Monday, April 27, 2009
I'm going to tell you something you almost certainly don't know about the Marx Brothers.
No matter how many times you've seen Animal Crackers, chances are there's a huge amazing thing about this film that you have never spotted.
It's true I have told some other people. I wrote to tell that chap who was Freedonia Gazette's British representative, forget his name now, Ray something I think, but for some reason he didn't believe me. He was an optician, if I remember rightly: a naturally sceptical breed of men. Then I wrote it up as an article and sent it to Paul Wesolowski, the Gazette's head honcho; he forwarded it to Gummo's son, presumably on the grounds that there was nobody else less likely to have an opinion about it, and shortly after that the Gazette folded. (Coincidence?) Flushed with triumph I wrote to Glenn Mitchell, author of The Marx Brothers Encyclopaedia. I knew I was definitely on to something when the letter came back because I got the address wrong.
So here it is.
There is an entire scene in Animal Crackers in which the Marx Brothers are doubled by three other men.
This is not mere opinion. There is no doubt.
Once you notice it, it is impossible to deny it.
The scene is the one where Chico and Harpo are stealing the painting in the dark, in the presence of Groucho and Margaret Dumont.
From the time the lights go out to the time they come back on again, Harpo, Chico and Groucho are not Harpo, Chico and Groucho but three other geezers miming to Groucho and Chico's dialogue and trying, and pretty much failing, to move like Harpo, Chico and Groucho.
Go away and watch it again. Look at those strange figures, weird figures. Who are they? Why are they there? Time to use the Sherlocka Holmesa method.
How can we be sure of this?
I'm very glad you asked me. There are a number of giveaways. First, even if you think they are the bona fide boys, they are plainly miming. Their physical gestures are forced and overt in order to match the dialogue, which they sometimes anticipate. When Groucho asks if anyone is there and Chico replies, 'Groucho' turns to Dumont (who is the real Dumont by the way) and nods slowly for ages while he waits for the soundtrack to catch up with his actions. Look at Harpo - big, bulky, slow 'Harpo' - flapping his arms when he's hanging from the painting. 'Chico', too, makes a bunch of strange, slow gestures completely unlike his normal self.
Second, there is the fact that when the lights come back, they do not simply switch back on. The scene goes from twilight to pitch black - for no logical reason at all - before then cutting to full illumination - with the camera in a totally different position.
Finally, there are the men's faces. These are to be found on the front of their heads and remain today as useful a means of identifying them as they were back in 1930. Okay, it's pretty dark, but we get a good look at 'Harpo' when there's a lightning flash (freeze-frame it) and 'Groucho' is discernible throughout. Look at his little head! Look at his close-cropped hair! Groucho has a sharp centre parting and fluffy hair rising up in a v-shape in this movie. Does this guy? No. He looks like Leonard Zelig.
Okay, then - why?
Here we can only speculate. In roughly reverse order of likeliness, here are the possible explanations I've come up with.
First, recall that this is the film in which director Victor Heerman supposedly had cells built and brought on the set so as to ensure the Marxes could not escape between takes. This story is probably apocryphal, but the point of it - that it was genuinely difficult to get all four Marx Brothers on set and doing what they were supposed to be doing at the same time - is backed up by the testimony of just about everybody who worked with them. Could this scene have been shot on a day when they were AWOL, on the grounds that it was dark and nobody would be able to see them properly anyway?
Or maybe it was planned that way from the first, as a scene that didn't need the real Brothers on set, because it was dark and nobody would be able to see them properly anyway. This would mean that 'they' would most likely be miming not to the soundtrack we hear but to crew members reading the script off-camera, adding to their obvious physical dislocation; with the Brothers' dialogue added later. Presumably it was felt that this wouldn't matter too much because it was dark and nobody would be able to see them properly anyway.
Or, perhaps the original shoot proved unsatisfactory - maybe the light levels were wrong and the film came back from the chemists more or less pitch black. I'm speculating wildly here. Then, when a reshoot was ordered, it was decided not to bother recalling the Brothers themselves on the grounds that the soundtrack didn't need re-recording, and it was dark and nobody would be able to see them properly anyway.
Or, maybe the early sound recording techniques were still so cumbersome, that no opportunity to get round them would be missed. So here we have a scene in the dark - why use live sound when you can't really see the lips move? Get the boys to record the dialogue, then they can mime to it without the sound department needing to get in on it at all. And then, why use the Brothers at all? After all, it's dark and nobody would be able to see them properly anyway.
Okay, then - who?
Well I had no idea until recently. I always assumed they were just anybody, perhaps the people stood nearest to the set at the time; especially since you could throw a brick from a moving bus and hit someone who looks more like Groucho than this weedy little guy. But then I saw a sentence in Simon Louvish's book, in a paragraph with nothing whatever to do with this scene, that leaped out at me.
He writes: "Like all stars, the Brothers had doubles, to set up the scenes, till they were required."
That's not identical doubles, of course, just reasonably similar stand-ins. And that's who they must be.
Wednesday, April 22, 2009
Even more than last time, I was really stumped by some of this one - so get your thinking caps on and join the council! .
Yep, that's Donald MacBride all right. The explosive character actor and later the fearsome Mr Wagner, Groucho's nemesis in Room Service (shown here with Harpo and Groucho in that film), can be seen doing that style of acting peculiar to extras - looking around for somebody to make eye contact with and then making a big expressive gesture to them - throughout the film, but our first clear shot of him is here, in jumper and tie behind and to the right of Lillian Roth. Oh, to be in a jumper and tie behind and to the right of Lillian Roth! Jumping butterballs!
With plain and fancy cheering
8:50 - What is it with these stupid subtitles?
Do you know, I always thought this was a type of cigar. I now know that it's simply what we Brits call a fig roll: a pastry roll filled with fig jam.
21:38 - "How happy I could be with either of these two if both of them just went away."
22:42 - "You could sell Fuller Brushes..."
On a cold, crisp winter day, New Year's 1906, a 21-year-old entrepreneur from Nova Scotia, Alfred C. Fuller, began an enterprise which has become known worldwide as The Fuller Brush Company. From a bench between the furnace and the coal bin in his sister's New England home, young Fuller set out to make, in his own words, "the best products of their kind in the world." Through the years, The Fuller Brush Company has grown from one man's fiber suitcase, filled with unique custom-made brushes, to an exciting collection of home/business care, and personal care products, all crafted with the same quality and precision that have made The Fuller Brush Company a name welcomed everywhere.
From the beginning Fuller established three basic rules:
Make it work
Make it last
Guarantee it no matter what.
Today, almost a century later, these words still guide The Fuller Brush Company.
36:48 - Harpo scrumbles them up a little bit
The first appearance of what became Chico's unofficial theme tune, reappearing in different contexts in Monkey Business, Horse Feathers and elsewhere. But there's some confusion here. In common with several other published sources, I always thought it was the tune Sugartime, aka Sugar in the Morning, but the imdb does not list this piece, and refers instead to Chico's "trademark song" I'm Daffy Over You, written by Chico and Sol Violinsky. The answer is to be found here...
Rest assured that if I can come up with any other possible reason to shoehorn pictures of Drew Barrymore into this site, however tangential or desperate, I will most certainly do so.
. . ..
50:15 - "... one of my own compositions by Victor Heerman..."
I always thought that was the line, at least: a meaningless citing of the film's director for want of any better name in a throwaway joke. The DVD subtitlers have it as Victor Herbert, who was the composer of Babes In Toyland and Naughty Marietta. On the face of it, this makes more sense, which just goes to show they can do it if they try.
A new suggestion from Damian (21/5/9): I think this refers to the college football games between Yale and Harvard; Yale wore Blue and Harvard wore Red... American football was only really in it's infancy then, having parted ways from rugby at the end of the 1800's. Maybe this was how they were commonly known at the beginning. "One for old Purdue" refers to Purdue University as well, so the whole sketch seems to be based in College football.
(Damian, 21/5 again:) This may refer to a painting technique called Egg Tempera that was popular in the Italian renaissance. The technique involved an egg yolk (although some accounts claim egg white or whole egg) being used as a binding agent for the pigments. The most famous example of this technique was probably the Last Supper by DaVinci. In the film Groucho must be using the phrase "white of an egg" with reference to renaissance painting..
88:50 - Again, we actually see him sneak away, and in several subsequent long shots of the whole room he is clearly not present.
83:02 - "In that case I'll get in touch with Chic Sale."
Monday, April 20, 2009
Well, stop wasting time.
Get around to it.
Below is a invoice from Blackwell's, the famous Oxford bookseller, for one copy of Richard Anobile's book Why a Duck?
I found it tucked inside my copy when I bought it second hand on Charing Cross Road many years ago. It is dated 24th May 1973, and addressed to Dr D. S. Parsons of Merton College, Oxford.
It seemed so right, somehow, for a doctor at Merton College to have ordered such a book, and so sad that he should have sold it on, with the invoice still carefully preserved inside.
As soon as I saw it, it struck me that it might be amusing to write to Merton College, to ask if by any chance Dr Parsons was still on the staff, and if so to find out how it came about that he lost possession of the book he ordered and paid £2.50 for back in 1973, just under a month before I was born.
Marx Brothers fans, I've generally found, like meeting each other. A certain kinship is automatically assumed when a shared love of the Marxes is discovered: I'm sure it helped me to my own place at London university when I noticed that the man interviewing me had a picture of them on his office wall, and I named the film from which it was taken.
Needless to say, however, my Dr Parsons idea remained just that.
Years passed, and some fool invented the internet, and the idea occurred to me again. Now it would be so much easier.
So just over a year ago I looked up the staff of Merton College and found to my amazement that Dr Parsons was still a fellow of the college.
And again I put it off.
Finally, last week, with this site as impetus, I looked up the college again, but this time his name wasn't there. Perhaps he'd finally retired. So I wrote to ask if they could forward his contact details to me.
A few days ago I received this email from Matt Bowdler, Development Office, Merton College:
I am afraid I have to be the bearer of bad news, Dr Parsons passed away last July. If there is any other information that I might be able to provide for you, do let me know.
So, Dr Parsons, I'll never know why you parted with your copy of Why a Duck? I'll never find out what your favourite movie was. I'll never share with you any reminiscence of that unique species of happiness that only the Marx Brothers can provide. I hope you exited laughing.
Hail and farewell.
Saturday, April 18, 2009
The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, Laura, Mr Skeffington, The Seventh Victim, I Married a Witch, Holiday Inn, This Gun For Hire, Saboteur, Sullivan's Travels, Two-Faced Woman, Meet John Doe, The Lady Eve, North West Mounted Police, The Great Dictator, The Roaring Twenties and a little something called Citizen Kane?
The answer is Cyril Ring. Poor Cyril Ring.
It seems to me he makes a perfectly good job of villainous Harvey Yates in The Cocoanuts. But for some reason he got the most terrible reviews, and his career didn't so much decline as nosedive almost immediately afterwards.
Okay; many stars don't make it, perhaps the majority of Hollywood careers are brief. Stars are rare, numerically speaking at least. But the sad thing about Cyril Ring is that he didn't disappear. He kept working in the movies until the early fifties, making many, many films a year throughout that time, for virtually all the major (and minor) studios.
But always in the tiniest roles, demeaning walk-ons, a glorified extra, perhaps a line or two at most, always there, somewhere; turning up for the cheque, doing next to nothing. A face in the crowd, but a haunting one. Once you tune your eyes to spot his distinctive visage, with its pencil moustache and slicked-back hair - a look he never changed - you'll see him all the time; silent, reproachful, living testament to Hollywood's heartlessness.
After The Cocoanuts he made over three hundred and fifty films. He received screen credit in maybe three or four.
One where he didn't was Monkey Business (1931). What must it have felt like for him on that set? A major supporting actor in the first Marx Brothers movie and then, just two years later, a nobody in their third.
Poor Cyril Ring. You'll always be a star to me.
Friday, April 17, 2009
The British Pathé library has a couple of extracts of the pair performing, from which these small images are taken (Max is the one with the uke):
The six core members of the Crazy Gang were, in fact, three discrete double-acts: Naughton & Gold, Nervo & Knox and Flanagan & Allen. But while the three acts dispensed basically traditional music hall material on their own, when all six men got together they morphed into a six-headed animal possessed of qualities far greater than the proverbial sum - and no stage, or screen, ever proved quite big enough for what was unleashed.
Their comedy relies greatly for its effect on pace, and rapid transitions between wordplay, slapstick and farce, their physical comedy was often highly elaborate and acrobatic, their verbal comedy often extremely clever, just as often groaningly corny. But the really important thing is that with six of them at it at the same time, there was frequently more going on than could be fully taken in, resulting in a kind of sustained delirium that, once up and rolling, gave audiences little time to breathe between laughs. For this reason, there is little doubt that what we see of them on film, through technical necessity as much as anything, simply cannot be the full-strength entertainment enjoyed by stage audiences when they were really firing on all cylinders. But then, this is just as true of the Marx Brothers. Okay For Sound shares with the Marxes a frantic pace, a tangible sense of energy, a distinctly modern kind of absurdity to their humour and a boisterous iconoclasm along with, more specifically, the scenes of theatrical destruction, the addresses to camera and the deliberate baiting of pompous authority.
Unlike the majority of British stage to film crossover comics, no attempt is made to turn them into comic characters able to function within a narrative. Like the Marxes at Paramount (and not at MGM) they are placed in a realistic fictional narrative yet never quite integrate into it, they move parallel to it, as if they have landed from some indefinite elsewhere, remaining hermetically sealed from the world around them until it dares to rub against theirs, and then watch out. No convincing characterisation is offered or necessary; they are simply let loose, their job to pull rugs, blow raspberries, deflate authority, and generally clog the wheels of genteel society.
As already noted, Okay For Sound, like The Cocoanuts, was shot in the afternoons and days-off during a smash-hit stage run, and is basically a ragbag of disconnected routines taken directly from their revues. The plot such as it is lets them wangle their way into an ailing British film studio and take over the productions being shot, causing various kinds of chaos and alienating just about everybody but ending up with a film that somehow proves a huge hit and revives the studio’s fortunes. It could easily be adapted into a Paramount Marx vehicle, since there is no logic to it; no reason whatever why these six obvious reprobates are allowed to virtually destroy a film studio without ever being restrained, while their final triumph is as absurd as the football victory at the end of Horse Feathers.
Unlike the Brothers, however, they also enjoy the unusual freedom of being able to assume different roles in comic sketches. The best of these is the sequence in which Teddy Knox provides both American and hilariously vague British commentary to a wrestling match: "If we only had the River Thames running through here and a few boats on it you'd think it was boat race day". There is also much saucy humour of a kind that would probably not have passed US censors: a character called Farquhar is asked "How are the little Farquhars?", a scene in which the blasting of a dam is delayed is met with the observation "There's no dam blast!", and Enid Stamp Taylor has her skirt ripped off three times.
Squint a little, and you could almost be watching the British version of The Cocoanuts.
Thursday, April 2, 2009
The first is a real puzzler: who are these men?
Obviously that's Groucho in his party outfit bottom right, and Harpo top left (though in addition to his spliff he appears to have acquired a pretty ferocious set of gnashers).
But then, isn't that Harpo in the top hat and tails bottom left, too? And who the hell's top right? It's like the result of some genetic experiment. It seems to be Zeppo, with Harpo's (future) hair and Chico's hat. Three Marx Brothers in one, plus another split into two, plus Groucho. I make that six Marx Brothers.
And I love that quintessentially British mix of wild hyperbole and sober grammar: "It is impossible to resist splitting with laughter."
The other one is more straightforward:
I suppose I should point out to our younger readers, however, that neither "Ziegfeld's famous stars making love" nor "London's coolest theatre" mean quite what you think they do.