Archive for Groucho Marx

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.

Groucho Marx: Bouffon

Posted in Clown, Comedians, Comedy, Comedy Teams, Marx Brothers with tags , , , , , , , on October 2, 2016 by travsd
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“No Matter what it is or who commenced it — I’m against it!”

Today is the birthday of Groucho Marx. I’ve done over a hundred blogposts on the Marx Brothers as a team; but very rarely focusing solely on my favorite comedian (okay, he vies for the top spot with a short list of others). This one was prompted by a query I got from a young comedian named Darius Emadi a few months ago. His question was quite simple, but so revolutionary and new and unprecedented, I was taken quite aback and thought about it for days. I have been planning this post ever since then.

The question was this: “Groucho Marx: Clown or Bouffon”? The answer is immediately apparent. No rumination required. Groucho is a bouffon. And that realization came as such a delightful thunderbolt. The idea of bouffon is the perfect frame for thinking and talking about Groucho. And yet this conceptual tool is so new that it’s only recently become available. And the misconception that Groucho is a clown in the conventional sense has driven so much that’s been so misguided, including his casting in films, and criticisms and appreciations by fans and writers.

I’ve written a bit about bouffon here and here. (I urge you to follow the links and explore. It will provide much background and insight and relieve me from having to remake the wheel here). Bouffon certainly grew out of clowning, much as Lucifer fell out of the choirs of heaven. It has much in common with that ancient art on the outside: exaggeration, costume, make-up and the goal of making people laugh. What it does not share with clown however, and this is crucial, is a need for SYMPATHY. In fact, bouffons are profoundly UN-sympathetic. It is what they are there for. They are nasty. They are the nasty parts of us made manifest. Groucho exists to confuse, lacerate, run rings around, fuck with, tweak, rattle, undermine and muss up the people around him. He exists to break things down, not build them up. The essence of his character is not to help people, and neither does he want nor deserve help. On those occasions in his early vehicles where he does assist the perfunctory ingenue or some stuffed shirt of a leading man, it is because it is part of the conventions of the format, which he subverts with every breath he draws. He has no “heart”. The attempts to impose one on his character in his later movies are like trying to graft an elephant’s trunk onto an octopus. This organ does not belong here! It is useless and irrelevant to this character. This is not to rail against goodness and emotion and altruism. My point is that everyone else has those. Some characters do not. Groucho does not. Thus Charlie Chaplin is a clown. Groucho Marx is a bouffon.

Mr. Emadi gave me great hope with his question by even asking it. By even thinking to ask it. By even knowing to ask it. Not for some egghead reason, though you’ll probably think so if you’re a complete philistine, as most people are. But, the fact remains that I myself am not a scholar. I have no degree, I am not affiliated with any institution, I contribute to no scholarly journals, I do not speak at symposia. I consider myself first and foremost a theatrical practitioner. Sometimes I write it, sometimes I direct it, sometimes I perform it, sometimes I produce it, sometimes I review it. And part of living that life, according to my philosophy, is mastering its history. So sometimes I write about it. That’s just part of the gig. I’ve always felt that way. Have you ever met a magician? I know quite a few of them. And one thing I’ve observed ACROSS THE BOARD is that they are absolute geeks about the history of their art form — back to EGYPT! — and they’ve always been that way.  And I really feel actors and comedians should aspire to the same level of awareness. They certainly used to. That was the vaudeville way. Sometime around the 1960s, I think many began to cut loose from the moorings.

And contemporary Hollywood has so much to do with that,I think, this severing ties with tradition. And it happened in the same time frame, when “the business” became disconnected from its mother art, the theatre, and when self-respect became secondary to the bottom-line — a bottom line in a culture where everyone is racing to the bottom. The kind of thing that’s always bothered me: brilliant comic geniuses like Steve Martin (a philosopher and art collector) and Robin Williams (a Julliard grad) churning out the worst crappy movies for decade after decade…and then throw the art form a bone when they do Waiting for Godot in private for two weeks at Lincoln Center with Bill Irwin. I feel like you have a responsibility to the public, man. A great quote from the late Edward Albee (thanks Yvonne Roen!): “Don’t GIVE the people what they want. TELL them what they want.” Be a leader — LEAD. Make the culture better. Don’t degrade yourself. Especially when you’re a Hollywood player with wealth, power and fame at your disposal.

So what I love about Emadi is not that he’s an egghead — he’s actually a stand-up comedian. And he’s also studying clown in France. It won’t ruin him. So did Sacha Baron Cohen, whom I also admire. And really ultimately, in their way, so did Mack Sennett and Charlie Chaplin. Know whereof you speak and speak it. Anything else is to be a worm. You know what Groucho was doing when he wasn’t lampooning academia in Horsefeathers? He was compulsively reading books.

A Belated Pat Harrington Tribute

Posted in Comedians, Comedy, OBITS, Television with tags , , , , , , on September 21, 2016 by travsd

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Well this is only nine months late! When Pat Harrington passed away nine months ago I briefly considered writing a brief tribute, but couldn’t really muster a meaningful link. He was most famous for playing the character of Schneider on One Day at a Time, but I never liked that show. I also knew that he had been a cast regular on Steve Allen’s various variety shows, which I liked far more, but it was before my time and I’d only seen about two or three of his appearances on those. Closer to my bailiwick is the fact that Harrington used to be a nightclub comic. (His dad, Pat Harrington Sr, whom we have previously blogged about, had been in vaudeville). And during the 70s (the height of his One Day at a Time fame), Harrington Jr was a constant fixture as a guest star on game shows and the like, so I often saw him in those contexts, and got to see the “variety” side of his persona there.

Which leads finally to my pathway in to celebrating him this morning. Harrington did a great Groucho Marx impression, and starting in 1974, he put it to profitable use by using it as the voice of the Vlasic Pickle Stork. Just as W.C. Frito had been my original introduction to W.C. Fields, the Vlasic Pickle Stork was undoubtedly one of my first introductions to the persona of Groucho Marx. Sad but true! (Leave aside the confusing mishmash of premises in the commercials: He’s a stork that delivers pickles like babies, but he’s Groucho and uses a pickle for a cigar? Who thought this up and who greenlighted it? Apparently the original justification for a stork as the mascot was that pregnant women supposedly crave Pickles. Aw, who cares — it was funny anyway.) And the Groucho-esque slogan, “That’s the best tasting pickle I ever hoid” makes much more sense when accompanied by the crunching noise of a pickle.

Vlasic still uses the stork as its mascot, and still runs the commercials, now with other actors supplying the voice. At any rate, R.I.P. Pat Harrington — the original Vlasic Pickle Stork.

Joys (A Bob Hope Special That Was My First Experience of Groucho)

Posted in Bob Hope, Comedy, Forgotten Shows of My Nonage, Marx Brothers, Television, TV variety with tags , , , , , , , , , on February 27, 2016 by travsd

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I first saw Groucho Marx on prime-time television, when he was still alive. This was years before I saw any Marx Brothers movie, but Groucho was a well known figure, and so when I saw him on this show, I perked up. The show was a 1976 Bob Hope special on NBC called (rather lamely) Joys. The unusual special was a sort of long-form sketch, mixing the popularity of Jaws with a whodunit murder mystery. As I recall, the premise was that a Great White Shark was killing all of the great comedians in Bob Hope’s swimming pool? Something like that. And six tv detectives were supposed to solve it: Mike Connors (Mannix), Angie Dickinson (Police Woman), David Janssen (Harry O.), Jim Hutton (Ellery Queen), Telly Savalas (Kojak), and Abe Vigoda (Barney Miller and Fish — that one was a stretch).

Further it boasted a cast of 50 comedians, or perhaps I should say “comedians”, presumably everyone going at the time….but remember: this is a Bob Hope special. The cast was spotty (ranging from the great to the grating), and typically square and surreal in the extreme, including (alphabetically): Don Adams, Jack Albertson, Marty Allen, Steve Allen, Desi Arnaz, Billy Barty (we’ll get back to him), Milton Berle, Foster Brooks, George Burns, Red Buttons, John Byner, Glen Campbell, Jack Carter, Charo, Jerry Colonna, Scatman Crothers, Bill Dana, Phyllis Diller, Jamie Farr, George Gobel, Arte Johnson, Alan King, Don Knotts, Fred MacMurray, Dean Martin, Jan Murray, Wayne Newton, Vincent Price, Freddie Prinze, Don Rickles, Harry Ritz, Phil Silvers, Larry Storch, and Johnny Carson (who turned out to be the culprit — spoiler alert!). By the end there is a Holocaust-like pile of dead comedians in the swimming pool, and THAT disturbing image doesn’t soon leave you. It’s like a tv critic’s fantasy. Oh, yes — Rona Barrett is in it too.

My introduction to Groucho was quite sad. He had had several strokes by this point (he was just a few months away from death) and it was very difficult to understand his speech. He sat in a chair the entire time, sort of slurring his scripted lines, with canned laughter to smooth things over. Even more ignominiously, little person Billy Barty was cast as some kind of doppelganger to Groucho, wearing a pair of Groucho glasses and wiggling his cigar, like some sort of imp or humunculus who could run around causing the mischief that Groucho otherwise would.

I never missed any variety show, and this one never left my memory, mostly on the strength of it being my first exposure to the legendary Groucho and the sheer volume of stars. Imagine my excitement when I saw the other day that Gilbert Gottfried and Frank Santopadre had devoted a podcast to this show. And THEN imagine my DISAPPOINTMENT when I played the podcast and the show consisted of them mentioning that they heard from Steve Stoliar about this show, and gosh, they wondered what it was. How is that a show? They lost me after about five minutes. This is the age of the internet. Why do a show about something which you haven’t investigated yet but sounds quite fascinating? I may go back and listen to the rest of the show though. It’s about Irwin Allen, and I’m a huge Irwin Allen fan, as readers of this blog know from the many posts we’ve written about him. But that fact is probably not likely to make me any more a friendly listener than I was as regards the Joys non-show.

Several Sad Swan Songs: Unworthy Final Films by Great Comedians

Posted in Abbott and Costello, Charlie Chaplin, Comedians, Comedy, Comedy Teams, CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, Hollywood (History), Mae West, Marx Brothers, Ritz Brothers, Three Stooges with tags , , , , , , , , on August 21, 2015 by travsd

Because people love nothing more than comedy that depresses them, I thought I would do a little post today about the sad exits of several classic comedy stars. By sad, I mean sad, in the literal sense. Most of these comedians are my heroes, who achieved the very highest heights of what it is possible to achieve in the comedy field. Their last films…well, they just kind of bring down their batting average.

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The Heat’s On (1943)

Mae West’s last picture of the original Hollywood studio era (i.e. when she was relatively in her prime) although she would come back in the 1970s to do two more pictures, which we’ll get to. If you are a Mae West fan, The Heat’s On is disappointing; she’s only in about a quarter of the movie. In a normal Mae West movie Mae is the only important person, she is onscreen almost every minute, and she gets all the funny lines. In this one she is horribly upstaged by Victor Moore, William Gaxton and Xavier Cugat and a million musicians and singers in a crummy conventional plot about putting on a show. Ironically, West was the one whose name director/producer Gregory Ratoff relied upon to raise the financing to make the film. It plays with Mae’s image some, but has nothing like the normal ratio of Westian witticisms. A pale reflection of her earliest Paramount work.

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Love Happy (1950)

Love Happy by some measures is the Marx Brothers’ last movie as a team, although Groucho’s turn is essentially a cameo, and Chico’s is somewhat underwritten. It was originally devised as a starring vehicle for Harpo. The other two got involved because Chico, a problem gambler,  needed the money.

The movie also has the reputation for being the “worst” Marx Brothers movie, although I don’t happen to agree. Love Happy is a relatively bad movie; it is weird, and it has problems, but personally I wouldn’t call it their worst picture by a long shot.  For various reasons, I would give that dubious honor to either Room Service, Go West or The Big StorePerhaps it is a three way tie.

The plot of Love Happy (co-written by Frank Tashlin)  is the usual contemptible claptrap about a troupe of actors desperate to put on a Broadway show. It is manifestly impossible to care whether they succeed or not.  Doubly so, in light of the undistinguished musical numbers we are obliged to sit through. On the other hand, the cast of the show is literally starving for food and that IS an interesting plot. Harpo, the inexplicable mute who appears to be part of the company, although I’m not sure in what capacity, goes to the basement of a grocery store to steal food for them and wanders away with several cans of sardines. Little does he know that one of the cans contains…stolen diamonds! Such plot as there is involves several wicked crooks trying to recover the jewels, which Harpo doesn’t even know they have. Which is ironic, because they could finance a Broadway show and several groceries if they could just fence these rocks, get me?

What is Chico’s role in all of this? Chico plays Harpo’s Italian friend.

And Groucho? He is a detective who narrates the story and shows up at the end. By now he was a solo movie star (Copacabana, 1947) and a game show host and had taken to wearing a real mustache and glasses rather than the fake ones that had been his previous trademarks. He is almost literally phoning it in here.

Most memorably, when financing for the film ran out the producers struck product placement deals, giving us the unusual spectacle in the big chase scene at the climax where the Marx Brothers run across rooftops past billboards for Mobil, Bulova, Kool and General Electric. Why, it’s just like watching television!

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Utopia a.k.a Atoll K a.k.a Robinson Crusoeland (released in the U.S. in 1954, but released in Europe three years earlier)

Laurel and Hardy’s last film. The team’s last previous Hollywood film had been in 1945. In the meantime they had been touring with live shows. This being their only film offer, they took it. The film was a French/ Italian co-production. Both Laurel and Hardy suffered a wide variety of health problems as they were filming (see photo above). And the film is almost unwatchably bad. It concerns Laurel inheriting a private island. He and Hardy, and some friends go there in a shabby, broken-down boat. When they arrive, uranium is discovered. That’s the extent of the plot. The script is not funny, and the performances are painful. It’s one of the saddest exits in film history.

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The 30 Foot Bride of Candy Rock (1959)

This is Lou Costello’s last film, released posthumously. He had broken up with Bud Abbott two years earlier. In this spoof of the typical drive-in movie fare of the day, he plays a schlub who is forced to marry a girl who has been exposed to radiation and has grown to the size of, well, Grape Ape. This is the only film on this list I have not seen, although I’ll trust the conventional wisdom that it’s a stinkeroo. Which only makes me want to see it all the more.

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A Countess from Hong Kong (1967)

Charlie Chaplin’s last film and first foray into color and widescreen casts Sophia Loren as a White Russian aristocrat who is now a taxi dancer and prostitute in Hong Kong. She stows away in conservative diplomat Marlon Brando’s state room. After much resistance on Brando’s part, they fall in love.

Unfortunately, despite the involvement of these stellar artists the film veers way off course in amazingly basic ways for so major a filmmaker. For starters, when does it take place? Originally written in the ‘30s, it has now been tweaked to be “sometime after World War II” (as an opening title tells us), but the fashions and some of the music and dancing seem to tell us it is contemporary (1966). Certainly there is nothing in the film to tell us that it’s a period piece, set in an earlier time. That being the case, our White Russian taxi dancer must be substantially older than Sophia Loren, even if she was a child at the time of the Revolution. And if it is 1966, why on earth is Marlon Brando’s character taking an ocean liner to travel to an important diplomatic post, needlessly taking several days as opposed to several hours by airplane? And if it is supposed to be set in an earlier decade, why do we have a scene in which Angela Scoular dances a Watusi as though she were in an episode of Shindig?

So Chaplin (then 77) was showing signs of being woefully out of touch. Further, the attitudes in his sex comedy are perplexing to say the least. The key to such comedies is to keep them light, fast, and ribald. The tone of A Countess is dark, plodding, and prudish. In My Autobiography, Chaplin reveals himself to be surprisingly Victorian on the subject of sex for someone who had apparently had so much of it, and with so many partners. Brando’s character is a kind of mouthpiece for that perspective in this film, and the movie sort of oddly takes his point of view rather than (as most such comedies do) making him a figure of fun. Since this is a film by the world’s greatest comedian, fun is just what we would expect a lot more of in such a film. Door slamming, for example. Farces are predicated on the hilarious choreography of such comic business. Such had been the case with his early films. For a more recent example of how it’s done, see Noises Off (1992). Chaplin does stage some of this kind of business in the film, but it is amazingly flaccid and perfunctory, it never ignites.

While Sophia Loren is actually great in it (and could potentially have been even better), Brando almost single-handedly sinks the whole movie. As we have said, Chaplin’s cinematic style is passive —it depends entirely on the performances within the frame to achieve its effects. But though Chaplin’s style is set up to support a performance, Brando steadfastly refuses to give one. As we know, while Chaplin was laissez-faire on the photographic side, he micromanaged his actors right down to demonstrating to them every gesture to make. Brando, a method actor, couldn’t stand this, and rebelled. In A Countess from Hong Kong his body is moving through a performance according to Chaplin’s instructions, but his interior life has checked out. You can see his hostility and unhappiness right there on the screen. He doesn’t seem to want to be in Chaplin’s movie. And since Chaplin’s entire film depends on Brando’s performance, A Countess from Hong Kong becomes a turkey.

This production brought to you through the courtesy of Kiwi Shoe Polish

This production brought to you through the courtesy of Kiwi Shoe Polish

Skidoo (1968)

After a lifetime of reading about it (being as it was Groucho Marx’s last film, among other things) I finally got to see this cult classic on TCM about five years ago. They played it in the pre-dawn hours, much where it belongs. The film is almost impossible to describe, so I’ll just try to hit it in fragments. Directed by the great Otto Preminger at a time in his career when he was desperately trying to remain au courant, this nutty film stars the Great One Mr. Jackie Gleason as a retired mobster, whom with his wife Carol Channing, is worried about his hippie daughter and her hippie boyfriend.

Forced by the top mobster “God” (Groucho) to do one last hit, he goes undercover into a jail so he can bump off fellow gangster Mickey Rooney before he can testify before a Senate commission. While in jail, Gleason does LSD. His trip is enjoyable in just the way you would imagine (“I can see MATHEMATICS!” he screams at one point).

Along the way, we meet just about every character actor in Hollywood, a mishmash of old and young: Austin Pendleton (in his first Hollywood role — and bald!), Frankie Avalon, Burgess MeredithCesar RomeroGeorge RaftPeter Lawford, Fred Clark, Frank Gorshin, etc etc etc. Harry Nilsson, who also wrote the soundtrack and its several songs (including the famous musical closing credits), also has a small role as a prison guard.

At the time, when there was a lot of this kind of stuff going on, it no doubt seemed less than the sum of its parts, and it bombed with both press and public. Now however, it has the added value of being a historical curiosity, and I highly recommend seeing it at least once in your life just to say you did.

And how does Groucho come off? Well…oddly, Grouchy. He’s not too funny in this, though we are sort of conditioned to laugh at things he says in a deadpan voice, even when they aren’t jokes, and it can be hard to turn that reaction off. He’s kind of mean and scary in this movie, a pool playing, homicidal gangster. He never leaves the tiny confines of his yacht, an undeniable reflection of the fact that the actor was 78 years old.

We’re lucky to see him standing at all. Believe me, Groucho was capable of doing shows where he DIDN’T stand. In 1976, not long before he died, I saw him on this Bob Hope special, where, in the aftermath of several strokes, he sat in a chair and uttered quips that were difficult to understand because his diction had gone. It was a sad spectacle, and to me as an 11 year old, a confusing one. Was I supposed to get this? No, son, the grown-ups have just done something very ill-advised. Get used to that!

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Kook’s Tour (1970) 

The Three Stooges’ final product may be the saddest of all. Intended as the pilot for a tv series, it’s essentially a lot of MOS film footage of the three elderly men pretending to goof around on vacation, with Moe Howard providing travelogue style voice over narration. There is no plot, and the slapstick is almost nonexistent. Really Kook’s Tour looks like it exists just to give the old guys something to do. Sadly, Larry Fine’s stroke right after filming spoiled the prospects of a series. As awful as this program is, it’s still got to better than the movie Moe was trying to get off the ground in 1975 undoubtedly would have been.

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Blazing Stewardesses (1975)

This bizarre film concerns three porn-refugee stewardesses who help a bordello madam (Yvonne De Carlo) and two cow pokes (B movie western stars Bob Livingston and Red Barry) save their dude ranch.

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Along the way they are helped (hindered) by the two surviving Ritz Brothers, Harry and Jimmy (Al had died in 1965). Their roles were originally to have been played by the remaining Three Stooges, but Larry Fine and Moe Howard both died in 1975, and no one wants Curly Joe de Rita. The film’s title was a craven and rather pathetic attempt to capitalize on the recent success of Blazing Saddles, which is as a Himalaya next to this ant hill of a comedy. Naughty Stewardesses, which features some of the same creative personnel, had come out a few months earlier, though this is technically not a sequel. Seeing two Ritz Brothers in their mid 70s cut up as though they were still in their 30s is quite a spectacle.

“I’ve fallen and I can’t get up!”

Sextette (1978)

Mae West was a pro — she had been in show business for several decades. In fact, it would be technically accurate to say that she had been a professional actress and performer since the 19th century.

Thus, Mae knew that the key to success is: whatever happens, you gotta keep hustling. Keep your mind on your goals, and keep hustling to realize them. Sometimes there may be layoffs. There may be some down time between projects. But always keep a hand in, because the wheel will eventually turn around again.

And so it was that in 1978 — 35 years after her last starring vehicle and over 40 years since starring in a vehicle that could be called her own — Mae West finally got the chance to make her next script, Sextette. She’d written the script in the early 1950s, when she was already a shade long in the tooth, but roughly age appropriate. Then she’d starred in a stage version of the play about ten years later. And now here she was…not 50, not 60, not 70, not 80, but 85 years old, starring in this picture. The iffiness springs not from the fact she was elderly. Hey, look at The Whales of August and On Golden Pond. Nor does chagrin emerge even from the fact that her character is 85 years old and SEXUAL. Hey, look at Cocoon. But what is strange (uncanny? Halloween-like?) about Sextette is that West insisted on playing her character as though the 40 years hadn’t passed at all. The idea was that she was STILL the same sex symbol (a notion that had already become questionable among audiences in the late 1930s). And so in this movie her character gets married to her sixth husband (hence the title), a young Timothy Dalton who was some six decades her junior.

An to prove that she Got By With a Little Help From Her Friends, there was also Ringo Starr! Dom Deluise! Tony Curtis! George Hamilton! Alice Cooper! Keith Moon! All flirting with her (and presumably doing it with her on a large canopy bed with silver, space-age pillows) just as though she were half a century younger. Hey, what the hell. It was the 70s. Sex was in. Even gross sex was in. And not only that, it’s a musical! With crazy disco numbers! Some of which Mae sings herself!

How did this even happen? you may well ask. Well in 1970, Mae had appeared in another of the era’s more notorious films, Myra Breckenridge, an x rated adaptation of the Gore Vidal novel about a transsexual, which despite the adventurous subject matter was a critical and popular flop. Still, Mae was back in the game again and presumably bankable on some level, and so financial backing was found.

At this stage of her life, Mae’s hearing, sight and memory were all gone, so throughout the picture her lines were fed to her through a special ear piece, and you generally see handsome young gents leading her around by the arm. Which a gentleman should do anyway. None of the major studios would distribute the film, so its initial release wasn’t the huge splash one might expect given this major star’s emergence from forced retirement. But over time it has become a cult favorite among, oh, people like me. Everyone should see this film at least once. No one should ever see the film more than once.

But there’s an up side to all this. West passed away two years after Sextette’s release. I think it’s really nice that she passed at a moment when she felt like she was back in the game.

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Cracking Up (1983)

Okay, Jerry Lewis is still with us, but he is over 90 years old, and I think it safe to say that Cracking Up will prove to have been his last comedy film as both director and star. In every case we’ve discussed in this blogpost the movie occurred because the artist didn’t know how to quit while they were ahead. And we have to bring some humanity to the contemplation of that. Because that is obviously a hard thing to know how to do. Now Jerry, like many of the folks above (Groucho, Mae West) had more than one “last film”, but kept coming back to the well.  First there was his previous last film as comedy auteur Which Way to the Front (1970), set in Nazi Germany during World War Two. And then there his was aborted Holocaust movie The Day the Clown Cried (1972). (I like to refer to the years 1970-72 as Jerry’s “Third Reich Period”.) After which he ostensibly and perhaps wisely retired.

But…no, eight years later he returned to the big screen for his big “come back” film Hardly Working (1980). The interesting thing about this phase is what he didn’t do. In the last phase of his previous career, Jerry had been trying to “grow”. From around 1965 through 1972, you can see him trying to adjust his previous screen character to account for the fact that he was now a middle aged man. But when he returned in 1980, it was as though he had said “to hell with that.” He just returned to doing what he always did, only much worse. Audiences had grown more sophisticated on some level since Jerry had left the screen. The big stars were SNL alum who made satirical, daring and hip comedies. Jerry ignored what was going on around him at the time and made a film where he just fell down a lot (at the age of 54). Moderate audiences checked out Hardly Working out of curiosity, and I guess Jerry took that as positive reinforcement for his bad behavior.

So…in 1983 he went back to the well yet again with Smorgasbord , which he renamed Cracking Up. Co-written with his old screenwriting partner Bill Richmond the film does everything it can to ignore the commercial will of audiences in 1983, by phoning in Lewis’s own 2o and 30 year old screen behavior, and populating the rest of the movie with over-exposed tv comedians like Foster Brooks and Milton Berle and football player Dick Butkus. After a single preview, it was decided not to distribute the film to theatres. It went straight to cable tv. (Fortunately, Jerry has had many chances to redeem himself as an actor since 1983. This is his last hurrah as actor/director).

To find out more about  the history of show businessconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold. And check out my other book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from amazon.com etc etc etc

Groucho, Laurel & Hardy in the Headlines

Posted in Comedy, Comedy Teams, Hollywood (History), Laurel and Hardy, Marx Brothers, Movies, Movies (Contemporary), Silent Film with tags , , , , , , , , , on June 18, 2015 by travsd

Two exciting stories to report; both have probably already exploded their way through every contact I have on social media, but for those who missed them, here they are:

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Variety reported yesterday that Steve Stoliar’s incredible book Raised Eyebrows (about Groucho Marx’s last days) is going to be made into a movie directed by horror helmsman Rob Zombie. It’s not such an odd fit. It’s well known that Zombie is a big Groucho fan and has named characters after Groucho personae in his films. And also..this is a DARK story. Groucho’s last decade or so were spent in an odd, one might venture to say exploitative relationship with an ambitious young actress named Erin Fleming. Stoliar had a ringside seat as Groucho’s personal assistant. Believe you me, there is psychodrama aplenty.

Raised Eyebrows is one of my favorite show biz books. I previously blogged about it here. And in fact, when the book was re-released by Bear Manor Media a couple of years ago, I reached out to Stoliar to gingerly inquire about screenplay rights for myself. (I figured it was worth a shot, I had found my previous out-of-print copy in a bargain bin — to my shock and surprise). But anyway Steve was like, “Yeah, no, I got this covered. I’m way ahead of ya, buddy.”

You can’t blame a guy for trying! I think very highly of this man and his book. It’s not just a compelling story, but it’s extremely well written, intelligent, funny, tragic, humane. Indeed when I heard that Bear Manor was re-printing Raised Eyebrows, I considered that a kind of seal of approval for Bear Manor. “If Steve Stoliar likes them, they have to be okay.” And they are more than OK. They published my book Chain of Fools and are about to publish Noah Diamond’s new book about I’ll Say She Is. 

Groucho fans rejoice! This is a Gala day for us!

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And the other exciting news which broke earlier this week…the long lamented missing reel of Laurel and Hardy’s epochal pie fight movie Battle of the Century , directed by Clyde Bruckmanhas been found. Classic comedy fans everywhere are overjoyed. Read an excellent account here at Slate. 

It’s said that good things come in threes. What else can be in store?

I Have Seen the Ghost of Groucho

Posted in Comedy, EXHIBITIONS & LECTURES, Marx Brothers with tags , , , on June 12, 2015 by travsd
Enters, as I Knew He Would, in a Blur. He Actually Looked Like This. Like I said, a Ghost!

Enters, as I Knew He Would, in a Blur. He Actually Looked Like This. Like I said, a Ghost!

A quick, incestuous post about Noah Diamond’s performance as Groucho last night at the Jewish Museum. Well, it is and it isn’t (incestuous, that is). All things remaining the same, if he had sucked, I think we all know I’d have buttoned my lip! And I’d also have written this same post if he were a stranger.

By now, I’d naturally long since known that Noah could nail Groucho the performer, the guy in all those movies. I also knew that he’d internalized Groucho’s entire life story in detail. But what he did last night was quite a bit different, and more.

First, he actually did a slightly different character. The Groucho he performed was Groucho as we saw him in later years, on television, as HIMSELF telling his real life anecdotes. Noah studied THAT, and, Jesus, it was flippin’ uncanny. It really was like he put this act together with a Ouija board and with the contractual participation of Satan. This was as good as it’s ever gonna get on this earth. The audience, which couldn’t have loved him more, for the most part I’m sure had no idea how good this was. On top of that, he was prepared, to an insane, obsessive degree with Groucho’s actual retorts and ripostes, and had them ready in his brain to present as apparent improvisations to questions from the presenters and the audience. ALSO uncanny and quite terrifying.

And then lastly in one sense it was better than having Groucho there, because Noah brought to the table a level of biographical knowledge and HONESTY that Groucho himself wouldn’t have brought. Old men forget things, even about themselves, and they also lie and exaggerate. (An example from last night, Noah’s Groucho admitted to having performed at a benefit for San Francisco Earthquake victims in 1906. The real life Groucho hedged and lied about that performance so people wouldn’t know how old he was).

Of course it's not a good photo. I took it on my telephone! You should hear the phone calls I make on my camera!

Of course it’s not a good photo. I took it on my telephone! You should hear the phone calls I make on my camera!

And then, there was value added. The moderator, Jenns Hoffman, the Jewish Museum’s Deputy Director of Exhibitions and Public Programs couldn’t have been more sincere, nice, or apparently uncomprehending…making him an ideal foil for Groucho, sort of a mix between George Fenneman and a You Bet Your Life contestant. He also had a thick accent which added to the (good-natured) mirth. I especially liked when he referred to the once and future Marx Brothers show as “I Will Say That She Is”.

Another old friend popped up, and he, too was his excellent self (and by that I mean, somebody else):

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When it was over, the SRO audience was so disappointed they went “awwwwwwww!” And right afterwards a strange man started raving about the show to me — as I was urinating in the men’s room!  My last word on the subject, “Yeah, yeah, it was terrific, but you’re making me a little uncomfortable, sir!”

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