[To read previous entries in this essay, click 1, 2, 3, 4, 5]
Contract Disputes, Radio Shows And The Return Of Gummo
Nearly simultaneous with the August 1932 release of the Marx Brothers' fourth film, Horse Feathers, Paramount's publicity department announced the Brothers' next project as Oo-La-La, a comedy set in a mythical Eastern European kingdom, with Ernst Lubitsch slated to direct. Mythical kingdoms were right in the wheelhouse of the already-legendary Lubitsch—see, e.g., The Love Parade and The Smiling Lieutenant—and it's intriguing at first blush to imagine the what-might-have-been collaboration between the studio's best comedy director and its best comedy act, but on further reflection it's hard to picture the happy wedding of Lubitsch's cool, precise, sophisticated style with the Marx Brothers' free-wheeling, free-spirited anarchy. In any event, the script for Oo-La-La never got past the talking stage and Lubitsch was eager to move on to his next project, what would turn out to be the best film of career, Trouble In Paradise.
Production of the new film, now called Firecrackers, was further delayed by a contractual dispute between the Brothers and Paramount Pictures. Under the terms of their contract with the studio, the Brothers were entitled to a percentage of the profits from their pictures, but not only had they never seen a dime of that money, by 1932 they were worried that the financially-shaky studio—its principal owner, Adolph Zukor, had borrowed heavily against over-valued company stock during the Roaring Twenties only to find the debt unsustainable during the Depression—would never be able to pay.
Zukor eventually led the studio out of bankruptcy in 1936, but in the meantime, the Brothers formed their own production company, The Marx Bros., Inc., with brother Gummo as one of the executives, and began casting about for the company's first project. They very nearly worked out a deal to star in a film version of George Kaufman's Pulitzer Prize-winning musical Of Thee I Sing, but wound up signing with the National Broadcasting Company to produce a thirty minute radio program. Because Harpo's talents wouldn't translate to radio (and because Zeppo evidently didn't have any), the resulting show, about a comically-shady law firm initially called Beagle, Shyster and Beagle, featured only Groucho and Chico. The Brothers' rate of $6,500 per episode was an astronomical sum for thirty minutes work at a time when Greta Garbo was receiving little more than that for forty hours a week on the set of Grand Hotel. (After a New York lawyer named Beagle threatened a libel suit, the show was renamed Flywheel, Shyster and Flywheel.)
During the long delay, a rotating team of writers continued to work over the script. The title changed from Firecrackers to Cracked Ice to Grasshoppers, but the essential storyline remained the same: Groucho would play the leader of a fictional Eastern European state who leads his country into war. (For more on the writing of Duck Soup, click here.) Once Lubitsch left the project, Leo McCarey took over the helm. Unlike the directors of the Brothers' previous films, McCarey was an experienced director of comedy, getting his start as a writer at the Hal Roach studios where he eventually wrote for and directed Laurel and Hardy and W.C. Fields.
After the death of their father, Sam Marx, on May 10, 1933, and the cancellation of their low-rated radio program a couple of weeks after that, the Brothers settled their dispute with Paramount and returned to Hollywood. The settlement was more a matter of necessity than a real meeting of the minds—Marx Bros., Inc., lacked the operating capital to get its ambitions off the ground.
The resolution to the dispute over profit-sharing was temporary as it turned out—eighteen years would pass before the Brothers received their contractually-promised profits—but in the meantime, the script of their next movie, now titled Duck Soup at McCarey's probable suggestion, was completed on July 11 and the film went into production shortly thereafter.
[To continue to Part Seven, click here.]