Archive for Marx Brothers

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!

Don’t Miss “The Marx Brothers on Broadway 1924-1929”

Posted in Broadway, BROOKLYN, Comedy, Comedy Teams, EXHIBITIONS & LECTURES, Marx Brothers, PLUGS, SOCIAL EVENTS with tags , , , , on November 5, 2016 by travsd

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The Marx Brothers on Broadway: 1924-1929, An Illustrated lecture by Noah Diamond, sponsored by Zelda Magazine
Date: Wednesday, November 30th
Time: 7pm
Admission: $8
Location: Morbid Anatomy Museum, 424 Third Avenue, 11215 Brooklyn NY

Four of the Three Musketeers: A Valuable New Book About the Marx Brothers

Posted in BOOKS & AUTHORS, Comedy, Comedy Teams, Marx Brothers, PLUGS with tags , , , on October 26, 2016 by travsd

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I was too busy getting married on October 15 to notice the big news that THIS masterwork had finally come out. Rob Bader provided a privileged few of us with some memories to last a life time at Marxfest…like a comedy star Columbo he ran down some answers to questions that most of us figured would be forever lost to time. Now it looks like his big book has hit the stores. Trust me, if you’re a fan, this won’t just be the kind of book that comes out once in a blue moon — this book contains original research that, for a fan, is once-in-a-lifetime. Valuable, valuable contributions to the study of the Marx Brothers, vaudeville and early 20th century theatre in general. This is one I can’t wait to read. Get it here: https://www.amazon.com/Four-Three-Musketeers-Brothers-Stage/dp/0810134160

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.

The Marx Brothers and the Golden Age of Vaudeville!

Posted in Comedy, Comedy Teams, Hollywood (History), Marx Brothers, Movies, PLUGS, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , on September 23, 2016 by travsd

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Opening tonight at New York’s Film Forum: an exciting screening series entitled the Marx Brothers and the Golden Age of Vaudeville. The curators actually seem to have lumped two series ideas together into one, but what care I? Both halves are well worth seeing.

If you’ve already seen the Marx Brothers’ classics to death, there are several reasons to attend this series anyway: 1) the films look better big; 2) the films laugh better with an audience; 3) several have been restored and are thus better looking prints, and, lastly 4) a couple of have a few seconds of previously missing footage restored. This last reason alone will make the Marx nuts come out in force, I know. Any new scrap of film containing  boys will be more than welcome. And September 25 our friends from I’ll Say She Is will be judging a Marx Brothers look-a-like contest!

As for the other films in the series, there are several programs of Vitaphone shorts of vaudevillians, including many previously unscreened ones, and that always gets me excited. And then there’s the recently restored Paul Whiteman movie The King of Jazz (1930) which I still have yet to see. I hope I get to make it over there! I’ll probably know everyone in the audience. It runs through Sept 29, with a kicker screening on October 25 of Vitaphone Varieties, Part 2. All the information is here. 

To find out more about vaudevilleconsult my book No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

 

Tomorrow on TCM: Slapstick of the 30s

Posted in Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, PLUGS with tags , , , , , , , , , on September 12, 2016 by travsd

As part of their monthlong slapstick series, tomorrow TCM will be showing several classics from the 1930s — the first decade of talkies. Unsurprisingly, and much to their credit, they include some lesser-known but deserving comedies, and the well-known ones they have selected, are germane to an exploration of slapstick per se, not easy to do since that was the decade when all the important discoveries made by silent comedy were thrown under the bus. Bravo, TCM!

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8:00pm (EST): Dollar Dizzy (1930)

With the utmost curatorial intelligence, they launch tonight’s program with a pair of shorts by Charley Chase, a perfect transition from their last installment, which highlighted silent comedy of the ’20s — including silent shorts by Chase. Hal Roach had uncommonly good luck in getting his silent stable across the sound barrier. Besides Chase, he had excellent good fortune with Laurel and Hardy (also included in tonight’s program) and the Our Gang series. His former leading star Harold Lloyd also weathered the transition well. In Dollar Dizzy, Chase and Thelma Todd each play rich people who have to fend off a series of greedy gold diggers who want to marry them. Who do you think they’ll wind up with? Also in the cast: Edgar Kennedy, Jimmy Finlayson, Dorothy Granger and Charlie Hall. 

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8:30pm (EST): The Pip from Pittsburg (1931)

Charley Chase gets fixed up on a blind date and does everything he can to show up unattractive (all his previous such dates having gone so poorly). To his dismay, the date turns out to be the eminently desirable Thelma Todd. This one as directed by Chase’s brother, the brilliant comic artisan James Parrott.

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9:00pm (EST): Sons of the Desert (1933)

Directed by William Seiter, this remains one of the all-time favorite Laurel and Hardy  films among fans. As they often do, Laurel and Hardy play hen-pecked but rebellious husbands on a tight leash. Their wives here are played by Mae Busch and Dorothy Christy. In this film the boys are not literal “Sons of the Desert” (which can be a little confusing because in a couple of their comedies their characters join the French Foreign Legion). In this case, the “Sons of the Desert” refers to their fraternal lodge and the boys are just itching to their annual convention in Chicago. Naturally their wives won’t permit this, so the boys claim that Hardy is sick and must go to Honolulu for his health. (A hilarious irony — who wouldn’t prefer to go to Honolulu than Chicago?). In Chicago they woop it up with Charley Chase, at his comical best as an obnoxious drunken lodge brother from Texas). Then the newsreels begin to cause trouble. The wives learn that the ship their husbands were supposedly on has sunk. They grieve. Then later they see newsreels that show their husbands drunkenly cavorting at the convention in Chicago. They fume. The boys are busted. The wives allow them to hang themselves with lies upon their return before they throw them out. Their is an extended climax with Hardy on the roof at night during a rainstorm, just one of many Hardy rooftop sequences.

This film is best known today for supplying the name of the international Laurel and Hardy society, one of the largest and heartiest of all movie star fan clubs. Learn more about the group here.

The premise of this film (and similar Laurel and Hardy comedies) had an extended reach, for it was much emulated by Jackie Gleason in the The Honeymooners in the early 1950s, and then later by Hanna Barbera on The Flintstones in the early 1960s.

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10:15pm (EST): The Music Box (1935)

Laurel and Hardy’s The Music Box is considered by many, with justification, to be the greatest comedy of all time. Its virtues are strictly formal, of course. It’s a movie about two (rather dumb) working stiffs moving a piano up the longest staircase in the world. The beauty is how MUCH comedy they milk out of this simple premise, and how it builds and escalates, and continues to keep on giving all the way through. Directed by James Parrott, this movie won an Oscar for best short in 1932 — one of the few times in history an American comedy masterpiece has gotten the kind of recognition it deserves.

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11:00pm (EST): A Night at the Opera (1935)

I’ve blogged about this classic Marx Brothers movie at some length. read my full explication here. 

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12:45am (EST): Hips, Hips, Hooray (1934)

In this Wheeler and Woolsey musical comedy (co-written by frquent Marx Bros collaborators Kalmar and Ruby) the boys become salesmen for beauty magnate Thelma Todd’s new flavored lipstick. Dorothy Lee, as usual, is Wheeler’s romantic interest, and Ruth Etting has a musical number (reduced from a much larger part). Numbers include “Keep Romance Alive” and “Keep Doin’ What You’re Doin'”.

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2:00am (EST): Elmer the Great (1933)

 Joe E. Brown was the biggest comedy star of the 1930s, making dozens of hit films in just a bit over a decade, and has now been so completely forgotten that modern audiences only know for one line he uttered in a film he made as a kind of career afterthought (Some Like It Hot). Whenever I mention Brown, people inevitably try to impress me by uttering that line. In honor of Brown, I respond with the scorn they so richly deserve. Brown was a GREAT comedian. Elmer the Great is part of his so-called Baseball Trilogy. This one was based on a stage play by George M. Cohan and Ring Lardner, it stars Brown as a terrific but vain baseball player. His team-mates get revenge by hiding his hometown sweetheart’s letters, causing him to fool around with a beautiful actress and get involved in gambling. As always, he saves the day in the end.

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3:30am (EST): Movie Crazy (1932)

Harold Lloyd ‘s third talking feature is a terrific movie, in my view as good as his best silents. Movie Crazy casts Harold as a boy who spends all his time dreaming about being in the movies (much of it seems lifted from Mabel Normand’s The Extra Girl). Due to a mix-up, a major producer actually summons him to Hollywood for a screen test. After a disastrous first encounter a beautiful young starlet (Constance Cummings) falls for him; he’s the only man she’s ever met who’s too goofy to be on the make for her. The movie is chock full of great gag sequences, many of them reminiscent of the silent days. In one, hired as an extra, he spoils every single shot the director tries to take. In another he loses his shoe in a torrential downpour and follows it down the street, which has now become a river. (I would be very surprised to learn both of these scenes didn’t inspire similar ones in Blake Edwards’ The Party). Probably the most famous scene in the film is when Harold goes to a social function and causes all kinds of havoc when he accidentally puts on a magician’s coat, leaving eggs, a rabbit, doves, and white mice all over the place. This scene would be much imitated by the Columbia shorts department in years to come.

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5:15am (EST): Sweet Music (1935)

One of the last of the old-style early Warner Brothers’ musicals, with Rudy Vallee in the usual Dick Powell role as leading man), Ann Dvorak, Ned Sparks, Helen Morgan and Robert Armstrong (best known today as the movie producer character in the original King Kong).  It’s screwball energy is a good indication perhaps of changing tastes and things to come, thus a fitting note on which to end the evening’s program.

For more on silent comedy and slapstick film history please check out my new 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

 

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