Chico on his endless tour, 1946
The Sidewalk, it was called, and then a little later, Diamonds in the Sidewalk. It was a treatment written by Ben Hecht as a project for Harpo. Like many, Hecht saw potential in Harpo as a solo star, a silent clown in the mold of Charlie Chaplin. Of course, by 1946, Chaplin was speaking on film, and Harpo was nearing sixty years old, so it may have been a little late to jump into this kind of thing.
Ben Hecht was a veteran screenwriter who had befriended the Marx Brothers in their early Hollywood days, and made many uncredited contributions to their scripts at both Paramount and MGM. In the years leading up to World War II, he was also an incredibly fervent Jewish activist to the point of radicalism, supporting the Zionist movement and even armed resistance to the British occupation of Palestine. In these endeavors, he had the moral and financial support of Harpo, with whom he had grown close. After the war, when his attention returned to his day job, Hecht took an original story outline from Harpo, and began putting together a scenario to showcase Harpo’s talents.
The last of the Marx Brothers’ offspring was Melinda Marx, born to Groucho and Kay on August 14, 1946, when A Night in Casablanca was still doing good business in theaters. Since its release, Groucho had earned a living with magazine articles, paid endorsements, and radio guest spots. One film offer came his way, and he jumped on it. It would be his first solo movie role, co-starring with Carmen Miranda in Copacabana.
After A Night in Casablanca, Harpo returned to retirement. Or semi-retirement. Every so often, he would accept an offer to perform, usually on behalf of a charity or fund-raiser for a good cause. (Sometimes the cause was helping Chico.) “Dad performed only when he had the urge,” Harpo’s son Bill said. “He’d work his ass off for a day or an evening. At the end of it, he’d say ‘I feel better. I had to get out in front of people again.’” A far cry from the terrified, non-singing Nightingale who wet himself at his stage debut in 1908.
During the war years, the ever-restless Zeppo had gradually extricated himself from the agency he ran with Gummo. He began breeding thoroughbred horses, became one of the largest citrus ranchers in the Coachella Valley, and when those weren’t enough, he established an engineering company called Marman Products, specializing in clamps and coupling devices. At its height, Marman employed several hundred workers, and supposedly produced the clamps that held the atomic bombs in place in the B-29s until they were dropped over Hiroshima and Nagasaki. (An often-repeated fact that I have been unable to confirm. So I’ll just repeat it like everyone else.)
The end of the Marx, Miller, and Marx theatrical agency seems to be shrouded in mystery. No one can agree when Gummo officially closed up shop. Robert S. Bader has the agency ending as early as October of 1947, while Simon Louivsh called it a “slow wind-up,” finally ending around 1952. Another source says it was bought outright by MCA in 1949. Whatever the case may be, Gummo continued to be his brothers’ personal agent and manager when called upon.
Chico was finally feeling his age. He walked with a distinct stoop, was often short of breath, and needed a nap in his dressing room between performances. He still delighted in pointing out a sign backstage at the Roxy Theater in New York that read “Any Girl Found On Chico Marx’s Floor Will Immediately Be Fired,” but that may have been an historical curio by 1947. In other areas, he showed no signs of slowing down. He traveled in the company of his new companion, Mary Di Vithas, known as “Mary Dee,” whom everyone agreed bore a striking resemblance to ex-wife Betty. In March of 1947, he suffered a heart attack in Las Vegas, and was sidelined for a while, but his raging gambling addiction needed to be fed, so he was soon back on the road*. He and his band performed in Germany and England later in 1947, and then toured Australia in the spring of 1948. He returned returned to Europe for a grueling five-month tour in 1949, including a four-week residency at the London Palladium as a double act with Harpo. (Harpo prepared for the gig by going to the U.K. early and doing solo shows in Leeds and Glasgow.)
Bob Hope was hosting a star-studded, one-shot radio special sponsored by Walgreens drugstore in April of 1947. The show began to run long, and guest star Groucho was getting irritated and impatient waiting for his cue. When it finally came, he ignored the script and began a long and hilarious improvisation with Hope. Listening backstage was John Guedel, producer of Art Linkletter’s game show People Are Funny (and inventor of the concept of a “re-run.”) He was struck by Groucho’s skill at ad-libbing, and realized that Groucho’s failures in radio were due primarily to sticking to the rather corny scripts that dominated radio variety in those days. Guedel approached Groucho about hosting his own radio game show, one where he could improvise freely. Groucho was dubious, but agreed to look at whatever proposal Guedel came up with.
Guedel concocted a game show where the game itself — a fairly straightforward quiz — was secondary to Groucho’s personality and interaction with the guests. He called it You Bet Your Life, and offered to go fifty-fifty with Groucho in ownership of the format. Groucho still had his doubts. “I don’t know if I can do the glad-hand bit and be sincere,” he told Guedel. He told others hosting a quiz show was “like slumming.” Still, he accepted Guedel’s offer and preparations were made, including a test recording to shop around to sponsors. Gummo handled all the financial arrangements.
Groucho’s first solo film, Copacabana, was released in May of 1947. “Solo” in the sense of without his brothers, he still had to contend with the hyperactive presence of Carmen Miranda, the Brazilian singer famous for wearing fruit on her head. Groucho played her shady agent in his usual style. He still sported a fake mustache, only instead of a swipe of greasepaint, it was a proper paste-on job. Copacabana was a fairly solid musical comedy that was more of a showcase for Miranda, and got decent reviews at the time, but it was far from a classic. “The only reason I took the job is because it was the only one offered to me,” said Groucho. “Except for making a Marx Brothers picture, something I have no more desire for or interest in.” United Artists saw potential in Marx-Miranda as a comedy team for future films, but Groucho demurred. Movies were clearly not going to be a major part of his career going forward, so it’s a good thing the You Bet Your Life deal had come along.
In the meantime, Ben Hecht’s treatment for Harpo, Diamonds in the Sidewalk, was crawling its way towards becoming a reality. Hecht, who was very in demand, wrote a rough screenplay, then opted out of further participation. Subsequent rounds of the of screenplay went through a rogue’s gallety of writers, with two (Frank Tashlin and Mac Benoff) ending up with the credit. Early on, Chico was added to the story in a supporting role. By the time You Bet Your Life was about to hit airwaves, Groucho had grudgingly agreed to a small cameo appearance. Adding the other Brothers was at the insistence of producer Lester Cowan. “It was never designed as a Marx Brothers film,” insisted director David Miller. Nevertheless, before the project even left the early screenplay phase, all three brothers were on board.
Early days of You Bet Your Life, ABC, Fall 1947
You Bet Your Life premiered on the smallest of the three radio networks, ABC, on October 27, 1947 to the smallest of audiences (it was ranked 96th in the weekly ratings). But they tinkered with the format, added the “secret word” that could gain contestants bonus cash, and hired a straight-laced announcer named George Fenneman that Groucho could play off of like a “male Margaret Dumont.”
Radio shows could now be pre-taped, so each episode of You Bet Your Life, which sometimes rambled on for almost ninety minutes in the studio, could be edited down to a tight 24 minutes containing only the best bits. Although Guedel’s initial interest in Groucho had been due to his ad-libbing skills, You Bet Your Life could be said to be semi-improvised at best. The contestants were pre-interviewed extensively, and Groucho was given an array of witty remarks by his writers based on the contestants’ responses and personalities. (Of course, he could always choose to go rogue as the tape rolled, which he often did.)
Groucho humbly accepted most of the much-younger Guedel’s suggestions and advice. “All your shows have been successful,” he told Guedel. “I’ve lost every sponsor I’ve ever had.” Groucho drew one line in the sand — he refused to put on the old frock coat and greasepaint mustache for the studio audience. “That character is dead,” he insisted. Instead, he grew a real mustache (later augmented with a thin, subtle toupee that hardly seemed worth the effort of putting on).
You Bet Your Life’s listening audience grew slowly but steadily. When their contract with ABC expired in 1949, Marx and Guedel were offered a small fortune to jump to CBS, where the show entered the top ten and stayed there for years.
The Marx Brothers, 1948
Diamonds in the Sidewalk was re-titled Love Happy, and Mary Pickford, the former silent film star and one of the founders of United Artists, joined Lester Cowan as producer. Groucho’s cameo appearance had grown into a full supporting part in the most recent draft of the script. His old greasepaint mustache character was indeed gone, replaced by the much more normal-looking character of Sam Grunion, private eye. Grunion was intended to be a framing device, appearing only at the beginning and end of the picture as he talked to the camera, introducing and wrapping up the Harpo storyline.
The main story features Harpo as a loveable tramp who provides stolen food to a poor, struggling song-and-dance troupe (featuring Chico as “Professor Faustino”). Little does he know that one of the cans of sardines he pilfers contains a stash of smuggled diamonds, and the smugglers want them back.
Sam Grunion, Private Eye
Love Happy started shooting in August of 1948 with David Miller at the helm, and Harpo with the bulk of the screen time. Harpo soon found he did not get along with the abrasive Cowan, which led to a tense atmosphere on set. Cowan ran the production on a shoestring, and had to completely shut it down at least once due to lack of funds. Cowan’s solution was to re-tool the chase sequence at the end to be set among the city rooftops, and literally sold the billboards seen in the background to companies for in-movie advertising.
As if to atone for “slumming” on a quiz show, Groucho was also working on something on a somewhat higher artistic plane. He put the finishing touches on the play he had been writing, off and on, with Norman Krasna for several years, and declared it ready for production. The problem was, no one who read it liked it all that much. Time For Elizabeth lacked Groucho’s trademark bite. It was a mild-mannered domestic comedy about a man who takes an early retirement to Florida, only to find retirement doesn’t agree with him. The leading role was intended to be played by Groucho himself, but his commitment to You Bet Your Life ruled out that option. Groucho and Krasna put up their own money, and Krasna would direct. Otto Kruger was cast in the lead, and Time For Elizabeth opened at the Fulton Theater on Broadway on September 27, 1948. It managed eight performances before closing in the face of reviews that ranged from dismissive to scathing.
The cast of “It’s Only Money,” as it was called in 1948
Groucho did not have time to brood over the play’s failure. In addition to recording his quiz show, he filmed his scenes for Love Happy, and as soon as those were done, headed over to RKO Studios through the end of the year to co-star in a comedy with Jane Russell and Frank Sinatra called It’s Only Money. RKO had just been purchased by Howard Hughes, and once completed, It’s Only Money gathered dust on the shelf while Hughes spent the next few years reorganizing the company in his usual obsessive but disordered manner.
One of the only times in Love Happy when Groucho is onscreen with another Brother
Over at General Service Studio, the unpleasant experience of filming Love Happy finally came to an end for Harpo and Chico in January 1949, with two days of reshoots in February. The film sat in limbo while Lester Cowan scraped together enough funds to complete post-production work. He decided Groucho should appear throughout the film, so bits and pieces of the Sam Grunion framing device were cut out and edited into random places throughout the story. Groucho also provides narration due to the film’s total lack of coherence at times.
Love Happy went into extremely limited release in October 1949, then it was pulled by United Artists for more editing. It received its nationwide release on March 3, 1950. Unlike A Night in Casablanca, it was not a late-period success. Audiences ignored it and critics panned it. Neither Harpo nor Groucho mentioned it in their memoirs. Everyone wanted to forget its existence. Executive producer Mary Pickford did forget its existence. (When asked about the film years later, her response was “Love what?”) By coincidence or not, it was the last film she ever produced. The only thing that could be said for it was that Marilyn Monroe appeared as one of Grunion’s prospective clients at the end of the movie. It was her third film. She had two lines.
Is Love Happy a true Marx Brothers movie? I vote No. It was conceived and planned by Harpo and Hecht as a solo turn for Harpo. It was only billed as “the Marx Brothers” because Cowan broke the contractual agreement that forbade him from doing so. Chico is tacked on. Groucho is a tack-on to a tack-on. Groucho isn’t even really “Groucho” anymore, although his old caricature is used in the film’s publicity material.
And all three Marx Brothers never share a single scene together. I will die on the hill of there being only twelve Marx Brothers movies. But…it’s listed in all the Marx Brothers movie books alongside the others. So I’ll express my disdain for it by calling it even less watchable than Room Service.Continue reading