I Am a Devout Marxist
by Susan King
Before you think I’m going into a political diatribe, it’s not Karl Marx that I love, but Groucho, Chico, Harpo and Zeppo Marx. It took a while to warm up to them, but once I became addicted to repeats of Groucho’s TV game show, You Bet Your Life, when I was I college I was hooked on their wild and anarchic comedy.
I even saw Groucho in person just about six months before he died in 1977 at the play The Royal Family of Broadway at the then-Huntington Hartford, and over the years I’ve had the opportunity to interview Groucho’s late son Arthur, his daughter Miriam and Harpo’s son, Bill Marx. Just this week alone, I got a cool new Marx Brothers T-shirt and the new Blu-ray restoration of The Marx Brothers Silver Screen Collection, which features restored versions of their best movies produced by Paramount: The Cocoanuts, (1929) Animal Crackers, (1930) – which features newly discovered footage that was cut from the film in 1936 – Monkey Business, (1931) Horse Feathers (1932) and Duck Soup (1933).
The American Cinematheque’s Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood is screening the restored Animal Crackers and some Marxian rarities on Thursday, October 27 at 7:30 PM. Author Robert S. Bader will be signing copies of his new book, Four of the Three Musketeers: The Marx Brothers on Stage and will introduce the evening. I recently chatted with Bader on the book (by the way, there’s an excerpt of the book featured in the Blu-ray set) and the appeal of the Marx Brothers.
SUSAN KING: Did you choose Animal Crackers to show at the Egyptian?
ROBERT BADER: Absolutely. It’s the one for which Universal found the missing material. When the film was reissued in 1974 it had a lot of jump cuts and things were clearly missing. In the bridge game scene, Margaret Irving walks into the frame and Harpo pulls her underwear out from the top of her dress with his teeth.
SUSAN KING: When was that cut?
ROBERT BADER: In 1936. Post-Hayes Code. There are a couple of the edits that were done so deftly that you wouldn’t notice anything missing unless you read the script. And then there are the obvious jump cuts, like the line in the Hooray for Captain Spaulding where Groucho sings, “I think I’ll try and make her.” That’s now back in the film.
SUSAN KING: Why did you call the book, Four of the Three Musketeers: The Marx Brothers on Stage?
ROBERT BADER: “Four of the Three Musketeers” is a song that was in the stage version of Animal Crackers. It didn’t make it into the movie. It became a very popular piece of their act when they played in vaudeville in the late 1920s and early 1930s when they were billed as the “Musketeers of Mirth.”
SUSAN KING: It’s pretty amazing to think the brothers had been on stage for over 20 years before they starred in The Cocoanuts, which was based on their hit Broadway show.
ROBERT BADER: Groucho went on the stage in 1905 and had a 25-year stage career before they made movies. Harpo came in, in 1908. Gummo got on stage in 1907. Chico was working by himself for a few years before he joined his brothers in 1912.
SUSAN KING: What about Zeppo?
ROBERT BADER: Gummo went into the army in 1918; right at the end of World War I. Zeppo at the age of around 17 took Gummo’s place.
SUSAN KING: Zeppo is almost non-existent in Animal Crackers.
ROBERT BADER: There’s a lot of material that got cut from the stage play that involved the group as a foursome. The act on stage often had a lot of things with all four of them working together. In the early films, there are a lot of two shots. It was tough to capture the action of the four of them together.
SUSAN KING: Zeppo was kind of cursed with the fact that he had to go and take Gummo’s place. Gummo, who didn’t want to be a performer, wasn’t very comfortable on stage. Zeppo had much more ability than he was ever allowed to show in the act.
ROBERT BADER: At least in Monkey Business he has a pretty good role. I think Horse Feathers, Monkey Business and Duck Soup are Zeppo’s best pictures. He had a lot more to do because those were originally written for the screen and I think the writers were cognizant of the fact that the brothers worked very well as a quartet.
SUSAN KING: When they were on Broadway did the brothers keep changing the dialogue?
ROBERT BADER: The legend is that they ad-libbed quite a bit. There’s the famous story that George S. Kaufman was in the back of the theater during The Cocoanuts and he said, “Hold on a second, I think I just heard one of the original lines!” The truth is they stuck with the script, but they would add jokes. Some of it’s been documented. Late in the run of their first Broadway show, I’ll Say She Is, they were competing with a lot of other shows and they would do things like discount tickets because they had a very large theater. Down the street was the roadshow of the movie The Ten Commandments. There’s a line in the theatrical manager sketch in that show where the manager asks Groucho, about his theatrical experience. The original line was, “Last season I was with The Covered Wagon. I played the axel grease.” When The Ten Commandments was playing down the street, Groucho changed the line to, “The other day I saw The Eight Commandments. The manager said, “Don’t you mean The Ten Commandments? Groucho replied, “No. I sat behind a post.”
SUSAN KING: What about the legend that Margaret Dumont was clueless as to what was going on in the plays and films she did with the brothers?
ROBERT BADER: She was not clueless at all. Margaret Dumont was a perfect straight woman. The producer Sam Harris, who was the partner of George M. Cohan, brought her to the Marx Brothers. Dumont was in a George M. Cohan play called The Rise of Rosie O’Reilly. When Harris started working with the Marx Brothers a couple of years later, he thought she’d be perfect for them. He brought her in for The Cocoanuts on Broadway and she ended up in two Broadway shows and seven movies with the brothers. If you don’t think she understood the jokes watch her suppressing laughter at several points in Animal Crackers and Duck Soup.
SUSAN KING: When the Marx Brothers, minus Zeppo – who left after Duck Soup – moved to MGM, didn’t they try out scenes for audiences before they made the movies?
ROBERT BADER: Once they got to MGM, one of the things they really wanted to do was test out the new material in front of an audience. They did a brief tour, just a few weeks, of scenes from A Night at the Opera. They did it again for A Day at the Races and Go West. They worked with about five scenes from each film. They just honed those lines. They had a writer with them. In the case of A Night at the Opera, it was Morrie Ryskind. They would try new lines and move things in and out. They were basically writing the script with the help of an audience.
SUSAN KING: A Night at the Opera and A Day At the Races are classics, but the rest of the films they made at MGM are disappointing. What happened?
ROBERT BADER: Irving Thalberg signed them at MGM. But it wasn’t a standard MGM contract. In the contract was a clause that stated that if Mr. Thalberg becomes unavailable for an extended period of time, the Marx Brothers can terminate the deal. When Thalberg died, they were in the middle of making A Day at the Races. When they finished the film they terminated the contract and left MGM of their own free will because they didn’t think the future with Louis B. Mayer, who was known to not like them, was promising. They made a deal to film Room Service at RKO. They actually signed a three-picture deal with RKO. They got the most money they’d ever been paid for one picture for making Room Service. RKO had spent the most money ever to buy the rights to a stage play for this film. This got a lot of press, and it was a big money film. Before it even got finished, Louis B. Mayer got nervous because A Night at the Opera had been very successful and A Day at the Races was making a ton of money while this was all going on. He realized he just lost the Marx Brothers, so he signed them to a three-picture deal that would allow them to make the other two pictures at RKO.
SUSAN KING: Then Room Service bombs.
ROBERT BADER: It comes out, it’s not great, it doesn’t do well, and Mayer says, “Oh great, now I’ve got these guys signed.” He put them in B pictures. As it turned out, RKO was so disappointed in Room Service they never even asked them to make the other two pictures.
SUSAN KING: Five years after 1941’s The Big Store, the three brothers reunited for A Night in Casablanca, which is the best of their later films.
ROBERT BADER: I love A Night in Casablanca. The Marx Brothers did a short tour on the west coast to test material for the film. That tour turned out to be the last-ever by the three Marx Brothers. They gave their last live show in Oakland, California on August 27, 1945.
The Marx Brothers went on the road and did a small tour of the West Coast after that. That tour turned out to be the last ever stage performances of the Marx Brothers.
Veteran journalist Susan King wrote about entertainment at the Los Angeles Times for 26 years (January 1990 – March 2016), specializing in classic Hollywood stories. She also wrote about independent, foreign and studio movies and occasionally TV and theater stories. She received her master’s degree in film history and criticism at USC. After working 10 years at the L.A. Herald Examiner, she moved to the Los Angeles Times.