Monday, July 27, 2009

Groucho by Stefan Kanfer

Stefan Kanfer. Groucho: The Lives and Times of Julius Henry Marx. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2000.

Groucho Marx was known for his human that ridiculed high society and the world around him, with lines such as being asked “if we tear down all the dormitories, where will the students sleep” to which his character replied “where they always slept, in the classroom.” He would joke about social clubs, proclaiming “I don’t want to join any organization that would have me as a member” and asked of an anti-Semitic swimming club about his daughter “she’s only half Jewish. How about if she only goes in up to her waist”. He left us with many famous quote including “outside of a dog, a book is man’s best friend. Inside of a dog, it’s too dark to read.”

Marx Brothers films impacted culture and politics. “Duck Soup” which had a humorous dictator was banned in Mussolini’s Italy. On the other side, Winston Churchill enjoyed the film.

Jewish communities often had a badkhn, a town jester, who kept people amused. They were independent with no boss and not set hours.

Napoleon gave Jews more freedom. The Jewish population of Alsace-Lorrane, ceded from France to Germany, continued speaking French and resisted assimilating into Germany. Simon Marix, refusing to join the German army, moved to lower Manhattan and worked with Tammany Hall politicians. Discovering his relatives spelled their name “Marx”, Simon became a tailor, Simon Marx. Since other tailors with the name Marx had developed a good reputation, Simon Marx received many customers. Unfortunately, Simon Marx didn’t use a tape measure and he was a good tailor. Simon married Minnie Schoenberg. They were the parents to Julius/Groucho and the other Marx Brothers.

Minnie encouraged her boys to go into show business. They found work in vaudeville. Chicago was a lead city for three vaudeville circuits that toured the MidWest and South. Minnie took her sons to Chicago. While comedy was their only ability, they worked hard at fine tuning their comedic talents.

The flu epidemic hurt vaudeville. Theaters were not allowed to have people sitting next to each other so half the seats could not be sold. Many patrons wore masks which duller any laughter.

Actors were not highly regarded. Gummo Marx dated a girl whose father threatened to kill him when the father heard her daughter was dating an actor.

The Marx Brothers found representation with the William Morris Agency. Variety reviewed their act with the headline “Marx Brothers Not So Good”. Groucho quipped about the British audiences “they must know some language, but what the hell is it?”

The Marx Brothers made it to Broadway with lines “you are charged with murder, and if you are convicted, you will be charged with electricity.” By then, they had 15 years of vaudeville experience and they knew what made audiences laugh. Critical comments mentioned their humor was conventional. Groucho began adding some new styles of jokes. The audiences laughed and critics praised them.

The Marx Brothers’ Broadway play “I’ll Say She Is” reportedly earned investors ten times what they invested. Yet some leading investors were put off by the undisciplined vaudeville nature of the brothers and were hesitant to invest in them again. Irving Berlin vouched for the, and investors then reappeared.

The next Marx Brothers play was “The Cocoanuts”, written by George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind. Writing for Harp, who never spoke, was challenging. Kaufman questioned what to do other than write “Harpo enters, and then he’s on his own.” The Marx Brothers were known for adlibbing. Kaufman was once quoted backstage as saying “I may be wrong, but I think I just heard one of the original lines.” The adlibs kept making the play longer. Each night was a different play, especially as Harpo varied his unspoken antics.

Film scholar Mark Winokler notes Groucho used an “aggressive and hostile” voice in an ironic comedic fashion.

One of the main investors demanded that the Marx Brothers have a more disciplined show, especially before critics. The Marx Brothers responded by not wearing any clothes at the meeting. The investor left the meeting. Yet when Irving Berlin and George Kaufman entered the room afterwards, the Marx Brothers engaged in a serious discussion and agreed to revisions.

“The Cocoanuts” included political humor. Told by Groucho he had to register to vote, Chico responded “you’re crazy. Last year, I no register and I vote six times.” When Mayor Jimmy Walker was in the audience, Groucho said in the middle of the play to Walker “what are you doing here? Why aren’t you out stuffing ballot boxes?”

George Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind wrote the next Marx Brothers Broadway play “Animal Crackers”. This play had the famous Groucho line “one morning I show an elephant in my pajamas. How he got in my pajamas, I don’t know.” The show was a hit. Even critic Walter Winchell admitted he went prepared to salvage the show only to find he enjoyed it.

The Marx Brothers did a silent film “Humorisk” that flopped. The William Morris Agency attempted to turn “The Cocoanuts” into a movie. They told Adolph Zukor of Paramount they wanted $75,000 to do the movie. Chico Marx met with Zukor, praised Zukor, told him how much they wanted to work with such a legend as Zukor, and explained how much and how long they had invested in “The Cocoanuts” and got Zukor to agree to $100,000.

Filming then amplified noise. Rumpling paper sounded much louder than it should. Paper was drenched in water to remove the sound.

Groucho viewed the movie and proclaimed “we’re going to have to buy back the print. This will ruin our careers.” He was wrong. The film was a hit. In fact, the fast paced dialogue resulted in many repeat attendees who sought to find jokes they missed before.

Groucho, a liberal Democrat, agreed to campaign for journalist Haywood Broun running as a Socialist for Congress. Groucho remained the wise cracker, with lines such as “I have known Heywood Broun for 30 years. He had known me for 30 years. That makes a total of 60 years.”

Groucho once wrote to S.J. Perelman about a book Perelman wrote, “from the moment I picked up your book until I laid it down, I was convulsed with laughter. Some day I intend to read it.”

Groucho’s joking sometimes led to trouble. On a customs form, he listed his occupation as “smuggler” and for items to declare he wrote “wouldn’t you like to know?”
Paramount increased their payment for the next Marx Brothers movice to $200,000 and 30% of profits. Herman Mankiewicz supervised the movie. Mankiewicz advised the screenwriters “the Marx Brothers are mercurial, devious, and ungrateful. I hate to depress you, but you’ll rue the day you ever took the assignment. This is an ordeal by fire. Make sure you were asbestos pants.” The writers discovered the Marx Brothers didn’t laugh during their script readings, but that was because they were seriously considering their craft. At the end of the first reading, Groucho announced “It stinks.’ This began a long and complex partnership between Groucho and screenwriter Sid Perelman. The author believes Groucho felt threatened by the better educated Perelman and compensated by belittling Perelman even as he recognized his writings were good.

Cinematography had improved in 1931 since their previous film, making it easier to shoot a Marx Brothers film.

The Marx Brothers had a dispute with the William Morris Agency. They claimed their agreement had terminated. The William Morris Agency sued and won the fee dispute.

“Horse Feathers” was the next Marx Brothers film. Groucho and Perelman fought incessantly. Chico broke ribs and a knee in a car accident that delayed shooting for two months. The movie was a box office hit.

Groucho and Chico were offered and they accepted a radio show “Fly Wheel” for $6,500 a week, which was what Greta Garbo received for her movie work. Harpo received a salary not to be on the show. Arthur Shenkman and Nat Perrin were the writers. Since NBC had no studios then in California, a studio was rented from RKO. Their material was considered by Variety as offensive to “family programming”.

Groucho and Chico delivered the commercials for the sponsor Esso flatly. The early 8 pm time slot last not a popular listening time. The show ended after 26 weeks when Esso withdrew its sponsorship.

“Duck Soup” contained more visual gags for Groucho. While it was claimed to be a movie of comedic entertainment, its anti-fascist tone in 1933 served as an early warning to emerging fascism. It also contained tones that would resonate decades later. Chico argued for a standing army “because then we save money on chairs”. Told it was a gala day for Groucho, Groucho replied “that’s plenty. I don’t think I could handle more than a gal a day.” Film historian Andrew Bergman called “Duck Soup” “a vaudeville “All Quiet of the Western Front.””

The American Oil Company sponsored a radio show “Marx of Time” with Groucho and Chico. It last eight weeks.

Groucho presumed that was the end of his film career. Yet Irving Thalberg at MGM saw a future in more Marx Brothers films. Thalberg wanted to make movies with more stories and less laughs. The story had meant little in previous Marx Brothers films. Chico demanded the brothers received 15% of gross. Thalberg agreed. Groucho insisted Kaufman and Ryskind write their next movie, “A Night at the Opera”. Kaufman received $5,000 a week with $100,000 minimum. Ryskind received $1,000 a week.

Ryskind recalls giving Thalberg the opening dialogue to the movie. Thalberg read it without laughing or displaying any emotion. Thalberg then announced it was the funniest thing he had ever read.

Thalberg kept delaying negotiations with the Marx Brothers. During their meeting, he left them alone in his office. When he returned, he found the brothers totally nude pretending to cook in his fake fireplace. When he delayed a meeting a second time, the brothers blocked his door with a cabinet that took an hour to get the door open.

MGM hired two sets of writers to work on a final script and, which was custom then, did not tell either set of writers about the other set.

The film industry, which had been hurt by the Depression since 1931, returned to profitability in 1936. Groucho was worried about financial security, especially as he noticed actors who once earned $1,000 a week being grateful for walk-on roles in his movies.

For their next film, “A Night at the Opera”, the Marx Brothers again tried routines before live audiences. They hired actors to play their roles for the last two weeks while they watched from the orchestra.

Irving Thalberg had been warned by doctors that his heart needed to avoid stress. Yet Thalberg worked long hours. Thalberg died suddenly. Groucho stated “After Thalberg died, my interest in the movies waned…The fun had gone out of filmmaking. I was like an old pug, still going through the motions, but now doing it solely for the money.”

Laurence Weingarten, Thalberg’s brother in law, became the Marx Brothers’ new producer. Weingarten believed in keeping Marx Brothers movies to a set formula. “A Day at the Races” was the most profitable Marx Brothers movie, grossing $5 million, which was five times more than it cost. Louis B. Mayer wasn’t a fan of the Marx Brothers but he liked the profits they brought the studio.

Groucho and Chico were criminally indicted for plagiarism. Garnett Graham and Carroll Graham, brothers, claimed they wrote a radio sketch Groucho and Chico performed. The Marx brothers claimed the skit was written by Al Boasberg and that the Graham brothers at most had made minimal contributions. Boasberg had since died. The court ruled for the Grahams. Groucho and Chico could have been imprisoned for one year yet they were fined $1,000 each.

Groucho and Charlie Chaplin played tennis. In the middle of the match, Groucho set up a tablecloth on the court and gave sandwiches to those around them. Chaplin told Groucho “I didn’t come here to be your straight man” and didn’t forgive Groucho years afterwards.

Groucho was a New Dealer. He met Hollywood Reds and concluded they were “the kind of hypocrites who would sing “Arise You Prisoners of Starvation” inbetween laps around their swimming pools.”

RKO spent half a million dollars for the talent and set of the next Marx Brothers movie “Room Service”, Yet one elaborate set is not good for the movies, where audiences expect more diverse scenes. A new talent, Lucille Ball, appears in the film yet her comedic skills had yet to be discovered and she has a straight role.

The Marx Brothers worked hurriedly. Groucho explained “it was the first time we tried doing a play we hadn’t created ourselves. We can’t do that. We’ve got to organize the characters and situations ourselves. Then we can do them. Then they’re us. Groucho was convinced the film would bomb and was surprised at the good reviews. The movie, though, made 7% less than the average RKO film made. The Marx Brothers went back to MGM, where they were still contracted to produce two more films, and where Groucho feared Louis B. Mayer wanted them to fail. Mayer had a reputation for being vindictive.

The next movie “At the Circus” required a man in a gorilla suit. The suit was hot, so the actor cut holes in the suit for ventilation. This upset the owner of the gorilla suit who stormed off with the suit. A orangutan suit was purchased, which Groucho noted “even a child knows an orangutan is much smaller than a gorilla. The actor could not fit into the orangutan suit and broke into tears. Another actor who could fit into the suit was hired. Union demands required paying both actors as well as the first actor’s psychiatric help for the trauma of not fitting into the orangutan suit. The movie included Groucho singing a song that included “when she stands the world grows littler, when she sits, she sits on Hitler.”

Buster Keaton, who once made $150,000 a week as a silent movie star, was then a $100 a week gag writer at MGM. Keaton suggested a few gags for “At the Circus” which Groucho rejected.

“At the Circus” suffered from continuity problems. Groucho appears on a train that had left without him. A scene getting Groucho on the train was cut by MGM to save money by reducing the shooting schedule. MGM presumed audiences wouldn’t expect continuity in a Marx Brothers film. In addition, MGM gave Grouch such a manufactured look with a toupee that the poster used for the film had screenwriter Irving Brechler made to look like Groucho in the photo with Chico and Harpo. The movie also suffered from exaggerated racial stereotyped scenes.

Jack Cummings, nephew to Louis B. Mayer, was assigned as the new producer of Marx Brothers movies. He, like his uncle, also did not care for their movies. Yet he believe the way to increase profits was to return to their old formula. For the next film, “Go West”, they tried routines in front of theater audiences.

The Marx Brothers approaches their next film “The Big Store” unenthusiastically. Nat Perrin wrote the script with the help of gag writers Hal Fimberg and two others who used to write for the Ritz Brothers, Ray Golden and Sid Kuller. The gag writers were more experienced with slap stick comedy. Only Chico approached the first script reading with any enthusiasm. Yet by page 15, Chico fell asleep.

During filming, Groucho added a life after Margaret Dumont’s line “I’m afraid after we’ve been married awhile, a beautiful girl will come along and you’ll forget all about me” to which Groucho added “Nonsense! I’ll write you twice a week.” Producer L.K Sidney cut the line and was upset at a preview to see the line reappear. Louis B. Mayer, though, proclaimed it the “greatest line in the picture” and it remained.

Groucho and Harpo, with Chico’s consent due to his gambling habit, placed he Chico couldn’t touch that was kept for his retirement. Chico obtained gambling debts and feared the mob he owed money to would kill him. Groucho and Harpo refused to advance Chico the money. Thus, during the filming of “The Big Store”, a scared Chico was in the midst of suing his brothers to get money. Groucho told a reporter this would be the last time he worked with his brothers. The film opened to positive critical acclaim in 1941.

Groucho was once tending to his garden when someone drove by and asked him “oh, gardner, how much does the lady of the house pay you a month?” Groucho replied “oh, I don’t get paid in dollars. The lady of the house just lets me sleep with her.”

Groucho made numerous radio show appearances and appeared regularly on a Sealtest Rudy Vallee and Joan Davis show. Abbott and Costello became the new big comedy movie stars.

In 1943, Groucho’s agent brothers Gummo and Zeppo get Groucho a radio show for $2,500 a show. Leo Gorcey was a co-star, who at the time was going through a very volatile marriage.

The Marx Brothers formed their own film company, Lorna Vista, and made plans to film to movie “A Night at Casablanca”. Warner Brothers had released the movie “Casablanca” four years earlier. Their legal department wrote to inquire if Warner Brothers property rights were being violated. Groucho, tongue in cheek, wrote back “I had no idea that the city of Casablanca belonged exclusively to Warner Brothers…I am sure that the average movie fan could learn in time to distinguish between Ingrid Bergman and Harpo. I don’t know whether I could, but I would certainly like to try…What about Warner Brothers? Do you own that, too? You probably have the right to Warner, but who about Brothers? Professionally, we were brothers long before you were.”

Margaret Dumont feared being in Marx Brothers movies ruined her dramatic career. She declined to be in “A Night in Casablanca”.

Groucho returned to radio and then to Broadway.

In 1949, Groucho won radio’s top honor, the Peabody Award. ABC Radio was concerned that ratings dropped sharply for substitute programming during the time Groucho was on vacation. Groucho impressed ABC executives with figures he made up claiming that a typical listener only catches a show once every 3.4 times. He offered that ratings during his time slot when he was away would be higher if people who missed an original broadcast could catchy a repeat broadcast. The ABC brass was impressed. Thus, Groucho invented the re-run.

There were ten TV stations broadcasting to 160,000 TV sets in 1947. In 1948, over a million TV sets were sold.

The Marx Brothers filmed the movie “Love Happy”. Groucho happily took a smaller role and let Chico and Harpo have large roles. Groucho, though, was displeased to receive only $15,000, half what he usually received. Political humor included a Congressman telling Groucho’s character “this is my third term” to which Groucho replied, “better look out. One more offense and you’ll get life.” The movie is noted for Groucho’s casting decision of Marilyn Monroe for a one line part. Monroe’s character stated “ten men are following me” to which Groucho replied “I can’t understand why”.

William Palen, CBS President, tried to get Groucho to switch to CBS. Paley told Groucho “look, you’re a Jew and I’m a Jews. We should stick together.” Groucho found that insulting. Further, David Sarnoff at NBC was also Jewish. Groucho signed with NBC for $760,000 a year guaranteed for 10 years plus $48,000 a week during 39 weeks of broadcasting. Thus, a TV version of “You Bet Your Life” was created.

Groucho filmed “Double Dynamite” with Frank Sinatra. Groucho was upset at Sinatra’s frequent tardiness and warned him “I believe in being on time to work. The next time you show up late, you’d better be prepared to act for two because I won’t be there.” Sinatra was then always on time.

Groucho appeared in producer Irwin Allen’s “The Story of Mankind”. Allen also hired Chico and Harpo to appear in different scenes. Although none of the brothers appeared together, the movie was advertised as a Marx Brothers film.

A scandal involved big money quiz show helped boost Groucho’s small money, more entertainment intent quiz show to the top of the quiz show ratings.

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