Prohibition-era college hijinks

Happy second birthday to my rook piercing!

Released 10 August 1932, Horse Feathers was the Marx Brothers’ penultimate Paramount film, and one of their most popular prior to their switch to MGM. It made the cover of Time. Parts of the film originated with their 1910 stage production Fun in Hi Skule. I particularly like this film because Zeppo gets way more screentime than in most of the other Paramount films!

Prof. Quincy Adams Wagstaff (Groucho) has just become president of Huxley College, whose football team is a total trainwreck. After the opening song “I’m Against It,” Wagstaff’s son Frank (Zeppo) suggests he pump up the college’s reputation by buying some professional football players in a speakeasy.

Iceman Baravelli (Chico) is left to guard the speakeasy, whose password is “swordfish.” Being the good-natured dope he is, he gives away the password and lets Wagstaff maneuver his way inside. Soon afterwards, Baravelli’s partner Pinky (Harpo), an iceman and dog-catcher, joins them.

Meanwhile, Frank is wooing college widow Connie Bailey (the ill-fated Thelma Todd). A college widow is a woman who hangs around a college campus long past graduation to date and sleep with male students.

Wagstaff recruits Baravelli and Pinky as football players, though they have absolutely no experience with the sport. As part of this ruse, they have to enroll as students. The scene where they disrupt an anatomy class comes from the stage production.

There are several noticeable jump-cuts during the scene where the four brothers take turns going in and out of Connie’s room. This is both due to damage and the censorship demanded by the Hays Code. Sadly, there are no known surviving prints of the original, full-length version.

Also among the men going in and out of Connie’s room is Jennings, who later tries to get Baravelli to sell him Huxley’s football signals so he can throw the game. Baravelli gives him signals for the rival Darwin College, which Jennings immediately realizes. Having failed in his mission, Jennings enlists Connie to get the signals off of Wagstaff.

After this too fails, Baravelli and Pinky try to kidnap two football players from Darwin. The football players have already been tipped off about what’s supposed to happen, and easily overpower them. This puts the entire football game in jeopardy.

I won’t spoil what happens after this, but suffice it to say, there’s lots of typical chaos as the four brothers try to save the day.

The song “Everyone Says I Love You” is prominently featured, and performed by all four brothers. Zeppo gives a straight performance; Groucho gives a sarcastic performance when he and Connie are in a canoe; Harpo whistles it to his horse and plays it on the harp to Connie; and Chico does a comedic version while playing piano.

The song was written by the famous team of Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby, who wrote many other musical compositions for the brothers. These include “Hello, I Must Be Going” and “Hooray for Captain Spaulding” from Animal Crackers; the musical score for both the film and stage productions of Animal Crackers; “Hail, Hail Fredonia” from Duck Soup; and “I’m Against It” and “I Always Get My Man” from Horse Feathers.

Besides the segments censored out of the scene in Connie’s apartment, other cut scenes include the brothers playing poker as the college burns down, more scenes showing Pinky doing his dog-catching duties, Harpo bowling bottles with a grapefruit in the speakeasy, and an extended ending to the scene in Connie’s apartment.

A description of the poker-playing scene, and a still, survive in a 1932 press book. (Sorry I couldn’t find a larger image!)

During filming, Chico shattered a knee and broke numerous ribs in a car accident, thus delaying production by over two months. Due to his injuries, Chico had to be sitting down for almost all of his scenes, and needed a body double in higher-intensity scenes.

It’s pretty obvious in the famous horse-drawn garbage wagon scene, since the double is much taller than the real Chico (about 5’4, though still taller than I am!). Chico was about the same height as Harpo, while Groucho was about 5’7 and Zeppo was 5’9.

At this point in my fandom, I think Chico has become my favourite. I still love Harpo’s sweet, childlike character with its adult edge, and have no doubt he was the nicest, most approachable one in real life, but Chico’s warm-hearted, simple-brained character has completely charmed me. And who could resist that great smile?

Monsieur Verdoux at 70, Part II (A comedy of murders)

Monsieur Verdoux opens with a shot of Henri Verdoux’s grave and a voiceover by Chaplin. Verdoux was an honest bank clerk for 30 years, until the world depression of 1930 left him unemployed and forced him to go into a different kind of business—murdering widows to support his home and family.

We then move to the home of the Couvaises, wine merchants in northern France. They quit their bickering when a letter comes, saying Thelma has closed all her accounts. Thelma also hasn’t been heard from since she married three months ago. The family is very worried, and wants to go to the cops.

Verdoux is introduced in the rose garden of his villa in southern France. Two neighbors complain among themselves about how his incinerator has been going for the last three days and making an awful stink. Verdoux’s humanity is shown when he picks up a caterpillar on the ground, talks to it, and puts it on a leaf.

A mailman arrives with a registered letter for Thelma, requiring her signature. Verdoux goes inside to pretend Thelma is signing from the bathtub. The letter contains the 60,000 francs Thelma requested from her bank account, which is now emptied and terminated. The letter also establishes the year as 1932.

Verdoux is visited by a woman named Louise, from an employment agency. He gives her orders for how to clean his villa, and while she’s occupied, he conducts some financial business over the phone.

We then move to the Couvaises in the office of a police judiciary. Though Lena accidentally threw his photo in the fireplace, they all swear they’d know him if they saw him.

After they leave, the police judiciary and his detective discuss how twelve women have mysteriously disappeared over the last three years, all under similar circumstances. Many  were middle-aged, with little or no means of support, and married the same type of man.

While Verdoux is in process of selling Thelma’s estate, along comes prospective buyer Marie Grosnay and her real estate agent. He makes up a story about how his wife passed away from a heart attack, and says he’s selling the house to get away from the memories.

Once Verdoux discovers Marie is a widow who never remarried, he begins pulling out all the stops to try to seduce her. Marie isn’t having any of it, but Verdoux remains undeterred over the ensuing weeks.

Verdoux discovers he needs 50,000 francs unless he wants to go bankrupt. He quickly thinks of one of his wives, Lydia, who knows him as Monsieur Floray. She’s quite annoyed to see him showing up all of a sudden, after months away.

Lydia, who thought he’d died during his pretended business in Indochina, is smart enough to understand he only shows up when he wants something from her. She stands her ground and refuses to believe the fish stories he’s spinning, but he finally manages to convince her all the country’s banks are about to go bankrupt.

After Lydia has withdrawn all her money, Verdoux murders her off-camera.

Verdoux visits his son Peter and his wheelchair-bound real wife, Mona, on their tenth anniversary. He surprises Mona with the deed to their house and garden, which ensures they’ll never be homeless or have to go back to living in a single room. It also means Verdoux will be able to retire in a few years.

During this visit, Verdoux lectures Peter about his habit of pulling the cat’s tail. He tells Peter it shows a cruel streak, and that violence begets violence.

Verdoux’s next stop is another of his wives, Annabella (Martha Raye), who knows him as Monsieur Bonheur, a sea captain. He’s really met his match in her, since every time he visits her, he keeps failing at his attempts to get her money and murder her. Annabella is possibly the best secondary character!

Verdoux develops an untraceable poison to improve his killing methods. However, he chickens out after he invites his first would-be victim to his flat. He grows to care too much about her as a human being, and is touched by her enduring belief in love. Verdoux sends her off with some money.

Marie Grosnay finally succumbs to Verdoux’s seduction campaign, but things get complicated when Annabella shows up by the wedding.

Verdoux loses everything after the European markets collapse, and the woman he decided not to poison repays Verdoux’s past kindness. But when the Couvaises recognize Verdoux, it’s the beginning of the end.

I think this is my favorite of Chaplin’s talkies. Not only does he excel at both comedic and serious acting, but he also shows his character’s humanity over and over again. Verdoux isn’t a black-hearted monster who enjoys murdering women and stealing their money, which makes his actions all the more disturbing. We can’t dismiss him as one-dimensionally evil.

Monsieur Verdoux at 70, Part I (General overview)

Released 11 April 1947, Monsieur Verdoux was not only Chaplin’s first film without either the Little Tramp or a Tramp-like character, but also his first true all-talking film. While The Great Dictator was his first actual talkie, that film uses sound rather selectively. A number of scenes have no dialogue, letting the pantomime do the talking.

This dark comedy didn’t go over so well in the U.S., due to the radical departure from Chaplin’s usual forte, and all the political controversies and personal scandals he’d weathered in recent years.

The story of bluebeard (serial wife-murderer) Henri Verdoux was inspired by Henri Désiré Landru (12 April 1869–25 February 1922). He served in the French Army from 1887–91, and upon his demobbing, began a relationship with his own cousin.

Though they had a daughter together, Landru married another woman two years later, with whom he had four kids. After a boss swindled him, he turned to the dark side.

Landru was convicted and sent to prison in 1900. He was estranged from his wife by 1914, and became a used furniture dealer. As WWI progressed, he took advantage of the ever-increasing pool of widows to prey upon fresh victims.

When a widow answered his personal ad and came to his villa, Landru would seduce her, gain access to all her assets, murder her, and burn her body in his oven. He murdered ten women from 1914–19, as well as the teen son of one of them. Since Landru used many aliases and left no bodies behind, it was impossible to catch him.

Finally, in 1919, the sister of victim Célestine Buisson convinced the cops to arrest him. Though she didn’t know his real name, she remembered his address and appearance.

Landru was initially only charged with embezzlement, since a thorough search which included digging up the garden yielded no bodies. He also refused to talk to the cops. However, cops eventually put together a trail of evidence proving what he’d done.

In November 1921, the trial began. Landru was convicted on all eleven counts of murder and sentenced to death. Three months later, he was guillotined in Versailles.

Over the years, he’s been referenced or depicted many times in popular culture.

Orson Welles wanted to cast Chaplin as a character based upon Landru. Chaplin claimed he backed out of the idea when Welles admitted the script hadn’t been written yet and that he wanted Chaplin’s help to write it.

Welles claimed the script already existed, and Chaplin bought the script from him and rewrote several important scenes. Because Welles desperately needed money, he signed away all his rights, in spite of feeling he would’ve been a better director.

Chaplin claimed he soon began thinking about what a great idea it would be to use Landru’s story as the basis of a dark comedy. Chaplin phoned Welles and offered $5,000. Welles eventually accepted screen credit for the idea.

The film was a poor match to the prevailing social, political, and cultural milieu in the U.S. in 1947, but it did rather well in Europe, particularly France. In spite of this, it was nominated for the 1947 Academy Award for Best Writing (Original Screenplay).

While promoting his film, Chaplin was subject to hostile press treatment. During the brief time it played in the U.S., several boycotts were staged. By one of his promotional press conferences, Chaplin followed his opening remarks by inviting the press to “Proceed with the butchering.”

Chaplin’s speech near the end of the film is brief but powerful. Along with the first season finale of The Boondocks, it almost, almost, almost made me reconsider my support of the death penalty.

The film opens with a shot of Verdoux’s grave and proceeds to a flashback explaining what lead up to that moment. The viewer knows going in what happened to him, but not the how and why.

Originally, the final speech was even more biting, but the Hays Office wasn’t pleased with these lines:

“To be shocked by the nature of my crime is nothing but a pretence… a sham! You wallow in murder… you legalize it… you adorn it with gold braid! You celebrate it and parade it! Killing is the enterprise by which your System prospers, upon which your industry thrives!”

ADATR at 80, Part II (Behind the scenes)

Following in the footsteps of 1935’s brilliantly successful ANATO, ADATR also was previewed and perfected via a vaudeville tour. This gave the Marx Brothers the chance to see what audiences liked and didn’t like, what needed to be reworked, how to time gags and quips, and what needed ditched.

As a result, the screenplay went through many rounds of edits and outlines before attaining the final draft we know and love.

“All God’s Chillun Got Rhythm,” performed by Ivie Anderson and The Crinoline Choir, was nominated for Best Dance Direction at the 1937 Oscars. This was the only Marx Brothers’ movie to ever get an Oscar nomination.

Ivie Anderson was a very popular jazz singer who was performing with Duke Ellington’s orchestral band at the time. The dancers were Herbert “Whitey” White’s Lindy Hoppers of Harlem’s Savoy Ballroom, including an uncredited Dorothy Dandridge.

The song was most likely inspired by traditional African–American spiritual “All God’s Chillun Got Wings,” which in turn inspired a 1924 Eugene O’Neill play of the same name. Its première starred Paul Robeson (one of my heroes), who sang the title song.

Allan Jones originally sang “A Message from the Man in the Moon” during his introductory scene. Another song, “Dr. Hackenbush,” was sung by Groucho upon his arrival at the sanitarium. They were cut out of consideration for the already sprawling length.

The former song is heard during opening credits and again by the dancing at the dull water carnival. It’s also sung by Groucho in the final scene. The DVD includes an audio extra of Allan Jones singing it. I think just about everyone would gladly trade that boring water ballet for either of those songs!

Originally, “On Blue Venetian Waters” was shot in light brown sepia, and the even more boring water ballet was tinted blue.

It’s interesting to note that at MGM, Groucho’s outlandish characters weren’t accepted without questions. Everyone knows or suspects he’s a fraud, even Chico’s own shyster characters. However, in spite of this, audience sympathy is always established. 

Dr. Hackenbush was Groucho’s favoritest character he ever played. In his later years, he often signed his letters and referred to himself by that name, and sang the deleted novelty song.

His character’s name was originally Quackenbush, but was changed due to fear of lawsuits from several real-life Dr. Quackenbushes.

Producer Irving Thalberg (who never allowed himself to be credited onscreen) passed away of pneumonia 14 September 1936, aged only 37. He’d always been sickly, due to a congenital heart disease. Filming immediately ceased. When it resumed on 21 December, production shifted to his brother-in-law Lawrence Weingarten, who was also uncredited.

While Thalberg was adamant about balancing the comedy with a romantic subplot and musical performances, there would’ve been a much better balance had he not died during production.

After this, the musical interludes began hogging more and more screentime. Allan Jones also wasn’t particularly happy with the songs he was given in ADATR. With the notable exception of “Tomorrow Is Another Day,” they weren’t as strong as the ones from ANATO, nor were any of them huge hits like “Alone.”

Besides the canned musical numbers, one of the deleted scenes featured Chico and Harpo infiltrating the dancing by the water carnival, pretending to be waiters in formal suits, and wreaking comedic mayhem. Another featured Harpo trying to calm a little girl by giving her ice-cream, and then swallowing a balloon she bopped him over the head with.

Several references to things we never see suggest other potential deleted scenes, such as Tony already knowing Whitmore and Morgan are in cahoots, and Dr. Hackenbush saying he thought he told Tony and Stuffy “to stay down there with those pigeons.”

Had Thelma Todd not tragically passed away in 1935, it’s quite possible she and not Esther Muir would’ve played blonde floozy Flo, who tries to frame Dr. Hackenbush.

A lithograph of this has been hanging on my wall for years!

Just about all reviews were very good, something which would never happen again. After Thalberg passed away, the Marx Brothers were left to twist in the wind, and became more and more like guest stars in their own movies. I don’t think the later films are nearly as awful as their reputation, but they’re not 5-star efforts either.

The classic 1976 Queen album A Day at the Races takes its name from the film, just as their 1975 A Night at the Opera takes it name from that movie.

ADATR at 80, Part I (General overview)

Released 11 June 1937, A Day at the Races has long been my favoritest Marx Brothers’ film, and one of my favoritest films overall. Sadly, producer Irving Thalberg, their biggest advocate, unexpectedly passed away during production, and they never made a film this perfect again.

No matter how many times I’ve seen this film, the ending always puts a smile on my face. While the musical numbers and romantic subplot were beginning to take up too much screentime, they still fit with the story and work with it instead of against it.

Just as in ANATO, their pseudo-Zeppo was the handsome, talented Allan Jones, who has great chemistry with the brothers. We like him and his girlfriend, instead of groaning every time they appear onscreen and fast-forwarding through their scenes. They belong there.

Judy Standish (Maureen O’Sullivan, whom Groucho had a big crush on) runs a sanitarium which is going bankrupt. Employee Tony (Chico) suggests wealthy patient Emily Upjohn (Margaret Dumont) might give them a big splash of money, but Mrs. Upjohn announces she’s leaving. None of the doctors can find anything wrong with her, though Dr. Hugo Z. Hackenbush (Groucho) has convinced her she’s quite unhealthy.

Dr. Hackenbush, whom Mrs. Upjohn doesn’t know is really a horse doctor, is invited as chief of staff in the hopes of saving the sanitarium. However, business manager Whitmore and hotel and racetrack owner Morgan suspect he’s a fraud.

There’s also trouble between Judy and her beau Gil Stewart (Allan Jones). Gil, who sings at Morgan’s hotel, just dropped his last $1,500 on a horse named Hi-Hat. He hoped to enter Hi-Hat in a race and bet on him to save the sanitarium, but now he doesn’t have any money for Hi-Hat’s feed.

Morgan fires jockey Stuffy (Harpo) for refusing to lose a race, and Tony suggests him as Hi-Hat’s jockey and caretaker. When the sheriff arrives to collect Hi-Hat’s bill, Tony and Stuffy pretend $5 is $15. Tony then scams Dr. Hackenbush, in the famous tutsi-fruitsy ice-cream scene. All Dr. Hackenbush wants to do is get a tip for a horse, but ends up buying a bunch of useless books to decipher the tip ZVBXRPL.

Dr. Hackenbush fends off Whitmore’s suspicions by faking a call from the Florida Medical Board and staging numerous interruptions. Afterwards, Tony brings in Stuffy for a medical exam, and discovers Dr. Hackenbush is really a horse doctor. At first, Tony wants to blow his cover, but he quickly realizes Dr. Hackenbush could save the sanitarium.

Gil and Judy make up after Gil’s performance at the hotel, which includes a rather boring water ballet, and musical performances by Chico and Harpo. During the dancing, Dr. Hackenbush keeps ditching Mrs. Upjohn for blonde floozy Flo.

Stuffy hides in the bushes and overhears Flo and Whitmore conspiring to trap Dr. Hackenbush in a compromising situation. Stuffy pantomimes this to Tony, a scene later revisited in A Night in Casablanca (1946) and Love Happy (1949).

Stuffy and Tony stage several interruptions, and foil the attempted framing. However, the trouble isn’t over yet, as Whitmore next brings in prominent Viennese Dr. Steinberg (Sig Rumann).

Dr. Steinberg and Whitmore want to see how Dr. Hackenbush conducts an examination, and Mrs. Upjohn is quite glad to volunteer. Dr. Hackenbush, determined not to be exposed as a fraud, prolongs the examination as long as possible. This scene contains one of the instances where Harpo may have snuck his voice in.

To prevent being arrested, Dr. Hackenbush, Gil, Tony, and Stuffy hide out in Hi-Hat’s stable. After Judy arrives with some blankets, there are several more musical numbers. Morgan and the sheriff interrupt the singing and dancing, and aren’t fooled by our heroes’ attempt to hide in the shantytown crowd with blackface.

Hi-Hat, as always, goes crazy at the sound of Morgan’s voice. This time, he jumps over several obstacles. Gil immediately realizes why Hi-Hat never won a race, and enters him in a steeplechase race.

Morgan remains determined to bring everyone down, and horse-naps Hi-Hat. Our heroes, in return, stage several disturbances to prevent the race from starting until Hi-Hat is rescued. And the trouble doesn’t end when the race begins!