Most fans mentally divide the Marx Brothers’ films into a few distinct chronological categories:
The New York Paramounts / Stage Adaptations (The Cocoanuts, Animal Crackers)
The Hollywood Paramounts (Monkey Business, Horse Feathers, Duck Soup)
The Thalberg MGMs (A Night at the Opera, A Day at the Races)
The Odd One Out (Room Service, an adaptation of a non-Marx play done for RKO Pictures)
The Lesser MGMs (At the Circus, Go West, The Big Store)
The Post-Retirement Reunions (A Night in Casablanca and Love Happy, although the latter’s status as a true Marx Brothers film is disputed)
We have reached what many fans and film scholars regard at the Marx Brothers’ peak, the Hollywood Paramounts and the Thalberg MGMs. As indicated in Part 1, this will likely be the shortest segment of this essay series, as we are really exploring how the Marx Brothers came to be film comedy icons (the Rise, Parts 1-6), and what became of them when quality control started slipping and they decided to retire from cinema screens (the Fall, Parts 9-11). I use “Fall” only because it goes with “Rise,” and not because they made some catastrophic mistake or had some embarrassing failure that caused audiences to turn away. It was just that the material thrown their way by a studio that no longer cared about them had become inarguably sub-par, and the Brothers had lost interest in the whole movie-making thing anyway.
So in discussing the run of their best Hollywood-era movies, I will try to keep it brief. I will go light on summaries and well-worn anecdotes. You can find those in any number of books. My goal is to take a quick (well, quick for me) look at how these films fit into the overall trajectories of their lives and careers, and maybe give a few personal thoughts and opinions.
As the door closed on 1930, the Marx Brothers had Hollywood in their sights. But first, a return to the stages of London with a revue called The Schweinerei, a mixed-bag collection of highlights from all three of their stage shows, which had already toured some U.S. cities that fall. Their new three-picture contract with Paramount was signed on board the S.S. Paris right before it sailed for the U.K. on Christmas Eve.
Another situation to be dealt with before they sailed away for a month’s residency in England was coming up with an idea for a radio show. To that end, the Brothers contracted fledgling but soon-to-be-legendary humorist S.J. Perelman and I’ll Say She Is writer Will B. Johnstone to come up with some ideas. After thinking of and rejecting a number of premises, the writers presented their final scenario to the team right before they left — how about the Marx Brothers as four stowaways on an ocean liner? Groucho declared the idea was too good to be wasted on a mere radio show, and should in fact be the plot of the first movie on their new contract. Before they were really aware of what was happening, the radio show was on the back burner, and Perelman and Johnstone were on a train to California to bang out a screenplay.
The pair of writers reported to the office of the Marx Brothers’ new producer — their old Algonquin crony from the I’ll Say She Is days, the hard-drinking, acid-tongued Herman “Mank” Mankiewicz, a former drama critic who had come west in 1925 to try his hand at screenwriting. He found the comfortable Hollywood lifestyle quite appealing (and profitable). “Millons are to be grabbed out here and your only competition is idiots,” he wrote to Ben Hecht. Mank quickly rose through the ranks at Paramount and was put in charge of the Marx Brothers, whom he knew well. (Groucho used to come over to his house in New York and say to his wife “Hi Mrs. Mankiewicz! Can Herman come out and play?”). He was brutally honest with their new writers: “[The Marx Brothers] are mercurial, devious, and ungrateful. I hate to depress you, but you’ll rue the day you took this assignment.”
In the modern era, comedy is very proprietary. Stand-ups write their own material (and guard it fiercely). Sketch troupes write their own sketches. As tempting as it is for a modern audience to want to believe that the Marx Brothers came up with all of that wonderful material themselves, the truth of the matter is they were performers first and writers…not even second (except possibly Groucho, who always had literary ambitions). And this was par for the course for just about every comedy act up through the 1960s*. Jack Benny, George Burns, Milton Berle, Bob Hope — all considered comedy giants, and all had teams of writers to provide their funny lines. The fact that the Marx Brothers did too doesn’t mean they weren’t capable of coming up with brilliant stuff off the tops of their heads — that’s what people remembered most about their stage act after all, the ad-libbing. But when it came down to it, the Marx Brothers knew the value of written material, even if they didn’t always adhere to it faithfully.
Upon their return to the United States, the Marx Brothers almost immediately headed to Los Angeles. Exhausted after a long ship and train journey, and the hassles of setting up their new living arrangements, the Brothers and a few associates were invited to a reading of their new script by Perelman and Johnstone at 8:30 on a Friday night at the Roosevelt Hotel. Not an ideal time to be receptive to a comedy script, and the first person to actually show up was Mankiewicz at 9:45. To put it mildly, it did not go well. (“I would have shot myself by page twenty-five,” said writer and friend-of-Groucho Arthur Sheekman, who witnessed the ill-fated reading). Chico and Harpo went to their default mode — sound asleep. Groucho listened silently the whole way through, then gave his two word verdict — “It stinks.”
So, the script needed work, it was all hands on deck, and a pattern for Marx Brothers script writing was set.
Marx Brothers movies (the better ones, at least) were written in a way remarkably similar to modern sitcoms. The writers who would receive official onscreen credit would craft the story, basic dialogue, and hopefully more than a few good jokes and funny bits. Then the script would run the gauntlet of the “writers’ room,” where a round-table of scribes would punch up the dialogue, cram in more jokes and bits (as many as they could fit), and polish it to a high sheen. In addition to giants like Kaufman or Perelman whose names ended up prominently in the credits, the list of uncredited or partially-credited contributing writers would include guys like Sheekman, Nat Perrin, Grover Jones, vaudevillan Sol Volinsky, cartoonist J. Carver Pusey, legendary gag man Al Boasberg, animator Frank Tashlin, silent comedy icon Buster Keaton, Ben Hecht, Uncle Al Shean (who supposedly was paid $5000 for one line), and of course the Brothers themselves, who were always tweaking and improving lines.
Although Mankiewicz was known to drop by the script conferences from time to time and contribute, he was a pretty hands-off producer. When the writing team came to him for guidance on the plot, he told them “If Groucho and Chico stand against a wall and crack funny jokes for ninety minutes, that’s enough of a plot for me.” When he inevitably got fed up with the writers’ questions interrupting his afternoon boozing sessions, he would yell at them to “get back to [their] hutch,” and if they were good he would bring them “a lettuce leaf to chew on.” “If [Mank] had any loveable qualities,” said Perelman, “he did his best to hide them.” Groucho said, “Herman was a good writer, but he didn’t like to work. He would rather play cards, drink, and get laid [who wouldn’t? — Ed.]. He had a lot of talent but he never used it. He was a character. I think he finally got thrown out of Paramount because he was loaded all the time.” (Mank returned to screenwriting after he washed out as a producer, and his script for 1941’s Citizen Kane won the Oscar, evidently utilizing some of the talent Groucho mentioned.)
Harry Ruby explained that the Marx Brothers didn’t ad-lib much on film, for a very basic reason: “There’s no audience to react. Of course, you couldn’t stop them from ad libbing, but they didn’t carry on the way they did on stage…On stage, there was no one to control them. You couldn’t stop the show and tell them to calm down. But on the set they knew the director could call a halt to shooting and tell them to cut it.” According to Joe Adamson, Groucho found another type of audience. Since the material had not been tested over the course of several hundred live shows as with their first two movies, he would worry when too many takes of a scene caused the sound and lighting crew to no longer have to stifle their laughter at a line or joke. He would then huddle with the writers, or think of something himself, to break up the technicians again.
Groucho in particular was insistent early on in the production process that there be no Margaret Dumont in Hollywood. She represented the old days, and would not fit into their new phase. The team now wanted glamour and sex appeal. The female lead in their first Paramount picture would be a young, modern woman and would be played by Thelma Todd. Todd’s formidable combination of “ice cream blonde” looks and comedic acting skills would definitely be an asset to the Marxes’ new cinematic incarnation. (Dumont’s sidelining — about which she felt both a little hurt and a little relieved — would be temporary.)
Filming began on the stowaway story — titled Monkey Business, with an entirely re-written script — in early April of 1931. Animal Crackers director Victor Heerman was tied to Paramount’s New York studio, so they were assigned a new Hollywood-based director, Norman Z. McLeod. McLeod was a genial, soft-spoken former animator who generally let the Marx Brothers have their way, got the shots when he could, and went on to have a pretty solid musical-comedy directing career (It’s A Gift, Topper, Road to Rio, The Paleface, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, among others).
It is quite clear that Monkey Business is not just a filmed play like their first two movies, but a creation of pure cinema. The camera is finally unleashed, able to follow the Brothers wherever they go — and they went all over. They are nameless agents of chaos. Far from avoiding attention as stowaways, they rampaged across that ocean liner, insulting the captain and taunting the crew. They even got themselves entangled with dangerous gangster Alky Briggs (veteran screen villain Harry Woods) and his beautiful “bad girl” wife (Todd). Zeppo is given his best part yet in a Marx Brothers project — he is the romantic lead! Although he’ll never win an acting prize, he manages to generate some flickers of onscreen charm as he wins the heart of the “good girl” (Ruth Hall) and defeats Alky Briggs in a round of (rather unconvincing) fisticuffs in the climax.
The pace of the film is quickened quite a bit (Animal Crackers is measured and The Cocoanuts is absolutely leaden by comparison). There is just enough time for the piano and harp numbers (there are no “real” songs to be found — any other music is background, or used solely for humorous purposes). For the final third of the story, they are off the ocean liner and engaging in what was already becoming a Marx Brothers trope — disrupting some kind of fancy-dress function. The whole thing streaks across the finish line in a little under eighty minutes.
Monkey Business was released on September 19, 1931, and it was a very much a success — but it slightly underperformed Animal Crackers at the box office. The ever-pessimistic Groucho was once again convinced the team was finished and once again began planning an early retirement, but Paramount was happy with the returns, and plans for the second film on their contract proceeded apace.
Monkey Business is the film from their “peak period” that I probably watch the least. The gangster subplot is a little labored, and the dialogue (though it definitely has its moments) is a notch below Animal Crackers and a notch-and-a-half below the next two films, lapsing too often into old-fashioned corny jokes that seem beneath them, and Perelman’s (who was still finding his voice) sometimes tortured wordplay. Still, it’s better than The Cocoanuts, and astronomically better than their later MGM films.
Vaudeville was all but dead, but the Marxes simply could not shake their addiction to performing live, or more likely, the quick and lucrative paydays live shows provided. In a now-established pattern, they filled a couple of months between films with a short tour of the few remaining vaudeville houses, this time performing the Napoleon scene from I’ll Say She Is. The $10,500 a week they earned for Napoleon’s Return broke records for a vaudeville salary, although one review called the performance “perfunctory.”Continue reading