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.
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
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
David Landau, so memorable as Jennings in Horse Feathers, came 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.
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.
Robert Greig (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.
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
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.
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. Toad! It’s rather a come-down to see him in his small, thankless role in Love Happy.
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).
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
Kenny Baker (At the Circus) Baker was best known as the tenor on Jack Benny’s radio program before Dennis Day. He’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.
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.
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
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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 Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc