Archive for the Radio Category

Marx for Trying

Posted in Comics, FILM, literature, Painting, Radio with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 20, 2022 by dcairns

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.

Pig Race 2000

Posted in FILM, Radio with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 3, 2022 by dcairns

Sorry, the whole of PORKY’S ROAD RACE isn’t on YouTube, so you’ll just have to believe me when I tell you this Loony Tune by Frank Tash(lin) is the Warners 1937 animated version of DEATH RACE 2000. Tricked-out cars causing mayhem with tacks and glue and grease…

For some reason, it’s not just that, though, it’s a race of Hollywood caricatures

WC Fields is paired with Edna May Oliver, which might have been a good casting idea for a feature; Laurel & Hardy power a car jack with a see-saw; a very poor Charlie Chaplin, envisaged as a long thin chap in white trousers; Charles Laughton as Captain Bligh, but in a car.

Some of the references are quite obscure:

I guess this is meant to be George Arliss, Leslie Howard and Freddie Bartholomew?

And here’s one that required actual research:

Definitely John Barrymore. In a car called Caliban. Pursued by a woman in a car called Ariel (with an aerial). The first source I checked was baffled, as Barrymore had never appeared onstage in THE TEMPEST. But they did identify the woman as Elaine Barrie, his wife at the time. It turns out he’d played the part on the radio, as part of a 1937 series called Streamlined Shakespeare. I don’t know if a recording survives, but here’s Twelfth Night. Anyway, that seems like a moderately obscure set of references even for 1937. It’s a cartoon that needs annotated.

Of course, as in the other DEATH RACE 2000, there’s a Frankenstein, but instead of David Carradine it’s, naturally enough, “Borax Karloff.”

The concept overall is weird, there aren’t really any good jokes, and Tashlin’s fanboy side is charming but when he did gags about film technique rather than about movie stars, he was funnier. The closest thing to that is the disclaimer at the start, which starts great but fizzles out, but hey, at least it starts great.

Aaaaaaaaaand thanks to @GearGades on Twitter, here’s a link to the full toon:

Dear Valentina, I can throw your pictures off the screen

Posted in FILM, literature, Radio, Science with tags , , , , on July 26, 2021 by dcairns

This I swear: I will give you regular updates on my progress through Lindsay Anderson’s Making a Film: The Story of Secret People.

In this installment, imported star Valentina Cortese receives a letter at the Dorchester:

Dear Valentina Cortese, — Hoping you will forgive an Englishman not as old or as young as your lovely self according to the Mirror photograph. It would be the greatest pleasure of my life to have just a good Cup of Tea with you. My assets are the finest Sight in the World and three small pensions. If I told I have all birds and animals, Millions of Human Beings see under water like fish, whales, sharks, crocodiles and all Electric Rays from Earth to Beyond the Sun and Moon. This letter is actually written by Radio. I have sent a Ray through the wireless around the Earth, as I am the only one who causes faults at night. I should like you to answer this letter from a lonely Englishman Who has eyes like you, hands and feet as the Master you see in all your Churches… Post-script: I see more than anyone else when I go to the pictures. I can throw your pictures off the screen.

Valentina’s comment: “Yes, it’s horrible–but that’s nothing, darling.”

It might seem presumptuous to diagnose schizophrenia by mail, without medical qualifications, but I nevertheless have little hesitation in doing so. In its more florid forms the illness has so many signature characteristics, all on display here.


I used to get the occasional comment here from a Howard Hughes III, whose communiques had much of the same “energy”. And on another movie-related note, when Fiona was briefly in psychiatric hospital with severe depression, we discovered a tabloid newspaper extensively annotated in biro by a fellow patient. It was all celebrity conspiracy theories, with religious and supernatural overtones, a mess of contradictory and interpenetrating delusions. I remember one line, added to a photo of Julia Roberts: “NOT the real Julia Roberts. The real Julia was killed in 1987 for refusing to take it up the arse of the pope.” (sic)

What was fascinating was the way the whole subject of his sentence shifted from JR to the Pope without, seemingly, the author realising it. He experienced it as consistent and logical, though how he could have sustained this if he read it back, I don’t know. That, perhaps, is the strange superpower of the schizophrenic, to contain contradiction. (OK, maybe we all do a version of that.)

Fiona remarked to a staff member that she hadn’t realised the author was so floridly insane. “I’m very glad to hear you say that,” he said, “because there’s a lot of people here who think he’s perfectly normal.”

There was also the ex-flatmate who stalked two celebrated Scottish documentarists, one of whom she insisted had proposed marriage. “This was all done telepathically.” Never officially diagnosed so far as I know, she seemed perfectly healthy when last we met, I’m happy to say.

On this evidence, schizophrenia can be seen as not merely an illness but a genre, built around consistent elements endlessly recombined, and subject to fashion. Telepathy has now probably supplanted radio as the invisible influencer of choice, celebrities are still big (royalty holding their own against movie stars) and religion a near-essential component, like pistols in a western.