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!

A beautiful Bildungsroman on film

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Released 22 January 1927, The Kid Brother was the great Harold Lloyd’s penultimate silent, and possibly my favorite of his films after only his silent swan song Speedy (1928). It’s got heart, soul, warmth, emotion, comedic timing, character development, story development, ingenious gags, everything. It’s also a beautiful film equivalent of a Bildungsroman, a growing-up story.

It’s based on the excellent Tol’able David (1921), starring the handsome Richard Barthelmess, and also a remake of Hal Roach’s The White Sheep (1924), starring the rather forgettable Glenn Tryon.

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Harold’s father, Sheriff Jim Hickory, and his two big brothers Leo and Olin have made their name famous throughout the county, but they’ve always figured Harold of no accord. Though he was 33 at the time of filming, he has a suitably boyish look that makes him believable as a kid brother. He’s also not nearly as tall and strapping as the other three.

The Hickorys’ longtime enemies are the Hoopers. Son Hank in particular has hated Harold since Harold sold him a dozen doorknobs as eggs in the dark. Harold uses this feud to his advantage when there’s a mishap with the laundry line.

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While Harold is alternately running away from Hank and retrieving laundry, he meets Mary Powers. Mary’s dad recently died, leaving her with a travelling medicine show. She’s not happy about having to continue the business, but the show must go on.

Mary believes Harold is one of the important Hickorys, and he doesn’t enlighten her. He likes feeling important, since he’s not treated like anyone special at home.

Mary is played by Jobyna Ralston, Harold’s leading lady since 1923. She always brings out the best in him. Bittersweetly, this was their final film together.

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Harold and Mary make a date to go to the opening of a new dam, and when Harold gets home, his father and brothers begin discussing this dam. They leave Harold out of their discussion, but they let him sign the document.

Harold tries to go to their meeting about the dam, but he’s left at home, since that meeting’s no place for boys.

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With the house to himself, he dresses up in his father’s sheriff outfit, and when he steps outside, he’s mistaken for the real sheriff by the medicine show quacks. He’s compelled into signing a document permitting the show to appear in town.

Interestingly, Harold writes right-handed both of the times he writes in this film. Though he lost the first two fingers on his right hand in 1919 and had to learn left-handedness, he also was able to write right-handed. Now that’s talent, not only learning a different handedness, but also learning how to write with a hand that only has three fingers!

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Harold’s dad is quite upset to learn the medicine show is playing, and that Harold impersonated him. Instead of punishing Harold outright, his dad sends him down to break it up, “[s]eeing as you seem to be taking over the duties as sheriff.”

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Things go from bad to worse, as Harold is made into the show’s entertainment and eventually handcuffed to a swinging bar. His dad and brothers come by as he’s trying to free himself, and Harold ends up setting the whole show on fire. In the mêlée that follows, he gets locked into a wicker hamper.

Mary eventually frees him, and since there’s a rainstorm, Harold takes her to his house for shelter. Her new guardians later show up to take her home, seeing as it’s not decent for her to stay in a house without womenfolk.

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As Harold and Mary are on their way to the dam celebration next morning, they discover the money to build the dam has been stolen. Harold’s father is accused, and rightly comes to the conclusion it must’ve been the medicine show goons. Detained as a suspect, he sends his older sons to search. Mary is also held as a suspect.

Harold is tossed into a rowboat and pushed out to sea when he tries to defend Mary. He winds up by a boat called The Black Ghost, and the medicine show monkey tosses down incriminating evidence. Now it’s up to Harold to get on that boat, find the money, bring the villains to justice, and clear his father’s name. If he can do so, he’ll finally prove his worth as a real Hickory.

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Buster Goes to College

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To celebrate Buster Keaton’s centenary of starting his film career, Lea at Silentology is holding the third annual Buster Keaton Blogathon. Click on the button above to see all the other participating posts.

I chose one of Buster’s less-popular films, College, which released 27 September 1927. For an added lift, I’ll also discuss how the film provides a look back at 1920s society and culture.

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Buster plays Ronald, the most brilliant scholar at his high school. On the day of graduation, he and his mother brave a rainstorm to get to the ceremony. We see a pricetag of $15 on Ronald’s suit, indicating he might be returning it afterwards and doesn’t come from a lot of money.

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By the graduation, Ronald gets a medal of honor and is asked to speak. His fellow students hate his speech, since he totally excoriates athletes and celebrates books and the life of the mind. They all laugh at him, and eventually get up and leave. During the speech, he also finds his suit shrinking and splitting.

At the end of the speech, only his doting mother is left in the audience.

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Ronald thought he couldn’t afford Clayton College, but changes his mind when he learns his crush Mary is going there. He’s determined to work his way through, and to join an athletics team so he might finally impress Mary. He first finds work as a soda jerk and then as a “colored waiter,” though neither of those jobs last very long.

He also tries out for the baseball team and the track and field team, but isn’t very successful at either. Mary’s heart starts to soften when she sees how hard he’s trying. She admires his determination, even if he isn’t a natural athlete. Her jock boyfriend Jeff derides Ronald, and tries to remind her of their relationship, but Mary retorts that he takes the seriousness of their couplehood too much for granted.

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Ronald is called into the dean’s office on account of his poor grades, after how proud the dean was to have such a brilliant scholar among his academic ranks. Ronald confesses he’s been trying to impress his crush, and the dean tells him he too had an unrequited love in youth, but he was stubborn and chose his books.

The dean hits upon a possible solution, and orders the rowing coach to make Ronald coxswain. The coach doesn’t want to accept Ronald onto the team, and tries to sabotage him. Before a big race, he slips a sleeping potion into Ronald’s drink, but Ronald winds up drinking from the wrong cup. The other coxswain is the one who gets roofied.

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During the race, Jeff springs a surprise visit on Mary and announces he’s been expelled. He wants to drag her down with him, and locks her door. The plan is for them to get caught alone together, so Mary will be expelled.

In spite of disasters all around, Ronald’s team wins the race. Afterwards, Mary manages to get a phonecall through to him, and he races to the rescue. All of a sudden, he’s transmogrified into a star athlete as he jumps over tall bushes, pole-vaults through the window, and fights with Jeff.

Mary is caught with Ronald in her room, and to avoid further scandal, they announce their engagement and run into a nearby church to be married.

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I love seeing the cost of living in old films. A $15 suit in 1927 would cost $279.13 today, which is on the low end. A designer suit can cost up to $5,000.

The name Mary in 1927 was like Jennifer in my generation. After slipping so far in popularity, it actually seems like an original choice today!

College culture was really hot. The college boy was a national icon, with men aspiring to be one and women aspiring to date one. The popular lure of college was indeed athletics and social life, not intellectual life. There’s an obvious parallel between this film and Harold Lloyd’s The Freshman, though The Freshman has a lot more character and plot development.

Getting a job was so much easier. You could just walk in and get hired, no need for 3–5 years of entry-level experience or an advanced degree.

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How awesome was it that soda fountains used to be so commonplace! Even more awesome that many of them were in regular stores.

In 1927, it wasn’t illegal to advertise jobs specifically for a certain sex or race. Help wanted ads were divided by sex until 1968.

Blackface was a matter-of-fact, accepted part of the culture. When Buster blacked up for the short-lived waiter job, he wasn’t doing it to be offensive and racist. So many modern-day people who get bent out of shape over historical examples of blackface fail to look at the context and intent.

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Until a few decades ago, college authorities acted in loco parentis, in the place of parents. There were curfews, prying-eyed house mothers, and severe consequences for a woman caught with a man in her room. Even if they were only talking instead of making out or even close to one another, it was considered scandalous.

So many modern young women have no idea how much freedom they have, in spite of a continued sexual double standard. It’s commonplace now to have children outside of marriage, live with a boyfriend, marry after having several kids, and sleep with more than one guy ever. All those things had severe consequences in 1927. This wasn’t the era of casually hooking up with lots of partners. I’m laughably old-fashioned for not pursuing casual sex and feeling compromised by having slept with someone I didn’t marry!

1927: An actor carries Buster Keaton, in the role of Ronald, in the 1927 movie College.

This isn’t Buster’s strongest or most memorable film, but it’s a pleasant diversion.

The General at 90, Part III (Reception and legacy)

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The General had been slated for its U.S. première on 22 January 1927, at NYC’s Capitol Theatre, but there was a delay of several weeks due to the blockbuster Flesh and the Devil (a film I highly recommend!). When the film finally made its way to NYC, the real General‘s engine bell was displayed in the lobby for promotional purposes.

After spending $750,000 on the film, Buster earned $50,992 during the single week it was by Capitol. Overall, it made $474,264 in the U.S., and was Buster’s biggest financial failure. One has to remember Buster wasn’t necessarily considered one of the Big Three of silent comedy during his original theatrical run. It was only a few decades later his reputation began increasing.

Thankfully, he did live long enough to see this renaissance and critical re-evaluation of his creative work.

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Critics in 1927 weren’t exactly wild about the picture, using descriptors such as “the least funny thing Buster Keaton has ever done,” “long and tedious,” “far from funny,” “a flop,” “drags terribly,” and “not up to Keaton’s best standards.” A rare positive review came from The Brooklyn Eagle.

It’s important to remember how tastes change. A lot of films, books, TV shows, plays, paintings, etc., which were originally considered flops and 1-star efforts are now widely celebrated. Conversely, many blockbusters or otherwise  popular works have aged very badly.

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In 1963, Buster went on the record as saying he was prouder of The General than any of his other films. Film critics and audiences of later generations came to view the film in a much better light than it was originally seen in, and in 1989, it was chosen for preservation in the U.S. National Film Registry by the Library of Congress. This special honor is allotted to films considered to be “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”

It was among the first crop of films chosen for such preservation, in the first year this program existed. Other inductees of the Class of 1989 included Casablanca, Citizen Kane, Gone with the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, and Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope.

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The General was the first American silent film to be issued on Blu-Ray, and the film has been on many of those incessant “best of” lists. Cottage Grove, Oregon, where much of the filming took place, has a building with a mural of the film.

To celebrate the 90th anniversary of both The General and Portland’s Hollywood Theater in 2016, a new score was commissioned, and the film toured Oregon. Following its showing in Cottage Grove, the president of the National Film Archives offered the master print to aid in the creation of a new DVD. This DVD is currently in the works, and an international tour is planned after its release.