One Last, Lost Beatles Album

Posted in Music, Rock and Pop with tags , , on August 31, 2015 by travsd

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This is a little mental fantasy project I’ve been working on since I was a teenager, which no self respecting Beatles nerd should be a stranger to: a speculation about what a NEXT Beatles album would have/ could have been like. The proceeding has nothing to do with reality or logic. In the end, it is a soup I’ve decided could be made with some ingredients left in the cupboard. Some of it involves cleaning up and improving existing tracks with technology and adding more production elements; others envision entirely new recordings. All of them are songs that originated in the years 1968-1970 when they were still a group. Note: it’s not envisioned as a cohesive concept album, but something more like the late Hey Jude album….a collection of oddments.

JOHN SONGS

Across the Universe: Granted, this one has been released on many different albums in several different versions — but John was not satisfied with any of them, and I agree. There is something missing from every version that’s been released. In one interview, Lennon said with palpable bitterness that McCartney should have offered more help with it (which is quite an admission) and indeed McCartney does seem to have blown this one off. And likewise George Martin seems to have done little on its behalf as well. It’s a potentially gorgeous song. It seems like Lennon felt it should have a minimum of orchestral assistance, so it has very little (except in the slapped-on Phil Spector version), but in the end, it needs something. More exotic instrumentation? Existing versions have things like light sitar and harp — maybe something besides a guitar as the primary instrument?

Child of Nature: This one is so beautiful and would sit so well on an album alongside “Across the Universe” – -it was obviously written during the same burst of inspiration during the 1968 Indian sojourn. The tune was so good that Lennon later revived it for “Jealous Guy” on the Imagine album, but I vastly prefer this version. My instinct is that the unrestrained gushing and hippie like exultation in the lyrics later embarrassed Lennon’s more cynical side:

What’s the New Mary JaneThis hilarious experimental weirdie was finally released in its somewhat unfinished state on Anthology. I feel like it could use George Martin’s touch: some tightening up and the addition of things like strings and horns and woodwinds would bring it closer to such more palatable released psychedelic fare as “I Am the Walrus” and “It’s All Too Much“.

Give Me Some Truth: Lennon eventually finished this tune and put it on the Imagine album. But he started it during the Get Back sessions. The finished version is a typically terrific Lennon word blizzard of left wing paranoia. You can hear him thrash it out in early stages with the other Beatles here:

Watching Rainbows: This one also dates from the Get Back sessions, and eventually made it onto Let it Be, in altered, truncated form as part of the song “I’ve Got a Feeling”. The original version of the song stands up though. It’s basically a great two chord sixties jam reminiscent of Dylan’s “Quinn the Eskimo”:

PAUL SONGS

Come and Get It: Well, obviously. McCartney briefly intended it for Abbey Road, but quickly reassigned it for Badfinger to perform for the Magic Christian soundtrack. I include it with reservations — it’s so lightweight — but it actually seems much in sync thematically with other stuff of his on Abbey Road, especially “You Never Give Me Your Money”

Another Day: This, which became McCartney’s first solo single, was famously dismissed by Lennon: “It’s just another song“, but I’ve always contended that the main problem with the solo track is lackluster production. Thematically it evokes past successes like “Yesterday” and “Eleanor Rigby” and “She’s Leaving Home”. It begs for the George Martin treatment. ALSO! ye Gods – – I heard this for the first time this morning, an early version during the Get Back sessions. His original approach on piano, as opposed to guitar, is WAY better! It gives the song a gravitas the eventual version lacks, and reminds me a little of his middle-8 for “A Day in the Life”. It starts at about 2:48:

Teddy Boy: Yeah, this one has always been a tough pill to swallow, with it’s child’s point of view, singsong melody, and references to “mommy”. The version on McCartney is underproduced. The original “Get Back” version which was released on Anthology is marred by the other Beatles overtly making fun of it, and dragging their heels in every way possible. But two really great things about the Anthology version tantalize. One is Harrison’s playful lead guitar, very evocative of Abbey Road. And the other is McCartney whistling the melody towards the end. To be completely salvaged it still needs more — perhaps Lennon attacking the lyrics and beating them into respectability with some darkness, or adding a new middle 8.

Junk: This one (also released on McCartney) needs just a very little to put it over. Something similar to the horns at the end of “Mother Nature’s Son” would fill it out a little.

Suicide: One of the best parts of the McCartney album is about 2 or 3 seconds long. It’s a snatch of a song McCartney wrote when he was a teenager at around the same time he wrote “When I’m 64”. Like the latter song, it’s McCartney revealing his genius for putting on a pre-rock style and besting previous generations at their own game. Because it’s so far from the Beatles style I guess it was never considered for one of their albums, but from the perspective of 2015 it seems no more out of place than all the other crazy genres they fooled around with on the White Album, e.g. “Good Night”. The word is that McCartney was trying to sell the song to Sinatra – -who, frankly, was an idiot for not recording this great song by the hottest composer of his era. It would have been interesting on a Beatles album, to say the least:

Back to the Commonwealth: I’ve loved this one since I was a teenager — it seems like the very essence of what they were trying to do on Get Back….it’s in the vein of “Back in the U.S.S.R.”, and apparently eventually evolved into the song “Get Back”, which is quite a journey. The lyrics sound almost finished in the recording, and McCartney’s Elvis impression is very funny. With its political commentary, this song would have lived quite harmoniously side by side with Lennon’s “Give Me Some Truth”:

Back Seat of My Car: This is a case where the existing, released solo version (on Ram) is an acknowledged pop masterpiece. But McCartney did introduce the tune during the Get Back sessions, and frankly it’s a better song than any of the ones that finally made the cut on Let it Be. It is at least intriguing to speculate what the other Beatles would have brought to it.

GEORGE SONGS: 

Not Guilty: Ironically the Beatles recorded over 100 takes of this song for the White Album, and it was slated for inclusion, but cut at the last moment. George released a solo version in 1978, and the original track was eventually released on Anthology. Harrison and McCartney are in top form musically on the track — I listen to it all the time. The lyrics are dreadful of course, but the words to dozens of released Harrison songs are dreadful, so that’s not a deal breaker. Despite all the work they put into it, I do feel like it still needs just a little something, a little George Martin touch, to put it completely over. Strings?

Sour Milk Sea: Some dope made a hilarious remark in the comments section under one of the Youtube clips of the Beatles demo of this song: “I like the Jackie Lomax version”. All real Beatle fans will know why that is a hilarious comment. Yes, this was released as a single performed by the singer Jackie Lomax. But Jackie Lomax was just a guy picked by Harrison as a stand-in for himself, much as McCartney had picked Badfinger to perform “Come and Get It”. They were trying to cultivate artists for their new record label Apple. But not only did Harrison write and produce the song, but the musicians on the track are Harrison, McCartney, Ringo Starr and Eric Clapton! It comes SO close to being a Beatle record. So you see, there is no “Jackie Lomax version”. It is George Harrison’s version, with Lomax as one of his instruments. Anyway, I really love the Lomax single anyway (and listen to it all the time). BUT, I much prefer the way Harrison sings the song on his demos — there is an eerie, bending lilt to his voice. And Lennon (who doesn’t play on the Lomax one) brings an old fashion Chuck Berry kind of energy to it.

All Things Must Pass: There’s a reason this became the title track of Harrison’s first solo album: it’s an awesome song. (If you think about it, it has a lot in common with McCartney’s song “Let it Be”, which may be one reason why the Beatles didn’t see this song, which was introduced during the “Get Back” sessions, all the way through the end.) BUT! The Beatles came tantalizingly close to getting their own version up and running, and the part I love best about is their harmony singing on the chorus, done is a sort of old-timey gospel arrangement reminiscent of The Band. Also Billy Preston’s piano playing adds a lot:

Circles: Like many Harrison songs, this one is so delicate and ephemeral that it scarcely makes an impression the first time around. But after a couple of plays it can begin to haunt. Its metaphysical themes make a great match with a lot of the other songs on this theoretical album. He eventually released a fully produced version on his terrible album Gone Troppo. This is his 1968 demo; the voices of Lennon and McCartney would have added a lot:

RINGO SONG

It Don’t Come Easy: There’s got to be a Ringo song! And this one was recorded in February 1970, when the group was technically still together, and was produced by Harrison, with Harrison and Starr as the core line-up. (The released version also included Klaus Voormann, Stephen Stills and Badfinger.) Here’s an interesting artifact: a version with Harrison doing a guide vocal for the shakier Ringo to work off of (even though Ringo’s the one who wrote it). Listen for the background singers going “Hare Krishna!”, later buried in the mix:

The Battle of Brooklyn Redux

Posted in AMERICANA, HOLIDAYS/ FESTIVALS/ MEMORIALS/ PARADES with tags , , , , on August 31, 2015 by travsd

As we’ve blogged about previously, many of my ancestors fought in the American Revolution and one of the major battles was fought right in my neighborhood.  Making it virtually mandatory for me to attend yesterday’s memorial event for the Battle of Brooklyn at Green-wood Cemetery.

Herewith a little photo spread on what we saw:

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Scotland's in the house!

            Scotland’s in the house!

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                 The Parade Begins!

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Friend Gyda Arber marches with a DAR contingent

Friend Gyda Arber marches with a DAR contingent

 

Stars of Vaudeville #898: L. Wolfe Gilbert

Posted in Music, Tin Pan Alley, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , on August 31, 2015 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of Tin Pan Alley songwriter L. Wolfe Gilbert (1886-1970). Born in Odessa, he moved to the U.S. in his youth and broke into vaudeville in the first decade of the twentieth century as part of a singing quartet. While performing in Coney Island he was spotted by English producer Albert Decourville and brought over to Britain to tour music halls as part of the Ragtime Octet. In 1912, he co-authored (with Lewis Muir) one of my favorite vaudeville era songs “Waiting for the Robert E. Lee”. This song was recorded and performed by nearly every singer of the era, and but Gilbert on top. In 1917 he played a week at the Palace with his then-partner Anatole Friedland. Other songs from Gilbert’s catalog include “Down Yonder”, “Ramona”, and “Jeannine, I Dream of Lillac Time”. His later decades were spent working in film, radio and television and he was a director of ASCAP from 1941 through 1944.

For more on vaudeville historyconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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Stars of Vaudeville #897: Edwin J. Burke

Posted in Broadway, Hollywood (History), Melodrama and Master Thespians, Movies, Playwrights, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , on August 30, 2015 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of Edwin J. Burke (1889-1944). We cast a wide net betimes for our Stars of Vaudeville series. Only rarely do playwrights make it here, but some do, and some have.

Burke studied at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, and initially worked as a stage actor and director before trying his hand at writing for vaudeville. Before he was done, he wrote 250 one act plays and sketches for the vaudeville stage, some of them making it as far as the Palace. His first full length play This Thing Called Love was such a success that in 1928 he began to work in Hollywood. He is best known today for having written several Shirley Temple films, and for his Oscar winning screenplay for Bad Girl (1931).

For more on vaudeville historyconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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The Perils of Moonshine

Posted in AMERICANA, ME, My Family History with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 30, 2015 by travsd
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My great-grandfather Virgil is second from the left. His brother Charles, whose grave we visited in 2000 (below) is second from the right.

The theme of this Sunday’s sermon is Temperance.

If you’re one of the two people who’ve been closely following this earth-shattering series of posts on my lineage, so far we’ve covered big hunks of American history from Plymouth Rock through the Civil War. As we move to the next generation, we start to come tantalizingly close to stuff we know much more about personally.

Casting our gaze backwards at our family histories (at least in mine) it feels like the grey fuzzy horizon between the known and the purely imagined is our great grandparents, whom we’ve heard a lot about from older family members but will always remain frustratingly just out of reach, for in most cases they have already passed from the scene before we’re born or when we’re still very young. In my case, the ones I know about the best, as it happens, are my father’s paternal grandparents, Virgil and Lusilla (“Silla”) Stewart. (Silla died when I was 9 months old, my only great grandparent whose life overlapped with mine),

I thought this would be a little, if illustrative post about how families can rise and fall within the span of two generations, but it turns out to have a juicy story, an actual news item embedded within it, so this turned out to be a rewarding period to explore (and I’ll be examining these years some more from another angle, which we’ll get to).

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Virgil A. Stewart was born in Lincoln County, Tennessee in 1875. One question that springs immediately to mind: is there any sort of relationship with the (once) famous Virgil A. Stewart who foiled a band of river pirates and slave insurrectionists led by one John Murrell and wrote a popular pamphlet about it? These events, which happened 40 years before my great grandfather’s birth were extremely well known in the the region. Mark Twain refers to them in both Tom Sawyer and Life on the Mississippi. My multi-part question is: is my Virgil named after the previous Virgil? And, if so, was he related to him? After all, 40 years is a long time. Was the name still well known unless one was related to him? And Virgil’s grandparents, we know, were illiterate, through I don’t know if his parents were. (Ironically, my patrilineal line prior to 1800 remains one of the major mysteries of my exploration. I’ve followed hundreds of other back hundreds of years but this one remains a welter of competing, unproven theories.)

Moonshining operation in Virginia (not the Patricks)

Moonshining operation in Virginia (not the Patricks)

At any rate, Virgil was raised on his father James’s small farm. Then, when he was 13 years old, his father died. Though he had two older teenage brothers, and some older brothers-in-law, he was adopted by his mother’s family, the Patricks. And this is where the story heats up. According to family lore related to me by my father, these Patricks were a wild, ornery, feuding bunch — and moonshiners. I had spent a good bit of time trying to find any corroboration on that — and then finally found it. One story, anyway.

In 1892, when Virgil was about 17, two of his cousins, Thomas Eliphas “Lifus” Patrick and Andrew Jackson Patrick, and two of their employees (James Norris Epps and Morgan Petty), were involved in an ambush of, and shoot-out, with federal revenuers, a melee in which Lifus, and some of the revenuers were killed. The Patricks were farmers and they also ran a legal destillery. (Whiskey making remains big in the area. Jack Daniels is made in nearby Lynchburg). But in addition to their legal still, they apparently ran an illegal one on the side. This was reported to the authorities and thus the confrontation. Andrew and his two cohorts were given a highly publicized trial in Nashville.  The judge at their trial was none other than future President of the United States William Howard Taft.

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Please, Your Honor! Surely there is goodness and mercy in that large, large heart of yours?

In spite of their obvious guilt, they were acquitted.

The reason why seems plain enough to me. It has to do with another aspect of the period that we’ll deal with another post: Reconstruction, and local opposition to it. The defeated southerners HATED the federal government. As a consequence, there was almost an ideological component to making and selling illegal booze, not unlike the revolutionary cast some have given to the distribution of illegal drugs since the 1960s. There is no question that the Patricks were such people. One of his brothers was named after James Buchanan, the Southern-sympathizing democrat president who preceded Lincoln. Another of their brothers was named “General Forrest“, after General Nathan Bedford Forrest, the first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan (although he was named this in 1862, several years prior to the Klan’s formation). Anyway, you can see why this serious topic will require its own post. Suffice it to say that in their time and in their context, criminals like the Patricks were considered dashing heroes by some people.

Tennessee Women's Christian Temperance Movement members and gents from a local sheriff's department show off a confiscated still. 1920s. From this excellent exhibition

Tennessee Women’s Christian Temperance Movement members and gents from a local sheriff’s department show off a confiscated still. 1920s. From this excellent exhibition

Interestingly, though, I don’t think Virgil Stewart was one of those people. By all accounts, Virgil was a complete, utter teetotaling Baptist. There is a lot of context for this. The radical temperance movement that would eventually lead to national Prohibition was gathering steam during the Progressive Era in the late 19th century. It was largely religious in character. In fact, Tennessee had passed the first Temperance law in the nation in 1838, making the sale of liquor punishable by fine, though it was poorly enforced and replaced with a more permissive law in 1846 that made the sale legal again, with restrictions. But the Temperance movement grew apace. The Tennessee Temperance Alliance was formed in 1885. By 1907, most counties had banned alcohol. By 1909, almost a decade before national Prohibition, the ban was statewide.

So, this was going on. To what extent Virgil had a personal motivation in wanting to distance himself from his criminal family can only be surmised. But it wasn’t just self interest. Virgil wasn’t just allied with a movement. In practice, he never drank, smoke nor swore, and he strongly disapproved of those that did those things. And the reality of his influence remains palpable. A decade ago I visited Huntsville and met many of his descendants. In contrast with my father (who drank, smoke and swore in profusion), his cousins, uncles and aunts came across as extremely clean-living people — people who lived, breathed and practiced what they preached (except they didn’t preach). My grandmother, though of rougher stock, was also like that. My grandfather (Virgil’s son) was less so — we’ll return to him shortly.

Some time prior to 1900, Virgil, all or most of his adult siblings, and his mother, all moved to the next county south, Madison County, Alabama, near Huntsville. The story my dad told was that an uncle set Virgil up in life: gave him a handful of needful items with which to establish himself (an ax, a rifle, a mule, a wagon, some seed? something like that). And Virgil went on to prosper, graduating from farming to real estate.

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I’d need to do more research to learn to what extent he dealt in land. Did he make that a business? or did he just sell off valuable farmland during boom times? I have a picture book of the history of Huntsville and, man, the early twentieth century in Huntsville was an era of giddy growth: textile factories, hotels, office buildings, newspapers, banks, all being established. Every year for several decades something new and impressive went up. If you already owned land, you probably wouldn’t need to do much to make a killing. Virgil moved the entire (large) family off the farm to a big house in Huntsville full of modern conveniences. He owned one of the first automobiles in town. In the 1920s, he went to a spa in Arizona to treat his rheumatism. It is said that his younger children “wanted for nothing”, knew nothing of farming (as opposed to the older kids), and enjoyed rich kid things like bicycles (still a luxury item in those years). His wife Silla had a maid, and a piano she played at family gatherings.

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This is me with the youngest of Virgil’s kids, Margie, circa 2000. Margie was one of a set of twins; I also met her twin sister Mabel. The grave contains Virgil’s brother Charles Stewart. I got a kid by that name. See how that works?

And then Virgil set his large brood of children up in businesses of their own or in excellent positions. Several went into the family business of real estate. The most successful of this generation Florence “Sis” Stewart (who never married) managed a chain of Kress department stores (in addition to doing well in real estate).  Others in the family had stores of their own, with initial backing from their father. The black sheep in the family seems to have been my grandfather’s younger brother Earl. He married a a divorcee named Bessie and they scandalized the family by doing things like drinking beer. They ended up moving to New Mexico — I’m assuming to get away from everyone else. Did they lead me grandfather astray? That’s a romantic theory. Everyone worshipped Virgil and Silla — my grandfather no less. But as I wrote about in this earlier post, my grandfaher, who had a good job at the Alabama Power Company (in the height of the depression) was discharged for drinking whiskey on the job.

I’m not sure if this happened before or after Virgil died. (He died of pneumonia in 1938. It is said that he caught it while supervising the digging of the grave of his father-in-law Green Hale). At any rate, there was clearly no sympathy from the family for my grandfather. He was thrown into abject poverty, becoming a tenant farmer (a sharecropper), raising cotton under starvation conditions. Living with his brood (including my father) in a leaky shack. (Read more about that here).

I find the tale instructive, and as I said at the top of this post, illustrative. As I’ve sifted through hundreds of lives, scores of generations, it’s a common thing to find quite wealthy and powerful people, even aristocracy…followed only a couple of generations later by ignorant, illiterate peasants who don’t even know where they came from. There are many ways that can happen. This is one of them. My text for today.

Two Must-Sees at the Met

Posted in AMERICANA, CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, EXHIBITIONS & LECTURES, Melodrama and Master Thespians, VISUAL ART on August 28, 2015 by travsd

“Jolly Flatboatmen in Port”, George Caleb Bingham, 1857

A quick shout-out for two exhibitions I caught over the weekend at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, both seemingly calculated to appeal to this correspondent.

Having just finished reading Mark Twain’s Life on the Mississippi, I was particularly primed to appreciate Navigating the West: George Caleb Bingham and the River (up through September 20). The image above may be Bingham’s best known painting (at least, it’s the one I already knew. I think it adorned my copy of Bernard DeVoto’s Across the Wide Missouri). At any rate the Twain book enhanced my appreciation of the exhibition like a piece of cheese goes with an apple. Twain of course wrote about his time on the Mississippi piloting steam boats. Though Bingham does show a couple of steamboats, most of his imagery depicts the more idyllic, romantic flatboats which were the primary river-borne freight carriers prior to the steam age (though they continued to play a useful role long after). The typical Bingham genre painting features cheerful flatboatmen in open-collared blouses with billowing sleeves, usually sporting either a broad brimmed hat, a topper, or a wool cap.  There is a clean look to them, with an emphasis on form and technique and beauty (perhaps my point will be better made if I say instead “a lack of ugliness”) which brings ihis work within a gnat’s-cough of kitsch, though whether it or it isn’t, that’s okay with me. They’re almost always shown with a happy expression, either in an attitude of tranquil and peaceful repose, or dancing and celebrating. No one’s ever grumbling about his crummy job as a day laborer. Alongside the finished paintings are many of the sketches and studies that led up to them, and in most cases I found his pencil and pen work to be better than the finished product (details like facial expressions and folds in clothing are much finer in the sketches). Some added bonuses: a period river panorama is depicted (on video screen), and we get to see some of the daguerreotypes that Bingham made of his work for reference after he sold the paintings off.

Sargent's portrait of Joseph Jefferson

Sargent’s portrait of Joseph Jefferson

Also of interest to readers of this blog, I should think, is the current Sargent: Portraits of Artists and Friends, on view through October 4. I’ve already raved about Madame X here (va va voom!) and she’s on view here, and so are portraits of many painters and writers, but of course I was especially interested in his depictions of showfolk including the theatre’s perennial “Rip Van Winkle” Joseph Jefferson, Edwin Booth, Ellen Terry (as Lady MacBeth), and Ada Rehan. I also loved a three part series he did of the striking and strange Robert Louis Stevenson. 

More details about both shows and everything else at the Met are at http://www.metmuseum.org/ .

The Four Marx Bros. in “Animal Crackers”

Posted in Broadway, Comedy, Comedy Teams, Hollywood (History), Marx Brothers, Movies with tags , , , on August 28, 2015 by travsd

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The Internet is an amazing thing. When memories fail, it can sometimes help us recover the facts with a clarity that startles. For example, I now know that July 21, 1979 was the first time I ever saw a Marx Brothers movie. That was the day when, several rights issues having been cleared, Animal Crackers was screened on television (CBS) for the first time. I was 13.

I think most people would agree that there can be no greater introduction to the Marx Brothers than Animal Crackers, which was released on this date in 1930. Based on their 1928 Broadway stage hit, with a book by Kaufman and Ryskind and songs by Kalmar and Ruby, the film version was directed by Mack Sennett veteran Victor Heerman who insisted on a highly beneficial pre-production cutting of the script, wrestling it into a shape that not only makes a better movie than The Cocoanuts, but a better Marx Brothers comedy. The technical issues that bogged down The Cocoanuts were much less of a factor here, as well, and while still more stage-bound than their subsequent vehicles, the script is so breath-taking in its insanity, so focused and fast-moving, that only the most obsessive-compulsive of cine-creeps could possibly care.

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The plot here is a virtual remake of The Cocoanuts. Instead of the “Potter millions” it’s now Mrs. Rittenhouse (Margaret Dumont); instead of jewels getting stolen, it’s a painting; instead of a starving architect as the juvenile, it’s a starving painter, and instead of Florida, it’s the mansions of Long Island. Zeppo is once again a secretary named Jamison, whom apparently has treacherously just left his former employer Mr. Hammer in the lurch at the Hotel de Cocoanut. While the lines that all the other characters speak are literary embarrassments, Groucho and Chico are like vomiting volcanoes of punning, quipping nonsense-spouting vaudevillia, with Harpo contributing some of his most bizarre, surreal physical business ever (favorite moment: when he shoots at a statue with a gun and it springs to life and shoots back.)

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Groucho (in jodphurs and pith helmet) is permanently ensconced in our memories as Captain Jeffrey T. Spaulding (the “T” stands for Edgar), the African explorer who arrives at a society weekend party with the sort of fanfare usually accorded only to heads of state, preceded by his secretary Jamison and some musicians (Harpo and Chico) whom, for some reason, are announced at the party as though they themselves are guests. Some of the Marx Brothers most famous jokes are drawn from this film, including the one about the elephant and the pajamas. So too is Groucho’s fourth-wall breaking Strange Interlude parody, and Groucho and Chico’s “left-handed moths” exhange, a virtual reprise of the “viaduct” scene in Cocoanuts.

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While Animal Crackers is one of Groucho’s best vehicles (and the rapid-fire Kaufman and Ryskind script, it must be conceded, is a huge contributing factor), the element that pushes it over the edge into magic is the musical presence of songwriters Kalmar and Ruby. You will always find their names attached to the Marx Brothers’ best vehicles. Any producer who didn’t understand that (which seems to have been most of them) ought to have had his head examined. “Hooray for Captain Spaulding” of course became Groucho’s theme song, and “Hello, I Must Be Going” ranks with it near the top of the canon. Even the lover’s duet “Why Am I So Romantic?” is peppier and less insipid than these moments usually are in Marx Brothers films.

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The film also benefits from one of the Marx Brothers’ best supporting casts, including in addition to Dumont; Lillian Roth, easily the most engaging ingenue in any Marx film; rotund Englishman Robert Grieg as Hives, the Butler; and Louis Sorin as the fraudulent art dealer Roscoe W. Chandler a.k.a “Abie, the Fish Man.”

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Animal Crackers set a very high bar for all future Marxdom. Of their all-excellent next three Paramount vehicles, Horse Feathers and Duck Soup would cleave to its formula the closest, casting Groucho as an inexplicable man of of eminence, introduced to us at the top of each film with grandiose and crazy musical fanfare and then proceeding to pummel the hypocrites and lickspittles around him like the tackle dummies they are. That is the whole point of Groucho, and the engine of the Marx Brothers’ best comedy. Later producers would deviate from the Animal Crackers formula strictly at their peril.

 

For more on comedy film history please check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from amazon.com etc etc etcchain%20of%20fools%20cvr%20front%20only-500x500To find out about  the history of vaudevilleconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold. 

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