Saturday, April 30, 2016

I was blind for three days

photo by Angela Coniam

Hard to believe that the simultaneous first and last Bath Marx Brothers weekend film festival of 2016 is now retreating in the distance behind me. It seems to have been looming in the foreground for so very long.
A week ago already! The feedback has been incredible, and it's been great to see my Facebook feed jumping ever since, as the people who attended all link up with each other, testament to the number of new friendships made. So before it all recedes into haze, I decided the time had come to wrap it up and deliver the post mortem.

Let's start at the very beginning, over a year ago. The original idea had been for a low-key, local event to promote my book: a screening or two, and perhaps a talk. That all changed when Frank Ferrante heard about it, and got in touch to suggest the possibility of his coming down to join in. At first, obviously, I was touched by his enthusiasm, but presumed the chances of his actually traveling from Los Angeles to Bath to do one performance, and then turn around and go home again, to be somewhere on the decidedly slim side of the somewhat more than very unlikely spectrum. But over several further conversations, and especially during a Skype session in which he changed his hat four times while earnestly discussing airport bookings, I realised he was both serious and insane - the best possible combination of attributes under these (or for that matter any other) circumstances.

Suddenly, we were in the big leagues. This absurdly generous gesture - motivated solely by Ferrante's commitment to the notion that the Marx Brothers are worth celebrating, and his fellow celebrants are worth supporting - completely changed the game. It gave us not only the impetus to think bigger but also the ability to. Suddenly, it was no longer a village hall affair. This was something that might actually inspire people not just to buy a ticket, but to pay for travel and accommodation too. It also, of course, meant that we had to give them something, besides Frank's show, to make that degree of commitment worthwhile. Me stood at a lectern banging on about the colour of Harpo's wigs was no longer good enough, alas. We now had not just aspirations, but responsibilities. So if you enjoyed the weekend, any part of it, it is to Frank Ferrante that you owe your thanks.

Publicity in Bath Life MagazineThanks to the staff of Parragon Publishing for being so willingly co-opted! 

With Frank on board as our central pillar, assembling the rest of the weekend felt like a drunken game of 'what if..?' Re-unite the BBC Flywheel team after 25 years? Get Ferrante and Frank Lazarus to perform a sketch together? Ask Glenn Mitchell to introduce Animal Crackers? World premiere an archive treasure or two? There seemed no compelling reason not to do any of those things...
Discovering that so many people were so happy to help out was just terrific. The only coup we weren't able to pull off was getting our round-the-corner neighbour John Cleese to drop by and introduce our screening of A Night in Casablanca, which I learned from his autobiography was the first Marx Brothers film he ever saw. He wished us well, but claimed he was travelling in Europe that weekend. (Priorities, man, priorities!)
All the same, the sheer number of professionals willing to donate their expertise was testament to the bonding nature of Marx fandom. Many will be introduced in sequence as this account goes along, but three in particular deserve special mention here. Our superb poster was created by graphic designer (and Marx Brothers fan) Damian O'Hara (damianohara.com). Damian lives in Paris and sadly couldn't make it to the festival, but his stunningly eye-catching work did so much to get it noticed, and the quad posters on display in the cinema were instantly snapped up by delighted punters. Video editor (and Marx Brothers fan) Bob Gassel took time off from editing The Jerry Springer Show to compile a mesmerising three and a half minute intro film, with scores of shots from the Marxes' work synchronised perfectly with the Pixies' Here Comes Your Man. It ensured that both days' programmes began not with a whimper but with a joyous bang. And photographer (and Marx Brothers fan) Andy Hollingworth came along to document the weekend with a succession of the most truly magnificent images; those of Ferrante were declared by their subject the best ever taken of him in character. He also gave us a beautiful limited edition print of Harpo's harp which was won by a lucky attendee on the Sunday afternoon. Journey to andyhollingworth.com to see what level of expertise we were so blithely calling upon!
How did we manage to attract so much generosity? I suspect the answer lies somewhere in that bit about '(and Marx Brothers fan)'...

Flanked by Franks: Mr. Lazarus (left) and Mr, Ferrante (right)
(c) Andy Hollingworth Archive

With all this first class assistance, and the guests, venues and films all booked, only unforeseen disaster could stop us, and it did its best to oblige the night before all was to begin, when Frank's accompanist, the superbly talented Mark Rabe (pronounced Rah-bee), got banged up in a small room at UK customs for two hours without so much as a cheese sandwich, while a succession of earnest professionals decided whether to send him home again or not. Who would have guessed that work permits were such life or death commodities?
Picture yourself me, as I returned home from meeting my co-programmer Andrew T. Smith at the train station, to be greeted by my wife, just informed by the driver we had booked to meet Mark at the airport that he had not got off the plane. I recall trying to lift our spirits by saying something ludicrous like, "well, if Frank has to do it without accompaniment, then he'll just have to do it without accompaniment..."
Luckily for all, and especially for Mark, sanity prevailed, and he hit Bath just in time to join us for our pre-event Italian meal. I suspect I might have been a little grouchy under such circumstances: Mark, however, proved to be one of the warmest, most instantly likable people I've met.
And when I saw him perform with Ferrante the following evening, I realised the full extent of the disappointment we had only just avoided. True, Frank could entertain in a kitchen cupboard - but without Mark, An Evening With Groucho could well have been more like a late-afternoon.

Mark can't think of the finish; Frank can't think of anything else.
(c) Andy Hollingworth Archive

So anyway, it's Friday night in an Italian restaurant. Since you ask, I had a very jolly pasta dish with aubergine. There was wine, there was song, and, from someone, there was the revelation that the sea bream eats faeces. One week on, I can no longer remember whether it was Frank Lazarus or Mark who regaled us with that one, but after all, as I said, there was wine. Frank L. did tell me some lovely stories about (and deliver a fine vocal impersonation of) Michael Winner (producer of the London run of A Day in Hollywood and one of my less predictable specialist subjects), and Frank F. ably used the fact that it would be his birthday four days later to swing a free dessert.
No doubt about it, the omens were all good.

photo by Angela Coniam

Getting the BBC Flywheel team back together was a dream come true, both for me and - especially - for Andrew, whose gateway to the Marx Brothers it had been, and whose book Marx and Re-Marx expertly documented the production histories of both the original shows and the BBC revival.
In their Q&A session with Andrew, Mark Brisenden told the fascinating story of how he had come to be involved with the project at a time when the scripts had just been discovered and all recordings of the programme presumed lost, and Michael Roberts recalled how his first appearance in A Night in the Ukraine led to a memorable encounter with Dick Vosburgh's wife Beryl, who told him: "John Bay was the best Groucho. But he's dead. So now you're the best Groucho!" prompting Michael to wonder if that had actually been a compliment or not. And Frank Lazarus revealed that the secret of his unrivalled vocal impersonation of Chico was rooted in his realisation that, "Chico actually had a very bad Italian accent. Basically, he had a New York accent - but with a feeble Italian accent pasted over it."
Our biggest stroke of luck had come when Mark, who had adapted and re-written the original shows for the BBC, had told me that he had an unused script that might serve as material for a full-fledged onstage reunion. (To clarify, the BBC shows were based on the original Perrin-Sheekman scripts from the thirties, but it was soon discovered that, shorn of sponsors announcements and musical intros, none had anything like enough material to fill a half-hour on a modern, non-commercial channel. What Mark most artfully did, therefore, was to combine script material from various episodes, and use his own comic talents to add new lines and sequences linking them all together. A victim of his own success, he soon found that the pool of original material was becoming increasingly shallow, as first a second and then a third series was commissioned. As time went on, therefore, he found himself increasingly writing the greater part of the shows, and some of the later broadcasts are almost entirely his own work. As Andrew notes in his book, it's a measure of his talent that you'd need to be an expert to tell.)

Top: Lazarus and Roberts in their Flywheel heyday; Bottom: Roberts and Lazarus re-teamed for us
Bottom photo (c): Andy Hollingworth Archive

So we not only had the team, we had a completely unused script that had been written expressly for them. This meant we could give the crowd a bona fide performance, thus enabling me to ballyhoo the spot on social media as "the firm of Flywheel, Shyster and Flywheel re-opening for business."
We set it up like a radio recording, with microphones on stands, two of which - keen-eyed attendees noted - worked properly. But even without full amplification we were in the clear: it was obvious that Michael Roberts and Frank Lazarus had needed only a few lines of rehearsal to step effortlessly back into the shoes of Flywheel and Ravelli. Just listening to them bouncing Mark's lines off each other sent shivers down our spines, and set all present to thinking wistfully of that elusive but surely not impossible fourth series.
For supporting cast I was able to call on a few favours: I played straightman as Mr. Bannerman the tax collector, my lifelong collaborator Richard Larcombe channeled Graham Hoadley to produce a splendid Mr. Gruber, and Nua Watford Cendra stepped in as Miss Dimple. Nua, a movie buff and jobbing professional (and the only member of the Bath Marx team to have worked on a James Bond film) had got in touch to offer behind-the-scenes assistance, but gamely consented both to join the Flywheel gang, and to submit to the attentions of Ferrante's Groucho in the live show later that evening. She tells me she spent the next two days entirely incapacitated.

Top: Glenn Mitchell (left) joins Michael Roberts, Frank Lazarus and Mark Brisenden at Bath Marx HQ
Middle: Re-opening for business: Frank, Michael, Nua, me, Richard and Andrew
Bottom: A glorious shot of Michael Roberts
Photos by Stefan Timphus

We had still another Flywheel ace up our sleeves, however. Where once it was thought that no original recordings had survived, by the time Andrew wrote his book one complete episode and a few extracts had turned up: these are now easily accessible online. However, the American collector John Tefteller has quietly located yet more, along with a trove of other radio material, which he has been restoring and now, finally, is poised to release. He gave us a chunk of Flywheel unheard since its original 1933 transmission, along with a very funny Groucho-Chico clip from The Circle that had, likewise, not been heard since 1939. (The latter includes a rare example of Chico ad-libbing a topper to a Groucho flub!) We were therefore able to world premiere them as the icing on our Flywheel cake. Like so much that was wonderful about the festival, the clips were donated by John free of charge.

Andrew had thus established himself as our archive man, and he consolidated the reputation with his feature on the Sunday. This was a fascinating attempt to give some sort of a sense of what the hell Deputy Seraph would actually have been like to watch. We all know the idea, and we've all seen a bunch of clips of the footage shot, usually in blurry, multi-generational VHS. What Andrew did was much more useful, however.
First, he acquired a new transfer of the existing scenes from a 16mm print, via American collector Eric Grayson. Next he sweet-talked Mark Ayres into lightly restoring some of the audio damage. (This in itself performed an instant service to the show's potential.) Then, using the published script as his guide, he re-edited the footage, losing the clapperboards and fluffs, and arranging it in correct sequence. Finally, he prepared a sound description of the episode's plot, which was inserted into the Marx scenes, narrated by Justin T. Lee.
As Andrew cheerfully admitted, what was thus revealed was very much not a lost Marx masterpiece. But it did make sense for the first time; we got an idea of the shape of the thing. Being able to imagine what it would have been like, and the extent to which the Marxes would have been a part of the whole, brought a valuable new perspective to the enterprise. As to Andrew's reminder (or revelation, to me at least) that the non-Marx footage was set to be shot in England, and that therefore the project could well have mingled the Marxes with players familiar from the Carry On films and other local product)... that really was something to ponder.

Andrew was just too damned dapper, so we made him sit in a separate auditorium on his own
photo by Stefan Timphus

For the big films I had chosen Animal Crackers for the Saturday and A Night in Casablanca for the Sunday. And while I joked that Animal Crackers was chosen simply because it happens to be my favourite (and, indeed, that was the main reason) it wasn't just an exercise in fascism. The opening film had to be a Paramount, but I also wanted to give value for money. Monkey Business, Horse Feathers and Duck Soup may be great, but they each romped home shy of seventy minutes, whereas the first two ambled more generously past the hour-and-a-half mark. I'd have happily watched The Cocoanuts, but in deference to its reputation and mindful of the need to sell tickets, Animal Crackers it had to be.
As irony would have it, the festival coincided with the revelation that the complete and uncut version of the film had finally been discovered (in the library of the British Film Institute, of all inaccessible outposts) and was being prepped for release even as we were screening the dear old snipped print that we had all assumed would be all we would ever see. Great though it is that future audiences will no longer have to endure a mutilated edition of the movie, there was something nice, even poignant, in the realisation that that Old Faithful may well have bade farewell to its affectionate fans at our festival. Either way, it went over like gangbusters.
One coincidental advantage of the choice was that it also happens to be Glenn Mitchell's favourite, which made for a nice lead-in when I welcomed the author of The Marx Brothers Encyclopaedia and other fine tomes to the stage to introduce it. Glenn spoke of the experience of writing and researching so dauntingly comprehensive a work, back in the grand old days when one could go to a film memorabilia fair and actually come away, as he did, with an original Animal Crackers stage script tucked under your arm. He reminded us that it was written and researched without any recourse to the non-existent futuristic fantasy we now know as 'the internet', which put my own researches into sobering perspective indeed.
He also happily elaborated on something he had told me earlier that week that sheds a whole new light on a minor Marx subject with which I am unreasonably obsessed: the issue of Groucho's red tie. (I won't digress now: it'll be the next post on this site.)

photo by Stefan Timphus

Mindful though I was of Andrew's observation, months prior, that the second day of a festival is always anti-climactic no matter what you arrange, I was set on the idea of having a title from the first half of their career on the first day and a later one on the second. The problem that posed, of course, was finding the right second film. A Day at the Races, whatever its merits, was simply too long to allow time for the other things we had planned, and of the remainder, as far as I was concerned, that really only left Opera and Casablanca. (I wouldn't have been happy offering any of the last three MGMs.) Opera, therefore would have seemed to be the obvious choice, but I took the riskier route for two reasons. First, because Opera is, in Britain at least, by far the most frequently revived of all the Marx films in rep cinemas: while I've been lucky enough to see all thirteen on the big screen at least once, I must have seen Opera on at least a dozen occasions. And while that told me it was a dead cert audience pleaser, it also suggested a limited potential to surprise a crowd that already loves it. Secondly, I had noticed at my one previous chance to see Casablanca with a live crowd that it got a different kind of laughter: a more instinctive kind, thanks to it being slightly less familiar, and therefore to the pleasant surprise of finding it better than we might have presumed. In my opinion it is by no means their best film but it is their most underrated, and I was sure a live audience was the best way of bringing out the best in it. I'm pleased to say that feedback has been exactly along those lines: reports of happiness at discovering this often overlooked film really does belong in the top drawer. Whether the threat of it put anyone off attending, I don't know. Night at the Opera next time, if there is a next time.

Our main bit of insurance against the Day Two blues was another world premiere, but this time a live one. Given that we had Franks Ferrante and Lazarus in attendance, surely it would make sense for Groucho and Chico to put in an appearance? Delightfully, though the two shared a friendship going back many years, they had never before appeared together as Julius and Leonard, so we got the scoop on that one too!
Given that this was a whole new venture for them, it only seemed right that they should spend their first joint appearance negotiating their contracts... but it wasn't long before the carefully crafted words of Kaufman and Ryskind were giving way to hilarious ad libs. The torn fragments of their contracts, flung into the audience at the end of the sketch, became sought after collectors' items.

photo by Stefan Timphus

My interview with the pair afterwards likewise degenerated into a riot of ad libs as Frank F. turned on Mark Brisenden, who had dared to attempt an observation from the front row. I was fascinated, however, by Frank L.'s admission that he sees himself as a custodian of Chico's legacy, mindful of the somewhat raw deal, in relation to Groucho, that he has often received both from later chroniclers and most of their post-Paramount screenwriters. "Not that Chico really needs protecting," he wrote me afterwards, "but the mere fact that that thought could arise probably proves that, after all the insistent presence of Groucho, he should be given his due." The subject of Zeppo was also raised, and all agreed that something about the team dynamic, intangible as it may be, did not survive his departure after Duck Soup. Having started the day with the theatrical agent clip from The House That Shadows Built, in which he takes a dominant role and gives a very sprightly performance, it was concluded that we simply do not have enough evidence to judge how useful he could have been in their films, if only he had been given the ghost of a chance. When favourite films were discussed, Frank F. reiterated his love of A Day at the Races (the first Marx film he ever saw), admitted having seen Go West only once, and confessed to a deep fondness for Sing While You Sell.

photo by Stefan Timphus
And so to the little matter of An Evening With Groucho... 
That Frank Ferrante has this thing down to a fine art, that the show is hilarious, and that audiences go away happy every time is no less worth saying for having been so often said. But of greater relevance in this context, perhaps, is just how satisfying a piece it is to those who really know their Marx Brothers. This it achieves through a very particular sense of blending the known with the new, and the vintage with the off-the-cuff.

It is, in effect, three separate shows. The basic structure is that of Groucho reminiscing about his career: as such it serves as a potted history of the man and his art that is invaluable to audiences unfamiliar with the details. Then, studded within that are the highlights of that career: the songs and routines, the African lecture, Lydia, and all the other expected bits of classic Grouchiana.
But what keeps the Marx expert glued to the performance is the third layer. This is the all-new Groucho, brought supernaturally back to entirely unpredictable life before our eyes. And this 'real' Groucho is an observer, same as the audience. He watches the performance, comments on it, plays with it and frequently stops it completely to follow some entirely new tangent, or to jump from the stage and converse with the audience. And this is where Frank's decades of living this role really assert themselves.
From the first, no doubt, he was an able mimic of the man - he must have been, to have caught the eye of Arthur Marx, enabling him to first set the journey in motion. But clearly, now, he is much more. This is not a performance so much as the free exercise of an alternative personality, living within the outer man. We had privately noted the ease with which Groucho seems to come and go in Frank's off-stage conversation: if the moment calls for Groucho he duly appears, only to then disappear until summoned again by some impossible-to-resist situation or feedline. But the effect is not simply that of a versatile performer switching between characters: it's more instinctive, more primal, and the effect is magnified a hundredfold in performance.
A 'tribute act' is by definition a kind of mutual wish-fulfillment, a fantasy that demands the audience's prior knowledge of what is being evoked. But you no more need be a Groucho fan to enjoy this show than you do to enjoy your first Marx Brothers film, because it feels entirely spontaneous. If a chance development prompts a comic inspiration Ferrante will seize it and work it for as long as it holds, sometimes for many minutes; sometimes he will leave it and then, when least expected, pick it up again many minutes later.
As such Groucho is restored as a living presence, and all that matters to the audience is that he's funny. You don't technically need to have the first clue who he actually is: you just watch him being funny. As Mark Rabe told me with undisguised admiration directly after the show: "It's different every time. Every single time he surprises me."
This alertness to the moment pays off every time something unexpected occurs. He had done his homework, too: there were jokes about Bath (I overheard him and Mark planning these on the Friday night), jokes about the venue (hard to convey why the comments addressed to the humanoid symbol on the exit sign were hilarious... so you'll have to take my word for it), even - most gratifyingly - jokes about me. (When Groucho described the details of their disastrous performance in Britain in the twenties, he stopped to check: "That's right isn't it, Matthew? You were there.")

One technique I found particularly impressive was his tendency to begin a familiar routine, play it as expected for a while, but then take it off on a tangent, so that it becomes entirely new, original comedy. (The Animal Crackers piano routine, with Mark standing in for Chico and unable to "think of the finish," may have been the most spectacular example of this: we were already laughing at the original set-up, but the laughter was complacent because we were confident that we knew exactly where we were being taken. Then suddenly Frank and Mark take an abrupt left turn and a brand new sketch begins, but one rooted not only in pre-established character but also in a pre-established premise.)
After all, Ferrante clearly knows he's playing to two audiences at once: newcomers who may be completely unfamiliar with, say, the African lecture, and enthusiasts who know its every word and emphasis as well as Frank himself does. How can he possibly accommodate the demands of both simultaneously? The answer is: by being dexterous, by being alert, and by reading the audience's collective mood on a second-by-second basis. On this occasion he was doubly challenged: not only were there large numbers of Marx obsessives in attendance, they were obsessives who had just come away from watching a bunch of Groucho interviews and Animal Crackers! So he would start a routine, read the depth and length of the laughs it received, and then frequently break off, interject, and freshen it with spontaneous material and a self-deprecating acknowledgement of the particular circumstances of the occasion. ("You've heard this already today?")

In truth, Frank does things that Groucho himself would not have done: the athletic abandon, and the absurdist spontaneity, are an amplification of what makes Groucho's comedy great, not an accurate representation of any actual performance we have of him. It's a fantasy of Groucho in that it is visually the mature Groucho of the Marx movies transported to the stage, but performing with the youthful irreverence and physical energy that we imagine from that great vanished chunk of his career before the cameras showed up. The actual Groucho that Frank embodies - the Groucho that was this age and at this point in his career - could never have dominated the stage the way Frank does: he would have had neither the energy nor the performing hunger. This is the Groucho of our dearest dreams, the Groucho's Groucho - the spirit of Groucho condensed, distilled, and then exploding from the bottle. It is everything people say it is: a masterpiece of comic intelligence, and judgement, and of sheer joy.
Apart from that, I quite liked it.

photos (c): Andy Hollingworth Archive

And then, suddenly, it was all over.
For two days Bath had been, as Margaret Dumont might put it, "bathed in a soft, glowing, luminous haze," but now it was just good old Bath again.
Did anything remain to prove it had ever happened at all?
Two things, as it turned out. First, the hugely gratifying and uplifting messages of thanks and goodwill we received from Marx fans who had traveled down for the event and - praise be! - left with all their expectations fulfilled.
And second, there was this:


Our telephone table had guest-starred in Frank's show as Groucho's make-up table. (It now has its own agent and won't talk to any of our other tables.) And still lying on it, the day after, was Groucho's make-up cloth, complete with smears of greasepaint.
Frank suggested we call it 'The Shroud of Bath'.

11 comments:

Roger said...

Thanks for this piece - it is a very good appraisal of an excellent weekend. Your OBE awaits ...

Matthew Coniam said...

Well it's about time!

Azz said...

An absolutely superb weekend. Although it was a long journey it was well worth it. All of the performances were excellent, as well as the hosting, superb venues, premiers of material and of course, the 2 great films themselves. I'm now going to have to dispense my natural anti-establishment attitude by getting a facebook account and joining the group, although if I was you, I'd never accept me as a member.

Matthew Coniam said...

Great to hear you were there (which one were you?) and v. glad you enjoyed it! Yes, come on over!

Jay Hopkins said...

Matthew is a good man and a very talented writer. This is a winning combination in anyone's book and, certainly, in mine.

Azz said...

I asked a question about Irving Breecher's excellent writing in your least favourite film, Go West.

Matthew Coniam said...

Jay - Fancy meeting you here!

Azz - Ah yes, remember you well. Sat right at the back...

Matthew Coniam said...

Send me a private message when you apply to join the group so I know it's you. People who have only just joined Facebook don't normally get in, cos they're usually fake spam accounts, so wear a necktie so I'll know ya...

Mark Rabe said...

Mister Coniam.... Thank you for your fulsome and extremely articulate praise! I think that's THE BEST press I've ever received in my entire career. Bless you, man!!

LAGuy said...

Sounds like a delightful weekend. How I wish I could have been there.

Maybe the next question is when will Matthew Coniam come out to Los Angeles and visit the land of Paramount and MGM?

Matthew Coniam said...

Mark - It's a pleasure, and all true.

LAGuy - Long overdue... As soon as my bank manager permits!