Here’s a piece of film well known to Marx Brothers buffs, but possibly a revelation to most folks. Though the film we’ll tell you about in a minute dates from 1931, the material itself is the oldest Marx routine on (cinematic) record, and thus a cherished part of their canon.
We’ll begin at the beginning…
The sketch in question is generally known as “Theatrical Agency” and it was written by Herman Timberg for the Marx Brothers vaudeville tab show On the Balcony in 1921. It is a delightful little calling card for the act, in which the four of them burst into an agent’s office and vie for a job. The hook of the sketch is that is done entirely in rhyme and delivered at a brisk pace. It’s quite irresistible. In 1923-24, the sketch was interpolated into their first Broadway show I’ll Say She Is (which we are presenting in readings in Marxfest and in a full production later this year).
Finally in 1931 to promote their upcoming movie Monkey Business, they filmed a version of the sketch as part of a Paramount promotional film called The House That Shadows Built and thus we now have it to watch and enjoy. The existence of the film makes it one of the few parts of I’ll Say She Is that people have already seen. And truth to tell, a PART of the sketch has been seen by an even wider audience, for they adapted one of the routines in the sketch for Monkey Business (the bit where they all do their Chevalier imitation has its roots in the Theatrical Agency sketch).
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 etcTo 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.