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!

Shenanigans on a ship

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Monkey Business, released 19 September 1931, is turning 85 years old. This was the Marx Brothers’ third film. Just like all of their other Paramount films, it’s very freewheeling and anarchic, without much of a real, structured plot and story arc. That doesn’t matter, though, since their early films wouldn’t be nearly the same with some rigid three-act structure and more breathing time between each joke. These films are so fun precisely because they’re so unpredictable and chaotic.

The brothers have stowed away on an ocean liner, inside barrels that used to hold kippered herring. A search for the stowaways commences, and they’re discovered when the barrels are hoisted up on a rope. They run away, and spend most of the rest of their time on the ship dodging discovery, mingling with passengers, and pretending to be people they’re not.

The brothers’ opening scene (the film’s second scene) features them singing “Sweet Adeline” inside the barrels. Many people have speculated this was one of the times where Harpo snuck his voice in.

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Shenanigans include a chess game, a puppet show with Harpo (always such a natural in scenes with children), a barber shop, Harpo making friends with a frog, and Groucho impersonating the captain in his quarters. Along the way, the brothers stumble into the acquaintances of rich racketeer Joe Helton and his rival Alky Briggs. Alky enlists Groucho and Zeppo to spy on Helton, and Helton recruits Chico and Harpo to shadow Briggs.

Zeppo, as the team’s straight man, gets to have a romance (instalove, of course) with Helton’s daughter Mary. This is one of the films where he gets a fair amount of screentime and a more important role. I wish all of the Paramount films had featured Zeppo this prominently. He was said to be the funniest one in real life, and he had to know all the others’ parts when they were touring so he could fill in at a moment’s notice. He was funnier and better than Groucho in the stage production of Animal Crackers.

On a shallower note, I also wish Zeppo had gotten more screentime because he was so handsome! He’s one of my vintage celebrity crushes, even knowing he wasn’t such a wonderful husband in real life.

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More trouble arises when the boat reaches its destination, since the brothers can’t get off without passports. Offscreen, Zeppo bumps into famous actor and singer Maurice Chevalier, and swipes his passport. Each of the four brothers takes a turn pretending to be Chevalier by customs, and sings his song “You Brought a New Kind of Love to Me.” When the ruse fails, they find another way to sneak off the ship.

Back on land, they attend Mary Helton’s débutante party (what used to be called a coming-out party), and predictably engage in even more shenanigans. In the middle of the party, Mary gets kidnapped by her father’s rivals, and it’s up to the brothers to save the day.

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The film was a big box office success, and garnered lots of good reviews. It’s widely considered one of their best films. If you haven’t seen any of the Paramount films yet, you can’t go wrong with this one. It also stars the lovely, ill-fated Thelma Todd as Alky Briggs’s much-put-upon wife.

Since I had the misfortune to see two of their most unrepresentative films first (Love Happy and Room Service), it took awhile for me to give them another chance and start warming up to them. My first comedy love will always be slapstick, but I’ve deeply, truly grown to love their more verbal style as I’ve gotten older.

ANATO at 80, Part III (Plot, legacy, reception)

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Otis B. Driftwood (Groucho) has been engaged as the business manager of millionaire widow Mrs. Claypool (Margaret Dumont) for the last three months, but so far he hasn’t delivered on his promise to put her into society. All he’s been doing is drawing a handsome salary. When she confronts him, he suggests she invest $200,000 in the New York Opera Company. Herman Gottlieb, the opera director, is most interested to meet Mrs. Claypool and hear of her generous donation, since he’d like to use that money to sign tenor Rodolfo Lassparri.

We then meet villain Lassparri, in a scene I still can barely stand to watch. My parents tell me The Charlie Brown Christmas Special made me cry as a child because the other kids were being mean to Charlie, and as an adult it’s really difficult to watch Harpo (Tomasso) being kicked around and abused. I actually used this clip when I orally presented a paper on bullying.

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Driftwood runs into Fiorello (Chico), and through a misunderstanding, enters a contract to represent another tenor, Ricardo Baroni (Allan Jones). Ricardo and his girlfriend Rosa (Kitty Carlisle) are introduced as nice, sympathetic people, an underdog couple we can root for. They fully belong in the story, unlike the dull, chemistry-less couples in the last three MGM films.

The contract scene is one of the film’s most famous scenes. It closes with Chico’s famous line, “There ain’t no Sanity Clause.” This line has been referenced in popular culture a number of times over the years.

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Rosa is chosen as Lassparri’s leading lady, but Gottlieb won’t hear of bringing Ricardo to America as well, since he’s just a chorus singer and doesn’t have a reputation yet. Lassparri refuses to sing for the crowd gathered to see the ship off, since he’s not being paid for it, though Rosa happily sings for her fans.

After her beautiful duet with Ricardo, “Alone,” it seems as though Ricardo has been left in Italy, but all is not as it seems. Ricardo, Fiorello, and Tomasso have all stowed away in Driftwood’s giant trunk, and reveal themselves in his tiny stateroom. The crowded stateroom scene is one of the most famous in the Marx Brothers’ catalogue, and has been referenced numerous times in popular culture over the last 80 years.

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The three stowaways need to find a way to evade the authorities and unboard in New York, particularly after Lassparri spies them in steerage and alerts the authorities. They hit upon the idea of impersonating the world’s three greatest aviators, who are also travelling on the ship. Understandably, their ruse falls through quickly, and then the chase is on to track them down and arrest them. Driftwood is also in lots of trouble for his role in the situation.

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I won’t spoil anything that happens from this point on, but suffice it to say, this team of misfits wreaks havoc on the opera in their quest to humiliate and turn the tables on Gottlieb and Lassparri. We want them to triumph, and to see these villains get their just desserts.

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ANATO, along with 1933’s Duck Soup, is the best-known Marx Brothers’ film, even among non-fans. The film reviewers of 1935 generally loved and praised it highly, though some longtime fans were shocked and horrified at how MGM toned down their trademark anarchy and forced other stylistic changes upon them. Groucho felt this and A Day at the Races were their best films, because of Irving Thalberg’s magic touch.

Though the surviving print is 93 minutes, ANATO honestly doesn’t feel too long or bloated at all. Sure, there are a couple of scenes which probably could’ve been cut or shortened to make the plot tighter, but it’s all great material, and nothing feels wasteful or like padding. Even all the musical numbers work really well with the story, since the plot revolves around opera.

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There are fewer and fewer excuses for all the non-comedic musical numbers in their succeeding films, particularly cringeworthy dreck like “The Tenement Symphony” and “Two Blind Loves.” By the time of 1941’s The Big Store, you can skip all the musical numbers and not miss anything.

They also never got a pseudo-Zeppo as good as Allan Jones after ANATO and ADATR. He works so well because he has real chemistry with the brothers and a genuine relationship completing the plot. He’s an integral component of those stories, and shows a real personality and warmth. You can’t say the same for someone like the annoying, Mickey Mouse-voiced Kenny Baker.

ANATO at 80, Part II (The making of the film)

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As discussed in Part I, ANATO was the Marx Brothers’ first MGM film, and marked not only the start of their work as a trio vs. a quartet, but also the start of a new direction in their comedy style. Gone were the freewheeling scripts of their Paramount years, replaced by more structured plots, requisite subplots revolving around young lovers, and a gradually increasing number of non-comedic musical interludes.

This film was also their first to be previewed before live audiences on the road prior to starting the filming process. Producer Irving Thalberg wanted to make absolutely sure these comedy routines would be big hits, and to time the laughs by the planting of gags. As a result of these road shows, some scenes and gags were cut, and others were created or further developed.

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Amazingly, one of the scenes almost cut because of the lack of laughs on the vaudeville circuit was the famous stateroom scene, in which eventually 15 people are stuffed into a room even smaller than an efficiency apartment. It only took on its famous, final character when the Marxes threw away the script and ad-libbed everything.

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Director Sam Wood originally wanted to dub the voices of Metropolitan Opera singers over those of Allan Jones and Kitty Carlisle, but they protested so fiercely, Mr. Wood abandoned the idea. He also compared their voices to those of the planned dubs, and realized no dubbing would be necessary. However, Walter Woolf King (villain Lassparri)’s voice was dubbed over by a Metropolitan singer. He plays a tenor in the film, and in real life, he was a trained baritone.

The beautiful song “Alone” was also slated to be cut, since Groucho and Chico felt it slowed down the action, but Allan went to Irving Thalberg to plead his case. He successfully convinced the producer the song would be a hit, and indeed it was. “Alone” became Allan’s first big hit in his musical career. ANATO also contains another of his early hits, “Cosi, Cosa.”

The film originally opened with the image of a boat on a canal and the superimposed title card “ITALY—WHERE THEY SING ALL DAY AND GO TO THE OPERA AT NIGHT.” There followed several images of everyday Italians performing various bits and pieces from Pagliacci. This opening montage was cut during a WWII rerelease, so people wouldn’t think it God forbid started in Italy or had any connection to Italians.

Several other lines referencing Italy were also cut, but thankfully, a print containing these snippets was discovered in the Hungarian National Film Archive in 2008. Unfortunately, that slightly longer print still doesn’t contain the original opening scene.

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