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.)

8 comments:

LAGuy said...

For years I've been looking for a copy of the video (or, for that matter, the play). We all need a W. Gary Wetstein in our lives.

WGaryW said...

always happy to share video with fellow marx afficiandos. :) i'm seeing if i can figure out how to get this on youtube so other folks can see it for themselves.

in the mean time, i fear coming off as one of those "agressively purist" types when i say i don't enjoy this show much. it's fascinating to see groucho, at this late state of his career, really *acting* again (he did so little acting once "you bet your life" started broadcasting on tv). unfortunately, i just don't think it's a very good story, or that groucho's very good in it.

not that he isn't trying. but i think groucho was doomed in part like this: the ed character is downtrodden and underappreciated, not just competent at his job, but shown to be the *most* competent person in his office, a workaholic who feels compelled to start a secret new business during his supposed retirement.

downtrodden? competent? workaholic? these are character traits as far removed from anything groucho ever played before as i can imagine (which is only natural, considering he never intended to star in the play in the first place). i had a similar problem accepting groucho's role as the sincerely dedicated theatrical producer in "room service", but at least there he was still *crooked*.

from what i've read, "time for elizabeth" only became moderately successful in touring productions as groucho began to take more and more liberties with it, turning the rather tepid play into little more than a vehicle to present himself to the public. groucho's long curtain call speech were considered the high point of the evening, not the play that preceded it.

unfortunately, in this tv version, we get none of that. groucho here is *sincerely* trying to play the character part as written. while it's academically fascinating to see groucho in such an unusual context, and while i'm delighted to have had a chance to see it, i can't say i find the show *entertaining* per se. the canned laugh track really doesn't help.

consider this insignficant bit of dialogue: the guests visiting for an evening of bridge urge ed to join their country club. to which ed shrugs and says quietly, "i'm not much of a joiner."

i'm all for seeing groucho play a part outside his usual range, but not if it's going to make him as dull as *this*. "i'm not much of a joiner" is a pretty fair indication of the level of wit in this script, compared to, e.g., the grouchoism i couldn't help hearing in my head as a replacement: "i wouldn't belong to any club that would have me as a member."

great article as always, matthew! and i'm glad you enjoyed the show itself much more than i did.

i'll comment back here if i can get this up on youtube. it's definitely worth seeing for groucho uber-fans.
--wgw

WGaryW said...

well, it worked. . . the video's not the greatest quality, but it is watchable. here's the full program:

http://youtu.be/b-3_NKx5G4g

--wgw

LAGuy said...

Thanks for putting it up on YouTube. Just by chance I've been watching a lot of early 60s TV so the style and feel felt familiar.

It's hardly a classic, but I'm glad it's around. You're right that Groucho is not as his best acting in a part that goes against the classic character he created. Furthermore, the script isn't much. But seeing him in a "modern" show--in color, no less--is still fun.

WGaryW said...

you're very welcome. it's really nice to know i'm not the only person interested in these obscure items!

Azz said...

I loved watching Groucho in this, not his classic persona which I obviously would prefer, but seeing Groucho perform in anything is always positive for a fan. WGW - Thanks for also putting Silent Panic on Youtube. I bet you've got a copy of Humorisk lying around at home?

WGaryW said...

. . . oh, but of course! and the missing scenes from "Horse Feathers", too!

don't worry, i'll be posting them all to youtube, just as soon as i hit 100,000 subscribers.

;)

glad you enjoyed the videos.

WGaryW said...

Just wanted to leave a quick, belated thank you to Matthew and LAGuy for helping to plant the seed for me to start posting videos to YouTube. It's turned out to be a fantastic way to share a lot of rare videos with a lot of people very quickly. The internet. Who would have thought.