Archive for the Marx Brothers Category

In Which I Rank the Top 10 Film Comedy Teams of the Sound Era

Posted in Abbott and Costello, Bob Hope, Comedy, Comedy Teams, Hollywood (History), Laurel and Hardy, Marx Brothers, Movies, Ritz Brothers, Three Stooges, Wheeler and Woolsey with tags , , , , , , , , on August 20, 2017 by travsd

Because we like to swim in dangerous waters, we thought we’d ruin your Sunday by dashing off a quick listicle ranking the top ten male classic movie comedy teams of the sound era. By “classic” we restrict the time frame to the 1930s-50s. We’ve also narrowed it down to teams that starred in their own films (ruling out, for example, Burns and Allen). The criteria for judging are: 1) quality; 2) ratio of good films to bad ones; and 3) volume (meaning not noisiness, but quantity). By using these criteria I think we’ve arrived at a balanced, fair and objective list that will not only surprise people but inevitably piss many of them off. True justice always does.

1.Laurel and Hardy

I won’t be unique in calling Laurel and Hardy the greatest film comedy team of all time, a factor of the sheer number of their films (both shorts and features), the excellence, variety, and originality of these comedies, and the fact that relatively few of them (essentially just a handful, the ones they made during their last decade) are undeniably bad. I’m comfortable calling them the greatest.

2. The Three Stooges

Some will be appalled by the high standing I give the Stooges; others will be appalled that they aren’t number one. Granted they are the most low-brow of all comedy teams and by no stretch of the imagination are they actors. On the other hand, they are EXTREMELY original, their characterizations (in every incarnation of the act, and there were many) were funny, unique and memorable. And this above all: 220 films, 190 of them being those Columbia comedy shorts. So, yes, there is virtue in quantity (even if they did repeat themselves on many occasions.) That, and their mass appeal, which lasts among millions even unto this day.

3. Wheeler and Woolsey

The idea that this team ranked so high was the precipitating cause of doing this in the first place. When I prepared my post on Wheeler and Woolsey’s films the other day, it occurred to me that they just may have the best track record in features of any classic comedy team. 22 of them over eight years, all of them pretty damn entertaining. Comedy fans tend to punish Robert Woolsey for seeming like a lesser George Burns or Groucho, but looked at through another prism, it seems to me the later duos (Abbott and Costello, Hope and Crosby, and Martin and Lewis) all borrow their formulas from Wheeler and Wooley. Further helping their high standing is the sad fact that Woolsey was cut down in the prime of life, which meant there would be no decline for the team. (Although Wheeler did suffer on his own when his partner died). Both members of the team were old musical comedy hands, they could act better than most of the comedians on this list, meaning that they were easier to integrate into stories. All in all, an under-rated and unjustly forgotten comedy team, whose standing deserves to be restored with the public.

4. The Marx Brothers

“But the Marx Brothers are the greatest comedy team in history”, you say, “how can they be fourth on this list?” Even agree with you! And yet the Marx Brothers are hobbled in the standings by their relative paucity of films, and the high ratio of bad ones to good ones. Of 13 features, about half are brilliant and most of the rest fairly dreadful. It must be remembered that they started making pictures relatively late in life. Chico, the oldest, was already 50 years old by A Day at the Races (1937), the start of their decline. By the time of Love Happy (195o), their last as a team, he was 63. I’m not saying you can’t be funny when you’re old (look at W.C. Fields), but the Marx Brothers at their height were an act predicated on energy. Pace is only one of many factors (which we’ve written about elsewhere) why the team and their films were not up to their own standards for a good half of their cinematic career.

5. Hope and Crosby

We can scarcely call Hope and Crosby a comedy team. Each had incredible solo careers and they only made seven comedies together. Of the seven, the first was prototypical (i.e., they weren’t yet a team) and the last was pretty bad, which doesn’t leave much numerically. But this handful of “Road” movies are magical, and so indelible that we tend to think of these guys as one of the seminal, archetypical comedy teams, despite the fact that the partnership was just a lark they indulged in from time to time.

6. Olsen and Johnson

I was going to put these guys much lower on the list, but in the end I decided that, much like the Marx Brothers, their excellent comedies are so excellent that they float their worse ones. The dichotomy is so stark it’s tough to reconcile. Olsen and Johnson made nine features. In their first five, made for Warner Bros and Republic, of all places, the team are so boring they barely register. On the basis of those movies alone, I’d put them near the bottom. But in 1941 they transferred their crazy Broadway show Hellzapoppin to the big screen for Universal. That and its follow-up Crazy House (1943) reinvented the team for films (the irony is that their stage act had always been that crazy, it’s just that their screen vehicles of the 30s hadn’t tapped into it). Much like W.C. Fields, Olsen and Johnson’s best screen era was their last phase, and also at Universal.

7. Clark and McCullough

I acknowledge that this may be the most subjective and knee jerk film team on this list. I happen to love this idiosyncratic duo, whose films are a sort of conceptual mix of the Marx Brothers (surreal) and the Three Stooges (short subjects). Clark and McCullough made about three dozen shorts for Fox and RKO. I’ve only seen about a third of them, if that, but I know what I like. There’s no way I’m putting them below any of the guys who are beneath them on this list.

8. Abbott and Costello

If we were including their television and radio shows, I’d likely put this team higher, but their cinematic output, while both voluminous and popular, consists of features that padded out their scattered comedy routines with boring plot filler, making them two or three times longer than they needed to be. My secret theory is that most people who claim to be hard core A&C fans either haven’t seen all (or many) of their films or know them chiefly from edited compilations containing only the classic comedy routines. The features in their entirety are almost unwatchable, as entertaining as the team can be from time to time.**

9. Martin and Lewis

Ditto Martin and Lewis. The films are mostly filler, with the added drawback of Lewis’s irritating self indulgence marring also the comedy portions. Ironically I like his solo films better, where his crazy vision engulfs the whole movie. The Martin and Lewis movies are both dull and painful, simply an ordeal.

 

10. The Ritz Brothers

They could sing, dance and make faces, but as for portraying characters in a narrative film the Ritz Brothers might as well have been three trained mules. Ironically, in contrast with most of the teams listed here, their track record of VEHICLES is quite solid. The actual movies were quite good, or entertaining, or whatever (thanks largely to scripts, direction, co-stars), but I find calling the Ritz Brothers a “comedy team” problematic. It’s a comedy team in which all three members are the same guy. And the guy is just as irritating as Lou Costello or Jerry Lewis. There’s no way the Ritz Brothers wouldn’t have been at the bottom of this list.

 

** “On the contrary, I happen to like 4 out of the 36 disposable garbage-films Abbott and Costello made, therefore I cannot agree with you when you say that most of their movies don’t measure up to the scores of masterpieces by Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd, Laurel and Hardy etc” — the typical slapdash, self-contradictory defense of the team people feel it necessary to bother me with. About eight people have replied with such like illogical and groundless rebuttals; we acknowledge no obligation to publish them.  I understand feeling the need to defend these films when you’re eight years old. When you’re no longer eight years old, the impetus for indignation escapes me. 

R.I.P. Mrs. Zeppo

Posted in Art Models/ Bathing Beauties/ Beauty Queens/ Burlesque Dancers/ Chorines/ Pin-Ups/ Sexpots/ Vamps, Marx Brothers, OBITS, Women with tags , , , , , , , on July 25, 2017 by travsd

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My internet has been out all day or else I would have posted this much earlier. We learned today that the lady best known as Barbara Sinatra died today at age 90 — although to Marx Brothers’  fans she will also be Mrs. Zeppo.  Frank Sinatra was her third husband; Zeppo Marx  was her second. She was born Barbara Blakely. Prior to marrying Zeppo in 1959, she had been a Las Vegas showgirl and a model, and had married and divorced a beauty pageant executive. According to her autobiography, Zeppo was jealous, possessive and rough with her. She started seeing Sinatra on the sly. She divorced Zeppo in 1973 and married Ol’ Blue Eyes in 1976. But the trio remained friendly and Barbara helped Zeppo through the ordeal of fighting the lung cancer that eventually killed him in 1979. With the recent passing of Miriam Marx we now have even fewer living links to the 20th century’s greatest comedy team. She died of natural causes.

R.I.P. Miriam Marx (Groucho’s Daughter)

Posted in Comedy Teams, Marx Brothers, OBITS with tags , , on June 30, 2017 by travsd

Just got word from the Marxian grapevine that Groucho’s daughter Miriam Marx Allen passed away yesterday at age 90. She was one of the last links to the Marx Brothers’ glory days. When Miriam was born in 1927 The Cocoanuts was on Broadway, and the family was still based in New York. When the team retired from films (the first time) after The Big Store she was only 14.

Like her mom Ruth Johnson, who’d also performed with the family act, Miriam sadly developed an alcohol problem, and had a troubled relationship with her famous father. Her book Love Groucho: Letters from Groucho Marx to His Daughter Miriam, was first published in 1992.

Miriam’s older brother Arthur, author and playwright, passed away in 2011. She is survived by her half-sister Melinda, 20 years her junior, another link with the storied Marxian past.

Three Cheers for “Four of the Three Musketeers”

Posted in BOOKS & AUTHORS, Comedy Teams, CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, Hollywood (History), Marx Brothers with tags , , , , on June 29, 2017 by travsd

We’d been drooling to get our mitts on Robert S. Bader’s Four of the Three Muskeers: The Marx Brothers On Stage, ever since we heard it was in the works back at Marxfest in 2014. It was published back in October; apologies for only just now getting to it.

The book is everything that was advertised — it makes all previous books on the Marx Brothers look incomplete, introductory, and incorrect. It’s not the hugest shock that books like this one and Arthur Wertheim’s recent W.C. Fields from Burlesque and Vaudeville to Broadway are only just coming out now, over a century after the acts got their start, and decades and decades after they passed on to Vaudeville Valhalla. Only 21st century information culture could make both the research and the market possible. For Marx Brothers fans, the rewards and the punishments of most previous accounts have been the same thing: first-person testimony from the comedians themselves, who were first, last and always entertaining storytellers, but the most unreliable of unreliable narrators. It makes for great entertainment and cocktail party conversation, but plenty of frustration for the people who would like to know what really happened.

As for the facts, it ain’t ever gonna get better than Bader’s book. He’s spent most of his life with his nose buried in primary sources on this topic. He discovered the location of Groucho’s first audition. He uncovered the fact that one of Groucho’s first colleagues may have been the perpetrator of a grisly murder! We learn that one of the most most famous Marx Brothers anecdotes (how they came to become a comedy act when the audience ran out of the theatre to look at a runaway mule) was actually TWO anecdotes (the two incidents happened on separate occasions.) Countless revelations on that order are presented. For the first time ever we get to see the evolution of the vaudeville act in bite sized increments with minute detail as to the venue and the city and what the performances consisted of.  Let the buyer beware though: this is not the gateway drug. For an introductory book for the casual movie fan, I would still probably recommend Joe Adamson’s Groucho, Harpo, Chico and Sometimes Zeppo, which may be much hazier and out-of-date with regard to facts, but is the most entertaining cocktail to quaff on its effervescent topic. Bader’s book is for the junkie, the obsessed fan who is at the end of his rope in the strung-out need to know more. There are countless countless rewards in this book for that readership.

And I’d also add, for those interested in the wider topic of vaudeville, this book delivers many dividends, as well. As the name implies, the book is concentrated on the Marx Brothers of the vaudeville and Broadway years. It touches a little on the movies towards the end, but the focus is on the early years. There are many passages on the machinations of the U.B.O. (United Box Office), and the jostling of the various circuits for prominence, and relations between vaudeville managers and labor (the acts). The book gives a real feel for the cockamamie way the team came up, which was very different from someone like W.C. Fields who went right to the big time in a clear, easy to digest manner. Because of poor management and bad decisions by their mother Minnie, the brothers spent long years toiling near the bottom of the smallest small time. Groucho, in particular suffered — he’d made the big time quite early as a child star, but Minnie’s insistence on creating a family act meant starting at the bottom again. And the team was also banned from the big time Keith circuit for long periods, until they got so big in small time chains like Pantages, that even the notoriously cantankerous E.F. Albee couldn’t justify banning them, despite their flagrant indifference to his many rules. Some of the sections of the business end of “The Business” contain more detail than even rabid Marx Brothers fans will want or require, but scholars (even casual pseudo-scholars like me) will be grateful that Bader worked that stuff out and published it. It’ll be a useful thing to lay one’s hands on again and again, as will this entire book be.

Special thanks to Noah Diamond. 

Did the Code Hurt the Marx Brothers?

Posted in Comedy, Hollywood (History), Marx Brothers, Movies with tags , , , , , , , on June 26, 2017 by travsd

“I sure wish these bean counters would let us be funny again!”

The origin of this post: A few days ago someone on social media asserted with enormous confidence, that “the Code hurt the Marx Brothers” (meaning, if you’re new to such things, that the Motion Picture Production Code, a.k.a. the Hays Code, which began to be strictly enforced in 1934, was what damaged the team’s later films.) I had never looked at the question in quite that way before, and I think most people who think about it don’t.

Thanks to TCM and the Film Forum, I became something of an aficionado of pre-Code films. There are many genres that were deeply affected when the Code started to be applied more severely. Horror became less gory and gruesome. Gangster movies became less crude and violent. Melodramas, which were frequently about pre-marital sex and pregnancy out of wedlock, lost about 3/4 of the kinds of stories they could tell. Musicals with chorus girls could no longer show near-nudity. But, I hadn’t really considered the Marx Brothers’s comedies in this light.

Typically, the blame for the Marx Brothers’ descent is laid at the feet of the studio, MGM, which is where the team started making movies in 1935 after parting ways with their previous studio, Paramount. The coincidence in timing, among other factors, makes it not-so-easy to sort out. Compare the Marx Brothers, for example, with someone like Mae West, who was CLEARLY hurt by the Code, and may be the most obvious example of a star who was. With her, it’s easy to identify. Her act clearly revolved around sexual naughtiness; the documentary record illustrates her struggles to maintain her vision once the Code went into effect; and the change in the tone and quality of her films after the Code is easy to spot. And Mae remained with the same studio, Paramount, the entire time, so it was not a question of changing horses in midstream.

With the Marx Brothers, it is muddier. As with many comedians, (lecherous) sexuality is a strand in their comedy, but it is not the only one or even necessarily a predominating one.  People often attempt to oversimplify them in this fashion, but it won’t do.  The two words — invariably — that occur to me whenever I think of the Marx Brothers are “anarchy” and “crazy”. Nonsense, surrealism. These qualities needn’t necessarily be affected by the prudish restrictions of a moral code, although it is likely that they will.

Another complicating factor is the fact that it wasn’t all skittles and beer PRIOR to the tightening of Code enforcement in 1934. The Code had been in place since 1930, so there was already a loose observance of it under way. So when, for example The Cocoanuts. and Animal Crackers were adapted from stage to screen, cuts and changes were made by Paramount to accommodate the Code. Beyond this, state and municipal local governments had their own local censorship authorities, so the Marx Brothers’ pre-code films were often already being cut prior to screening.

Still: I think there may be something to the claim that the Code was a factor after 1934, or at least it’s worth considering. So over the weekend I zipped through the films for the zillionth time with an eye to this question. Ultimately I realized, a complete, thorough, detailed survey is a much bigger job than I’m prepared (or inclined) to take on. It’s some scholar’s Ph.D. dissertation waiting to happen — that is, if it hasn’t already been written. But looked at cursorily, loosely, I think I managed to get a good feel for the kinds of things that are missing from the films after Duck Soup.

Stolen silverware cascading from Harpo’s coat in “Animal Crackers”. After the code, his character would need to go to jail for that, learn his lesson, and start an orphanage for deaf-mute juvenile pickpockets

The Code recommends care in depicting “theft” and avoiding “sympathy for criminals”. Presumably because of this, Harpo and Chico change drastically after the Code. Especially in the early pictures, the pair had been depicted as compulsive, shameless thieves and pickpockets. They rob the money out of the cash register in The Cocoanuts. Harpo lifts personal items off of unsuspecting victims so often it’s almost like his signature, part of the rich fabric of the human interaction in the films. He is Dickensian in this regard. This is missing from both characters in the MGM films or at least both dramatically reduced and justified. In the MGM films, the occasional swindle occurs, but usually against Groucho, or it’s done by the brothers to somehow help the hero and the ingenue. At worst, they skip hotel bills, and that sort of thing. But they are not forever swiping things without consequences as in the earlier films.

Similarly, another recurring motif that vanishes after the Code is the recurring spectacle of Harpo chasing women. “Rape” is proscribed by the Code and though most of us would never describe what Harpo will do when he catches the girl as “rape” (I picture a hug, a Fox Trot, and the kind of kiss you might receive from an affectionate St. Bernard), we are dealing with the bane of all comedians: literal minded people. Pedants and bureaucrats. Even the suggestion of something untoward is gone. Harpo chasing down women is gone.

“Perversion” is also verboten, again ruling out Harpo material: like that strange scene in Animal Crackers where Mrs. Whitehead (Margaret Irving) first suggestively points out that Harpo “loves a horse” and tells him “I like little boys like you” and then proceeds to put the moves on him despite the fact that he has told her that he is “Five years old”. And then there’s that scene in Duck Soup, where the shoes at the foot of the bed suggest that not only has Harpo gone to bed with a woman he has just met (forbidden) but also the horse he has been riding (perverted!) What would THIS Harpo have been about if we had encountered him in A Day at the Races? The movie has 50 horses in it!

Groucho, the most verbal of the team, is also much affected. He makes suggestive jokes constantly in the first five movies, within the larger context of his nonsensical jokes. One that had been filmed but didn’t make it to theatres at the time (though it has been recently restored), is the line from his opening song: “I think I’ll try and make her.” But a couple of very suggestive lines remained in that film, as when he refers to Margaret Dumont’s “magnificent chest” and when he says “we took some the pictures of the native girls, but they weren’t developed.” This the kind of dialogue he would never get to say after the advent of strict Code enforcement.

Homosexuality was also considered a “perversion” at the time; and depictions or suggestions of it in Hollywood films decline sharply after 1934. Some of Groucho’s lines and coy come-ons with the gangster Alike Briggs in Monkey Business push that line for comedic purposes; you don’t see him doing that kind of thing in the MGM era; nor do you see him imitating a cat in heat as he also does in Monkey Business. 

Surely this was Zeppo’s favorite movie

Situations that are by definition Pre-Code, not to be found later: everything to do with Thelma Todd! The College Widow who romances (and then marries) all four brothers simultaneously in Horse Feathers! The gun moll who frolics in and around her bed and closet with Groucho in Monkey Business while her husband is out of the room. In both movies she never seems to be wearing anything more than a slip. Rachel Torres performs a similar function in Duck Soup, although to a lesser degree. Vamp characters like Todd and Torres for Groucho and His brothers to chase and leer at are missing (for the most part) from the MGM films. Things are much more wholesome.

“Sedition” is another forbidden topic — Horse Feathers and Duck Soup are strongest in this quality, in both the spoken lines and the musical numbers. “Whatever it is, I’m against it!” he sings in the first film. In the second film he sings blithely about getting his share of political graft. The studios tried not to imply that politicians and officials took graft when the Code was enforced, or at least, when they did, the characters were duly  sent to jail.

Some of these changes may have been a by-product of MGM’s strict adherence to storytelling principles. Or else they were imposed by the Hays Office. Personally, I think the culprit was left-handed moths. Or else it was the Code — and two pair of pants! Groucho gives us more than a hint of whom he blames in At the Circus, “There must be some way I can get that money back without getting in trouble with the Hays Office!” It’s a funny line, but back in the day there’d have been no need for a line — he just would have gone ahead and been offensive.

For more on comedy film history please check out my book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from amazon.com etc etc etc

The Marx Brothers: The Chico Years

Posted in Comedy, Comedy Teams, Hollywood (History), Marx Brothers, Movies with tags , , , , , , , , , on March 22, 2017 by travsd

Time once again to celebrate the birthday of Leonard “Chico” Marx (1887-1961). Today seems to me an appropriate time to float a notion I came up with the other day, a way of looking at the Marx Brothers films of the much-maligned MGM period (1935-1941.)

I hasten to point out that in no sense do I claim the ideas I am submitting are a real thing. They constitute a theory, not a thesis. It may be a useful lens for trying to understand these somewhat unfathomable years, when the team seemed to jettison the essence of what had defined their characters and comedy for most of their careers (around a quarter of a century) and to change into altered personas in new kinds of vehicles that didn’t suit them as well.

We begin with the observation that a shift in cultural taste was occurring in the late 1930s. Whether the shift was initiated by audiences or producers, or both in tandem, is unknown and maybe unknowable, but what we observe across the popular arts (movies, theatre, pop songwriting), is a movement away from the aesthetics of vaudeville (formal, stylized, artificial, surreal) and closer towards realism (literal, logical, comprehensible). I see several possible factors at play: a) the death of the big time vaudeville circuits in the early 1930s; b) the advent of talking pictures — the most accurate method of recording reality in history — in 1927; and c) the advent of radio, a medium that also exposed audiences to reality, in the form of extemporized performance.

Tastes seem to become more prosaic and less “smart”. Fantasia, clown make-up, verbal wordplay pass from the scene, to be replaced with plausibility and relatability. If Clark and McCullough and Wheeler and Woolsey represent the early ’30s, Bob Hope is the face of the end of the decade. He makes wisecracks but they are not TOO crazy. He’s a little goofy but not TOO strange-looking or acting. At the same time, there appears to be a trend away from the verbal, word-based joke (Burns and Allen) to those which de-emphasize The Word and replace it with, for lack of a better word, Funny Faces (the Three Stooges, the Ritz Brothers, Abbott and Costello). Settings for stories become less whimsical (Klopstokia) and more quotidian (a night club).

Amidst this time of transition, the Marx Brothers began the second phase of their movie career. The earlier, Paramount films (1929-1933) stuck to a formula consonant with their vaudeville and Broadway successes, highly surreal in character, and dominated by Groucho and Harpo. In 1935, through the influence of Chico, they signed with MGM, whose production head Irving Thalberg preferred to stress the importance of story. But it wasn’t until after his death in 1936 that the zeitgeist seemed to overwhelm the team’s natural voice. And this is what I am calling “the Chico Period”. By using that term, I don’t mean that Chico is now suddenly the star of these pictures (A Day at the Races, At the Circus, Room Service, Go West and The Big Store). Far from it. It’s that the new settings and style are most harmonious with, less catastrophic to, Chico’s character. In fact, in certain ways, at certain times, he comes out ahead, although the gains are brief and full advantage is never made of his being better suited to the changing milieu than his brothers.

One of these guys looks relatively real, and it’s not the one in the wig or the one with the greasepaint mustache

Granted there were deleterious changes to Chico’s character as well. Gone now were the avalanche of puns and misunderstandings derived from his traditional vaudeville dialect humor, which had been funny precisely because they were an implausible stretch. The accent remained, but his joke material now consisted mostly of “stupidity” and simple-minded malapropisms. But unlike Groucho, for example, his status does not fall. Groucho had been the boss or the guest of honor in the first five movies. In the MGM ones he tumbles down to Chico’s plane (in A Night at the Opera, quite literally — he is thrown down some stairs). Groucho had always been screwy, illegitimate and manipulative, but never seedy or low-rent. Chico had ALWAYS been seedy and low-rent. Unless you’re talking about mathematical computation, Chico is not the high brow of the Marx Brothers. These dumbed down new Marx Brothers movies seem to fit him better than the other two. A racetrack, dodging a hotel bill, these are Chico places and predicaments. In A Night at the Opera and The Big Store he is made to have a relationship to the ACTUAL Italy, an unprecedented amount of realism for a Marx Bros. picture, no matter how cockamamie. This is CHICO’s world. So much so that in A Day at the Races, At the Circus and Go West Chico actually bests Groucho in several swindles and other encounters. In At the Circus, he’s actually the guy who hires Groucho — THAT is the new dynamic.  And though Harpo is by far the most entertaining, the least compromised, in these later films he also doesn’t quite BELONG there. For better or worse, Chico belongs there.

Say, maybe it IS a fantasy — in real life, Chico would NEVER turn his back to the betting counter!

After the team broke up the first time (1941), Chico fronted his own big band, proving again that he was very in tune with the times. It was hip to be a musician in the ’40s. But his character was beginning to outlive its welcome, what with ACTUAL Italians like Lou Costello, Dean Martin, Tony Pastor (the singer), Vito Scotti, et al becoming popular on the radio and on movie screens. And at last we again reach a point where Groucho makes out better than Chico. After all, Groucho could grow a real mustache. Chico couldn’t become a real Italian.

Now, now, there’s no call for that.

At any rate, I offer this up merely as a way of looking at the team’s misguided last studio films. Nothing will make them less terrible, but they may possibly be made less inexplicable.

 

Last Night’s “Marx Brothers on Broadway” Program

Posted in Broadway, Comedy, Comedy Teams, EXHIBITIONS & LECTURES, Marx Brothers with tags , , , , on December 1, 2016 by travsd

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A good time was had by all last night at Noah Diamond’s “Marx Brothers on Broadway” talk at the Morbid Anatomy Museum, sponsored by Zelda Magazine. The capacity crowd was full of hard-core Marxian fans. The reason I know? This was far from a talk for beginners: this was about a lesser known phase of the comedy team’s career, and the crowd was fully engaged, laughed at the right parts, and asked knowledgeable questions. I always review the audience, and this one got an A grade.
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Don Spiro, publisher and editor of Zelda, introduced the program:

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Then came Noah:

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Noah’s talk knocked my socks off. Apart from the content, it may have been the best, most artful and animated Powerpoint presentation I’ve ever seen. But the talk itself was fascinating, taking us all the way from the Marx Brothers later vaudeville days when they were expanding to tab musicals (and outgrowing them), through their three Broadway smashes, I’ll Say She Is, The Cocoanuts and Animal Crackers. He spoke of the evolution of the team and their familiar characters and exploded many of the famous myths about them (e.g., the misrepresentation of Margaret Dumont as a clueless woman who didn’t get the Marxes’ humor, and the idea that the New York critics had never heard of the Marx Brothers until their Broadway debut). There was a humorous explication of the lyrics of “The Monkey Doodle Doo”. And, because yesterday happened to be the anniversary of Zeppo’s death, there was a moment of respectful contemplation of the much-maligned Marx, which initially provoked a guffaw, but turned out to be quite moving. He also did a purposely (and hilariously) mangled version of the usual capsule version of their history — a kind of inside joke for long time fans of the team.

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Other special treats: video of the Napoleon scene from the recent revival of I’ll Say She Is, and performances of two scenes from the Broadway shows The Cocoanuts and Animal Crackers which were cut from their movie versions, with Noah as Groucho of course, Matt Roper as Chico, Matt Walters as Zeppo, with Melody Jane and Kathy Biehl. Another special treat was a recorded rendition of the Animal Crackers song “Four of the Three Musketeers”, one of the great Marxian lost treasures. This was just the top of the iceberg really. Noah Diamond works very hard.

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Greeting the fans, and (gasp!) signing autographs!

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Two hard core classic comedy buffs — funnyman Dave Konig and actor director Allan Lewis Rickman

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A beaming Biehl

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Walters with Sarah Lahue, ISSI SM.

Author and Marxfest founder Kevin Fitzpatrick with the one and only Melody Jane

Author and Marxfest founder Kevin Fitzpatrick with the one and only Melody Jane

This talk was part of a regular series at the Morbid Anatomy Museum sponsored by Zelda. The next one is December 12, and the speaker will be my humble self, and my text will be “W.C. Fields: From Dime Museums to the Jazz Age“. I hope you can attend! Stay tuned!

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