Monday, May 2, 2016

Harpo speaks, sings and sneezes - Your one-stop guide to the silent one's vocal lapses on film

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

I was blind for three days

photo by Angela Coniam

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

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

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

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

With Frank on board as our central pillar, assembling the rest of the weekend felt like a drunken game of 'what if..?' Re-unite the BBC Flywheel team after 25 years? Get Ferrante and Frank Lazarus to perform a sketch together? Ask Glenn Mitchell to introduce Animal Crackers? World premiere an archive treasure or two? There seemed no compelling reason not to do any of those things...
Discovering that so many people were so happy to help out was just terrific. The only coup we weren't able to pull off was getting our round-the-corner neighbour John Cleese to drop by and introduce our screening of A Night in Casablanca, which I learned from his autobiography was the first Marx Brothers film he ever saw. He wished us well, but claimed he was travelling in Europe that weekend. (Priorities, man, priorities!)
All the same, the sheer number of professionals willing to donate their expertise was testament to the bonding nature of Marx fandom. Many will be introduced in sequence as this account goes along, but three in particular deserve special mention here. Our superb poster was created by graphic designer (and Marx Brothers fan) Damian O'Hara ( 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 to see what level of expertise we were so blithely calling upon!
How did we manage to attract so much generosity? I suspect the answer lies somewhere in that bit about '(and Marx Brothers fan)'...

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

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

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

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

photo by Angela Coniam

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

photo by Stefan Timphus

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

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

photo by Stefan Timphus

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

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

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

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

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

photos (c): Andy Hollingworth Archive

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

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

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Making legends out of clay

One of the things I discuss in my new and now available for pre-order Groucho book is the way in which our biographical conception of the great man is to some extent a fantasy, conditioned by our tendency to believe what we want to believe about him and discard what we do not - whether it was that he was exactly the same wisecracking comedy dervish off-screen as on, or a tears-of-a-clown tragic figure, or a snarling misanthrope. 

This manifests itself in big ways and small, and I find the small ones just as interesting as the big ones. 
For instance, everybody knows the story that on the set of A Day at the Races director Sam Wood watched Groucho play a scene and declared ruefully, "You can't make an actor out of clay." Whereupon Groucho snapped back, "Nor a director out of Wood!" Very funny. And very much the Groucho we want our man to be. 
But do you really believe it happened?

If you do, why do you? Doubtless because it is quoted, and stated as fact, more or less every time the film is mentioned. But where does it come from? 
My assumption, in so far as I considered the matter at all, and perhaps yours, was that it was a story that came up somewhere in someone's first hand testimony, and was singled out and repeated ever after. But it's not. It's a publicity story, just one of dozens and dozens that the studios sent out to the newspaper gossip and film pages. 

Now, of course, this in itself does not mean that it didn't happen. There is indeed a very, very, very slim chance that it did - just as the Valley Morning Star (January 2, 1937) and scores of others would have us believe. But that certainly wouldn't be standard procedure with a story like this. In the main, such gems were concocted by people who were paid to do just that; people whose job it was to sit in an office and dream up funny or eye-catching stories about the stars, to plant in the press and grease the publicity wheels for their forthcoming releases. My point therefore is that on the evidence there is no actual reason why we should believe it - and the fact that it happens to be a great line shouldn't be a reason in itself. There are, after all, many more such nuggets to be found in the inkies about A Day at the Races, as there are about all their other films. So hats off to whoever came up with this one - it proved itself a classic.

But think about it. Even if Groucho were the wittiest, most spontaneous man who ever breathed, does this sound like an off the cuff exchange to you, or does it sound like a joke someone has sat at a table and thought up? Even if Groucho were that capable, in the first instance he has had the most tremendous luck that Wood so fortuitously handed him so perfectly worded a feedline. There are an infinite number of ways he could have made the same point, without explicitly evoking the metaphor of crafting the performance from a building material. And even if he had done that much, he could so easily have worded it differently, so the structure forbade the precise formulation needed by the comeback. Brilliant and lucky, Groucho!

Ah, but then - it's not just funny, is it?  Not just proof of Groucho's lightning wit. It's also biographical evidence of the dislike that existed between the two men, right? Nope. It's a publicity story. 
Groucho certainly did dislike Wood, and I don't doubt that the stories of Wood being frustrated and baffled by his stars are likewise true. But any kind of real feud, if made manifest in such a way, would not have traveled from the set to the papers via the publicity department. It's just a joke, merely a play on words. If Groucho had said it, he'd have said it of anyone, should the structural and linguistic opportunity have arisen. It's not evidence of anything at all.

As I explain in the book, I choose to dwell on things like this not because I like spoiling people's fun, nor because I think it's particularly important in itself. The real issue is that what it reveals about us - that we craft our images of our heroes from desires as much as from the evidence - has wider implications, especially in the case of someone like Groucho, whose offscreen character was also, much of the time, a performance. 
This is why each new sensationalist biography vies with the last to exaggerate his negative traits still further, in their quest to portray him as demon father, tyrant husband or all-round sarcastic bastard. But when you return to the primary sources, this deeply unpleasant character is simply not to be found there. The real Groucho is a basically rather ordinary fellow, with his full complement of frailties, as are most of us, but - frustratingly - offering little to satisfy our need to make him the equal of his onscreen persona in importance, vitality or dominance. So we jiggle things around a bit, and change him into that which we prefer, and thus prove that you can make a man out of clay. 
That is the phenomenon that interests me, and which I believe has distorted our sense of Julius Henry Marx (whoever the hell he was), and which I address in the new book. 

Saturday, February 20, 2016

A Tale of Two Susans

Harpo's blissful marriage to former actress Susan Fleming is the stuff of Marx legend.
But so happy was their union, and so completely did Susan immerse herself in her new life and family, that only the most cursory account of her career before settling down with Harpo is generally known.
Harpo's autobiography paints a somewhat misleading account of her life before they met, portraying her as a girl from a small town who tried her hand at movies and didn't much care for it:

Her father was a fine draftsman and amateur artist. Susan had inherited his talent, and the most fun she had as a kid came from drawing, and watching her father work with pen and brush. Those were lonely years for a girl as full of pizazz as Susan. When she got older, art didn't seem satisfying enough and she turned to acting. "Now," she said one afternoon, "I'm not sure an acting career, or any career, is the answer..."

In reality there was much more to it than that. That she was a Ziegfeld Follies girl is of course no secret, but there is more still to be discovered, a history obscured in part accidentally, on account of her alternating two slightly different professional names.

Let's start with Broadway. Those expecting to find her at the IBDB will be disappointed at first to find she is not present at all. But a little perseverance and experimentation will pay off: as 'Suzanne Fleming', she is listed as a performer in Ziegfeld's No Foolin' (1926) and George White's Manhattan Mary (1927). She also appeared, along with Paulette Goddard, in the 1927 season of Rio Rita, and the 'Plays and Players' column of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle in 1929 tells us:

Susan Fleming, the noted beauty who appeared in the 1927 edition of Scandals and was last seen in Manhattan Mary has been engaged by George White as a principal for the forthcoming edition of Scandals.

But a chorus girl's popularity is measured as much in portrait shots and column inches as recognised stage credits, and the record would seem to suggest that Susan was among those earmarked for special promotional treatment.

What makes the perfect Follies girl? Ziegfeld himself pondered the matter in this 1926 article from the Eagle, and it's Susan ("who measures up to Ziegfeld's requirements") that is chosen to illustrate his conclusions.
Her beauty was much celebrated. The following year, the same paper told us that her fellow players in Manhattan Mary had voted her "the prettiest girl in the show." And this intriguing yarn was recalled as publicity for The Great Ziegfeld in 1936:

Throughout the 1920s reports she is sometimes referred to as Susan and sometimes as Suzanne. But by the time of such retrospectives as above, this Ziegfeld incarnation has generally come to be known as Suzanne. The tendency to presume that she is therefore not the Susan Fleming of Million Dollar Legs et al started early. In another 1936 retrospective asking 'what has become of the Ziegfeld girls?' we are told this:

Champagne sipped from her slipper, eh? Not quite the Susan Fleming we thought we knew!
But what's that about filming with Menjou? Just an error? Nope - another surprise...

One thing all sources agree upon is that her movie career began in 1931, with her role as Susan the secretary in the Columbia talkie Lover Come Back. From here she joined John Wayne in Arizona and The Range Feud before hightailing it to RKO, Fox and, eventually, Paramount, where she made her most famous film, Million Dollar Legs. This standard account is the one you'll find in the reference books, Wikipedia and on her IMDB page.

But in fact, she had already starred in a Paramount movie in 1926. The source of the confusion can be easily guessed - if not, here's a curious IMDB record for an actress with a strangely familiar name...
This is, of course, our girl, making her movie debut five years earlier than history would have us believe, and in a silent movie entitled The Ace of Cads.

Aside from confusion over the two names, it seems odd that her participation in the film should be forgotten. Indeed, as we shall see, it seems deliberate, albeit for somewhat uncertain reasons.

Here's the plot, for those who are interested, courtesy of the Adelaide Register:

It seems to have been pretty hot stuff - the film was, in fact, banned in Britain. As to Susan's potential as a new screen star, the publicity drum is beaten with obvious investment:

The reports show all the usual signs of special promotional effort. We learn that the newcomer is deemed good enough for a role intended for an established heavy-hitter, and also that the lead selected her personally:

Piece after piece plays on this claim that Menjou was smitten with Susan after fortuitously seeing her posing for a Ben Ali tableau:

And we are left in no doubt as to the certainty of a long future in movies:

From Variety in 1926:

And yet, she drops right out of movies for four years. This may have been as a result of Paramount's decision to close its East Coast studio early in 1927 (reopening it in 1928 to make use of Broadway actors in talkies). Tempted though she may have been by the movies, it would have meant commitment of a very different order to follow opportunity all the way to Hollywood, especially when there was no shortage of glamour, excitement and people willing to drink from her slipper on Broadway.
Or, it could have been for no more pointed a reason than that the film did not meet expectations.

Susan herself escapes the reviews with her dignity intact, but what praise there is is generally faint:

By 1928, Picture Play was answering a reader's enquiry thus:

Whether the film was deemed a jinx or not, when she does return in 1931 (the point where the IMDB and everyone else first begins to track her) she is relaunched as a completely new star: no mention whatever is made of her earlier starring debut.

Variety, 1930:

Silver Screen, 1931 (and look who we have discovering her this time!):

And Film Daily, 1931:

For whatever reason, there seems to have been a definite effort to disassociate this new attraction from the Susan Fleming that was launched so auspiciously just a few years before. And history has proved happy to oblige.
From here, Suzanne disappeared for good, and the all-new Susan Fleming the Second re-entered the gates of Hollywood to make her dates with Klopstokia, Harpo and destiny.
Let's toast them both.

(Thanks to Rodney Tryster, Bob Gassel and Ed Watz for invaluable research)