Wednesday, April 9, 2014

The Annotated Marx Brothers

Thanks to all of you who have written to ask why the annotated guides have disappeared from the site... as most of you guessed it's because they are about to turn into a book.
"The Annotated Marx Brothers" will be published by McFarland next year.
As well as the last three films I never got around to doing here, I promise the book will contain loads and loads of stuff that was never seen online: each entry is massively expanded with new information, and there is an all-new accompanying commentary for each film.
Thanks so much for all the interest, and I hope you like the book.
I've nearly finished it, so I'll be back here soon with more online stuff...

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

The most glorious creature under the sun

 a guest post by Rodney Stewart Hillel Tryster

Nearly a decade before writing the first history of silent film in Ottoman and British Mandate Palestine, R.S.H. Tryster (seen here at age 14) was planning to write a book on the Marx Brothers' writers. 
Though this project never came to fruition, here is a digression related to a song from At the Circus
Yes, that song.

How often does it happen that one of a world-famous performer's favourite party pieces is one best-known for not being showcased in one of his films? 
Of course, it happened to Groucho Marx, who loved singing the song Dr. Hackenbush, which had been written for A Day at the Races. In his next MGM film, At the Circus, he would sing one of his most popular ditties, Lydia the Tattooed Lady, but in A Day at the Races he didn't sing at all, unless one counts By the Old Mill Stream, a few words of which accompany the hand-washing interludes in the big examination scene, and a single line, just before the fade-out, of yet another song that didn't make it into the finished picture, I've Got a Message from the Man in the Moon
Bizarre as it may sound, what these next few paragraphs will examine is the question of whether, in a certain sense at least, Groucho did receive a message from the man in the moon.

To achieve this feat, it is perhaps best to go back to Berlin. 
In the Marxian world, Berlin is usually taken to mean the man who had no hits in The Cocoanuts, or, as Groucho once put it in a letter, "Irving, not Hitler". But in the capital of present-day Germany, in mid-2013, it was hard to walk around without seeing this poster on bus stops:

It was part of a campaign to raise money for a memorial to Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld. 
Hirschfeld (1868-1935), succeeded like no other prominent Berlin figure of the 1920s in combining at least three of the main elements the Nazis wished to purge from society: he was Jewish, socialist and homosexual. 
He was also an empiricist and founded an 'Institute for Sexual Research', as well as what may be considered the world's first gay rights movement. It is not surprising that Hirschfeld's institute and its library were among the earliest targets of the Nazis after they achieved power in Germany. It was ransacked on May 6th, 1933 and most of its contents 'starred' in the great public book-burning that took place four days later, the bonfire topped off by a bust of Hirschfeld. 
Among the witnesses to these events was Christopher Isherwood, whose first permanent lodgings in Berlin had been an apartment attached to the Institute. Hirschfeld himself was absent at the time and instead of returning home from his travels, he ended his days in France.
Hirschfeld was a very well-known figure indeed and his nickname was 'Tante [Aunt] Magnesia'. So much had he become a part of the culture that one even discovers a late 1920s solo cabaret act featuring the actor Wilhelm Bendow as a character called 'Magnesia the Tattooed Lady'.
"So what?," I hear you snort. Tattooed ladies were a staple of a certain kind of entertainment back then. Why should one in 1920s Berlin be relevant to our story, especially if she wasn't even called Lydia? 
Ah, but she was...

The character that eventually morphed into Magnesia the Tattooed Lady began life as Lydia Smith the Tattooed Lady in the literary-political cabaret 'Die Wilde Bühne' ('The Wild Stage') that opened in the basement of Theater des Westens in September 1921. 
The actress Trude Hesterberg was behind this venture, on borrowed money (her artistic co-director was Hans Janowitz, best-remembered for co-authoring the screenplay of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari). Among the talents involved were later legendary names like Friedrich Holländer and Kurt Tucholsky. 

The Tattooed Lady sketch was not a song, however (though Mischa Spoliansky and Kurt Schwabach had the previous year written Das Lila Lied [The Lavender Song], dedicated to Magnus Hirschfeld). Tucholsky and Bendow were the credited authors of the monologue during which Bendow used the illustrations on his torso suit to comment on events of the day.

What is presumably the first script of this act has been published, with topical jokes relevant to the concerns of 1921. Bendow, however, seems to have gone on with the character till at least the end of the decade, by when, as noted above, she had been renamed Magnesia, a nod in Magnus Hirschfeld's direction that seemed to have required no explanations (Bendow's own nickname was 'Lieschen'). 
Nobody claims to know how much of the act was written by Tucholsky and how much by Bendow, though it may not necessarily be the case that Bendow was responsible for more of the material as the years went on. One can read descriptions of Bendow and Tucholsky sitting together many an evening in order to update the act. Not many holds were barred in terms of content and Bendow not infrequently got in trouble with the police.

The act was in two parts, one for mixed audiences and a raunchier finale for which Bendow asked the ladies to leave (this is in the script; it is by no means clear that ladies in the real audience were actually expected to exit). Bendow would introduce himself as coming from the state of Orania, having been born a little behind South America in the city of 'New-Popel' (i.e. 'New-Snot'). 
He then explained that most of the political illustrations were to be found on his breast. Here one could formerly have found the Kaiser and his family, now erased. A blank space is explained as waiting for the man who will bring order to Germany's finances. The right breast showed the king of Greece being bitten by a wild monkey (this was true and had been fatal in 1920). Movie star Fern Andra was in the portrait gallery on his back, part of which had, he said, been confiscated by the censor (this part was "anders als die anderen" - different from the rest, an obvious reference to Richard Oswald's 1919 film of that title about homosexuality). Nearby was Herr Lubitsch, seen filming "Sumurun, the Oyster Princess of Dubarry" (three Lubitsch titles in one – Dubarry was to pop up in Groucho's introduction to the 1939 song). 
The show business jokes continued: the director of the Lessing Theatre was seen at a table counting out and  paying entertainment tax to the Berlin municipality; the table was too long to fit in the area available for the illustration and would be continued, Bendow said, on his sister's body. Two honorary members of the film-extras union were named: Emil Jannings and President Ebert. Bendow apologised for an unsightly spot where the tattoo artist's hand had trembled: "In Munich I call the spot an Expressionist painting. Nobody notices". The first half came to an end with Piesecke, described as a lunatic and the only man in Germany who hadn't gone on strike, and, underneath him, the only living creature in Kattowitz that would vote Polish in the Upper Silesian referendum: a louse.

The second half included Adam and Eve (the apple, Bendow claimed, was drawn from life) and nude dancer Celly de Rheydt in her work clothes ("not even a bonbon in her mouth"). Bendow described parts of his body that had not been approved by the police for exhibition in public; there one would otherwise have been able to see Germany's independent party after its split, the Siamese twins ("partly going for a walk, partly on the road to sin") and a circumcision celebration in southern Madagascar. 
In other accounts, presumably of later versions of the act, this appears to have evolved into "the tribe of wild horsemen, the Goyim, celebrating Ludendorff's circumcision". (WWI military commander Ludendorff was allied with Hitler during the 1923 attempted coup, the 'Putsch'. Apparently partly due to his wife's influence, Ludendorff hated Catholics as much as he hated Jews and Hitler's refusal to join him in the former hatred brought about an estrangement between the two.)

In writing a song about a tattooed lady in the late 1930s, Arlen and Harburg weren't breaking new ground; WWI soldiers had sung 'The Tattooed Lady' to the tune of Harry Von Tilzer's My Home in Tennessee, with lines both suitable and unsuitable for publication at the time (and rhyming 'hips' with 'battleships' into the bargain). 
One published source tries to make a connection between the Bendow act and Groucho's song, but it seems highly speculative. In Ethan Mordden's Love Song: The Lives of Kurt Weill and Lotte Lenya (2012), Bendow's act as Lydia is mentioned as part of a description of early 1920s Berlin cabaret and a footnote goes on to inform us that "Somebody at MGM took note of Lydia, because the Marx Brothers film At the Circus (1939) offered Groucho in a number by Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg, Lydia the Tattooed Lady." 
The footnote also points out how much tamer the MGM version was than Bendow's original. Bendow's Lydia was around before MGM was founded, but could still be seen for a few years after that event. The footnote unfortunately conjures up the unlikely vision of an early 20s talent scout standing at the back of the 'Wilde Bühne', scribbling in his notebook: "Use Lydia character for song after Marx Brothers become famous on Broadway and are finished at Paramount." 
However, the mere fact that someone has already gone into print linking the two Lydias is certainly a reasonable excuse to dig around a bit more.

Was Groucho's tattooed lady called Lydia for any other reason than her convenient near-rhyme with 'encyclopedia'? Whether Harburg intended anything more than that is surely very hard to know with any certainty today, but it is perhaps worth asking how likely it is that he knew of the tattooed lady of Berlin cabaret. 
Bendow's Lydia/Magnesia character seems to have been very well-known locally, but how would the news have reached the USA? Or, more specifically, Harburg? By the late 1930s there were many talents in the USA who had seen better days in Berlin, but if one looks at the chronological list of Harburg's songs, he seems to have collaborated only once with one of them, Franz Waxman (as former pianist for the Weintraub Syncopators, Waxman could easily have been a source of information about Berlin cabaret from the late 1920s on, but can't we do better than that?)
Harburg's schoolmate and good friend, Ira Gershwin, collaborated with Kurt Weill more than once, but not before Harburg had written the song in question. Weill was apparently not very enthusiastic about George Gershwin, but his relationship with Ira seems to have been excellent. Ira and Weill had met no later than the Gershwin brothers' arrival in Berlin in April 1928, when Bendow's tattooed lady character would still have been a staple of his cabaret turns. 
However, much more useful than the chronology of Harburg's published songs is the chronology provided by the Kurt Weill Foundation for Music, where one can read: 'March-June 1937: Begins working with Sam and Bella Spewack, and E.Y. (Yip) Harburg on a musical play ("The Opera from Mannheim") about German refugee actors. Unfinished lost.'

So we do know that Harburg actually spent a lot of time with Weill before working on At the Circus
In his letters to Lotte Lenya, Weill refers to Harburg as brilliant, as well as mentioning that working with him every morning is "a lot of fun", so they probably talked about more than just the show they were working on (and the show they were working on had, in any case, relevance to pre-Nazi German theatre). 
Although it's highly unlikely Weill didn't know about Bendow's Lydia, can we be absolutely certain he did? We can actually get very close, because at the 'Wilde Bühne' in January 1922, shortly after the Lydia character was launched there, a piece of theatre history took place, for a total of six evenings: the only appearances as a performer on the Berlin cabaret stage by Bertolt Brecht. If that doesn't clinch it, nothing will.

Of course, the preceding was just a little game, in order to demonstrate how straight a potential line drawn between the two Lydias could theoretically be. 
Plenty of people who must have known Bendow's version were in Hollywood in the 1930s: 'Wilde Bühne' composer Friedrich Holländer was around as Frederick Hollander; Marlene Dietrich was there, having shared bills and cast lists on the German stage and screen with both Bendow and Trude Hesterberg. Ernst Lubitsch, a comedy specialist, cannot have been unaware that he was allegedly depicted on Lydia's body. In fact, there were probably enough people in the know to justify Harburg's having used the name deliberately as an in-joke.

Exactly when Wilhelm Bendow gave up his tattooed lady is unclear, though Magnesia could not safely have appeared after the Nazis had had their way with Hirschfeld's institute. Despite his apparently open homosexuality, Bendow continued to appear on stage and screen in the Third Reich, though there was a little gap towards the end of the war. He was sentenced to six months in a labour camp for having ad-libbed a line in a shipwreck sketch: he had answered his sketch-partner's cry about salvation upon seeing an island with a drily intoned "Yes, can there be any salvation for us anymore?" - and everyone knew what he meant. (If Bendow spent six months in a labour camp for ad-libbing one line, what would the Marx Brothers have been sentenced to?) 
Probably the biggest production he ever appeared in was Goebbels' answer to The Thief of Bagdad, the colour fantasy epic Münchhausen. Bendow had the small but showy part that must be mentioned if the lead-in to these lines is to make any sense: The Man in the Moon.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Grouch & Kraz 2: Time For Elizabeth

"If he's the salt of the earth, I'm going on a salt-free diet."

Time For Elizabeth was originally a stage play, and the second writing collaboration of Norman Krasna and Groucho Marx, following their only mildly received King and the Chorus Girl. 

According to Wikipedia, according to Krasna, it took ten to fifteen years to write, and closed after eight days when it was finally mounted, with Otto Kruger in the lead, in 1947. 
(Though never filmed at the time, Warner Brothers apparently bought the rights for a cool five hundred thou, but presumably poured ice water on the project when it bombed on stage.)
A large part of the problem for contemporary reviewers was that while Groucho's hand is clearly visible in much of the writing (vastly more so, incidentally, than in King and the Chorus Girl), the fun just seemed to evaporate when it was somebody other than Groucho delivering it (that's anybody other than Groucho, let alone Otto Kruger).

Groucho did appear in several small-scale productions of it in the late fifties and early sixties with reasonable success, but its days as a serious commercial venture seemed clearly behind it, until it was suddenly revamped as a TV special in 1964 with, heavens be praised, the great man still safely ensconced in the lead role.
At around 45 minutes (to fill an hour slot with commercials), it's obviously an abbreviated version of the original material, and, I think, a somewhat altered one, adapted by Alex Gottlieb, a writer-producer with pedigree in Abbott & Costello movies and the film of Hellzapoppin'

Gottlieb, eh?
According to the Mitchell Encyclopaedia, the original plot "concerns a man, Ed Davis, who decides to retire and spend time with his wife in Elizabeth, New Jersey." But in this version it is a colleague who is retiring to Elizabeth, prompting Ed/Groucho to find his own 'time for Elizabeth' by throwing in his job and heading for Florida with his wife. (Allen Eyles has it as Florida in both, as well as offering a more realistic start date for the writing of 1941 and a pleasing original title: Middle Ages.)
Elizabeth or Florida, the net result is the same: the grass is not greener on the other side, and after various comic frustrations (his long dreamed-of fishing trip makes him seasick, days on the golf course are spent mostly in sand traps, and the neighbours with whom they hope to enjoy a regular bridge evening don't know the first thing about the game), he manoeuvres himself back where he started.

The main point of interest at the time was in the fact that Groucho would be appearing alongside the real life Mrs Groucho, Eden Hartford, though in fact she has a small role (that would surely have been snipped if it weren't for the casting) and which seems oddly to mock their real-life status: she plays a seductive gold-digger who fleeces elderly Florida millionaires ("all retired, all with money, all in the frame of mind that life owes them someone like me"), who mistakes Ed for a likely catch.

Groucho and Eden in a publicity shot for the production. (Note to anyone excited by the prospect of seeing him swinging a golf club while stood next to Eden and wearing that costume: in the actual film he does each of those three things separately.)
The show tends to have a very bad reputation on the rare occasions it is permitted any kind of a reputation at all, and I'm not about to make any extravagant claims for it. But I did enjoy it, and I did find it oddly moving, and I'm going to try to explain why.

Firstly, though many will no doubt think me mad, I really like Groucho's performance in this. I like it because it is a performance: though he gets a few chances in the later sections to spread his comedic wings, Ed Davis when we first meet him is pretty much the opposite of the traditional Groucho. He's a harassed executive, at the mercy of his belligerent boss (Roland Winters, the last of the Monogram Charlie Chans), disillusioned with his lot and dreaming of escape. 
At the very end he looks to the camera, wiggles his eyebrows and says, "Tell him Groucho sent you", and it's a lovely moment, almost like a little reward for us. All the rest of the way, for better or worse, he's Ed Davis.
And some of the dialogue nicely conveys the pathos of discovering that realising one's dreams may not always work out how one expects (and may at a push recall The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin for British viewers), as in this exchange between Ed and his wife:

- What did you do this morning?
- I went down to the beach and watched the waves come in.
- Were there many of them? (Pause) What did you do then?
- Watched them go out again.
- Well, you came out even on the day.

Nobody would ever seriously suggest the Marx Brothers' movies would have been funnier if Groucho had written them, so there's no grounds for expecting peerless Paramount-era dialogue. But much of it is jolly enough, and should jerk a smile or two, at least, out of all but the most aggressively purist viewer.
I liked this exchange on his arrival in Florida:

Groucho: How far is the ocean?
Neighbour: You mean the distance?
Groucho: Well I didn't mean the width.
Neighbour: As the crow flies, one short mile.
Groucho: What time does the next crow leave?

When they invite their new neighbours round to play cards and Ed offers them a drink, they request papaya juice, sauerkraut juice and prune juice. "Wouldn't anybody be interested in a little scotch?" he asks. "Scotch what?" replies a guest. "Scotch juice!" he snaps back. 
This scene also contains probably the show's funniest moment, as Groucho, stood behind them, tries to tell his wife that she should wrap the evening up by miming throwing them out, in increasingly violent ways as she fails to take the hint. In the event, he brings the evening to a close by saying he has to visit a dying friend. When one of the guests offers condolences, Groucho replies, "He's lucky!"

Amusing though these occasional flashes of the vintage Groucho are, I think I found this so charming overall because it's about ageing, and about disillusionment, and feeling oneself increasingly peripheral, and acknowledging that one is now preparing for the final stage of life. 
And I think of Groucho himself: writing the play when still in his prime (both personally and professionally), but now, nearly twenty years later, returning to it a visibly older man, beginning to feel the departure of that agility and vitality that were such essential tools, and, surely, remarking to himself how much more of a fit the character of Ed Davis has become.
When he was writing the play, the Marxes were all still very much a going concern in films, radio and concert appearances. Now, Chico had been gone for three years, and Harpo would follow just five months after the programme aired. ("Where did those last thirty years go?" Ed asks at one point; "I never had a good look at them.")
It would be Groucho's lot to continue being Groucho, and Groucho he had to be, almost to the end. (No time for Elizabeth for him.) In effect, the production reminds us that even the Marx Brothers get old, and eventually take their leave, and that's a sobering thought indeed.

(Thanks to W. Gary Wetstein for providing the opportunity to see the programme.)

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Grouch & Kraz 1: The King & The Chorus Girl

I am a notorious slave to thirties cinema - you can tell just by looking at me - and I can honestly say I have never seen a single film from that decade that I couldn't sit through, and remember only a tiny few that I did not enjoy.
Yet I have to admit, I just didn't get The King & The Chorus Girl, despite the obvious reason for interest that has landed it in this blog, and the acting presence of Joan Blondell and Edward Everett Horton, both on good form.

And it gets stranger. Because (apart from the relative unhelpfulness of its inexperienced lead) the source of the problem, so far as I am able to believe such a thing, lies squarely in the scenario and the screenplay.
And that's where the trouble starts for we gathered here. Because as you already know, this is the only screenplay credited to Groucho Marx, in collaboration with his friend and playwright Norman Krasna. (How did he and Krasna collaborate? My guess is that Kraz did the actual writing, while Groucho ad-libbed dialogue and bits of business as they occurred to him.)

The closest thing to it in feel is one of those sorta-Ruritanian Lubitsch and Lubitschesque films of the early thirties; a high comedy musical with Chevalier and/or Jeanette MacDonald. But there's no music here outside the opening stage show (of which we see more than sufficient anyway), and not much froth and energy either. In truth, I found it a curiously draining experience; airless, and sluggish: five minutes could easily be trimmed from every successive ten.
And I think it's fair to say that nobody unaware of the fact of Groucho's involvement would have the smallest chance of detecting his hand in the slow, pedantic and largely laugh-free script.
You realise very early on that Groucho - who wanted so much to be taken seriously as a writer, independently of his career as a performer - is not the kind of man to pepper his script with self-referencing in-jokes: there are no subsidiary characters called Spalding or Claypool here. (Though you do get a singing appearance by Kenny Baker, soon to be seen in more generous quantities at the circus, not knowing if it's a doughnut or a wedding ring. There's also a ready-made part for Margaret Dumont here, but Mary Nash bags it.) But you might still be reasonably expecting a good sprinkling of jokes with something of the great man's style and rhythm. But for me, at least, laughs of any sort come pretty thinly spread, and only Horton's absurd list of titles ("an ordinary Knight of the Bath, an average Knight of the Garter, an everyday Keeper of the Scrolls...") and one very mild exchange ("How did you find Belgium?" "I didn't look for it") even hint at Groucho's involvement.
His name - and it was played up in promotional materials: some of the posters went so far as to feature his face, above the legend "He Wrote It!" - can only have misled.
You can only wonder what Groucho's brothers made of it. (Which is to say I can only wonder. You may already know, or not care. In fact I'll lay odds on the latter.) Harpo, perhaps, would have fallen for the romance and rather enjoyed it, especially with his experience of high society company. Chico, I'll bet, left after fifteen minutes and went to a crap game. Zeppo's real name was Herbert.

Joan Blondell with the hiccups. Up Next: Grouch and Kraz have time for Elizabeth.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Harpo the nurse

Not content with successfully tracking down The Faces doing their rendition of 'One Last Sweet Cheerio' (I'm trying to get it uploaded to here but technology tends to regard me in the way a cat regards a three-legged mouse) Marjie has forwarded these odd shots from Monkey Business, showing Harpo as a demented nurse in front of an odd abstract painting.

I don't think I've seen them before. Presumably a scene that was scripted and shot, but deleted before release (like the immortal 'Groucho ironing Zeppo' scene from Horse Feathers).
As to what's actually going on in them, that I couldn't even guess.

Can anybody fill in the blanks a little?

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Remember the good name of Phelps

So at last, Grover has got what he wanted.
Tommy Rogers is no more.

What this means for the future of the Phelps department store is uncertain, but I do know what it means for the list of surviving Marx Brothers male leads.
Tony Martin was the last one.

Martin had a bigger career outside of the Marxiverse than most of them, and a longer lasting one too. This is reflected by his sharing above the title billing with them.
Unfortunately, though, he doesn't make much of an impression in The Big Store, and for many fans is among the least cherishable of all the smoothie support turns.
Even more unfortunately, I've just used the word 'Marxiverse'.
I'm very sorry and I'll try not to any more.

The chief bone of contention is the 'Tenement Symphony'.
Most of you, if you are to be believed, hate it with grand operatic fervour. But I've spoken to enough fans on the sly to know that it has a certain underground following.
It's certainly got its share of lyrical bathos, and some rhymes so contrived they make your brain sting. (The opening couplet about Schubert and Gershwin rivals Groucho's own "and this birdie goes with Verdi").
But personally, I can't help liking it and Martin both.
I like the way Tommy is Chico's mate, and that he warms to Flywheel from the first time they meet (leading to that weird sequence where they come close to sexually flirting with each other). I love the way the shop has got that machine that enables him to make a unique recording of his song If It's You for that dear old lady. ("If it's you, then I'll rush across the floor.")
And in the Symphony, I just love the bit where Chico and Harpo come in.

The Campbells come tumbling down the stairs.
Doodely-ah, Doodely-ah, Doodely-ah...

My friend Richard had a lovely idea once. Like the way At the Circus ends with that splendid shot of the orchestra drifting out to sea, The Big Store should close by cutting to the old lady that bought Tommy's record, whom we have not seen or thought about since, putting it on the gramophone in her parlour, only to find it is unplayable. The music sounds tinny and distant, it slurs, and all is distorted by crackle and ambient noise. Then either she should pluck it from the machine and smash it in disgust (cue jolly fade out music) or perhaps the camera should simply close in on the gramophone, and The End should be superimposed over the shot, still to the accompaniment of the record making this godawful noise.

Anyway, I'm wandering from the point, which is farewell to Tony Martin.
So farewell to Tony Martin.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

What colour was Sir Harpo Newton's wig?

Harpo's rather sweet appearance in The Story of Mankind lends further weight to the suggestion that his 'blonde wig' may have been light red, as opposed to the preferred red wig he wore on stage (seen looking almost black in The Cocoanuts and photos of the Day at the Races stage try-outs).
Or is he just taking advantage of colour film to get the old red one out of the box again and it's photographed a bit lighter in colour than it looks in black and white? If you turn down the colour on this clip, it could pass for the 'blonde' wig, familiar from the majority of the movies.
Or it could be a third wig, did you think of that?
On the other hand, the almost glowingly blonde one he seems to be wearing in fifties TV appearances (and A Night In Casablanca, but we can save that argument for another day) really is blonde, isn't it?
So that's four wigs. Do I hear five?

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Marx Brothers Place update!

 93rd Street Beautification Association
Keeping Our Block Historic & Green
As many of you recall, the last time historic Marx Brothers Place was in the news, it was because our NYC Council Member Dan Garodnick andthen-Community Board 8 Landmarks Co-Chair Jane Parshall decided to throw ethics out the window - ignoring all standards of legal and administrative procedures - thereby denying Marx Brothers Place a fair and unbiased hearing before the full Board of CB8, and crushing the hopes of Marx Brothers fans, preservationists and an entire neighborhood in the process (recapped here in detail on New York History).
Well, folks, that was almost 2 years ago. And, today, Marx Brothers Place is happily and cheerily back in the news!
Untapped Cities has just published a brand-spanking-new article, written by Lisa Santoro, exploring the history of Marx Brothers Place and celebrating its cultural prominence in the cultural mecca of the world: NYC. 
And when Santoro writes that the preservation campaign is "not down for the count," the native New Yorker says a mouthful! (So does LPC Commissioner Michael Devonshire when he explains in the article that preservation isn't just about buildings, but about culture and humanity.)
So please join us in celebrating this beloved historic block and read Lisa Santoro's article in Untapped Cities today!
Many thanks for your continued support for the campaign to Save Marx Brothers Place!

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Weirdos, whatnots and Flywheel: a fireside chat with Andrew T. Smith

There aren't many people who can honestly say they wrote the book Marx & Re-Marx: Creating and Re-creating the Lost Marx Brothers Radio Series, but one who can, indeed the only one who can, is Andrew T. Smith, a disgustingly youthful wanderer down the byways of popular culture, and the subject of this interview (after Monica Bellucci turned me down on the grounds that she had never heard of the book and suggested I interview the author instead).

Should you part with your hard-earned shillings to obtain a copy? Well, yes, actually you should, because it's that rarest of beasts: the Marx Brothers book that actually tells you something new.
It's a history and analysis of Flywheel, Shyster and Flywheel, to this day a relatively neglected element of the boys' oeuvre, and doubly interesting to me in the light it throws on the writing of Duck Soup. (For instance, the programme features the line, "I'm going to tear you down and put up an office block where you're standing", a quintessentially Groucho-ish quip I was amazed to hear delivered almost word for word in the earlier Paramount film This Is The Night, meaning it got from Paramount script to Paramount script via a radio series...)
I was fascinated. Right on the arm.
It's unquestionably the best book Andrew has written since his pioneering but flawed Guide to the Mammals of China, in which a lot of the mammals proved to be imaginary ones he made up himself, resulting in a series of bloody international protests that almost lost us the Olympics.
In the following conversation, Andrew and I discuss Marxes, Muppets, the difference between screen and radio comedy, and pretty much everything else, except whether or not the 'T' stands for Edgar.

Andrew T. Smith, shortly after losing the Lou Costello lookalike competition for the fourth year running

When and how did you first encounter the Marx Brothers?

think  I first encountered the Marx Brothers at my grandmother's house during one of those Saturday Matinee double bills BBC 2 used to show during the early 90s. In fact, the first time I saw any of their work wasn't through watching one of their films at all; retrospectively I can trace it back to the Robert Youngson compilation film The Big Parade of Comedy. As his finale Youngson chose the runaway train sequence from Go West. Not one of the team's better films but a fantastic Keaton-inspired sequence in isolation.
I can't really say that I became a Marx fan straight away. In fact, it wasn't really until I was around 11-13-ish that I "discovered" them for myself. I was on a family trip to see my Dad, who was working away from home at the time, and we visited a car boot sale. There I found two audio cassette tapes that grabbed my attention. One was a set of soundtracks to the sitcom Are You Being Served?, while the other was a set of episodes from the BBC recreation of Flywheel, Shyster and Flywheel. I fell in love with those episodes despite the fact that they didn't feature the real Marx Brothers, and my appreciation of these shows led me to track down copies of the team's films.
I already had a deep love and admiration for Laurel and Hardy, again encouraged by my grandmother, and although at first the two teams might not seem to have much in common, I think that their appeal to me can be boiled down to what I'd call "watchability." The Marxes appeared in some pretty poor films, as did Stan and Ollie, but no matter what their vehicle is, the performers themselves are always fascinating to watch.
They were masters of their craft and could elevate even the dullest of material. I love the film Hellzapoppin' and will force guests to watch it at the drop of a hat, but the same can't quite be said of Olsen and Johnson or even better known teams like Abbot and Costello or The Three Stooges, brilliant though they could be.

How do you come down on the Paramount period v MGM period issue; do you have any unusual or personal favourite films or scenes that are not usually rated highly by the Marx Consensus Enforcement Brotherhood (MCEB)? Even more heretically, is there any aspect of their work you don't warm to?

I find the Paramount films more consistently funny, but I think the generalisation of two periods labelled by studio is misleading. It is impossible for me, for example, to lump Room Service in with the MGM films and the Thalberg period is distinct from the films made after his death.
To an extent one has to judge each film on its own merits, which might be why I’m one of the few who really like Love Happy! Judged against the team’s highlights – or even as a Marx Brothers film – it isn’t great, but viewed as a solo vehicle for Harpo, with guest appearances from Chico and Groucho, I think it’s a blast.
As for aspects of their work that I don't warm too? Well, I don't think it would be too controversial to say that Room Service and The Big Store are duds, would it? I do fear a late night visit from the MCEB and their hired goombahs though.

I've been writing a bit lately about attitudes towards non-Marx elements in the films, specifically the musical interludes by supporting stars, and romantic subplots. I like the latter, love the former; many fans, however, pride themselves on an iconoclastic dislike of both. Where do you stand on these time capsule irrelavancies? Be honest: do you or do you not skip them when you watch the films at home?

It’s rare that I skip over these scenes, the At The Races ballet excluded (even Glen Mitchell hurries past that one), but it would be fair to say that they don’t hold much interest for me. The one exception that I can think of is the "All God's Chillun Got Rhythm" number, a real showstopper in the best possible sense of the word. My aversion to the non-Marx musical numbers in general might be why I find Flywheel such a perfect distillation of their work: no faff, just gags.

Assuming you like any, who is your favourite co-star (except Dumont)?

Dumont aside, it’s rare that anybody gets a chance to really shine alongside the brothers. There are, of course, exceptions; Thelma Todd, Edgar Kennedy and Sig Ruman spring to mind. She doesn’t particularly get to do much in Room Service, but I love Lucille Ball in her own right. The same goes for Charles Middleton, who briefly appears in Duck Soup, but who really shines as a melodramatic heavy in a number of Laurel and Hardy shorts.

Do you miss Zeppo when he drops out, or is it a case of not missing what you never noticed in the first place?

Zeppo inevitably got a raw deal. By most accounts he was a very funny man in real life, so it’s just a shame that this never came across in the films. What he did do, though, he did well. His departure is partly to blame for the romantic subplots in the MGM films that many seem to dislike so intensely. Previously he had been the one to handle the ‘leading man’ type material, and perhaps because of his status as a brother, things seemed to blend more organically. His leaving the team saw other actors invited in to fill that role. Some worked and some didn't, but I don't think there is a single one of them I wouldn't replace with Zep. It does seem a big shame if one of the major factors in his leaving was due to his non-role in Duck Soup as his skills could have been put to much better use in A Night at the Opera, with its reintroduced romantic subplots. Come to think of it, I bet he would have been good in Deputy Seraph too - but we’re getting into the realms of fantasy now, Jones...

Sometimes when I can't sleep I wonder what it would have been like if they made lots of short films, like Laurel and Hardy. Do you think that would have been good, or do you see them as essentially feature-length comedians?

As long as the writers were top notch, and they were given time to approach the material, rather than being rushed through a Columbia-like sausage machine, I don’t see why not. I guess Flywheel was the closest they ever got to the short comedy format. The show arrived during the dawn of the sitcom format on radio and I certainly think that it worked for them. Whether film audiences would have embraced them in this format, we'll never know. Unless Humor Risk turns up, that is!

Which would you most like to hear had been discovered - recordings of all the Flywheel shows, Humor Risk, or a sound recording of a performance of I'll Say She Is?

That is a very difficult proposition to consider! On the one hand I would love to listen to the entire run of Flywheel. It is such an important and overlooked aspect of the Brothers’ career and actually being able to listen to the episodes would inevitably raise the profile of the series. At the same time, however, there are enough artefacts of Flywheel’s run to gauge its overall feel: the scripts, the remaining recordings, the recreations. In the case of Humor Risk we only have one photo and some hazy recollections from those involved in its production. For that reason I’d have to request Humor Risk – I’m curious! Also, if the entirety of Flywheel magically turned up then my book would be rendered out of date and I wouldn’t make any more money from it. I like money. In fact, if you find any episodes of Flywheel just tell me and nobody else. It’ll be our little secret.

Do you think radio and film comedy differed in any substantial or significant ways, and if that difference is in any way reflected in Flywheel? (Apart from the fact that you can't see them, I mean.)

Hmmmm. In the case of Flywheel I don’t think that there is much of a difference on the page, but the dynamics of Groucho and Chico’s performances are certainly a little different. Their delivery for the most part is slower; understandably so in that they would have been reading from scripts rather than delivering well-rehearsed material. Groucho’s delivery in particular seems a little less sure. The general conception seems to be that radio comedy emerged as a showcase for a new breed of rapid-fire comedian. In the case of the Marx Brothers I don’t think this was much of a problem, they were already rapid-fire comedians. Laurel and Hardy, on the other hand, really had to work on modifying their gentle act for radio. They were equally capable of great wordplay, but their dialogue scenes were as slow and measured as their physical humour. Neither of their two forays into the medium works particularly well, but they’re worth a listen.
I think the main differences between Flywheel and the features stem from the sitcom format rather than the radio medium. The characters are forced into interacting with a wider variety of characters and, unlike in many of the films, these supporting characters get more than one or two lines in before the next Marx interruption. If the writers were really creative I think that Harpo could have been afforded a recurring role. The radio adaptation of Dick Vosburgh’s A Night In The Ukraine manages to get by with copious sound effects.

Deputy Seraph is a rather grim prediction of what a Marx television show would have been like, but if they'd only got their act together ten years earlier a Marx tv series might well have worked. They could even have adapted Flywheel scripts, and worked in some viz biz for Harpo. But people just didn't seem that interested in the fifties.

Well, my first thought is to confess that I actually quite like what I have seen of Deputy Seraph, although I haven’t read the full script (which is coincidentally available from the same company that published my book). From what I recall, the Brothers were only to feature in the segments set in heaven. On earth they would inhabit the bodies of whichever guest stars were featured that week. I seem to recall as well that all of the earthly segments were to have been filmed in England. I wish they had at least finished the pilot, as I would have loved to see what other actors would have done in the parts. It would probably been awful, but at least it would have been more Marx material to digest.
Flywheel television show was attempted off the back of the success of the BBC revival. The full story can be found in my book, but to summarise a pilot was recorded and, as you suggest, Harpo was added to the mix. It wasn’t very good and when I interviewed folks about it I got the distinct impression that they’d all rather it never surfaced again. I’ve seen it and it’s not that bad, but I can see where they are coming from. It takes a lot of work to adapt an audio script to a visual medium and they just didn’t have the time or money to do so. Visually, it’s not that much more sophisticated than one of those comedy sketches contestants were hurried through on The Generation Game!

Have you seen Papa Romani, Chico's sitcom pilot? It's one of those things that I can't defend but watch over and over and over. If only it had gone to a series! But terrible to think that the team were still around, and active, and working, and this sort of thing was all folks could find for them to do.

 From what I can remember, Papa Romani is a very odd entity, made in the mold of other ‘ethnic’ shows like The Goldbergs. Actually, I’d love to see it again – so much of it has faded from my memory. Of all the television possibilities available to them in the fifties, however, I think it’s a shame that Harpo wasn’t invited back onto I Love Lucy or The Lucy Show, perhaps with Chico in tow. The sight of Lucy struggling to make sense of both Ricky and Chico’s accents at the same time would have been something to behold!

Fashions in humour do seem to go in waves, and often what is fashionable to one generation is seen to be merely fashionable to the next, as its emptiness is revealed. The Marxes tended to work in reverse for long periods of the time: fashion blinded people to their excellence. This takes us to the nature of their appeal: they are very, very broad, and very, very sophisticated at the same time. I often feel that the sophisticated elements of their humour actually alienated large parts of the audience that would otherwise have responded warmly to the broader bits. It seems like a lot of people thought they were talking down to them, smart-mouthing, mocking the audience in the same way they mock Sig Rumann. Do you agree at all? It really does seem like they constantly had to soften their act to get by, first with MGM fluff, then with Groucho's transmogrification into cheeky uncle quizmaster. I guess a radio series would be an even riskier proposition than a movie, if this were the case. I see the typical home audience as something like the Waltons, clustered round the steam-driven radio set in their dungarees, and emphatically not wanting to hear two smart alecks being cynical... The Hollywood Agents pilot which survives is a lot softer. 

You make a good point about the makeup of a typical radio audience at the time of Flywheel’s broadcast, but I think it’s important to note that the original incarnation of Flywheel, Shyster and Flywheel was by no means a flop. Of all of the shows broadcast under the banner of the Five Star Theatre, the Marx Brothers were judged the audience favourite by popular vote. The listening figures were equally respectable – just not quite as respectable as Standard Oil’s major rival Texaco and their show hosted by Ed Wynn. It is easy to see why Wynn won larger audiences, however, with his avuncular, family-friendly persona.

I see you're working on a book about the Muppets next. In common with many people, I suspect, I first encountered "Lydia the Tattooed Lady" in its Kermit version, via the Muppet LPs. Seems pretty obvious to me that the Henson boys were Marx fans.

First of all, thank you for the lead in to a much appreciated opportunity to plug Frogs, Hogs, Weirdos and Whatnots – coming soon to all good, and some bad, bookshops near you. It’s going to be a whopper, covering pretty much everything the Muppets have appeared in between the mid 1950s and now. Get those pre-orders in at and be the envy of all your friends and so on and so forth.
Yes, Henson was a big fan of the Marx Brothers. In fact, “Lydia the Tattooed Lady” was one of his favourite songs. It was performed by Jim as Kermit in the second ever episode of The Muppet Show in 1976 and, as you remember correctly, appeared on the first Muppet Show LP. Henson also recorded it as Rowlf the Dog in 1984 for an album entitled Ol’ Brown Ears Is Back, which wasn’t actually released until some years after his death. In the meantime Kevin Clash had sung the song in character as Elmo at Henson’s memorial service in 1990. It was clearly a song that, no matter how silly, meant something to him. Actually, as a side note, the first film that Henson could recall seeing at the cinema was The Wizard of Oz, further solidifying that Arlen and Harburg connection! In another episode of that first season of The Muppet Show, there is a pastiche of Duck Soup’s mirror routine and in the special Sesame Street: 20 and Still Counting, Grover can be heard selling Tootsie-Frootsie Ice Cream. There are lots of these kinds of examples, but I think the Muppets’ connection to the Marx Brothers is actually a little deeper than this. If one looks at the format of The Muppet Show with its theatre setting and variety acts, it can clearly be seen to be a tribute to vaudeville and music hall. Throughout the series’ run, the characters perform loads of old vaudeville tunes and if you look at the guest stars featured each week, the producers often booked seasoned pros like George Burns, Ethel Merman, Bob Hope and Edgar Bergen – the closest living equivalents to genuine vaudevillians like the Marx Brothers. It’s a shame that Groucho didn’t hang on for another couple of years really, he would have made a perfect guest! So yeah, even though the two “teams” were separated by decades, they both originated from a very similar place. I’m running a website to help promote the book at the moment called Muppet Reasons ( Each day I throw up a video or an image or a link which provides a reason to love the Muppets. In honour of this interview, I shall try to ensure that every reason during the week of this posting evokes the Marx Brothers in some way.

An album just of Rowlf songs called Ol’ Brown Ears Is Back??? Surely that’s the best title for an album ever?

 I love living in a world where a puppet dog can release a Frank Sinatra parody album, don't you? Actually, the album has little to do with Old Blue Eyes. Instead, it’s a collection of songs that would seem to have been Henson’s favourites. He loved silly songs, so as well as Muppet favourites like “Bein’ Green” it also featues daft stuff like “Carbon Paper” and “You and I and George”. I’d love to know the story behind that album. Did Henson record it on a whim? Why was it held from release for so long?

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Holy shit...

"The Anatomy of Harpo Marx is a luxuriant, detailed play-by-play account of Harpo Marx's physical movements as captured on screen. Wayne Koestenbaum guides us through the thirteen Marx Brothers films, from The Cocoanuts in 1929 to Love Happy in 1950, to focus on Harpo's chief and yet heretofore unexplored attribute--his profound and contradictory corporeality. Koestenbaum celebrates the astonishing range of Harpo's body--its kinks, sexual multiplicities, somnolence, Jewishness, "cute" pathos, and more. In a virtuosic performance, Koestenbaum's text moves gracefully from insightful analysis to cultural critique to autobiographical musing, and provides Harpo with a host of odd bedfellows, including Walter Benjamin and Barbra Streisand."
(- blurb)

"Wayne Koestenbaum is our Roland Barthes, updated, remastered, cleared for the pressure zone of American mythologies. Delicate and brave, discerning and outrageous, the meditations organized around the other Marx track unconscious byways and the remarkable turns of a highly personal investment. Startlingly original, Koestenbaum provides critical understanding with poetic acuity and breathtaking disclosure."
( - Avital Ronell, author of The Test Drive)

Updates, correspondence, this, that, the other

First of all: God Bless You, Bob Gassel for alerting me to the fact that the complete Incredible Jewel Robbery is now online.
With the exception of Story of Mankind this is it, it's the other Marx Brothers film, the only one, and for me the last one. Never again will I settle down to watch a Marx movie I've never seen before...
I'm still pressing for the DVD release: You Tube is all very well, but I'm into ownership and collecting and things on shelves.
You can see it just below this post, and I'd love to know what you make of it in the comments.

In other news:

Ed Watz, author of the book on Wheeler and Wolsey and general man about classic comedy got in touch recently to say some very nice things about the site, make me jealous ("I saw Groucho's show at Carnegie Hall, May 5 1972, when I was 13"), and to suggest the ideal snack to accompany a glass of Ravelli Wine:

Diamond geezer Noah Diamond looked in to comment on my post on Groucho and pornography. His excellent comedy blog Noah's Comedy Palace is highly recommended: I'll be filching the sensational Hackenbush song restoration for my Day at the Races annotated guide, up next, but here's another of his amazing pieces of work, from the same source:

Wow, say I, and doubtless you're thinking much the same. I've no idea how long this sort of thing takes to do, because I've no idea how to do it in the first place. But if it was one tenth as laborious as it seems to this complete know-nothing then it is as impressive a piece of work as it is delightful. And he still finds the time to do a live show about the history of New York and write a load of leftie stuff about how Republicans are all jerks and things like that. 

A reader called Roger - I think that's all the name I ever got out of the guy - dropped me a line on the subject of Irving Brecher standing in for Groucho in some later MGM publicity shots. It's one of those famous stories that gets taken on trust without much evidence to back it up.
Like him, I've always been struck by the fact that the chap in the photo most often used in support of the contention (by Glenn Mitchell, among multitudes) couldn't be more obviously Groucho if he was actually holding his birth certificate.
Roger, however, nominates this as a more likely Brecho: 

I don't know if it's Brecher or not, but it sure ain't Julius. And Chico and Harpo seem to be deliberately acknowledging the switch with their gestures and expressions. What do you think?

LA Guy quite rightly takes me to task for not incorporating readers' additions and corrections into my annotated guides - rest assured that this was the idea behind soliciting your opinions in the first place, and it is only laziness holding me back: I certainly will be continuing to update in the light of new information, so do please keep the comments and observations coming.

Damian writes with the following enquiry:

I'm currently reading Carter Beats the Devil a fictional story based on an early 20th century magician. In the story he joins a touring troupe, consisting of a variety of acts one of which is the Marx Brothers, performing Fun in Hi Skule. The brothers are used simply as characters who pop in and out of the pages, with Julius offering some wisecracking advice to Carter the magician while Leonard and Adolph spend their time either performing on stage, playing piano or playing pinochle. No mention of Herbert or Milton, but Minnie is there in full force too. Is this the only occurrence of the Brothers in fiction or are there others that exist?

Well, I've just discovered Ron Goulart's charming detective novels featuring amateur sleuth Groucho Marx, and I'll be doing a post on them soon. They're very nice little mysteries with lovely thirties Hollywood and New York backgrounds, and the excellent notion of having Groucho, in the lulls between radio gigs and the last few MGM movies, helping solve a few perplexing murder cases with just the right mix of irreverence and sharp observation. He's a bit like Columbo, in that he can get more out of a witness than more by-the-book investigators, simply because they are reluctant to take him seriously and so lower their guard.
More to come on these, but do any readers know of any other good fiction with Marx guest appearances?

Speaking of Marx fiction, long time friend of the site Ginger Ingenue has been posting some mind-boggling stuff on her blog Asleep In New York, currently hibernating again after an especially fine burst of activity. Read her Greetings From Vaudeville here: it'll change how you see the boys forever after.
She also dropped the following provocative hint, during a discussion of Chico's odd hat antics:

... drooling over Chico helps you notice these things. In fact, I noticed something in Monkey Business yesterday, but I'll never ever EVER in a million years tell a soul. Ha. Too funny: but proof where my eyes were. 

Further interrogation yielded the information that the moment in question is in the top half of the film and involves the bottom half of Chico... but that's as far as she'll go.
First one to spot it gets a big juicy steak with no spinach.

Lastly, I'm not giving up in my quest for sexy Grouchos: Ginger tantalised me with the prospect of a photograph of her dressed as Chico, for which we're still waiting by the way, but all and any photographs of young women dressed as the Marx Brothers are welcome. 

Now I'm going back into the closet, where men are empty overcoats. 
Off to the races next.

Complete “Incredible Jewel Robbery” at last!

(with thanks to Bob Gassel)

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Chico's odd hat antics

We've had a few intriguing communications in recent months from Bob Gassel, who I must assume, until I receive evidence to the contrary, is the same Bob Gassel who worked on the Jerry Springer Show and a programme called Lesbian Mom.
(Update: He was that Springer guy, and still is, but now he's also our pal Bob.)

A while back, he wrote to ask the following of you all:

The other day I attended my first Macy's Thanksgiving Parade and had a great time. I later looked online at the history of the big balloons and found a listing of when each was introduced. Suddenly I came across "1935: The Marx Brothers (without Zeppo)"!
Really? WTF! How could I have never heard of this? Does a picture or film exist anywhere? HELP!!!!

Unfortunately I forgot to post it at the time, but anyone got any thoughts?
Even more interesting was the following throwaway remark in a recent comment:

There's one quick shot in the Animal Crackers finale where Chico has his hat on backwards and over his must be from a totally different take, or is possibly not even Chico at all...

This is a matter that has been raised round here in the past, but for some reason I forgot to look into it further. Anyway, Bob has very kindly provided us with a couple of screen grabs. He writes:

It's only a couple of seconds long and the rest of the time Chico's hat is on normal…and while I'm pretty sure it's still Chico, he sure looks different.

He does indeed...

I agree with Bob that it is Chico, but why he's doing it, and why only in one shot I can't imagine.
Presumably he was in that quixotic mood that occasionally came over him, like when he pulls that face singing 'Freedonia, oh dont'ya cry for me."

But what do you think?
And thanks for joining our happy band, Mr Gassel!

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

LAGuy on Horse Feathers and Animal Crackers

Our pal LAGuy, who blogs over at Pajama Guy, PajamaGuys and the vaguely superfluous Pajama-Guy got to go and see a double-bill of Horse Feathers and Animal Crackers over the Christmas break, while the rest of us were stuck indoors.
He has kindly sent us this report

For several years now the Aero Theatre in Santa Monica has shown a Marx Brothers double feature on New Year's Day.
Last year it was A Day At The Races and A Night At The Opera, which I discussed on this blog in the comments section of the Opera annotation. This year they showed Horse Feathers and Animal Crackers. (Do they ever show any films after the first seven?)
Bill Marx, son of Harpo (who was signing his book Son Of Harpo Speaks in the lobby) introduced the film. Last year it was Andy Marx. Bill said there's nothing like seeing a Marx Brothers film in a packed theatre (and the Aero was packed). The Paramounts are his favorites.
Anyway, I won't go over the countless comic delights of the two films, since I'm sure readers are aware of them. (If not, see the movies, don't bother to learn them from me.) So I just have a few comments about other things I noticed.

I love almost everything about Horse Feathers, even the little moments, like Groucho skipping away as he reprises "I'm Against It."
I know it's silly to worry about a plot in their Parmount films, but boy do they drop the whole bootlegger thing fast.
I wasn't looking closely, but as far as I could tell, the street where Harpo causes a traffic jam has a cafe, a sweet shop and two cigar stores.
I think British people know this, but just in case, when Groucho says of his son that he's only a shell of his former self "which nobody can deny," he's quoting the last line of the American version of "For He's A Jolly Good Fellow."
The radio says Huxley is taking a lacing, so I'm always surprised when Chico and Harpo get there that the team is only losing 12-0. I'm also disappointed when Chico announces they're going through the middle and instead they sweep left--up till this point, Chico has been quite accurate.

As for Animal Crackers, I wonder how many people would have guessed in 1930 that Groucho's parody of Strange Interlude would become far better known than Strange Interlude itself? (Maybe the Theatre Guild wasn't so lucky after all.)
It's interesting how Lillian Roth exclaims "isn't it romantic" in introducing her song. You almost expect her to sing "Isn't It Romantic?" except that song hadn't been written yet - it would be in two years for another Paramount production.
Why is Harpo's picture of a horse torn in the corner? Couldn't the Paramount prop department get him another?
I was watching Lillian Roth to see how she reacts to Groucho's "Then it's murder" line, since this is the one she kept cracking up on. She smiles and shakes her head. I wonder how many takes were necessary.
Mrs. Rittenhouse owns some pretty modernistic chairs in the scene where Chico and Groucho plan to build a house.
Someone had to scratch a bunch of frames so when Harpo is loading his sprayer you can't see the brand name (which I'm guessing is Flit)? [Sure is! See Annotated Guide - MC]
Harpo dropping silverware is a classic routine, of course, but it must have been far more effective on stage where the audience knew it was happening right before their eyes with no trickery. [And without those destructive cuts creating the false impression that they are stopping to refill his sleeve between shots! - MC]

Watching the two movies one after another couldn't help but remind you of certain similarities:

--Groucho does the leg swinging dance move in both

--both have the tune "Collegiate" (the Professor's theme and Chico's solo)

--Groucho jokes about firing some employee if he does something he doesn't want

--Chico notes a picture doesn't look like someone

--Groucho asks someone to repeat something and when they do notes they already said that

--Robert Greig

--I think Chico says the same Italian line to Lillian Roth and Thelma Todd

--Harpo pulls out and quickly unfurls a large picture more than once

--Groucho talks about brushing up on a Greek and waxing a Roth

--Harpo carries a bag loaded with fancy equipment so he and Chico can commit a crime

--when Harpo's coat is removed, there's not much underneath

Sunday, November 20, 2011

How to fake a fake moustache (and perform a forward and reverse Groucho or die trying)

I found this picture by doing a Google search for 'sexy Groucho'.
Why I was doing a Google search for 'sexy Groucho' is another story and a very unpleasant one, but I think it's fair to say this photo more or less lives up to its promise, despite the presence of that open tin of paint and industrial yellow mop and bucket behind her.
If you are the sexy Groucho in question, why not drop us a line here at the council to let us know why you decided to have yourself photographed as a sexy Groucho in what looks like a disused kitchen, and whether it is something you do regularly or just that once.
And if any of you know of an even sexier Groucho, by all means send me the photos to prove it. (I've added 'Sexy Grouchos' as a label so I'm relying on you all now.)

Yes, it's party season, that's the point, and doubtless you'll all be digging out the Groucho costume, heading off to the office party, and wondering why nobody wants to dance with you. (Unless you're our sexy Groucho here, who was doubtless danced off her feet all night, with and without that wheelie-bucket.)
But as our sexy Groucho ably demonstrates, it's vital to get the look exactly right. There's nothing worse that dressing up as Groucho and having people just assume you're Professor Robert Winston.

So here are some tips, courtesy of ("Discover the expert in you").
First, how to have a Groucho moustache.
"Groucho Marx is one of the most recognizable stars from Hollywood's early days," the preamble informs us, "thanks in part to his exaggerated mustache and eyebrows".
Of course you can save time by buying a glasses-nose-moustache combo ready made, and save yourself having to deal with all that messy greasepaint. This link will get you to the relevant page of the 'Just for Fun' online party supplies website, and to a charming photograph of what Groucho might have looked like in the nineteen-seventies if he'd retained his hair, and started smoking carrots.
Meanwhile, back at ("Discover the expert in you"), here's how to be really serious and get yourself the whole costume. Full marks to whoever wrote this one for remembering Gummo, but points withdrawn for offering me no assistance whatsoever on how to create a Gummo costume.
A Groucho swing dance move is apparently a real move in swing dancing (hence the name) that is inspired by the famous loose-limbed Groucho dance, but not, obviously, a mere imitation of it. Imagine how silly that would look. The link above will show you how to do both a forward and a reverse one, which is like a forward one, only backwards. Bizarrely, it tells us that "the move may actually be referred to by a different name depending on the person to whom you're speaking".

And while we're on the subject of fake moustaches and their purpose and application in theory and practice for fun and profit, Damian, one of our most esteemed and longest-serving council members has forwarded me the following anecdote and photographic evidence. Make of it what you will...

I was in Berlin at the weekend and went to visit the Film and Television Museum. While passing through the Dietrich archive I came across a picture of her and good old Groucho which made me do a double take. It wasn't the photo itself but the fact that Groucho's 'tache and eyebrows looked like they had been retouched by hand. I don't know if he wasn't wearing his grease paint smear on that day and then the studio put it in afterwards, or if it needed 'thickening' - either way someone got nifty with a .001 paintbrush.
Photography wasn't allowed and I had already been approached twice for taking shots so I couldn't take a snap of the actual photo; I have tracked down a copy on the net and attached it, and even in this version it looks a few shades darker than anything else in the shot!

(That's Groucho on the left.)