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Wednesday, June 05, 2019

The Marx Brothers, Then ... Then ... and Now

Filmfax Interview Yields Much Marx Lore

A long and happy arm of coincidence: I had just watched A Day At The Races on VUDU-HD, then by chance came upon Filmfax #25 (Feb./March 1991), which featured an in-depth chat with Allan Jones about working with the Marx Brothers in Races, plus earlier A Night At The Opera (conducted by Gregory J.M. Catsos, an always expert interviewer who contributed often to Filmfax). Made me realize again what treasures lie in back issues of a venerable mag that thrives to the present (#154 due in July). Races was the Marxes’ second for Metro, regarded by many as their final go of merit. They viewed it so, Groucho saying to his end that Irving Thalberg’s death put paid to studio effort made on Marx behalf. Sharks swam round the Bros. as a next three were made cheaper, called less upon writing talent, “retirement” for the team an eventual out. I was years since attending Races, so much as to forget bulk of it, and daunted besides by 111 minutes between start and a finish line. Could I last and take the pennant? Aftertaste from 1972’s Hollywood --- The Dream Factory was of fun so manic as to no longer be fun, the boys as bogus medicos let loose in an exam room where little they did made sense, and went too long beside MGM portions more bite-size. The ABC special, narrated by Dick Cavett, was how a lot of us first came by the Lion’s library, at least highlights of it, and what a thrill to see star faces, so many!, cascading over an hour’s length. Hazard for the Marxes was their stuff out of context, so the Races excerpt seemed little more than formless chaos. Some might say well, that’s the sort of comedy the Marx Bros. did, but where the idea was to interest outliers less familiar with their work, this was no ideal start. It was a same snakebite Robert Youngson took with his Big Parade of Comedy, where sampling of Go West implied Marx humor as mere variant on Sennett slapstick. Did Hollywood --- The Dream Factory or Big Parade of Comedy swell the ranks of Marx Bros. fandom, or reduce it?

I watched A Day At The Races alone. Does anyone see it in crowded theatres anymore, and would viewership wrap arms around the Marxes if they did? These are old, gone comics now, not emblems of protest and up-yours to authority. I miss that for having known, at least encountered, the attitude, my own a same then as now … whatever gets the stuff before an audience will do. So does A Day At The Races click today as in, say, 1974? Short of the Marxes as ongoing kindred spirits with youth, I suspect not. Picture a once-hep prof, long since tenured toward decrepitude, laying Races or Opera before students with way different concepts of protest, none expressed through vehicle of comedy half-a-century older than even it was when anointed by 60/70’s hipsters. I’d no more spring the Marx Brothers on a college crowd than take rat poison. Has anyone out there tried, and don’t say yes, in 1992, or 2003, because at a pace modern culture runs, those might as well be years we still lived in caves, or used rotary phones, and what’s the difference between such epochs to a modern observer?

So I’ve got myself in a froth when the idea was to talk about A Day At The Races and Allan Jones. Found to my liking that for all its length, Races does not lag. Jones and Maureen O’Sullivan supply “relief” from the comedy, per formula Thalberg insisted on, and the Marxes did not resist, but past two music recitals, one of which integrates Chico and Harpo, there is surprisingly little to distract from the comedy. As to that, I would guess the show is funny, but how to be sure without an audience to confirm or deny? This was why MGM sent the team on theatre tours to test material. There was no trusting individual judgment as to what would earn laughs. Jones said they were on the road for eight weeks, five shows a day, six days a week, trying out material for A Night at The Opera. The writers sat offstage clocking laughs. I wonder if other film companies dispatched road crews to sift content for comedies. I’ve not heard of it. Was MGM and the Marx Brothers alone for using this device? The expense alone may have prevented rivals from trying. Having gone through such a process for Opera and Races (Allan Jones was not part of the second live troupe, being engaged at Universal for Showboat), we might assume that these two represent gilt-edge, absolute sure-fire mirth-makers for their respective years of 1935 and 1937. Could there have been a more efficient means of insuring a public’s glee for your effort? An only disconnect might be the response a routine would get on a stage as opposed to the screen, as where Jones noted Opera’s stateroom set-piece “didn’t go over well with the audiences,” causing Groucho and Chico to suggest the segment be cut, “but Thalberg calmly explained to them that in a theatre, on a full stage, audiences could not visualize the perspective of a small crowded stateroom. Thalberg insisted that on film, the stateroom would look small, and the scene would work.” From anecdotes like this came Thalberg enshrine as a genius. Would Groucho, based on such a lesson, regard the producer’s instinct for comedy superior to his own? Lifelong esteem the comedian felt for Thalberg makes sense where we consider such an incident as related by Allan Jones.

Sam Wood directed Opera and Races, badly, as described by Jones. I had read that Groucho was put out with him, as in Wood saying you couldn’t make an actor out of clay, and Grouch answering that you couldn’t make a director out of Wood. Allan Jones supplied the basis for complaints: Wood requiring “about twenty takes, or more.” Not having gone with the road tours, Wood was oblivious to the routines being well-honed and camera ready. Jones: “We did so many retakes, we became disgusted and bored with our dialogue. Even our funny lines became dull with all this repetition.” So how many times could you tell a joke before it stopped being funny? This was burden upon any performer's feel for good material. To do a gag twenty times was surely to kill it, plus whatever spirit of fun prevailed on the set. Was this why the Marx Brothers engaged so much mischief between takes? Sam Wood would appear to have been the worst possible choice for a director, and yet Thalberg assigned him twice. Did Groucho suggest a change and get rebuffed? A better ramrod might have been W.S. Van Dyke, who was fast, and understood comedy besides. Could he have supplied a congenial enough atmosphere to make Opera and Races twice as good as they already were?

Thalberg’s idea, according to Jones, was to make the Marx Bros. “sympathetic characters,” and “involve the audience emotionally, particularly the female members.” Later generations would come to deplore this method, especially “the new concept of (the Marxes) being helpers to the romantic leads.” None of this was new to feature comedy. Most figured nonsense tendered non-stop was no good beyond two reels. Even Buster Keaton admitted need for a strong plot to sustain his hour-long output. MGM’s policy could be argued to the mat, but weren’t they but maintaining what impresarios on stage had done for a last hundred years? Melodramas and even Shakespeare were often broken up by song and silly bits. Audiences were understood to be put off by too much sameness. Even the Marx Brothers must be thinned at least somewhat to avoid overkill. Was there, then, such a thing as excess gaiety? Perhaps mirth should be doled out in the interests of propriety. Was there actual harm in “laughing yourself sick,” or comedy inducing “pains in the side?” One reason I’d say Martin and Lewis clicked so well was because one did the comedy, the other romance and tunes. It wasn’t necessary for M&L to use an Allan Jones. What’s interesting is that right through the 50’s, Thalberg’s formula was still being applied.

Groucho, said Allan Jones, was a most distant of the Marxes, “ … very caustic, serious most of the time, and usually aloof,” but “really warm-hearted and sensitive” once you got to know him. Jones remembered Groucho ad-libbing lines in Opera and Races. I often wonder how much of wit in any of the team’s films were Groucho’s own creation. Given enough of it, was there any move to assign him a writer’s credit? Jones recalled Groucho trying out jokes on him and looking bereft if Jones did not laugh. Is there worse instance of being put on the spot than someone coming to you with a story they think is hilarious, telling it to you, then waiting for you to react? Nothing short of a guffaw will do, and should you fake that, they are more affronted than if you don’t laugh at all. It must have been a no-win situation for Groucho, who according to Jones, worried constant about whether his material was any good. Maureen O’Sullivan by her own account did not find anything Groucho said to be funny. The poor man must have been crushed. If Groucho was dour offscreen, which many agree he was, then we should take into account the burden of expectation, his friends’, the public’s, was so great that he could never hope to meet it. I read of fans approaching Groucho in hope he would insult them, just like in the movies. Must have been exhausting. I assume he could go more-or-less incognito during stage and early screen days when the Groucho face and costume disguised him well, but what of a You Bet Your Life era when Grouch was more or less himself on-camera? With that came surely his total loss of privacy.

FUN FACT involving our Liberty Theatre playing A Day At The Races on Sunday and Monday, July 4 and 5, 1937. Flat rate as charged by Metro for the two-day engagement was $65.00. Amount spent on promotion (“posters, photos, slides”) was an additional $12.30.


Blogger Tommie Hicks said...

Let's say the Liberty's admission was 25 cents on that Fourth and Fifth of July, 1937. 312 people would have to show up those two days for the Liberty to break even just on the rental. I hope the Liberty did good on snacks. Being the Fourth of July I think most folks would not have gone to the movies that day or the next, so I wonder if the Liberty made any money on ADATR.

When Chico refers to Maureen as "Miss Julie" it makes my skin crawl. In a Paramount, Chico would have chased her.

6:25 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Richard M. Roberts recalls appreciative crowd response to A DAY AT THE RACES:


I always find A DAY AT THE RACES a bit of a slog to watch alone, it is definitely timed for the laughs and it gets wearisome with the pauses and reactions for the well-timed and honed routines due to the touring before shooting. RACES definitely comes to life with an full audience, which I was fortunate to see it with the first time I saw it when MGM reissued both it and NIGHT AT THE OPERA in a theatrical double bill in the early 70's, and the laughs were indeed plentiful and loud.

Those who complain about MGM's attitude towards the Marx's always seem to forget that both THE COCOANUTS and ANIMAL CRACKERS adhere to the same boy-girl romance subplots and musical numbers, so the Marx Brothers may have just felt at home once again returning to that milieu. Nobody ever gives Paramount any credit for the attitude that the Marx's didn't need those tropes and gave us three undiluted Marx Brother films the likes of we never saw again.

BTW, Maureen O'Sullivan didn't like Will Rogers either, maybe it was her.

RICHARD M ROBERTS (but she didn't say what she thought of El Brendel)

5:19 AM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

The nice thing about DVDs is that you can fast forward through the slog. The comedy bits in "Races" hold up surprisingly well, and Groucho never looked better. Yet from what I understand, the only Marx Metro movie that turned a profit during its original release was "The Big Store". Was it Tony Martin, or the belief that the Marxes were retiring that brought the audience?

As for Sam Wood -- perhaps it was Thalberg's way of keeping the Marxes on a short leash.

8:24 AM  
Blogger Scott MacGillivray said...

I was the projectionist for a package of MGM Marxes shown on campus during successive evenings -- there was a speaker in the booth so I could hear the audience reaction. As I think every Marx fan agrees, the MGMs are not created equal. OPERA and RACES went great; AT THE CIRCUS okay; GO WEST died; and THE BIG STORE started slow but picked up and finished strong.

Oddly enough, the Paramounts never played on campus in all the years I was there (four as a student, then six as an employee). It wasn't a case of the college never having any truck with Universal/16, because there were Hitchcock revivals from Universal constantly. But whenever somebody put on a Marx show, it was always the three Marx Brothers, never the four. I wonder if the presence of Zeppo was the deal-breaker -- if programmers who didn't know any better thought the earlier pictures were not only old but arcane, and had an unwelcome straight presence. (Sure, so they go ahead and book Allan Jones and Kenny Baker!)

9:09 AM  
Blogger James Abbott said...

When you say 1993 was a lifetime ago, maybe it was still too recent for the Marxes...

I remember in the mid-90s when Night at the Opera and a Day at the Races were revived at New York's Paris Theater. (I'm pretty sure it was the Paris.)

Well, Opera went over like gangbusters. And Races was going great until... Harpo's Pied Piper number You could feel the unease of hundred of Upper West Siders, and the screening never recovered from that discomfiture.

BTW -- whenever someone asks me what my politics are, I say I'm a Marxist of the Groucho variety...

12:08 PM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

The first time I saw THE THING MAN was midnight on TV. I was exhausted, could barely keep my eyes open. Wow! I woke right up. W.S. Van Dyke and The Marx Brothers would have been a match made in Heaven.

2:54 PM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

This is where introducing the film comes in. Audiences did not need to be told anything when The Marx Brothers first hit the screen in COCOANUTS. They loved it including Chico and Harpo's solos. I won't use the term "modern day" to describe current audiences, just current. Not used to this kind and calibre of comedy some may get uneasy with Harpo. His playing is so sublimely beautiful they ought not to but letting them know that part of the magic is the aptly named Harpo who was invited to play all over the world to packed houses in huge theatres is to prepare them to receive magic which once received they will desire more of.

Young animation students used to short non-answers told me Grim Natwick was senile. Grim to his death was the farthest thing from senile. Before presenting him to an audience I let them know that Grim would roll the answer to their questions over in his mind and that not only would they get their answer but also a good deal more all of which would be purest gold.

Afterwards people thanked me. There was a time of course when we did not have to do this as people knew better but television has robbed us of so much it can't be measured.

3:12 PM  
Blogger DBenson said...

A thought: Perhaps the best college forum for the Marx Brothers and other acts is a history class, where the students are attuned to the period and can get not only the jokes but the mood of the audiences. Walter Kerr wrote somewhere that Harry Langdon only got laughs from modern viewers who'd been warmed up on more typically frantic slapstick. Langdon's odd rhythms needed that context, which silent audiences had when they walked in the door.

Don't know of other comedians specifically testing material for a movie, but the ones who came up in vaudeville, nightclubs and even radio had road-proven routines aplenty. Abbott and Costello used new and old material in burlesque days, and carried a lot of it intact into their films and television shows. W.C. Fields frequently tapped his famous pool, golf and juggling acts. Martin and Lewis would sometimes abandon plot to roll out a polished bit, like Dean interviewing Jerry as a punchy fighter.

3:40 PM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

While many here will probably disagree student audiences tend towards the knowing and blase. Years ago when I first arrived in Toronto I became friends with John Herbert, the author of FORTUNE AND MEN'S EYES. He told me about a time before his play hit the world stage and conquered it when a class of students was brought to see it. At that time Jack was a complete unknown. He. himself, played Queenie, a part based on his own life. The students were raucous in their contempt for this extraordinary work. Finally their teacher stood up and said to them, "Please behave like a real audience."

Do not make the mistake of ascribing the reaction of student audiences to a real audience. For more on that read David Mamet's books TRUE AND FALSE and BAMBI VS. GODZILLA.

7:41 AM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

"When Chico refers to Maureen as "Miss Julie" it makes my skin crawl. In a Paramount, Chico would have chased her."

The inevitable castration that comes with time. I remember when some bimbo at a public event with Groucho Marx chastised him for doing what Groucho had always done and did so loudly..

3:05 PM  
Blogger twbrxdx said...

In spite of your comments, I, for one, first fell in love with the Marx's by watching that wonderfully frantic clip from "Races" in "Hollywood: The Dream Factory." That remarkable, and wistful, documentary did in 60 minutes what "MGM: When the Lion Roars" struggled at for six hours. A teacher ran it in a film history class I was enrolled in in college in the 1980's, and it changed my life in every way possible. I danced home from class feeling like a whole new world had been revealed to me. I wonder how many other film buffs that long-ago documentary minted, surely I'm not the only one? I also wonder how "Hollywood: The Dream Factory," would play for college audiences today? like rat poison? Probably.

12:05 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Craig Reardon reflects on his years of enjoying the Marx Brothers (Part One):

Ah, love those homemade puns! And, I'm probably the only one.

I just enjoyed your column about "At the Races". I blush to add, I have this on an old DVD and have NEVER WATCHED it! I think I somehow suspected the wet flannel blanket of MGM all over it, which isn't quite fair considering that "A Night at the Opera" is pretty darned funny and unfettered, where 'da boys' are concerned. (It also fascinated me when I was younger to see a young Kitty Carlisle in that, when I used to see her in the bygone 'here and now' almost every night on "What's My Line?" out of NYC! I hope without taking a quick detour to the IMDB that I'm right and that she WAS--and, is--in "...Opera"! She had the pipes to be.)

What I enjoy as ever is your take on things, and some of the time the new things I learn (this is no slight, as I've spent the bulk of my post-60 years trying to glom anything I can about 'classic' Hollywood, so you're up against that--and STILL you deliver on my expectations.) But just as interesting for me is when you bring forth new information--not to exhaust you but obviously I mean new to me--that reinforces things I've already heard. In this instance, chiefly characterizations of Groucho Marx. Not a guy who comes off entirely consistently nor always well in memory of many. Then again, I was privileged and I mean that to know the late Norman Corwin. He knew Groucho and I think they got along pretty well. Norman cast him in his radio play "The Undecided Molecule", and he once played me a tape he had (transferred from a check disc, an old acetate recording made at the time of the performance, common practice when recording things OR sending them out 'live' in the mid-20th century prior to widespread use of magnetic recording tape.) The play itself is in verse and is witty and intelligent, qualities basically MIA in the times we're living in. The cast is wonderfully diverse, with Grouch as a judge, and Sylvia Sydney as the demure 'molecule' under trial. The whole joke is, what will she decide to become? Animal, vegetable, or mineral? The attorneys are Keenan Wynn and Vincent Price. You really often got some fabulous casts together in radio, often people you would love to have seen together in movies but who were simply never combined there. Groucho probably slips in an ad lib or two in the play, but the fact it is beautifully cast in verse seemed to have motivated him to behave and deliver his lines straight. However! At the end, there are ad lib remarks from the actors, where they're able to plug a current film and such. Wynn is doing this at some point and is extolling the project--or, perhaps the announcer on the show introduces him with the usual flattering characterizations-- and I remember Groucho suddenly interjects, "Objection!", and even Wynn cracks up.

4:21 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Part Two from Craig Reardon:

As far as some not 'getting' Groucho, his humor anyway, that to me doesn't reflect too well on their sense of humor or even their intelligence. Not to say that Groucho couldn't be cutting, even cruel--and, back in a day when for general consumption this had not yet caught on, by a long shot. Yet I think it was a facet of what audiences liked about the brothers even from their earliest stage appearances: anarchy. I can't do that, and I can't say that--but, they're doing it and they're saying it and I LOVE it, kind of thing. And that may have been a big element. That kind of hitting back or breaking out appeals to many, but not all! I remember my late grandmother blanched when I complemented the only recently rebooted W.C. Fields, whose popularity soared in the late '60s partly with the help of an MCA (Universal) lp compilation of actual original soundtrack excerpts from his early Paramount films and his later ones for Universal. (Both of which Universal owned.) I remember my brother and I played that lp over and over and over again, laughing out loud half the time. And Fields I'd say independently played in the same sandbox as far as Groucho in his own iconoclastic humor. But here was my sweet grandmother indignantly protesting that there was "nothing" funny about Fields, and that "he even hated small animals and children!" She took him directly at face value--not that he ever really intended otherwise!--but, without finding it in the least bit funny. These guys actually had to wait (whether they were still around themselves, or not--and Fields wasn't!) for their sardonic humor to become widely popular. Once the '60s got in full swing and everything was up for reevaluation, a lot of stuff hit the fan, but a lot of countercultural types like Fields, the Marx Bros, and of course Humphrey Bogart (due to his air of absolutely not giving a damn) were suddenly superstars, even though he and Fields (and by then a couple of Marx Bros) were dead and gone. But my grandmother wasn't necessarily a dinosaur in being offended by Fields's innovative style; the concept of NOT wanting any kind of dog around you, or a cute little kid, was revolutionary--not just 'different'. I wasn't around when Groucho and Fields were laying the groundwork for latter 20th century's pop humor, but I WAS around when Lenny Bruce took all that and ran with it even further, gathering up any of the sacred cows Fields or Marx had missed and turning his own flame thrower on them. He, too, was NOT funny to a lot of people who were more invested in their shibboleths than they were in keeping an open mind or a wider bracket on their sense of humor. Some of what Grouch, W.C. and Lenny did was in fact almost pure social commentary and criticism, and to this day I think a lot of their japes are almost a litmus test.

Keep up the good work, John...


4:22 PM  
Blogger Tommie Hicks said...

When I obtained a copy of Leonard Maltin's MOVIE COMEDY TEAMS around 1973 I remember I was amazed at how old the brothers were when they made their films. I had the misconception they were in their 20's when they made the Paramounts. To me then, you were very elderly at 40. Now I'm the same age as Groucho when he made LOVE HAPPY.

8:38 AM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

What amazed me was how few movies they made -- only 13 over 20 years. Did any other major stars of that time make, in average, less than one movie a year?

12:27 PM  
Blogger Lionel Braithwaite said...

@Kevinz perhaps in their case, it was quality over quantity, or maybe it was harder for them to come up with plots for movies just like that.

8:34 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Griff shares some fascinating insights and what ifs, re A Day At The Races (Part One):

Dear John:

I remember that Filmfax piece on Allan Jones; it was one of the better published interviews with the actor-singer about his work with The Marx Brothers. He spoke with some enthusiasm about the experience, and contributed an interesting I-was-there perspective on the OPERA try-out tour. He was likely by that point in his life wryly accustomed to being sought out to talk about OPERA and RACES -- or perhaps about being the father of singer Jack Jones -- instead of his long and successful musical career, Whale's SHOW BOAT or even THE FIREFLY (in which he introduced his big hit, "The Donkey Serenade"). At least his RACES co-star Maureen O'Sullivan, who had important roles in dozens of films (many pretty good, some better than that) would be asked by journalists about the TARZAN movies -- and, of course, her very famous daughter -- in addition to working with the Marxes. But, she once pointed out, they would always ask about A DAY AT THE RACES. Everyone wanted to know about The Marx Brothers.

A NIGHT AT THE OPERA is almost sublime. Very shrewdly and skillfully produced by Thalberg, it's a brilliant mix of sensational comedy scenes (some perfect) and (at least tolerable) musical numbers, building to an elaborately staged comic opera house climax in which, as a critic once famously wrote, "The Marx Brothers do to Il Trovatore what ought to be done to Il Trovatore." Kitty Carlisle and Jones are pleasant enough as the lovers, but the producer was careful not to allow them to obscure the boys, who were here in top-form with superior Kaufman and Ryskind (and an uncredited Al Boasberg and numerous other scribes) material, well complimented by some strong comic antagonists (Sig Ruman, Walter Woolf King) and a wonderful role for the great Margaret Dumont. It's like a real movie -- with top Metro production values -- that the Marxes have somehow crashed and made their own. Sam Wood was, of course, probably not the ideal director for the brothers... but almost everything about the picture works. A lot of the credit rightly goes to Thalberg. MGM had for years been attempting to make a successful zany comedy without success or even an apparent understanding of how to approach the idea (qv MEET THE BARON, THE CHIEF). The former "Boy Wonder" producer hired the best writers, allowed the brothers to try out material on the road, closely supervised almost all aspects of the picture.

By comparison, A DAY AT THE RACES is a mixed bag. It features some of the team's very best work -- the examining scene, the "tootsi-frootsi" scene, the hilarious sequence in which Harpo and Chico laboriously rescue Groucho from the clutches of Esther ("Hold me closer!") Muir. In addition, the clever scene in which Groucho slyly stymies Leonard Ceeley's telephonic efforts to get his records from the Florida Medical Board is very, very funny. [Doctor Hugo Z. Hackenbush is really one of Groucho's signature roles.] I love these scenes; I have fond memories of them, and I re-visit the film nearly every year. But the movie just isn't the sum of its parts; it doesn't come together satisfyingly like OPERA. Too many musical numbers, (way) too much Jones and O'Sullivan, maybe too much ill-defined plot... and perhaps just not enough of Minnie Marx's sons. [And, yes, Ivie Anderson's immense talent aside, the "All God's Chillun Got Rhythm" number is really problematic for audiences today -- and has been since at least the '60s.] Also, as John notes, the picture runs 111 minutes; that's a very long screen comedy for the 1930s.

5:59 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Part Two from Griff:

In his excellent book about the team, Joe Adamson goes into no small detail about the development of RACES from a promisingly droll treatment about a failing sanitarium. Many writers (including Boasberg) contributed to the script; eventually a racetrack story was grafted on to the sanitarium treatment. The final screenplay included some terrific comic scenes, but the uncertain narrative was nowhere near as tight or focused as the OPERA script. Also, in part because OPERA had spawned a bona-fide hit song ("Alone" -- "Cosi-Cosa" was also extensively plugged), there were even more new (and mostly mediocre) songs and long musical numbers. Thalberg was still very involved in the production, but the producer was gravely ill, and likely not as closely dedicated to the shooting of RACES as he had been with OPERA. Then Thalberg died while the film was still in production.

An oft repeated phrase at MGM during the Thalberg years went something like "Great pictures aren't shot -- they're re-shot." Back then, a movie would finish shooting and editing, and the famed production chief would carefully look it over and often decide to re-cut the film, re-shoot certain scenes, or even insist that new scenes be written and filmed. This sometimes required that struck sets needed to be re-built, or actors originally loaned by other studios would have to be recalled. This approach to producing was a costly process, to be sure, and Thalberg did not make these decisions lightly. The point was to improve a given picture -- and if a picture could be significantly improved, it would probably prove more successful. Admittedly, this is the sort of idea that today horrifies those who adhere to the auteur theory (and it didn't please a lot of directors back in the day), but Thalberg's overall track record commercially and even critically at the time was pretty impressive.*

With that in mind, I sometimes fantasize a scenario in which Thalberg miraculously recovers from his illness, and after a short rest, begins to pay considerable attention to A DAY AT THE RACES. In my mind's eye, I can see him ordering some of Jones' numbers to be deleted (perhaps he'd suggest one of the endless "water carnival" numbers could be instead used in an MGM short) and he'd immediately reinstate Groucho's cut "Doctor Hackenbush" number to the film.¹ He'd order O'Sullivan's part to be at least slightly shortened (or partly re-written and shot to come off somewhat less tearful), cut back Jones' presence (or at least make clear that Jones and Chico are full partners in Hi-Hat) and likely put writers on an additional Groucho/Margaret Dumont scene. He'd tighten the picture somewhat, clarify and simplify the unruly narrative, and streamline the effective (but lengthy) racetrack climax. Then, after the successful opening of the newly restructured and retrofitted movie, Thalberg would begin to work on luring Kaufman and Ryskind back to write the next Marx vehicle...

-- Griff

6:00 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Some footnotes to his previous comments by Griff. Great stuff. Thanks Griff!

* I would point out here that for various reasons I personally prefer many Warners, Paramount, RKO and even Universal pictures of that period to much of the Metro output of the day. But MGM was the gold standard back in the 'thirties; almost everybody in the industry envied, admired and tried to emulate Thalberg's success as a production executive.

¹ It remains unclear whether this number was actually filmed, though it was apparently used in the try-out tour and at least rehearsed for the picture. It is said that in later years Groucho would sing this Bert Kalmar/Harry Ruby song at a drop of a hat; he recorded it a few times, and frequently performed it on radio and television. A sample of the lyrics:

...although my horn I hate to blow
there's one thing that you ought to know

I'm Doctor Hackenbush
which all my friends will verify
Well, anyways, ladies and gentlemen
I am Doctor Hackenbush
[Chorus: He's Doctor Hackenbush!]
I'm Doctor Hackenbush!
You never would guess, but nevertheless
I'm Doctor Hackenbu-u-u-u-sh!

...sick and healthy, poor and wealthy, come direct to me
“Oh, God bless you!” they yell
When I send them home well,
But they never, no they never, send a check to me.

I’ve won acclaim for curing ills, both in the north and south,
You’ll find my name just like my pills in everybody’s mouth;
I’ve never lost a case…
[Chorus: He’s never lost a case…]
I’ve lost a lot of patients, but I’ve never lost a case!

My diagnosis never fails, I know just what to do,
Whenever anybody ails, I’m sympathetic too,
My heart within me melts…
[Chorus: His heart within him melts…]
No matter what I treat ’em for, they die from something else.

6:01 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Griff adds the following to reflections on Races, Groucho, and Maureen. Poor Grouch never knew what he missed!

Dear John:

When you note that "Maureen O’Sullivan by her own account did not find anything Groucho said to be funny. She told him finally that she simply did not find his kind of humor appealing," that does sound about right.

But in Hector Arce's late '70s biography of Groucho, O'Sullivan was quoted as having found the comedian charming and even attractive... and in a startling comment I've never forgotten, went so far as to state that if they had both been single back then (O'Sullivan was married for many years to John Farrow), she might have dated Groucho!

From Groucho:

"Miss O'Sullivan admitted that if it hadn't been for his machine gun chatter and the fact that they were both married, she would have gone out with him. 'I found Groucho very sexy. He had physical presence and a good build. I always regretted that I didn't tell him.' "

-- Griff

6:04 AM  

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