Thursday, August 20, 2015

Meet the British Marx Brothers (again)

(Note: I posted a version of this years ago, but now that the whole of the British Pathé collection has been added to YouTube - I had to use stills originally - I thought it might be nice to dig it out again and freshen it up.)

Yes, there was a time when the Marx Brothers were so unfamiliar visually, especially in other countries, that people could get away with caricatures like these:

Now,that's obviously Groucho in his party outfit bottom right, albeit without any eyes. (You remember that bit in Cocoanuts when he turns up at the party without eyes, right?) And that's Harpo top left, though in addition to his spliff he appears to have acquired a pretty ferocious set of gnashers.
But then, isn't that also Harpo in the top hat and tails bottom left? And who the hell's top right? It's like the result of some genetic experiment. It seems to be a vague shot at Zeppo, but with Harpo's curls peeking out from under Chico's hat. Three Marx Brothers in one, plus another split into two, plus Groucho.
I make that six Marx Brothers.

Even odder, now, seems the fact that the original stage play by Kaufman and Ryskind could have ever been viewed not as an exclusive Marx Brothers property, but as a stage play by Kaufman and Ryskind.
As a consequence of this kind of thinking came perhaps the oddest and least-recalled chapter in the entire history of The Cocoanuts: the 1928 British stage production with an all-new cast. It opened at London's Garrick Theatre in March of '28, and I personally find it next to unimaginable what the galloping heck it could have been like.
Most interesting is that it was cast not with people who were specifically auditioned as Marx impersonators, the way the show would be mounted today, but by already well-known comic performers with already-established comic personalities. This makes it hard indeed to guess whether they did go for the Marx style, only very slightly familiar to them though it must have been, or ignore all that completely, or, perhaps, attempt a kind of halfway mix of their own style with that of the Marxes. I'm guessing the latter, simply because it's hard to imagine the second option working, and impossible to imagine the first option at all.

Let's at least allow our imaginations to wander as far as possible.
As Chico and Harpo - and yes, that is how they were billed - we have Leonard Henry and Max Nesbitt, respectively.
Henry was a popular variety comedian, well known for his comic songs. Here he is in 1929, right when we would most want to see him, and I think there are definite indications here of how he might have interpreted the script: he has a usefully insouciant way with non sequiturs.

Our Harpo, Max Nesbitt, was one half of the brother act Harry & Max Nesbitt, a musical comedy duo. Of all the roles, Harpo's is surely the hardest to conceive being played as anything other than outright impersonation. Here are the boys in 1931: do you see a likely Harpo here?

Again, I think it's fair to say that behind the thick crust of inappropriate Britishness, there are definite indications there.

In the Mary Eaton ingenue role was the very versatile British actress Enid Stamp Taylor. Fortunately, posterity has left us many opportunities to enjoy her work between her film debut in 1927 and her last in 1946, the year in which she died, as the result of a fall and at the age of only 41. She appears with George Formby, Lupino Lane, Gordon Harker, Claude Hulbert, Gracie Fields, Flanagan & Allen, Jessie Matthews and the Aldwych Players. She may, perhaps, be best remembered now for her scene-stealing supporting role in The Wicked Lady, her penultimate film, and the last to be released before her death. (Note that the second of the films below has no soundtrack.)

But for reasons I shall shortly come to, by far her most useful appearance from the point of view of this enquiry is in the 1937 film Okay For Sound. Before going further into why, let us meet our Groucho, Mr Fred Duprez. Here he is in 1936:

First thing you'll note, or perhaps second after the cigar, or perhaps third after the cigar and claw-hammer coat, is the fact that he is American. So he was: an American vaudeville comic who built a successful career in Britain (as well as the father of actress June Duprez). It was in his capacity as a British comic draw that he accompanied Will Hay to America for his odd co-production Hey! Hey! USA (1938), and it was on the ship coming back again afterwards that he suffered a fatal heart attack at the age of fifty-four.
Here he is again, in 1937, in a comic sketch. Pick up the pace a little, and Mr Schlemmer seems not so far away:

Did he do the full Groucho bit, greasepaint moustache and all? There was no film of the Marxes yet, of course, so he and the other cast members would have had to have gone to America and study their performances if they were going to impersonate them. My guess would be that he did not, and that the Duprez we see above was more or less the one stage audiences saw at the Cocoanut Hotel.

Here's Variety, very mildly impressed with the production in 1928:

And recalling it with a shudder in 1930:

The clear indication here, then, is that British cast were as free to improvise and ignore the script as the Marxes had been.

Another possibile way Duprez might have approached the role can  be seen in the aforementioned Okay For Sound, in which he plays a Jewish film mogul trying to keep his studio from bankruptcy by conning his backers and disorientating them with wordplay. Though it lacks the self-defeating absurdism, there is a large measure of Groucho's screen persona here - it's certainly a lot like Gordon Miller in Room Service - and the Jewish dialect helps a lot too. (Duprez is rather reminiscent of that splendid Jewish comic actor Harry Green, the Marxes' fellow Paramount contractee in the early thirties.)

There are many odd similarities between this film and The Cocoanuts. Both were hit stage plays adapted for the movies. Both were shot in the afternoons while the stars were performing on stage in the evenings. And not only does the film feature the London Cocoanuts ingenue Enid Stamp Taylor, and provide a good comic role for its Groucho, the main stars, likewise making their film debut, are the only British comedy team to ever approach the wild, iconoclastic style of the Marxes: The Crazy Gang.

The six core members of the Crazy Gang were three discrete double-acts: Naughton & Gold, Nervo & Knox and Flanagan & Allen, whose comedy relies greatly for its effect on pace, and rapid transitions between wordplay, slapstick and farce. Their physical comedy was often highly elaborate and acrobatic, their verbal comedy often extremely clever, just as often groaningly corny.
But the really important thing is that with six of them at it at the same time, there was frequently more going on than could be fully taken in, resulting in a kind of sustained delirium that, once up and rolling, gave audiences little time to breathe between laughs. For this reason, there is little doubt that what we see of them on film, through technical necessity as much as anything, simply cannot be the full-strength entertainment enjoyed by stage audiences when they were really firing on all cylinders. This, likewise, reminds us of the Marx Brothers.

Okay For Sound, made at a time when the Marxes' own films were becoming rather sedate, shares with the team's earlier work a frantic pace, a tangible sense of energy, a distinctly modern kind of absurdity to the humour, and a boisterous iconoclasm. And, more specifically: scenes of theatrical destruction, addresses to camera, deliberately bad puns, and the baiting of pompous authority. Unlike the majority of British stage to film crossover comics, no attempt is made to turn them into comic characters able to function within a narrative. Like the Marxes at Paramount (and not at MGM) they are placed in a realistic fictional narrative yet never quite integrate into it, they move parallel to it, as if they have landed from some indefinite elsewhere, sealed from the world around them until it dares to rub against theirs, and then watch out. No convincing characterisation is offered or necessary; they are simply let loose, their job to pull rugs, blow raspberries, deflate authority, and generally clog the wheels of genteel society.

As already noted, Okay For Sound, was shot in the afternoons and days-off during a smash-hit stage run, and is basically a ragbag of disconnected routines taken directly from their revues. The plot such as it is lets them wangle their way into an ailing British film studio and take over the productions being shot, causing various kinds of chaos and alienating just about everybody but ending up with a film that somehow proves a huge hit and revives the studio’s fortunes. It could easily be adapted into a Paramount Marx vehicle, since there is no logic to it; no reason whatever why these six obvious reprobates are allowed to virtually destroy a film studio without ever being restrained, while their final triumph is as absurd as the football victory at the end of Horse Feathers.
Unlike the Brothers, however, they also enjoy the unusual freedom of being able to assume different roles in comic sketches. The best of these is the sequence in which Teddy Knox provides both American and hilariously vague British commentary to a wrestling match: "If we only had the River Thames running through here and a few boats on it you'd think it was boat race day". There is also much saucy humour of a kind that would probably not have passed US censors: a character called Farquhar is asked "How are the little Farquhars?", a scene in which the blasting of a dam is delayed is met with the observation "There's no dam blast!", and Enid Stamp Taylor has her skirt ripped off three times.
Squint a little, and you could almost be watching the British version of The Cocoanuts.

Enid says goodbye, and thanks.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Goodbye, I must be returning

Well, hello there!

Anyone remember this blog?
No, me neither. But having just stumbled upon it, and after idly reading a post or two, imagine my shock when I suddenly realised it was mine. A bit like that bit in The Sixth Sense when Bruce Willis realises that he's been dead since the second series of Moonlighting.
Still, I see from the last post that it's been getting on for a year and a half since I last checked in here, so I think we can all of us be forgiven for moving on...

And so to the main business of the day: thanks to everyone who shelled out for a copy of the book, and I hope you enjoyed it.
Thanks also to those of you who got in touch with suggestions, additions and clarifications for what I optimistically like to call 'future editions'. (I would say optimism was my middle name... but actually John is.)

However there is one possible ray of hope as far as that goes: as you may know, the hunt is on again for uncut versions of Animal Crackers and Horse Feathers, for a version of The Cocoanuts that doesn't suddenly lurch into scenes that look like they've been photographed through a farmer's window, and for that alternative cut of Monkey Business where they actually kill the girl in the barn.
Universal, a studio that so far as I know doesn't have a middle name of any sort, but if they did it would be 'optimism' too, has launched a fresh search for the complete elements, just like they did last time they had a new format to hawk them on. (Actually, people take this sort of thing very, very seriously, so imagine a big smiley face here.)
The good news about all that from my selfish point of view is that if they succeed, the time-code references in my book will instantly go for a burton, and that might just be a persuasive enough reason to get the publishers to see the need for a revised second edition.
For the truth is that we already have stacks of new material to add: various things that we discovered that are either entirely new or that add essential extra detail to what's already there. You can tell by the notes section that we were finding things right up to the wire, and running out of places to put them.

There are also things that need to be slightly rephrased, and re-emphasised. There are occasions where I say too much about one thing and not enough about something else. There are some references I missed entirely, and even at the time I wondered if I should have included that entire chapter I wrote when I was drunk, about how you can always tell which part of the animal in a Hanna-Barbera cartoon is about to move because it's a slightly different colour from the rest of its body. What's that got to do with the Ritz Brothers? Nothing. I see it now.
And, yes, there are a half-dozen or so honest to God errors, one of which - as I spotted just as the blighter went to print - is in so absurdly prominent a place that every time I see it it takes on the appearance of a big, bloodied hand, reaching out of the page to throttle me.

So what I'm going to be doing a lot of here in the next few nextfews is updating on some of these things.
But I'll also, needless to add, still be posting all the usual kinds of rubbish that I used to stick on here, back in the days when I was young and sprightly, before I turned grey, long before the thought of having a bath became the highlight of my day, and way, way before I started going to bed at 9.30 with Steve Stoliar. (I should perhaps clarify that. I've been reading 'Raised Eyebrows' this week. By the way, did you know that since I last posted it's been announced that they're making the book into a horror film? It's true. I've had it on good authority that it's going to be the goriest biopic since The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle, and so scary that even the cinemas will be leaving the lights on when they show it. No official word yet on who will be playing Groucho, but if it turns out to be Brad Dourif I win a tenner in the office sweepstakes, so do keep suggesting that to Steve.)

I'm also keen to publish more guest posts - so if there's something you want to say about the Marx Brothers, and nobody you know will listen, let me know.
And I'll also be responding to anything you care to raise in the comments, just like I always said I was going to do back in the old days, and usually didn't, because I was too lazy. Lazy, no more. That's my pledge.

What happens next is anyone's guess. But gee whiz, it's swell to be back.