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September 24th, 2007

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01:29 pm - 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.

(11 comments | Leave a comment)


Date:September 24th, 2007 07:09 pm (UTC)
I never thought about the Max Bialystock character being Groucho, but you're right, it really is. Just cast Margaret Dumont as a dowager in "The Producers," and you're halfway there.

The big question is who you'd put in Gene Wilder's place if it were a Marx Brothers movie.
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Date:September 24th, 2007 07:23 pm (UTC)
I bet the Bloom character was an addition to the Brooks film; he's the one who comes with the idea and mentions it to Bialystock. Groucho would've already come up with the idea on his own. I wonder what or who the heavy would've been in this show -- a rival opera impresario, perhaps? Sig Ruhman needed to be in there somewhere.

(And Zeppo had quit the group after Duck Soup. He was frustrated at being the straight man in all the films but by all accounts, however, in real life, Zeppo was one of the funniest of the brothers. He was the one who came up with the "Pinchie Winchie" game.)
Date:September 24th, 2007 07:39 pm (UTC)
So many of Gene Wilder's characters seemed to be under a constant battle to keep an inner maniac under control. Some of them succeeded more than others, but I get the idea that if Bloom lost control any more than he already did (I mean, you can't ascribe too much control to someone who shrieks, "I'm in pain and I'm wet and I'm still hysterical!"), he'd have turned into Harpo.

Wilder wasn't really a straight man. He was a neurotic trying to pass as a straight man.
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Date:September 24th, 2007 07:43 pm (UTC)
I think I remember reading (it may have been here, in fact) that Groucho loved seeing Zeppo play Groucho-as-Spaulding in the touring production of Animal Crackers.
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Date:September 24th, 2007 09:05 pm (UTC)
Groucho fell ill during the run and Zeppo covered him for a few weeks. Groucho's official response was "I'm never getting sick again", or somesuch.

I think it was the highest compliment he could pay to Zeppo on his the performance.
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Date:September 24th, 2007 07:52 pm (UTC)
With regards to tweaking the timing by touring as a stage show before filming: I just got the first two seasons of Titus on DVD, and in the commentary they report that their approach to filming before a live studio audience was similar: stage it as a play instead of just having some people in to watch you film your sitcom episode. They'd tape flashbacks and other cutaways earlier in the week, and then on taping day they'd do the main story in one run-through, no cuts, including freezing on stage while they rolled the pre-taped bits for the audience. Anything they flubbed in front of the audience they'd film in pick-ups after the audience left.

The result was that at the end of the taping, the audience was still laughing instead of being sick of sitting through retakes, so there was no need to pipe in canned laughter.

Now that I think about it, this isn't the same thing unless they filmed their rehearsals in front of an audience, too...
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Date:September 24th, 2007 08:20 pm (UTC)
bud cort befriended groucho towards the end of his life. there are some amusing/gross stories stemming from this (one involving groucho's tooth) that are floating around on the interbutt, should you be so inclined.
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Date:September 24th, 2007 09:06 pm (UTC)
Bud Cort shows up in the book, yeah! Along with Elliot Gould and Jack Nicholson. I may have to show you the transcripts sometime.
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Date:September 24th, 2007 10:02 pm (UTC)
I would kill any three people you select to be able to attend a dinner party with those four people.
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Date:September 24th, 2007 10:17 pm (UTC)
Wow. That is completely awesome.

I remember reading last year that Erin Fleming eventually became a bag lady, and died a few years back.


Yep. Killed herself, in fact.
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Date:September 25th, 2007 04:48 pm (UTC)
Spatch, I would be very happy if you wrote more stuff like this more often. In book form.

Seriously. You have a great voice.

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