It's just this little chromium switch, here... (derspatchel) wrote,
It's just this little chromium switch, here...

springtime for groucho

Charlotte Chandler's Hello, I Must Be Going is an amazingly entertaining account of her interviews with Groucho Marx and his friends and colleagues during their twilight years in the 1970s. Reading Groucho's interactions with different people, using similar jokes in similar situations, and his opinions on people and recollections of things (which he'd only recall when he felt like it) gives me such an incredible portrait of the artist as very very very old man. I've read plenty of Marx Brothers material which mostly focuses on their early vaudeville days to I'll Say She Is, their Broadway debut (which wouldn't have been reviewed by the top-tier New York reviewers such as Heywood Broun and Alexander Woollcott, but the big-name show scheduled to open that same night was postponed, so the reviewers had to make do with some second-string revue) and their film careers.

But, apart from a completely sad story by Mark Evanier of Groucho's visit to the set of Welcome Back, Kotter after senility had really set in and a few acrid chapters near the end of Stefan Kamer's biography of the man, which mostly describe him as feeble and manipulated by his secretary-slash-unofficial wife Erin Fleming (as was the Marx family stance on the woman; they really resented her and thought she was just in it for the money and the lawsuits regarding Groucho's estate raged well on into the late 80s) I've never really had the chance to read about his last few years. Chandler's book provides me with this wonderful opportunity and incredible insight. It's absolutely wonderful. (Chandler also writes glowingly about Erin Fleming, which may account for her continued friendship with the couple up until the end.)

Several bits of insight I have particularly enjoyed included Groucho's constant tweaking of lines while fine-tuning the MGM movies before they were shot (A Night at the Opera and A Day at the Races both went up as touring stage productions to time the laughs; they fine-tuned the Stateroom scene in Opera that way, shrinking the set and fitting more and more people in with every production until the laughs just could no longer be timed with just one stopwatch.) This taught Morrie Ryskind never to go for a laugh on a question ("Either he's dead or my watch has stopped" brought way more laughs than "Is he dead, or has my watch stopped?")

And this interesting tidbit of note: A Night at the Opera was written and re-written nearly a dozen times. MGM head Irving Thalberg rejected many drafts, as he'd just acquired the Marx Bros and was determined to turn their fortunes around and make sympathetic figures out of them. By helping Kitty Carlisle and Allan Jones while running around nihilistically instead of just running around nihilistically, the brothers be sympathetic characters, and thus gain more favor with the audience ("I could give you a movie with half the laughs but with sympathetic characters," Thalberg proclaimed, "and it would earn double what Duck Soup made." Opera did indeed surpass Duck Soup at the box office.) This, however, meant the original story for A Night at the Opera had to go.

The original story? It involved Groucho as an opera impresario who deliberately oversold interest in his scheme of an operatic production designed to be a sure-fire dud, only to watch in shock as the opera became a raging success. Sound familiar? Both Morrie Ryskind and George Seaton, who worked on the initial drafts, claim this story idea originated with their original idea for the MGM film.

The story floated around Hollywood for many years until Mel Brooks picked it up and did his wonderful thing with it. Neither screenwriter brooked, as it were, any emnity towards Brooks, saying instead that he did it great, but really, when you think about it, Max Bialystock really is a proto-Groucho character (especially with Zero Mostel in the original film.) He's threadbare, on his last sou, romancing old dowagers for their money ("Ah, Mrs. Rittenhouse...") and scheming, ever scheming.

Still, it captures the imagination something fierce, don't it? I wonder exactly what A Night at the Opera, released in 1935, would have been like had Mr. Driftwood been in charge of staging a complete disaster. Chico and Harpo would've written the opera, of course:
CHICO: The music, she's-a mine, I do the composin.
GROUCHO: Well, I wish you'd start decomposing. And who's this layabout?
(HARPO grins, and eats a quill pen.)
CHICO: Ats-a my partner, but he no lay about. Sommatime he loiter standin up. We work together onna opera. He write-a the book, int that right?
(HARPO beams proudly, holding his book upside down.)
CHICO: But I told him at's-a no good, he gotta write an opera instead.
(HARPO throws the book down angrily and glares at CHICO.)
CHICO: He no like-a hearing that.
GROUCHO: I'm not gonna like hearing it, either, but you're hired.
(here beginneth the Contract Scene.)
Hmm. Needs some Al Boasberg.
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