Monday, April 27, 2009

Under the Summer Moon

This is the oldest piece of Marx Brothers memorabilia in my small collection. It is the sheet music for the song "Under the Summer Moon," written for the vaudeville show "Home Again" by Leonard (Chico) Marx and Lem Trombley. At the time, Milton (Gummo) was performing with Julius (Groucho), Arthur (Harpo), and Leonard.

The boys began performing the show in 1914. The sheet music was copyrighted in 1916. I haven't been able to find documentation that the song was actually performed in the show. It may have been written for the show but not used, or maybe its use just isn't documented.

The photo shows, left to right, Harpo, Gummo, Chico, and Groucho

See the inside of the sheet music at the Archives of Michigan Digital Collection.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Groucho and the Guitar

In 1954, Groucho Marx and his daughter Melinda were featured on Edward R. Murrow's "Person to Person" TV show. The format of "Person to Person" consisted of Murrow smoking cigarettes in a studio in New York and interviewing celebrities in their homes through the magic of television. In those days before Sputnik and Telstar, there were no communication satellites, and the signals between New York and Hollywood had to travel on transcontinental cables. During the interview, Groucho picked up a guitar and did a nice job of accompanying himself and seven-and-a-half-year-old Melinda as they sang the Irving Berlin counterpoint song, "You're Just in Love."

This was one of the few recorded guitar performances by Groucho. The others occurred in the movies. In Monkey Business, Groucho strummed a few chords in Thelma Todd's stateroom. How Groucho wound up in her stateroom is another matter altogether. In Horse Feathers, Groucho accompanied himself on guitar as he serenaded the selfsame Thelma Todd with the song "Everyone Says I Love You." As the couple sat in a canoe, Groucho finished the song with the lyics:
Everything that ever grew
The gooose and the gander
And the gosling too
The duck upon the water
When he feels that way too
Says I love you
Except instead of Groucho singing "I love you," a duck which had been following the canoe finished the song with "Quack, quack, quack." To which Groucho responded, "That's a wise quack. You keep your bill out of this. How would you like it if I butted into your affairs and laid an egg?" and tosses his guitar into the lake.

At the conclusion of the scene, Thelma Todd falls in the lake as she and Groucho struggle over the Huxley College football signals she has just taken from his jacket pocket. When she begs him for a lifesaver, Groucho pulls a pack of Lifesaver candies from his pocket and throws her one.

In Go West, Harpo plays harmonica and Groucho provides guitar accompaniment for the song "Ridin the Range," sung by romantic lead John Carroll, Groucho, and Chico. The song included such forgettable lyrics as
Where men are men
And the life is free
And there's nothing breakin
The mo-not-o-ny
Of clippedy clop
Just clippedy clop clop clop clop clop clop
In real life, Groucho was a dedicated student of the guitar and owned two Gibsons. He would drive his family to distraction with his practicing. He once had the opportunity to meet the great classical guitarist Andres Segovia after a concert. Segovia agreed to come to Groucho's house for dinner on the condition that there would be no guitar playing by either party. However, after dinner, Groucho brought out his Gibson guitars and prevailed upon the master to accompany the comedian as he played Rachmaninoff’s “Prelude in C-Sharp Minor.” Groucho's performance of this piece had once prompted his wife to say, “Why don’t you go back to playing by ear? You used to be so much better before you knew what you were doing.” Segovia finally said he could play no more because the steel strings of Groucho's guitar hurt his fingers.

For more on Groucho the guitarist, see these articles:

The Surprisingly Serious Tale of Comedian Groucho Marx and His Lifelong Quest to Master Guitar by Jerry McCulley

Groucho Marx the musician? Screen legend, but...? by Stephen Murray

And also check out Everyone Says I Love You performed on YouTube by Fret Killer

Friday, April 3, 2009

Surrealism or Hello Dali

Harpo Marx Painting. Photo by Allan Grant, February 1948. From the Life Magazine Archives.

During the 1930s, the Marx Brothers were adored by the surrealists. Antonin Artaud, a surrealist writer and thinker had this to say about the Marx Brothers' film Animal Crackers:
If there is a definite characteristic, a distinct poetic state of mind that can be called surrealism, Animal Crackers participated in that state altogether.
Philippe Soupalt, who proved to the world he was a surrealist by doing things like walking into cafes and shouting "Everybody switch drinks," or stopping strangers on the street to ask them for the address of Philippe Soupalt, wrote after seeing Horse Feathers:
The comedy of the Marx Brothers lifts us out of reality by exaggerating our peculiarities and aggravating our habits. The real quality of the Marx Brothers and of this extravagant, excessive comedy remains human. They are exactly like ordinary people and act just as we should act if social regulations did not prevent us from behaving in that way. I believe that , though most films rapidly go out of style, this satiric comedy will make us laugh for a long time to come.
No one can dispute that last statement, but the rest of Soupalt's dissertation leaves me a bit irritated, as I'm sure I would have been if I were sitting in a Parisian cafe when he burst in yelling for people to exchange drinks. Attempting to analyze humor tends to destroy humor, with the possible exception of Robert Benchley's essay, "Why We Laugh--Or Do We?" In this piece, Benchley lists the five cardinal points of a joke:
1. The joke must be in a language we understand.

2. It must be spoken loudly enough for us to hear it, or printed clearly enough for us to read it.

3. It must be about something. You can't just say, "Here's a good joke" and let it go at that. (You can, but don't wait for the laugh.)

4. It must deal with either frustration or accomplishment, inferiority or superiority, sense or nonsense, pleasantness or unpleasantness, or, at any rate, with some emotion that can be analyzed, otherwise how do we know when to laugh?

5. It must begin with the letter "W."
The adulation of the Marx Brothers by the surrealists reached its zenith with Salvador Dali in the late 1930s. Dali was especially fascinated with Harpo. As Groucho said, "Dali was in love with my brother--in a nice way." Dali visited Harpo in Hollwood in 1937, and Dali later wrote that when he arrrived in Harpo's garden,
(Harpo) was naked, crowned with roses, and in the centre of a veritable forest of harps (he was surrounded by at least 500 harps). He was caressing, like a new Leda, a dazzling white swan, and feeding it a statue of the Venus de Milo made of cheese, which he grated against the strings of the nearest harp.
Did it really happen? Who knows?

It does not appear that Harpo was quite as impressed with Dali, although he did pose for him. In his autobiography, Harpo Speaks, he included the resulting sketch, which shows Harpo sporting an apple and one of Dali's favorite crustaceans--a lobster--on his head, and a tongue hanging over the top of the harp.

Harpo noted in the caption that the sketch was a prize of his art collection, but makes no mention of Dali in the text of his book.

Dali had given Harpo, possibly for Christmas 1936, a harp with barbed-wire strings and festooned with spoons--perhaps a reference to Harpo's schtick where stolen silverware, and finally a coffee pot, fall from the sleeve of his coat as a policeman shakes his hand. The silverware which fell from Harpo's sleeve in Animal Crackers comprised some 400 knives and no spoons or forks, but maybe Dali missed that detail, or maybe the spoons had nothing to do with the scene in the movie.

Harpo responded by sending Dali a photo of himself with bandaged fingers. In 1937, Dali wrote a surreal screenplay, Giraffes on Horseback Salads, for the Marx Brothers. The film was never produced. The script included a 60-foot long bed, dwarves, a drowned ox, bicyclists balancing stones on their heads, burning giraffes, Chico wearing a diving suit while playing the piano, and so forth.

In the book Groucho, Harpo, Chico, and Sometimes Zeppo, Joe Adamson states that Harpo "got a big kick out of Dali" and "struck up a lasting friendship that lasted until Dali went home." Of a potential collaboration between Dali and Harpo, Groucho said, "It would have been a great combination. Dali didn't speak much English and neither did Harpo." Groucho also pointed out in his book The Groucho Phile that Dali's script wouldn't play and neither would the harp with barbed-wire strings. And speaking of the barbed-wire harp, Adamson writes that "Harpo and his wife...were so pleased that they stuck it in a remote corner of the house and finally threw it away."

Here are a few drawings which Dali did in connection with his script.

Dinner in the Desert Lighted by Giraffes on Fire

Groucho as Shiva of the Business World

Surrealist Gondola Above Burning Bicycles
In this, the movie's finale, note Chico at the piano in a diving suit, bicyclists balancing stones on their heads, and Harpo playing the harp.

In the unlikely event that the reader wants to learn more about Dali's script, thought to be lost until a copy was discovered among the artist's papers in the 1990s, here's a link to a synopsis published in Harper's in 1996.


Karl Groucho Marx
Photo manipulation by Roberto Rizzato, 2008. Used under Creative Commons license. See the original at

Ah, those glorious days of McCarthyism! In its pursuit of citizens with ties, however tenuous, to the Communist Party, the FBI was hot on the trail of desperados like convicted criminal Julius H. Marx, AKA Graucho Marx. Yes, the comedian was "indicted and convicted" of copyright violation in 1937, according to the report, and yes, the brilliant agent filing the report in 1953 consistently misspelled the name one of the most famous entertainers in the world as "Graucho."

You can read a ten-page excerpt from
Groucho's FBI file at The Smoking Gun.