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.



7 comments:

Mikael Uhlin said...

Very interesting and well-written!

R.S.H. Tryster said...

Thank you!

Anonymous said...

Maybe that's actually Zeppo instead of Groucho in "....Circus".Do you know how Brecher's original version of "Badge" went? What else was changed from the script? Who changed it?

Matthew Coniam said...

Ha, you could be on to something there.
There's an account of how it was originally written in Adamson; presumably Buzzell and the proverbial too many cooks of the studio interference department.

Anonymous said...

I can't help thinking that another problem was that, going by a comment from Groucho around the time the Brothers "Broke up", he didn't know that he had a character! "I had no character as a Marx Brother", he said to somebody, "I just talked fast, and the jokes had better be good"!

Anonymous said...

What happened to the rundowns of AT THE CIRCUS and GO WEST? Was there a copyright issue?

Matthew Coniam said...

Hello - and thanks for noticing! The annotated guides are taking a little holiday - it may only be temporary but I'll have definite news soon, I hope. And no, it's nothing nasty like that - all my doing.

Cheers,
Matthew