Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Why a Duck?

I staged this little tableau with 3 Marx Brothers figurines I bought years ago and a duck from my childhood farm set.

Friday, June 26, 2009

S.J. Perelman Revivisected

S.J. Perelman, 1961. Photo by Carl Mydans. From the Life Magazine Archives.

S.J. Perelman, whom I featured in an earlier post, was a brilliant humorist. His relationship with the Marx Brothers in general, and Groucho in particular, was a stormy one. Groucho was a fan of Perelman's prose, including his first book, Dawn Ginsbergh's Revenge, of which Groucho wrote, "From the moment I picked up your book until I put it down, I was convulsed with laughter. Some day, I intend reading it." Groucho subsequently asked Perelman to work on a radio script for the Marx Brothers. His cowriter was W.B. Johnstone, who had written the Marx Brothers' stage show I'll Say She Is. The writers came up with the idea of the Marx Brothers as stowaways on a luxury oceanliner. Groucho liked the idea so much, he convinced Paramount Pictures to hire Perelman and Johnstone to write the next Marx Brothers movie. When Perelman arrived in Hollywood from New York, producer Herman J. Mankiewicz told Perelman that the Marx Brothers were "mercurial, devious, and ungrateful. I hate to depress you, but you'll rue the day you ever took the assignment. This is an ordeal by fire. Make sure you wear asbestos pants." Mankiewicz' words came true when Perelman read the completed script to the Marx Brothers. After he finished, Groucho said (depending on which version of the story you believe) either, "It stinks," or "I think we need a script."

Over the ensuing months, with the input of the brothers and other writers, an acceptable script for Monkey Business was produced. When Monkey Business was released in 1931, Arthur Sheekman received credit for the screenplay. Even though Perelman was uncredited, undoubtedly some of his material remained in the script.

Perelman hated Hollywood, but stayed around long enough to work on the script for Horse Feathers, for which he, along with Harry Ruby and Bert Kalmar, did receive screen credit when it was released in 1932.

After he left Hollywood, Perelman resented the fact that much of of his reputation was based on his relatively brief association with the Marx Brothers, of whom he said, "I did two films with them, which in its way is perhaps my greatest distinction in life, because anybody who ever worked on any picture for the Marx Brothers said he would rather be chained to a galley oar and lashed at ten-minute intervals until the blood spurted from his frame than ever work for those sons of bitches again."

The interested reader may want to read a more in-depth and thoroughly engaging profile of S.J. Perelman by Becky Karush at her blog.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Profile of Groucho and the Marx Brothers

This is one I haven't seen before. It's a nicely-done piece which aired on "CBS Sunday Morning" in 2007 on the 30th anniversary of Groucho's death. I learned a couple new things from Elliott Gould's observations. The final anecdote is quite touching.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Father's Day

Sam "Frenchie" Marx, Father of the Marx Brothers

As Father's Day approaches this Sunday, it seems appropriate to post a link to Groucho singing the song "Father's Day". This is a studio version, complete with male chorus. Groucho also performs the song live on the album "An Evening With Groucho," which is available for download at Archive.org.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

26 Questions for Groucho

Master of Ceremonies Bud Collyer, rear, poses with the panel of the To Tell The Truth quiz show on CBS in 1957. Panelists from left to right are: Polly Bergen, Ralph Bellamy, Kitty Carlisle and Hy Gardner. Kitty Carlisle, whose long career spanned Broadway, opera, television and film, including the Marx Brothers movie "A Night at the Opera," died at age 96 in 2007.

In addition to being a panelist on To Tell the Truth, Hy Gardner (1908-1989) was a Broadway columnist for the New York Herald Tribune, and hosted a TV talk show called Hy Gardner Calling. In 1959, Gardner decided to start a project on older celebrities--specifically, those over age 50. He sent out a cover letter along with a questionaire consisting of 26 questions. The cover letter stated in part, "I'm doing a series which I think could be inspirational to a great many Americans over the age of fifty. I'm polling national figures in an effort to get the answers to some of the problems that confront the average man or woman past the half-century mark."

The original questionaire Gardner sent to Groucho, complete with his typewritten answers, is now being sold on eBay. The seller transcribed the questions and answers in the item description, and I am reproducing it here:
(1) What is your present age? 200 B.C.
(2) What keeps you looking and feeling so young? Each night before going to bed I rub bear grease between my toes
(3) How much sleep do you get out of the average 24 hours? 23
(4) It is good or fitful sleep? I sleep like a trout
(5) Do you require barbiturates or any other sleep inducing liquid or drug? Heroin ... a spoonful every night.
(6) How much sleep do you think you need? 24 hrs
(7) What about daytime naps? I go to bed right after breakfast and stay there until my cook hollars. "Come and get it!"
(8) Any nervousness in connection with an appearance, important meeting, etc? I meet very few people. I live in a cave.
(9) Do you control your temper more now than when you were younger? I have no temper! Every afternoon I throw a fit and that continues until they throw cold water on me.
(10) What do you worry about most? I don't get enough sleep.
(11) How frequently and thoroughly do you get a physical check-up? Every afternoon
(12) Do any exercise? Every Easter I roll an egg on the lawn
(13) Are you impatient with new friends and prefer the old ones? I have no friends. I sleep alone.
(14) Are you on any special diet? Yes. Raw meat and acorns
(15) How much weight have you lost or gained in the past five years? 100 pounds
(16) What do you do for relaxation? I go to sleep
(17) At what age do you think, if it is financially feasible, the average citizen should retire? Eighteen
(18) Are you bitter about anything? Yes. Having to write this for nothing!
(19) Do you use any alcohol? Just whiskey ... and kerosene for my lamps.
(20) Do you resent younger people coming up in your profession or business? Depends on how high they come up.
(21) Have you any objection to taking directions from these younger people? I love it. I'm always getting lost.
(22) Why is a male star even in his late fifties still attractive to young girls? You'll have to get some young girl to answer this one. And if you're successful, get one for me, too.
(23) Does reading the obituary column slow you down? Are you referring to the standing of the Yankees? (Note: The 1959 Yankees ended the season with a 79-75 record, their worst since 1925)
(24) What younger people coming up in your own special category would you consider might someday be the grand old stars of 1975? Ed Wynn, Ethel Barrymore and Donald Crisp. (Note: Ed Wynn was born in 1886, Ethel Barrymore in 1879 and Donald Crisp in 1880; each older than Groucho, who was born in 1890)
(25) Do you watch TV and, if so, what do you enjoy most? Turning it off.
(26) Do you ever expect to retire? I'm going to bed in about five minutes.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

The Marx Brothers and Tobacco - Part II

George Fenneman and Groucho

All the Marx Brothers were smokers--some more than others. While the relationship of the brothers and tobacco may provide fodder for future posts, in this article, I'd like to focus on someone who wasn't a member of the family. George Fenneman had a long association with Groucho as the announcer for Groucho's quiz show "You Bet Your Life." Groucho described him as the perfect straight man. Fenneman was also a spokeman for Chesterfield cigarettes. Back in the fifties, before tobacco advertising was banned from TV, Mr. Fenneman appeared in a commercial which today seems incredibly outlandish. We must remember, however, that this was an era when outlandish claims about the safety and life-enhancing qualities of cigarettes were common.

The video of this commercial can be seen at Milkandcookies.com. A transcription appears below, but you really have to see the video to appreciate Fenneman's earnest and authoritative air.

Not Adversely Affected by Smoking Chesterfields

A responsible consulting organization reports this study by a competent medical specialist and his staff on the effects of smoking Chesterfields. A group of people smoked only Chesterfields for six months in their normal amount--ten to forty a day. Forty-five percent of the group have smoked Chesterfields from 1 to 30 years, for an average of ten years each. At the beginning and end of the six months period, each smoker was given a thorough examination, including X-rays. The examination covered the sinuses, nose, ears, and throat. After a thorough examination of every member of the group, the medical specialist stated, "It is my opinion that the ears, nose, throat, and accessory organs of all participating subjects examined by me were not adversely affected in the six months period by smoking the cigarettes provided." Remember this report, and buy Chesterfields--regular or king size. Premium quality Chesterfield--much milder.
Wow! Quite a stunning display of BS, isn't it? It is fascinating that the competent medical specialist neglected to examine the hearts and lungs, unless they were considered "accessory organs."

I don't know for sure, but I presume that George Fenneman was a consumer of, as well as a pitchman for, Chesterfields. He died of emphysema at age 77 in 1997.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

The Marx Brothers and Tobacco - Part I

I believe a couple items in my collection of Marx Brothers memorabilia must be relatively rare. Several years ago I purchased two old Parade Magazines from the 1950s. For those who might not know, Parade Magazine is a national supplement to Sunday newspapers which is still around today. The ones I bought happened to be distributed with the Wisconsin State Journal of Madison, Wisconsin. One magazine featured Harpo in a baseball uniform on the cover, and the other, dated Feb. 17, 1952, is shown above. The associated article describes the photo session which resulted in the cover photo. Groucho didn't blow his own smoke rings, so two "smoke ring experts" were brought in. For reasons not entirely clear to me, one smoke ringer blower was, as Groucho said of his Uncle Julius "well over four feet," and the other was six feet tall. Groucho was in fine form during the session, and you can click to enlarge the article below to read his wisecracks.

Click to enlarge

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Harpo Sells Vodka

This is another item from my collection--a 1961 magazine ad for Smirnoff Vodka, featuring Harpo. Harpo wasn't much of a drinker, but I suppose he saw this as an opportunity to publicize his autobiography, not to mention garnering a few bucks from Smirnoff for the endorsement. The fine print under the picture reads, "Harpo Marx, noted comic and musician, authors a new best-seller, 'Harpo Speaks' at book stores."

In his book, Harpo said the only alcohol problem he had was that he didn't much care for the stuff. Early in World War II, Chico gave Harpo a hot tip that liquor would be rationed, prompting Harpo to go to a wholesale distributor and order a cellar full of booze.  He then realized at his rate of consumption of about "three mild social drinks per week," his supply should last "until the year 2419 A.D." He further noted, however, that "it was a commodity I had no trouble getting rid of."