Sunday, August 29, 2010

Speaking Of The Marx Brothers, Tomorrow Is Thelma Todd Day on TCM

Margaret Dumont was so integral to the Marx Brothers' comedies, it's easy to forget that she wasn't in all their movies. In fact, two of their best, Monkey Business and Horse Feathers, co-starred Thelma Todd. I've written about her before, here, so I won't go through her story again, but I did want to remind those of you who get Turner Classic Movies on your cable system that Monday, August 30, 2010, is Thelma Todd day.

Monkey Business and Horse Feathers are among the featured films, showing at 8 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. respectively. All times are Eastern Daylight Savings Time, by the way.

Here is the schedule copied straight from the TCM website:

30 Monday
6:00 AM Broadminded (1931)
A rejected suitor leaves town and gets mixed up in an international chase. Cast: Joe E. Brown, Ona Munson, Bela Lugosi. Dir: Mervyn LeRoy. BW-72 mins, TV-G

7:15 AM Son Of A Sailor (1933)
A lovesick fool bumbles into espionage and finds a stolen plane. Cast: Joe E. Brown, Jean Muir, Thelma Todd. Dir: Lloyd Bacon. BW-73 mins, TV-G

8:30 AM REAL MCCOY, THE (1930)
Charlie pretends to be a hillbilly to impress country girl Thelma Todd in hopes of making her his girlfriend. Cast: Charley Chase, Thelma Todd Dir: Warren Doane BW-21 mins, TV-G

9:00 AM Short Film: WHISPERING WHOOPEE (1930)
Charley hires three "party girls" to help him land a business deal. Cast: Charley Chase, Thelma Todd Dir: James W. Horne BW-21 mins, TV-G

9:30 AM Short Film: DOLLAR DIZZY (1930)
Two millionaires try to escape the suitors out to marry them for their money. Cast: Charley Chase, Thelma Todd, Edgar Kennedy. Dir: James W. Horne. BW-26 mins, TV-G

10:00 AM Short Film: HIGH C'S (1930)
An entertainer serving in World War I puts music before military service. Cast: Charley Chase, Thelma Todd, Carlton Griffin. Dir: James W. Horne. BW-29 mins, TV-G

Charley agrees to go on a blind date to a dance to help out his friend. Concerned it will be a big disaster like his last blind date Charley tries to be as off putting as possible and goes all out trying to make himself look bad. He is rude to her on the phone, refuses to shave, wears his friend's old suit and even eats garlic. Unfortunately for him, however, his date turns out to be the lovely Thelma Todd. Cast: Charley Chase; Thelma Todd Dir: James Parrott BW-21 mins, TV-G

11:00 AM Short Film: NICKEL NURSER, THE (1932)
A millionaire hires an efficiency expert to get his daughter in line. Cast: Charley Chase, Thelma Todd, Billy Gilbert. Dir: Warren Doane. BW-21 mins, TV-G

11:30 AM Hips, Hips, Hooray (1934)
Two salesmen try to market a flavored lipstick. Cast: Bert Wheeler, Robert Woolsey, Ruth Etting. Dir: Mark Sandrich. BW-68 mins, TV-G

12:45 PM Cockeyed Cavaliers (1934)
Two nitwits are mistaken for the king's physicians in medieval England. Cast: Bert Wheeler, Robert Woolsey, Thelma Todd. Dir: Mark Sandrich. BW-72 mins, TV-G

2:00 PM Short Film: CATCH AS CATCH CAN (1931)
ZaSu Pitts is a hotel phone operator who finds love in a wrestler with a little matchmaking help from friend Thelma Todd. Cast: Thelma Todd, ZaSu Pitts, Big Boy Williams Dir: Marshall Neilan BW-20 mins, TV-G

2:30 PM Short Film: RED NOSES (1932)
Comedic duo Thelma Todd and ZaSu Pitts get sent to a spa while recovering from being sick, but it turns out not to be the relaxation they need. Cast: Thelma Todd, ZaSu Pitts Dir: James W. Horne BW-21 mins, TV-G

3:00 PM Short Film: SHOW BUSINESS (1932)
Comedic duo Thelma Todd and ZaSu Pitts travel along with their musical monkey to a show but their antics on the train antagonize the show director. Cast: Thelma Todd, ZaSu Pitts Dir: Jules White BW-20 mins, TV-G

3:30 PM Short Film: ASLEEP IN THE FEET (1933)
Comedic duo Thelma Todd and ZaSu Pitts try their hand at being charitable by working at a dance club to raise money for a friend. Cast: Thelma Todd, ZaSu Pitts Dir: Gus Meins BW-19 mins, TV-G

4:00 PM Short Film: MAIDS A LA MODE (1933)
Hal Roach's comedic duo Thelma Todd and ZaSu Pitts find themselves in a jam when they get caught by their boss at a party. Cast: Thelma Todd, ZaSu Pitts Dir: Gus Meins BW-18 mins, TV-G

4:30 PM Short Film: Bargain of the Century (1933)
Hal Roach's comedic duo Thelma Todd and ZaSu Pitts find themselves in a jam once again when they are the cause of a police officer losing his job. Cast: Thelma Todd, ZaSu Pitts Dir: Charley Chase BW-19 mins, TV-G

5:00 PM SOUP AND FISH (1934)
In this Todd/Kelly short, the girls crash a high society party and have trouble fitting in. Cast: Patsy Kelly, Thelma Todd Dir: Gus Meins BW-18 mins, TV-G

The girls buy a farm in Paradise Acres and get scammed. Cast: Thelma Todd, Patsy Kelly Dir: Gus Meins BW-17 mins, TV-G

Patsy looses her job and needs a place to stay over night after getting kicked out of her apartment. She convinces Thelma to let her spend the night at the hospital where Thelma works as a nurse. Cast: Patsy Kelly, Thelma Todd Dir: James Parrott BW-19 mins,

Thelma Todd and Patsy Kelly move into an apartment together and become roommates. They end up driving each other crazy and Patsy moves out! Cast: Thelma Todd, Patsy Kelly Dir: James Parrott BW-20 mins, TV-G

7:00 PM Short Film: HOT MONEY (1935)
In this Todd/Kelly short, Patsy and Thelma come across some much needed money that happens to be stolen. Cast: Thelma Todd, Patsy Kelly Dir: James W. Horne BW-17 mins, TV-G
7:20 PM Short Film: Hour For Lunch, An (1939) BW-9 mins

7:30 PM TOP FLAT (1935)
In this Todd/Kelly short, Thelma tries to convince Patsy that she's struck it rich. Cast: Thelma Todd, Patsy Kelly Dir: William Terhune BW-19 mins, TV-G

8:00 PM Monkey Business (1931)
Four stowaways get mixed up with gangsters while running riot on an ocean liner. Cast: The Marx Brothers, Thelma Todd, Rockliffe Fellowes. Dir: Norman Z. McLeod. BW-78 mins, TV-G, CC

9:30 PM Horse Feathers (1932)
In an effort to beef up his school's football team, a college president mistakenly recruits two loonies. Cast: The Marx Brothers, Thelma Todd, David Landau. Dir: Norman Z. McLeod. BW-67 mins, TV-G, CC

10:45 PM Short Film: Another Fine Mess (1930)
Two vagabonds move into a deserted mansion and pretend to be its owners. Cast: Stan Laurel, Oliver Hardy, Thelma Todd. Dir: James Parrott. BW-28 mins, TV-G

11:21 PM Short Film: Grand Dame, The (1931) BW-8 mins

11:30 PM Short Film: Chickens Come Home (1931)
A man risks his marriage to help his best friend deal with blackmailers. Cast: Stan Laurel, Oliver Hardy, Thelma Todd Dir: James W. Horne BW-30 mins, TV-G

12:08 AM Short Film: Tree In A Test Tube (1943) C-6 mins

12:15 AM Devil's Brother, The (1933)
Two wannabe bandits are hired as servants by the real thing. Cast: Laurel & Hardy, Dennis King, Thelma Todd. Dir: Hal Roach. BW-90 mins, TV-G, CC

2:00 AM Short Film: Bohemian Girl, The (1936)
Two pickpockets raise a stolen child, not realizing she's royalty. Cast: Stan Laurel, Oliver Hardy, Thelma Todd. Dir: James W. Horne, Charles Rogers. BW-71 mins, TV-G

3:15 AM Maltese Falcon, The (1931)
In the first screen version of The Maltese Falcon, detective Sam Spade investigates the theft of a priceless statue. Cast: Bebe Daniels, Ricardo Cortez, Dudley Digges. Dir: Roy Del Ruth. BW-79 mins, TV-G, CC

4:45 AM Mary Stevens, M.D. (1933)
A woman doctor decides to have a baby without benefit of marriage. Cast: Kay Francis, Lyle Talbot, Glenda Farrell. Dir: Lloyd Bacon. BW-72 mins, TV-G

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Best Actor Of 1932-33 (Comedy/Musical): The Marx Brothers (Horse Feathers and Duck Soup), Part Three

[To read Part One of this essay, click here. For Part Two, here.]

From Stage To Screen
After the success of I'll Say She Is!, the Marx Brothers had no shortage of producers willing to back their next Broadway show. They chose, however, the one producer who didn't come calling. Sam H. Harris was one of Broadway's most successful producers, with songwriters George M. Cohan and Irving Berlin in his stable and award-winning playwright George S. Kaufman recently put under contract.

With half a dozen hits in five years, Kaufman was one of the leading young playwrights working on Broadway and his quick wit turned out to be a perfect fit for Groucho, who years later referred to Kaufman as "his God." (He later went on to win two Pulitzer Prizes.) Kaufman built the play around the then-ongoing real estate boom in Florida and those of you familiar with the movie know the basic plot—with the help of a couple of disreputable guests (Chico and Harpo), the owner of a ramshackle hotel (Groucho) attempts to con a wealthy society maven (Margaret Dumont) into buying a worthless real estate development. As always, though, the plot of a Marx Brothers production is simply a framework for a lot of gags, and The Cocoanuts featured some of the best of the Brothers' career.

"Think of the opportunities here in Florida. Three years ago, I came to Florida without a nickel in my pocket. Now, I've got a nickel in my pocket."

"That's all very well, Mr. Hammer, but we haven't been paid in two weeks and we want our wages!"

"Wages? Do you want to be wage slaves, answer me that."


"No, of course not. Well, what makes wage slaves? Wages! I want you to be free. Remember, there's nothing like Liberty—except Collier's and The Saturday Evening Post. Be free, my friends. One for all, and all for me, and me for you, and three for five and six for a quarter."

To Kaufman's consternation, the Brothers also tended to ad lib throughout the show—"I think I just heard one of the original lines," he quipped at one performance—and in fact the "why a duck?" sequence evolved from just such an ad lib.

The show also featured an Irving Berlin song score—alas, not one of his best (it was the only show he ever wrote that failed to provide a hit song, although as I explained here, that wasn't necessarily his fault). In fact, the primary differences between the stage and film versions of The Cocoanuts centers on the elimination of many of these musical numbers, including two Groucho songs—"Why Am I A Hit With The Ladies" and a duet with Margaret Dumont called "A Little Bungalow." There was also a "black face" number involving members of the cast other than the Brothers and a subplot involving Harpo's scheme to defraud Dumont.

The Cocoanuts opened on the road in Boston, followed by two weeks in Philadelphia, an out-of-town tryout that revealed serious flaws in the production, not least of which was its gargantuan running time, with shows running well past midnight. After some cuts and restructuring, the show opened on Broadway at the Lyric Theatre on 42nd Street on December 8, 1925. (For those unfamiliar with the precise meaning of the term "Broadway show," the reference is not to a precise street location but to the size of the theater. To be consider a "Broadway" production, the theater must hold at least five hundred patrons. A theater with between 100 and 500 seats is an "off-Broadway" show, and one with fewer than 100 seats is "off-off Broadway.")

The Cocoanuts ran for 377 shows before heading out on the road, a stripped-down production Groucho called "inferior," by which he meant that the chorus girls were neither as pretty nor as willing as their Broadway counterparts. The audiences weren't inferior, though. The road show version of The Cocoanuts was big business, and the Los Angeles opening was attended by the likes of Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford and Greta Garbo.

The Cocoa- nuts, by the way, marked the beginning of the end for Zeppo. Where in I'll Say She Is! he was part of the comedy, in Kaufman's new play he was relegated to straight man and occasional crooner. I have heard tell that Zeppo was actually a very funny guy and that from time to time he successfully understudied for Groucho, but the fact that the Brothers let Kaufman stand Zeppo in the corner without protest leads me to believe that either he was never that integral to the act or that he was already tired of performing and was looking forward to the day when he could work behind the scenes. He left the act after Duck Soup in 1933 to become a theatrical agent. A mechanical whiz, Zeppo also invented a watch to monitor the pulse rate of cardiac patients and founded Marman Products Co., which designed and manufactured, among other things, the Marman Twin motorcycle, and the Marman clamp which held the atomic bomb inside the B-29 used on the U.S. raid on Nagasaki.

After the success of The Cocoanuts, Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind set to work on a follow-up, added by songwriters Harry Ruby and Bert Kalmar. Concluding that the Marx Brothers played best as a collision of anarchy with high society, they set the play on Long Island at the estate of a stuffy socialite (Margaret Dumont again). Groucho, as African explorer Jeffrey T. Spaulding, was the guest of honor, with Chico as Emanuel Ravelli and Harpo as The Professor providing the weekend's musical entertainment.

"I used to know a fellow who looked exactly like you by the name of Emanuel Ravelli. Are you his brother?"

"I am Emanuel Ravelli."

"You're Emanuel Ravelli?"

"I am Emanuel Ravelli."

"Well, no wonder you look like him. But I still insist there is a resemblance."

"Heh, heh, he thinks I look alike."

"Well, if you do, it's a tough break for both of you."

The play included some of Groucho's most famous monologues, including a description of his most recent safari ("One morning I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got in my pajamas, I don't know"), a letter to his lawyer, and a spoof of the Eugene O'Neill play Strange Interlude, with Groucho addressing the audience directly.

There are also subplots involving the socialite's daughter, a painter named John Parker and a wealthy art collector who in a previous life was Abie the fish peddler. Unlike the movie version, there is also a journalist character modeled on gossip columnist Walter Winchell, several songs and a final act revolving around a costume party.

The play opened on October 23, 1928, at the Forty-Fourth Street Theatre and played 171 performances. As with its predecessor, Animal Crackers acquired several gags along the way, including this speech which a despondent Groucho ad libbed the night his savings were wiped out by the stock market crash of October 1929:

"Living with your folks. Living with your folks. The beginning of the end. Drab dead yesterdays shutting out beautiful tomorrows. Hideous, stumbling footsteps creaking along the misty corridors of time. And in those corridors I see figures, strange figures, weird figures: Steel 186, Anaconda 74, American Can 138..."

While performing Animal Crackers, the Brothers signed a deal with Paramount Pictures to make a film version of The Cocoanuts. United Artists had first approached the Brothers a year earlier about turning The Cocoanuts into a film (imagine the Marx Brothers and Charlie Chaplin working out of the same studio), but balked at the Brothers' asking price of $75,000 for the film rights. Paramount's Adolph Zukor balked, too, but then found himself upping the offer to $100,000 during dinner with a particularly eloquent Chico.

Actually The Cocoanuts was the Marx Brothers' second film, their first being something called Humor Risk, an attempt at a Chaplinesque "comedy with pathos" which the Brothers filmed in 1921. In it, Harpo played a dapper detective named Watson—according to biographer Kyle Crichton, making "his entrance in a high hat, sliding down a coal chute into the basement"—with Groucho as the villain, Chico his henchman and Zeppo a nightclub owner. Though a couple of reels were completed and exhibited, the film was never completed and was soon after lost, perhaps in a fire set by Groucho himself. Despite later attempts to find the film, including Groucho's offer of $50,000 to anyone who could locate a copy, Humor Risk has never turned up.

Frankly, I'm not sure I can imagine how an act that relied on quick verbal humor and musical interludes could succeed in a silent film. Apparently after one viewing, the Brothers couldn't imagine it either.

In January 1929, with the Brothers still performing Animal Crackers on Broadway every evening, filming of The Cocoanuts began at Paramount's Astoria Studio on Long Island, New York. Paramount's east coast studio had been used for years to film New York-based acts such as W.C. Fields, but it had yet to fully convert to sound (especially sound proofing) when principle photography began and most of the filming took place early in the morning before the noise of traffic made sound recording impossible.

As a finished product, The Cocoanuts suffered from all the problems associated with early sound pictures. Primative sound recording equipment required the camera—and thus the actors—to remain rooted in place, a particular problem for Groucho who had trouble finding his marks anyway. In addition, early microphones picked up sound indiscriminately. To muffle the sound of crinkling paper, every telegram, letter or map you see was soaked in water before each take (there was no muffling the sound of the crew's laughter, however, which ruined many takes).

The initial cut of The Cocoanuts ran nearly two-and-a-half hours, quickly trimmed after a preview to 96 minutes, mostly by dropping musical numbers. The film premiered in New York on May 3, 1929. The Brothers, who were performing down the street in Animal Crackers missed the show, but their mother Minnie was in attendance.

New York's critics were, at best, mixed in their reviews—prompting the Brothers to offer to buy back the negative from Paramount so as with Humor Risk they could burn it—but in the rest of the country, The Cocoanuts was a sensation. Only two years into the sound era, movie audiences had never before seen, or more to the point, heard anything like Groucho's nonstop wordplay, and the film wound up grossing $1.8 million on a budget of $500,000, enough to rank seventh on the year's list of top-grossing films. (Adjusting for differences in ticket prices and the population of the United States, a $1.8 million gross would be something like $103 million today; or looked at another way, the seventh ranked grossing film of 2009, The Twilight Saga: New Moon, grossed nearly $300 million domestically, more than $700 million worldwide. But however you put it, The Cocoanuts was very successful.)

After the success of The Cocoanuts, there was no question that the Marx Brothers would produce a film version of Animal Crackers. Filmed in Queens, New York, production began shortly after the road show in April 1930 and the film premiered at the Rialto in New York City on August 23, 1930. This time the critics were universal in their acclaim and the film grossed $1.5 million on its initial release (ticket prices were falling during the Depression), enough to rank fourth on the year's list of top grossing films.

In technical terms, Animal Crackers is far superior to The Cocoanuts—better sound, better sets, more movement—but where you rank it in the Marx Brothers' oeuvre depends in no small part on what it is you value in a Marx Brothers movie. Animal Crackers is the most quotable of all their films, with every line, particularly those from Groucho's monologues, a winner. And in terms of having worked out in advance what they were going to do, it's the most polished film they made before moving to MGM in 1935—personally, I rank it third behind Duck Soup and A Night At The Opera. But if what you respond to is the sense that anything can happen, as it often did when the Brothers were ad libbing, subverting not only the society the Brothers moved in but the conventions of film itself, then you might find the anarchic quality of their subsequent Paramount era pictures more to your taste—perhaps one of those the Marx Brothers made next, Monkey Business and Horse Feathers.

[To continue to Part Four, click here.]

Postscript: Did you know that color test footage was shot for Animal Crackers, with sixteen seconds being rediscovered in the mid-1990s. Note, there's no sound. That's Harpo sans wig in the bath robe:

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Best Actor Of 1932-33 (Comedy/Musical): The Marx Brothers (Horse Feathers and Duck Soup), Part Two

[To read Part One, click here.]

From Vaudeville To Broadway
The Four Marx Brothers evolved steadily during their apprenticeship on the vaudeville circuit, gradually taking on the attributes they are famous for today—quick verbal wit and loony wordplay punctuated by the piano- and harp-recitals of Chico and Harpo respectively, with frequent ad libs that left tissue-thin plots in tatters and turned the proceedings into virtual anarchy.

In their early days in vaudeville, the Brothers also relied on the ethnic stereotyping common to the vaudeville of the day, remnants of which are most obviously displayed in Chico's comedy. Dating back to his days as one half of a singing duo, Chico had been using an Italian accent copied from his barber for between-song patter and when he joined the act permanently, he adopted the Italian character to their show Fun In Hi Skule, playing an Italian schoolboy to Harpo's Irish kid and Gummo's Jewish one. Later, the Chico character developed into an Italian immigrant whose fractured English was the source of many jokes.

Chico also played the con man on stage, alternately sharp or dim depending on whether he was conning brother Groucho or someone else. In Animal Crackers it was even suggested that the Italian character was itself part of the con job:

"Say, how did you get to be an Italian?" asks an old acquaintance.
"Never mind that, whose confession is this?"

Between bits, Chico also played piano in a style so unusual, it became a joke in and of itself—as a boy, he took lessons from a teacher who could only play with her right hand, faking with her left, a style Chico copied faithfully.

Chico's on-stage accomplice in crime, Harpo, was the pure id of the act, a hyperactive puppy, as innocent as a child, as easily distracted and just as destructive. Harpo joined the act in 1912 as an Irish stereotype in a red wig but morphed into a mute out of necessity for the 1914 show, Home Again—Harpo complained to the play's author, his uncle Al Shean, that he had too few lines, and when in response, Shean cut Harpo's speeches altogether, Harpo stole a horn off a taxi cab, which became his sole means of communication, and transformed himself into a purely visual act, determined to become a scene-stealing machine who would wreak havoc whenever he was on stage.

Interestingly, of all the Brothers, Harpo's on-stage character was the farthest from his off-stage personality. If Groucho was in real life moody and insecure, forever hiding behind a mask of hostile levity, and if Chico was in fact something close to a con man looking only to gamble and talk his way into women's pants, Harpo was actually a gentle man with a serious passion for the harp, an instrument he worked hard to master. The intensity he brought to the performance in those movies that featured the harp was always at odds with the undisciplined character he otherwise played.

Harpo himself agreed that those moments playing the harp are when you see the real man.

"Harpo was the solid man in the family," Groucho said. "He inherited all my mother's good qualities—kindness, understanding, and friendliness. I inherited what was left."

Although known primarily for his wit, the mou- stache, the cigar, the stooped walk and the oversized frock coat make Groucho the most recognizable of the Brothers and a popular target of imitators. It was in 1921 during the run of On The Mezzanine that a tardy Groucho skipped the effort of gluing on his usual fake fur moustache—"easy to put on," he said, "but murder to tear off"—and smeared greasepaint on his upper lip instead; since no one noticed the difference, he stuck with greasepaint ever after and didn't grow a real moustache until filming the television show You Bet Your Life in 1947.

On stage, Groucho served to bridge the gap between the audience and his brothers. Where Chico and Harpo were usually off in their own worlds, motivated by impulses clear only to themselves (and often not even then), Groucho played recognizable members of society—teachers, lawyers, hotel owners, even petty dictators—who wanted the sorts of things the audience wanted, in Groucho's case, sex and money. Yet paradoxically, while acknowledging the world around him in ways his brothers rarely did, Groucho was the most hostile to the existing order, and he used his lacerating wit to keep the world—and the audience—at arm's length.

"I do not care to belong to a club," he famously wrote to the Friar's of Los Angeles, "that accepts people like me as members."

As for Gummo and Zeppo, neither developed stage characters as well defined as their brothers. From what I can tell, the act's comedy was always a case of every man for himself, developing through nonstop ad libs and scene stealing. Gummo was a quiet man with a childhood stammer and never much interested in performing; and Zeppo, being so much younger than his brothers and coming so late to such a well-established act, wound up as something of an afterthought. So Gummo largely sang and played the handsome straight man to Groucho's verbal cracks, and want it or not, Zeppo inherited the role when his older brother joined the army in 1918.

Once Chico joined the act in 1912, the Four Marx Brothers flourished in a series of original show. Aside from the misfortune of opening a new show, Street Cinderella, during an influenza epidemic (audience members were required to sit every other seat and wear handkerchiefs over their faces), the Brothers' only misstep during the vaudeville years occurred in 1922—but as missteps go, it was a doozy.

After a tour of England in the summer of that year, the Brothers found themselves blacklisted from all the top vaudeville venues when circuit boss E.F. Albee declared the overseas engagement a breach of contract. Faced with the choice of playing second-tier houses, appearing in a road show version of another team's act, or temporarily leaving the stage altogether—any one of which, their mother Minnie argued, would be a fatal step backwards—the Brothers aimed instead for Broadway and "legitimate" theater, an audacious goal considering they had no new material or the money to back it.

For once Chico's gambling habit came to the rescue in form of a coal baron named James P. Beury whom Chico met during a card game. Beury agreed to bankroll a new show, and a chance meeting with songwriter Tom Johnstone and his brother, cartoonist Will B. Johnstone, provided the Brothers with the needed material.

The resulting stageplay, I'll Say She Is!, was a sketch comedy/musical revue loosely linked together by a character named Beauty, a bored heiress to a fortune willing to marry anyone who could give her a thrill. The most complete transcript of the show (here) indicates an opening scene where, to impress a talent agent, the Brothers pretend to be none other than their uncle Al Shean (later dancer Joe Frisco when the show moved to New York, and still later Maurice Chevalier when they adapted the scene for Monkey Business). There was also a courtroom scene with Harpo as a judge and Groucho as both the prosecutor and the defense lawyer; a tour of Chinatown featuring a song and dance number in an opium den; and a finale built around Groucho's impersonation of Napoleon.

"When I look into your big blue eyes," he tells Josephine, "I know that you are true to the Army. I only hope it remains a standing Army."

Several of Harpo's bits from the play were recycled in both Animal Crackers (sight gags with stolen silverware and playing cards) and Horse Feathers (playing cards again).

The Marx Brothers reprised the opening scene of I'll Say She Is! in 1931 for a short film promoting Monkey Business. Presented here, the scene gives you a taste of what the Marx Brothers' act might have been like at this stage of their careers.

The show opened about as far from Broadway as you could get in those days—Allentown, Pennsylvania. The Brothers were taking no chances of a hostile critic wandering in while they were working out the show's kinks (among which were an inept chorus girl who was sleeping with their chief financial backer; the Brothers slipped her a mickey on opening night, but a longer term solution presented itself in the form of a handsome young chorus boy -- the two eloped together and left the show). After its successful premiere, the Brothers took the show on the road—Philadelphia, Boston, Detroit, Chicago, etc.—playing for a year before they finally opened at the Casino Theatre in New York.

"You could kill 'em all your life in big-time vaudeville," Groucho later wrote, "but you were still a vaudeville actor. There was a definite prestige about being a Broadway star that vaudeville could never give you."

Real- istically, the Brothers expected to play Broadway for a couple of weeks before taking the show back on the road, but influential critic Alexander Woollcott (at right in photo, with Harpo standing in middle) was in the audience on opening night and gave I'll Say She Is! a rave review. The show wound up playing 304 performances and the Brothers never looked back.

[To continue on to Part Three, click here.]

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Best Actor Of 1932-33 (Comedy/Musical): The Marx Brothers (Horse Feathers and Duck Soup), Part One

For proof of the Academy's bias against comedy, look no further than the Marx Brothers. Despite making some of the greatest comedies of their era, including two—Duck Soup and A Night At The Opera—that are now preserved in the National Film Registry, the Brothers received no awards, nor were any of their movies were ever nominated for best picture.

In fact, other than a nomination in the short-lived category of dance direction for Dave Gould's work on A Day At The Races, no Marx Brothers movie received a nomination of any kind—not acting, not writing. Nothing.

But let's face it, if I thought the Oscars were a useful benchmark for measuring a film's worth, I would have never started this blog in the first place.

The Academy has long dismissed comedy—indeed, any genre not long-form drama—when it comes award time. There seems to be a belief, not confined to the Academy unfortunately, that only a drama need apply for the designation of "art." There's this sense that comedy is easy while drama is hard, and that only a drama can peel back the bark that hides the ugly truth about life and the human condition.

And yet no art form is better at skewering the pretensions of the rich and powerful than Chico and Harpo wreaking havoc on opening night of the grand opera or at revealing the embarrassing absurdity of sex and seduction any time Groucho woos Margaret Dumont.

Or let me put it another way—who would you rather see do the stateroom scene from A Night At The Opera, the Marx Brothers or Laurence Olivier? Because while the latter might make a pretty good Hamlet, he'd be a lousy Otis B. Driftwood. Their work may not earn the meaningless praise of an instructor at an acting school, but you'll find no more perfect performances, and I'd rather honor what actually works on the screen than talk about some abstract theory of acting that leaves me cold.

The performances of Groucho, Chico, Harpo, and even much maligned Zeppo—collectively known as the Marx Brothers—are my choice as the best actors in a comedy or musical for the award period 1932-33, and if somehow you've never seen them in action, you'll find no better place to start than the movies featured here, Horse Feathers and Duck Soup.

There are many conflicting legends surrounding the Marx Brothers' rise to stardom, some no doubt true, but many nothing more than fanciful yarns spun by the Brothers themselves. With no certain way of separating fact from fiction, I've cobbled together the version of the story I like best—hopefully, it has more than a passing acquaintance with reality.

The Birth Of The Marx Brothers: From New York To Vaudeville
Born in New York to Jewish immigrants Sam "Frenchy" Marx and Minnie nee Minna Schönberg, Leonard, Adolph, Julius Henry and Herbert Manfred—better known to the world as Chico, Harpo, Groucho, and Zeppo—worked their way through the ranks of vaudeville to become big hits in the so-called "legitimate" theater of Broadway, and finally on to Hollywood where they are celebrated to this day as iconic screen legends. In order of birth, they are Leonard (Chico) 1887, Adolph (Zeppo) 1888, Julius Henry (Groucho) 1890 and Herbert Manfred (Zeppo) 1901.

And let's not forget Milton, aka Gummo, born in 1893, who performed on stage with his brothers until leaving the act in 1918, and, for that matter, a sixth Marx Brother, Manfred, the eldest, born in 1886, who died of tuberculosis at the age of three months.

Here's a family photo, dated 1915. From left to right, that's Groucho, Gummo, mother Minnie, Zeppo, father Sam, Chico and Harpo:

The family grew up on the Upper East Side of New York, in what was then known as Yorkville, a poor enclave of recently-arrived immigrants that included Irish, Italians and Germans. Sam Marx eked out a living as a tailor, but was a better cook and often paid the rent by providing elaborate meals to the landlady.

"My father was a very bad tailor," Zeppo said later, "but he found some people who were so stupid that they would buy his clothes, and so he'd make a few dollars that way for food."

In fact, the family's real talent lay in music, with each of the brothers singing and taking up an instrument—Chico, the piano; Groucho, the guitar; and Harpo, yes, you guessed it, the harp. Inspired by their uncle Albert Schönberg, who performed as Al Shean of the duo Gallagher and Shean, the brothers took their talents on the vaudeville circuit, first individually and then collectively as a variety of acts—the Nightingales, the Six Mascots, and eventually the Four Marx Brothers.

The term vaudeville had a very particular meaning in those days, referring to a variety show performed on stage, and typically featuring singers, dancers, acrobats and one-act plays, and playing at a circuit of theaters throughout the country. Vaudeville was distinguished from burlesque which featured striptease acts as well as from the "legitimate" theater—serious dramas performed in tightly-regulated, licensed venues.

From 1870 until its demise at the beginning of the Great Depression, vaudeville was the most popular form of entertainment in the United States.

Groucho, age 14, was the first of the Brothers to join the circuit, working primarily as a singer, first with the LeRoy Trio, then with Lily Seville, the latter abruptly leaving the act, although not before first substituting newspaper clippings for the money in Groucho's wallet. When after a tour of Montreal young Groucho came home with a venereal disease, his mother Minnie hastily formed a new singing group, the Nightingales, which featured Groucho, his brother Gummo, and on one occasion, aunt Hannah and Minnie herself.

"The fact that neither my mother nor her sister had the slightest talent," Groucho wrote later, "didn't bother my mother in the least. She said she knew many people in show business who didn't have any talent. At the moment she was looking at me."

If Groucho is to be believed, his mother's singing career lasted all of one number which came to an end when a prop chair collapsed mid-song under her rather matronly weight.

According to The Marx Brothers Encyclopedia by Glenn Mitchell, the singing act became a comedy act in Nacogdoches, Texas, when most of the audience temporarily abandoned the show to watch a runaway mule—upon their return, an angry Groucho treated them to a steady stream of insults such as "Nacogdoches is full of roaches" and "The jackass is the finest flower of Tex-Ass," a display of crude wit that nevertheless endeared him to the town's citizens.

Donning a red wig, Harpo joined in the fun, playing the character "Patsy Brannigan" in the team's new show, Fun In Hi Skule, the first to rely primarily on comedy rather than music. Following a popular trend of the day, the skit was centered on the antics of school kids with Groucho playing the teacher:

"What's the shape of the earth?" he'd ask.
"I don't know," Harpo, not yet playing a mute, would reply.
"What are the shape of my cufflinks?"
"Not these. The ones I wear on Sundays."
"Oh. Round."
"That's it. Now what's the shape of the earth?"
"Square on weekdays," Harpo would say proudly, "round on weekends."

Other bits from Fun In Hi Skule were recycled for the classroom scene in Horse Feathers.

Chico, meanwhile, moved to Philadelphia where he worked for a while as a "song plugger" and a branch manager for a music publishing company before trying his luck on stage as one half of a singing duo. His talent as a pianist came in handy, and he picked up an Italian accent from his barber for between-song patter, but his penchant for gambling away the team's earnings drove away a succession of partners.

"His interests lay far afield in the ten ball in the side pocket," Groucho wrote of his brother, "and bridge, poker, and pinochle for stakes always higher than he could afford. If there was no action around, he would play solitaire—and bet against himself. Chico's favorite people," he added, "were actors who gambled, producers who gambled, and women who screwed."

Chico was so fond of gambling that while filming the steeplechase scene that ends A Day At The Races, the crew convinced him to bet on the losing horse—despite the fact that Chico knew the scripted outcome in advance. "The odds were twenty-to-one," he said.

In late 1912, Chico's bad luck turned into his brothers' good fortune.

Out of work again and without a partner for his stage act, Chico snuck into the orchestra pit and took over the piano during his brothers' show in Waukegan, Illinois. When Harpo recognized his brother's inimitable playing style, he hurled a stage prop apple at him, beginning an on-stage food fight that delighted the audience.

Thus was born a new act, the Four Marx Brothers.

"They sang, danced, played harp and kidded in zany style," said W.C. Fields who was briefly on the bill with them in 1915. "Never saw so much nepotism or such hilarious laughter in one act in my life. The only act I could never follow. I told the manager I broke my wrist and quit."

Zeppo appeared with the act briefly in September 1915, marking the only occasion when five Marx Brothers worked together, then joined the act permanently as Gummo's replacement when the latter volunteered for the army after the United States entered World War I. With that one change of personnel, the Four Marx Brothers performed together continuously from late 1912 until Zeppo left the act in 1933.

[To continue to Part Two, click here.]

A Note On Sources: There are many wonderful sources for information about the Marx Brothers. Among those at my fingertips are The Marx Brothers Encyclopedia by British film historian Glenn Mitchell; Groucho Marx's autobiography Groucho And Me; and his collection of correspondence The Groucho Letters; the transcripts of the Marx Brothers radio show, Flywheel, Shyster and Flywheel, edited by Michael Barson; David Thomson's The New Biographical Dictionary Of Film; three wonderful websites devoted to the Brothers, The Marx Brothers: Chico, Harpo, Groucho, Gummo and Zeppo, The Marx Brothers Council Of Britain and The Marx Brothers; the Internet Movie Database; the ever reliable Wikipedia; the films themselves; and whatever else I happened to stumble across as I worked on this post.

Friday, August 20, 2010

A Silent Movie I Missed

While I'm working away on the essay for the best comedy actor of 1932-33 (I'm at 3000 words and haven't even written about the movie yet), I found this short film over at Open The Pod Bay Doors, Hal, a terrific blog by Mark Bourne I've been following. If you haven't swung by there, you should.

He posted an excerpt from a silent film I'd never seen before, Anachronisme, and I steal it now for your entertainment:

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Nominees For Best Actor Of 1932-33 (Comedy/Musical)

James Cagney (Footlight Parade)

Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy (Sons Of The Desert)

Herbert Marshall (Trouble In Paradise) (here, with Marlene Dietrich in Blonde Venus)

The Marx Brothers (Horse Feathers and Duck Soup)

Michel Simon (Boudu Saved From Drowning)

Monday, August 16, 2010

A Barbara Stanwyck Double Feature: The Bitter Tea Of General Yen and Baby Face

The two best films of 1933 that unfortunately are not going to win any of my self-invented Katie awards are a pair of pre-Code Barbara Stanwyck classics, as different from each other in every respect except quality as two movies can get. I highly recommend you see both.

I've mentioned the term "pre-Code" many times and written about this period in Hollywood history at length here and here. In a nutshell, in order to stave off state and federal attempts to censor movies, Hollywood's studios issued a set of guidelines of what were unacceptable topics for the big screen. Without any enforcement power, though, the guidelines were more often than not honored in the breach, and in fact, New York's National Board of Review and the Catholic League of Decency had a far greater influence on the content of films than Hollywood's own Hays Office. Not until Joseph Breen took over the office in 1934 did Hollywood studios agree to enforce the Code.

Anyone who is a fan of pre-Code movies has in mind some actor or actress who personifies the era's permiss- iveness. For some it's Joan Blondell, for others it's Jean Harlow; still others prefer Miriam Hopkins, Kay Francis, Mae West, Clark Gable, James Cagney or even Norma Shearer. For me, though, Barbara Stanwyck more than any other performer, has come to personify in my mind the essence of the pre-Code era. Not only did she strip down to her skivvies in such films as Night Nurse, but she also displayed a fierce independence than always feels modern to me, even in the creakiest of film vehicles.

"It would be difficult to think of an actress so expressive of the early 1930s girl on the make," British film historian David Thomson has written, "as intimate, shiny, and flimsy as a discarded slip, but with eyes ever sly and alert."

Stanwyck rose quickly to stardom in the pre-Code era, primarily through the films of two great directors, William Wellman (Night Nurse, So Big and The Purchase Price) and Frank Capra, whose early films with Stanwyck included Ladies Of Leisure, The Miracle Woman, Forbidden and in the 1933 film, The Bitter Tea Of General Yen.

General Yen is the story of an American missionary (Stanwyck) who travels to China to marry her rather stuffy fiance only to wind up as the captive of a powerful warlord during the country's interminable civil war. At first, Yen (Nils Asther in the best performance of his career) holds Stanwyck in an effort to blunt the reformist zeal of Stanwyck's fiancé, but he soon finds himself falling in love with her.

Stanwyck, for her part, has a hard time reconciling her properly virginal upbringing with her growing lust for Yen, and in the process must confront for the first time in her sheltered life her own hypocrisy and prejudices. Her fevered dream in which she finds herself both menaced by and drawn to Yen is one of the most beautifully filmed sequences of Capra's illustrious career.

The film was a flop upon its initial release and Capra later dismissed it as "the only film in which I ever tried to become arty, because I was trying to win an Academy Award." The notion of a romance between a white woman and an Asian man shocked some and the picture played to protests around the country. "The women’s clubs came out very strongly against it," Stanwyck later said. "I was so shocked."

Even more shocking was Stanwyck's next film, Baby Face, one of the most notorious films of the pre-Code era. Written by Darryl F. Zanuck, who quit Warner Brothers shortly afterwards to form Twentieth Century Films, Baby Face was so racy that many scenes had to be re-shot and even then two version went out to theaters.

In Baby Face, Stanwyck plays Lily Powers, the daughter of an abusive saloon keeper who's been pimping her out since she was fourteen years old. She's inured to the humiliation—the look on her face as she realizes her father has just pimped her out is perfectly underplayed, as bored and blase as if he'd just read her the out-of-town baseball scores, but underneath seething with resentment—but she yearns for something better and is beginning to understand the power of her own sexuality.

In a key early scene that sets the tone, a powerful local politician puts his hand on Lily's knee, expecting to put his hand on a lot more than that. With barely a glance, Lily picks up a cup of coffee and casually dumps it on him.

"Oh, excuse me, my hand shakes so when I'm around you." When she later breaks a bottle over his head, he finally gets the message that this isn't foreplay.

With her only friend Chico (Theresa Harris), Lily leaves her father and hops a freight train—sleeping with a railroad cop to avoid arrest—and winds up in the big city where she ruthlessly sleeps her way to the top. (Among her conquests, look for a young John Wayne.)

Baby Face won no awards, but in 2005, the Library Congress included the film in the National Film Registry. If you're going to see it, make sure to track down the uncut version, which was for years thought lost then rediscovered in 2004. It's worth seeing both as a reminder that Hollywood didn't invent sex and sin in 1967, and as a pivotal moment in Stanwyck's career, being to my mind the moment she really became what we think of as "Barbara Stanwyck," with the impudence of Bette Davis, the independence of Katharine Hepburn, and the street smarts of Joan Crawford, only warmer, sexier and much less neurotic, respectively.

Within a year, the studios began to enforce the strict guidelines of the Pro- duction Code and Holly- wood wouldn't again make films with content as explicit and controversial as The Bitter Tea Of General Yen and Baby Face until the 1960s. Stanwyck herself shifted gears and found popularity playing the martyred mother in such films as Stella Dallas. Not until The Lady Eve in 1941 would she figure how to sell the public on a character as brazen as Lily Powers.

Trivia: The Bitter Tea Of General Yen was the first movie ever to play Radio City Music Hall in New York. Scheduled to run for two weeks, the theaters owners yanked the film after eight days despite having made back only $80,000 of the $100,000 rental they had paid the studio.

Friday, August 13, 2010

A Word About The Other Best Actress Of 1933, "Gerta Garber"

A few summers ago, five or six maybe, Turner Classic Movies launched a nationwide tour to promote both classic movies and the TCM brand name. Being a well-to-do mega-community located on the interstate between Baltimore and Washington, D.C. (we ranked #2 this year in Money magazine's top 10 places to live), the twin-towns of Columbia/Ellicott City proved to be a convenient place for the TCM crew to set down its circus.

And, man, what a great time! There were games, prizes, souvenirs, photo booths (have your picture taken with John Wayne!) and on-stage contests pitting audience members against each other in a battle royale of movie trivia. Yours truly won a plastic softball with the TCM logo (answer: Joan Crawford), and Katie-Bar-The-Door—well, we'll get to that in a moment.

Like all good tent revivals, though, the point wasn't just to reward the faithful but to convert the non- believers —plant a seed, coax a bud, harvest a crop of new movie fans. And as the grandson of a sharecropper, I can tell you that requires a certain amount of fertilizer.

The most coveted potential converts were teenagers—get when they're young and they're yours for life—and to give a fighting chance to kids who (it became clear as the day wore on) had never so much as heard of Casablanca much less seen it fifty times and memorized all the dialogue, the emcee steered the contests toward "word jumbles"—collections of letters which when arranged in the proper order spell out a word, or in this case, a film title or movie star. And then to nudge things along, he also gave them a cheat sheet with possible answers.

Now, let me tell you, the older you get, the more you know, but you know it a lot slower than you did when you were young and fresh, and while us middle-aged geezers cleaned up on straight trivia, the teenagers kicked our asses on word jumbles.

Especially when close was close enough.

And thus it turns out the star of Queen Christina, Camille and Ninotchka was in the mind of one perky blonde cheerleader, and forever after in this household—

"Gerta Garber!"

"Here," said the emcee, handing her DVDs of Casablanca and Singin' In The Rain, "go home and watch these—and pay attention to the cast lists!"

That was okay with me—as far as I'm concerned, Pete Townshend nailed it when he said "the kids are alright"—and it was okay with Katie-Bar-The-Door, too, until, that is, she found herself tied two-to-two in a best of five face-off with the high school quarterback.

Now, I think of Katie as a kind of cross between Myrna Loy and Maureen O'Hara —the perfect wife and the fiery redhead—except in the case of the latter it would have been Katie who dragged John Wayne five miles and beat up the brother, not the other way around. I mean, her idea of a chick flick is Rio Bravo and she once gave me a copy of The Dirty Dozen for Valentine's Day because for her Jim Brown and a satchel full of hand grenades is romantic. She's a sweet, elegant woman with exquisite manners, but she stands five-foot-two the way Napoleon stood five-foot-two, and when the emcee said, "The tie-breaker will be a trivia question—or should we have another word jumble?" he only thought the choice was his to make.

"No, no, you said trivia," laughed Katie, the way I imagine General Patton laughed just before he destroyed Rommel at El Guettar. "I want trivia!"

I guess I should feel bad for the poor kid on the other side of the stage, but just between you and me, anyone who's never heard of Gone With The Wind—the answer to the question "Which 1939 movie received thirteen Oscar nominations?"—probably shouldn't have been up there in the first place.

"I would have won if it had been a word jumble," he said afterwards.

"Absolutely!" said Katie. "Why do you think I wanted trivia?"

Sorry, kid.

Katie won a copy of the DVD game Scene-It—the TCM edition —a real hoot to play, especially after a couple of gin rickeys. And we discovered a new favorite actress that afternoon, too.

Gerta Garber.