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.


WGaryW said...

i've never seen this one. . . and never had enough interest to seek it out. i've yet to see anything by norman krasna that really impressed me; the best movie i've seen by him is as far removed from comedy as anything you can imagine: "fury" (1936), a fritz lang film about lynching.

i have seen a tv version of the other groucho-krasna collaboration, "time for elizabeth". had groucho not played the lead, almost nothing in the script would have brought him to mind. very little writing in it that feels at all like the groucho we know from. . . well, *anything* else.

there's also the problem that i have only dimmest awareness of the real life royal romance that inspired "the king and the chorus girl", though it was topical for 1937. i don't know if the film would go over better knowing some details of the wallis simpson-king edward romance-- doesn't sound like it helped you much (i'm assuming you must know a little more of the backstory than i do as an american--what little i do "know" comes solely from the film "the king's speech" and some scattered references on the old radio comedy broadcasts i listen to.)

another comedy idol of mine-- pretty obscure now-- is goodman ace. he wrote only one screenplay in his long career because he was so dispirited to see what had been done with his script ("it was the best thing i ever wrote, and the worst thing i ever saw.") woody allen became a director largely in response to the butchering of his early screenplays. i mention all this just to wonder whether a similar thing happened in the case of "the king and the chorus girl", and what ended up on the screen really didn't reflect the spirit of the original screenplay. or maybe it just wasn't all that good to begin with.

while it would have been nice to read that this was a a unique, unappreciated groucho masterpiece, i appreciate your sparing me having to ever sit through it myself.

Matthew Coniam said...

You could well be right that it was put through the studio mangle, and the original had more to offer, or at least was more identifiable.
I must stress there was nothing awful about it, it just sort of wandered past as if I wasn't looking.

There's really no connection at all to Mrs Simpson; just the merest whiff of similarity was enough to a) sell the idea, and b) enrage the British press. There are no plot echoes at all, besides the basic idea (and that's not really all that similar to begin with.)

I found Elizabeth much more engaging and will write about it next. The other Kraz opus that intrigues me is Dear Ruth, allegedly inspired by Groucho's home life, with a wife called Ruth and a daughter called Miriam, and a reference to Groucho in the script.

Thanks, as ever, for looking in, Gary.

WGaryW said...

ah, yes, "dear ruth" intrigues me too. as you noted, the play was actually intended to be in the groucho spirit unlike "the king and the chorus girl". the imdb tells me that the screenplay was written by none other than arthur sheekman. sounds promising, even with the groucho role played by-- william holden??? it's never been released on home video as far as i can tell, and i've never run across a copy.

i'll have to rewatch "time for elizabeth" now so i can refresh my memory before you post about it. really looking forward to reading your take.

WGaryW said...

i've recently reread hector arce's "groucho" (the best straight bio of any of the marx brothers outside of "harpo speaks"), and was alerted to an error in memory that's probably more interesting than the actual "king and the chorus girl" film: this was apparently scripted *well* before the actual wallis simpson affair happened. it was only a bizarre coincidence that the plot of the movie had some similarities. given the unique nature of this story, one has to wonder if either groucho or krasna was a bit psychic. . .

so i guess that means one's appreciation of the film would certainly not be enhanced by knowing the real life events it was based on, since it wasn't based on any real life events in the first place.

Matthew Coniam said...

That doesn't surprise me. It was played up more in the promotion than in the actual film where the similarities are, as I say, few and vague.
Funnily enough, I never got hold of a a copy of Arce, and have never read it. Probably the biggest gap in my Marx reading there is!