Archive for May, 2014

Everyone Who’s NOT the Marx Brothers

Posted in Broadway, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Marx Brothers, Melodrama and Master Thespians, Movies with tags , , , , , on May 31, 2014 by travsd

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I meant to post this piece early in the month — and here’s the month flown by! 

Most of us first encounter the Marx Brothers in our youths, when we’re not yet seasoned cinema consumers. When I was a kid, I thought of the supporting casts in their films as so much furniture, essentially an army of nobodies for the Marx Brothers to ride roughshod over. Who cared about anyone but the Marx Brothers in these films?

In time though, as I got more and more movies under my belt, I began to see many of these performers in other roles, in other films, in other contexts. And research about the stage and screen of the period shed still more light. It turns out that many of these players were far from nobodies in their day — they were very much SOMEbodies: stars in their own right.

What follows is a little on some of them. I lied in the title though. This isn’t all of them. These are just the ones with extensive careers and credits with whom I’ve happened to become familiar. With the obvious exception of the lady below, I’ve broken them down into handy categories.

A word to the wise: this is really a post for the cinematic newbie, the new initiate, who’s just getting interested and wants to learn more.

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Margaret Dumont had been a Broadway veteran for many years when she hooked up with the Marx Brothers for The Cocoanuts.  In the wake of her success with the Marxes, she played foil for many another comedian:  Wheeler and Woolsey in Kentucky Kernels and High Flyers, Jack Benny in The Horn Blows at Midnight, W.C. Fields  in Tales of Manhattan (cut and then restored). For much more on the career of Margaret Dumont see my earlier biographical essay here. 

 

SCHEMERS AND VILLAINS

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Louis Calhern ‘s movie stardom came after his stint as Trentino in Duck Soup, with a long list of memorable turns, the most notable perhaps his part as the crooked mouthpiece in The Asphalt Jungle. Before he went before the cameras, he had a substantial Broadway career. For more on Louis Calhern see my earlier biographical essay here

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David Landau, so memorable as Jennings in Horse Featherscame late to film acting, but in his brief (three year) career he had some terrific roles: the murderous husband in Street Scene (1931), a crook in Mae West’s She Done Him Wrong (1933), all the way to his final role in Judge Priest (1934) with Will Rogers. His death in 1935 cut short this auspicious beginning.

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Broadway veteran Louis Sorin (Abie the Fishman/ Roscoe W. Chandler) found his way to the original stage production of Animal Crackers, which got him into the movies. You can also see him opposite Eddie Cantor in a sketch in the 1929 Ziegfeld movie Glorifying the American Girl and Moonlight and Pretzels. 

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Robert Grieg (Animal Crackers and Horse Feathers) played countless similar roles over the years. He was a particular favorite of Preston Sturges, who cast him in The Lady Eve, Sullivan’s Travels, The Palm Beach Story, The Sin of Harold Diddlebock, and Unfaithfully Yours. We put him in this section because “Hives” has a distinct criminal past, and does indeed supply the knockout drops in Animal Crackers. 

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Douglas Dumbrille (A Day at the Races, The Big Store) comes close to being a star in his own right, though he’s usually about third in the billing, almost always as a bad guy. For more on him, see my earlier biographical essay here

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Sig Ruman (A Night at the Opera, A Night in Casablanca) is a comical German (or other European foreigner) in a zillion movies, many of them classics: Ninotchka, To Be or Not to Be, House of Frankenstein, Stalag 17…too many to list.

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Eric Blore is an indispensable part of many a comedy ensemble, notably several Fred and Ginger movies. He’s also the voice of Mr. Toad in The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. ToadIt’s rather a come-down to see him in his small, thankless role in Love Happy. 

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Melville Cooper: another to-die-for character actor ignominiously shoe-horned into Love Happy. For more on him see my earlier biographical essay here

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Edward Arnold: a well known character actor later in the 30s, by virtue of key roles in Frank Capra films like You Can’t Take it With You and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and parts in Mae West’s I’m No Angel, Eddie Cantor’s Roman Scandals, Dinner at Eight, etc etc. He actually has a few lines in Duck Soup as the outgoing Secretary of War (replaced in the job by peanut vendor Chicolini).

 

HEAVYS

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Edgar Kennedy is well known to classic comedy fans. He starred in his own series of comedy shorts at RKO, and was a valued part of comedy ensembles beginning at Keystone, then at Hal Roach, and later even for Preston Sturges. For more on Edgar Kennedy see my earlier biographical essay here 

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Nat Pendleton (Horse Feathers, At the Circus) started out as a world class athlete (Olympic wrestler), got into pro wrestling and eventually acting, invariably playing dumb bruisers who scowled when they tried to figure things out (he reportedly was actually a very smart guy in real life). He’s in a ZILLION movies, including those of Wheeler and Woolsey, Mae West, Joe E. Brown, Abbott and Costello (a very memorable turn in Buck Privates) and, my personal favorite Scared to Death with Bela Lugosi.

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Tom Kennedy (Monkey Business) is another old Keystone cow hand, and oddly no relation to Edgar Kennedy.  I just caught him in an old Mexican Spitfire comedy just the other night! For the full skinny on Tom Kennedy see my earlier biographical essay here 

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Raymond Burr hardly needs any introduction, I shouldn’t think. His later days of stardom were far ahead of him when he made his early appearance in Love Happy. 

 

JUVENILES

I’m pretty hard on the Zeppo substitutes, I’m afraid. Frankly, I could care a hang about the stiffs who sing in musicals or in movies…I generally think of them as impediments and time wasters and interruptions. They have the potential to be more but they never are. They usually seem almost calculated to be boring. Crosby or Sinatra — never boring. Most of the rest of them: boring.

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Allan Jones (A Night at the Opera, A Day at the Races) was probably the best of the pseudo Zeppos, and that’s not saying much. He’d had a couple of Broadway shows under his belt when he got his break with the Marx Brothers, but he didn’t just disappear afterwards. He had good roles in lots of movies, most of them musicals, among them Show Boat, The Boys from Syracuse and One Night in the Tropics. His most lasting legacy may be his son, however, Las Vegas singer Jack Jones, singer of the Love Boat theme.

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Kenny Baker (At the Circus) Baker was best known as the tenor on Jack Benny’s radio program before Dennis DayHe’d actually had a bit part in A Day at the Races before At the Circus. Other movies he appeared in included The Goldwyn Follies and The Harvey Girls. He was handily the most insipid of the Marx movie leading men.

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Tony Martin (The Big Store) is much reviled among Marx fanatics but audiences liked him at the time and he enjoyed a substantial career. See my earlier biographical essay here

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Oscar Shaw (The Cocoanuts) was a major Broadway star of the teens, twenties and thirties. The Cocoanuts was one of his last films; he’d also done some silent pictures earlier. People like to giggle about the fact that he was a bit long in the tooth, and rather stout, to be playing the young juvenile in Cocoanuts. 

 

INGENUES

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Lillian Roth (Animal Crackers) has gotten plenty of virtual ink on this blog. To me, she’s the ideal Marx Brothers ingenue, with enormous humor, charm and appeal, and very much in the spirit of the twenties. See my full biographical essay here

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Mary Eaton (The Cocoanuts) was plenty big in her day, first as a child actress, then as a chorus girl, then, very briefly as a star. For more on Mary Eaton see my full biographical essay here

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Kitty Carlisle (A Night at the Opera) was a prominent public figure for the greater part of the twentieth century: socialite, opera singer, tv quiz show personality, actress, philanthropist, and wife of playwright Moss Hart. For more on her see my full biographical essay here

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Maureen O’Sullivan (A Day at the Races) was a major movie star in her day, best known perhaps as Jane in the Tarzan movies, but she also had prominent roles in The Barretts of Wimpole Street, Strange Interlude, The Thin Man, David Copperfield and Pride and Prejudice, among other pictures.

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Lucille Ball I guess needs no introduction but I guess plenty of people don’t know she appeared with the Marx Brothers in Room Service. Her performance is actually one of the few rays of light in that dismal picture. For more on Lucy see my full biographical essay here

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Ann Miller was a mere teenager when cast in Room Service, which makes her love scenes a little creepy. She of course went on to stardom too. She’s in You Can’t Take it With You, Stage Door and later things like Easter Parade, On the Town and Kiss Me Kate. 

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Vera-Ellen (Love Happy) was in plenty of major pictures (better ones, thank God), including The Kid from Brooklyn, Three Little Words, On the Town and White Christmas. 

 

BABES AND FEMME FATALES

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Kay Francis (The Cocoanuts) went on to become one of the biggest stars of the 1930s, with the highest salary at Paramount at one point. With the exception of Trouble in Paradise, the movies she made during that period didn’t live on for the most part, hence her obscurity since. Read more about her here. 

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Thelma Todd (Monkey Business, Horse Feathers) is WELL known to comedy fans for her part in countless comedy shorts for Hal Raoch, some of which she co-starred in, but also supporting the likes of Laurel and Hardy. For more on Thelma Todd see my full biographical essay here

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Raquel Torres (Duck Soup) had a brief day in the sun but she was more than just a one hit wonder. Why, just a few weeks ago I saw her in Wheeler and Woolsey’s So This is Africa. 

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Eve Arden (At the Circus) was a major radio, tv and film star, in Our Miss Brooks, The Mothers-in-Law, Grease, and much else. For more on Eve Arden go here

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Marilyn Monroe (Love Happy) may be familiar to some of you. Groucho often told the anecdote of there being three girls up for her part (she wasn’t yet a star), and his pointing out the fact that she was the OBVIOUS choice. She was. Her little scene with Groucho is one of the best in the film.

 

SUI GENERIS

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Virginia O’Brien (The Big Store) was quite popular at MGM during the 1940s doing her patented deadpan shtick. One memorable musical you can catch her in is The Harvey Girls. 

 

EXTRAS

In addition to these, there are tons of people in walk-on and extra parts who either had been well known in earlier (usually silent) days or would later be famous in their own right. These include:  Charles Middleton (Duck Soup), Billy Barty, Billy Bletcher, Bobby Dunn,  Al Flosso (all in Monkey Business), Otto Fries, Leo White (Monkey Business and A Night at the Opera), Billy Gilbert (A Night at the Opera), King Baggott ( A Night at the Opera and A Day at the Races), Billy Dooley, Dorothy Dandridge, Si Jenks, Carole Landis, Jack Norton (A Day at the Races), Joe Yule (Go West), Clara Blandick, Charles Lane (The Big Store), and Ruth Roman (A Night in Casablanca)

 

For more on comedy film history 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 etc

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We’re All Mad Here: The Marx Brothers in Context

Posted in Comedy, Comedy Teams, Hollywood (History), Marx Brothers, Movies, Vaudeville etc. with tags , on May 31, 2014 by travsd

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Adapted from a talk given at the New York Public Library on May 29, 2014 and published in the May 2014 edition of Zelda.

This May marked the 100th anniversary of Julius, Leonard, Adolphe and Milton Marx adopting the handles Groucho, Chico, Harpo and Gummo. That’s over a century of the Marx Brothers. Quite a benchmark. While it’s tempting to think so, the world’s most popular comedy team didn’t emerge in a vacuum nor were they one of a kind. Groucho’s brand of verbal nonsense humor, Harpo’s kind of pantomime, and Chico’s dialect comedy were all highly popular, familiar specialties in their day. What made the Marx Brothers original was that they packed it all into the same explosive, anarchistic act. And they were so funny, of course.

But who were their precursors?

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The mother of all vaudeville comedy teams was Weber and Fields. Joe Weber and Lew Fields were Polish-Jewish immigrants who grew up in New York in the 1860s and 70s, and were heavily influenced by two prevailing entertainment modes at the time, blackface minstrelsy and the Irish-dominated variety shows that took place in concert saloons.

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Sadly, nearly every American performer put on burnt cork in those days. There was widespread social acceptance of all kinds of ethnic caricature and lampoon, most extreme in the case of African Americans, but also pretty harsh with respect to the Irish, “Hebrews”, Italians, and Germans (then just as numerous as the other groups). Yet the form American comedy in vaudeville was to take also came from the minstrel show. All two man comedy acts draw from the straight-man/ comic dichotomy between the minstrel show’s master of ceremonies “Mr. Interlocutor” and his two end men “Mr. Tambo” and “Mr. Bones”. Minstrel shows were full of jokes and crosstalk and puns and malaprops that were influential on vaudeville. Almost any exchange between Groucho and Chico can trace its roots to this.

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In saloons, variety entertainments drew heavily from the “oleo” or variety section of minstrel shows, but had their own flavor, mixing blackface performance with Irish stereotype comedy, knockabout slapstick, sentimental ballad singing, and the dancing of clogs and jigs.

Weber and Fields absorbed all these influences, performing blackface, Irish and German (colloquially called “Dutch”) characters for years. By the mid 1880s, they found their specialty, creating the act that made them rich, famous and incalculably influential: Dutch characters named Mike and Meyer. The act focused on slapstick and dialect humor, full of malapropisms and punning misunderstandings. By the 1890s they had become such a hit with their “Teutonic Eccentricities” that they toured their own full length vaudeville productions throughout the country. By 1896, they had their own Broadway theatre, devoted entirely to their own starring vehicles. In 1904, at a point when they’d been the most popular comedy team in the nation for 20 years, they broke up. Both continued on as important Broadway producers; they occasionally patched up reunited for special occasions.

Weber and Fields were the first vaudeville comedy team to have national, industry-wide influence. At the same time, another phenomenon was brewing in vaudeville: the popularity of male quartets. Some specialized in harmony singing; today we call them “barbershop quartets”. Others were more like sketch comedy troupes and were called “comedy fours”. These teams would sing but also did comedy characters, e.g. “Dutch”, “Hebe”, “sissy”, or “tramp”. There were scores of quartets and comedy fours in vaudeville’s heyday.

The Avon Comedy Four, featuring Smith and Dale

The Avon Comedy Four, featuring Smith and Dale

Among the most notable of these was the Avon Comedy Four. Its key members, Joe Smith and Charlie Dale met as teenagers in the 1890s when they had a bicycle accident. Their ensuing argument was thought by bystanders to be “as funny as Weber and Fields” and so they started an act. Circa 1900-1920 they anchored the Avon Comedy Four, each member switching off on the usual stock characters. By the early 1920s Smith and Dale broke off as a duo, becoming one of later vaudeville’s premier headlining comedy teams. They remain well known today as the inspiration for Neil Simon’s The Sunshine Boys.

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Also important was the Manhattan Comedy Four (1895-1900). The lynchpin of this team was a man named Al Shean, who was the Marx Brothers uncle and their inspiration for going into show business. Shean (who wrote many of the team’s sketches) specialized in a Dutch characterization, becoming most famous as half of one of vaudeville’s most popular comedy teams, Gallagher and Shean.

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But along the way, he had an interesting side project called the Marx Brothers.

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At around age 15, inspired by his Uncle Al, Groucho went into vaudeville as a juvenile singer in a succession of musical acts. This culminated in the creation of the Four Nightingales with his brothers Gummo and Harpo, and a boy named Lou Levy. For a time they were strictly a singing act. When comedy business accidentally erupted on stage their mother initially discouraged it.

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Gradually, comedy crept in anyway. They decided to go with it. They developed a sketch called “Fun in Hi Skool” that was essentially one of Shean’s sketches with reworkings. Groucho did Dutch dialect as the schoolteacher, and Harpo did a stock Irish stereotype. Elements of his subsequent persona—the curly red wig, and the impish pranks—were to evolve out of this character. Milton played a “Hebrew” at first, and later a “sissy”. He also danced. As we can see, this is essentially a “comedy four” act.

At the same time, Chico was developing along a parallel track as a barrelhouse piano player and dialect comedian. He did his “Italian” shtick with a number of partners until one day in 1912 he showed up at a Marx Brothers performance unannounced and started fooling around in character. The brothers started throwing fruit at each other and the rest is history.

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In addition to Chico’s trick piano playing, the act also now had interludes on Harpo’s harp, which he (may or may not have) inherited from his grandmother. These musical bits were to remain a staple of their act for the rest of their careers. Vaudeville reviewers all seemed to love these instrumental numbers, which gave variety, originality and a bit of class to their act. Musical interludes too were a staple of vaudeville. Many of the biggest acts in the business were strictly musicians. Among the top ones were Miss Patricola, the violinist; Dave Apollon the Mandolin King; Borrah Minevich and his Harmonica Rascals; and Jerry and Her Baby Grands. Jack Benny initially played the violin (for real); comedian Ken Murray worked the clarinet into his act.

From 1912 through the next decade was a process of refining their act. Several new sketches (many of them from the pen of Al Shean) came and went. And everyone but Chico changed his character.

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First, Harpo stopped speaking. Uncomfortable with lines anyway, he was grateful for the day when Shean only gave him a couple of words to say, and they agreed to cut them. Harpo’s silent character is the hardest to find precedent for. He doesn’t mention any influences in his autobiography, so all we can do is speculate. I find the fact his maternal grandfather was a magician back in Germany to be instructive. Something about that battered hat and the way Harpo pulls endless props out of his overcoat seems to be evocative of magic, and there were and are certainly lots of silent performers in that field. We also know that the Marx Brothers saw Karno’s Speechless Comedians during their U.S. vaudeville tours and befriended the star of that act, a young man named Charlie Chaplin. Vaudeville also had the “Banana Man”, A. Robins, a mute clown who took endless things out of his coat, Joe Jackson, a mute bicycle clown, and “Poodles” Hanneford a mute equestrian clown. Vaudeville was full of non-speaking clowns.

WWI had two important repercussions for the Marx Brothers. In 1918, Gummo was drafted, and was replaced by Zeppo. And anti-German sentiment meant that Groucho had to drop his Dutch character, gradually replacing him with the wise-cracking, nonsense-spouting charlatan we all know today.

I began to probe the origins of “nonsense” in comedy — and almost fell down a rabbit hole. I think this topic may prove to be its own article or book at some point. A crucial figure in that history is Lewis Carroll (the title of this talk is drawn from Alice in Wonderland). But Carroll himself had drawn heavily from nursery rhymes — it is a very old lineage. Likewise, fairy tales had been popular on stage for centuries, and enriched the English panto and the unique theatrical from known as the extravaganza. From these sources and humor magazines, minstrelsy, burlesque (of the Weber and Fields sort) and many other sources, the vaudeville stage was rife with nonsense comedians like the Marx Brothers. (Hence the title of this talk, emphasis on “ALL”) .

At this point in my lecture, I talked about some contemporaries of the Marx Brothers who had an overlap in sensibility. Just click on the link for a full article on each team or comedian…

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Clark and McCullough

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Olsen and Johnson

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Wheeler and Woolsey

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Ed Wynn

Joe cook

Joe Cook

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Eddie Cantor

And then some legacies…

A successor to Groucho:

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Milton Berle

And…some less obvious spiritual successors among the counter-cultural Baby Boomers:

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Firesign Theatre

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Abby Hoffman

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Paul Krassner

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The Flying Karamazov Brothers

And, a contemporary example, who mixes elements of all three Marx Brothers: 1) a dialect comedian like Chico, 2) a physical comedian like Harpo, and 3) a confrontational insult comedian like Groucho:

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 Sacha Baron Cohen, as estimable a piece of comic horseflesh as ever pulled down his trousers.

For more on 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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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 etc

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On the Psychedelic Excesses of “Skidoo”

Posted in Comedy, Hollywood (History), Jackie Gleason, Marx Brothers, Movies with tags , , , , , , , on May 31, 2014 by travsd
This production brought to you through the courtesy of Kiwi Shoe Polish

This production brought to you through the courtesy of Kiwi Shoe Polish

After a lifetime of reading about it (being as it was Groucho Marx’s last film, among other things) I finally got to see the cult classic Skidoo on TCM about five years ago. They played it in the pre-dawn hours, much where it belongs. The film is almost impossible to describe, so I’ll just try to hit it in fragments. Directed by the great Otto Preminger at a time in his career when he was desperately trying to remain au courant, this nutty film stars the Great One Mr. Jackie Gleason as a retired mobster, whom with his wife Carol Channing, is worried about his hippie daughter and her hippie boyfriend. (Interestingly, scholar Rob Bader showed a recent clip of Groucho on Gleason’s show from a few months before this movie came out. The two did a revamped version of the Gallagher and Shean song. You can see it on the upcoming upcoming Shout Factory DVD.)

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Forced by the top mobster “God” (Groucho) to do one last hit, he goes undercover into a jail so he can bump off fellow gangster Mickey Rooney before he can testify before a Senate commission.

"God", and his main chick "Luna"

“God”, and his main chick “Luna”

While in jail, Gleason does LSD. His trip is enjoyable in just the way you would imagine (“I can see MATHEMATICS!” he screams at one point).

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Along the way, we meet just about every character actor in Hollywood, a mishmash of old and young: Austin Pendleton (in his first Hollywood role — and bald!), Frankie Avalon, Burgess MeredithCesar RomeroGeorge RaftPeter Lawford, Fred Clark, Frank Gorshin, etc etc etc. Harry Nilsson, who also wrote the soundtrack and its several songs (including the famous musical closing credits), also has a small role as a prison guard.

At the time, when there was a lot of this kind of stuff going on, it no doubt seemed less than the sum of its parts, and it bombed with both press and public. Now however, it has the added value of being a historical curiosity, and I highly recommend seeing it at least once in your life just to say you did.

And how does Groucho come off? Well…oddly, Grouchy. He’s not too funny in this, though we are sort of conditioned to laugh at things he says in a deadpan voice, even when they aren’t jokes, and it can be hard to turn that reaction off. He’s kind of mean and scary in this movie, a pool playing, homicidal gangster. He never leaves the tiny confines of his yacht, an undeniable reflection of the fact that the actor was 78 years old.

We’re lucky to see him standing at all. Believe me, Groucho was capable of doing shows where he DIDN’T stand. In 1976, not long before he died, I saw him on this Bob Hope special, where, in the aftermath of several strokes, he sat in a chair and uttered quips that were difficult to understand because his diction had gone. It was a sad spectacle, and to me as an 11 year old, a confusing one. Was I supposed to get this? No, son, the grown-ups have just done something very ill-advised. Get used to that!

At any rate, this concludes our month-long series on Marx Brothers movie appearances, but not my Marx posts. I’ve amassed a backlog during this busy month, and I’m going to try to post the rest of them today!

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.safe_image

Jim Hutton as “Ellery Queen”

Posted in Forgotten Shows of My Nonage, Television with tags , , , , , on May 31, 2014 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of Jim Hutton (1934-1979), a fitting time to talk about a favorite show of mine from the 1975-76 television season Ellery Queen.

It’s astounding to me that this show was only on for a year. As I’ve indicated elsewhere this period must have been my apex of television watching…it sometimes feels like I watched every episode of everything that was on during that period. And yet I played outdoors all the time! I’m not sure how both of those things happened at the same time. (Yes, I am — all my tv watching was during prime time. There wasn’t much good on tv during daylight hours in those days: mostly game shows and soap operas). ANYWAY: I feel like I saw every episode of this show, which was based of course on the famous fictional mystery author and detective. As a kid, I also used to read the Ellery Queen mystery magazine. Ellery Queen had also been a radio show, and a golden age tv show in the early 1950s.

The ’70s tv version was set in the 1940s, one of its alluring aspects. Hutton played Ellery, a bumbling mystery author and amateur sleuth. Broadway and Hollywood veteran David Wayne played his father, a retired police officer. And it was formatted like the classic stage and B movie mystery, with Ellery assembling all the suspects at the climax, making a big show of revealing the guilty party. (These were all played by well-known stars, another appealing element of the series). Just before the reveal though, Ellery would break the fourth wall and ask us if we had figured it out, laying all the pieces out.

This show was my first exposure to Hutton, who of course been a gifted light comedian and dramatic actor in movies in the 1960s. And it was also my first exposure to David Wayne, who I’ve since seen in a zillion movies as well (most recently caught him in the amazing Portrait of Jennie…a haunting film I’ll inevitably write about.) Anyway, Hutton sadly passed away just three years after this show went off the air. And amazingly, a matter of months later his son Timothy won the Best Actor Oscar for Ordinary People, a movie that struck the 15 year old me like a thunderbolt. That too is another blogpost.

To find out more about  the history of show businessconsult 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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And don’t miss  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-500x500

The OTHER “Monkey Business”

Posted in Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies with tags , , , , , on May 30, 2014 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of the great producer and director (and screenwriter) Howard Hawks. It’s inevitable that I’ll do several additional blogposts on the topic on Hawks, especially on his comedies as a whole, and on his westerns. But I’m flying by the seat of my pants this month, so I thought I’d just give a little shout out to a movie of his I discovered recently – – and really love.

I’d of course heard about Monkey Business for years but never got around to seeing it until a few months ago. And it’s freaking HILARIOUS, my favorite Hawks comedy now, with the exception of Twentieth Century. (Sorry, I’ve never been hugely enamored of Bringing Up Baby or His Girl Friday. Maybe too much hype preceded them. They’re okay, and they’re exceptionally well-made, but they don’t exactly get me rolling in the aisles). But Monkey Business does. Cary Grant plays a scientist who invents an elixir of youth, and accidentaly drinks some through the intercession of a mischievous lab chimp. At various times so does his wife (Ginger Rogers), so that at alternating times the mature couple start acting like extremely wild 20 year olds — hypersexual, irresponsible hellions. The one scene pictured above, where the normally near-sighted Grant takes Marilyn Monroe on a terrifying ride in a sports car is priceless. Another aspect I like about this picture it deals with the age of its two stars (Grant and Rogers) realistically; it’s even a little self-referential.

Highly recommended comedy viewing:

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.safe_image

Happy Birthday, Irving Thalberg!

Posted in Comedy, Comedy Teams, Hollywood (History), Impresarios, Movies with tags , , , , , , , , on May 30, 2014 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of the Boy Genius, legendary MGM production head Irving J. Thalberg (1899-1936).

The name Thalberg looms large in the Marx Brothers legend, being as he was the man behind the near-perfection that is A Night at the Opera (1935), and who oversaw the beginning of A Day at the Races (1937), and generally oversaw a reinvention of the team’s formula and screen image. He is often decried for this by die-hard fans, but the fact remains that the decline of the Marx Brothers happened after Thalberg died. The one picture he cooked entirely from soup to nuts A Night at the Opera is imbued with his patented Hollywood magic….and since most of his pictures had that quality, there’s no reason to suspect the subsequent ones wouldn’t have had it too.

What was that magic? You can get a bead on it by looking at the whole of his career. Starting out as a stenographer and secretary to Universal Founder Carl Laemmle, he rapidly rose to the position of that studio’s general manager. After three years he went to work for Louis B. Mayer, whose studio was merged into MGM in the mid 20s.

Thalberg’s pictures seemed to embody the pinnacle of the Hollywood aesthetic. When I think of his mark, I think of movies like The Champ (1931) (and many other Wallace Beery pictures); the many masterpieces of Tod Browning and Lon Chaney; Charles Laughton in movies like The Barretts of Wimpole Street and Mutiny on the Bounty; the early career of Joan Crawford; and the career of Thalberg’s wife Norma Shearer. And perhaps Thalberg’s greatest project, the star-studded Grand Hotel. And Garbo!

Here’s Groucho on the subject of Thalberg (starting a little after 4 minutes in. Get ready for rambling!)

For more on early 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.safe_image

Cartoons of Cartoons: On The Marx Bros. Animated Series

Posted in Comedy, Comedy Teams, Marx Brothers, Television, VISUAL ART with tags , , , , on May 30, 2014 by travsd

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In 1966, Filmation ran the ad above in a trade publication announcing the imminent arrival of their Marx Brothers animated cartoon. Apparently there were no takers. The internet is awash with haters on the subject: “What a terrible idea!” Filmation’s catalog is a mixed bag, but I grew up on their oeuvre, and don’t for a minute regret ANY of its existence, ranging from Journey Back to the Oz (1971), to my mind the only watchable Oz sequel…to Star Trek the animated series…to their Jerry Lewis cartoon…to Gilligan’s Planet. King Features had done a successful Beatles cartoon; Hannah-Barbara had done one “starring” Abbott and Costello (with the voice of the real Abbott); numerous studios had collaborated on The New Three Stooges. Filmation itself had done The Archies and The Hardy Boys. And the Marx Brothers had received numerous animated cameos in cartoons by Warner Bros and Walt Disney productions. I for one have an open mind on the subject and wouldn’t mind seeing more of the results.

Here in a clip from a panel at 2012 Comic Con, some of one of the unsold Marx Bros cartoons is shown, entitled A Night at the Horse Opera. It begins at about 47:06:

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.safe_image

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