Monday, January 22, 2018

My Log 585 Jan 22 2018: Chronicles from [almost] the Tenth Decade: 22; A brutally heavy book tells more than you need to know about the Marx Brothers and the inspired lunacy of their lives and films

For the last several weeks I have been reading a book that is absolutely brutal.
I don’t mean it is brutal in the information it contains. I just mean that the book itself --- its massive size, its weight, the tiny print jammed on to all its 504 large-sized pages --- is almost more than I can manage. I do all of my book-reading in bed, hard enough on the neck even with a paperback, but having to hold up this two-and-a-half pound book has been a strain on both my arm muscles --- one of which, my left upper arm, already has some mysterious old-age ailment --- and my eyesight.
Well, I guess no reader is interested in these problems. They might  rather like to know what the book is about. It is about the Marx Brothers, that madcap quintet of comedians whose films, all made in the 1930s or 1940s made generations of people around the world laugh until, as someone wrote after one performance, “the audience was lying in the aisles laughing helplessly and uncontrollably.”
This book, however, is about far more than the crazy antics of these comedians. It is a detailed account of the vaudeville industry which ran successfully in local theatres all over the United States between 1885 and 1925, by which time it had almost run its course. As author Robert S. Bader shows in Four of the Three Musketeers, published by Northwestern University Press, Evanston, Illinois --- only an academic publisher could have produced so weighty book, surely --- these sons of Minnie and Frenchy Marx were active in vaudeville for the 20 years from 1905, before graduating to Broadway, a more serious form of theatrical endeavour that, nevertheless, they managed to reduce to chaos in show after show.
The fact is, their route to getting there, to becoming rich and famous, was a pitiless grind.  Julius, eventually known to the world as Groucho, the third in age of the brothers, the first boy to follow his uncle the already famous Al Shean [of Gallagher and Shean], into show business, was not yet 15 when he took to the boards as a singing act, first with two other boys, then as Lily Seville and Master Marx, then as one of Gus Edwards’ Nine Postal Telegraph Boys, then as part of the cast of a four-act melodrama, then as one of four young men and fifteen chorus girls in  A Sideshow, before, when he was still only 16, being joined by one of his brothers, Milton, two years younger, in The Three Nightingales. In these two years he had performed at least 131 times in different theatres in 23 of the 48 states, two Canadian provinces, and in at least 100 different cities and towns by that time, including 10 in Canada, a scarcely believable workload for a young boy in such a short time.
The following year they were formed into the Three Nightingales, and their mother Minnie joined the act at the age of 43. She insisted that Adolph, who became known as Harpo, the son totally without talent, they believed, because he could not sing, should become part of the act. He was instructed just to open his mouth when Julius opened his.
Eventually the Brothers began to introduce comic bits into their routine: Mr Bader shows that almost all the stories they later told about themselves and their history were inaccurate, or simply invented, and  one of these was that their first bit of comedy was based on an incident with a runaway horse that occurred outside the theatre where they were playing in 1909 in Nacogdoches, Texas. Mr Bader says no record of their ever having played in that town has ever been found. Evidently the odd name appealed to their sense of the ridiculous. However, from that moment on their vaudeville act was one of comedy pieces linked by music. Their first real success was called Fun in Hi Skule, performed by Minnie Palmer [a name Minnie adopted for a while] and Her Seven Happy Youngsters, of which only two were her sons.
The handed down tales have become show business legend of how Minnie Marx [born Miene Schönberg in Germany, the daughter of entertainers, emigrated to the United States in 1880, married Samuel Marx, who was from  Alsace in France and was thereafter known as Frenchy] took over the management of her sons,  arranged the incredible schedule of their bookings, driving hard bargains with managements who were accustomed to paying as little for their acts as they could get away with.
By the time they reached New York’s Broadway stages in 1924 the Marx Brothers’ act was more or less in the form in which it later became well-known around the world through their films.  Every act, every joke, every comedy routine, had been tried out repeatedly before audiences for many years. Their show I’ll Say She Is had been played in several cities successfully for almost a year before they opened with it in New York, where it ran for more than 330 performances, and took the town by the ears. Now, an aura of respectability began to attach itself to them for the first time. Alexander Woollcott, critic of the New York Sun, wrote of Harpo’s speechless act: “Surely there should be dancing in the streets when a great clown comes to town, and this man is a great clown.” Harpo became a friend of Woollcott, began to hang out with him and his high-powered intellectual friends, and was thereafter always regarded as perhaps the supreme talent among the Marx Brothers, a reputation that took him to the Soviet Union, where he received a clamorous reception, which was thus described the next day in the New York Times:

Making his first appearance before a Russian audience in his celebrated knife-dropping act, the American comedian brought down the house in the Leningrad Music Hall as a capacity audience of usually phlegmatic Soviet theatregoers applauded, stamped, and cheered for twenty-five minutes after his six-minute act. He wore a wig, played a harp, and preserved his usual waggish silence, and was assisted by two members of the cast of the Moscow Art Theatre, with whom he had rehearsed for ten days.
Thereafter the Brothers were able to work with famous writers of musical comedies, such as Irving Berlin and George S. Kaufmann. They were now competing with the top talents of the American theatre who were tough competition. For instance, Abie’s Irish Rose opened and ran for five years. It was royally denounced on opening by the Life magazine critic, Robert Benchley, who thereafter had to find a one-line put-down of the play every week. Eventually he pleaded, “Will the Marines never come?”  That’s about the only Broadway joke Mr Bader has not tracked down.
As they transferred their stage shows to film, the Brothers hired several writers, who undertook the arduous task of giving their shows some minimal structure, around which the Brothers ad-libbed ferociously. The humourist S.J. Perelman first saw the Brothers in 1917 in their vaudeville act, and he wrote an acid account of their feeble jokes which, to his dismay, had not an ounce of nuance about them.  This did not prevent him from taking the job fourteen years later of writing the script for Monkey Business. One of the  movie jokes attributed to Perelman as writer was Groucho's remark after  chasing a lady up a ladder into a barn, that “‘tis better to have loft and lost than never loft at all,” which indicates that Perelman wasn't above making his own corny jokes, however superior he might have thought himself intellectually. It is also recorded that when Groucho read Perelman's first book in 1929, he sent the humorist a note that “from the moment I picked it up until I laid your book down, I was convulsed with laughter. Someday I intend to read it”.
In writing a book a couple of years ago about the creation of the Troubadour coffee house in London by a young Canadian couple, Michael and Sheila van Bloemen, I was told that one of their customers, a keen motor-tourist, had struck up a friendship with Perelman, with whom he quarrelled just as they were about to enter Peking on a motor tour in an old MG.  This customer, Eric Lister, wrote a book about that trip which he called Don’t Mention the Marx Brothers, for whom, apparently, Perelman had developed a ferocious dislike while working with them on their films. There is a clue to this antipathy given by Mr Bader, when he says that, having read Perelman’s first draft, Groucho dismissed it by saying “it stinks!” thereafter hiring four or five other writers to supplement the parade of jokes.   [Lister, incidentally, later wanted to make up the quarrel with Perelman, but found the man  stubbornly refused to talk to him again.]
In the rest of the book --- which is divided into 392 pages of text, and 107 pages of closely printed lists and references --- I was able to luxuriate in having seen at least seven of the Brothers extraordinary films, and having been amazed throughout my life at the continuing appeal of their humour over generations from my parents to my children. The very names of the characters played by Groucho are enough to bring back memories of the films:  Captain Spaulding in Animal Crackers 1930; Rufus T. Firefly in Duck Soup 1933; Otis B. Driftwood in A Night at the Opera 1935; Hugo Z. Hackenbush, A Day at the Races 1937; and Wolf T. Flywheel The Big Store 1941.
If there are those among you who have enjoyed the Marx Brothers films, I need hardly say anything more.

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