, and loses momentum.

MV5BZTRiM2M4YmUtMTVjNy00YjViLWI5ZWQtZTI2ZjEwNDRlM2Y3XkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMTI3MDk3MzQ@._V1_SX1777_CR0,0,1777,755_AL_

Christopher Plummer and Catherine Schell as Sir Charles and Lady Claudine Litton

The sequences of Litton infiltrating the seedy underworld of Lugashi organized crime and their government’s secret police were shot on location in Morocco, and are generally pretty dull. They have no real comedic elements at all — unless you count Pepi. Graham Stark’s role here is the sweaty, sniveling, deeply unpleasant henchman Pepi, who over the course of the film, gets every finger on one hand broken in different painful ways. Again, this is Edwards’ idea of “comedy.”

MV5BYmY0NTk2ZTUtODFlOS00MGU1LWFmNzEtODNjYWIzOTU4M2Y4XkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMTI3MDk3MzQ@._V1_SX1777_CR0,0,1777,755_AL_

Graham Stark (“Pepi”) and Christopher Plummer

Things are livelier in the Gstaad, Switzerland location, with Clouseau infiltrating the luxury hotel where Lady Litton is staying. He first tries to inspect her room while she’s out, disguised as a housekeeper. As usual, the sequence — based around his slapstick struggle with an elaborate vacuum cleaner — goes on way too long with very little payoff.

MV5BYTlmZjIyYzEtZDk2MC00M2IzLTkxOWYtMWFkYTlmNWM2ZjQxXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMTI3MDk3MzQ@._V1_SX1777_CR0,0,1777,755_AL_

Much more successful, humor-wise, is Clouseau’s attempt to directly question his quarry in the hotel’s bar, disguised as a nightclub swinger (“Guy Gadoire”) in oversized shades and a blinding red sport coat, with a drooping handlebar mustache. He loses one handlebar early on (after getting punched in the face by an over-enthused go-go dancer), and continues with his usual obliviousness, much to Lady Litton’s amusement. Rumor has it that Catherine Schell as Lady Litton was genuinely laughing at Sellers’ improvised antics throughout the film, and those takes were used because it would have been the character’s realistic response to Clouseau’s fumbling.

MV5BOTZlYmQ2NzAtYTFmMC00ZGY3LWIwODktZWIxOTBkOWNkODNmXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMTI3MDk3MzQ@._V1_SX1777_CR0,0,1777,755_AL_

All these situations are eventually resolved — Clouseau is credited with the diamond’s recovery, nobody seems to bother to try and prosecute the actual thief (yes, the identity is revealed and no one seems to care), and Clouseau’s mysterious would-be assassin is revealed as Chief Inspector Dreyfus, who is committed to a padded room in an insane asylum as the credits roll.

MV5BMTk3ZDRkMDUtNmY2Mi00MzcxLThmMDgtNTVmZDVhMmUwNTY4XkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMTI3MDk3MzQ@._V1_SX1777_CR0,0,1777,755_AL_

The funny moments of The Return of the Pink Panther are outnumbered by the unfunny moments by about three-to-one, and are usually the small throwaway jokes rather than the elaborately staged setpieces. (An example: Clouseau gets in a cab and instructs the driver “follow that car!” The driver hops out and sprints after the car on foot.) Compared to what was coming after it, Return was a masterpiece.

Upon its release in May 1975, The Return of the Pink Panther was a smash, restoring both Edwards and Sellers to bankability. They decided to go all in, and began shooting the next movie in the series almost immediately. Continue reading

1 Comment

Filed under Film & TV

Shots in the Dark: Blake Edwards’ Problematic Pink Panther Series (Part 1)

Blake Edwards (1922-2010) was a film director. Heck, probably even a “major” film director. He may not be a household name, but most people who know a little about movies know who he was. He won a Special Academy Award in 2004 “in recognition of his writing, directing and producing an extraordinary body of work for the screen.” That’s as may be. But if I were to ask someone familiar with that body of work to name a great — great — Blake Edwards movie, there may very well be a long pause as they struggle to think of one. 

images-w1400

They will likely come up with Breakfast At Tiffany’s. Sorry, no. That’s perhaps the most overrated “classic” film in cinema history. If you want to experience the effervescent magic that was Audrey Hepbrun, watch Sabrina. Or Roman Holiday. Or even Charade. All exponentially better films than the limp, vapid Tiffany’s — and all containing 100% less Mickey Rooney in yellowface as Hepburn’s buck-toothed “Japanese” landlord — a walking, talking ethnic slur that was vulgar even by early 1960s standards (which weren’t high.)

Some people old enough to remember it might dredge up Edwards’ box-office smash 10. But “sex comedies” have a hard time standing the test of time. Sex comedies rely on actions and reactions based around attitudes, mores, and societal standards, all of which change, sometimes rapidly. 10 is a total relic of the late 1970s — just as fossilized (and fun to watch) as your standard pile of dinosaur shit. (And be honest — it wasn’t even all that good at the time. People just lined up in their flares and Hush Puppies to see Bo Derek in beaded cornrows frolicking on the beach.)

Fewer people will come up with his true masterpiece — Days of Wine and Roses, not a comedy at all, which may be the secret to its success. Edwards was a restless, melancholy soul who fought a lifelong battle with depression, pill addiction, and deep-seated anger issues, and this harrowing look at alcoholism tapped into whatever brilliance Edwards contained as a filmmaker. And make no mistake, Edwards did display flashes of brilliance. He made some good movies in spite of his own tendencies (A Shot in the Dark is a good example.) But mostly, he was the poor man’s Billy Wilder. Top of the second tier, sure. Best of the bench players. But the inescapable whisper of “hack” hangs around his legacy like an anchor chain. Blake-Edwards-Peter-Sellers-The-Pink-Panther

But far ahead of all the Tiffanys and 10s and even Victor/Victorias in many people’s memories is The Pink Panther and its endless train of sequels…all helmed by Blake Edwards. If, like me, you’re a child of the 80s and not old enough to have seen the bulk of them in their original theatrical runs, you remember them as endlessly airing on weekend afternoon TV, and as cable movie channel staples. 

The series’ central figure — the hopelessly inept Inspector Jacques Clouseau of the Sûreté, as portrayed by British actor Peter Sellers — has become an iconic comedic character. Austin Powers, Derek Zoolander, and Ron Burgundy are all his spiritual children. The Pink Panther movies inspired a cartoon show, and enough nostalgic affection to support a hideous 2006 remake starring Steve Martin (who should really know better), and an even more hideous 2009 sequel to the remake.

Revisiting the original films today, how do they hold up? 

Not all that great.

And it comes down to the fact that Edwards’ idiosyncratic take on comedy is completely joyless.Edwards 3“Comedy is pain” has always been Blake Edwards’ motto. I just wish he wasn’t always so literal about it. Maybe that’s why his comedies are generally so painful to watch — he includes the audience a little too much in his characters’ suffering.

In Edwards’ films, acts of physical comedy play out in long takes and wide shots. “I see things like a proscenium,” he has said. His characters are always in motion, but moving clumsily. Awkwardly. There is no comedic grace. The characters shuffle around almost sadly, and the only sounds are thuds and rustlings, and the characters’ audible exhalations and grunts as they bump into each other, inanimate objects, and the ground. Edwards might say that’s a kind of purity. But it’s labored and comes off as rather amateurish. Yes, some of the audience may laugh. But a lot of them just shift uncomfortably in their seat and ask themselves Is this supposed to be funny? There’s a reason why for every box-office success, Edwards’ filmography has roughly three catastrophic…and I mean catastrophic…bombs. Who knew a comedy could practically bankrupt a studio? (See Darling Lili. Better yet, don’t.)71CzD4L6ugL._SY445_I decided to take some of my COVID-19 quarantine downtime last summer to re-watch the whole Pink Panther series. One of the things that makes quarantine bearable is that you can still count on essential workers to bring you ridiculous shit, such as the Pink Panther series Blu-Ray set. You might have to wait an extra couple of days. (It actually got here quicker than I expected, placed with care on my porch by a masked and gloved van driver. “Essential workers” should have been Time Magazine’s Person [People] of the Year.)

MV5BNzg5NTYzNDI4OF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwOTQxMTMyNA@@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,666,1000_AL_The Pink Panther (1963/64)

Written by Blake Edwards & Martin Richlin

Produced by the Martin Jurow for the Mirisch Company 

Released through United Artists

First off, was The Pink Panther a 1963 film or 1964 film? IMDB and Wikipedia firmly list it as 1963, which it was — in a handful of European countries, where The Pink Panther made its bow in late December of that year. It had a single showing in Boston on New Year’s Eve. But its wide British release was in January of ‘64, and its wide U.S. release wasn’t until March. The AFI and several other film websites call it a 1964 film. 

The basic outline of the story is that a French police inspector, Jacques Clouseau, is hot on the trail of an international jewel thief known as the Phantom, the alter ego of English playboy Sir Charles Litton. Litton (sometimes rendered as “Lytton”) has his eye on a massive diamond called the Pink Panther, property of the deposed Princess Dala of Lugash. Clouseau is trying to stop the Phantom before he strikes again, not knowing that his own wife, Simone, is the Phantom’s accomplice…and mistress. When everyone comes together (along with Litton’s louche and irresponsible American nephew, George) during a skiing holiday, complications ensue. Hilarity, sadly, does not. 

MV5BNTU3NzU3NjIyNF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwNDUxMTMyNA@@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,804,1000_AL_

David Niven

David Niven was deservedly top-billed in The Pink Panther, and his dashing character, Sir Charles Litton (“the notorious Phantom”), was envisioned by Edwards and the Mirisch Company to be the lead in a potential series of comedic heist films. A series indeed came about, but not as originally envisioned…and not with the Phantom as the main character.  

By 1963, the name “David Niven” was synonymous with class, wit, and charm, but at 53, he was getting visibly long in the tooth. Litton was supposed to be irresistible to women, but after a lifetime spent in smoky cocktail parties, Niven’s physical appearance was growing somewhat wizened. His deeply-lined face, snaggled nicotine teeth, and slight cast to his left eye make him more than a little…hobgoblin-ish. I guess his money might be irresistible. 

Apart from being something of a vehicle for Niven, the film was designed to be very much an ensemble piece, and it originally had a totally different cast. Peter Ustinov was to play the dogged-but-oblivious Inspector Clouseau (the original script indicated this was a mostly non-comedic straight role — presumably Ustinov’s portly and dignified bearing would give the character a more Hercule Poirot-style persona). Ava Gardner was to be the devious and deceptive Simone Clouseau, and Edwards hoped to get his recent collaborator Audrey Hepburn on board as Princess Dala.

MV5BMmFhN2E3OTctMjg3OC00ZDhkLTgxYWEtY2Q5ZTM5NjE0NjU5XkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNzYzNzUzMjE@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,781,1000_AL_

Peter Sellers as Clouseau

Hepburn, already with an eye on semi-retirement, declined the part outright. Ava Gardner accepted, then left the project when the Mirisch Company would not meet her diva-like demands for an army-sized personal staff. Ustinov bailed for unknown reasons right before cameras rolled (and triggered a nasty lawsuit). Two European “model-actresses” (Claudia Cardinale and the mononym’d Capucine) were fitted into the female roles, and at the last possible minute, Edwards offered the role of Inspector Clouseau to Peter Sellers.

As the film opens, gilded lettering spelling out “Once Upon A Time…” fills our field of vision in glorious, vibrant Technirama. Edwards can certainly set up a mise en scene, he clearly has a flair for sumptuous colors, and a good eye for widescreen framing (which can be challenging.) The rich photography in The Pink Panther as envisioned by Edwards and carried out by cinematographer Phillip Lathrop is beyond reproach. (What plays out in front of the camera is the issue.)

We begin with a prologue set twenty years in the story’s past in the fictional Middle Eastern country of “Lugash” — the king is presenting his daughter with a large diamond. It is pointed out that, like many massive diamonds, this one has a flaw. If one looks into the center of the jewel, there is a pinkish discoloration which is shaped like a leaping panther. 

MV5BODc5OWQwOTQtNWU3MS00NTFkLTljZjYtZTQ2MDJjMzJiZDhhXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMTI3MDk3MzQ@._V1_

At this point, the film reveals one of its other major assets — the jazzy opening theme by composer Henry Mancini. Dominated by the tenor saxophone of Plas Johnson, it is instantly recognizable to multiple generations, and is film music at its finest. The “Pink Panther” theme plays over the very amusing title animation, supervised by Warner Bros. legend Friz Freleng, featuring a mischievous embryonic version of the Pink Panther cartoon character (at this point still very cat-like, frequently sitting on all four paws, and suavely knocking ash off his long cigarette holder). It’s easy to see how this character got spun off into his own series of theatrical shorts beginning later in ‘64, then his own long-running animated TV series by 1969. Continue reading

Leave a comment

Filed under Film & TV

The First Shared Cinematic Universe: Universal Monster Movies (Part 4)

The Budget Sequels

MV5BZGMxODA2NGEtOTI1MS00Y2QwLThhODYtOWUwZjU3NWI1OGEyXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNjc1NTYyMjg@._V1_The Ghost of Frankenstein (March 1942) and Chaney’s performance marked the transition of Frankenstein’s Monster from Karloff’s confused, hurt, and occasionally dangerous creature seeking some kind of human connection to the slow, clumsy, blank-faced killing machine he would remain in many people’s imaginations from then on. (People who see Karloff in the first two Frankenstein films are often surprised by how lithe and expressive the Monster was initially.)

Now that Universal had Chaney, Tom Tyler was given his walking papers (shuffling papers?) after a single performance as the Mummy. Lon was duly wrapped up into his least-favorite character and staggered through increasingly bored performances in The Mummy’s Tomb (October 1942), The Mummy’s Ghost (July 1944) and The Mummy’s Curse (December 1944). On-set sources say he had a flask of gin wrapped into his mummy bandages by the costume department, with the tip of a drinking tube near his collarbone. If nothing else, he was a creative engineer of ways to get his daily intake. He did create the Mummy’s well-known gait, based on the damage the monster sustained by Tyler’s incarnation in Hand…left arm cradled against his chest, left leg dragging.

61c6924a7e13c09e7fd07fe7cb5e31f2

Chaney’s face says it all. He hated doing his Mummies.

e532451dee2edaa1d12dcbae87cace2b

And who better to play Count Dracula than the lumpy, pot-bellied, double-chinned Lon Chaney? Universal’s commitment to putting Chaney into all of its monster roles reached its ludicrous limit when the hilariously miscast Chaney donned the cape and fangs in Son of Dracula (November 1943). The title is a head-scratcher — most of the time, the movie seems to think that the leading character is the Count himself. (Anyone suggesting the 61-year-old Lugosi should reprise his role would have been laughed out the room, but Chaney is even more risible.)

Lon-Chaney-Jr.-Son-of-Dracula

Really?

What’s frustrating is that this had the potential to be a pretty good B-level horror flick. It’s based on an original story by Wolf Man scribe Curt Siodmak, and its setting among the old plantation houses of Tennessee gave it an eerie, swampy, Southern Gothic atmosphere. It boasted the first on-screen bat-to-man transformation. Long-suffering Evelyn Ankers gamely returned for a third go-round as Chaney’s on- and off-screen victim. 

51k5SAoaPHL._SX425_

Well over a year before Son of Dracula splattered onto the screen, Curt Siodmak off-handedly mentioned a funny idea for a title to producer/director George Waggner …Frankenstein Wolfs the Meat Man. Waggner took him seriously…

“Frankenstein Wolfs the Meat Man”

Lon Chaney was Universal’s in-house horror star, and had already played both Frankenstein’s Monster and the Wolf Man. Was it possible he could play both at the same time? He insisted he was up to the challenge. Director Roy William Neill, a veteran of Universal’s Sherlock Holmes series starring Basil Rathbone, considered the possibility. With a liberal use of doubles and a little trick photography, he decided it could be done. But it would inflate the budget, and Chaney’s reliability was questionable. Universal nixed the idea.

MV5BMDZjMDJkMmYtOGU0NC00OWUxLTljNWMtYjViZjIzNTdjYjU0XkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMTQxNzMzNDI@._V1_

If nothing else, it made for a great poster

The next option was someone who was a big name in horror, and whose salary would not break the bank. To Universal, that could only mean one thing — get Bela. This would actually neatly tie in with the end of Ghost of Frankenstein, where the Monster received Ygor’s brain. It was a logical development that he should speak with Ygor’s voice. (Not that Universal ever cared a fig for continuity, it would just be a happy coincidence.) Would Lugosi take on the role of the Monster, that he had so famously turned down over a decade before? Lugosi was in no position to turn down high-profile work. He would soon turn 60 and had recently begun self-administering morphine to ease the pain caused by sciatica. So Bela subjected himself to the rigors of Jack Pierce’s Monster make-up at long last. (“For the money,” confirmed his wife later.)

frankie-meets-wolfie

Lugosi’s Monster side-eyes a nervous-looking Chaney

Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man was released in March 1943. The first half is all Lon Chaney as Larry Talbot, resurrected by grave-robbers working under a full moon, and desperate to find a final cure for his lycanthropy, or at least the sweet relief of a permanent death. He believes the secret is to be found in the journals of Dr. Frankenstein (?!), and sets off to find the doctor, or his notes. For some reason, after perishing in a laboratory fire in his previous appearance, the Monster is found by Talbot frozen in a block of ice under the ruins of Castle Frankenstein. The Monster (mostly blind and speaking in Ygor’s voice in the original script) is run-down and of little help.

kqa57zmgzsia8bfsucud

Ilona Massey takes over the role of Elsa Frankenstein from Evelyn Ankers, so for anyone still desperately clinging to the notion that the name “Frankenstein” should never be applied to his Monster, I guess this is the Frankenstein Larry Talbot meets. (Lionel Atwill appears as the local mayor.) In due course, Talbot runs across a scientist who decides to — you guessed it — restore the Monster to full strength. And he decides to do it on the night of a full moon. Wolf Man and Frankenstein’s Monster do indeed duke it out, before being swept away by floodwaters released by vengeful, torch-bearing villagers.

s-l1000

For anyone watching closely, the Monster is played by stuntmen Eddie Parker and Gil Perkins almost as much as by Lugosi, who simply wasn’t up to the rigors of the more physical aspects of the role. Also, someone made the executive decision — once the movie had been entirely shot — that the Monster speaking in Ygor’s gruff, thickly-accented voice just didn’t work, and had all of his dialogue cut out (very clumsily in places.) Along with it went any reference to the Monster’s semi-blindness, and his explanation for how he ended up in ice. As the film now plays, there’s no reason for Lugosi to always have his arms held stiffly straight out in front of him, which became essential to all bad Monster imitations forever into the future.  Continue reading

Leave a comment

Filed under Film & TV, Pop Culture

The First Shared Cinematic Universe: Universal Monster Movies (Part 3)

Poe Folks (Karloff & Lugosi)

As soon as Boris Karloff and his Frankenstein’s Monster appeared on the scene, Bela Lugosi’s stock dropped with studio executives, if not necessarily audiences. Film historians have been unable to pin down exactly why. There was certainly room for more than one horror star. Lugosi could be stand-offish but was not difficult to work with — quite the opposite, in fact. Some blame his inability to adapt his old-fashioned, theatrical acting style to more modern cinema standards, but one viewing of Son of Frankenstein should be enough to scotch that theory. Maybe it was his proud refusal to tone down the accent. Could it be interwar xenophobia against someone from eastern Europe? Impossible to say for sure. All that can be definitively said is that Universal (and other studios, but Universal especially) seemed to go out of their way to treat Lugosi shabbily. 

bela-and-boris-3

Bela and Boris toast each other in a publicity photo from their first flush of fame, 1932. 

In 1934, Lugosi’s name could still draw horror fans, and it was known he worked cheap. And Universal had just renewed Karloff’s contract. The inevitable result was the teaming of the two. Karloff and Lugosi appeared together in five Universal films from 1934 to 1940, one of which was part of the Frankenstein series, two of which were more science fiction than horror, and two of which were very, very loose adaptations of Edgar Allan Poe stories. No matter the part, Karloff always received top billing and lots more money.

The first of these, The Black Cat (May 1934), is probably the most interesting. Lugosi is a traumatized war veteran just released from a Siberian prison and bent on avenging himself against the man (Karloff) who betrayed his wartime companions to the enemy, and stole away Lugosi’s wife and young daughter. Karloff is now an Aleister Crowley-like leader of a Satanic cult and is married to Lugosi’s daughter (the wife having been dispatched as a cult sacrifice long ago). After Karloff callously offs the daughter as well, Lugosi has his revenge, skinning Karloff alive, and then sacrificing himself so the Handsome Young Couple™ who had gotten themselves tangled up in this mess can escape. What does this have to do with the Poe short story “The Black Cat”? Nothing whatsoever, except that Lugosi’s character has a cat phobia, and this comes into play at one crucial point in the story.

black_cat_lugosi_karloff_0

Who has the more piercing stare? The Black Cat (1934)

The Black Cat may be one of the darkest, most twisted films of the 1930s, and merits a mention here even if it has nothing to do with the classic Universal monsters. (And it has one of the most classic lines from any Universal horror move. When the goings-on are dismissed by the young hero as “superstitious baloney,” Lugosi remarks ominously “Superstitious…perhaps. Baloney…perhaps not.”)

The follow-up, The Raven (July 1935), also has nothing to do with the first shared universe, but has a little more to do with Poe than its predecessor. Lugosi has the madman part here, playing a deeply disturbed plastic surgeon with a Poe fixation, to the point that he has a stuffed raven on his desk. Oh, and he’s also replicated the pit and its bladed pendulum in an extensive torture chamber in his basement. When a Handsome Young Couple™ (and her father) enter his web, terror ensues. Karloff is the B-story — a murderer on the run who asks Lugosi to alter his appearance. Lugosi does — horribly disfiguring the criminal, promising to change it back only after he does his bidding.

vlcsnap-2547830

Lugosi disfigures Karloff, The Raven (1935)

Was there a long-running Karloff/Lugosi feud or rivalry as has long been speculated? Certainly not on Boris’ part, but because he came out on top, financially and in the public perception, he could afford to be magnanimous. Lugosi’s last two wives insisted that Lugosi really did not much like Karloff, and did give voice to jealousy and resentment in regard to his “rival” on occasion. As portrayed by Martin Landau in Tim Burton’s Ed Wood (1994), the elderly Lugosi would go into a profanity-laced rage at the mere mention of Karloff’s name. Bela’s son was gracious enough to praise Landau’s Oscar-winning performance, but stated that it was a work of fiction. The real Lugosi never used bad language, and never spoke ill of Karloff to anyone beyond private moments with his spouses. During the course of the five films they made together for Universal (plus two for RKO, and several self-parodying radio spots and publicity appearances), no one remembered a cross word between the two. Their relationship was always cordial and professional, although they did not socialize or build a friendship once they clocked out from the day’s work.

A Bride and a Daughter

Yes, Karloff got top billing and a truckload of money for a pretty small part in The Raven. Universal felt justified because Karloff was hot off Bride of Frankenstein — triumphantly revising the role that made him a star in a film that many, then and now, say surpasses the original. 

920x920

Updated make-up for the Monster — singed hair and scarred cheek after surviving a fire at the end of the original film.

As promised, James Whale got free rein to make the film however he wanted. He abandoned the somber tone of the original, and replaced it with a more personal style — dark comedy, with lots of symbolism, and moments of high camp. Henry Frankenstein has learned his lesson and wants nothing more to do with reanimating dead bodies. The problem is, his creation is still running amok. Knowing this, an old associate of Henry’s, the quite insane Dr. Pretorius, forces Henry to continue his experiments and make his Monster a mate. 

brideofFrankenstein2-1024x756

“A new world of gods and monsters” — Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive) and Dr. Pretorius (Ernest Thesiger) admire their handiwork.

Karloff once again plays the Monster with a pure simplicity that can switch to fearsome menace. He has even learned to speak a few words (a development the actor fiercely opposed.) Colin Clive as Frankenstein is tense and edgy as before. But the movie-stealer is Ernest Thesiger as Dr. Pretorius. The flamboyantly gay Thesiger was an old theatrical crony of Whale’s, and had appeared as one of the very odd inhabitants of Whale’s Old Dark House, which struck a similar tone of suspenseful dread combined with gallows humor. (Thesiger was also a master needlepointer, and referred to himself as the “Stitchin’ Bitch.”) Dwight Frye makes a welcome return as Pretorius’ grave-robbing lackey, Karl.

Bride_Frankenstein_1935_21-1487460005-726x388

The title plays on the fact that many people were already incorrectly applying the name of the doctor to his creation. (The title can be taken at face value — Henry Frankenstein does get married in the film. Or it can indicate possession, that he’s the creator of the Monster’s mate, as in the “plays of Shakespeare.”) The Monster’s Bride herself is played by bohemian free spirit and former dancer and cabaret performer Elsa Lanchester, who appears as the iconic character only for a few moments at the end, and also plays a dual role as Mary Shelley in the film’s prologue. The Bride’s make-up is another Jack Pierce creation that has lived on in popular culture, and Lanchester said she based the Bride’s jerky movements and hostile hissing on the swans in Regent’s Park. Continue reading

Leave a comment

Filed under Film & TV, Pop Culture

The First Shared Cinematic Universe: Universal Monster Movies (Part 2)

Frankenstein

Mary-Shelley-171194034x-56aa23a43df78cf772ac879dMary Shelley (1797-1851) was the unconventional offspring of an unconventional couple: early feminist Mary Wollstonecraft and radical anarchist William Godwin. At 16, young Mary ran off with married Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. Over the next several years, the Shelleys (who married after the fortuitous suicide of Shelley’s abandoned first wife in 1816), along with Mary Shelley’s step-sister Claire Claremont, and Percy Shelley’s friend and fellow poet Lord Byron made up an odd quartet, rambling around Europe, blowing through their ample inheritances, reading, writing, and philosophizing. Speculation about their free-love romantic couplings in various combinations can (and does) fill a book.

The idea for Frankenstein came to Shelley when they were staying at Byron’s rented villa in Geneva, Switzerland in the summer of 1816. The well-known tale goes that Byron challenged all of his overly-intellectual guests to step down from the lofty heights of poetry and philosophy and write a good old-fashioned ghost story. From the germ of an idea about an obsessed young man who discovers the secret of bringing life to the dead, Shelley worked through that autumn and into the next year, creating a work of heavy philosophy cut through with a few streaks of very effective Gothic horror. Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus was published in 1818 to a mixed critical reception. 

Modern readers may be turned off by the interminable philosophical musings about the nature and purpose of existence, and by the fact that the Monster speaks…eloquently and at great length, sounding like John Milton. The Monster’s creator, Victor Frankenstein, is not a “doctor” but a young chemistry student at the University of Ingolstadt in Germany. The Monster is brought to life not in a massive, electrified laboratory, but in Victor’s student apartment (and Shelley is pretty damn vague on the details of the process). But lots of stuff that found its way into the movies over a century later is right there in the pages. Frankenstein’s obsession bordering on madness, hunting through the “damps of the grave…the dissecting room and the slaughter-house” to gather the parts needed for his experiment is one of the best sequences of the book. And when the Monster finally comes to life, Shelley’s description of his form is eerily familiar: “His yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath; his hair was of a lustrous black, and flowing…his watery eyes, his shriveled complexion, his straight black lips.” There’s even a sequence late in the book where Victor creates a “bride” for the Monster, but he never brings her to life.

Frontispiece_to_Frankenstein_1831

Frontispiece to the 1831 edition of the novel

A stage adaptation of Frankenstein hit the boards as early as 1823, and Shelley’s tale continued to be part of popular lore through the 19th century. A silent film version was produced by Thomas Edison in 1910. Hamilton Deane, who mounted the first stage version of Dracula in 1924, commissioned playwright Peggy Webling to adapt Frankenstein as a follow-up in 1927. Though not as successful as Dracula (Webling’s play never made it to Broadway), Universal was inspired to follow the same pattern, and announced Frankenstein as its next horror property to hopefully capitalize on the success of Dracula. 

Writer-director Robert Florey had signed for a one-picture deal with Universal, and jumped on the Frankenstein project. (Florey had recently directed the Marx Brothers’ film debut, The Cocoanuts, for Paramount, and as he watched the Brothers’ performances he kept asking his assistant “This is supposed to be funny?” Florey was just not a comedy guy.) Working with writer Garrett Fort, Florey stripped Shelley’s overstuffed tale down to its bare essence, made multiple changes, and gave the story a solid and fast-moving structure. His work pleased Universal enough that he was assigned to be the film’s director. Bela Lugosi was set to be the Monster, much to his displeasure (see previous entry). Edward Van Sloan and Dwight Frye were invited back, cast in roles similar to their Dracula parts. Waterloo Bridge’s Mae Clark was assigned the role of Frankenstein’s fiancee, Elizabeth. And Universal hoped rising star Leslie Howard would be the doctor (an official offer had yet to be made).

lugosi frankenstein

Spring 1931 — A one-off illustration from Universal’s exhibitor’s catalog, hyping films in currently in pre-production. Some were never made at all, some changed drastically.

In June 1931, Florey shot a 20-minute test reel of Lugosi, Van Sloan, Frye, and a few stand-ins on the still-standing Castle Dracula set. Part of the purpose was to see how the heavy Monster make-up would appear on film.

And it appeared totally ridiculous.

The first make-up design for Frankenstein’s Monster was supposedly (the footage has disappeared) based on the German silent film The Golem, another tale about bringing life to dead material. Edward Van Sloan said Lugosi “looked like something out of Babes in Toyland.” Lugosi himself compared his look to a “scarecrow.” The most misguided element was described as a ridiculously wide, shaggy wig, as broad as Lugosi’s shoulders (think Roseanne Roseannadanna). Junior Laemmle reportedly burst out laughing when he screened the footage.

Not long after, James Whale decided he wanted Frankenstein. Universal wanted a happy James Whale. Florey was unceremoniously dumped. Nor did Whale want Leslie Howard as Dr. Frankenstein. He insisted upon having his intense leading man from Journey’s End, Colin Clive. The studio acquiesced, and Clive was flown in from London. (Studio gossip maintained that the bisexual Clive was Whale’s lover. And Leslie Howard did indeed go on to stardom, most notably as Ashley Wilkes in Gone With the Wind.) Nor was Whale happy with Bela Lugosi. For the Monster, he wanted one of Universal’s most notable character actors, Boris Karloff.

ColinClive_001

Colin Clive

Keep in mind, Lugosi never wanted the part in the first place, and it’s hard to blame him. Florey’s first-draft script gave the Monster no nuance or pathos, he was presented as merely a mindless killing machine (a persona he would return to later in the series.) And the unintentionally funny test reel didn’t help. But despite his insistence over the years that he turned down the role, in all likelihood Lugosi was replaced with Karloff at Whale’s insistence. (In Bela Lugosi & Boris Karloff: The Expanded Story of a Haunting Collaboration, film historian Gregory Mank credibly maintains that the super-professional Lugosi would have done the part in spite of his misgivings had the decision not been taken out of his hands.)

frank1_758_427_81_s

Whale and crew began filming Frankenstein on August 24, 1931, while southern California was in the grip of a sizzling heat wave. Boris Karloff labored mightily under the weight of his costume and (brilliantly re-designed) make-up as the sun pounded down on the “Little Europe” portion of the Universal backlot. Interior shooting offered no relief, as the bright lights illuminating the sealed-off sound stages often pushed temperatures toward 115°. Universal’s largest stage, Stage 12, was used for the towering laboratory set. Kenneth Strickfaden designed the lab’s iconic electrical equipment, sparking and buzzing their way into film history. Whale drove his sweaty cast mercilessly. A bucket was provided in the corner of the set for urinary relief. One grueling 25-hour shooting day (September 28-29) as Whale struggled to stay on schedule may have planted a seed in the exhausted Karloff’s head which resulted in him becoming a founding member of the Screen Actors’ Guild a few years later. 

33152047770_ab3a9c1258_b

But Jimmy was getting results. Despite his horrific visage, Karloff’s Monster was ultimately a figure to be pitied. In a tremendous job of physical acting, Karloff conveys the Monster’s confused suffering quite convincingly. In his words, he played the Monster “as though Man had been deserted by his God.” Colin Clive, a neurotic, blackout alcoholic prone to fits of nervous hysteria in real life, is riveting as Henry (no longer “Victor”) Frankenstein. Clive raves with insanity gleaming in his eyes during the moment of creation, and later evinces a broken shell of a man as he comes to his senses and realizes what he has wrought. Edward Van Sloan is authoritative as Henry’s mentor, Dr. Waldman, and Dwight Frye adds another unhinged eccentric to his resume. Much like Lugosi did with Dracula, here Frye creates the very template of the crazed, hunchbacked lab assistant with his portrayal of “Fritz” (no, not “Igor” just yet) that would be imitated for decades to come.

annex20-20karloff20boris20frankenstein_10

The Monster is tormented by Fritz (Dwight Frye)

Filming wrapped on October 3, and Frankenstein was released in December 1931. It boasted a full-length score by Berhnaud Kaun, one of the first Universal releases to have that distinction. Despite a prologue featuring Van Sloan warning the audience of the terror to come, Frankenstein was considered even more shockingly horrific than Dracula. Sequences that were considered too shocking were snipped out after the film’s initial run — the Monster throwing a little girl into a lake and (accidentally) drowning her, and Clive’s shouted, blasphemous comparison of himself to God would be missing from the film until its video release far in the future.  Continue reading

Leave a comment

Filed under Film & TV, Pop Culture