Making The Marx Brothers TV Collection

The idea of creating a collection of Marx Brothers television appearances for home video release predates the dawn of the DVD era by several years. It took more than twenty years to get the collection released, but the numerous issues and delays allowed for much more material to be located and included. The final result has a much broader scope than what was originally planned. Rare and unknown footage of the Marx Brothers came from a variety of sources, and a lot of it was unknown when the project began.

Much had been written about the Marx Brothers during the renaissance in their popularity in the 1970s. Some of the well known television shows with the Marx Brothers were frequently mentioned – The Incredible Jewel Robbery on the General Electric Theater, or Groucho’s turn in Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado on the Bell Telephone Hour, for example. But it was simply not possible to see any of this material at that time. There had been a heavily edited version of The Incredible Jewel Robbery available for home use on film, but that was an exception, and hardy a substitute for seeing the whole show.

I began trying to find unusual Marx footage on film in the 1970s and was able to acquire a few choice items, but for long periods, nothing turned up. The coming of home video opened things up a bit, but the mother lode had not been discovered. It turned out that quite a lot of it was in the possession of the children of the Marx Brothers. With a lot of assistance from Harpo’s son Bill, I began to assemble a good-sized library of Marx Brothers television appearances. Harpo’s daughter Minnie and Chico’s daughter Maxine each had unique material. Groucho’s collection had been donated to the Smithsonian Institution, but several items turned up elsewhere.

Research eventually revealed that the Marx Brothers had appeared on television hundreds of times – mostly individually, but on occasion together. Numerous early live shows were likely never going to turn up. But from time to time a kinescope – a recording made of a television broadcast by filming a video monitor – was discovered. By the early 1990s a significant enough amount of material had surfaced for a home video collection – which would have been a pretty bulky set of VHS tapes at the time. A couple of distributors showed interest, but there were rights issues, and the various estates of the Marx Brothers didn’t all see the release in quite the same way. There was also concern that the cost of securing all of the rights would eclipse any sales revenue. In order for a company to release the collection if would need to be profitable. And while a lot of the early television material was no longer protected by copyright, much of it was. And there was also the matter of paying for music rights. A nice little idea had become quite a challenge.

In trying to track down some of the known material, I became particularly interested in something from the television era that was never broadcast on television. Like many Marx Brothers fans of my generation, I first learned about the 1958 short film Showdown at Ulcer Gulch in Leonard Maltin’s book, Movie Comedy Teams. The film is an advertising presentation that was screened at a sales convention for The Saturday Evening Post. When I first became acquainted with Leonard in the 1980s I asked about Showdown at Ulcer Gulch. He told me that he had never seen it. He found reference to it in an advertising trade magazine. By this time I was friendly with Maxine Marx, but I had never spoken with her about her former husband, Shamus Culhane. Culhane, a legendary animator, made Showdown at Ulcer Gulch though a production company he and Maxine briefly operated.


Shamus Culhane screening Showdown at Ulcer Gulch for a pair of lucky Marx Brothers fans.

In 1986 I asked Maxine if she would put me in touch with Shamus. After a stream of expletives, she found his phone number. She hadn’t spoken to him in years. I was surprised to learn that he lived a mere fifteen blocks away from Maxine’s apartment in New York City. Fellow Marx Brothers fanatic Charlie Kochman and I made an appointment with Shamus, hoping we could see Showdown at Ulcer Gulch. Turns out it wasn’t that difficult. Shamus pulled the film out from under his bed, threaded the projector, and we watched it on his living room wall. No one else had asked him. He was incredibly gracious and shared a few stories about making the film. The only problem was that the film had faded badly and the images were almost entirely red. The film was shot using Eastmancolor film. The single-strip color process was introduced in the early 1950s as an alternative to the three-strip Technicolor process. By the 1970s it became apparent that the dyes used in Eastmancolor were unstable, and most of the material shot with Eastmancolor had turned red or pink. Shamus informed us that his print was the only one he was aware of.  I made a black and white video transfer at that time.

Shamus passed away in 1996. A few years later, when technology had advanced to the point where it was possible to get some semblance of the original color back, I borrowed the film from Shamus and Maxine’s sons, Brian and Kevin and began the process of restoring the color with computer technology. In the years since Shamus screened his faded print of Showdown at Ulcer Gulch on his wall there had been another technological development: eBay. I was very surprised to see a print turn up on the auction site and even more surprised when someone outbid me and won it. I was able to connect with the winner and eventually borrow the print, hoping it would have better color than the Shamus Culhane print, which was in pretty rough shape. An agreement was made with the eBay winner. We would pay him if we used his print commercially. Unfortunately, it was immediately clear that this print was not usable. Not only was it an inferior duplication with very poor color, but it was also missing the first seven minutes of the film. Nonetheless, when The Marx Brothers TV Collection was finally released on DVD in 2014, the owner of the inferior and incomplete print threatened a lawsuit, suggesting that his print was used on the DVD set. (He was unable to explain where the missing seven minutes came from, or what actual rights in the film he held.) But he was a nice enough guy and quickly retreated from his position.

In casting a wide net in the search for Marx Brothers television material I encountered a few other snags. A rare piece of color film of Harpo and his family from the 1956 NBC special Inside Beverly Hills had been in the possession of Harpo’s wife Susan for many years. It was in the same condition as Showdown at Ulcer Gulch with regard to color degradation. But restoring the color would be the least of my problems with this reel of film. Susan had given the film to a Marx Brothers fan. Bill Marx contacted the fan and asked if we could borrow the film for our Marx Brothers project. Amazingly, this person had sold the film to a friend of his for the whopping sum of five dollars. He was also reluctant to connect us to the buyer. When I finally got to speak to the new owner of the film he was uncooperative, but had a price in mind. He was basically shaking down Harpo’s family. As the producer of the set I was willing to pay him a reasonable sum – although the Marx family was very clear in telling me not to do that. I thought the distributor would be okay with paying this fellow some sort of consultant fee. But it became a non-issue as the initial distribution deal for the collection fell apart.

With no guarantee of getting the collection released I eventually convinced the guy to provide a videotape copy of the film clip. No money changed hands and Bill Marx was relieved to recover the material – although we were not able to make a proper restoration from the original film, which was never provided. Both of the people involved were eventually acknowledged in the credits of the DVD collection. But like the eBay buyer of the unusable copy of Showdown at Ulcer Gulch, both of these fellows would become disgruntled later on, claiming to have been threatened and ripped off. What is it about color footage of the Marx Brothers that makes people unreasonable? And what threat could be made? We simply asked for cooperation. We had no legal right to the material, but felt that there was a moral obligation to allow the family to use the footage since it had been a gift from Susan Marx. And even if there were a legal basis for a lawsuit, it would hardly be worth the expense and trouble for a few of minutes of footage in what eventually became an eleven-hour collection.

 

Economically, the concept of putting this collection out was becoming a problem. Some of the owners of rare footage graciously provided it gratis. But some great material could not be included due to the astronomical rates quoted by some of the owners of the footage. Several more years passed before The Marx Brothers TV Collection found a distributor. So much time had passed that the collection could now be on DVD, a format that did not exist when the project began. But there were still a lot of legal issues involved. Material was licensed from major studios (Universal and Fox, for example) as well as from the estates of the stars that owned the masters of their television shows. The estates of Dinah Shore, Allen Funt and Jackie Gleason were especially helpful and generous, as was Dick Cavett, who was thrilled to have one of his Groucho interviews included in the set.

 

Groucho’s 1959 appearance on The Dinah Shore Chevy Show is of particular technical interest. It is the earliest known footage of Groucho recorded on color videotape. In a collection comprised of so many disparate types of source material, color videotape from the 1950s sticks out as especially unusual. Generally speaking, we don’t get to see much of the Marx Brothers in color, although Groucho maintaining an active career into the 1970s gave him far more color opportunities than Harpo and Chico. The Marx family home movies proved to be full of surprises – many of them in vivid color. Birthday parties and backyard barbeques are to be expected when looking at home movies. But Harpo’s daughter Minnie came up with the most surprising reel of film in the collection: color footage of Harpo, Alexander Woollcott and Fay Wray on stage in a 1941 summer stock production of The Yellow Jacket in Marblehead, Massachusetts. This is just one of the highlights in a compilation of home movie clips narrated and scored by Bill Marx. In a collection of material spotlighting the work they did in the 1950s and 1960s, the home movie footage offers glimpses of the Marx Brothers dating back to 1928 – a year before they made their first movie.

The variety of programming in the collection demonstrates that television was a strange new world for established stars. The Marx Brothers were finished as a team. There would be no more movies, but they would all continue to work. Television came along at the exact moment when they went their separate ways. It gave them each an opportunity to connect with a massive audience – something they lost when they stopped making Marx Brothers movies. In Groucho’s case, he became as big a television star as he was a movie star. You Bet Your Life was one of the most popular shows on television for more than a decade. But Harpo and Chico worked on television regularly without finding a vehicle as successful as Groucho’s.

They all appeared on variety shows, which were structured in much the same way as a traditional vaudeville show. But they were also seen on game shows, dramatic anthologies, talk shows, commercials and sports programs. Harpo competed against Sam Snead on Celebrity Golf, Chico appeared with Charles Goren on Championship Bridge, and Groucho battled Minnesota Fats on Celebrity Billiards. There’s a surreal quality to these television appearances, and a big part of that is seeing the Marx Brothers completely out of context. They were surreal in their movies, but on television they were being themselves, which is surreal in a different way for a fan of the screen personas of the Marx Brothers. Harpo, playing a deaf mute in A Silent Panic from the dramatic anthology series The Dupont Show, displays talents not to be expected from a performer who had essentially played the Harpo character for fifty years. It’s one of the many pleasant surprises found in the Marx Brothers television work.

The Marx Brothers TV Collection fills in a gap in their history. Their finest moments on television may not be on par with their best film work, but they are still the Marx Brothers. And some of their great television moments are a lot of fun and deserve the chance to be seen again. Putting the collection together and getting it released was no small task, but I like to think The Marx Brothers TV Collection is an important piece of the history of the greatest comedy team to ever come along. 

© 2017 Robert S. Bader

Producer of The Marx Brothers TV Collection