Marx for Trying

I was thinking of getting rid of my copy of Moving Pictures by Budd Schulberg — “Will I ever read this?” — when I opened it at random — a fair test — and discovered that Schulberg had attempted to co-write a Marx Bros movie at Paramount in the thirties, where he was the boss’s son.

BUGHOUSE FABLES was the intended title, which I somewhat approve of, since it has the required animal reference. But is it a common phrase or saying like “monkey business,” “horse feathers,” “animal crackers,” and “duck soup”? (Two of these are by now UNcommon phrases or sayings but I’m prepared to believe that in pre-code days they were familiar to the American public.)

BUT I’m wrong — here’s proof, from 1922, that Schulberg’s title WAS extant.

It was supposed to be about the Marxes running an asylum. I’m unsure about this. The results could easily be tasteless, even for the 1930s, and Schulberg says that part of the impetus was to hit back at the censors who had been objecting to MONKEY BUSINESS. Also, surrounding the Bros with lunatics could easily diminish their powers. The possibilities for spot gags would be endless, but we can hardly have Groucho, Chico and Harpo seeming less crazy than everyone else. Presumably we would have a “lunatics taking over the asylum” scenario and there are strong possibilities for annoying headshrinkers (cue Sig Rumann) and wealthy patrons (Margaret Dumont). But I think the Marxes need a sane, generically-consistent story world to interact with, and be the craziest element of. When Groucho is placed in charge of a sanatorium in A DAY AT THE RACES, the most eccentric person he meets apart from his own brothers is rich hypochondriac Dumont.

Schulberg himself sounds pretty uncertain about whether his efforts to write funny were in fact hitting the mark or Marx (atsa some joke, huh boss?)

The same problem is multiplied by a thousand in Salvador Dali’s Marx scenario, GIRAFFES ON HORSEBACK SALAD. Two animals for the price of one. But not a common phrase or saying, except perhaps in the Dali household. It’s understandable that Dali, a Spaniard, may have misunderstood “horse feathers” and “animal crackers” as pieces of surreal word salad, which they sort of are, but they were also pre-existing expressions which the domestic audience understood.

But the title is merely a clue to the full-blown insanity of Dali’s vision. And while that may sound mouth-watering, most commentators have concluded that surrounding the Marx Bros with an UN CHIEN ANDALOU world already chaotic and surreal would render them redundant, with nothing left to disrupt.

This image derives from a graphic novel adaptation, and you can listen to a subsequently-produced audio version here, for money.

Much, much later, Billy Wilder contemplated A NIGHT AT THE UNITED NATIONS. The title here places the project in the later MGM tradition though I doubt Wilder would have filled the movie with songs. The concept of positioning the Brothers in the context of international politics does smack promisingly of DUCK SOUP though. It would be untrue to say that the gags would write themselves — but I believe Wilder could write them. I’d love to see Chico working as a simultaneous translator. And then Harpo taking over.

Wilder never made a film built around an actual movie clown — his comedies are built around thespians with comedic chops. He uses Marilyn Monroe a little bit like a clown, and Jimmy Cagney as an icon whose famous moments he can built jokes around, but mostly his characters are not totally dependent on casting choices. He did try to work with Peter Sellers, twice, but Sellers had neither persona nor, he claimed, personality.

Wilder did also want to make a film with Laurel & Hardy — he got as far as planning an opening showing them sleeping rough in the last two Os of the HOLLYWOOD sign. So clownwork was something he had an interest in. But I suspect the collaborations would have been fraught. Stan liked to be in charge, and Groucho eventually kicked Wilder out of his house after receiving one too many lectures on the right wine to serve with dinner. (This is all from Maurice Zolotow’s semi-reliable Wilder bio.) It would have been like Preston Sturges and Harold Lloyd trying to collaborate, and finding their mutual respect could not overcome their need to be true to their individual comic muses.

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6 Responses to “Marx for Trying”

  1. An insane asylum? How about The Marx Brothers in “Marat/Sade”? Thelma Todd would make a oerfect Chrlotte Corday.

  2. Groucho as the Divine Marquis. sure… Zeppo as Marat… Harpo and Chico as I guess Cucurucu and Kokol, or vice versa…

  3. bensondonald Says:

    Joseph L. Mankiewicz provided story for “Million Dollar Legs” (1932) and screenplay for Wheeler & Woolsey’s “Diplomaniacs” (1933), both amusing if imperfect prototypes for “Duck Soup”.

    The first is a Paramount free-for-all, with even the romantic leads (Jack Oakie and the future Mrs. Harpo) written as cartoon gags. High points center on President W.C. Fields, but you also get Lydia Roberti as a professional ruiner of men, undercranked Andy Clyde sprinting in a goat costume, and Ben Turpin as an ominous observer.

    The second is also very watchable, with W&W able to be funny in a world as loopy as they are. But there are moments that go thunk, usually when straight types are forced to be silly. The politically incorrect stuff is so off the wall (including Hugh Herbert as a Chinese henchman) it’s more WTF than offensive. Appreciate that a large bomb is labeled “FOR MEDICINAL USE ONLY”, and they never give us an insert shot or otherwise call attention. It’s like the chicken fat in old Mad Magazine comic parodies.

    In “Duck Soup” there’s a concrete threat from Sylvania, and the ambassador is a straight villain despite his judgment in hiring Chico and Harpo. Also, the Freedonians are reasonable sane folk despite being easily stampeded by musical numbers. Would these other films have been better with such a toehold in plot and stakes?

    I’ve dreamt of “Father of the Bride” starring Oliver Hardy, that supremely self-important individual finding himself the second least-important member of the wedding. The least important would of course be the father of the groom: Stan Laurel, who gives Ollie some reason to worry about heredity. Rather than “The In-Laws” you’d have the boys simply struggling with the elaborate conventions while attempting to pacify their warring wives. I see them being fitted for tuxedos in a fancy shop, where escalating confusion involving the measuring tape culminates in mass trouser-ripping. They meet their wives at the bakery to see the cake, and, well … Nod to MGM formula: The boys’ blundering leads to a tiny ceremony with a handful of people — which is what the young couple desperately wanted all along, so happy ending there. A sentimental farewell to the newlyweds as they drive off on their honeymoon. And a nervous farewell to each other, as Stan and Ollie prepare to go home with their own less joyful spouses. A tag: Early on the parents mistakenly take a meeting with an undertaker instead of a wedding planner. He happens to be present at the end, and the fuming Mrs. Hardy and Mrs. Laurel both ask for his business card as the boys realize the implications.

  4. Ha! That’s delightful!

    Yes, I think both examples would be strengthened by a few straight men, but on the other hand Hellzapoppin’ works, so maybe with more consistent laughs they’d get by. I remember some lovely weird moments though.

  5. John Seal Says:

    I”m really surprised you haven’t read Schulberg’s book: it’s well-written, informative, and relates a disturbing incident rendering Fredric March’s reputation positively Trump-esque. Really.

  6. Yikes! Don’t tell Fiona!

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