Tuesday, 6 September 2016

The Annotated Marx Brothers by Matthew Coniam - review

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Marxist Archaeology
Matthew Coniam – The Annotated Marx Brothers: A Filmgoer’s Guide to In-Jokes, Obscure References and Sly Details (McFarland and Company, Inc., Publishers, Jefferson, North Carolina, 2015)

I love this book. I hate this book.

I love it because you can dip into it to look up some detail that you thought was really central to your understanding of the film but I hate it because it’s so easy to get distracted and wind up looking for some other reference and forgetting what you were after in the first place. It’s that good! In fact, it’s better than that, because ultimately it sends the reader back to the films and that can’t be bad, can it?

Something of an extension to Greg Mitchell’s The Marx Brothers Companion (and get the original version of this if you can, not the later one on the cheaper paper), Matthew Coniam’s book is concordance covering all the films in which they appeared as the Marx Brothers and their TV comedy special, The Incredible Jewel Robbery (1959), explaining allusions in jokes and plotlines that may have been current at the time but might now confuse even the most dedicated Marxian scholar. Who were “those five kids up in Canada”? Who or what was “Minnie the Moocher?” And just when did Don Ameche invent the telephone?

For example, in Horse Feathers (1932), what does being “on the pan” mean? No, not what you think. It means you’re being told off. Fortunately, Coniam, author of the weblog, The Marx Brothers Council of Britain (http://marxcouncil.blogspot.co.uk/) , never loses sight of the joke and doesn’t rake over the humour to the extent where it stops being funny. If anything, it’s more an exercise in enlightenment of the finest kind.

Other references are more complicated. In Monkey Business (1931), when Groucho says, “Come Kapellmeister, let the violas throb. My regiment leaves at dawn,” the audiences of the time would understand that he is mocking the conventions of operettas like The Merry Widow, but this is used as a starting point to riff on the sparky relationship between Groucho and writer S J Pereleman, who contributed the line, although the precise level of his involvement in the rest of the film is still debated, as is his true relationship with Groucho.

One of the few things that defeats the author and his colleague David Cory, who provides a separate concordance for the Harold Arlen-Yip Harburg number Lydia the Tattooed Lady (At the Circus (1939)), is the name, Mendel Picasso. You think: ah, Picasso, but where does Mendel come from? Cory mentions various attempts to explain away this curious name, but is clearly not convinced.

All the other allusions in the song are dealt with, including the one of her sitting on Hitler - and why it was excised from the film, though not from Groucho’s later performances of it; another, Treasure Island, is found not to be the obvious, but an artificial island in San Francisco Bay built for the contemporary Golden Gate Exposition of 1939 - 1940.

Of course, the book is more than just a guide: the author explores the evolution of the films and is eager to offer his opinion of each. You may feel the urge to disagree here and there. For example, he’s less keen on Duck Soup (1935) than I am, feeling that Leo McCarey had his own ideas about comedy and the Marxes had to fit in with them, whereas it should, of course, have been the other way around. God only knows what would have happened had the mooted Billy Wilder film, A Day at the United Nations, with them gone ahead in 1960…

Contrary to Marxian orthodoxy, he provides a spirited defence of Room Service (1938), a film, like so many of their later efforts, starting out with grand ambitions that were almost all eroded by the time it went into production. It is often ignored or dismissed because it was an existing play and not written for the brothers. And yet… I have to admit on viewing it again, there is much to like about it, though it might have been considerably better had not some of Morrie Ryskind’s script (lines not in the original play) been dropped. If nothing else, we are presented with a vintage Harpo, one who behaves impulsively, not like the Harpo in A Night at the Opera (1936), where producer Irving Thalberg felt there was a need to make audiences sympathise with him by having the villain beat him up, a trope which became increasingly more irritating in the post-Paramount films.

I’d agree that the weakest of the MGM films is Go West (1940) but I’d be less hard on At the Circus, which has some great moments but a few admittedly awful ones too, not least the songs, Stand Up and Take a Bow and Two Blind Loves. One would be bad enough.

A brave man, Coniam also stands up for Love Happy (1949), a film with a most troubled genesis that was intended initially as a Harpo solo work and turned out to be such a bad experience for him that he left out any recollection of it from his autobiography, Harpo Speaks. Defending this film is almost suicidal in Marxist circles and yet, inspired by his comments, I watched it again and found a lot to like – which will be pleasing to my old student, Andrew Smith, who Coniam credits as an influence on own his thoughts about the film.

Now, let me state straight away, my appreciation for the film is relative. It is a weak film and it is their worst; it frequently comes across as a grade Z crime drama, particularly when we see Raymond Burr dressed in some silly, silky, kinky torturer’s outfit trying, at length, to get information out of Harpo (victimised once again); some terrible musical numbers, especially the first dance scene and the truly jaw-dropping Marion Hutton song, Who Stole That Jam?; the unfortunately glib betrayal of Harpo’s romantic concerns; the bizarre, brief waste of that great comic actor Eric Blore as Groucho’s otherwise absent assistant; the fact that the three brothers never appear together and that Groucho, who all the other films rely on heavily, is barely in it and almost completely wasted – and doesn’t even wear his greasepaint moustache! The brief appearance of the young Marilyn Monroe does not make up for all that.

There are, however, some good comedic bits with Harpo, particularly near the beginning when he’s pilfering food, and during the rooftop pursuit, where he escapes past neon adverts that were famously placed in the film as a way of raising money! It also has to be said that whatever you may think of Chico’s musical numbers, this one is worked nicely into the story and is based on a routine he used in his nightclub act.

Now, when I wake up in a cold sweat in the middle of the night wondering who Gregory Ratoff was, whether or not a male stand in was used for Margaret Dumont during Mrs Upjohn’s examination in A Day At The Races (1937), or why it’s clearly not the brothers playing their roles when the lights go out during the storm in Animal Crackers (1930), I only have to move aside the ipecac (q.v. Room Service) on my bedside table and reach for Coniam’s wonderful book.

FRANK BLACK

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