On The Marx Brothers’ Directors
Marxfest, and the Fringe production of I’ll Say She Is (both 2014) were such a flurry of activity that I didn’t get to finish all that I set out to do during those months. There were a handful of stray blogposts about the Marx Brothers I didn’t finish. (see here for previous ones over the months). Luckily, I’ll Say She Is is re-opening in a few days, providing me with an opportunity and an occasion for finishing them up and posting them.
When we think of the Marx Brothers movies, in general, with a couple of exceptions we don’t usually think about the directors. There are a couple of reasons for this, I think. The 1930s were not like the silent days or the post-New Wave era, when directors had some control and could express themselves through their films. In the studio era, directors were more like workmen or cogs, although some managed to break through that and develop distinctive, recognizable styles. But on top of this, the strong personalities of the Marx Brothers as performers tended to dominate their pictures — we tend to think of them as the main creative force behind their movies, followed perhaps by their screenwriters and producers, with directors trailing behind last of all. But some were able to leave subtle marks. Leo McCarey probably made the most personal Marx Brothers movie (Duck Soup –thinking of touches like the stock footage montage at the climax); Sam Wood probably made the best all-around technical one (A Night at the Opera).
Rehabilitating the reputations of the Marx Brothers‘ early directors has become something of a pet cause of mine for two reasons. One is that, as a recent director of a revived Marx Brothers facsimile, I feel a certain sense of kinship. But more than that I ended up researching these guys over several months for talks I gave and articles I wrote for Marxfest, and I learned that their long-standing reputations for being incompetent fools with no sense of humor (an impression created almost entirely by dismissive jokes made at their expense by Groucho in later interviews) were wholly unearned.
Now here they are in a rough chronology:
Robert Florey (co-director, The Cocoanuts)
French national Robert Florey began in Paris as an assistant director and actor working for Louis Feuillade. Florey had been directing since 1927, had worked for Fox Sunshine comedies, had been as assistant to Louis Gasnier and William Beaudine, and worked with Norma Talmadge, Ronald Colman, Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford. In later interviews, Groucho was dismissive of Florey, saying that he couldn’t speak English and didn’t get their humor. The truth was that Florey understood his craft as well as anyone did at the time. Besides the Marx Brothers, the other major comedian he worked with was Charlie Chaplin, who made him associate director on Monsieur Verdoux (1947).
Throughout the 30s and 40s Florey made over a dozen thrillers, horror films, mysteries, melodramas and gangster films, most of them B pictures. Among the best known are the expressionistic The Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932), shot by Karl Freund; Meet Boston Blackie (1941), and The Beast with Five Fingers (1946). From the mid ’50s through the mid ’60s he mostly directed for television. And the 70’s? Were mostly spent trying to counteract the damage done to his memory by Groucho’s disparaging interviews.
Read more about Florey’s difficulties in working with the Marx Brothers here.
Joseph Santley (co-director, The Cocoanuts)
While Florey had directed the cinematic aspects of The Cocoanuts, Joseph Santley directed the actual staging of the show that was being filmed, a not unusual arrangement in those days.
Santley was second generation show biz, and grew up on the stage performing and traveling with his mother, stepfather and brother. He was a wunderkind who could act, sing, dance, write, choreograph, direct, and produce for the stage, and later for film and television. In vaudeville he was billed as “The World’s Greatest Boy Actor”. When he was only 17 years old he starred in the title role in Billy the Kid on Broadway in a play he’d written himself. The following year (1907) he starred in the film version. (Originally from Salt Lake City, he came to this western subject matter naturally).
Santley continued to appear in vaudeville and on Broadway through the early 1930s. He devised dance crazes like The Santley Tango. After 1916 he appeared as a dance team with his wife Ivy Sawyer. The apex of Santley’s stage career may have been the 1927 show Just Fancy, which he wrote, directed, produced and starred in. He also appeared with his wife in two editions of The Music Box Revue.
Then the talkies called. In 1928 he began directing shorts for Paramount starring popular stage stars like Lillian Roth, Ruth Etting, and Eddie Peabody. One of these (Book Lovers, 1929) co-starred himself and Sawyer, one of his last outings as a performer. In 1929, he co-directed the film he is best known for today, The Cocoanuts. He continued to direct and produce films for another 20 years, most of them minor and fairly undistinguished entertainments for smaller studios like republic and Mascot. He wrote and directed the 1935 Stephen Foster bio-pic Harmony Lane, which we wrote about here. He directed several Gene Autry musical westerns, including Melody Ranch (1940) and Down Mexico Way (1941) . He directed screen versions of Ice-capades (1941) and Earl Carroll’s Vanities (1945), and patriotic films like Remember Pearl Harbor (1942) and Rosie the Riveter (1944).
Victor Heerman (Animal Crackers)
Later dissed in interviews by Groucho, Heerman was in fact as experienced as they come, and was instrumental in making a classic out of the Marx’s second feature. Heerman had been raised in the theatre. His mother was David Belasco’s head costumer. Heerman had started out as an actor and theatre manager, then started working at Thanhouser Studios as a scout around 1910. Then he worked as an assistant to Henry Lehrman at L-KO. By 1916 he was writing and directing comedies for Mack Sennett and Fox Sunshine and other comedies.
Heerman directed very few talkies. It was Heerman who made a manageable movie vehicle out of the unwieldy play that had been Animal Crackers, cutting a substantial portion out of the script before the camera even started rolling. And it was also Heerman, known for his disciplined sets, who kept the anarchistic Marx Brothers in line throughout the production. After the early 30s Heerman concentrated on screenwriting with his wife Sarah Mason. They won an Oscar for their screenplay for Little Women. They also wrote Imitation of Life, Magnificent Obsession and Stella Dallas. He retired around 1950.
A Michigan native, McLeod had been a fighter pilot in WWI, experience that served him well as an A.D. on William Wellman’s Wings (1927). Starting in 1920, and throughout the decade of the twenties, McLeod was an animator and cartoonist for Al Christie.
His first film as director was the successful silent feature Taking a Chance (1928).
McLeod may be the record holder for director of the most comedy classics starring the widest array of classic comedians. These include the two Marx Brothers’ pictures Monkey Business and Horsefeathers, the all star Paramount extravaganzas If I Had a Million (1932) and Alice in Wonderland (1933), W.C. Fields’ It’s a Gift (1934), Harold Lloyd’s The Milky Way (1936, co-director), the Cary Grant–Constance Bennett screwball classic Topper for Hal Roach (1937), Red Skelton’s Panama Hattie (1942), Danny Kaye’s The Kid from Brooklyn, a remake of The Milky Way, 1946) and The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (1947), Hope and Crosby’s Road to Rio (1947), and Hope’s The Paleface (1948) and My Favorite Spy (1951). In the 50s and 60s he seemed to be coasting a bit, directing quite a bit of television, and less magical late Hope and Skelton entries like Public Pigeon No. One (1957) and Alias Jesse James (1959). One of his last projects was a tv pilot with Ben Blue Ben Blue’s Brothers that aired posthumously in 1965.
Interestingly, with all of those truly excellent credits (and there are many more besides), I’d hesitate to call McLeod a comedy auteur. He made scores of movies and I’ve seen most of them, some of them many times, but I would be hard-pressed to tell you what his point of view or style is. Mind you, many of these are truly excellent movies, and funny to boot. McLeod was an excellent comedy craftsman. He knew how to tell a story and get laughs. And that’s more than fine because if you look at the list above I think you’ll agree there are many that cannot be improved upon.
Leo McCarey (Duck Soup)
Fresh out of law school, McCarey went to work for Tod Browning as A.D. on three pictures in 1920 and 1921, which led to him being hired by Hal Roach in 1923. McCarey was to become one of the key people on the Roach lot through the rest of the silent era, first writing gags for the Our Gang series, then directing numerous hilarious Charley Chase shorts, and finally becoming one of the crucial shapers of the team that became Laurel and Hardy, writing and directing many of their earliest comedies as a team.
He next directed a half dozen sound features before hitting his stride with a practically endless stream of classics: The Kid from Spain with Eddie Cantor (1932), Duck Soup with the Marx Brothers (1933), Six of a Kind with W.C. Fields, Burns & Allen, Charlie Ruggles et al (1934), Belle of the Nineties with Mae West (1934), Ruggles of Red Gap with Charles Laughton, Charlie Ruggles and Zasu Pitts (1935), The Milky Way with Harold Lloyd (1936), The Awful Truth with Cary Grant and Irene Dunn (1937 — a film in which McCarey is said to have helped shape Grant’s subsequent screen character), Going My Way and The Bells of St. Marys with Bing Crosby (1944, 1945) and An Affair to Remember with Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr (1957, a remake of his 1939 hit Love Affair). Anti-communism began to creep in as a theme in some of his later work, and films like My Son John (1952) and Satan Never Sleeps (1962) were less popular.
Wood was an “A list director since the silent days. He’d been an assistant to Cecil B. DeMille and was already directing his own pictures by 1919, often starring the likes of Gloria Swanson and Wallace Reid. Early comedy talkies he helmed had included They Learned About Women (1930) with Van and Schenck, and Prosperity (1932) with Polly Moran and Marie Dressler. So MGM felt they were putting the Marx Brothers in very good hands when they paired them with him for A Night at the Opera and The Day at the Races. And indeed they are the team’s slickest and most technically impressive vehicles, even if some of the craziness has been sanded off to attract wider audiences. Wood was later nominated for an Oscar for Goodbye Mr. Chips (1939). That year, he also went on to direct portions of Gone with the Wind. Other notable Wood films included Kitty Foyle (1940) which included an Oscar winning performance by Ginger Rogers, Ronald Reagan’s most highly regarded film King’s Row (1942), the Gary Cooper classic Lou Gehrig bio-pic The Pride of the Yankees (1942), For Whom the Bell Tolls (1943) and many other highly regarded pictures.
William S. Seiter (Room Service)
Starting out as a stuntman in 1913, by the following year William Seiter was playing bit parts for Mack Sennett at Keystone. By 1918 he was in demand as a director; through the 20s he helmed pictures starring Reginald Denny, Douglas Maclean, Marcel Perez, and Carter De Haven.
It was in the talking era, however, that he truly made his mark, directing a number of what are now considered classics starring some of the great comedians and comedy teams: Laurel and Hardy in Sons of the Desert (1931); Wheeler and Woolsey in Caught Plastered (1931), Girl Crazy (1932) and Diplomaniacs (1933); Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in Roberta (1935); Shirley Temple in Dimples (1936), Stowaway (1936), The Little Princess (1939), and Susanna of the Mounties (1939): the Marx Brothers in Room Service (1938); Abbott and Costello in Little Giant (1946); and One Touch of Venus (1948), written by Frank Tashlin, S.J. Perelman and Ogden Nash. In the mid 50s he began directing for various television shows, including 54 episodes of The Gale Storm Show: Oh, Susanna!
This stellar output makes a pretty good case that it is not so much Seiter’s fault that Room Service is such an atrocious movie. It is simply one of the worst CAST films in Hollywood history.
Brooklyn-born Buzzell broke into vaudeville at the age of 13 in a Gus Edwards kiddie act, along with Eddie Cantor, George Jessel, et al. After this, he was one half of the comedy, song and dance duo Buzzell and Parker. He was still with partner Peggy Parker when he made his Broadway debut in Broadway Brevities of 1920. After this he began to be cast as a solo performer, appearing in a half dozen Broadway shows throughout the 1920s.
In 1929 he was cast as the title character in the film of George M. Cohan’s Little Johnny Jones and thereafter Hollywood was his home. (A little fellow, and a skilled song and dance man, Buzzell was a natural stand-in for Cohan himself, who by now was too old to play the role he had created). From here he went to starring in Vitaphone shorts.
Unusually, he began directing his own starring shorts quite early (1931), then rapidly became just a director, moved to Columbia and eventually to MGM. It sounds like a meteoric rise, and in a fashion, it was, although when you look through his IMDB page you find a uniquely undistinguished heap of turkeys. Today he is best known for directing At the Circus (1939) and Go West (1940), two of the Marx Brothers worst films. It’s hard to know where to place the blame for those horrible movies. The scripts are so bad, and the projects themselves so wrongly conceived that it’s not fair to lay all the blame at Buzzell’s feet. Interestingly, however there does seem to have been some major culture clash on the set, despite the fact that Buzzell and the Marxes had been professional chums for decades, ever since their vaudeville days. Buzzell argued with the brothers on the set about matters of comedy, and usually got his way — as is plain from the distinctly un-Marxian garbage that wound up on screen. Among the dozens of other stinkers Buzzell made through 1961, the other one that pops out as being notable here is the Esther Williams–Red Skelton team-up Neptune’s Daughter (1949).
Charles “Chuck” Reisner (The Big Store)
Originally a boxer, he performed in vaudeville for ten years and was a Broadway lyricist before going out to Hollywood in 1915 to act in Keystone pictures. After appearing in a couple (His First False Step with Chester Conklin, and His Lying Heart with Ford Sterling, both in 1916), he became part of Charlie Chaplin’s stock company as an actor and assistant director from A Dog’s Life in 1918 through The Gold Rush in 1925. As was appropriate for the former prizefighter, he usually played the heavy, as when he was the Bully in 1921’s The Kid. In 1920 he also began directing at Universal and Vitagraph, and continued to act in other comedians’ pictures (he was in Lloyd Hamilton’s 1924 A Self-Made Failure, for example). His most notable directing credit during the silent years was Buster Keaton’s Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928). During the sound years he mostly directed mysteries and the like, although he did direct a few (not very distinguished) comedies, including the Marx Brothers’ worst movie The Big Store (1941), a film so egregious it persuaded the team it was time to retire, and Abbot and Costello’s Lost in a Harem (1944). He retired in 1950.
Archie Mayo (A Night in Casablanca)
Former stage actor Archie Mayo began directing silent films in 1917 but it was in the talking era that he made the movies he is best known for today. These included Is Everybody Happy? (1929) with Ted Lewis, Svengali (1931) with John Barrymore, Night after Night (1932) with George Raft and Mae West, The Petrified Forest (1936), and Charley’s Aunt (1941) with Jack Benny. A Night in Casablanca (1946) was his penultimate film.
David Miller (Love Happy)
Of all their directors David Miller is easily the one least qualified to direct the Marx Brothers in a comedy. In fact, he appears to have had no experience in comedy whatsoever. Prior to Love Happy almost all of his credits were documentary shorts on things like horse racing and the predictions of Nostradamus. In the 40s he began making some narrative feature films like Billy the Kid (1941). His most notable films happened after Love Happy, all dramas, things like The Story of Esther Costello (1957), Lonely Are the Brave (1962), and Captain Newman, M.D. (1963).
And now the newest “Marx Brothers” director Amanda Sisk brings us the revived Marx vehicle I’ll Say She Is, starting previews this Saturday May 28! Get tix: www.illsaysheis.com.