The Marx Brothers and Silent Film

Adapted from a talk given at the Marx Brothers Weekend, Governor’s Island earlier this month. 

Most die-hard Marx Brothers fans know that the comedy team made a single silent film, Humor Risk (1921) which is now lost. This is a post that talks about their interaction with the form over the course of their career, including silent films that were proposed and didn’t get made, and elements of silent film that made it into their movies.

HOLLYWOOD: OPPORUTUNIY

In 1912, shortly after Chico had finally joined his brothers in the family act, the Marx Brothers were touring the northwest on the Pantages Circuit at the same time Charlie Chaplin was touring the competing Sullivan-Considine Circuit with Karno’s Speechless Comedians. The sketch the Karno Company performed was called “A Night in an English Music Hall” and Chaplin was its star, playing a drunken swell who causes a commotion in the theatre in a show within a show. He later essentially put this turn on film in A Night in the Show (1915). The Marx Brothers went to see this act one night, and were so impressed they went backstage after the show and met Chaplin — a legendary meeting of comedy greats.

Shortly after this, a few months later, scouts for Mack Sennett’s Keystone caught the act and Chaplin was hired for the movies. He rapidly became a huge phenomenon. During the nineteen-teens, a long list of vaudeville/ stage comedians and actors made this same career leap, guys like Fatty Arbuckle, Ford Sterling, Douglas Fairbanks, Harold LloydLarry Semon, Buster Keaton, and Stan Laurel (solo). By the early 1920s, Chaplin was an international star, a millionaire, and released his first feature The Kid. Fairbanks had been releasing comedy features since the mid teens. Arbuckle was releasing features, and bequeathed his own independent studio to Keaton. Lloyd’s films were approaching feature length. These were all now ostentatiously wealthy men.

But the Marx Brothers were still in vaudeville. Undoubtedly they had inched ahead. Pantages had been small time; by the early 20s, they were a big time act and had even played the Palace. Few vaudeville acts had reached those heights, but the Marx Brothers knew how good they were and that there were still places to go. And they were getting older. Chico, the oldest, was in his mid 30s, married and had a kid. The others weren’t far behind. They were anxious to make more money. So in 1921, they pooled together their savings, attracted some other investors, and produced their own silent movie vehicle.

HUMOR RISK

The title of that film Humor Risk was a play on Humoresque, an enormous hit of Metropolitan Pictures released the year before. For years, the legend has been that the film was terrible and thus destroyed. The testimony for this came largely from Groucho, who was given to exaggeration for the sake of a laugh. Many of his tales have been debunked in recent years, and this process is gradually beginning to happen to Humor Risk. Our main reason for now suspecting that it was at least competent, and possibly good (as opposed to amateurish, as Groucho led us to believe) is that the people who made it were top notch. In addition to the Marx Brothers themselves, there is good reason to think the female lead was Jobyna Ralston, who was shortly to become Harold Lloyd’s leading lady. The scenario was by Jo Swerling (who’d written the Marx Brothers earlier musical show Street Cinderella and would later write the musical Guys and Dolls), and it was directed by Dick Smith (best known for his association with his wife, the comedy star Alice Howell)It’s pretty unlikely these people would come up with something as bad as Groucho claimed.

Then there is the content of the film, which we only have a hazy idea of, but still sounds interesting. It 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. Their early sound vehicles were largely parodies of other genres. And lots of silent comedians, such as Buster Keaton, Stan Laurel, and Ben Turpin did films in the spoof vein.  So there are reasons to suspect the movie was at least interesting, if not downright good.

However, whether or not it was commercial is another question. Recall their reaction to the scenario for Salvador Dali’s proposed film for them a few years later. They took a vaudevillian’s pragmatic approach to such things. “Is this thing gonna sell tickets and make money? Will this play in Peoria?” I have a strong instinct they got nervous and pulled the plug on this basis, rather than the film being objectively bad. As comedians, their instinct was to push the envelope. As businessmen, they wanted dough. They and their backers may have decided, once they saw the negative, not to put further effort into sales and distribution. The film was not released, and the only copies were lost. And also unmade were two other comedies they had announced at the same time, with the promising names of Hick Hick Hooray, and Hot Dog. (I find it significant that while Groucho, the verbal one, disparaged Humor Risk in later years, Harpo, the silent one, offered a large reward for its recovery. Undoubtedly, Harpo recognized virtues which Groucho did not).

OTHER OPPORTUNITIES

As we say, the Marx Brothers were desperate to outgrow vaudeville. When silent movies seemed a dead end, they found other avenues. They took their act to England (against Edward Albee’s wishes), then they returned and starred in their first Broadway show, the legendary I’ll Say She Is, (1923-1925) which finally moved their career out of the doldrums.

Immediately after the show closed, two of the Marx Brothers did get parts in silent movies without the rest of the team. One of them is extant. Harpo has a small part as “The Village Peter Pan” in the 1925 Paramount feature Too Many Kisses. It stars Richard Dix and is set the Basque country of Spain. Ironically, it is the only movie in which Harpo ever “speaks”, although — most fittingly — it’s a silent film, so we read his dialogue in intertitles. It is also now the earliest extant film footage of any Marx Brother. Harpo is good in it, although there is something both right and wrong about seeing this normally silent man “speak” in an all-silent universe. Around the same time, Zeppo, the youngest Marx Brother, appeared as an extra in another Paramount feature A Kiss in the Dark, featuring Adolphe Menjou and Ann Pennington. This film is now lost.

The Marx Brothers were hot in the wake of I’ll Say She Is, and there were several film offers for the entire team. In 1926, a deal with First National was announced. This was the concern that released Chaplin’s films from 1918 through 1922, and were at the time releasing the features of Harry Langdon. The announcement appears to have been premature, however.

In 1928 they received a lucrative offer from MGM for a series of comedies. Buster Keaton had just signed with MGM. His first film for the studio The Cameraman would be one of his best, just as A Night at the Opera would be one of the team’s best when they went with MGM seven years later. The studio would not be good for either Keaton or the Marx Brothers in the long run. At any rate, the deal in ’28 did not come off.

Also in 1928, there was an offer from United Artists (of which Chaplin was one of the founders and heads) to make a film of their recent Broadway hit The Cocoanuts. Technology was in a transitional stage then. This would have been a very different Cocoanuts from the one made at Paramount just a year later. While The Jazz Singer had been made in 1927, and there were a few talkies by this point, most films were still silent or semi-silent, with musical soundtracks and some non-synced sound effects. The Marx Brothers held out just a little bit longer.

Another picture that was announced around this time, was a film version of their famous Napoleon scene from I’ll Say She Is. This did not come to pass either, although it was adapted into the ice man sequence in Horse Feathers.

PARAMOUNT

Finally, the Marx Brothers signed their Paramount deal in 1929. They were to be among the first new movie stars of the sound era. Harpo continued to remain silent of course, but Groucho and Chico, whose comedy relied heavily on puns, malaprops and witticisms, could now thrive to the best of their ability. But there were physical bits for all of them in most of the films. Just about all of their directors were holdovers from the silent days. Robert Florey had worked with Max Linder; Norman McLeod had worked for Al Christie as an animator; and Leo McCarey was an old Hal Roach hand, most famous for his work with Laurel and Hardy. In Duck Soup, you can see his touch all over the place: in the many exchanges with lemonade man Edgar Kennedy, in that slightly sped-up routine with the footman and the doorbell, the famous mirror routine (which also has its origins with Max Linder), and all the gags with stock footage, fireworks and explosions.

MGM

As is well known, Buster Keaton and Frank Tashlin devised physical business for the team,especially Harpo, during their MGM years.  The most marked physical sequence during this phase is the climax of Go West on the locomotive, the only memorable or funny part of that movie, even if it is the least characteristic. (The climax of their later A Night in Casablanca seems to echo it, though it is set on an airplane rather  a train.)

DALI

In 1937, Salvador Dali was at the peak of his fame. His best known work The Persistence of Memory had been created in 1931. He’d been shown at MOMA. And he actually had some films under his belt, his two co-creations with Luis Bunuel, Un Chien Andalou (1929) and L’Age d’Or (1930). In 1936 and 1937 he began to court the Marx Brothers. He created a special harp for Harpo, made of spoons and barbed wire. And he wrote a movie scenario for the team called Giraffe on Horseback Salad. In my dream world (the real world, the world as it should be), the Marx Brothers keep their integrity and make the film for RKO and Disney instead of all those wretched movies they made for MGM. Someday, my heart of heart hopes someone will finally produce the film using CGI. It’s not so crazy. Consider Fantasia, consider the 1946 film Dali actually did make for Disney, Destino. And consider the segments he created for Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound (1945).

Would the film have been silent? Well he doesn’t appear to have written dialogue. I picture something a lot like Fantasia, perhaps featuring music and sound effects. This description from the actual scenario gives the flavor.

The “Surrealist woman” is lying in the middle of a great bed, sixty feet long, with the rest of the guests seated around each side.  Along the bed, as decorations, are a group of dwarfs caught by Harpo.  Each is supported on a crystal base, decorated with climbing flowers.  The dwarfs stay as still as statues, holding lighted candelabras, and change their positions every few minutes.

While love tears at Jimmy’s heart, Groucho tries to crack a nut on the bald head of the dwarf in front of him.  The dwarf, far from looking surprised, smiles at Groucho in the most amiable way possible. Suddenly in the middle of dinner, thunder and lightning begin inside the room.  A squall of wind blows the things over on the table and brings in a whirl of dry leaves, which stick to everything.  As Groucho opens his umbrella, it begins to rain slowly.

LAST GASPS

As most fans know Love Happy (1950), was originally conceived to be a starring solo vehicle for Harpo. If that had come off as he intended, that certainly would have been largely silent, perhaps something like the films of Jacques Tati. As it is, he still has extended sequences in the film with no dialogue. And the rooftop climax of the film, action based as it is, is in the tradition of silents. And Mary Pickford was the producer!

The Incredible Jewel Robbery (1959) Finally, nearly 40 years after they originally set out to do so, we have an extant example of the Marx Brothers in a silent vehicle. It happens to be the last appearance of the three of them as a trio.  For an episode of the tv show General Electric Theatre, they did have an (almost) completely silent half hour tele-film, in which Harpo and Chico are burglars. Chico masquerades as a cop and pretends to arrest Harpo so they can continue their larceny. Groucho turns up on at the end, and disturbs the silence with one line. Watch it here.

For more on comedy film history, please see my 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

Sources for this post include: Robert Bader’s  Four of the Three Musketeers, as well as as the websites Marxology and BrentonFilm. 

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