Monday, October 15, 2018
It's odd, isn't it, that nobody seems all that sure why Herbert called himself Zeppo when he joined the Marx Brothers?
We know the meaning and origins of the other four Brothers' names, more or less, but Zeppo's, for some reason, is mired in confusion, doubt and disagreement. Why?
The first mystery is the sheer multiplicity of offered possibilities. (This is a sentence for Arthur Sullivan to set to music if ever there was one.)
I am aware of at least six:
i) There were zeppelins flying overhead when he was born.
ii) It originated when they were pretending to be rustics during their brief experiment in farming. Herbert would say, "Hiya, Zeke", and Gummo would reply, "Hiya, Zeb."
iii) It was inspired by a performing chimp called Mr Zippo, who shared Herbert's penchant for acrobatics.
iv) It was inspired by a freak show pinhead called Zip, who shared Herbert's 45-degree forehead.
v) 'Zep' is Italian-American slang for 'baby'; Herbert was called this because he was the youngest. According to Wikipedia, this was Zeppo's own contribution to the seething whirlpool: I've not seen it cited anywhere else. (Or have I?)
vi) I don't have the first clue what this one even means, but Noah Diamond recently unearthed it, so let's add it for completeness: when dealing cards he adopted a rapid spin that dropped the card in front of each player "like a golf ball falling dead to the pin." How we get from here to 'Zeppo' is up to you.
This is madness! There's only one explanation for Harpo's name. There's one for Gummo's. There's basically only one for Chico's. (Yes, there is that story in some press reports that he was noted for his love of eating chicken, but my guess is that this is not a genuine alternative but a deliberate bit of press agenty deception, to disguise a true meaning that was a tad risque. I can't help wondering if the supposedly accidental dropping of the 'k' in his name, with its resultant change in pronunciation, wasn't likewise deliberate, and for the same reason.)
Okay, we have two for Groucho - a grouchy demeanour and the possession of a grouch bag - but (a) that's still a far cry from six alternatives, and (b) the rules are slightly different for Groucho, because he was the first named. (How do we know he was the first named, and why is that important? Because the name 'Groucho' already existed, in various contexts, most notably in a popular comic strip. That's why Fisher used the -o suffix. It mightn't have just as easily been Grouchy or the Grouchster, or Grouchface, or Grouchadoodledandy: it had to be Groucho. He decided to give him a nickname, settled on 'grouch' as the defining theme, and then went for Groucho because that name formation already existed. So for all we know both could be right. He might have said 'You being so grouchy, it's no wonder you carry a grouch bag! Hey, I'll call you Groucho!" This is wild speculation of course, but fortunately irrelevant to the discussion. The point is that we have four brothers sharing five possible name explanations between them. Suddenly a fifth brother shows up and the tally jumps to eleven.)
Not only have all these solutions been offered, but there are also those people who have stated outright that they didn't know the answer, and most of the suggestions that were offered were offered tentatively, unsurely. We have to ask why! Why does everyone know for certainty that Milton wore gumshoes, but nobody can be certain whether Herbert was named after a chimp or an airship? Why the confusion? Why the profusion?
Let us free ourselves of one mistaken certainty: that it has to mean something. There's really no reason to think it should. The original nicknames were given spontaneously (by Art Fisher during a poker game) with no particular purpose in mind and certainly with no eye to longevity. The idea that eventually they would be known by the names he invented, and even use them in private life, for the rest of their lives, would have been unimaginable. But Zeppo's name was created differently. Art Fisher was not involved; it was not just a bit of fun, and the convention already existed.
Zeppo took an -o name because he was replacing Gummo in the act, and needed a snappy -o name of his own. Even then, they could never have dreamed that they would become principally known by these names, and therefore that they would be asked to explain them. So all Zeppo needed was a name that fitted: a light, fun, memorable comedy name. And 'Zeppo' certainly fits the bill: it's energy and pace, somehow; it's got zep and zip and zap and pow and whizz and fizz. It's a great name.
It should be noted that it was never part of the rules that the names should have an obvious meaning, even if they had one nonetheless. With the exception of Harpo, none of the names refer to anything they did professionally. Groucho was not a grouchy comic; Gummo didn't wear his rubbers on stage. Had they been called Harpo, Piano, Moustacho and Stand Around Not Doing All That Mucho then yes - the onus would have been on Zeppo to come up with something appropriate. But they weren't. Their names were to all intents and purposes meaningless, and they had no reason to anticipate a time when explanations would be demanded. Zeppo's could easily have been created in exactly this spirit - for how it sounds, not from a need to have something that, somewhere down the line, can be 'explained'.
But of course that time did come - the time when the names Julius, Arthur, Leonard and Herbert became forgotten from disuse, the time when fans did start writing to the movie magazines and saying, 'hey, what's the origin of those wacky names?' Imagine how disappointing it would then be to give out the answer: because he's grouchy, because he chases the chicks, because he plays the harp and... er... for no reason whatsoever. Imagine any press department allowing it. It's an impossibility. So it's here, after the fact, that meaning is demanded, and if it was here that meaning was invented, the strange confusion we have been left with is the logical outcome of the situation. In other words, the mass of alternatives and uncertainties are not merely consistent with there being no real meaning, it is actual evidence in favour of that hypothesis.
What it is not, however, is proof of it, and of course it remains possible that any of the suggested alternatives might be true. None can be comprehensively written off (except possibly the one about him dealing cards like a golf ball) and while none are strong enough to compel me to pick a side, most of them do have a unique, compelling point to commend them.
Let's start with the one I have traditionally always favoured: "Hiya Zeke, Hiya Zeb." The really strong point in favour of this one that the others lack is that, if true, it would be an adaptation of a pre-existing nickname, and thus a matter of seconds, and an obvious choice, to convert into standard Marxian form. In fact, it's perfect. Why, then, am I dubious? For the admittedly ironic reason that it's just too perfect. Look at it this way: if this were the true explanation, it would be so obvious, so certain, so charming, that we would have no possible explanation for the mass of conflicting alternatives, not least from Zeppo himself. It would be as solid and certain an explanation as Gummo's.
The same, presumably, applies to the Italian-American slang term, though that one doesn't really sound convincing from the get-go. Why on earth would Minnie give him an Italian-American nickname? And I can't find any mention of it online as a real Italian-American term anyway. (Perhaps a real Italian-American could let me know?) I smell post-hoc desperation here, emanating from a man with a famously short attention span who has been asked a question he doesn't know the answer to once too often.
So let's move on to our brace of Zips. Two things uniquely commend these, possibly three. The first is that these alone include in their explanations the only reason other than the complete absence of any true meaning to account for the variety and number of rival explanations.
Research has shown that there really was a Zip the pinhead who does, in the crudest degree, suggest something of Zeppo's distinctive physiognomy. Zippo the chimp comes from Harpo - I don't know if the research has been done here too, but I wouldn't be at all surprised if there was a Zippo the chimp: it's exactly the sort of name people give chimps. I wouldn't be surprised if there were dozens of them, without necessarily shrieking eureka at the discovery.
Now, it is entirely possible that what we are looking at here is not really two possible explanations but one, and that Harpo is slightly adapting the truth, turning a circus freak into a chimp to remove the slight aura of tastelessness it possesses. It is telling that both stories give the same reason for the transmutation from Zip to Zep, which is that Herbie found the connection offensive, and changed it.
Of course, if Harpo is doing that, this would in itself be evidence in favour, while Zeppo's distaste gives at least some kind of a reason why the true meaning was less forthcoming in later accounts than it should have been, and replaced at times with silly fake alternatives.
The trouble is that I just can't see it working out like this. Here is a young man who is confident, cocksure even, a noted fistfighter with a gun in his back pocket. He joins the family act, and not only is he not responsible for choosing his own name, he is obliged to accept one he finds repulsive, with the one crumb of compensation that he is allowed to arbitrarily change one letter, making it meaningless. This despite the fact, as I have shown, that the need for a specific meaning simply would not have been recognised at the time. And how odd that the other brothers, though adamant in insisting upon it, then allow it first to be changed and then rarely tell the truth about it when asked from then on. Finally, if it had such unpleasant connotations for its bearer, it is relevant to note that he retained it far longer than necessary. After decisively giving up the performing game, he could quite easily and sensibly have opened the Herbert Marx Agency. But he didn't: he opened the Zeppo Marx Agency. His previous job was no kind of asset in his becoming an agent - he obviously just liked the name.
Nonetheless, there is one other point in favour of Zippo the Chimp, which is that it came with the -o suffix already in situ, which might easily have pushed it to the front of the queue when ideas were being kicked around. But again, isn't that a bit too neat?
Finally, I want to look at the one I find most interesting, because it has traveled the longest road in the shortest time. When I was a kid getting into the team, the zeppelin explanation was by far the most common - almost ubiquitous. It was the default; if you know your Jack the Ripper suspects, it was the Montague Druitt. It's not nothing that it was the one chosen in the famous image of the brothers in canvas chairs with the nickname explanations represented pictorially next to their names. Nowadays, though, it is the one suggestion that is most comprehensively written off.
Why should that be? Well, you'll recall that the story was that there were zeppelins in the sky when Herbie was born. The matter has been looked into and it has been decided with certainty that alas, there most definitely were not. End of story?
Hold on a minute, there! All we've discredited is that 'when he was born' bit. And quite right, too! I ask you again to actually picture these guys, sitting in a room, trying to come up with a name, at a time when 'meaning' was not in any way a priority. Who the hell is going to say, "I know - there were zeppelins flying over the house when you were born! How about Zeppo!" Who would even let their mind wander down the road of 'let's think what was happening when you were born...'? It's just daft.
But while we can be certain wee Herbert took his first belch in a zeppelin-free sky, we can be equally sure of this: in 1915, when this naming business was actually happening, the little hydrogen-filled bastards were everywhere. In the movies, the newsreels, the newspapers and magazines and yes, indeed, in the skies, zeps was the tops.
Not too much of a stretch, then, for Herbert to be pondering what his new name should be as his eye alighted on a picture of a zeppelin on an open page of a magazine or something, and - his task being solely to choose a name that sounded good - remarking on the supreme fitness for the task of 'Zeppo'.
Why, then, the alternatives? Why the bit about it happening when he was born? Because it's an 'explanation' but not a 'meaning'. Hey, where did you guys get your crazy names? Because of grouchiness, chicken chasing, harp playing, and ... ... some completely irrelevant connection with zeppelins...
It's not going to play in Peoria. The little white lie addition of it happening when he was born gives it instant 'meaning'. Everything else then falls neatly into place.
So here we are at the end of our quest, and how nearer the truth are we? Nowhere. We may even have gone backwards. (I'd certainly like to think so.) Personally, I still think the name meant nothing, just sounded good, and the various explanations were invented to meet a subsequent need for such things. But, on the terms above, I can see some kind of merit in at least three of the stated possibilities. If I had to plump for one, I think now I might stick with the zeppelins, in part perhaps because I always side with the underdog.
But the vital point is that while an explanation is possible, it is not necessary. That's my take-home message here. I will now cut the watermelon open.
Thursday, October 4, 2018
We were recently talking in our Facebook group, as we often do, about the extent to which we are entitled to view the Marx Brothers films as social commentary.
Specifically, on this occasion, the topic was whether or not Monkey Business can be viewed as any kind of a commentary on the immigrant experience in America. It's a complex question, with good arguments on both sides, and neither position can be said to have a lock on it. But my feeling is that it can’t, really, and not for the reason usually given – that such considerations are to be avoided because they a priori risk sucking the joy out of the films – but because I genuinely don’t believe that committee-devised entertainment films of this sort ever worked that way.
While they of course can (and to some degree must) be reflective of the society in which they are created, that is not the same thing as possessing a conscious level of engagement with any of its wider issues. It seems to me that for that you need a single presiding creative imagination, and I would certainly argue that the opening scenes of Chaplin’s The Immigrant, for example, most definitely do qualify as social commentary, in a way that Monkey Business, I feel fairly sure, does not.
Nonetheless, it prompted the following train of thought, which touches on the slightly wider question of how far we are entitled to view the Marx Brothers' screen personae as reflective of their own selves, backgrounds, and histories. And here I most definitely am not asking if they were as crrrrazy in real life as they appeared on screen, and hey, what about that time they nailed Thalberg to a tree and set light to his eyebrows, or anything like that. But purely and simply, are the Marx Brothers – by which I mean those characters we see on the screen – always immigrants?
Well, Chico, at least, most obviously is - or appears to be, which is only to say that he is adhering to the terms of a comic archetype. That much could be entirely irrelevant to the fabric of the films themselves, not least because it so massively predates them. But more deeply, can we see in their interrelationships and hierarchies anything directly reflective of the immigrant experience?
In our last podcast, co-host Bob Gassel made the very important point that Monkey Business differs from the other four Paramount films in two highly significant ways. First, it is the only Marx movie in which we meet all four Brothers, already fully bonded, at the same time. And second, it is the only one in which Groucho has no position of authority or superiority, either in relation to the brothers or the world in which they move.
And of course the reason for that is explicitly given in the very premise of the film: it's because they are immigrants, newly arrived, stowing away on a ship without passports. But in a way, the question really being begged here is not why this one film is different, but why the other four are the same. Why should films detailing the exploits of essentially absurd, impossible comic characters, in settings as widely divergent as a hotel, a society party, an American college and a mythical country, maintain exactly the same relationship and hierarchical structure between the characters, and, as a unit, between the characters and their wider context?
Now, obviously, this is in large measure because they are adhering to an established formula, but nonetheless, formulae have to come from somewhere. True, we should never forget that the Marx Brothers had a long, linear and incrementally developing career. But I think we can still fairly argue that the essential formulation we see in the early movies originates with George Kaufman and The Cocoanuts. It was Kaufman who was given the task of taking revue comedians and putting them into a coherent narrative, which inevitably means establishing concrete relationships and backgrounds for them, even if they remain unspecified in the work itself. And I think it is reasonable to propose that in so doing he would be influenced by the actual men he observed behind the greasepaint, and their histories, and, especially, what constitutes the outsider status that is their single most important defining comic element.
Imagine, therefore, that in The Cocoanuts and (by virtue of the conventions it establishes) in all the Paramount films, the Marx Brothers are immigrants. The difference is that Groucho, very much unlike the Groucho we see just once in Monkey Business, is not newly arrived. He’s already arrived, and he's already used his wit and his wiles, and his chutzpah, and his enormous capacity to manipulate language and manipulate people, to get somewhere. Now, once the formula is established, that somewhere can be as absurd as you like – it could even be the president of a college, or the president of a country. But going back to the original formulation, in The Cocoanuts, he’s managing a hotel, which seems like a pretty reasonable level of attainment, even in a straight comedy or drama.
Then, Harpo and Chico arrive. But unlike Groucho, they’re fresh out of the barrels, and looking for the loopholes and opportunities he’s already spotted and seized. Inevitably, they instantly recognise each other – not who they are but what they are – and that is why they instantly bond, team, and make mischief together, as if they had known each other all their lives.
At the same time, however, it is why Groucho, who has achieved a position, however fraudulently, that he wants to guard, retains a slight sense of superiority, of distance, and of difference (and even, in the duologues with Chico, of frustration and resentment) – because they remind him of what he has left behind, and he represents to them the goals upon which they are focused. (There's his argument: restrict immigration) In that sense Chico is as parasitic of Groucho as all the Brothers are of the wider society – and Groucho knows it.
There is one unique supporting character in these movies – Roscoe W. Chandler, played by Louis Sorin. He is a straight man, a blustering foil, but one who is given unique license to interact with Groucho in semi-comic ways. Everybody loves this character, and this performance, even more than the Sig Rumann heavies, because he’s multi-dimensional. But in what way is he multi-dimensional? Clearly, because he too is an immigrant, but unlike Groucho, he has got on not by exploiting the customs of the host nation but by capitulating to them, and in so doing by suppressing his true self. So they goad him not because he has achieved success – they want to do that, too – but because he has sold his soul for it.
To see what Chandler might just as easily have been, watch Sorin’s performance in the film Glorifying the American Girl. Here he takes a comic role, in a sketch with Eddie Cantor, as a Jewish tailor fleecing a customer. He's very funny, and very Grouchoesque. In that sense, both the greatness and the tragedy of Roscoe Chandler as a character is not just that he’s a fine straightman, but that he is a potential Marx Brother, deep in denial.
I've very consciously not mentioned Zeppo in the above discussion. Finally then, if one wishes to stretch this account as far as it’s possible to go, there is a case to be made that uniquely among the Brothers, Zeppo’s character is not an immigrant. I have noted in the past that there is no way Zeppo as a character would ever be admitted into the Marx gang in the way he is in the movies, unless it is for some very explicit reason that the writers, tellingly, always take care to give us. Usually he is an employee of Groucho, and as such there's no reason to suppose he is anything other than he appears: a good looking, clean cut, well-dressed young American man on the up. He's certainly no outsider. (In fact, this all-American persona is the same one he projects even in Monkey Business, opening up the possibility that he may not be an immigrant even there, merely someone who - for any number of possible reasons - is obliged to travel without a passport.)
The odd film out, of course, is Horse Feathers, where a blood relationship with Groucho is explicitly stated. But recall that line: "I married your mother because I wanted children..." It could be extrapolated from that that Zeppo was born in America, and that Groucho, as part of his campaign of advancement, married into a non-immigrant family with the explicit aim of establishing a non-immigrant bloodline. And no wonder, therefore, the tag “Imagine my disappoint when you came along!" Because what he in fact sired – visually at least – is not Clark Gable, but another Marx Brother.
And note, too, that in Monkey Business, the only film in which we know for sure that Zeppo might be an immigrant - it is he who ends the film looking to be set on the course of social advancement, with his feet poised to land beneath the table of a wealthy, non-immigrant American family. Far from Freedonia or Huxley College, Groucho ends the movie with Chico and Harpo, still attacking reason in an old barn.
Thursday, October 5, 2017
The website marxbrothers.net has a terrific article (here) on the vexed (and bizarrely vexatious) subject of Groucho and ghost writers.
As well as fascinating, it is in many respects heartening. The author at one point says of Julius: "Did he use (a ghostwriter) on occasion? Certainly."
Later on he adds, "a publicist or press agent may have written an occasional piece under his byline. (Groucho) may or may not have had input on these pieces."
This is all a welcome advance on the position adopted in the introduction to the anthology Groucho Marx and Other Short Stories and Tall Tales, which calls the whole idea of his using ghosts "an incorrect and unfair assumption."
As you read and enjoy the piece, however, I should point out that some parts run the doubtless inadvertent risk of seeming a little misleading. So it may be worth my briefly returning here to the subject discussed in pages 23 to 25 of That's Me, Groucho.
The post begins by discussing Groucho's intriguing working relationship with Arthur Sheekman. It is uncontested that Sheekman wrote a number of magazine articles in the 1940s that appeared under Groucho's byline. The author here repeats his assertion that this was done by Groucho altruistically, because Sheekman was at that time finding it hard to get published.
No question that this is basically what was happening here: the documentation exists detailing the arrangement and the reasoning behind it. Nonetheless, it remains odd that Groucho did not have them published as collaborations: a single sale would have been less useful to Sheekman in the long term than the regular appearance of his name in popular magazines.
What we seem to be seeing to my mind, therefore, is a mutually beneficial arrangement. A hard-up Sheekman is being well paid, and that is unquestionably the primary point of the enterprise. But at the same time, Groucho is getting something out of it too. Otherwise he could easily have shared the byline; it simply makes no sense to me that he did not, if his sole desire was to help out his friend. Other Short Stories rightly concludes that "The reasons for some of their collaborative efforts not being credited as such remains unexplained," and that is where the matter has long rested, and rests still.
More contentious are the portions of the article dealing with the suggestion that Sheekman wrote Groucho's first two published books, Beds and Many Happy Returns. This assertion, the post tells us, can be found in "at least a couple of good books, and a couple of bad ones".
That's Me, Groucho, we must assume, fits neither profile, since its position on this question is entirely undecided. All it does is note what's already been said: that Hector Arce claimed he was told this unequivocally by Groucho, that Steve Stoliar was convinced by it at the time, and that it is, on the face of it, odd for anyone, and Groucho especially, to have claimed that someone else wrote their books when they didn't. (Not impossible, but odd.) And that's as far as it sticks its neck out on the matter.
Then there is the additional matter of Gloria Stuart's autobiography, in which she also states it as fact. Noting that Stuart's book was ghosted by her daughter, the article wonders if she actually used Arce's book as a source. If so, "We’ve got ghostwriters quoting ghostwriters about who used a ghostwriter!"
But Stuart's book is not ghosted in the extreme sense of being written by one person and spuriously attributed to another. It's an 'as told to' book, typical of showbiz memoirs (including Harpo Speaks), shaped by a writer based on conversations with the subject. It's possible additional sources were consulted for back-up and validation, of course, but the overwhelmingly likely source of the original claim is Gloria Stuart, even though (as the article notes) she married Sheekman after the writing of Beds (but not, as it doesn't, after the writing of Many Happy Returns).
As I note in the book, Stuart's memoir makes absolutely nothing of the claim, just states it and moves on, and seems to have no idea whatsoever that it is contributing anything to an extant and contentious debate. Its sheer matter-of-factness is compelling. That doesn't in any way mean it's true - Stuart could be exaggerating or mistaken - but one surely needs a vested interest to not see this as the most likely chain of events, as far as how it ended up in Stuart's book goes. (We'll come back to that vested interest later on.)
As the article makes clear, Groucho and Sheekman worked together on the books, with Sheekman honing and editing material sent to him by (or previously published by) Groucho. My own guess is that Groucho was simply being generous when he told Arce that Sheekman had written them, only meaning that Sheekman's input was decisive and vital, and that Sheekman himself, beavering away on a book for which he received no official credit, may have given his wife the incorrect impression that he was doing all the work and being exploited. This, again, presents no real point of quarrel I can see with the author of the article, who writes: "Should Many Happy Returns have been credited to both authors? Perhaps, but there’s also a good chance that the commercial value of the book might have been reduced by adding Sheekman’s name to it."
Absolutely. it does seem reasonable to consider Sheekman an uncredited co-writer on the books, it nonetheless makes sense that he was not credited, and it is not at all unreasonable to describe such a functionary as a ghostwriter. Arce could actually have meant simply this. It is a term with many shades of meaning.
In any event, I don't think Sheekman wrote the entirety of those books, and mine does not claim otherwise. But while its ambivalence on all matters Sheekman precludes That's Me, Groucho as a possible reference point thus far, the post then goes on to discuss the suggestion that Howard Benedict was hired to ghost for Groucho in 1929.
That's Me, Groucho notes a hitherto un-republished claim in Variety that Benedict had written several pieces on Groucho's behalf, and that they are lined up for publication in The New Yorker, Collier’s, The Saturday Evening Post and The New York Times. The book also notes that one of these pieces was called Press Agents I Have Known. So far, so uncontested. But the article then explains:
Benedict actually was a press agent, and published his own humorous take on the profession. But the publication of humorous prose about press agents under his own byline does not indicate that Benedict wrote Groucho’s piece about press agents. In fact, Benedict’s press agent piece predates Groucho’s, which raises another question: Why would a famous Broadway star pay a completely unknown writer with no credentials for an essay similar to one that’s already been published? Apart from that, the pages of The New Yorker included at least eleven humorous pieces concerning press agents between the magazine’s 1925 inception and the publication of Groucho’s “Press Agents I Have Known.” It was a popular topic at the time.
Here the piece runs the risk of giving the impression to anyone who hasn't read That's Me, Groucho that this is the entirety of its justification for giving credence to Benedict's claims! In reality, of course, it does nothing so silly. I tracked down a number of Benedict's essays, letters and squibs, and noted several interesting points. One was that he wrote repeatedly about press agents as a source of humour, but another was that he had a recurring tic of presenting the same piece of information in different ways from different perspectives. It was this stylistic device, as much as the subject matter, that leaped out at me in Groucho's press agent piece. Then, of course, there was the matter of its authority, which makes a logical case for relevance that I can see no easy way out of (of which more anon).
The article is keen to create an impression of Benedict as a fringe figure, and something of a fantasist, who self-published a series of dodgy memoirs and lived off tall tales about people he vaguely knew. Benedict was indeed an unknown writer with no credentials when the Groucho association is claimed, but he was also a popular figure on the New York theatrical scene with a reputation as a wit and wordsmith. He hung out with many of Groucho's closest theatrical friends - an obvious point of entry were Groucho making it known among his confidantes that he was in the market for a ghost.
Benedict was also a Broadway press agent whose clients included the Shuberts, Gershwin and Noel Coward, and later a successful film publicist and producer at Universal and RKO. He was by no means a peripheral or inconsequential figure. "Benedict was a successful press agent and later became a producer," the article notes. "But he never worked with anyone else as famous as the Marx Brothers." Well, depends how you rank famousness I guess. It's true he was no Thalberg, but he produced scores of movies, including episodes of the Sherlock Holmes, Saint and Falcon series, and made films with the likes of the Ritz Brothers, Merle Oberon, Lucille Ball, Claude Rains, Franchot Tone, Donald O'Connor and Charles Laughton (as well as one pairing Allan Jones and Kitty Carlisle!)
But, like Groucho, he was also somebody who wanted to be known above all as a writer - maybe that shared frustrated goal brought them together? - and as my book notes, many of his published pieces are in essence self-adverts, notably Sincerest Flattery, which is basically a ghostwriter's request for work, disguised as a humorous essay.
Benedict is always looking out for himself, and for the opening that will get him launched as a writer. In a curious observation, the article notes: "In all three of (a series of Zeppo-related) press notices, Benedict gets his name in the paper by attaching himself to a Marx Brother. A press agent’s job is to get his client’s name in the paper, not his own."
To which one can only add: Well exactly! Benedict wasn't Zeppo's press agent. He was a man who wanted to be cited in newspapers and magazines at the centre of high society making memorable quips with famous people. "But his books suggest he was an intimate of just about every famous Broadway figure of the 1920s," the author notes. "If his claims are true one wonders how Benedict managed to escape the notice of decades of researchers and writers who have covered this period. In truth, he was a young guy trying to break into the theatrical business, and he had some brushes with famous people."
Well, he was in the theatrical business, and trying to break into the writing business, but otherwise: yes. Yes, that's exactly who he was. That's who my Benedict was. That's who my Benedict would be. And he did know all these people, and appears frequently in their company in the public record at the time. But why on earth would we expect him to be of interest to researchers and writers covering the period? He didn't really do much of anything; he was just there. His absence from retrospective histories is no enigma at all: he left few traces.
There is no question that Benedict was someone who wanted to be a ghost writer, and who was very much in Groucho's orbit. So, given that his appointment is stated baldly in Variety, what are the reasons (other than the a priori desire to) for doubting it? Here the post seems to be a little unsure:
"Maybe Benedict was an editor. Maybe he was a liar. Or perhaps he just followed Groucho around with pencil and paper."
This latter is a reference to a splendid quote the author has obtained from Benedict's granddaughter (yet another reason to be grateful for this fascinating article): "He said his job actually entailed following Groucho around taking down the jokes that spilled constantly from his mouth, then picking out the ones that were good. Many weren’t, he said. He said Groucho would crack jokes all the time, sort of manically."
"If that’s the extent of the work Howard Benedict did for Groucho," the author concludes, "the ghostwriter claim is more than an exaggeration. It is simply false." Really? At the risk of being redundant, let me stress again that it could well be that "the ghostwriter claim is... simply false." But I cannot for the life of me see how this quote in any way points to that conclusion. This, rather, is exactly what I imagined Benedict to have done, before I even knew he had a granddaughter! Either independently or in collaboration with Groucho, he comes up with a humorous idea for a piece. He then goes away and writes a skeleton version. He then keeps company with Groucho, notebook either literally or more likely metaphorically in hand, discussing it and much else besides, truffling all the while for authentic bon mots to sprinkle in.
Far from pointing away from his story, it is an exact depiction of just what a ghostwriter of this sort does. The same objection meets this observation:
Specifically, in “Press Agents I Have Known” Groucho comments, “I’m still looking for a press agent who will get me some publicity without making me roller-skate down Broadway.” The 2011 edition of Groucho Marx and Other Short Stories and Tall Tales includes an October 1924 photograph of the Four Marx Brothers roller-skating down Broadway. Would it not be more plausible that the subject of the piece is likely to have come from the recollections of Groucho Marx than the pen of Howard Benedict?
Why on earth is it either/or? We've just been told that he claimed he copied down Groucho quotes for him to use! If he told him he had a piece he could use on press agents, this is exactly the kind of thing Groucho would have contributed. So more than conceivably, it could have come from the pen of Howard Benedict via the recollections of Groucho Marx. Even if that's wrong, even if Benedict was lying and uninvolved, this is how ghost writing of that sort works; this is exactly what we should expect to see if it were true.
So, could he have been Groucho's appointed editor, shaping material Groucho had written first? It's possible. But he had no private reputation as an editor, only as a wit and would-be ghost. (In any event, I think Groucho would have trusted the New Yorker et al's own editors to do their jobs.)
So it would have been an unlikely appointment, and we might have expected Variety's suggestion of his being much more to have been followed with, at the very least, a retraction. Both Groucho and his prestigious employers would surely want to have that stressed without equivocation. If Benedict himself had been the source, the same applies - but also one imagines any association between the two would have been pretty swiftly severed. So how to account for the lack of follow-up? Maybe Groucho had no objection to its appearance in a trade journal, published at a time when the reading matter of industry insiders and that of the general public was far more rigidly separate than today. (It would have provided Benedict with the calling card advertisement that would have been his primary intention in doing the work to start with.) Another possibility is that Benedict overstepped the mark, and there was an altercation between them, that it would be in the interests of all to keep private. But that would only make sense if the claims were true.
So if Benedict the editor is out of the picture, and Benedict the ghost writer is temporarily outlawed, that just leaves Benedict the liar. This is clearly the post's preferred conclusion, even though it responsibly shies from endorsing it without qualification. But look at what the Variety piece actually claims. There's nothing vague or woolly about it. He doesn't say something like, 'Groucho has taken me on as his ghostwriter, and I'll be doing some pieces for him in the future sometime..." He lays claim to four specific commissions, all of which Groucho did honour, and some of which were published after the Variety announcement. This alone makes it hard to dismiss the piece as an outright fantasy.
We'll come back to that. The main problem I have with the article, however, is that it is a meticulous response to a complete straw man. The author's perceived target is someone who has an a priori desire to show that Groucho did not write all his own prose, because he wants that to be the case, because he believes Groucho was incapable of doing so (and was thus a bad writer). But this person is certainly not me. (As it happens I do find Groucho's prose somewhat dry and pedestrian, but that applies to the entirety of his written output, the vast majority of which neither I nor anyone believes to be anything but entirely his own work.)
When the Benedict notice was brought to my attention, I found it intriguing, and looked into it to see if it led anywhere. In my opinion it does. But if I were shown comprehensively tomorrow that it does not, I would not be any the less interested, and not even mildly reluctant to accept the fact. I have no dog in this race. I'm interested solely in where the evidence takes us, and if it takes us as far as proof I'll be delighted, whatever conclusion derives from it.
"While no explanation will convince everyone that Groucho was a capable writer," the author writes, "an examination of the facts should. But there are still people who believe that Hitler escaped to South America and that the moon landing was faked on a soundstage." Indeed there are, just as there may well be people who think Groucho was not a capable writer. But I don't know of any, nor of any means by which I could be confused with one myself. Nor do any of my arguments necessitate that he should be.
Yet the author's reluctance to accept Benedict's claims (along with the idea that Groucho's fronting for Sheekman might in part have been to keep himself supplied with a body of ghosted work), seems to be on the assumption that the only reason such arrangements could ever have been made would have to be because Groucho was incapable of doing it on his own.
If this were anyone's position on the matter, I would join him in rejecting it. But it is no part of my argument that any of the pieces under contention (or, for that matter, any written by Sheekman) are appreciably better than the stuff Groucho did on his own. It's much the same. (The article wants this fact to be evidence for the prosecution, but it's the job of a ghost to sound like his employer. Benedict prided himself on his abilities in this regard - read Sincerest Flattery.)
Yet the article's author writes: "But assuming there’s some smoke in Benedict’s fire, accept also that all four of the items in question are clearly similar in style and tone to the numerous Groucho pieces that had been published prior to the Benedict claim. Additionally, there is nothing extraordinary about these pieces that would suggest Groucho would have been unable to write them." To which the only response is: so they should be similar, and there is no need whatever to for them to be extraordinary, because there is no need to think that the reason Groucho might not have written them is because he couldn't write them.
Okay, I'm out of breath. That's quite enough guesswork for one paragraph. All wild supposition? Of course it is. But my point is that when the only evidence you have to interpret is the absence of evidence, plausible explanations are ten a penny - whatever position you want to adopt.
The problem with approaching speculative analysis with a preconceived desire as to the outcome (such as the need to believe that Groucho did write the humorous prose being tentatively attributed to Benedict) is that it can lead to confirmation bias. Here are two interesting examples from the article. At one point, the author writes:
Benedict’s name is not found in any of Groucho’s correspondence, particularly the correspondence between Groucho and his literary agent George T. Bye. Since Sheekman’s situation was clearly outlined in letters, one would think another person involved in Groucho’s writing would be similarly documented. Of course it is possible that Benedict may have had a hand in some of the work. But it is also possible that the Variety item is a lie or an exaggeration. The guy was a press agent, after all.
Now this (always assuming, as we of course should, that it's a fair point, that is to say that there is a good surviving selection of correspondence between Groucho and Bye on other matters from the relevant period) is unquestionably an interesting fact. But it's interesting whatever way we choose to slice the salami - it doesn't point us in any particular direction that I can see. Yes, if Benedict was telling the truth, we might have expected some sort of exchange between Bye and Groucho on the matter. And if it was an exaggeration of a much less significant professional alliance of some sort, we might have expected some sort of exchange between Bye and Groucho on the matter. And if it was indeed an outright lie, a foul and calumny libel... we might have expected some sort of exchange between Bye and Groucho on the matter. So yes, the absence of documentation is intriguing. But it is not suggestive of anything other than mystery. (Of course, if the arrangement with Benedict was made outside of proper professional channels, it may well have bypassed his literary agent... but that would be me speculating again.)
Then, again, there is this:
There’s no mention in any of (Benedict's) three books of the ghostwriting claim. (Perhaps the job description his granddaughter recalls is accurate, and Benedict knew better than to make the ghostwriter claim in his memoirs.)
We've already highlighted the illogicality of thinking that "the job description his granddaughter recalls" points away from, rather than towards, a valid claim to being a ghostwriter, but how are we supposed to read meaning into the fact that he does not mention it in his books? Again, only if we have a pre-formed agenda. Otherwise it is, again, merely interesting. Yes, if he was Groucho's ghostwriter, we might have expected to see it there. But if he wasn't, we might have expected to see it there. (Especially given that he was wont to claim he was, including in print, seemingly without repercussion, in the most famous showbiz journal of record in the world.) So the fact that we don't is, again, worth our attention, but fairly points us to no conclusion whatsoever.
Of course, if the publication had caused a massive row, with perhaps a legal threat or two thrown in for good measure, that would certainly account for its absence (even when, according to his granddaughter, he continued to assert the claims privately). Certainly the one thing that does seem very, very likely to me is that the Variety piece - be it true, false or anywhere in the middle - was somebody's screw-up. Judging by his other appearances in press stories supposedly about other people, the obvious first assumption is that Benedict blabbed without permission, either naively or recklessly, about an arrangement that should have been kept secret. Groucho's lack of follow-up might have been from the desire to draw as little further attention to the faux pas as possible. Maybe he severed his relations with Benedict immediately after? Who knows? The piece does imply that the work is already written and placed. (This makes questionable the article's assertion: "It would be safe to dismiss the claim on a Collier’s piece, since “My Poor Wife” was not published until December 30, 1930. Presumably if Benedict had been Groucho’s ghostwriter he would have been fired well before that for blabbing about it in Variety a year-and-a-half earlier.")
At the moment, I do think Benedict wrote some of these pieces, and especially Press Agents I Have Known. Why do I think this? Not because I want it to be so, but because, to my mind, that is where the presently incomplete and confusing evidence cautiously points.
It is a vague and shadowy affair, certainly. But the following, at this point, seems to me logically inarguable: Benedict must have had insider knowledge of Groucho's forthcoming magazine pieces. Why? Because the predictions made in the Variety piece were correct. Groucho did immediately go on to publish in those magazines.
So where would he get this insider information? Absent paper trail between Groucho and his literary agent or not, he can only have obtained such detailed information from a professional association of some sort. However vague and insubstantial this seems as an argument - and I fully agree it seems very vague and insubstantial! - it seems obvious to me that this is vastly preferable as logic to the only possible alternative. Which is as follows. If Benedict was lying, then the following must be true:
Variety announces that Benedict is ghosting for Groucho, but this is not true. It lists the famous magazines and journals in which such work will appear. Groucho did publish in all of them, in some cases in the future: sheer guesswork if the source wasn't genuine. Despite it not being true, Benedict manages to claim otherwise without inciting the public response (let alone incurring the public wrath) of Groucho or any of the major magazines he has libeled. And then, on top of all this, one of the articles to which he lays claim is a spoof on press agents, like at least three actual Benedict pieces and with notable stylistic similarities to them. If Benedict's claims are bogus, we have to accept that every single bit of this is sheer coincidence.
Well, yes, it's possible, I suppose. Most things are. But strip away the pressing, passionate, a priori need to believe it didn't happen, and we are led, surely if temporarily, to the likelihood that it probably did.
Monday, May 2, 2016
One of the subjects that comes up most often in our Facebook group is the various occasions on which Harpo does, or might, speak on film.
Whether it is an accidentally recorded slip, or a sly in-joke, the number of suggested examples is greater than you might think.
There are also a couple of notable cases outside of the Marx movie canon itself.
In this edition of The Spike Jones Show, the strange hacking laugh at 7:06 certainly appears to be coming from Harpo. He can also be heard indistinctly mumbling to Jones at 24:13:
This in turn, lends greater credence to the suggestion that it may be his laugh we can hear in this moment from You Bet Your Life (at 0:37): the laugh doesn't sound like anything we might expect to float past the Harpo tonsils... but it does sound like the laugh in The Spike Jones Show...
Best and least ambiguously, in this newsreel footage from the premiere of The Great Ziegfeld he says "honk, honk!" into the microphone, and can be heard saying "You gotta do the talking" under his breath:
Harpo certainly knew that his trademark silence was not something to be abandoned lightly, on camera at least. Once revealed it could never be unheard, which is why he tended to limit planned speaking engagements to the stage. We do now know that the original plans for Room Service were to do it as a proper adaptation of the original play, with a real moustache for Groucho, no Italian accent for Chico and a fully vocal Harpo. But the team had second thoughts and abandoned these plans relatively late into pre-production, probably when it became obvious that their surprise re-signing by MGM meant that the opportunities for experimentation that had first lured them to RKO would now be off the long-term table.
Then there's the claim that Harpo was offered a large sum of money, additional to his salary, to shout "Murder!" in A Night in Casablanca. But not only does he not do so, it is massively unlikely the offer was ever really made - most likely it is, like the notion that Warner Brothers threatened legal action over the title and Groucho destroyed their pretensions in an ongoing correspondence, just another publicity scam dreamed up by producer David Loew.
The following examples, however, all appear in the established canon of 13 official Marx Brothers movies.
We shall weigh up the evidence for each in turn, and then let Harpo himself deliver the verdict...
1. Singing 'My Old Kentucky Home' in Animal Crackers
When the four brothers enter in absurd bathing costumes towards the end of the film, four voices can be heard performing this number. Harpo's lips are clearly moving, but for most of the time he seems to be deliberately hiding behind Groucho. This suggests that he is indeed contributing to the sound, as he would surely have done on stage, but not as an in-joke, hence his furtiveness.
|Verdict: Harpo speaks!|
2. Singing 'Sweet Adeline' in Monkey Business
Now, of course there is the suggestion of four voices being heard, for the services of the joke. (How do you know there are four stowaways? They were singing Sweet Adeline!) For a long time, however, debate has raged as to whether there really are four voices to be heard or only three. For the longest time I insisted I heard only three: Glenn Mitchell and I fought bloodily and at length over the matter. More recently, however, I have been convinced by Andrea Orlando, whose graphic below, when followed with the soundtrack running, conclusively reveals the presence of the elusive fourth voice:
Of course there is no sure certain way of proving that the other voice is Harpo's, but on the other hand there are no sensible grounds for supposing it isn't. (What's more, there seems to be a degree of in-jokey concealment here, suggesting the exercise is a deliberate tease.) So I think it is reasonable to reach a firm conclusion on this one. Over to Harpo...
|Verdict: Harpo speaks!|
3. Geeing-up the horse in Horse Feathers
When Pinky first gets in the dust cart and rides away to the big football game, he can clearly be heard signalling to the horse to move off. The only question mark is over whether it is Harpo at all: the face is indistinct, and the action - though not exactly hazardous - is nonetheless something one would expect a stunt double to perform. On the other hand, in the following shot of the horse charging down the street, it does appear to be the real Harpo. Therefore...
|Verdict: Harpo's not certain|
4. Saying "In the opera" to Chico in A Night at the Opera
Andrea Orlando again, and this one's a real find. When Harpo and Chico first meet at the beginning of the film, Chico asks Harpo, "Where's Riccardo?" Turn it up good and loud: he unquestionably whispers something in reply, and it's almost certainly "in the opera". Now this is interesting: he's not giving Chico any kind of a prompt, so there's no reason why he should say anything. Yet it's not done like an in-joke. I think I like Andrea's suggestion, that it reveals that Harpo has a kind of spoken script in his head at all times, and is "emoting under the constraints of not being able to speak yet knowing exactly what he wants to say." And this time, the words slipped out.
Whatever the explanation, of the fact of the matter there can be no doubt:
|Verdict: Harpo speaks!|
5. Playing comb and paper in A Night at the Opera
This is one that passes a lot of people by. Obviously there is no question that he is playing the comb and paper in the scene where he and Chico are locked in the brig. But does that require a voice? Try getting a tune out of one using only breath and you'll soon find out!
|Verdict: Harpo speaks!|
6. Singing 'Down by the Old Mill Stream' in A Day at the Races
Another one that should have leaped out of the screen at me, but which I didn't even notice until it was pointed out to me by my pal Jay Brennan. The Brothers' rendition of this number - behind face masks - during Dumont's medical examination, is clearly being delivered by three voices. As with Sweet Adeline we can't prove it's Harpo, but it seems a stretch and a half to propose it's someone else...
|Verdict: Harpo speaks!|
7. Shouting "Stop that bird!" in Room Service
This is a slightly sneaky one, in that it's never been claimed this appears in any release print. Nonetheless, according to a contemporary report in the Evening Independent "rushes prove conclusively" that in one take of the turkey scene "Harpo forgot himself" and yelled 'Stop that bird!'
Obviously impossible to prove one way or another, but these kinds of desperate publicity stories are legion, and there are no grounds for taking it seriously at all. Be firm on this one, Harpo...
|Verdict: Harpo doesn't speak|
8. Doubling for Chico in At the Circus
The Milwaukee Journal of July 22, 1939 claimed that in the rain scene where Chico allows thingy and whatsit onto the train, it is actually Harpo mischievously standing in for him, dialogue and all. This was a prank of which even director Ed Buzzell was unaware until afterwards, it goes on to add, but he concluded: “If the director couldn’t tell the difference, how can anyone else?” Well, who knows - maybe that is him, shot from a distance? But the dialogue is surely overdubbed, and I don’t care how well they could impersonate each other: that’s Chico’s voice. Meanwhile, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle (July 11, 1939) goes further, claiming that “for a gag in one scene” Harpo and Chico both exchange roles, and says that the Marx Brothers “defy the audience to pick the place where it happens.” Yeah, whatever.
|Verdict: Harpo doesn't speak|
9. Sneezing in At the Circus
Harpo's character in this film - I forget his name; probably Woofles or something - delivers several raucous "Atchoo!"s in the scene where Groucho and Chico are interrogating the midget. But the sound is overdubbed, and the likelihood of it being Harpo's actual voice is very slim. Still it can't be ruled out entirely, and so, though it's massively unlikely...
|Verdict: Harpo's not certain|
And that's your lot. Unless any of you know better, that would seem to be as close as you'll ever get to actually seeing Harpo talk on screen - outside of those home movies, of course...
Saturday, April 30, 2016
|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 Magazine. Thanks 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|
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|
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'.