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Monday, January 12, 2009

Marxes Out Of Metro

I’m to a point where it’s no longer the best work of great comedians I gravitate to. Fascination for me lies in their weaker (so-called) output, where specters of decline and submission make bittersweet laughs they’re yet trying to generate. What’s most interesting isn’t always "good." I’m more immersed in Keaton at MGM and Laurel and Hardy at Fox than ever I was with great ones they formerly made. What went through the minds of artists engaged in such unworthy factory commissions? You put yourself in the place of lesser talent imposed upon genius and wonder why they couldn’t step aside and let proven ability have its way. My own age and compromise that comes with it makes more poignant what advancing years did to comics I once loved best in their prime. Why else would I take down The Big Store this weekend instead of another go-round of Duck Soup? --- and yet something about The Marx Brothers in decline speaks of grandeur all my favorites shared, a willingness to clown past prime and make at least sips of lemonade from decided lemons. There’s fun to be had in The Big Store if you’re willing to define that in terms beyond gags and whether they work. I like watching the Marxes swirl in Metro pudding, and say, who invited Tony Martin to the party (and gave him co-star billing)? The deuce of it is I like his singing. Tony's welcome anytime to my meditation on what it took to keep a veteran comedy team in business during times that were a-changin’. To embrace The Tenement Symphony and ponder its inclusion in a Marx Brothers feature is to open rich veins of exploration into what seems in hindsight an irrational use of comics any of us might have served better had we been in creative charge. I see myself among harassed studio personnel told to whip something together for a team whose last three lost money. Were customers simply tired of The Marx Brothers by 1941? If so, the team wasn’t alone for being overly familiar. Laurel and Hardy seemed to many a tired act. Abbott and Costello would get everyone laughing aloud soon enough, but that was less for inspired clowning than the fact they were something new. Our stuff simply is going stale, said Groucho, so are we. This was April 1941, two months before The Big Store was released. How many comedians would go on such damning record with product still to (try and) sell? Metro bookers surely wished they could put a muzzle on Groucho: When I say we’re sick of the movies, I mean the people are about to get sick of us. By getting out now, we’re just anticipating public demand, and by a very short margin. The Big Store was the team’s first at Metro with negative costs under a million ($850,000), and thanks to that, it returned profits of $33,000, but domestic rentals of $789,000 (with foreign $525,000) were the lowest yet recorded for an MGM Marx Bros. comedy. The team’s announced "retirement" did indeed anticipate studio demand, if not the public’s. I wonder if Metro, or any company, would have consented to further (continuing) use of them in anything other than "B’s."

Groucho appears to have invested wit and barbed intellect in private correspondence and humorous writings, but for films he’d rely upon others. A shared credit (with Norman Krasna) for The King and the Chorus Girl was integral to publicity for Warner’s 1937 comedy, as this most verbal of Marx brothers implied by speed of delivery that at least half his best lines were ad-libbed. Did Groucho consider movies (specifically ones starring The Marx Bros.) unworthy of his creative bother? I wondered and still do why he didn’t write more of their stuff. Had he done so, would higher standards have been maintained? Maybe Groucho did contribute, without credit, and I’m just unaware of it. The Marx Bros. seemed to have risen (and fallen) on the backs of men who supplied words on Broadway and later in their best movies. When less inspired scriveners came aboard, the likes of The Big Store resulted. It seemed the brothers were unable (or disinclined) to turn familial hands toward generating comedic content for themselves. I’ve read of how they went through motions, cooperated little, and disappeared often to relieve boredom of work before cameras. Did the letdown of losing a nightly audience sap their energies? Like W.C. Fields, you have to assume their act was a hundred times on stage whatever it became in pictures, but Fields wrote his own best stuff, and guarded well against studio mediocrity. The Marxes seemed to have cared a good deal less provided employer’s checks cleared the bank. Maybe it was conviction that movies were beneath them. Groucho took a jaundiced view in letters referencing ones he’d completed. Toward the end, they were mostly dogs in his estimate. I watch Groucho play The Big Store at half his Paramount strength and wonder how much that was diminished from effort he put forth on Broadway. Still yet, there are sections when The Big Store lights up and though I know opinions differ (strongly) on said account, I think Metro’s accent on music actually helps here. Sing As You Sell appealed for me. It’s a production number to which Red Skelton might have been as efficiently applied, but energetic and reflective of the Brother’s maintained status as A-picture clowns (Fox would never have staged a highlight so grand for Laurel and Hardy). Studio confusion as to who the Marxes were and how they best functioned was reflected in another of those last refuge chases that derive of nothing other than resignation and commitment to formula. Knowing this and reflecting upon Marx and Metro’s exhaustion with one another made the finish oddly irresistible for me.

Consider this dream setting for a trip back forty years: You’re seated at one of those packed University showings of a Marx Bros. comedy … trouble is they’ve run all the good ones and now it’s down to MGM titles via Films Inc. 16mm rental. I’d love to have seen the reaction of counterculturalists to The Big Store. Films Inc’s catalog tried putting a happy face on Marx shows they distributed that few liked. Their page (shown here) nobly defends virtues of At The Circus and Go West (the pair of films credited to Buzzell may prove more satisfying in the long run just because they do seem more involved with the Marx Brothers themselves), but gives up short of endorsing The Big Store (If any one film might be said to be typical of what happened to the Marx Brothers under Louis Mayer’s paternal care, this one would be it). Text for the catalog (published 1970) was supplied by academics/historians William D. Routt and James Leahy, their descriptions of available features being a deft merging of cerebral film school-ery and straightforward salesmanship. I Googled both authors and they’re still active (Routt has a webpage). Fans (and scholars) had long known that moving to MGM was tantamount to a Marx surrender before Hollywood’s most dreaded Establishment, an act that seemed to militate against everything they stood for. Films Inc. cleverly rationalized decisions made thirty years before: The Marx Brothers’ comedy was always the comedy of revolt, and the slick productions of MGM brought out all the best in the team as they massed their forces to destroy, destroy, destroy. Honest appraisal of The Big Store gives the lie to that. The Brothers here compromise, compromise, and are constrained. As with previous MGM vehicles, they are less anarchists than compliant performing seals. They step aside not only for Tony Martin, but novelty singer Virginia O’Brien as well (hey, I like her too!). Henry Armetta plays bombastic foil, though his antics and those of obnoxious kids in tow reduce the Marx Brothers to near-invisible support for an overlong routine that expresses best how directionless MGM was in its handling of the team. I’m guessing The Big Store caused near-revolt among disappointed students coming to see their heroes mock convention. Confirmation, or correction, from Greenbriar readers who remember would be welcome. Just how were MGM Marx comedies generally received at colleges? My own experience was limited to a bootlegged print (but a nice one) of earlier Paramount Horse Feathers I hauled around campus from 1972-76 and played repeatedly to classmates who’d (generally) seen little of the Marx Bros. prior. The Big Store and other Metros didn’t appeal to me then like they do now. Could it be my own intervening submission to convention that enables such patience, if not affection, for these beleaguered shows?


Anonymous Anonymous said...

After "A Day at the Races," the Marx Bros. were free agents. All the studios -- even Paramount! -- came calling. United Artists offered the Marxes carte blanche to produce their own movies as they saw fit, with their choice of writers and directors. Imagine the possibilites of further Kaufman/Perlman/Kalmar & Ruby/McCarey classics! Instead, they went for the money at MGM. No sympathy from me.

As for Groucho... according to his bio by Hector Arce -- and I think I'm remembering this correctly -- most of what was credited to him as a writer (that is, essays and books) were actually written by Arthur Sheekman. I've come to believe that Groucho was a better ad-libber than writer. What else can explain mediocrity like "King and the Chorus Girl" and the Broadway show "Time for Elizabeth"?

9:14 PM  
Blogger Scott MacGillivray said...

Hi, John -- Another great post! I can make a case concerning "why Tony Martin" in THE BIG STORE -- it's supposed to be a RITZ Brothers picture! Tony Martin appeared in four of them. Sid Kuller and Ray Golden regularly wrote songs and gags for Harry, Jimmy, and Al, and some of the material is more appropriate to the Ritz trio (the Ritzes run through the "busy office" routine themselves in their NEVER A DULL MOMENT).

Imagine Harry Ritz doing "Sing While You Sell," delivering lyrics like "up and down de ol' plantation," and Al and Jimmy joining him for "cuttin' rugs in a solid way." And I think you'd agree that the chase climax at the end smacks more of the Ritzes than the Marxes.

9:44 AM  
Blogger Michael J. Hayde said...

I think East Side hits the nail on the head. Not only the money, but also the prestige of being three of the "more stars than there are in the heavens" kept the Marxes in Leo's den. As far as the stars of the movie colony were concerned, there were only two major studios: Paramount and MGM. All the rest were also-rans.

Paramount had already chewed them up and spit them out, and had even tried to cook the books on them; clearly that still rankled. United Artists was entering its declining years in 1938 - even Disney had left two years before. On the other hand, RKO was on the rise... and the one-off deal engineered by brother Zeppo was impressive. Unfortunately the end result left a sour taste in the mouths of all concerned.

I own The Big Store, yet haven't watched it yet. Last time I saw it was the first time I saw it: on "The Early Show," WCBS-TV's Sunday afternoon movie program back in the seventies. As usual, John, your writing battles it out with my reluctance, and will probably win.

11:11 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I also enjoy some of the lesser titles by great comedians. A NIGHT IN CASABLANCA has a place in my heart that usually gets me a "it's just you, Spencer" response. I screened THE BIG STORE back around 1975 at college and it went over OK. I found Virginia O’Brien's "singing zombie" (she did all of her singing in total deadpan mode) oddly enjoyable.

AT THE CIRCUS didn’t go over well at all and it was the most appalling thing I had ever seen involving the Marx Brothers. AAAAGGGH! Kenny Baker wins the worst male ingénue ever. The biggest erotic thrill an of Margaret Dumont’s characters experienced in a Marx Brothers film was when a giraffe licks her back (with its huge giraffe tongue) and she says “Not here, monsieur. Not here!” Apparently she thought Groucho’s character (J. Cheever Loophole) had hidden talents and possibilities.

Spencer Gill (

1:26 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Just received this e-mail from "Director Bob":

I took a break and read your "Big Store" posts and was moved to write a comment but it claimed my password was wrong even though it’s posted on my wall here, so for posterity this is what I said:

I can remember sitting in the theater near Pitt where the Marx double bills appeared regularly. Packed with college kids, the smell of weed thick in the air. As "The Big Store" unspooled, I wondered to myself, Why are these people guffawing? even though the answer was obvious. Now, 35 years later, I am like you, John, finding charm in the later MGMs, maybe in part because it's "the boys" and they look like themselves even if they don't destroy, and because I'm wistful for all the fuss made about Marxism back in college, when you could look in the paper and see Hirschfeld ads for Marx Brothers double bills, and they were beloved and guaranteed to sell out. That's a world I want to live in.

1:45 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Spencer, how well I remember "A Night In Casablanca" when it played the "CBS Late Movie" around 1974, I think. Imagine a 1946 Marx Bros. receiving a network run! It was a big night for me, and I suspect, for a lot of other fans as well. Girlfriend Ann remembers very well seeing it on that same occasion, being fourteen at the time. It's still her favorite Marx Bros. feature.

1:52 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I saw all the MGM features, not at a college, but at a special Boston film festival at New England Life hall in 1972("Good Time Films"),attended by audiences whom I assumed to be college types.I didn't ask opinions(I was only 13),but It seemed to me that the audiences really enjoyed the final 3 MGM's and didn't feel cheated at all.I'll bet that the Marx Brothers didn't KNOW that they were supposed to be "Anarchic".They probably just wanted to be funny.

4:25 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Donald Benson e-mailed the following comment:

I recall seeing The Big Store and other late period Marxes at UCSC in the mid 1970's. While nobody proclaimed them the equal of the Paramounts, the irony-minded audience got a lot of laughs out of the "straight" material, especially the Tenement Symphony and those strange interludes in other films where Harpo serenades childlike African Americans.

Stan and Ollie at Fox recall a Penn and Teller routine where they do a big illusion with clear plastic equipment, so you can see all the moves but it's still fascinating. The Fox productions were equally transparent, revealing two old pros making an honest effort to earn their laughs.

Towards the end of the line Abbott and Costello could be sadder than Stan and Ollie ever were, substituting random pain for slapstick and surrendering most of the laughs to stunt men.

Thanks Donald. Your remarks make me want to get out a few of those Laurel and Hardy Fox comedies!

5:14 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

With Chico it was always about the money. Groucho may have still been recovering or still scared after having lost so much in the crash of 1929. When Chico was asked how much money he lost gambling his reply was to find out how much money Harpo had. It was always a concern. (See "Love Happy.")

Having heard radio shows from WWII era Groucho was a very good and frequent ad-libber. Even in their early stage days Perlman, I think, stopped on off stage conversation during a performance when he was shocked to hear a line he wrote.

Groucho had a gift for essay style writing. "Memoirs of A Mangy Lover" and assorted magazine articles possessed a different kind of wit than his screen persona. Structured writing for theater and film would not appear to have been one of his gifts.

5:23 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was a junior in high school when I got caught up in the
Marx Bros. mania that swept the country with reissue of Animal Crackers. For me it was the Beach Theater on St. Pete Beach Florida. The owner had no idea what he was getting into when he booked in Animal Crackers for what he thought was a one week run. Sold out show after sold out show soon led into screenings of the five Paramounts on various mixed bills, crowd pleasers all. Soon Night At The Opera and Day at the Races were booked in, then Room Service and last but not least the last three MGMs, all of which I faithfuly attended over and over. I do remember the crowds deminished and the laughter died down by the time the later films were run. Looking back now some thirty odd years later that I had witnessed the progression of the the Marxes body of work compressed of what was originaly some 12 years (1929-1941) down to what was about 36 mounths all roughly in about the same order as which they were shown!!

6:07 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm glad to know it's not just me (or is it I? Well, it's one of us), who seems to find a strange, comforting and almost perverted pleasure out of late-nite private - viewings of "The Big Store". Of the final group, it's the one that I find to be the most genuinely enjoyable. (For the record, and there's little other reason to mention it, I hate the "Circus" pic -- in fact, every time I run across it, which isn't often, I find myself aggravated. They were just too good for garbage of that caliber!)
So, just what is it about "The Big Store" we all seem to find so oddly appealing, for all the wrong reasons? I've long-since come to the conclusion that it was the choice of director. Eddie Buzzell, who was a former vaudevillian himself, seems to have had absolutely no understanding of their style whatever, whereas, Charles (Chuck) Reisner, who had had a long background in comedy, appears to have been very sympathetic towards them -- and throws every scene, every moment in their direction, and with the pathetic-paucity of virtually ANY material here, it makes the scenes somehow work! (I think that the best, and most accurate indication of how Groucho felt about their final films, and "The Big Store", specifically, can probably be found in his published book of letters. In one, I believe written to Arthur Sheekman, he talks of being anxious to "Finish some re-takes with some models" so he can go see his son Arthur playing in a tennis match in Beverly Hills).

Once again, you have jogged from memory something I would have had no reason to even think about, otherwise. There used to be a cocktail pianist who played during the late afternoon-hours at the Century Plaza Hotel, in the bar/lobby area, named Hal Borne. We became rather friendly for awhile, and would talk. Mr. Borne had worked on some of the Astaire-Rogers films at RKO in some musical capacity or other. One afternoon, he starts telling about his musical-contribution to "Big Store" of which he was still, apparently quite proud. (Bear in mind that Groucho was still alive at that time, and the picture itself wasn't held in particularly high-esteem by the younger contingency). Notwithstanding, Hal, played all the choruses' of "Sing While You Sell", just for myself as a private, and somewhat-captive audience right there, and he apparently remembered every-line!

In closing, and while we're on this subject, I would like to make mention here of another Metro "musical comedy" of that period which I find strangely-soothing, and find myself watching very often, for my own pleasure, late at night: Abbott & Costello's "Rio Rita".

Another great, and highly-insightful post, John!

Hope the New Year will be the best ever for you and yours.

7:00 PM  
Blogger Michael said...

I don't think we every showed The Big Store at Kansas U., though I think I showed Night in Casablanca (I watched it on CBS too); but I had a friend at Wichita State who had your frame of mind even when young, being more interested in seeing something dreadful he hadn't seen than something great he had, and so he may well have shown The Big Store, The Great Jewel Robbery, the Story of Mankind... and I'm sure the 8 folks in the audience were thrilled by them!

12:32 AM  
Blogger Jack Ruttan said...

This won't be very perceptive or interesting compared to the other comment up here, but those promo schemes for movies kill me. I love your writing style too, not to mention the great pics, in big resolution. Great blog!

9:42 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Love your story about Hal Borne, RJ. "Sing While You Sell" for me is the highlight of "The Big Store". And your having mentioned "Rio Rita" makes me want it all the more on DVD. At present, it's one of the few A&C's we can't get.

I'm really liking all this input about Marx Bros. screenings and how they went over. "The Story Of Mankind" --- Wow. That's another one CBS ran on its weeknight late movie during the mid-seventies. Some of us watched it in college and liked it --- the many star cameos are interesting and it's great seeing Ronald Colman debating the fate of man with Vincent Price. A DVD release from Warners would be welcome.

9:43 AM  
Blogger Michael J. Hayde said...

I remember in High School, someone screened Castle Films' 10-minute reel of The Great Jewel Robbery. It went over pretty well, although I think the laugh track found it funnier than we did. Wonder why Universal (which owns it) didn't put the whole show on its box set of the Paramounts... although I can guess....

11:57 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It might be worth noting here, in passing, that Billy Wilder (after the success of "Some Like It Hot"), was apparently planning a "comeback" for them, called "A Day at the United Nations", but Chico's death scotched the project from happening. (We can surmise, perhaps, that some of the intended jokes, or ideas, might have made their way into "One, Two, Three", made around that time.) Harry Ruby and Bert Kalmar were allegedly tapped as the original writers on "Go West", and supposedly came-up with an (at least) first-draft screenplay, which legend has it, is supposed to be hysterical. I still think that what happened to the Bros. at MGM after Thalberg's passing, is one of the most unconscionable acts in movie history, and as with Keaton, only shows what could really happen to great,"individualized" talents when they got caught-up in the "mesh" of the studio-system.(But, having said that, I will also confess that "Room Service", my earliest exposure to them as a child, and for all it's obvious drawbacks, is still,for me, a "guilty pleasure" and actually, next to "Opera", my favorite film of theirs'!)
I hadn't realized that Metro (or whoever now holds the rights), hadn't issued "Rio Rita" on DVD. A genuine shame, and they should, as it is an exceptionally well-made film, with shimmering b&w photography by George Folsey, I think, and again, it was one of my earliest exposures to Bud & Lou as a child, and is my "fav" film of theirs!
Again, John, all best! R.J.

2:49 AM  

I think Wheeler & Woolsey proved the notion that Groucho added some lines to Marx films, either formally to the scripts or at least ad-libbing, because the same writers who worked on the classic Marx films also worked on several Wheeler & Woolsey films, but the jokes in the W&W films just don’t have the same snap. Don’t get me wrong – I love W&W – I’d rate some of their films as classics alongside the best of L&H, Fields and the Marxes – but the proof is in the pudding when you do some direct comparisons of Marx and W&W films that were worked on in the same time period. W&W were the second highest grossing comedy team (behind Laurel & Hardy) of the 1930s – maybe they should be spotlighted at GPS some time (unless they already have been and I missed it).

As for Laurel & Hardy at Fox – I LOVE “The Big Noise.” I would rather watch it than some of the Roach features. My SOD tent-mates think I’m nuts for that, but there it is. It just makes me laugh, and I don’t mind seeing Stan & Ollie reprise older-than-dirt routines. The film overall has a loopy charm and at least they try to maintain a "this is just a silly comedy" feeling throughout, as opposed to "A-Haunting We Will Go," which is a lackluster mystery throughout... and oh yeah, there are those two goofy guys in the corner.

Interesting how W.C. Fields avoided going out on the sorry notes his contemporaries did – his last starring films “The Bank Dick” and “Never Give a Sucker an Even Break” are quite the epitaph to his career!

6:57 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Michael, I'm guessing no one at Universal realized they owned "The Great Jewel Robbery" (and I assume that's your conclusion as well), but that complete episode would have made a splendid extra with the Paramount features.

RJ, I can readily imagine a finished script being discarded for being "too funny" at Metro. Seems to me the number of "might-have-beens" there are legion.

Phantom, I am a big fan of Wheeler & Woolsey. I wish TCM would run a day of their stuff so I could grab the missing ones on the DVR. As to Fields going out with two great starring features (and disregarding his later cameos), we can only lament the fact that his health didn't permit continuing with the Universal starring comedies, but as that company was said to have lost money on these, do you think they would have been willing to continue with them even if Fields were able?

8:24 AM  
Blogger G. D. Wilson said...

Ages ago, around 1973 in the pre-cable TV days, I attended a double bill of the Marx Brothers in the Ohio State University campus area. A dilapadated campus theatre was showing LOVE HAPPY and A NIGHT IN CASABLANCA--it was early August and their air conditioning system had broken down. Yet around 15 other people suffered with me in the intense heat to see these two lesser Marx films--such fare was few and far between on TV at this time in central Ohio.
My favorite of the two, LOVE HAPPY, was shown first and Harpo's antics carried the show, dismal as it often was. Then came A NIGHT IN CASABLANCA which for the most part, in the 95 degree F temperature, was almost unbearable.
The previous year during the fall season, the campus theatres were showing triple bills of DUCK SOUP, HORSE FEATHERS and A NIGHT AT THE OPERA but I missed these screenings. I can only imagine they went over pretty well, and I also imagine some of the same folk who attended those earlier festivals later suffered with me through LOVE HAPPY and CASABLANCA, and it seemed the entire audience on that intolerable day was waiting for big laughs that never arrived--yet they suffered through it, probably subscribers to my philosophy that low-grade Marx Brothers is better than NO Marx Brothers.
Looking at the fare on TV today--inane reality and endless contest shows--garbage like BRIDEZILLAS and non-stop reruns of lawyer and crime shows--A NIGHT IN CASABLANCA now shines as a beacon of brilliant genius.
The Marx Brothers made only a handful of films, so I conclude we might as well treasure the best moments of all of them and be grateful they are ALL now available to see--there was a time during my life when legal problems kept anyone from seeing ANIMAL CRACKERS until the mid-70's.
Well, so long..I must be going!

5:22 PM  
Blogger Doug Gray said...

Thanks for the great article on the Marx Brothers. I have to admit I am still very picky about their post-"Opera" films...but "Big Store" was a favorite of mine when I was very young and so it holds a special quality for me. Although, having seen the movie originally on a small B&W TV set one Sunday morning in the 70s, I never realized that they had used stunt men for the final chase...a fact that was terribly obvious when I saw it again years later on the big screen (at a revival theater in Palo Alto). Of course, I was disappointed. Until I did the math, and realized that Groucho was 51 at the time (and he was the youngest of the three) I cut them some slack and can still enjoy the film. I do like the theory that it was intended as a Ritz Brothers there proof or is it just an educated guess?

It's hard to tell if Groucho would have written better scripts. I've heard a lot of his radio appearances and his lines are usually scripted. When he does ad-lib, it's usually sink or swim. You get a great line, or an awful pun. A big laugh or a long groan.

Also, on the subject of the writing, which film was the last one they rehearsed on stage before filming? I remember reading that Groucho thought they should always work in front of a crowd before committing the script to film, to work out the slow parts. Although maybe that wouldn't have helped some of these later "Room Service", where they were just shoe-horned into an existing play.

On a side note to Laurel & Hardy fans: invest in a region-free DVD player. Universal put out a box set of their best shorts and features in the UK that is worth every penny.

7:12 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Wow G.D. --- thanks for that vivid account of a sweltering encounter with "A Night In Casablanca" and "Love Happy." I don't recall who offered "Casablanca" for rental, but would love to know what kind of rates both these titles commanded back when the Marxes were hot on college circuits. I'm sure you're aware of Steve Stoliar's wonderful account of working for Groucho in his latter years ("Raised Eyebrows") and the efforts Stoliar made in persuading Universal to reissue "Animal Crackers." Really a great book.

Doug, I think "Go West" was the last one that was road-tested prior to shooting. You were fortunate to get "The Big Store" and other Metros on TV growing up. None of our stations would handle the "Pre-48 Greats" after the early sixties, and I went years before seeing many of the classics from that library.

6:45 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

If I'm not intruding myself here once too often -- forgive me, but when you start bringing up names like The Marx Bros.,I guess all of us could go on forever. After all it was guys like the Marxes, and Stan & Ollie, and Chaplin that got at least most of us interested in Hollywood films of that era! (Oh, and of course, "Baldless Karloff", which is exactly how I used to identify my b'day-twin when I was small, much to my parent's and their friend's amusement! The heartless swine!)

"Go West" apparently wasn't exactly their farewell road-tour, John. Since they had evidently, an already well-staked financial investment in the pic, they did do a limited tour of scenes from "Night In Casablanca", mostly for army camps. It really didn't help much, as it turned-out.

This also affords me a quick opportunity before I run out the door, to share another memory you re-kindled here. When Universal re-issued "Animal Crackers", whenever the hell that was (you guys would know), it opened in Westwood at a theatre called the United Artists, I believe, right there in the heart of Westwood Village. Big opening-night event, with Groucho, and the last girlfriend, Erin, present. The media, the press, probably more ballyhoo than greeted the original Paramount Premiere! Anyway, a major crush. (And I would have like to see Groucho make a pun out out that!) I was present that night, but merely as an onlooker, since I was living and going to school in the area then ('74, maybe?) At one point, I found myself having a long conversation with an old man standing next to me, very nice fellow, and we were commenting with some "bemusement" on the spectacle we were watching. It was Morrie Ryskind.

Best again. R.J.

8:21 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

RJ, hadn't realized that the Marxes tested "A Night In Casablanca" at army camps (!). As to the 1974 re-premiere of "Animal Crackers", there is a detailed section about that in Steve Stoliar's book. Remember when CBS actually ran that in primetime (!!) in July 1979?

8:53 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi, John,

I believe Groucho makes reference to the road-tours on "Casablanca" briefly, in his book of letters to his daughter Miriam, which I only glanced-through one afternoon at a bookstore, but I'm sure you can find it. He also talks about the problems they had in shooting, and I think alludes to the fact that he was less-than-happy with their director, Archie Mayo, and the fact that he was genuinely puzzled about the film's score, which he said,"sounded to him more like the theme from "Spellbound"! The really frustrating thing for me, and I think the rest of the fans about "Casablanca", is that it IS such a genuinely crisp idea for them, particularly as a "comeback" vehicle, but by the half-way point, it just seems to lazily, half-heartedly "fall-back" into things they had done before -- and better -- at Metro. And, the obvious low-budget, and the strange kind of butcher-block cutting (apparently, the result of several previews), seems to thwart the film's own good-intentions at every turn.

I do indeed remember the televison "premiere" of "Animal Crackers" on CBS. Thought it was wonderful, because, actually, it was the first-time I was seeing it. (I never did attend the theatrical skowing). Too, you must realize that dear Harry Ruby was such a close-friend of our family's (he and my grandfather started out as "songpluggers" together at "Waterson, Berlin & Snyder" way back in the days of Tin Pan Alley), that some of these things hold a "double-nostaglic" value for me. One would see Harry, usually with Grouch, all the time in Beverly Hills, when I was growing-up (this was probably just after the quiz show ended), at(usually) one of two-places, "Nat & Al's" Deli, or "Linny's" Deli (both on Beverly Drive). My mother told me that one night at Linny's, Harry introduced her to Groucho , who went into his "act" and did his "walk" around her (Mom was kind of a tall, dark-haired glamour-puss in those days, who didn't look unlike his then-wife Eden). She indicated to me that she was less-than-enchanted by his antics.(But then, women just don't seem to the appreciate the subtle charms of Rufus T. Firefly, the way that guys do!) One night, while we were having dinner, the phone rang in my father's den. As I often did, I ran-in to answer it. It was Harry Ruby. I was then about maybe 13, or 14. He said he wanted to talk with Dad. "I was watching your picture "Horsefeathers" last night at 2am, Mr. Ruby" I told him. "Ricky, what were you doing awake at 2 in the morning?", he asked. "Watching Horsefeathers", I replied. Then, I ran inside to get my father. It's not, I'll grant you, the greatest dialogue-exchange in history, but probably better than anything you'll find on the remnant-counter of "The Big Store".
Take care, John. R.J.

8:54 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

RJ, it's interesting that the Marx Bros. didn't immediatly follow up the considerable success of "A Night In Casablanca" with a follow-up comedy. A previous Greenbriar post deals with some of this ...

Was Groucho the one who least cared about continuing to make films? Getting all three to be of the same mind about any project was probably a major factor in their too-few postwar appearances.

Really liked your Harry Ruby anecdote. Was that 2 AM viewing of "Horse Feathers" on a school night?

9:14 AM  
Blogger Michael said...

Speaking of Groucho and restaurants...

When I first visited LA in 1972, at the age of 10, we were leaving a restaurant called the Cafe Swiss and happened to pass a short older gentleman talking to a young woman. My mom nudged me and whispered, "That's Groucho!" Frankly, I had to take her word for it as I had never seen the older Groucho of You Bet Your Life, only the black-haired and mustached young man. But I took a good, not too obvious glance at him as we passed, knowing, perhaps, that there could not ever be, in all my life after that, a celebrity encounter with anyone living that could top Groucho.

2:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

John & Michael,

You really opened-up "The Memory Box" for me by your mention of Cafe Swiss. Very nice little restaurant, on the corner of Rodeo Dr. & Santa Monica. Probably a trendy clothing store now, or something. But, when I was a kid, and going to school, there were a group of old, retired songwriters, and ASCAP members, who met there for lunch regularly, and were called, informally, "The Cafe Swiss Group". I really don't know how much most of these names would mean to most of you, but they comprised a veritable history of early show-business: Harry ("Three Little Words") Ruby, Wolfe("The Peanut Vendor")Gilbert, Sammy ("Popeye the Sailor") Lerner, Charles("Jitterbugs")Newman,Herb("The Continental")Magidson,Teddy ("Stormy Weather")Koehler, (the "baby of the group"),Arthur ("Cry Me a River")Hamilton, my grandfather, M.K.("My Little Buckaroo")Jerome, and others. The group would vary from time-to-time, and occasionally include Jessel, or Milton Berle, or someone like that, but generally these were "The core members". Somebody should have been there with a tape recorder!

John, I only wish I could put you in that proveriable time-machine and send you back to the Beverly Hills of that period, and the one Michael alludes to here. You wouldn't have had a ball, you would have been "numb"! It was such an interesting amalgam of the "old" and the "new" Hollywood of that time, and one could feel the shift in how the industry was changing, even then. All you had to do was , as Michael said, be walking into (or out of a restaurant, or a store or whatever) and you'd run headlong into a famous face. Might be an old-timer like Groucho, or Harold Lloyd, or Eddie Robinson, or one of the "newer crowd" like, say, John Saxon, or George Hamilton. I can vividly remember bumping virtually face-to-face into Warren Beatty in a doorway at The Beverly Wilshire. You get the idea. Fun times.
To address your question about how "active" Groucho might have been about possible later films, my guess is, barely. I think he really said it all in his autobiography. They were shooting a late scene in "Casablanca", and he was hanging upside-down on a ladder or something, and afterward he approached Harpo, and said, "Have you had enough?' and Harpo nodded.
As you made pretty-clear in your earlier post(which is excellent, by the way), John, "Love Happy" was pretty-much a fluke that was engineered by this notorious Lester Cowan, and they couldn't get the financing unless all three were signed and on-board so they could "sell it" as a Marx Bros. show. I just don't think that for Groucho, making films meant all that much. Better to do the quiz show, collect the money, and go home. He was at heart a vaudeville and stage performer, and one venue was pretty much as good as another, as long as he got the laughs. None of them ever in their wildest dreams imagined the "legend status" that was to come! As always, R.J.

5:41 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Imagine sitting among the "The Cafe Swiss Group" and getting answers to all your questions ... but there wouldn't enough time in such a day and I doubt they would have been so amenable to my endless inquiries.

RJ, your comment about Abbott and Costello at the Greenbriar post linked below was more great reading. Thanks as always. Everyone should check this out ...

12:19 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

For years, I've read about what a weak vehicle "The Big Store" was for the brothers, but strangely, I've always enjoyed it. I doubt that under Thalberg's guiding hand "Tennament Symphony" would've ever been allowed to survive the shears, but even that overblown piece has it's charm. The Big Store is far from perfect, but the brothers were far from finished in the business regardless of how much they complained about it at the time.

Sing While You Sell,

8:50 PM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

At least "The Big Store" seems like a Marx Bros. vehicle. "Go West" plays like something that was originally written for Carney & Brown.

7:42 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wonderful article and so glad to have found a kindred spirit. I have always been fascinated by the later films of my favorite comedians. The Big Store has become one of the films I watch most because I enjoy it on so many levels. I was one of those baby boomers who grew up with the nostalgia boom of the late sixties, early seventies, and I attended many of the screenings which were shown in the NY area. The Mini Cinema in Uniondale (Long Island) was one of the first to take advantage of the potential for Marx films on their program.

I also recall sitting through At the Circus and Go West at the late (lamented) Vagabond Theatre in Los Angeles and as I walked out, there was writer Irving Brecher! I approached him and he seemed SO PROUD of those films. Yes, he was one of the only men to solo on the writing of a Marx project, but surely he must have known how lame the films really were. He wrote (in my humble opinion) the very worst of their films. Go West is unwatchable for me, but I politely shook his hand and told him how much I enjoyed his work....and I still do.

So, why is The Big Store so patently watchable? I guess it's just so blatantly "the end" that it seems almost celebratory. Some of the "comedy" set pieces are like a train wreck that you can't look away from (the bed department....sheesh), and some of the music is quite fun and catchy (LOVE "If It's You"....a beautiful song sung in the film to Clara Blandick...Auntie Em in The Wizard of Oz).

As a postscript, let me add that one day I attended a live show here in LA at a local college. The show was nostalgic in theme and featured people like Ann Jeffries, etc. At one point, our singing M.C. (wish I could remember his name) ended the show with what he termed, "One of the greatest pieces of music ever written"....and then proceeded to sing "The Tenement Symphoy". I almost fell out of my chair. He was serious. It was a priceless moment.

Love the piece, and the comments made me long for the days when I could go the movies and watch great comedians do their thing.

Cheers. Nick Santa Maria

1:29 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Hi Nick --- Really enjoyed your recollections of seeing the Marx Bros. films at 60's/70's revival houses, and that encounter with Irving Brecher. There's a very good book just out about him ... kind of a long, long interview, and really fascinating. And as to "The Tenement Symphony", I'm becoming more and more a fan of that number. The Tony Martin songs may ultimately become my favorite parts of "The Big Store."

1:52 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Nick, I just watched your stand-up segment on You Tube and really liked it ---

Also your "Paranoia Polka" --- really clever song!

Thanks a lot for commenting here and at the "Dance With Me, Henry" post.

2:45 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks, John. LOVE the site. Let's keep this stuff alive. We sure need it now more than ever.


2:10 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


Hey John old pal...
Looking forward to seeing you at Cinefest! It's been way too long.
But I have been enjoying visiting you here at Greenbriar.

I have also always liked "The Big Store", but of course not as much as the Marxes' earlier classics.
One thing about "The Big Store" that I have not seen anyone else mention here or anywhere else: it is a remake of an earlier MGM movie. Well, let's say a sort-of partial/unofficial/undocumented semi-remake. Take a look at the 1936 feature "The Longest Night". There are several character names and situations that later turn up in "The Big Store". Coincidence? I think not!

Regarding your comment on the Tony Martin songs, I have always especially liked "If It's You" (I have Tony's 1941 Decca 78 of the song) but still have a little trouble enjoying "The Tenement Symphony" (although I also have Tony's 78 of that, which came out on RCA Victor about 1949).

Keep up your great work here John!

9:26 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Hey Rich --- Great hearing from you (been too long) and thanks for this neat info on songs in "The Big Store."

I'm really looking forward to Syracuse and seeing you there.

Should be a great show.

6:06 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

An actor by the name of Frank Ferrante, who met him only once, is doing "An Evening With Groucho" this weekend in SF--there was an article in the Sunday datebook section of the Chronicle which is probably available on under "Channeling Groucho Marx".

And.. Tony Martin appeared for several nights in January, last month, in the Rrazz Room at the Hotel Nikko here.. Some people are timeless?

1:19 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Tony Martin still performs? Absolutely amazing!

5:54 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

In his mid-90s, no doubt he doesn't work often. This engagement was probably postponed from one announced for 2008 (due to the death of wife Cyd Charisse).


2:51 PM  

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