Der Bingle: A Short Appreciation of Bing Crosby
He was once the most popular singer ever.
He recorded over 1600 songs over a 58 year recording career. His records have sold over one billion copies. He had 38 number one hits, including the most popular song ever.
He appeared on about 4000 radio programs.
His television show regularly was watched by over 50 million people weekly.
He appeared in 83 movies and sold over one billion tickets, which puts him third overall on the most popular actor category, behind Clark Gable and John Wayne. He was nominated for 4 Academy Awards and won one, and introduced fourteen Oscar nominated songs in these films, which won four.
He is largely forgotten, with the exception of this time of year, where his music is rotated liberally and his name is synonymous with the holiday season.
He is Bing Crosby whose life and legacy still live on among those of us who cherish popular singing.
And that’s what he was, a popular singer, singing songs of every type and genre, with an easy-going style that belied his immense talent. Bing made it look easy and everyone, from all walks of life, would enjoy his music. And man, that voice, that incomparable voice; that deep baritone that takes every musical phrase seriously and glides it to its musical height. Jazz, ballads, blues, cowboy songs, hymns, show tunes – he sang practically everything, captivating his audience with those full, rich notes. They clung to every word, every syllable, as Bing invented what became the crooner. Many tried to imitate. Sinatra started out as a Bing clone.
What made me start thinking of Crosby was the programming of local radio. Several stations here in Cincinnati – as I am sure other cities have done the same thing — have begun playing Christmas music 24/7. I had the occasion to listen to a large block of that programming one night and noticed that, roughly, one out of six songs were songs by Crosby, including at least two versions of White Christmas, the aforementioned most popular song ever, with sales of over 100 million.
I thought about that. I thought about how much I like Crosby’s music and mused sadly that this is probably the only time of the year in which Crosby is played on mainstream radio. SiriusXM radio even has a channel devoted this time of year called “Bing Crosby Christmas Radio”. To be fair, you can listen to Crosby songs on Sirius’ 40’s channel and Pandora and Spotify also program Crosby music into your specific playlists.
TMC does show the occasional Crosby film, Going My Way being the most popular. Sometimes a Bob Hope/Bing Crosby “Road” picture pops up, but these are mostly dated comedies and, as much as I love Bob Hope, his humor is very topical and era-specific.
Yes, Bing Crosby has some skeletons in his closet. He could be aloof and dismissive. He probably wasn’t the greatest father to his four sons by his first marriage, but apparently redeemed himself by his second marriage, with three children.
(There’s a biography of Bing called The Hollow Man, which presents a less than flattering portrait of him. For years, during my friends and my annual White Elephant Christmas party, we gave away the same copy of this book each year to some unsuspecting recipient, who was obliged to give it away the following year.
My friend, Rick Simms, né Clem Coffee, said that if “One fifth of what was written in that book is true, Bing Crosby was the most despicable man who ever lived.” And Clem liked Bing Crosby.
A better biography is Gary Giddins’ Bing Crosby: A Pocketful of Dreams, The Early Years 1903-1940. This came out in 2001, with a promised second volume that is taking some time to see print.
So, this holiday season, when you hear Bing Crosby sing those delightful Christmas carols that can make the other ones seem lame, pause and reflect just one minute that the man you’re listening to is a superstar in the world of popular music. And if you have Pandora or Spotify, give a listen to some of his other non-holiday music. I’ll bet you’ll end up liking it and wanting more. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to put on my vinyl copy of Bing Sings Whilst Bregman Swings.
The silent film era is riddled with contradiction, confusion and the loss of thousands of the films made before 1927. As studios began making films, having discovered there was an audience for it, and more importantly, profits to be made, they began cranking them out at an enormous rate. Making it up as they went along, the early filmmakers had no blueprint or guide to show them how to make films. They were learning on the job. Contradiction came in the form of filming technique, story structure and acting styles. The confusion was determining what the audiences wanted to see, although in the very early days it was such a novelty that practically anything filmed was worthy of the price of admission.
But audiences soon let the early studios know what they liked, as they sought out the studios and filmmakers, like D.W. Griffith at Biograph, because they knew they were getting good entertainment. These audiences soon became enamored of certain actors and actresses, seeking out films with their favorites. As actors weren’t given screen credit, they became known by their roles associated with the studios for which they worked. In 1908, actress Florence Lawrence became known as “The Biograph Girl” and is regarded as the first movie star. Audience flocked to the films she was in and she soon became in demand for other studios at a higher salary. (At Biograph, Lawrence was replaced by Mary Pickford.)
With the star system now entrenched, personalities were driving the medium. Audiences couldn’t get enough of “Little Mary” Pickford, Mary Miles Minter, Wallace Reid, Mabel Normand and Douglas Fairbanks. Comedies were the overall favorite and Charles Chaplin was the most popular star in the world with his Little Tramp character.
Chaplin began in British vaudeville before being discovered by Mack Sennett, who offered him a job at his Keystone Studios. Chaplin accepted and began working with Mabel Normand, who was the reigning queen of comedy at the time. Also working at Keystone was a young, rotund comedian named Roscoe Arbuckle.
After Chaplin left Keystone Studios, Sennett, who had great success with the Keystone Kops, began pairing Normand with Arbuckle. Billed as “Fatty” (a name he hated), Arbuckle played mischievous and naïve hayseed, or appeared in drag. As he started headlining his own films, he quickly became the second most popular film comedian. Paramount Studios offered him a three-year, $3,000,000 contract in 1918 (about $46,000,000 today).
Arbuckle lived lavishly openly. He bought a mansion, he bought cars, he threw parties. Of course he wasn’t alone. This first generation of movie stars, who had grown up in abject poverty, didn’t really know what to do with the buckets of money that came their way. Prohibition was in effect, but that didn’t stop them from becoming alcoholics. Drugs, including cocaine, morphine and heroin, were in plentiful supply, often supplied by people who worked for the studios. It was the era of the casting couch, as hundreds of young women were lured to Hollywood only to find that once they were used, they were discarded quickly.
The studios had people that tried to control all elements of the press and presented only the best face to the public. But, you can’t keep good gossip away, and there was plenty to talk about. While it seemed Hollywood was playing, many in America became concerned and there was some grass-roots movements beginning to form with the sole purpose of cleaning up the movies.
Greg Merritt’s new book, Room 1219: The Life of Fatty Arbuckle, the Mysterious Death of Virginia Rappe, and the Scandal That Changed Hollywood (September, 2013, Chicago Review Press) is the account of sensational accusations and subsequent trials of Roscoe Arbuckle, following a party held Labor Day weekend in San Francisco.
It would seem there is a small renaissance today in the lives of silent film stars. New biographies are being published of the bigger stars (John Gilbert and Mae Murray) and more obscure film actors (Peg Entwistle and Mary Wickes). There remains huge interest in silent stars such as Harlow and Garbo (who made the transition into sound), Chaplin, Pickford, director William Desmond Taylor, Mabel Normand, Laurel and Hardy and several others.
The life of Roscoe Arbuckle falls into an odd category. On one hand, his films have now become relegated to the pile of silent films that seem to end up in bargain bins of DVDs for $1.00, even while becoming easier to view (YouTube).
His story isn’t of his success as a comedian and silent film star; it’s the story of his being accused, initially of murder, and subsequently, manslaughter, and the salaciousness that followed. The story of Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle is legend. It’s the nagging details that are muddled.
Thankfully, Merritt’s book takes a close look at all the evidence, all the while putting Arbuckle’s place in history in perspective. Merritt reviews autopsy reports, trial transcripts, police and coroner testimony, newspaper articles and never before published interviews to give a very balanced analysis of what could have happened that Labor Day of 1921.
Here’s the story in brief: By 1921, Arbuckle was big box office. His films were popular all over America and the world. He was loved by everyone; on screen he was one of us. Arbuckle had just completed the film, Freight Prepaid, for Paramount and was working on his next feature film. He needed a break and took a small entourage to San Francisco, where they would have a party in the suites of the Hotel St. Francis.
Throughout the weekend, people would come and go. There was alcohol and plenty of it. On Monday, an actress whom Arbuckle knew slightly, Virginia Rappe, came up to the party and after a few drinks, began talking to Arbuckle.
One of the strengths of Room 1219 is its most thorough biography of Virginia Rappe. Previous books on the Arbuckle case portray her as a desperate actress or prostitute. Merritt shows she actually had some success in Hollywood and had other opportunities. When she was talking to Arbuckle, it would make sense that she would ask him for work.
She was also pretty, Arbuckle was flirty, drinks were being served, it was a party. The two of them slipped away into Room 1219.
What followed changed the lives of both of them. Rappe was injured, her bladder ruptured. No one at the time knew how serious it was. Arbuckle left her in the care of others and the party broke up.
Rappe died four days later. Based on the testimony of others at the party, including Rappe companion Maude Delmont who never testified in open court, Arbuckle was arrested for the murder in an attempt to perpetrate rape of Virginia Rappe.
The charge was eventually reduced to manslaughter and the trial of the century was on and on and on. There would be three trials in all. Merritt breaks down each one, showing the lame attempts by the show-boating prosecution to introduce hearsay evidence, twisted testimony and wild speculation. Of course, the defense did Arbuckle no favors, at least during the first two trials. They seemed unprepared at times, believing that no jury could find it in them to convict one of America’s greatest clowns. Merritt provides the pertinent transcripts of the trials, showing where the evidence is favorable to Arbuckle, but also shows the holes in his alibi.
This was the era of newspapers and Arbuckle was front page news for months, at least until the third trial. By then, other Hollywood stories had grabbed the headlines: the suicide of Olive Thomas (married to Jack Pickford, brother of Mary) in Paris, the murder of William Desmond Taylor (still unsolved to this day) and the death of matinee idol and drug addict Wallace Reid.
At the third trial, Arbuckle was acquitted in less than 10 minutes. But the damage had already been done. His career was over. His films were still banned practically all over the country. Will Hays had been appointed head of the new Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America, which, basically, was a self-serving reform group. Hays was the puppet of the studio heads and one of his first edicts was to ban Arbuckle permanently from working in any studio in Hollywood.
Room 1219 also details Arbuckle’s exile from Hollywood; Hays’ reversal; and Arbuckle’s subsequent comeback as a director, stage performer and, ultimately, his return to acting in film. Using all the evidence put into place in the book, Merritt provides a good, logical theory on what really happened that day in San Francisco. It was an event that should have ended differently. The lives of two people were ruined that day. Rappe lost her life and Arbuckle lost everything.
Room 1219 will be welcomed by all film buffs as the most complete account of the Arbuckle trials. It’s hard to believe 92 years later, there is still new evidence being discovered and new theories advanced. Fascinating and full of new information about the case, its participants and victims, Room 1219 engages the reader from start to finish with no happy endings in sight.
Over the years, I’ve become a fan of the work of D.W. Griffith, one of the pioneers of early film making. Griffith worked with Thomas Edison as an actor and writer, before moving to the American Mutoscope and Biograph Company, or just Biograph, as an actor. He complained so much about the directing, that they gave him a chance. This was in 1908. Griffith would go on to make thousands of one-reelers (about 10-12 minutes long) until 1913 when he quit Biograph because he wanted to make longer films.
Griffith’s use of cross-cutting, close-ups, flashbacks and editing allowed him to rise to the top of the directors working in silent film. He had a remarkable cast, too, that began to receive recognition for their work in the films. Such actors as Mary Pickford, Lillian Gish, Mabel Normand, Mack Sennett, Wallace Reid, and many others began, or worked with Griffith at Biograph. Pickford was so popular, she became known as “The Biograph Girl” and parlayed that exposure into a huge movie contract.
Griffith would go on to make many of the cinema’s greatest films: Way Down East, Intolerance, Orphans of the Storm, Broken Blossoms, and others. The Birth of a Nation became the most successful film in its day, launching the careers of dozens of men who would later become studio moguls, producers and theater owners. (Today, The Birth of a Nation is a pariah in the Griffith canon due to its overt tones of racism.)
(The image on the right is the big centerpiece of Intolerance, with its cast of thousands and huge scenery pieces.)
In 1919, Griffith, Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, and Charlie Chaplin founded United Artists, an independent film studio where the producers made the decisions, not the studio heads.
(There are two terrific books on the history of United Artists by Tino Balio:
You would think that after making all of these important films, D.W. Griffith would be recognized in Hollywood for the genius he was and he would have lived out his life with the love and admiration of all his peers.
Not so fast. He lived his final years alone, not able to get work, alcoholic, and broke. His films had made millions for others, but he was unable to keep his money. He had often put his own money into his work and lost it when the films didn’t make it back quickly enough.
In 1940, Iris Barry, the first curator of The Museum of Modern Art Film Library, put together a large exhibition on Griffith, with the purpose of restoring the fame and reputation of the director. Griffith was still alive then, and cooperated with Barry on a monograph, short essays, that accompanied the exhibition. It was the first retrospective of Griffith’s career, and one that made the argument that Griffith was not just a pioneer of cinema, but a ground-breaking director, whose films incorporated practically every technique still used today.
I found the second edition of this book yesterday at a used book shop.
The second edition has been expanded because in 1965, the Museum ran another Griffith exhibition and reprinted the original manuscript by Barry and expanded it with a long addendum by the director of the Griffith exhibition, Eileen Bowser. It also has an interview with Billy Bitzer, Griffith’s longtime cameraman.
Griffith died in 1948, alone, penniless. He is buried outside of Louisville at the at Mount Tabor Methodist Church Graveyard in Centerfield, Kentucky. His grave was unmarked for a couple of years, until the Director’s Guild provided a marker. A re-dedication of his grave was attended by Lillian Gish, Mary Pickford and Richard Barthlemess, all who had appeared in Griffith films.
Gish also wrote a book about Griffith, now out of print, but available used.
One last thing, when I was a student at Northern Kentucky University, in 1979, there was a dedication on campus that unveiled a new statue by celebrated artist, Red Grooms. It depicted Griffith directing a scene from Way Down East, with Lillian Gish on the ice floe, and cameraman Billy Bitzer cranking away.
The statue received prominent placement on campus, between the Fine Arts building and the new Student Activities building. I must have passed it a million times, going from one place to the next. I knew who Griffith was, of course, and knew that he had been born in Kentucky, but really didn’t give it much thought.
The artwork was loaned out frequently and when it was returned, it was relocated to another part of campus: the banks of Lake Inferior, behind the Fine Arts building,
As the Grooms artwork remained on campus, there grew an uneasiness about Griffith’s past history with race relations. In 2004, the sculpture was dismantled, where it remains in storage to this day.
Being from the South, Griffith always believed that he impartially showed what happened after the Civil War in The Birth of a Nation. What he didn’t realize was there was a new attitude in the United States toward race. For many people, gone was the hatred, replaced by acceptance. Griffith’s display of race relations in The Birth of a Nation, even though it represented events happening 50 years ago, was not keeping with the mood of the country in present day 1915.
His next film, Intolerance, in 1916, was an answer to those critics, who believed he was intolerant of race. This is Griffith’s finest film, cross cut throughout with four different stories, showing mans intolerance to others always led to ruin. Running over three hours, it was the most expensive film of that time.
Lillian Gish called him “the father of film” and Charles Chaplin called him “the teacher of us all”. Griffith still remains a vital part of cinema history and there will always be film critics and historians trying to determine just how important.
Hollywood loves a story where someone at the height of their career takes a fall. Takes a huge, long, career-busting fall. Maybe that’s why I admire D.W. Griffith. Maybe that’s why I admire Orson Welles. Orson used to say, “Oh, how they’ll miss me when I’ m gone.” And that’s certainly the case. Welles also said, in spite of his own treatment by the Hollywood establishment, “I have never really hated Hollywood except for its treatment of D. W. Griffith. No town, no industry, no profession, no art form owes so much to a single man.”
A while back, I presented a book proposal on the deaths of famous writers. An editor suggested it for me and I sketched out some rough outlines of Poe, Hemingway and my favorite, Dorothy Parker. Since I’m terribly late in posting my latest story, I’m filling in with this chestnut, complete now with visuals. I hope you enjoy it. — Hat
Dorothy Parker: “I do not care what is written about me so long as it is not true.”
When Dorothy Parker died on June 7, 1967, her death surprised many people. After reading her obituary in the New York Times, they shook their heads in disbelief. They thought she had died years ago. Indeed, death came much too late in life for Mrs. Parker. The famed literary wit of the 1920’s had, after all, attempted suicide on at least three different occasions. After her second attempt, her friend, the humorist Robert Benchley warned her that if she wasn’t careful she was “likely to make herself sick.” On her 70th birthday, she said if she had any manners, she “should be dead by now. All of my friends are.”
Mrs. Parker and Mr. Benchley
Alone and forgotten at her death, Dottie had lived the last years of her life in her beloved New York, where she had made her biggest contribution. She was the darling of the Algonquin Round Table, whose ranks included the most famous drama critic of the day Alexander Woollcott; widely read newspaper columnist Franklin P. Adams (from whose poetry style of light verse Dottie borrowed heavily); award-winning playwright George S. Kaufman; and the New Yorker founder Harold Ross. Ironically, she outlived all but two of its members.
The Algonquin Round Table by Al Hirschfeld
Dottie was one of the original staffers at Ross’ new magazine, the New Yorker, where she is credited with creating the prototypical “New Yorker Short Story,” that is a story under 7000 words, urbane, witty and well-written. But her biggest success came from her poetry; short, humorous poems, usually about suicide or failed relationships, that she called “trifles,” never taking it seriously, but nonetheless knowing its popularity among her readers. In the early days of the struggling magazine, Ross scolded her for turning in an article late. “Sorry,” she said, “someone else was using the pencil.”
The New Yorker’s first issue, 1925
Mrs. Parker, Benchley and Woollcott were all on the “advisory” staff
“I hate writing. I love having written.”
She published seven books during her lifetime, collections of her short stories and poetry, including Enough Rope (1926), Sunset Gun (1927), Death and Taxes (1931) and After Such Pleasures (1933). She won the O. Henry Prize for “Outstanding Short Story” in 1939 for her story, Big Blonde. A collection from her entire body of work, The Portable Dorothy Parker, was first published in 1944 and remains in print today, bringing thousands of new readers every year. As she grew older, she and her then-husband Alan Campbell moved to Hollywood, where they worked on screenplays. Dottie, Alan and Robert Carson were nominated for an Academy Award for their screenplay for the 1937 film, A Star is Born.
Always a champion for social causes, upon her death Mrs. Parker left her entire estate to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Upon his assassination, the rights reverted to the NAACP. Author Lillian Hellman was the executor of Dottie’s estate, but never claimed her ashes for burial, after finding out, and getting angry, that Dottie hadn’t left her the rights to her literary works. Mrs. Parker’s ashes languished in a box in an attorney’s office for over fifteen years before the NAACP took Dottie’s remains and interred them in a memorial garden at their national headquarters in Baltimore, Maryland. Dorothy had her own suggestion for her epitaph:
“Excuse my dust.”
The United States Postal Service issued a commemorative stamp with her likeness, as part of the Literary Arts series on August 22, 1992, on what would have been Mrs. Parker’s 99th birthday.
Mrs. Parker isn’t the only Round Table member to be commemorated on a postage stamp. Others include:
Artist Neysa McMein
Author Edna Ferber
Playwright Moss Hart
A film of her life, Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle, directed by Alan Rudolph and starring Jennifer Jason Leigh, was released in 1994 and released on DVD in 2006.
See the trailer here:
What Harpo Marx Means To Me
How One Man from the World’s Greatest Comedy Team Shaped the Life of a Boy He Never Met
From the Introduction to Harpo Speaks by Harpo Marx
“I’ve been lucky enough, in my time, to do a number of things that most people get around to doing. I’ve played piano in a whorehouse. I’ve smuggled secret papers out of Russia. I’ve spent an evening on the divan with Peggy Hopkins Joyce. I’ve played croquet with Herbert Bayard Swope while he kept Governor Al Smith waiting on the phone. I’ve gambled with Nick the Greek, sat on the floor with Greta Garbo, played ping-pong with George Gershwin. George Bernard Shaw has asked me for advice. Oscar Levant has played private concerts for me at a buck a throw. I’ve been a member of two of the most famous Round Tables since the days of King Arthur – sitting with the finest creative minds of the 1920s at the Algonquin in New York, and with Hollywood’s sharpest professional wits at the Hillcrest.”
(At the time I first read this, I had no idea who anyone was, except King Arthur.)
Who Is Harpo Marx?
When I look deep inside myself and reconnect with the boy I was growing up, there is one man who influenced me greatly and shaped not only my personality, but the direction my life would take as an adult. This man was responsible for me becoming a writer, a comedian and showed me that I could love theater, film and literature. What’s even more amazing is that this man barely made it though second grade. He learned through the school of hard knocks and was befriended by great writers, great wits and other great artists of the 20th Century.
It’s not too much of a stretch to say that
Everything I Learned, I Learned From Harpo Marx.
How It Happened
As a child growing up in the 1950’s, I was, from the moment I saw him, infatuated with Groucho Marx. His television quiz show, You Bet Your Life, became my favorite show and I watched it whenever I could. Groucho was obviously very funny, even if I didn’t quite understand all the jokes, but I loved his mannerisms, his conversations with the contestants and his banter with the announcer, George Fennemann. The game component almost seemed inconsequential to the show, but that was alright with me, as long as Groucho held front and center, which, of course, he did.
During one particular summer, my parents, my brothers and I were on vacation, probably in the Great Smokey Mountains, and in the motel, I turned on the television. Television in the late 1950’s was suspect anyway, and reception in the depths of Tennessee was not the greatest. But there, on the screen, I could see it. A much younger version of Groucho was on TV in a movie. His moustache was different and he was wrestling with a couple of men who also looked and acted, and were, funny.
That movie was Monkey Business. The other men were Harpo and Chico Marx. I was only able to watch maybe the last forty-five minutes of the movie (and it would take me over fifteen years to finally be able to see it in its entirety), but it left an impression on me that has lasted a lifetime.
I was captivated instantly with Harpo. He was silent, of course, but he was full of mischief and brought an energy which mesmerized me when he was on the screen. I remember him running around destroying anything in his path and chasing girls, often stopping what he was doing before to chase a pretty girl in his sight. I couldn’t wait to see him again.
Only One Problem with That
Before video tapes and DVDs, there was no outlet for watching old films on demand. No YouTube or Netflix. We were at the mercy of movie theaters running revivals, or the late show on television showing films from that period. I was in a predicament, for sure. My salvation was due in part to the fact that I was voracious reader and knew where to go for information in the Print Age.
(As a sidebar, I actually won my sixth grade reading contest for most books read in a month. I read for fun at every turn and it was easy to wipe out the sixth grade competition (I’m talking to you, Joanna Peebles) with practically quadruple the books of my nearest rival.)
My parents didn’t read, but my mother encouraged my reading and bought me books on a regular basis. She would drive me to go to the small main public library in Covington, Kentucky. There, becoming a self-taught expert of the library’s tools, I would research the Marxes, reading selected excerpts from the big volumes of Encyclopedia Britannica and, the much easier to use and read and carry, World Book Encyclopedia, as well as the yearbooks of Current Biography. I learned how to use microfilm and looked through old newspapers. There were bound collections of Time and Newsweek magazines throughout the years and I hunted for old articles about the brothers.
(I did happen to catch Harpo on television on a rerun of I Love Lucy. Lucy tries to impress Carolyn Appleby, who conveniently lost her glasses, by dressing up as Hollywood celebrities and “visiting” Lucy and Ethyl. One of the celebrities Lucy impersonates is Harpo Marx. The real Harpo drops by as a favor to Ricky and Lucy and Harpo collide. It’s very funny as they do the “mirror scene” from Duck Soup. Ironically, Lucy was in the Marx Brothers movie, Room Service, made for RKO studios in 1938. She was a “B” actress then. Once she and Desi had become successful with the I Love Lucy show, they bought RKO Studios and turned it into the Desilu Studios.)
What Is This Thing Called Vaudeville?
The first thing that made an impression with me was this thing called Vaudeville, which was live variety entertainment from the late 1880’s to the early 1930’s, and really hitting its peak around 1914-15. Vaudeville was a hodge-podge of every kind of show business act: comedians, singers, jugglers, dancers, acrobats, animal acts – and sometimes an act contained all of these elements. Celebrities from all walks of life did vaudeville. It was the primary form of entertainment for America.
These performers, many of whom were immigrants, or the children of immigrants, endured all kinds of grueling travel, living and eating conditions. They traveled (cheaply) all over the country on “vaudeville circuits” where every major and secondary city (and if a performer was really unlucky, tertiary ones) had theaters. The shows, with multiple acts on the bill, would play three, four, even five times a day. Some circuits were living hells, while others were luxurious. It was every performer’s dream to work their way up to the top and play The Palace, the most famous vaudeville theater in New York.
In these articles, I discovered W.C. Fields, Fanny Brice, Will Rogers, Florenz Ziegfeld, and many other performers of the day, including the Marx Brothers. The library actually had a book called Show Biz: From Vaude to Video (the first time I had ever heard the word video), by Abel Green, the editor of Variety, and Joe Laurie, an old vaudevillian and popular radio comedian.
The first books I read about the Marxes were two books written by Arthur Marx, son of Groucho: Life with Groucho and Not as a Crocodile. I checked them both out.
Life with Groucho was an affectionate, yet light biography of Groucho, written with a son’s perspective, of course, and how Groucho mainly interacted with his family. But it was eye-opening for a young boy from Kentucky, whose main contact with show business was television and the occasional movie.
The book did discuss the Marx Brothers on Broadway, which opened that part of their career up to me, and first introduced me to the brilliant playwright George S. Kaufman.
There were only small mentions of the movies (Groucho hated making movies, except the two the brothers made with Irving Thalberg at MGM) and barely any mention of Harpo and Chico, which, I guess, was appropriate since it was about Arthur growing up in Groucho’s house as a kid. Arthur did say that his uncles were just about the coolest uncles in the whole world, which was what I was thinking, too.
Not as a Crocodile was kind of a disappointment to this ten year old. It was primarily about Arthur’s adult life and not being in Groucho’s shadow. As a writer, Arthur had a big theatrical hit with The Impossible Years, which became a successful movie with David Niven.
Xapno Mapcase: U.S. Spy
Ironically, it was my own father who led me to another chapter in my quest for Marx Brothers information. I discovered in his pile of old magazines the June 1961 issue of Argosy magazine. Right on the cover was the proclamation that this issue featured Harpo Marx with the “Year’s Funniest Spy Story”! I couldn’t wait to devour this story and read and re-read it over and over.
In 1934, Harpo Marx visited the Soviet Union as part of an artistic cultural program when the United States finally recognized the Soviet regime just as Hitler was taking power in Germany. Harpo saw his name on the playbill and in Russian it looked like “Xapno Mapcase. His performances “killed” in Russia and he was given a twenty-minute standing ovation following one memorable show.
When he was about to leave, some men from the U.S. State Department came into his room and asked him to perform a service to his country. They taped some documents to his ankle to be retrieved upon his return to America. Needless to say, Harpo worried throughout his return passage, keeping his taped leg out of the bathtub as he showered and generally favoring it. He was relieved upon arrival when the agents came and got the documents.
I remember putting down the magazine dumbstruck. While Groucho was content with raising a family in Beverly Hills and reading quietly by the fire, Harpo was traveling the world, engaging in espionage and smuggling documents out of Soviet Russia! The dichotomy of the two brothers couldn’t have been more apparent. The article said it was an excerpt from Harpo’s new autobiography called Harpo Speaks, which was already out. I had to have it.
I went back to my public library and talked to the librarian. I told her exactly what I wanted and she made notes, nodding her head in agreement with me. Yes, I can see you’re keen to read it, she said. I’ll certainly do everything I can do to get it in for you. No, I don’t know how long it will take. Fill in this card and we’ll mail you a notice when it arrives.
So that was that. It was early 1964. I was eleven years old and had to go back doing the things a normal eleven year old boy does. I read other books. I learned about Chief Black Hawk, great Sauk tribe warrior (dibs on turning his life into a movie). I fell in love with the Little Britches series of books written by Ralph Moody about a boy growing up during the depression and, what seemed to be cool to this city boy, his wonderful adventures in bleak dust bowl Kansas trying to stay alive with his family. (Dibs on this, too.)
Then, many weeks later, the postcard arrived telling me that my reserved copy of Harpo Speaks was waiting for me at the library. I pleaded with my mother to drive me downtown to get it that very day. As luck would have it, the library was open late that night and after dinner we went to the library. I was nervous walking in. What if I didn’t like the book? What if it wasn’t what I expected?
When I got to the counter, I announced my name and the librarian went to a bookshelf behind her and got the book. When I first saw it, I couldn’t believe my eyes. The book was massive, well over 450 pages. It was thick, twice as thick as Groucho’s autobiography, Groucho and Me.
I got the book and ran back to the car. I opened it and began reading. Even in the introduction, I knew I was in for quite a ride. Harpo teased at all the things he did and the stories he was going to tell. As I mentioned before, I had no idea who any of those people were. Needless to say, I couldn’t wait to read it and when I was done, and through the years afterward, I knew who everybody was.
What I Learned
I firmly believe that much of my own self-taught education of the late 19th century and the early 20th century came straight from the pages of Harpo’s book. I learned about the poverty that immigrants faced coming to New York from Europe in the late 19th Century and how they survived. How the neighborhoods were segregated and rarely did they mix.
Harpo’s descriptions of growing up and getting thrown out of school in the second grade (literally by a bully) seemed so foreign to me, a kid from the suburbs. But his descriptions of his family life, growing up with his brothers and their mother, Minnie, and their father, Frenchie, were absolutely wonderful. Their affection for one another, and their mother’s drive for them to succeed in show business, almost made them forget the fights over the last bread roll at dinner, or how much money they owed the landlord.
The Marx Brothers had a long road to travel before they became The Marx Brothers. First, they were the Three Nightingales, then the Four Nightingales, then the Six Mascots, before coming up with the moniker, The Four Marx Brothers. From 1907 until their Broadway debut in 1923, the Marxes played vaudeville, honing their act and characters.
When they did arrive on Broadway, in an almost slapped together musical called I’ll Say She Is!, good luck arrived in the form of Alexander Woollcott, the most powerful drama critic in New York at the time.
Woollcott was supposed to attend another play’s opening, but a last minute cancelation of the show changed his plans and he dragged himself to see what he thought was some “acrobats”. Woollcott thoroughly enjoyed himself and wrote a rave review for the next day’s paper. He was particularly taken with Harpo, calling him a “great clown” and praising him throughout the review.
Woollcott visited Harpo backstage the next night and invited him to a poker game with the playwright George S. Kaufman, popular newspaper columnist Franklin P. Adams, soon-to-found The New Yorker Harold Ross, and New York World editor Herbert Bayard Swope. Harpo was also invited to lunch with them at the Algonquin Hotel where he met such writers as Dorothy Parker, Robert Benchley, Edna Ferber, Robert E. Sherwood, Alice Duer Miller and artist Neysa McMein. The quips at lunch were fast, furious and intelligent.
And, just like that, I was hooked forever. I longed to have friends like that, where conversation ruled, where everyone tried to top each other with one-liners.
I became enamored early with Alexander Woollcott. He wasn’t the founder of the Algonquin Round Table, but he was its center. Everyone, it appeared, seemed to gravitate to him and what interested him, interested them. No one was safe from his quick-witted barbs and there was probably always someone who wasn’t talking to Woollcott because of some remark.
During the 1920’s, Woollcott was the most important drama critic in New York, where legitimate theater was the most important part of show business, and also a conduit of social activity. He had many friends, from the leading actors of the day and businessmen to politicians and the Kings and Queens of Europe.
He played croquet for high stakes and even higher bragging rights, and other games, often devised by Neysa McMein. He entertained everyone who was anyone, from George Bernard Shaw to Eleanor Roosevelt. In the 1930’s, he became one of the most popular figures in radio, where he captivated a nation with his show, The Town Crier, often telling gruesome stories about murderers, such as Lizzie Borden, or sharing his enthusiasm about some book, like Goodbye, Mr. Chips or The Bridge of San Luis Rey. He was the Oprah of his day. When he told people to go out and buy a book or a product, or see a play, they did in droves.
When people think of Alexander Woollcott today, it’s usually in the context as the basis for the main character of Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman’s play The Man Who Came to Dinner, which also features a character named Banjo, based on Harpo.
In 1935, New York’s most influential drama critic and radio personality, Alexander Woollcott, published The Woollcott Reader: Bypaths in the Realms of Gold, an anthology of short fiction whose authors he liked and on whom he commented following the story.
When the book was published, Woollcott brought the book to a gathering of some of his famous friends and asked, “Oh, what can be more rare than a Woollcott First Edition?” Columnist Franklin P. Adams responded, “A Woollcott Second Edition.”
The publisher, Viking Press, printed a limited slipcase edition of 1500 copies, which Woollcott signed and numbered. Presenting copy number 302 to Susan Fleming Marx, wife of Harpo Marx, he wrote, “(This edition of The Woollcott Reader) is hereby presented by him at Xmas to his 302nd most intimate friend, Susan Fleming.”
I have copy number 728.
George S. Kaufman was someone who quickly became one of my favorites. He had the kind of humor I wanted. At a dinner, or lunch, or poker conversation, he was always quiet until the right moment and said his line right at the most opportune time. The fact that he was a famous playwright, arguably the most famous playwright of the twenties and thirties and even into the forties, made him instantly one of my idols.
I read every Kaufman play I could find, from early plays written with Marc Connelly, such as Dulcy, and plays written with the popular novelist of the time, Edna Ferber (Giant, Show Boat), such as Stage Door, Dinner at Eight and The Royal Family, to plays written with his most frequent collaborator Moss Hart, such as You Can’t Take It With You and Once in A Lifetime.
Kaufman was instrumental in further developing the Marx Brothers’ characters when he agreed to write, along with Morrie Ryskind, their second Broadway show, The Cocoanuts in 1925. While I’ll Say She! Is was more or less a revue with sketches and musical numbers, The Cocoanuts was structured in to a typical musical play that let the Marx Brothers veer off course with their brand of insane humor and let them come back to the story when they were ready.
Kaufman was always protective about the script and hated when the Marxes ad-libbed from the script. During one performance of The Cocoanuts, he was in the back of the house, pacing, when he suddenly became startled and stared right at the stage. “What’s wrong, George?” said his companion. “I may be wrong,” Kaufman said, “but I think I just heard one of the original lines.”
The Cocoanuts was a huge hit and became their first motion picture in 1929. Kaufman and Ryskind also wrote the Marx Brothers’ third and last Broadway show, Animal Crackers, which became their second motion picture in 1930. Kaufman and Ryskind also wrote the Pulitzer Prize winning musical, Of Thee I Sing, with music and lyrics by George and Ira Gershwin in 1931. Kaufman later won the Pulitzer Prize with Moss Hart in 1936 for You Can’t Take It With You.
Mr. Benchley, Mrs. Parker and Robert E. Sherwood
Dorothy Parker had a bleak view of life. Her short verse was either about love lost, suicide or some other pessimistic view of the world. She was the darling of the Round Table. Never wildly successful as Kaufman or Ferber, or really, any of her peers, she nonetheless worked steadily throughout the years, gaining more recognition with each passing year. The Dorothy Parker Reader, a collection of her best-known poems and short stories, has never been out of print in over seventy years. Ironically, despite at least two suicide attempts, she was one of the longest living members of the Round Table. Her closest friend during this time was Robert Benchley.
Mr. Benchley, Mrs. Parker and Robert E. Sherwood (who would go on to win four Pulitzer Prizes, an Academy Award, and become a speechwriter for FDR) all worked together at Vanity Fair magazine in the early twenties. When Mrs. Parker quit the magazine over an equal pay issue, Mr. Benchley and Mr. Sherwood quit too, in support of her. Benchley would go on to write for several magazines until a sketch he wrote for a Round Table revue called The Treasurer’s Report would hit big. Irving Berlin hired him to do the sketch on Broadway each night, which led to Benchley being hired by Fox to make short films, which he did until the end of his life, winning an Academy Award in the process. He once complained, “It took me fifteen years to discover that I had no talent for writing, but I couldn’t give it up because by that time I was too famous.”
Mank and Orson Welles
Perhaps one of the biggest debts I owe to Harpo is discovering Herman Mankiewicz, a brilliant writer from New York, who went to Hollywood in the early days. Mank produced the Marx Brothers films, Monkey Business and Horsefeathers — (He telegraphed writer Ben Hecht one time to come out to Hollywood and write for the studios by saying, “Millions are to be made out here and your only competition is idiots. Don’t let this get around.”) — and wrote, co-wrote, or doctored many of the classic comedy films on the late 1920’s and 30’s.
Mank was an alcoholic and by the late 1930’s had some trouble finding work. Orson Welles was an admirer of Mank’s and together they began work on Citizen Kane. Mank was a frequent visitor to William Randolph Hearst’s San Simeon and remembered many stories about Hearst when it came time to write the screenplay.
Undoubtedly, Mankiewicz’s contribution to Citizen Kane is immense, but it was truly Orson Welles’ film from top to bottom. I was in my late teens when I finally saw Kane at a party where a 16mm print was shown, but it led me to a great love and admiration of Orson Welles’ work that I have to this day.
What Else, Funny Boy?
So in my timeline, I’m putting everything in the 1968-69 basket. It seems to me that these events took place then, but I could be off by one or two, or even three years, either way.
I do know that I remember reading about Harpo’s death in 1964 in an edition of Current Biography, but that could have been as late as 1968. Chico had died in 1961. Groucho and Gummo both died in 1977. Zeppo died in 1979.
Since the 1960’s there has been a tremendous awareness of the Marx Brothers. Video tapes (first) and DVDs, as well as Turner Classic Movies, has allowed all the Marx Brothers films to be seen in all their glory. The first Marx Brothers film I bought was Duck Soup on an old format called DiscoVision. It was a huge disc, about the size of a record album with a plastic cover sleeve over it and you put the whole thing in the machine, where it would remove the disc and you pulled out the cover. It was very cumbersome.
When I was younger, I treasured two 8mm Marx Brothers films I ordered from a catalog. Each film was about 10 minutes in length. The first contained a scene from Horse Feathers. The second was from a television special they did called The Incredible Jewel Robbery from 1959. Both were silent.
One book that brought me closer to the movies was The Marx Brothers at the Movies by Paul Zimmerman and Burt Goldblatt. The book was an overview of the Marxes total movie output, with photos, summaries, how the movie did upon release and other facts about the films. It showed me what I was missing and I recall checking off the films I finally got to see, in the book, on the inevitable countdown to seeing them all (that would take me a while).
I was in high school when the book came out in 1968 and I worked at the library during study hall and lunch. The librarian was Miss Webster and she was almost the stereotypical vision of the librarian in everyone’s head. She was an older woman, a spinster, with glasses hanging from her neck, support hose and drab clothing. She always shushed everyone with her finger to her mouth and saying, “Shhhhhhh! This is the library!” But she loved me.
I was the best student library worker she ever had. She was the librarian at our junior high school when I was there and I worked for her then. So when she was promoted to high school librarian, and I was in high school, I went to work for her there. I was a student leader on her team when she decided to totally re-organize the library’s shelving arrangement.
I told her about The Marx Brothers at the Movies book I wanted and she looked it up on some microfiche database and found it for me. I asked her if she would order it for me and she said yes. I think it was about $8.00 then, but I had a job and gave her the money.
When the book arrived, she opened the box and gave it to me. But she had wrapped the dust jacket in a Brodart sleeve and presented it. I found that touching and thanked her for ordering it. I still have that book today.
And in the End
As I look at everything that has shaped my life, and knowing what still keeps my interest to this day, it all springs from that love of a very specific time and culture of the United States. The 1920’s through the 1940’s were the Golden Age of writing, including plays, newspaper columns, novels, and screenplays. The time of Hemingway, Faulkner and Fitzgerald. When newspapers and magazines were the carriers of information and public opinion.
Where the writers of the day were important and people paid attention. I can’t go back to that time, but through the works that have been preserved in books, films, or any other medium, and yes, including digitally, I can still participate. I can still feel their passion reading their written words and, through them, understand the time that fascinates me so.
While I may now profess to consider George S. Kaufman, Orson Welles, Ernie Kovacs, Robert Benchley and James Thurber as my personal gods (along with Lenny Bruce, John Lennon, Pete Townshend and Bob Dylan), I will never forget the comedian who played a mute, joyful, mischievous free spirit on the screen and found me just at the right time.
I will always be grateful to him and I will never forget what Harpo Marx means to me.
All the roar over film magazine Sight and Sound‘s latest Greatest Movie poll accomplishes one thing: It gets us talking about films that might otherwise go neglected. In a time where remakes galore and unimaginative comedies rule the box office, there was a time when studios wanted to produce quality motion pictures for their audiences. Duly noted is the fact that no film past 1968 made the Top Ten (Kubrick’s 2001).
Director D.W. Griffith was the leading director of motion pictures in the early days of silent movies. He is credited for popularizing many cinematic techniques that have become staples of film-making. Close-ups, dissolves, cutaway reaction shots – all are the first thing any aspiring filmmaker uses when starting their career. From 1908 through 1914, Griffith made “one-reelers” for Biograph, a leading movie company in New York. These were shorts, about 15 minutes in length that generally played for a week, and then were swapped out for another one. (That’s why many of the films of this era are lost. No one thought that they had any value beyond their moment in the theater.)
As Griffith perfected his storytelling and technical craft, he became influenced by some of the longer films coming out of Europe and the work of others now working in Hollywood, including producer Thomas Ince. Griffith began working on a Biblical drama, Judith of Bethulia, which was to be one of the first U.S. feature films. To the dismay of the studio heads (because features cost more money), longer films were accepted by audiences. In 1915, Griffith released his controversial film, The Birth of a Nation, which made so much money “they lost track” of it, according to Lillian Gish, who appeared in the film.
By then, studios were looking for any advantage to entice audiences to their films. Adolf Zukor, an immigrant from Hungary who had become quite successful in the fur business, got into the movie business and, in 1912, started Famous Players Studio. His idea was to entice famous actors of the day, putting them into roles of classic theater. “Famous Players in Famous Plays” was the company’s slogan. Zukor picked up a French film starring Sarah Bernhardt, which did great business stateside. He is credited for creating the star system on Hollywood, and later, after his merger with Jesse Lasky to form a corporation that would become Paramount Studios, he released films with such stars as Mary Pickford, Rudolph Valentino, Douglas Fairbanks, Gloria Swanson, and Clara Bow – the biggest stars of their day.
So what does this have to with the 2012 Sight and Sound Greatest Films of All Time, or whatever it’s called? Seven silent films are included in the Top Fifty, with three in the Top Ten alone. This can be encouraging to filmgoers. If the list entices someone to check out F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise from 1927, which made the list at #5, or Chaplin’s brilliant City Lights, or Buster Keaton’s The General, both of which made Top Fifty, along with the others, then it has achieved a higher purpose. As I mentioned earlier, debate about films is one of those of those great discussions that rank right up there with sports talk, politics, and the national furor over The Sexiest Man Alive.
Alright, time now for my thoughts on the displacement of Citizen Kane as the Greatest Film the World Has Ever Known, Will Know, and Forever Let It Be Said That It Is the Greatest Film, etc…
It’s no secret that I am a big Orson Welles fan and not much of a Hitchcock fan. Citizen Kane isn’t even my favorite Welles film (that would be The Magnificent Ambersons) and Vertigo isn’t my favorite Hitchcock film (that would be North by Northwest). But, I’m not upset about the rankings. It’s only a list.
Most discouraging are the headlines for every article about the Sight and Sound Poll (all actual headlines):
‘Citizen Kane‘ Dethroned by ‘Vertigo‘ as Greatest Film of All Time
Three Theories for How Vertigo Dethroned Kane
Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo Beats Citizen Kane to Be Declared the Best Film of All Time!
Hitchcock Knocks Welles Off Top of ‘Greatest Film’ Poll
How the mighty have fallen. Kane won the poll for five consecutive decades, and even won the AFI’s poll in 1998 and 2007. It’s almost a repeat of Orson Welles’ own personal topple when his RKO contract was terminated, after basically three films and an unfinished project, and began the life-long journey of becoming a acting/directing gypsy (and of course making some of the other greatest films in the process). Even Welles recognized his predicament when he said, “I started at the top and worked my way down.” (He also told Peter Bogdanovich, “Oh, how they’ll miss me when I’m gone.”)
It’s not the end of world for Kane fans. It did place second, after all. It’s not like Citizen Kane has to pack up and leave town in shame, run out on a rail, never to be seen again. As cinema, it is a masterpiece. It’s a tour de force for Welles, who was only 25 years old when he acted, directed and co-wrote Citizen Kane. It was his first film. Hitchcock had been a working director for over 30 years when he made Vertigo.
I’m sure many of you who take film seriously, and even those who don’t, have their own favorite films that don’t even include any films by Welles or Hitchcock. The Director’s Poll in the same Sight and Sound survey picks Yasujiro’s Tokyo Story as Number One, with Citizen Kane tied for Second with 2001: A Space Odyssey. Vertigo is Number Seven.
So, we have the pleasure of open discourse about film, and more importantly, all the films in the Sight and Sound poll are available for viewing. No matter what your favorite film is, whether it be 8 ½, The Godfather, or even Porky’s (which would be sad), the Greatest Movie Ever Made will continue to be a discussion as long as there are people around with an opinion.