(1)Well, as it kept turning out, Marx, Leonard---no, he wasn't born "Chico"---considered Das Kapital to be a pair of the pants of his slightly inept tailor father; Chico kept hocking them for gambling money.
Groucho & Co. have something to do with
A Night at the Opera
Products of the Cinema are easy to make. Except, of course, when they are supposed to be Art, in which case they are Holy Icons of Civilization, to be slaved over with due rever---
Movies are easy to make. A writer comes up with an idea and quickly dashes it off as a film script. If it's a comedy, then so much the better. Everybody likes to laugh, and comedy is, of course, the easiest to write.
The writer then takes the script to the nearest producer. This isn't hard, as there are producers littering the landscape and they're all easy to work with. The producer takes the script, unchanged, and picks a director at random. This always works out because, obviously, anyone can direct comedy. The producer and director quickly put together a budget and schedule and easily toss together a collection of stars.
With the director's clear control, contributions from all the stars, and easy good will all around, the whole project is quickly and inexpensively turned into a film.
In almost no time, another great comedy has been made, everyone is content, and lots of money is made---or, that is--- lots of money is made and everyone is content. . . . . .
Let joy be unconfined. Let there be dancing in the streets, drinking in the saloons, and necking in the parlour.
Groucho Marx (2)
So much for the Filmmakers of Nineteen ThirtyWhatsis scenario.
Statement number one: The Marx brothers were not about to stick to an original script if they could help it. Statement number two: Their 1935 film A Night at the Opera was no exception.
In The Beginning
By about 1934, the words "The Marx Brothers" had been appearing in one form or another for twenty years. Groucho had first started on stage in 1905. Gummo and Harpo had joined him in 1910, first with others, as "The Nightingales," then by themselves as "The Marx Brothers." Soon, Chico had been added, after first performing with others. (3)
In 1917 came World War I and the draft. Evasions were attempted, but the four eldest brothers got called up anyway. As it turned out, they didn't have to worry. From Groucho, by Hector Arce;
The four, as legend has it, turned up at a Chicago recruiting station to enlist in the Illinois Infantry. One was rejected for poor eyesight. A second had flat feet. A third reportedly had a physical disability incurred by an operation. The fourth was deferred "for general reasons."
"That's nothing," Groucho allegedly said to the recruiting sergeant. "You should see the fifth Marx brother. Two heads!"
Actually, men from the ages of twenty-one to thirty were being drafted. Chico, thirty and married, was legitimately exempt. Groucho's poor eyesight disqualified him. Harpo had suffered from albiminuria since he had been a child and because of it wasn't able to tolerate alcohol until he had reached middle age. Only Gummo, with his heart murmur, was found acceptable. He left the act forever.
"Over There," for Gummo, would prove to be the North side of Chicago. He remained stateside during the war and his primary function seemed to be the procurement of chorus girls for his senior officers.(4)
Even without Gummo, the act continued as "The Four Marx Brothers." Zeppo, just out of high school, got quickly dumped onto the stage, and these four Marx brothers toured, doing various reviews.(5) During this, they wandered in front of a camera, called the result Humorisk, and made a trip to London. The trip to London went fine, but the movie didn't. Having been made before the advent of cinematic sound, the one reel Humorisk was silent. It was written by the author of one of their less reputable success, er, excess, um . . attempts and made an immediate impression upon its tryout audience; The audience immediately came up with a number of comments and fired them at the screen. The one print created was burned, and the negative later lost.(6)
By 1923, they were in trouble. They were running out of their own ideas, as well as those recycleable of others. They were popular, but vaudeville was getting to be too much for them. Meanwhile, Chico wanted the Marx brothers on Broadway and was having trouble delivering the idea. The two difficult parts of implementing the idea were convincing Broadway and convincing the Marx brothers. After a while though, these problems, and other minor ones, such as money . . . money . . . more money . . . and, where are we going to get the money? . . . were overcome. A ragtag collection of used sets, used costumes, used dancers, the Marx brothers, and 15 years of used routines opened as I'll Say She Is. The Broadway, New York City, show opened, of course, in Philadelphia, then moved to Boston, then Chicago. The reviews, and more importantly, the receipts, were good, indifferent, good, and after Chicago, getting better. On May 19th, 1924, they took New York by cast, storms being a somewhat flimsy and inconsistent means of travel. By 1924, they were at the top of the local heap.(7)
After the closing of I'll Say She Is, the brothers were quickly signed up for words by George S. Kaufmann, music by Irving Berlin, name of The Cocoanuts. That went over just fine, so all concentrated and did the same thing all over again, only using a new story and calling it Animal Crackers.(8)
About this time, sound and movies were getting combined with difficulty, an entity always eager to assist with the complex. Between one thing and another, the technical difficulties encountered are best covered in a good film history class. At the same time, someone got the idea of combining sound, movies, and the Marx brothers, that being even more difficult, but Paramount went for it anyway. Seeing as the easiest thing to do is usually something easy, The Cocoanuts, the movie, was released in 1929 with a title of two words, rather than four. Ditto with Animal Crackers, released in 1930.
After running amok on the New York and elsewhere theatre stages and then New York sound stages for two movies, the four Marx brothers four next steps were; move to Hollywood, make Monkey Business (1931), Horse Feathers (1932), and Duck Soup (1933).(9)
It's showtime, folks!
By 1934, the four Marx brothers were back in trouble, internally and externally. Externally, Duck Soup wasn't doing as well as it should have and Paramount was looking for a polite way to leave them drifting. Internally, Zeppo wanted out. For years he had been treated as the invisible straight man, the "fifth wheel" of the four Marx brothers, and he was tired of it. Groucho was in Maine, seeing the simple life of the maniacal comic actor and saying he might enjoy it. Exapno Mapcase---Harpo Marx, once translated from the Cyrillic, was in Russia, being seen and saying little. Last of all, Chico was playing bridge with anyone he could get his hands on, such as Irving Thalberg, and saying much.
Irving Thalberg was---is---was---the God of movie producers. Producers didn't pray to him, everyone prayed they be connected to him. He got things done, he did them efficiently, and again above all, he made money. Thalberg's latest idea, launched once he had Harpo, Groucho, and Chico together, was simple. He was going to teach comedy to the Marx brothers. About this point, he noticed Zeppo's absence. This was confirmed, as Zeppo had gone off to be an agent. He would get together with Gummo, and the Marx brothers would work with the Marx brothers. (10)
Back with the critical end, Groucho wasn't pleased with Thalberg's comments. Thalberg explained. "Men like your comedy, but women don't. They don't have your kind of humor, so we'll give women a romance they can be interested in."
Other complaints involved timing. The brothers were stage trained, and could regulate their delivery by audience reaction. But in a movie, particularly the last three movies, this couldn't be done, and the scenes ended up crowded, with the audience laughing at one line as they drowned out the next.(11) Thalberg was going to make a movie with them and mix in romance to add spacing. He reassured the brothers that he wasn't going to change them, just their movies.
Thalberg was apparently what is now referred as a workaholic. He had a habit of producing two or three movies simultaneously and while he was working on A Night at the Opera, he was also doing Romeo and Juliet, Mutiny on the Bounty and The Good Earth.(12)
The only problem at the beginning of all this was the bench outside Thalberg's office. With all the projects he was juggling, everybody and his pet brother had, or at least wanted, to see Thalberg, and Thalberg had to call people, get called, and juggle paperwork. For awhile, "I'm in Jarndyce" was the Dickensian way of saying "I'm waiting to see Thalberg." Then along came the Marx brothers. According to one story, they landed on the bench one day for four hours, then stomped out in fury. After a two hour wait the next day, they finally stomped in at Thalberg's invitation and informed him in great detail that if they were on time, he was going to be. Thalberg apologized, agreed, and they went on from there.(13)
Another story which sounds more likely is that at the brothers' first office arrival, they were told to wait. Therefore, they did, with two cigars apiece, smoked through the cracks of the door. Thalberg came charging out in a short while. "Is there a fire?" "No, there's the Marx brothers!" . . . . Now wait a minute. This is Irving Thalberg. These things don't happen. They met, and Thalberg requested they not add to the atmosphere of his office again.
At the next meeting, the brothers entered Thalberg's office with no trouble. However, after about twenty minutes, Thalberg got an urgent call and took off to look at something. After a short wait, the Marx brothers roared queries to the effect of "Who does he think he is, Irving Thalberg?", pushed tables and filing cabinets against the door, and left. The third time around that Thalberg became absent, potatoes soon didn't, and when he returned, he found three naked men roasting the potatoes in his previously cold office fireplace. Thalberg sent out for butter and never left them waiting again. (14) So much for all around respect for those on high. "All God's chillun," (15) may be one thing, but if you want "holy, holy hallelujah," in your cathedral, don't invite the Marx brothers to play in it.
Once the Marxists and the lord of the lion house came to an understanding, a story was needed. The first round was hardly auspicious. Thalberg invited in a committee to write a script. As a look at A View to a Kill, Licence to Kill and other applicable obscenities will attest, committees can't write worth a damn. Fortunately, the first draft was assigned to one fellow, named James Kevin McGuinness. The reason why was after the only known form of life with multiple bellies and no brain sat and listened to the rumblings of its primary organs, McGuinness was the one to figure out the Marx brothers' best efforts involved getting a firm grip on dignity, propriety, and the like, and turning it inside out. Furthermore, a major bastion of same was the New York City Metropolitan Opera House. (16)
McGuinness had earlier been responsible for such leavings as When Strangers Marry and Tarzan and his Mate. I haven't heard of the former, but I can imagine the offkey yodelling to emerge from that latest of mutilations of Edgar Rice Burroughs' certifiably blueblooded jungle lord. McGuinness set to some sort of work and a story was soon delivered to Thalberg, W.O.A. (Wince On Arrival). Thalberg passed it on to the Marx brothers, who quickly passed it back with appropriate comments. According to Joe Adamson's Groucho, Harpo, Chico and sometimes Zeppo;
In it, Groucho is a wrestling entrepreneur who turns to opera when he finds there's more money in it. Chico is a drudge, a prude, and a voice teacher. Harpo is the greatest tenor in all Italy. (No kidding, it just happens that in the course of the movie he never sings a note or says a word.) Pio Baroni is a wrestler who is in love with Lili, who is in love with Harpo, who is in love with Maria, who is in love with Ted. Who's Ted?
Also mentioned is the part where the enraged Pio "assembles his behemoths march forth to vengeance. [That's right, Operator, assembles his behemoths march forth to vengeance.]" as well as the part where Lili differentiates between her vocal speaking chords and her vocal singing chords. (17)
The next people to get hold of the thing had a better idea of what they were doing. Harry Ruby and Bert Kalmar had been writing both words and music for the Marx brothers for years. Thalberg delivered together the paperwork, McGuinness, his lecture on his idea of comedy, and set them to work. After ten weeks, there were improvements. A dowager type was created, perfect for their longtime straight woman, Margaret Dumont. Groucho became Dumont's business manager, Harpo and Chico became assistants to Baroni, now a singer, and most of the soap was easily washed out.
All and sundry went running about more believably in the next production. This time around, Groucho, sent after one singer, hires Baroni, who is both the romantic lead, and the wrong singer. Baroni is then decided to be better after an attempt fails at dumping him and Groucho. Later, Baroni loses his voice and all and sundry get dumped anyway, since Thalberg had decided the Marxes needed a play for sympathy at some point. Finally, all are victorious as Baroni, recovered, sings in place of his rival. Last seen in the vicinity of the Marx brothers, the rival had mysteriously disappeared.
After unloading that much, Kalmar and Ruby had to depart elsewhere, and Thalberg did what he could think of to keep going. Comedy not being his strong point, what he did was drop more writers in. This latest version involved someone trying to run a failing opera scam and run off with the money "lost" during the disastrous production. The catch is the opera becomes a hit and the con man ends up paying, not getting paid. "Great!" cried Groucho. "Grate!" cried Thalberg. Apparently, nobody told him about Mel Brooks and The Producers.
Groucho recommended another pair of writers the Marxes had worked with before, George Kaufmann and Morrie Ryskind. The problem was the two had a healthy disrespect for Los Angeles and would have been happier in a Nevada salt mine. As a lunatic counterpart, however, they wanted to stay in New York. After Thalberg waved great quantities of depression era money in front of them, they blinked, reconsidered, and elected to created new material, rather than rest on their wallets.
Being the latest of a long line of writers, Kaufmann and Ryskind took up the story at the middle of the line. They didn't even look at the Kalmar and Ruby version. Instead, they scrapped its immediate predecessor, retaining only about three jokes and the names. They dumped a restaurant sequence which took place during Baroni's recovery and moved the mass Marx scene to just before the end. The last was the better to go with Thalberg's ideas of movie timing.
The next writer---no, this version wasn't well liked either- --was a 300 pound script doctor named Al Boasberg, known for such things as spending hours sitting in a bath and yammering oneliners. Kaufmann had returned to New York, but Ryskind stayed in L.A. to see what he and Boasberg could do. (18) At one point. Ryskind decided he'd come up with something and went charging in to Thalberg to try out his latest lines. Thalberg went through them . . . and sat there . . . and sat there . . . Ryskind was about to give up when Thalberg announced, still deadpan, "That's the funniest thing I ever read."(19)
Like the Marxes had done earlier, Boasberg, meanwhile, was able to turn the comedic tables on Thalberg. After being assured " . . You can come to my office and pick the stuff up." Thalberg and the Marx brothers went to the office that night to look. Nobody was in sight and not a paper was to be found. It took Groucho, not Thalberg, to figure out Boasberg had typed up a sequence, shredded it, and decorated the ceiling with it. The Marxes had no trouble with this, but Thalberg wasn't quite sure of what to make of it.
Finally, all concerned had a script. The only problem was nobody was willing to touch it. At this point, another connection with the Marx brother's stage history was making its presence known. When they did a show, they knew a joke was funny because the audience laughed at it. But how does one do this with a movie? Then came the great idea.(20) According to Bob Thomas, in Thalberg, Life and Legend;
"Then why can't we play the script before an audience? Thalberg suggested.
"You're joking, aren't you?" said Groucho. "How can you try a picture out on the road?"
"Easy. Take the five big comedy scenes in the script. Play them in vaudeville houses with a connecting narrative on the screen. You'll find out in a hurry whether the stuff is funny." (21)
After a month of rehearsals, the whole entourage took something on the road. It was part monologue, part slide show, part movie, part stage show, part musical. It had all the main leads, from Margaret Dumont to the Marxes. Allan Jones had been hired for the part of Baroni and Kitty Carlisle was to play Rosa, the other half of the romance. The shows ran five times a day, six days a week. A boxful of secretaries timed laughs after each line. Before each show, Ryskind and Boasberg, who also came along, thought up new lines for everybody. (22)
Starting in Salt Lake City, moving to Seattle, and heading South, lines got cut, lines got added. Different things got juggled about. The ever popular stateroom scene was no exception. On the stage, it wasn't getting any laughs. The writers were going to cut it, but Thalberg intervened. "Just because it doesn't work in the theatre doesn't mean it won't work in films. You see a flat drop that's supposed to be a stateroom and you can't make it look like it's crowded. In pictures it will have an entirely different perspective. (23)
Later, in Seattle, a repair job occurred as described in a 1936 magazine article.
I went to see Harpo about one thing and another, and he told me that in its original form, the sequence, while comical, was not comical enough. It seemed a bit flat. Then one day . . . Chico had an idea. In the first part of the sequence, Groucho is outside, giving a breakfast order to the steward. As he finished the order, Chico thought of adding, in stentorian tones, "and two hard boiled eggs. "---and Harpo, not to be outdone, blew his horn. For some reason or other, this gag, properly worked up, of course, made the whole scene jell. It turned something merely funny into something pitilessly hilarious. Harpo doesn't know exactly why, but that's the way it happened. (24)
In Salt Lake City and Seattle, the show was a disaster. By the time they reached San Francisco, they were getting roars of laughter. Of course, when Thalberg showed up at that point, he scared everybody by again sitting through all this still thoroughly deadpan. Finally, after the tour, and after a bit of minor rewriting and tightening, it was decided the results could finally be filmed.
Enter Sam Wood. As a director, he had a number of earlier successes, such as Bluebeard's Eighth Wife, They Learned About Women, and The Dancin' Fool. No doubt all of these were eternal classics, explaining why I never heard of any of them. After a point, though, somehow it seemed as if he was declining. (25) When A Night at the Opera came along, Thalberg tossed him into the fray with the accompanying comment to Groucho of; "Sam hasn't been doing too well for seven or eight years. He'll bring a fresh approach to the material and he won't be too proud to make any retakes that I might want." (26)
What Wood brought to the picture was exhaustion. Rather than shoot something and then retake if someone made a mistake, he would shoot each scene twenty times. This was not only tiresome, but at one point, dangerous as well. While Harpo admitted it was a stupid thing for a forty-seven-year-old non- acrobat to do, he ended up spending days swinging around on ropes to get the final sequence, all without harness, stuntman, or, I think, a net. Complained Groucho, "This jerk we have for a director doesn't know what he wants, so he shoots everything twenty times and hopes there's something good in it." (27)
Groucho wasn't just being a malcontent. Commented Allan Jones; "He was only good because he had good cutters around. He'd get about thirty takes and then his cutters would pick the best ones when he ran the dailies."(28) Ryskind was also not comfortable with Wood. The most common thing to get on everyone's nerves was Wood's perpetual preshot cry of "All right, gang, let's go in there and sell 'em a load of clams!" After three weeks, Ryskind wandered over to Groucho and expressed bewilderment. "Are we in the movie business or are we in the fish business?" (29)
Occasionally, Wood tried to slow down or speed up a sequence carefully timed on the stage, only to get inundated by hordes of writers, bearing stopwatches and reciting theatrical history. He'd have been more comfortable with the first three paragraphs of this paper. Such a scenario would not have had Kaufmann, back in L.A. as a script doctor, wander in from Marie Antoinette and The Good Earth to comment to Groucho; "Don't be surprised if, when I hand in the final scene on this, you find you're guillotined for not planting rice in China." (30)
Absolutely above all, the humorless Wood definitely did not appreciate the variations which occurred in the sixth paragraph, above. Unfortunately for him, practical jokes were nothing new. Margaret Dumont, nicknamed "Old Ironsides" because of her corsets, was agreed by all to also have no sense of humor, which always made her an excellent target. Often, on tour, Harpo would steal her wig and she would emerge from the train with her head wrapped in a towel turban marked "Pullman." (31) On the first day of shooting, unmarried Kitty Carlisle received two dozen roses and a card signed "Allan Jones," who was married. The whole package was C.O.D. Another day, Jones casually mentioned he was looking for a Cocker Spaniel for his daughter. When he got home, a Great Dane was tied to the front door.(32)
Wood was a favorite target. He had an upset stomach and, possibly, also ulcers. For those reasons, he drank milk. One morning, the milk arrived in a baby bottle and was soon followed by a doctor looking for a crazy man. Chico grabbed Wood. "This isa him. He'sa think he's a baby again. It'sa too bad, Doc." Screamed Wood; "Don't you people have any sense of dignity?" The brothers had no answer. The next evening, a tottering wreck on four wheels rolled up to the set, pulled by a plowhorse. The Marxes appeared from their dressing rooms in white tie and tails, with silk top hats, and as Groucho and Chico decorously arranged themselves in the carriage, Harpo hopped onto the horse and produced a stick and carrot. With a cry of "Tallyho!" the carrot went in front of the horse and the whole entourage rolled off into the night.(33)
Finally, the movie was finished. It was assembled together and the time came for a sneak preview. That night in Long Beach, the audience enthusiastically emulated Thalberg and didn't even smile. They tried again across the street, same result. Louis Mayer who hated the Marxes, was gleeful. Groucho, who hated Mayer, was loudly deciding between committing to writing, committing to retirement, or committing suicide. Thalberg's timing was off. Harpo finally announced the mayor of Long Beach had died that day. That didn't affect Groucho's mood, but Thalberg told him not to worry. Thalberg then worked with the editor for three days and tightened things up. The final result turned out to be the most popular and profitable of all the Marx brothers' comedies.
Movies are easy to make. Comedy is even easier . . . .
A Night at the Opera took long months to think up and write, with writer after writer adding to the story. It was performed on stage and rewritten some more. No one was sure if this new style of Marx brothers comedy would work. The Producer insisted on "a rather trite (if pleasantly acted) romance and some elaborate musical numbers." (34) Also, "though the Marxes occupy considerably less than 100 percent of the screen time, the moments that are theirs are loud and strong and almost enough to make up for the moments that are not." (35) A mediocre director was dropped onto everybody's nerves. "The trouble with Sam Wood is that he thinks the dramatic scenes are just as interesting as the comedy scenes.. He's wrong." (36) The end product had to be reedited after its first showing and only then, finally, became a success.
No, a movie, above all, a comedy, does not always get made so easily.
Adamson, Joe. Groucho, Harpo, Chico, and sometimes, Zeppo. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1973.
Arce, Hector. Groucho. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1979.
Eyles, Allan. The Marx Brothers, Their World of Comedy. New York: A.S. Barnes & Co., 1966.
Marx, Groucho. Groucho and Me. New York: Random House, Inc., 1959.
_____________. The Groucho Phile. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merril Company, Inc., 1976.
Thomas, Bob. Thalberg, Life and Legend. New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1969.
MGM Studios. A Night at the Opera. 1935.
Paramount Pictures. Duck Soup. 1933.
2. A Night at the Opera.
3 Groucho, p. 64-68, 76-80.
4 Ibid., p. 100.
5 The Groucho Phile, p. 34.
6 Groucho, p. 107-108, 131.
7 Ibid., p. 119-126.
8 Groucho, Harpo, Chico, and sometimes, Zeppo, p. 64-76.
9 Ibid., p. 118-248.
10 Ibid., p. 251-258.
11 Groucho, p. 222-223.
12 Ibid., p.225.
13 Thalberg, Life and Legend, p. 281.
14 Groucho, Harpo, Chico, and sometimes, Zeppo, p. 263, 266.
15 Duck Soup.
16 Thalberg, Life and Legend, p. 283.
17 Groucho, Harpo, Chico, and sometimes, Zeppo, p. 264.
18 Ibid., p.266-273.
19 Thalberg, Life and Legend, p. 283.
20 Groucho, Harpo, Chico, and sometimes, Zeppo, p. 274-275.
21 Thalberg, Life and Legend, p. 284-285.
22 Groucho, Harpo, Chico, and sometimes, Zeppo, p. 276-277.
23 Groucho, p. 229.
24 Ibid., 229-230.
25 Groucho, Harpo, Chico, and sometimes, Zeppo, p. 278.
26 Thalberg, Life and Legend, p. 284-285.
27 Groucho, Harpo, Chico, and sometimes, Zeppo, p. 280-281.
28 Groucho, p. 252.
29 Groucho and Me, p. 288.
30 Groucho, p. 233.
31 Groucho, Harpo, Chico, and sometimes, Zeppo, p. 276.
32 Groucho, p. 231.
33 Groucho, p. 232-233.
34 The Marx Brothers, Their World of Comedy, p.89.
35 Groucho, Harpo, Chico, and sometimes, Zeppo, p. 284.
© 1996 Cassiel C. MacAvity