Tuesday, December 22, 2009

'Tis the season...

Okay. I already wrote here about how my first encounter with the Marx Brothers was at Christmastime back in the dim distant prehistory of what, with pre-Orwellian irony, I still like to think of as 1983.
I also mentioned, sort of casually, kind of half-jokingly - the way I do when I'm being deadly serious and fanatical - that I try to recreate that exact experience by rewatching the same films on the same nights at the same times.
And this year will be no exception.
But this time there's a big difference. I'm running a blog with 28 followers.
So I hereby invite you all to partake of the great annual Tonight We're Gonna Party Like It's 1983 Basically Futile Watching Specific Marx Brothers Films At Specific Dates and Times Challenge.
. .
You may think it's a near-alarmingly pointless thing for a man like me to still be doing at my age. If so, think how much more idiotic it would be if you did it too! Without even the pathetic, skeletal pretence of justification that animates my poor tortured brain. I don't have much of an excuse, but you'll have none at all. So come join me! Let me know how you got on, what it was like and what kind of transcendent state you reached. Send me photos of yourself with the film clearly visible on a tv screen, holding a watch to confirm the time and the newspaper to confirm the day. So get your diaries out; here come the dates. Cancel that party! Forget that Gordon Ramsay's Christmas Celebrity Foxhunting on Ice Special you were planning to watch instead.
Imagine by contrast the warm fraternal glow, imagine how - in the profoundest, most Dickensian sense - Christmassy it will feel, to be part of an esoteric community, all over the world (well, Britain and America, and one in France, oh - and an Australian), all linked in this one common aim. If any one of you actually does this, even with just one of the films, or even is still reading this now, as opposed to having given up somewhere back when I started going on about taking photos of yourself holding a newspaper, I will be both profoundly delighted and frankly surprised.
23rd December, 10:30 pm: Monkey Business
.This was the one. I actually came in late for this one, somewhere around the Chevalier impressions. I'd seen the trailer for them all several times but was only mildly curious, had been out to some family party or other, and switched on casually when I got back home - only to encounter the funniest men of all time being funnier than anybody has ever been in the history of people being funny.
You can, if you wish, recreate the exact experience by starting your recording at 10.30 but leaving the television switched off until about five past eleven. Sometimes I like to do that; other times I just watch from the start. I say this to assure you that I'm not some kind of fanatic.
Christmas Day, 11pm: Duck Soup
.Now, this is the curious one. My memory tells me that after cursing my ill-judgement and coming in late on Monkey Business I made sure I didn't miss a second of any of the rest. And yet, I have no specific memory of this first viewing of Duck Soup. I remember other things about that night: like, for instance the fact that my mother wanted to watch the All Creatures Great and Small special on BBC1 while my grandfather wanted to see Jimmy Tarbuck on ITV. But of watching Duck Soup later that night I recall nothing. Further, one of my clearest memories of Horse Feathers was of being surprised when Groucho begins singing at the start, and not realising that they did this. Perhaps I again missed the beginning? Or perhaps I really did miss the whole film? I just don't know. However, for this reason, it is permissible to watch it at 12.20 am on New Year's Day, when BBC1 showed it in 1984. I know I didn't miss it then. It's okay if you want to stretch the rules a little and do this. I won't mind. Too much. `
28th December, 11.15 pm: Horse Feathers
.Here, perhaps, was the moment that a temporary fixation became a lifelong obsession. I just didn't know that anything could be this funny. And my father began watching them with me at this point. He likes to pretend he doesn't much care for them now, but the truth is we were weeping with laughter. When Harpo cuts the cards he rolled off the sofa on to the floor.
29th December, 10.50 pm: A Night in Casablanca
.The BBC decided to test me by throwing in a late non-Paramount and see if I'd spot the difference. I did, but I couldn't quite place why. I remember my dad saying that it wasn't quite as good this time, and I think we both concluded that they were just not at their best the day they made this one. The truth is that the film is really pretty damned good to compare so favourably with the early-thirties faultless masterpieces. Not many of the MGMs would have stood up so well in such company. For that reason I've always had a soft spot for this film.
Hammer fans will note a thirty minute overlap between this and the 1984 BBC-2 showing of The Mummy, which began at 11.45 pm. Fortunately, however, I missed the first half hour of The Mummy, not by pretending to watch A Night In Casablanca instead, but because my sister wanted to record a programme about Duran Duran on ITV. So again, history solves a dilemma with almost eerie precision.
30th December, 11.55 pm: Animal Crackers
.The last, and still, for me, the best. I realised by this time that I could not bear to say goodbye to these boys. So, placing a curse on all my friends with video recorders - I basically spent the whole of 1982, 3 and the first half of 1984 fantasising about video recorders; I still love handling those tapes - I rigged up my little portable cassette recorder and taped the soundtrack. No direct linking cables or anything, just a tiny little mic inset in the machine, capturing the full gamut of household sounds along with the movie. So many times did I play it over the following years (until we finally got a Betamax video and I made the film one of my first purchases) that I still find myself mildly surprised that a door doesn't slam when Harpo makes his first entrance.
So there we are. All you need for the merriest Christmas ever. You may do more important things this year. But it's unlikely you'll get a chance to expend energy achieving anything quite so senseless.
Let's go!
And we'll be back in the new year with an annotated Duck Soup, that long-promised discussion of the Marx Brothers' films and the rise of European fascism, and lots more!
Thanks for making this first year of the Council such fun.
Merry Christmas,

Friday, October 2, 2009

Uncut "Night at the Opera" discovered! Can "Humor Risk" be far behind?

The ever-excellent Jennifer, normally to be found holding court at Flappers and Flickers and Silent Stanzas, brings me the momentous news that the uncut and free-to-make-references-to-Italy version of A Night at the Opera has finally been found - and right where I always thought it would be.
Follow the link to read the full story, and then petition MGM or Warners or whoever the hell it is that owns the rights to put out a new DVD featuring both versions.
And happy birthday, Groucho!
Stop Press 15/11/9:
Original council member and all-round good egg Eugene Conniff has brilliantly celebrated the find in splendid illustrated form over at his blog The Poison From My Brain.
I cannot recommend it highly enough, and my only question is what you're still doing here, trying to decipher the miniscule text on my reproduction, when all you have to do is click on the link and there it'll be, all big and colourful.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Maxine Marx, RIP

Another link to the Brothers is broken: Chico's daughter Maxine Marx passed away last week at the ripe age of 91.
Maxine was the author of Growing Up With Chico, a hugely enjoyable memoir and - I believe I'm correct in saying - the only book to date devoted solely to the great Leonard Marx. (Whereas books solely on the subject of brother Julius currently stand somewhere in the higher squillions.)
In the book, she recalls that one of the last things her father said to her before his death was:
"Remember, honey, don't forget what I told you. Put in my coffin a deck of cards, a mashie niblick, and a pretty blonde."
Maxine Marx, hail and farewell!
(Thanks to Jennifer at Flappers and Flickers and Silent Stanzas for the tip-off.)

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Marx Brothers Place Update!

The Council received the following letter today from Susan Kathryn Hefti of the 93rd Street Beautification Association (oh, and they linked to us here!):
Dear Matthew,
We don't know whether you have had a chance to see our Marx Brothers Place videos on YouTube, but we would love to invite you & your readers to give our Channel Page a whirl whenever you can find a moment to do so:

Also, as we did finally manage to get the NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) Chair here this past spring (along with the politicians we have been contacting), we are now asking that folks send the follow-up message (link for the message:
http://the-marx-brothers-place-report.blogspot.com/2009/05/beyond-lintels.html) which addresses the issues raised by LPC Chair Robert Tierney when he was here.

And we do have a new preservation movie coming out soon (probably the 1st week of September when most people have returned from frolicking). We plan to launch the new movie on our YouTube Channel page, but we'll be sure to include you in the Press Release announcing its debut!

Thanks again for letting folks know about our campaign to help save Marx Brothers Place!!!
Please keep in touch!

with all best wishes,
Susan Kathryn Hefti
Co-Chair, 93rd Street Beautification Association

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Say, Herbert... That you in the dark?

Original council member Eugene Conniff has opened a whole new can of worms on the matter of the Marx Brothers Doppelganger Conspiracy, the scene in Animal Crackers in which Groucho, Chico and Harpo are represented by doubles (see here).
He's drawn my attention to this bit of speculative Youtubery, in which it is suggested that the fake Groucho is in fact none other than Zeppo, whose legit appearances in the film are so few in number and brief in duration that they amount to little more than a cameo.
If you look at the brightness-enhanced clip, it is true that in certain shots he does look very much like Herbie Marx.
But then, you always have to be careful on these occasions that you're not simply seeing what you want to see.
To test that hypothesis, I watched it again, this time pretending that I was convinced it was Claudette Colbert. Ironically, I now remain convinced that it is.
Truth is, yes it looks like Zeppo in some shots, and in others it doesn't. What we're seeing here, I think, is a mingling of the now increasingly widely accepted fact that it isn't Groucho, with the old story of Zeppo substituting for him once and nobody noticing - a story which may well be apocryphal but which ostensibly took place on stage and pre-dates this film by many moons.
The Youtube posters certainly reveal something of the perils of wishful thinking when they go on to speculate that Zeppo can be discerned impersonating Groucho's voice, when one of the most obvious giveaways that it is a double in the first place is the imprecise manner in which he is miming to a soundtrack - the voice is unquestionably Groucho's own.
In addition, it is not merely Groucho but all three present brothers being doubled: if it is merely Zeppo doing Groucho as an in-joke, why the third-rate Chico and Harpo stand-ins?
Sorry, but I'm not buying this one.
But while we're here, let's stroll down oddity cul-de-sac with some more great Zeppo moments...

For ages - until after I first posted it if I'm honest - I thought this image of Groucho ironing Zeppo during the football match in Horse Feathers was merely the deranged, drug-fuelled fantasy of the artist that drew this DVD sleeve. But no - the scene really existed, as shown below. Still an inexplicable choice for the DVD cover image, though.
. Zeppo's impersonation of a Red Indian putting the move on what would appear to be Charlie Ruggles
.Zeppo's impersonation of former President Richard Nixon

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Smutty business at Keith's, Flushing

Thanks to Damian, partly for designing our spiffy new header, and also for hitting upon this charming ad for one of the mini-touring shows incorporating bits of other shows that the Brothers used to do between proper shows.
The heading identifies them as the stars of The Cocoanuts and Animal Crackers - that, and the films listed beneath, safely dates this as 1930.
In tiny type that defies you to read it, we learn that they are appearing in person with a 17 strong cast in The Schweinerei. Schweinerei, Damian assures me, is defined in the wictionary as
mess, nastiness, smutty business, (lit:) piggishness.
We are urged to "come and greet them and get your laugh of a lifetime".
It comes from this photostream, dedicated to saving the historic RKO Keith's Theatre. The pictures, of this and other ads plus great shots of the theatre in its heyday and now in heartbreaking disrepair, are well worth a look.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Late arrival at the Animal Crackers odd advertisements ball

Looks like the jungle animals from this one have been rounded up and put in a box, and they've got Lillian Roth to sit on them so as to make sure they don't escape. (Great to see a bona fide caricature of Lillian, rather than just some woman, as is usually the most you'll get from these artists.)
Harpo is his usual obliging self, opting to pull Lillian and the animals along on a rope, while Chico (the carniverous crook) and Zeppo (the zestful zaney - only slightly less bizarre than a zestful zancy, which is how I read it at first) simply watch from the middle-distance in revolutionary transparent suits and hats. Zeppo, in keeping with his reduced role in the film, has decided to leave his legs at home.
Meanwhile Groucho, true to form, leans on his famous upside-down walking stick.
But what's this? One of the tiny elephants has escaped, and is being merrily ridden from the scene by that pesky miniature Harpo, up to his tricks again.

I don't know about you, but this is a film I want to see.

Anyone know what a faint-stepping funster is, and where I can buy one?

Monday, May 18, 2009

The Ring Thing (continued)

There's simply no doubt in my mind whatsoever that you are all desperate for more posts about Cyril Ring - the actor whose name is instantly recalled whenever folks gather to discuss the character of Harvey Yates in The Cocoanuts. (See here and here.)
So here's the latest from my fellow Cyril obsessive, Mary O'Benar:

Per yours and Lolita's postulations that Cyril soldiered on because he cared deeply about his craft, I've found one item which may support that: in 1921, Cyril's among a handful of younger actors who create an after-hours review to entertain the theatrical community. Seems to be a rather innovative project, and it's under the aegis of several heavy-hitting guilds/clubs; Lambs, Friars.
That puts Cyril in the big leagues, and functioning with respect and support. If so, then to stick to acting decades after hitting bottom becomes quite tragic.
Cyril's face-time from all those films can't add up to more than 3 hours altogether, maybe less. From this distance, it does seem terribly futile as the work of a lifetime, but, in the end, impossible to know how Cyril saw it.
Cyril's last film part was in 1951, and that's the same year he came into a good inheritance. I did find that he was manager of a very good Hollywood restaurant in the late 1950s - huge bar, established regular hangout for famous movie folk - but I've no idea if he'd been doing that when still working in movies.
If it turns out he was the archetypal 'waiter between acting jobs' for 30 years, that truly would be tragic!

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Save the Gookie!

(Thanks to Anthony Blampied for the tip-off.).
Strange things are afoot at the Internet Movie Database. .Under the postings for Harpo, all references to his "gookie" face have become "*bleep*ie". I'm not joking.
The reason is that 'Gook', if you're American (what do you mean, you're not?), is a well-known racial slur, applying to foreigners generally, Korean or Vietnamese ones especially. Just as 'Gookie' is a facial expression named after a New York cigar roller.
.Okay, the censorship is automatic - but the user comments are not.
One says: "I guess some would call this excessive Political Correctness, but I wouldn't trade it for what people had to put up with in the Good Old Days."
The woman whose original post was censored has obligingly changed it from 'the infamous Gookie face' to 'the infamous Harpo face' - and apologised for offending anyone.
Britishers note, then, that the IMDB's own description of Harpo as possessed of "big, poofy, curly red hair" has managed to escape from the offenceometer unscathed.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Crackers at Loew's

Thanks to Damian for these fascinating newspaper ads for the first run of Animal Crackers at Loew's, the Home of Hits.
Oh, to have been alive and breathing that 1930 air!
Last week: Helen Kane in Heads Up; this week: the Marxes and Lillian Roth in Animal Crackers; next week: Roth again in DeMille's Madam Satan ("a marvelous picture"). All that plus an added Krazy Kat cartoon!
Saturday the fun begins! Those dizzy goofs on their way direct from three big weeks in Cleveland, Cocoanuttier than ever! A nice photograph of all four boys, and note the billing: Chico, Harpo, Zeppo, Groucho. It's not alphabetical, it's not left-to-right, it's just plain strange...

Starts today! Filmdom's four funniest fools in the biggest theatrical opening of the year! Four fools they may be, but only three make it to the poster this time, and only Groucho and Harpo are deemed worth caricaturing, along with a misleading selection of jungle beasts.

Only two more days to see the grand slam of comedies! Gags a mile a minute! And Zeppo's back! Harpo is speechless, Groucho is telling us that "it's all in pun", and Zeppo is saying "Scratch Elsie." Intriguingly, this refers to a snatch of dialogue in the 'dictating a letter' scene cut from all known prints of the film:

Groucho: Dear Elsie... no, never mind Elsie.
Zeppo: Do you want me to scratch Elsie?
Groucho: Well, if you enjoy that sort of thing, it's quite alright with me. However, I'm not interested in your private affairs, Jamison.

Odd that they couldn't have come up with an equally relevant quote for Chico, who's still saying "why a duck?" like The Cocoanuts never ended.

Monday, May 11, 2009

What did you do, Cyril?

Further to my post here about Marx mystery man Cyril Ring (sneaky Harvey Yates in Cocoanuts), I've received a fascinating communiqué from Mary O'Benar, who lives in Florida and has been pondering the Ring Enigma for some time.
Extracts from her letter follow...
I've been looking for Cyril Ring for several years and still haven't got much more info than you do. I did run into one other person online, expert on Julian Eltinge, a friend of his sisters, and we agreed, speculatively, that there's got to be a scandal involved with Cyril. But neither of us can find it.
He doesn't just fail to build a thriving career. It's not a decline but sudden, in late 1921, something happened and boom! he's a non-person. Charlotte Greenwood not only divorces him in '22, but she seriously expunges him from her life.
I think he was well-accepted, comfortable in his sisters' Long Island high-end showbiz social world, but he just vanishes from NY, thereafter works about once a year in his brother-in-law's films but no others. After 7 years of that, then comes Cocoanuts. Then the one bit with WC Fields [The Barber Shop (1933); CR has speaking role as the bandit Fields accidentally apprehends - MC], then bit parts forever.
Cocoanuts was filmed on Long Island while the Marxes were also working Broadway. Half dozen people involved were close friends of his brother-in-law Thomas Meighan. Many of the films Cyril did have friendship/family connections, so that's pretty obviously how he continued after 'the scandal'.
What possibly could have been so scandalous to Broadway people in 1921 that we can't find a word on it? Those were some incredibly amoral times. The press had more mercy then, but his immediate family included 3 big stars, so what was so taboo that it would have been unpublishable and thoroughly buried, but tolerable enough that friends and family kept him in work, at least minimally, the rest of his life?
I've been researching Meighan's family and social circles for quite awhile now, all by internet due to 'enjoying poor health', the Cyril mystery really bugs me. I keep thinking if I were in New York and could get into archives of whatever papers were the nastiest then, surely something would surface. But instead, I've just been gathering his films, he's on TV a lot. I just counted up and I've passed 100 Cyril movies, TIVO, Netflix, etc-- gotten so I can pick him out in a crowd scene by instinct! He's not at all a poor actor, actually he usually blends in pretty skillfully. I don't think his decline was from a lack of talent...
Whether he was a bastard or an unsung hero, he certainly was a patient man.
If by any chance anyone out there has any more information on shadowy Cyril, Mary and I would be overjoyed to hear it...
In the meantime, The Marx Brothers Council of Britain is delighted to award Mary its Heroic Achievement Award for deliberately amassing a collection of over 100 Cyril Ring movies.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Don't put off till tomorrow what you can do today...

Ever get an idea in your head that it would be fun to do something and then never get around to it?
Well, stop wasting time.
Get around to it.

Below is a invoice from Blackwell's, the famous Oxford bookseller, for one copy of Richard Anobile's book Why a Duck?
I found it tucked inside my copy when I bought it second hand on Charing Cross Road many years ago. It is dated 24th May 1973, just under a month before I was born, and addressed to Dr D. S. Parsons of Merton College, Oxford.
It seemed so right, somehow, for a doctor at Merton College to have ordered such a book, and so sad that he should have sold it on, with the invoice still carefully preserved inside.
As soon as I saw it, it struck me that it might be amusing to write to Merton College, to ask if by any chance Dr Parsons was still on the staff, and if so to find out how it came about that he lost possession of the book he ordered and paid £2.50 for back in 1973.
Marx Brothers fans, I've generally found, like meeting each other. A certain kinship is automatically assumed when a shared love of the Marxes is discovered: I'm sure it helped me to my own place at London University when I noticed that the man interviewing me had a picture of them on his office wall, and I named the film from which it was taken.
Needless to say, however, my Dr Parsons idea remained just that.
Years passed, and some fool invented the internet, and the idea occurred to me again. Now it would be so much easier.
So just over a year ago I looked up the staff of Merton College and found to my amazement that Dr Parsons was still a fellow of the college.
And again I put it off.
Finally, last week, with this site as impetus, I looked up the college again, but this time his name wasn't there. Perhaps he'd finally retired. So I wrote to ask if they could forward his contact details to me.
A few days ago I received this email from Matt Bowdler, Development Office, Merton College:

Dear Matthew,
I am afraid I have to be the bearer of bad news, Dr Parsons passed away last July. If there is any other information that I might be able to provide for you, do let me know.

So, Dr Parsons, I'll never know why you parted with your copy of Why a Duck? I'll never find out what your favourite movie was. I'll never share with you any reminiscence of that unique species of happiness that only the Marx Brothers can provide. I hope you exited laughing.
Hail and farewell.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Whatever happened to Cyril Ring?

A film trivia question. What actor appears alongside The Marx Brothers, W.C. Fields, Laurel & Hardy and Abbott & Costello, as well as featuring in all of the following films:
The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, Laura, Mr Skeffington, The Seventh Victim, I Married a Witch, Holiday Inn, This Gun For Hire, Saboteur, Sullivan's Travels, Two-Faced Woman, Meet John Doe, The Lady Eve, North West Mounted Police, The Great Dictator, The Roaring Twenties and a little something called Citizen Kane?

The answer is Cyril Ring. Poor Cyril Ring.

It seems to me he makes a perfectly good job of villainous Harvey Yates in The Cocoanuts. But for some reason he got the most terrible reviews, and his career didn't so much decline as nosedive almost immediately afterwards.

Okay; many stars don't make it, perhaps the majority of Hollywood careers are brief. Stars are rare, numerically speaking at least. But the sad thing about Cyril Ring is that he didn't disappear. He kept working in the movies until the early fifties, making many, many films a year throughout that time, for virtually all the major (and minor) studios.
But always in the tiniest roles, demeaning walk-ons, a glorified extra, perhaps a line or two at most, always there, somewhere; turning up for the cheque, doing next to nothing. A face in the crowd, but a haunting one. Once you tune your eyes to spot his distinctive visage, with its pencil moustache and slicked-back hair - a look he never changed - you'll see him all the time; silent, reproachful, living testament to Hollywood's heartlessness.
After The Cocoanuts he made over three hundred and fifty films. He received screen credit in maybe three or four.
One where he didn't was Monkey Business (1931). What must it have felt like for him on that set? A major supporting actor in the first Marx Brothers movie and then, just two years later, a nobody in their third.
Poor Cyril Ring. You'll always be a star to me.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

The Cocoanuts hits London!

Thanks to Anthony Blampied for these two unusual adverts used during the London run of The Cocoanuts.
The first is a real puzzler: who are these men?

And I love that quintessentially British mix of wild hyperbole and sober grammar: "It is impossible to resist splitting with laughter."

The other one is more straightforward:

I suppose I should point out to our younger readers, however, that neither "Ziegfeld's famous stars making love" nor "London's coolest theatre" mean quite what you think they do.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

How the Marx Brothers and I first met

In 1983, I was ten years old. Great Britain had three television channels (or was it four by then? not many, that's the point), and they stopped transmitting around midnight (at which time the station announcer would traditionally tell us to sleep well and not to forget to unplug the tv set, before playing the national anthem).
On December 23rd at 10.30 pm, BBC-2 showed Monkey Business. It was the first of five films being shown over the Christmas period (all the Paramounts bar The Cocoanuts, plus A Night In Casablanca).
I was intrigued by the prospect of these films. I remember the trailer shown to promote them (it certainly featured the barking dog in Harpo's chest from Duck Soup), and especially the grainy black and white images of the Brothers on the Radio Times programme page (reproduced above left).
Nonetheless, I was at some family party or something that evening, and did not particularly notice or care that I would be missing it.
I returned home at about eleven, and idly switched on my black and white portable, just in time for the Chevalier impressions.
I had never laughed so much before in my life; here was a whole new level of amusement I had never previously attained. By the time Groucho announced that "a lady's diamond earring has been lost; it looks exactly like this - in fact, this is it") I was an addict.
During the course of that one, magical Christmas, I watched every other film in the series (and crudely copied the soundtrack of the last, Animal Crackers, on audio tape using a mic that also picked up every other sound being made in the room), wrote my first book on the subject (a little short on factual information but strong on crude felt-tipped pen illustrations) and, to my family's bewilderment, talked of virtually nothing else.
I still had a lot to learn: in fact, I thought it was Zeppo that played the piano. But I soon caught up.
The next year I learned all the basics from a chapter of a lovely book called Movies of the Thirties and found Harpo Speaks almost as exciting as the films themselves. (I still do.)
Over the next two or three years I caught up first with Love Happy ("one of the more famous of the Marx Brothers' later films" was how the BBC continuity announcer described it before its Saturday morning showing), then The Cocoanuts (Saturday afternoon on Channel Four and fully as magical as the first batch), then the rest (which still seem to me to be just that: 'the rest').
Since then, I have seen each dozens and dozens of times. I have been fortunate to have seen them all at least once at the cinema, where they belong; A Night at the Opera at least ten times. On television: each beyond counting.
I never turn down an opportunity to see them, but I always make sure I watch the Paramount ones at Christmas time, as near as possible to those magical, original 1983 dates and times of transmission. The following year, BBC-2 introduced me to Hammer horror films, and that's an intense and special memory, too. But first and foremost, Christmas is the Marx Brothers and the Marx Brothers are Christmas.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Introducing The Marx Brothers Council of Britain

Welcome to a site devoted to discussion of the Marx Brothers.

Why have I started a site devoted to discussion of the Marx Brothers, rather than post occasionally on Marx matters on a more generally-themed site?

Because the Marx Brothers are special.

So, first of all, just as it must be distinctly understood from the outset that Marley is dead, so it must be made clear now that if you ever catch me talking about ‘a lesser Marx Brothers movie’ or ‘a disappointing Marx Brothers movie’, or even, if I dare, ‘a poor Marx Brothers movie’ I mean BY THE STANDARDS OF OTHER MARX BROTHERS MOVIES.
As James Agee once observed, even the worst of their films is worth watching, more so than perhaps the majority of all other films made since the dawn of time.
I welcome, indeed ardently desire, good-natured dissent from any opinion I offer. However, it is only fair at the outset to let you know exactly where I stand on the Marx film canon. Here then is a list of our raw material - the films of the Marx Brothers - in my personal order of preference:

1. Animal Crackers (1930)
2. The Cocoanuts (1929)
3. Horse Feathers (1932)
4. Monkey Business (1931)
5. A Night at the Opera (1935)
6. Duck Soup (1933)
7. Room Service (1938)
8. A Night in Casablanca (1946)
9. A Day at the Races (1937)
10. At The Circus (1939)
11. The Big Store (1941)
12. Love Happy (1949)
13. Go West (1940)

As the site progresses, the specific reasons for my various prejudices will become clear, but here's a quick justification for what I suspect will prove the most contentious ones:

1. Animal Crackers and The Cocoanuts at the top.

I suspect the very best of the Marx Brothers is lost to us. It was that perfection of their unique talents in a unique cultural moment that happened when I'll Say She Is slaughtered them on Broadway. This Broadway period, when their roots in vaudeville synthesised perfectly with the smart New York humour of Kaufman and the Algonquin set, is captured in their first two Long Island movies, and never quite regained in Hollywood.
These two films seem to me to contain the longest, purest, least diluted chunks of their humour at its most free, fresh and funny. They have the best jokes.
Weirdly, the reasons most usually offered as to why they don't belong at the top of the pile are technical ones: they are shot theatrically, unimaginatively staged, there is little camera mobility, the sound recording is poor...
Since when did any of that matter a damn when you're watching a Marx Brothers movie? If you want camera mobility, watch Touch of Evil. If you want to see the Marx Brothers at their most uninhibitedly hilarious, watch The Cocoanuts and Animal Crackers.

2. Duck Soup considerably beneath the other Paramounts.

Not a popular decision. But, I have to say that, though full of good things, this film really does seem to me the weakest, not the best, of their Paramount five. There are a few really good stretches where it finds the right rhythm, but there's way too much untypical visual humour not tailored to their special talents, and a zaniness more akin to Hellzapoppin' than the more cerebral comic invention of the four it followed.

3. A pretty low showing for Day at the Races, too.

Yep. Again, it's got good bits, and again, it's a Marx Brothers movie so I can watch it twenty times in a row and not get bored. But it is a good deal less inventive than Opera, it's the one where Thalberg's less happy innovations really start to show, and though generally of a higher standard than all the other MGM's, it is overall the beginning of the end, not the end of the beginning.

4. Yet Room Service scores preposterously high!

Don't you people like screwball comedy, then? Is it just me that would kill for the chance to have seen Groucho in Twentieth Century or Harpo in The Man Who Came To Dinner? These sophisticated Broadway farces are where the Marx Brothers style migrated to. It's wonderful to see them trying it out just once. Okay, it's not their typical personae, but there are at least ten other films if that's what you're after. They may be doing something different, but they do it really well, and the film has always struck me as extremely funny. So yes, high into the list it goes.

5. Go West worse even than Love Happy?

Yes, I think so. Love Happy never ever bores me. There are lots of good things about it; it has a nice atmosphere. Go West shows the Brothers at their most depressed. The material is by and large terrible and they don't even give it their best shot. Groucho in particular, with that awful wig on.

As I say, I will elaborate on all this as we work through the films chronologically in the Marx Brothers Annotated Film Guide, the point of which I will explain in my next post.
In the meantime, do please add your own lists, and reasons, in the comments section. And keep it clean.