The Marx Brothers’ lost first film Humor Risk (1921) is the Holy Grail of Marxenalia, even more so, I must admit than I’ll Say She Is. Long about the early 20s, the Marxes felt they were beating their heads against the wall in vaudeville and looking for a way to break through into the upper echelons of show biz. They decided to risk making a silent film. Written by Jo Swerling (who’d written their earlier live show Street Cinderella and would later write the musical Guys and Dolls), and directed by Dick Smith (best known for his association with his wife comedy star Alice Howell), the film was a parody of a melodrama mystery, with Harpo as “Watson”, a detective, Groucho as the villain, Chico as an Italian, and Zeppo as the love interest. The female lead may possibly have been Jobyna Ralston, who was shortly to become Harold Lloyd’s leading lady. The film was partially self-financed by the Marx Brothers and Swerling. The title was a spoof on Humoresque, a big box office hit of the previous year.
Beyond this, few real details are known. Accounts differ as to whether the film was actually completed or not, who made up the cast, the circumstances of its one or two screenings, and how it came to be lost. Those who saw it uniformly attested that the footage was discouraging and they put the thing to bed. Much to the heartbreak of their fans, who want so badly to see one more Marx brothers film, no matter how screwy. This is what prompted our little April Fool’s Day gag a month ago.
At any rate all the details that are to be gotten in this world can be found, like we say, here: http://www.marx-brothers.org/marxology/humorisk.htm
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 Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc
To find out about the history of vaudeville, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.