Hijinks in a hotel

Though the Marx Brothers made a (now lost) short film in 1921, Humorrisk, their first true film was The Cocoanuts. It premièred 23 May 1929 in NYC, and went into general release on 3 August. Typical of their Paramount films, the plot is rather thin and ramshackle. It’s just a vehicle for their zany, anarchic brand of comedy.

Like most early talkies, there were a lot of technological drawbacks. However, to its advantage, The Cocoanuts, like their other early films, was based on a stage play. It works for the action to be limited to a few sets without a lot of movement from the camera.

In the very early sound era, with a few notable exceptions, cameras couldn’t move very far, and microphones had to stay as close to the actors as possible. Because these microphones picked up every little sound, all the paper used in The Cocoanuts had to be soaked in water to avoid rustling.

A longer transitional period could’ve worked out these technological kinks, but people were so eager to play with the shiny new toy, they didn’t care about anything but the excitement of sound cinema.

During the Florida land boom of the 1920s, Mr. Hammer (Groucho) and his assistant Jamison (Zeppo) manage the Hotel de Cocoanut as ineptly as you can imagine. Mr. Hammer hasn’t paid his employees for two weeks, and Jamison prefers to sleep at the front desk.

Wealthy guest Mrs. Potter (Margaret Dumont) is keen for her daughter Polly (Mary Eaton) to marry Harvey Yates (Cyril Ring), whom she believes will give Polly a big step up the social ladder. Polly, however, prefers struggling architect Bob Adams (Oscar Shaw), who works as a hotel clerk and dreams of turning the entire area into Cocoanut Manor.

Predictably, Yates is a conman scheming to steal Mrs. Potter’s diamond necklace, with assistance from his girlfriend Penelope (Kay Francis).

Two more conmen, Chico and Harpo, presently arrive, with plans to fill their empty suitcases by robbing and tricking the other guests. Also predictably, they drive Mr. Hammer, the employees, and the other guests crazy with their wacky antics.

Penelope realizes these guys are total dopes, and hatches a plan for them to take the fall for the theft of Mrs. Potter’s necklace.

Another predictable plot development is Mr. Hammer’s attempted wooing of Mrs. Potter.

Harpo is invited into Penelope’s room, and hides under her bed when Yates visits. He overhears them discussing their scheme, and holds out his hat to catch an incriminating note Penelope drops.

Penelope and Mrs. Potter, whose rooms are connected by a door, are quite bemused at Mr. Hammer, Harpo, and Chico running in and out. During this whirlwind back and forth, Penelope goes into Mrs. Potter’s room and steals the necklace.

Mr. Hammer tells Chico about his plans for a Cocoanut Manor auction, during which Mrs. Potter announces her necklace was stolen and offers a thousand-dollar reward.

Harpo presently produces the necklace, to Mrs. Potter’s great gratitude. A detective blames Bob, which spurs Penelope on to spin a wild fish story corroborating the accusation. Mrs. Potter believes Bob is guilty, but Polly believes in his innocence.

The situation worsens when Mrs. Potter orders Polly to stay away from Bob, and announces Polly’s engagement to Yates. Now it’s up to Harpo and Chico to get Bob out of jail and prove his innocence.

Typical of early talkies, there are a lot of musical and dance numbers. They feel kind of pointless and space-filling, much like the musical performances cluttering up the later MGM films. We can understand the story perfectly well without these interruptions! Seriously, you can skip all of them and not miss anything.

The film was shot at Kaufman Astoria Studios in Queens, where follow-up Animal Crackers was also shot. Paramount moved all their production to Hollywood in 1932.

The Marxes were horrorstruck by the final cut, so much so they tried to buy back the negative. Paramount refused, and released the film to great critical success. It earned $1,800,000 gross ($26,962,421 today) and was one of the most successful early talkies.

Reviews were mostly positive, esp. regarding the Marxes. The other parts of the film garnered more mixed reactions. They felt the romantic subplot and musical performances were pointless. Critics also mentioned poor audio quality in spots and poorly-filmed dance sequences.

The audiovisual issues were finally corrected in a long overdue 2016 remastering of the Paramount films. The original 2004 boxed set was just embarrassing!

Larry Semon

This is an edited, expanded version of an entry in my “Too Young, Too Soon” series on my old Angelfire site, which I wrote around 2005–07.

Lawrence (Larry) Semon (16 July 1889–8 October 1928) was born in West Point, Mississippi, to vaudeville magician Zera the Great and his assistant Irene. He and his older sister were part of their family act until his dad’s death.

Larry finished his schooling in Savannah, and moved to New York after graduation. He was a cartoonist and graphic artist for The New York Sun and The New York Morning Telegraph, and gave vaudeville monologues. His vaudeville work got the attention of Vitagraph, who offered him a contract in 1915.

Initially, Larry produced, directed, and wrote for Hughie Mack. Every so often, he cast himself in bit parts. After Hughie left Vitagraph in 1916, Larry began playing leading roles. His character often caused chaos wherever he went.

Larry’s popularity soared; in many places, he was second only to Chaplin. The three-year contract he signed in 1919, for $3,600,000, put him second financially. Unfortunately, Larry got too big for his britches when he was given complete creative control.

Larry liked living large, and his two-reelers often cost more than five-reeler features. His sight gags and special effects used up to three aeroplanes per film; car crashes and explosions; falling water towers; exploding barns; permanent structures instead of painted sets; gallons of ink; vats of paint; barrels of flour; huge mudpits; sacks of soot; and gobs of jam.

This overspending earned him an ultimatum in 1924: start producing and financing your own films.

Larry thought features would earn more money than shorts, which was a big mistake. Today, he’s mainly remembered for his horrible 1925 version of The Wizard of Oz, in which his frequent co-star Oliver Hardy plays the Tin Man.

Larry’s second wife, Dorothy Dwan (who was 19 to his 36), plays Dorothy, and Larry plays a toymaker in the wraparound scenes, and a farmhand who becomes the Scarecrow.

Spencer Bell, one of the first African–American comedic actors in film and the first to be signed to a contract, is billed as G. Howe Black. Yes, you read that right. G. Howe Black. He was credited under the same horrifying screen name in Larry’s The Perfect Clown.

After that bomb, Larry began sinking in popularity. His money problems compelled him back to shorts, at Educational Pictures. Larry also directed for Paramount and performed in vaudeville, though it wasn’t enough. In March 1928, he filed for bankruptcy.

Not one to give up easily, Larry began doing vaudeville yet again, but the constant touring put a huge strain on him, leading to a nervous breakdown. His wife Dorothy had also gone to live with her mother and closed their house.

Larry was admitted to a sanitarium, where his health improved enough for him to move to a health ranch in Victorville, California. Tragedy struck when Larry caught double pneumonia. He also had TB. Larry passed away at age 39.

Some people believe he didn’t really die, but escaped to avoid his financial obligations and creditors. Larry was ordered cremated after a high-security, closed-casket funeral to which almost no one was allowed to come. Allegedly, his previous instructions had requested cremation, but no one knows the location of his ashes to this day.

 

Max Linder and Harold Lockwood

The first part of this post is edited and expanded from an entry in my “Too Young, Too Soon” series on my old Angelfire site, written around 2005–07.

Max Linder (né Gabriel-Maximilien Leuvielle) (16 December 1883–31 October 1925) was born in Cavernes, France, to winemakers Jean and Suzanne. He always loved the theatre, and enrolled in the Conservatoire Bordeaux in 1899. Before long, he was winning awards for his acting.

From 1901–04, he was a contract player with Bordeaux Théâtre des Arts. He also acted for the Parisian theatre Ambigu-Comique. The stage surname Linder was randomly chosen in 1904, after a walk in Bordeaux brought him to a Linder’s shoe store.

In 1905, Max began acting in Pathé films, usually in supporting roles. He made a film almost every day. By 1910, he’d created his very recognisable screen character, a dapper dandy with a silk top hat and a moustache, who always gets mixed up in wild misadventures.

Max’s films were hugely popular, and he became the world’s first recognisable screen character, in this era when most comedians had screen personas instead of just playing funny people in funny situations. He starred in hundreds of films during the 1910s.

Like many other early comedians, he also did all his own stunts and came up with a lot of his own material. In 1910 alone, he made one short a week. The French adored Max and looked forward to his weekly adventures.

When ill health and a near-fatal roller-skating accident in 1911 took Max out of commission, his fans waited patiently for his return. To explain his absence, he appeared in the documentary Max Dans Sa Famille.

By 1914, he was famous worldwide, and kept getting more popular. During 1912–13, he toured Spain, Germany, and St. Petersburg. His million-franc Pathé contract was for one film a week, 150 films over three years. Life seemed great for Max.

Troubles began when he fell victim to mustard gas during WWI. This took him out of the service after mere months. He returned home extremely ill, and didn’t return to acting till 1916.

Chicago’s Essanay Studios offered him a $5,000 a week contract in the wake of their big star Charlie Chaplin’s departure, but Max was only able to make three of the planned dozen films. He went to an L.A. sanitarium before going home to France. Max recovered from pleurisy by Lake Geneva.

Max returned to film in 1919, and his fans were delighted to have him back. At the end of that year, he returned to Hollywood, where he made features including Be My Wife, The Three Must-Get-Theres, and, most famous of all, Seven Years Bad Luck.

Unfortunately, Max’s health began acting up again, and he returned to Europe. In 1921, he proposed to 16-year-old Hélène Peters (sometimes called Ninette). Her mother rightly refused to let her marry someone 22 years older, and Max caused a scandal by taking Hélène to Monte Carlo.

On 23 August 1923, Max and Hélène married.

On 23 February 1924, when Hélène was five months pregnant, she and Max attempted suicide, but were revived. Their daughter Maud was born on 27 June.

Max’s luck seemed to be improving, as his next film, King of the Circus, won much acclaim. Sadly, his mental and physical health continued deteriorating, and Hélène filed for divorce.

On Halloween 1925, he and Hélène died in a suicide pact or murder-suicide. Maud (who passed away 25 October 2017) was raised by her grandparents, and did a great deal to restore her father’s films and reignite public interest in him.

Harold Lockwood (12 April 1887–19 October 1918), a hugely popular matinée idol born in Brooklyn, is one of those silent stars whose work we can’t appraise accurately. Though he made over 100 films, only about five are known to survive. Most of what we have to go on are vintage film reviews.

Harold was raised in Newark, and became an exporter after graduation. He wasn’t very happy with this career choice, and turned to vaudeville acting. In 1910, he entered film, and worked for four studios.

During WWI, Harold and May Allison co-starred in over 23 films and became one of the most popular screen couples of the era. In real life, Harold was married to Alma Jones, by whom he had a son, Harold, Jr., who later became an actor himself.

Sadly, Harold was one of the 50–100 million victims of the 1918–19 flu pandemic, which mostly killed young, healthy people. He was only 31.

Karl Dane

This is edited and expanded from an entry in my “Too Young, Too Soon” series on my old Angelfire page, written around 2005–07.

Karl Dane (né Rasmus Karl Thekelsen Gottlieb) (12 October 1886–15 April 1934) was born in Copenhagen. His parents, Rasmus Carl Marius Gottlieb (a glove-maker) and Anne Cathrine Simonsen, had a troubled marriage which ended in divorce in 1903.

Though Karl was primarily raised by his mother, his father provided the impetus for a career in show business. Young Karl and his brother Reinald often acted in their father’s toy theatre for paying patrons. The brothers also often went to a local theatre where their dad worked as a curtain-puller.

Karl worked as a machinist on and off, and served in the military. After his mandatory term of service ended in 1910, he married dressmaker Carla Dagmar Hagen. They had two kids, Ejlert Carl (born 1911) and Ingeborg Helene (born 1912).

When WWI began, Karl was called back into service, and promoted to corporal. In January 1916, he sailed for the U.S. with $25 in his pocket and no knowledge of English. He intended to bring the rest of his family over later.

On 11 February, he arrived and was approved by Ellis Island. Karl settled in Brooklyn with a friend and began working in a foundry that same day. (If only jobs were still that easy to get!)

Karl moved to Lincoln, Nebraska in 1916 and began working as an auto mechanic. In summer 1917, he returned to New York, still working as a mechanic and making $3 a week.

In late 1917, Karl began film acting, earning $3 a day. Most of his early films were anti-German propaganda.

Karl stopped acting in 1921 when he married Swedish immigrant Helen Benson. (He and Carla separated in 1918 and divorced in 1919.) Karl and Helen moved to Van Nuys, California and started a chicken farm. Sadly, Helen died in childbirth on 9 August 1923. Their infant daughter also died.

Karl returned to acting in December 1924, when he was recommended for the role of Slim in King Vidor’s incredible WWI epic The Big Parade. Slim is one of protagonist Jim (John Gilbert)’s best friends. As in many of Karl’s films, his physical appearance adds great comic relief to an otherwise serious story.

The Big Parade is one of those films that’s so damn good, I give it 6 out of 5 stars!

Karl began getting much more important roles after this runaway success. His films included The Son of the Sheik with Rudy Valentino; The Scarlet Letter with Lillian Gish; La Bohème with Lillian Gish and John Gilbert; Alias Jimmy Valentine with William Haines; Bardelys the Magnificent with John Gilbert; and The Red Mill with Marion Davies.

In 1927, Karl was teamed with George K. Arthur for a series of comedy films. Dane & Arthur were an immediate success, earning Karl a a longterm MGM contract. Karl earned $1,500 a week at the peak of his success.

Dane & Arthur’s first talkie, Brotherly Love, was released 23 December 1928, and it didn’t go well. Whereas George had a familiar British accent, Karl had a thick Danish accent which audiences struggled to understand.

The duo made six more talkies during 1929, and MGM offered Karl fewer and fewer roles. In 1930, MGM terminated his contract. Though Karl’s accent was an obvious factor in his career’s sharp decline, he also was exhausted from so much constant filming, had suffered a nervous breakdown, and was grieving his dad’s death.

In December 1930, Paramount gave Dane & Arthur a 23-week Publix Theatre vaudeville tour. After it ended in November 1931, the duo went their separate ways.

Karl tried to start over by forming a mining corporation, but he didn’t have success. In February 1932, he returned to vaudeville and bombed there too. He gave up on acting in 1933 and tried mining ownership again.

Mining success eluded Karl, and his later jobs as a mechanic and plumber failed too.

A myth persists that Karl sold hotdogs at MGM’s gate, but he was truly a waiter in a tiny café which included a hotdog stand and seating. The café failed in 1934, and Karl was rejected as a carpenter and extra by MGM and Paramount.

After Karl was pickpocketed of $18, all the money he had left, he went home and shot himself in the head. He was only 47 years old.

Raymond Griffith

This is en edited, expanded version of an entry in my “Too Young, Too Soon” series on my old Angelfire site, written around 2005–07.

Raymond Griffith (23 January 1895-25 November 1957) was born into a theatrical family in the great city of Boston. He made his stage début at just fifteen months old. At age seven, he played the lead in Little Lord Fauntleroy, and at age eight, he played a female role in Ten Nights in a Barroom.

His stage career was cut short by two calamities: respiratory diphtheria and going mute. He stated the latter happened during rehearsals for The Witching Hour, when he screamed at the top of his lungs every night. However, other sources believe a childhood disease was the culprit. (You know, one of those diseases anti-vaxxers giggle off as no big deal, and an awesome way to “boost the immune system.”)

When Raymond’s voice finally returned, it was a hoarse whisper. His career as a stage actor was completely shot. After this setback, he joined the circus, worked in vaudeville, was a dancer and dance teacher, went on a European vaudeville tour with a group of French mimes, and joined the Navy for two years.

He broke into films in 1915, first with serious roles; then characters who weren’t presented as funny but involved in situations that often bordered on or ventured into slapstick and comedy; and finally out-and-out comedies.

Unfortunately, most of his surviving films aren’t widely available. Many people lucky enough to be familiar with his entire body of work feel he’d be much more highly-regarded if the public were able to see his films. In 2005, Hands Up! was chosen for preservation in the U.S. National Film Registry of the Library of Congress.

He married actor Bertha Mann in early 1928, after which they took a six-month honeymoon tour of Europe. (Awesomely, Bertha was two years older than Raymond!) Sadly, their first child, Raymond, Jr., was a stillborn. Their next child, Michael, was born in 1931. They adopted a daughter, Patricia, in 1933.

When Raymond returned to the screen, the sound revolution was in full swing. He was one of the rare few actors whose career truly was ruined by sound. However, Raymond went out with a final bang.

In the 1930 screen adaptation of the classic anti-war novel All Quiet on the Western Front, he plays the small but unforgettable role of a dying French soldier whose injuries render him unable to speak above a whisper.

After this memorable performance, Raymond became a writer and producer at 20th Century Fox. All along, he’d co-written far more films than he was credited for. His daughter Patricia remembered him as a voracious reader of classic literature, and believed this provided much inspiration for his screenplays.

At age 62, during a dinner with his wife at the private Masquers Club in L.A., Raymond began choking on his food and died of asphyxia.