Saturday 30 July 2016

Wednesday night's set lists

At The Habit, York: -

Ron Elderly: -
Sweet Virginia
Dead Flowers

Da Elderly: -
Chasing Rainbows (new song debut)
I'm Just A Loser

The Elderly Brothers: -
Crying In The Rain
Medley: High Heel Sneakers/It's All Over Now
Out Of Time
Bring It On Home To Me
Baby What You Want Me To Do

Another amazing night of open mic mayhem! Several regulars were missing (presumably on holiday) but there was no shortage of players. The Elderly Brothers were joined, for their last 4 songs, by harmonica player extraordinaire Stuart, making his last appearance in The Habit before returning to the USA having spent 6 weeks in York. He will be missed!

 The new song - Chasing Rainbows

Friday 22 July 2016

Dead Poets Society #2 Raymond Carver: The Morning

This Morning by Raymond Carver

This morning was something. A little snow
lay on the ground. The sun floated in a clear
blue sky. The sea was blue, and blue-green,
as far as the eye could see.
Scarcely a ripple. Calm. I dressed and went
for a walk — determined not to return
until I took in what Nature had to offer.
I passed close to some old, bent-over trees.
Crossed a field strewn with rocks
where snow had drifted. Kept going
until I reached the bluff.
Where I gazed at the sea, and the sky, and
the gulls wheeling over the white beach
far below. All lovely. All bathed in a pure
cold light. But, as usual, my thoughts
began to wander. I had to will
myself to see what I was seeing
and nothing else. I had to tell myself this is what
mattered, not the other. (And I did see it,
for a minute or two!) For a minute or two
it crowded out the usual musings on
what was right, and what was wrong — duty,
tender memories, thoughts of death, how I should treat
with my former wife. All the things
I hoped would go away this morning.
The stuff I live with every day. What
I’ve trampled on in order to stay alive.
But for a minute or two I did forget
myself and everything else. I know I did.
For when I turned back i didn’t know
where I was. Until some birds rose up
from the gnarled trees. And flew
in the direction I needed to be going.

Wednesday 20 July 2016

Tuesday 19 July 2016

The enduring influence of J. D. Salinger...

Six years on: the enduring influence of J. D. Salinger

Emma Michelle and Anne Maxwell
26 January 2016

Today marks six years since celebrated writer J. D. Salinger passed away at his home in Cornish, New Hampshire, at the age of 91. Famously shunning all aspects of public life for decades prior to his death, he published no new work after 1965 and gave no interviews after 1980. Yet he apparently continued to write every day with a religious diligence.

In 1972 a girlfriend observed “he has completed at least two books, the manuscripts of which now sit in the safe".

Unsealed portions of depositions taken in 1986 showed Salinger confirmed under oath that he was writing “Just a work of fiction. That’s all”.

And then after his death, a 2013 book and documentary detailed five new works he approved for publication between 2015 and 2020, however so far none have eventuated.

Today on the anniversary of his death, we reflect on how J. D. Salinger’s writing first influenced the world and how it continues to do so now.

The Catcher in the Rye and young-adult fiction

For many teenage readers The Catcher in the Rye was a revelation. The earliest critics called protagonist Holden Caulfield a “lout,” his angst and suffering “cute,” and his rebellious nature “the differential revolt of the lonesome rich child,” though none could overlook the 1951 novel’s commercial success and popularity with adolescents.

The Catcher in the Rye has sold 65 million copies worldwide and continues to sell 250,000 more each year, frequently as a prescribed text in high school curricula.

Salinger’s pre-eminence as a youth writer is mainly attributed to the way he successfully captures the language of young people and depicts themes that appeal to teenage sensibilities. John Green – perhaps the most popular contemporary author of young-adult fiction – said last year that “anybody who writes about teenagers does so in the shadow of Salinger".

Rarely (if ever) does a list of the best young-adult fiction omit the novel and, as David Levithan wrote in 2010:

The Catcher in the Rye was one of the first books on the shelf of our young adult [sic] literature, and for almost sixty years we’ve written plenty more in an attempt to keep it company.

Controversy: the death of John Lennon

Once a text gains a diehard following it is vulnerable to extremes of interpretation. When Mark David Chapman shot John Lennon in December of 1980 he was found reading The Catcher in the Rye at the scene. Inside the book he’d written “This is my statement” and signed off as Holden Caulfield.

Months later, John Hinckley Jr. tried to assassinate President Ronald Reagan and police found a copy of the novel in his hotel room.

Salinger never gave public comment on the shootings during his lifetime. Yet by all accounts he despised critics misreading his texts, and one could assume that murder is a most extreme misreading of Holden stood for. Critics have rightly asserted that Holden’s rebellion “never quite transcends the adolescent pique at wrong guys and boring teachers,” and that Holden:

… wanders through New York with a genuine desire, to quote an old Beatles tune, to “take a sad song and make it better”, but he doesn’t know how to begin […]. Simply put, it appears Chapman misread The Catcher in the Rye.

Film and the work of Wes Anderson

The Catcher in the Rye has inspired leagues of on-screen stories – notably Rebel Without a Cause (1955) and Six Degrees of Separation (1990 play and 1993 film). A drama about Salinger’s life has been announced and will address “the birth of The Catcher in the Rye,” despite his insistence that a film adaptation of the novel must never arise.

This film is supposedly based on a 2011 biography, perhaps an interesting way of circumventing the writer’s wishes.

Yet nowhere is his influence in film felt more than the work of Wes Anderson. Salinger’s Glass family (who feature heavily in his later work) are reconstructed in Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums (2001) as three child prodigies struggle to adjust to adult life.
Margot’s bathtub conversation, The Royal Tenenbaums.

Margot’s bathtub conversation with her mother is clear homage to a scene in Salinger’s 1957 novella Zooey, and even her favourite coat finds its twin in a Salinger story.

The precocious young lovers in Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom (2012) replicate numerous child figures in Salinger’s fiction. Children in Salinger’s work are equal parts characters and symbols of virtue, where the integrity and innocence of childhood is idealised and broken adults can find salvation in their “wonderful directness“.

Anderson’s film is no different, with Suzy and Sam repeatedly shown as“resourceful, optimistic, capable of loyalty and love – all the qualities with which their elders struggle".

Despite the prospect of forthcoming titles, 2015 came and went and the world was left wanting. The J. D. Salinger Literary Trust was busy fighting a small publisher over foreign licensing rights for some old short stories, and any schedule for forthcoming Salinger books is still to be confirmed.

However, despite this absence, there remains abundant evidence of his influence in the contemporary world.

Monday 18 July 2016

Definitions of Film Noir...

Burt Lancaster in The Killers (1946)

Here's an interesting piece from The New Yorker a couple of years ago exploring the slippery boundaries of film noir. It's particularly timely now when we live in an age where any number of lazy TV critics assign the term to crime shows that have labyrinthine plots and low lighting. See for example, the constant references to 'Scandi-Noir' by writers in The Guardian.

Although Brody refers to the significance of the trauma caused by World War Two, a side product of that is surely the emasculating role of women - often, but not always (see The Reckless Moment (Maz Ophuls, 1949 ), the femme fatale and the fear, or at least recognition, that women had become empowered during the war by taking traditional male roles in industry while the men were away fighting for their country.

I also suspect - or hope - that Brody doesn't mean t o imply that the definition of a Western is quite as rigid as this piece implies, whether defined by visual iconography or thematic concerns.

Paul Kelly in Crossfire (1947): “You’re wondering about this setup, aren’t you?”

Film Noir: The Elusive Genre

Richard Brody
The New Yorker
23 July 2014

There are two terrific film-noir series taking place in New York right now, one at Film Forum, “Femmes Noir,” the other, at the Museum of Modern Art, “Lady in the Dark: Crime Films from Columbia Pictures, 1932-1957.” But only the Film Forum series uses the word “noir,” and moma’s avoidance of the term makes perfect sense.

Film noir is a peculiar genre. A Western is identifiable by people on horseback in the West; a musical involves singing and dancing; a war movie shows war. Even the so-called women’s picture was a movie that featured women prominently. But the directors who worked in film noir didn’t use that term to describe their work. One searches in vain for the term in the interviews with some of the genre’s crucial creators—Otto Preminger, Don Siegel, Fritz Lang, Robert Aldrich, and Edgar G. Ulmer—by Peter Bogdanovich in his great collection “Who the Devil Made It.” The first appearance of the term “film noir” in this magazine is from 1971; the first in the New York Times is from 1973.

For that matter, the term wasn’t even endemic in French cinephilic circles. When François Truffaut discussed his film “Shoot the Piano Player” soon after its release, he spoke of it in terms of “B movies” and “gangster films”; when Jean-Luc Godard talked about “Breathless,” he said that he wanted to make a “gangster film” and also referred to “films policiers.”

The documentation on the subject is ample and fascinating, as provided in a richly detailed historical post by M. E. Holmes at a Web site devoted to the French critic Nino Frank, who coined the term in 1946. Holmes’s meticulous discussion of the use and rise of the term cites Frank’s work liberally, and highlights what he found so remarkable in the films in question:

Thus these “noir” films no longer have anything in common with the usual kind of police reel. They are essentially psychological narratives with the action—however violent or fast-paced—less significant than faces, gestures, words—than the truth of the characters, this “third dimension” I discussed a short while ago.

The movies in question, Frank argued, aren’t procedurals or whodunits, they’re character studies and sociological investigations. Holmes traces the fascination with these Hollywood crime dramas of the forties through the work of other French critics of the postwar years:

It is clear that one of the key elements in the welcome given by the French critics to the American “films noirs” was the feeling that serious European influence lay behind their modern American settings and panache. Later commentators have pointed to stylistic influences from prewar German films, but for the 1946 critics the primary consideration was not one of style. It was rather that they believed in cinema’s twofold function: as an absorbing entertainment and as a potential force for good, not through reinforcing conventional morality but through its ability to expose corruption and injustice. They had seen at first hand the prewar struggles of European filmmakers to speak out against evil in their films, and felt that the new American crime films could represent the opportunity for a surreptitious continuation of that work within unashamedly entertainment films.

In other words, Frank and the critics who joined him in his praise of the newly dubbed genre were interested in exactly the sorts of things that the young enthusiasts of Cahiers du Cinéma—Truffaut, Godard, and company—didn’t care about at all: the politics and sociology of cinema, the cinema of social criticism. The big French book on the subject of film noir was written, in 1955, by Raymond Borde and Étienne Chaumeton—two critics associated with the magazine Positif, Cahiers’s bitter rival. French Wikipedia sums up the opposition well, if tendentiously;

Raymond Borde was a member of the editorial board of Positif from 1954 to 1967. A member of the Communist Party until 1958, he was a partisan of [politically] engaged cinema and took a stand against Cahiers du Cinéma and the filmmakers of the New Wave, whose politique des auteurs and rightist tendencies he denounced.

The term “film noir” has come down to us as a product of a subordinate strain of French criticism, different from the one that came to dominate cinematic discourse with the concept of auteurism, as well as to dominate filmmaking itself through the innovations of the New Wave. It had no currency among Hollywood filmmakers of the forties and fifties, for the simple reason that French criticism over-all had little influence in the U.S. until the rise of the New Wave. (Though it would be interesting to try to trace the term in Cahiers through the years—a concordance is needed.) And, even as film noir has become firmly entrenched in the cultural vocabulary, its strangeness remains. That’s why I’m partial to the choice of moma’s curators to cite the simplest unifying factor in their series—the element of crime—that both predates the rise of film-noir style and, above all, that survives it.

I wrote here a few years ago about the genre, and I cited four factors that contributed to its rise: “the influence of German Expressionism, the liberating innovations of Orson Welles, the new importance of independent producers, and the probing of wartime traumas.” German filmmakers fleeing the Nazi regime, such as Lang, Preminger, Ulmer, Robert Siodmak, Max Ophuls, and Billy Wilder brought their shadowy, fragmented aesthetic to Hollywood. Welles (who was also a director of film-noir classics, including “The Lady from Shanghai”) gave directors, including his venerable elders, a sense that anything was possible, even in Hollywood. The sudden weakening of studio control over production (the result of court battles) gave independent producers, many of whom were very sympathetic to artistically original directors, a much freer hand. And then there’s the war, with its terrors and disruptions.

The four movies that Nino Frank cites in his primordial 1946 essay are “The Maltese Falcon,” “Laura,” “Murder, My Sweet,” and “Double Indemnity.” All of them were made during the Second World War (though “The Maltese Falcon” was made in 1941, before the United States was involved in combat). The film historian Sheri Chinen Biesen makes a convincing case, in her book “Blackout,” that there are two separate strains of film noir—one arose during wartime, the other followed it:

These early noir films created a psychological atmosphere that in many ways marked a response to an increasingly realistic and understandable anxiety—about war, shortages, changing gender roles, and “a world gone mad”—that was distinctive from the later postwar paranoia about the bomb, the cold war, HUAC, and the blacklist, which was more intrinsic to late 1940s and 1950s noir pictures.

I’m not sure that the distinction is as precise or as clear as she suggests. For instance, I don’t think that there’s a difference in kind between Siodmak’s “Phantom Lady,” from 1944, and “Criss Cross,” from 1949, or between Lang’s “The Woman in the Window,” from 1944, and “While the City Sleeps,” from 1956. But I do think that she’s right to call attention to the historical specificities on which the genre (if, indeed, it’s a genre) thrived. Many of the crime dramas of the nineteen-thirties had much to do with the Depression; those of wartime reflected the war (though it’s a critical temptation to read the war into any film contemporaneous with it), and those that came after the war—well, by definition, they reflect postwar life.

That’s why it’s strange to think of film noir as a genre—at least, as an open-ended one. A Western is a Western is a Western, whether it’s filmed by Thomas H. Ince in 1916, by John Ford in 1939, or by Clint Eastwood in 1992. The same is true of war films, comedies, and, yes, crime movies. But the film noir is historically determined by particular circumstances; that’s why latter-day attempts at film noir, or so-called neo-noirs, almost all feel like exercises in nostalgia.

Sunday 17 July 2016

David Hockney: 82 Portraits and 1 Still Life at The Royal Academy, 2016

David Hockney paints Rufus Hale in Los Angeles, November 2015

David Hockney among friends: a triumphant return to portraiture
In the wake of a personal tragedy, Hockney embarked on a new project: to capture his wide social circle in defiantly exuberant tones

Tim Barringer
Friday 17 June 2016

David Hockney once said that art comes in three kinds – landscapes, portraits and still-lifes. This mischievous pronouncement was directed with a wry smile at the high priests of the contemporary art world, where the smart money is on conceptual art, installation, performance, video, and digital art. In a career spanning more than six decades, Hockney has experimented with photography and collage; he was a pioneer in the use of digital media and is a virtuoso of the iPad. Yet at the core of his practice lie the most traditional categories of British painting: landscape and portraiture, with an occasional still‑life thrown in for light relief.

In 2005, Hockney moved from California, where he had spent much of his adult life, back to live in Bridlington and the house where his mother, Laura, lived until her death, at 98, in 1999. When the prodigal son returned to his native Yorkshire, the results were electric. He produced a vast, euphoric body of landscapes employing a saturated palette of colours tinged with memories of the sunshine of the Hollywood Hills. A hugely successful exhibition at the Royal Academy in 2012, titled A Bigger Picture, placed the seal of public – if not unanimously of critical – approval on this rich new vein of creativity. The Yorkshire paintings suggested that Hockney, like Titian or Picasso, had developed a late style, arriving at a culminating mastery of his materials. The show cemented his status as a living national treasure, a successor to Turner and Constable, but one who, against all the odds, retained the cheeky irreverence of the bleached-blond celebrity of the swinging 60s.

John Baldessari, 13th, 16th December 2013.

In 2013 Hockney suffered a minor stroke, and it seemed possible that his career, subject to so many reinventions over the years, might be entering its twilight; in the spring of that year, moreover, personal tragedy intervened with the accidental death of a studio assistant, Dominic Elliott. This cast a profound shadow over Hockney’s close-knit, quasi-familial studio team. Deeply affected, Hockney found himself unable to paint or draw for several months. He moved back to California, abandoning the Bridlington studio and ending the landscape project it had nurtured.

In the depths of this artistic and personal crisis, Hockney suddenly produced a portrait of Jean-Pierre Gonçalves de Lima, his trusted studio assistant and amanuensis over many years. Head in hands, J-P (as Hockney calls him) appears a broken man, touched as strongly as the artist himself by the death of their young friend and collaborator. For Hockney the painting is “almost a self-portrait”: there is no mistaking the gravity of shared feeling that links old master and trusted lieutenant.

The portrait might have been allowed to stand alone as an elegy, a meditation on the fragility of life. But Hockney’s response was characteristically contrarian. Rather than an ending, it became a beginning. The upright format, its bright Californian colours contrasting painfully with the brooding quality of the figure, sparked new possibilities in the painter’s mind. From this personal, confessional utterance, there emerged a new project, grand in scale, public in scope. Portraits began to appear, each on an upright canvas 48 x 36 inches in size, tumbling out of Hockney’s Los Angeles studio in a headlong rush of productivity. Eventually the comprehensive portrait gallery of his wide circle of friends and acquaintances became the exhibition 82 Portraits and 1 Still‑life, which opens at the Royal Academy in London on 2 July.
 Barry Humphries, 26-28 Mar 2015

These new portraits bring to fruition a project begun in Hockney’s adolescence and pursued ever since. His first portraits were, inevitably, of subjects near at hand. An early self-portrait sees the teenage artist in 1954 with a pudding-bowl haircut, sitting on a chair and staring awkwardly into the mirror. The only hint of incipient dandyism is a pair of flamboyantly striped trousers and a matching tie, whose pattern is wittily echoed in the yellow wallpaper.

Throughout his career, Hockney has repeatedly portrayed the same sitters – his parents (and especially his mother), friends, lovers, studio assistants – producing a family album in which a wide public can share. At moments of personal crisis – the collapse of major relationships, or the Aids epidemic of the late 80s – portraiture has provided him with solace, an opportunity to gather friends together, as well as technical exercise of the utmost difficulty. Hockney turns to portraiture as a great pianist may turn to Bach: it is the centre of his art and of his being.
Celia Birtwell, 31st August, 1st, 2nd September, 2015.

Hockney made a splash from his student days: indeed, his professional debut has become the stuff of legend. Anxious to overturn convention, at this time he professed to be wary of the portrait as a genre. Nonetheless, in DollBoy (1961) a student work of exceptional originality, he created a coded celebrity portrait, queering and subverting the medium in the process. Flowing from his crush on Cliff Richard, the painting has the improvised and hasty quality of erotic graffiti scribbled on a lavatory wall. At a time when homosexual acts were still illegal, Hockney found in the portrait a place to celebrate male-male desire.

Earl Simms, 29th February, 1st, 2nd March, 2016.

By the 70s, Hockney had swerved back into an opulent vein of representational art closely linked to photography. His most famous portrait, Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy (1971), lies in the tradition of the conversation piece, in which leisured figures inhabit an interior or landscape. This work derives from personal affection: it depicts Hockney’s close friends, the fashion designer Ossie Clark and his wife, the textile designer Celia Birtwell. We stand where the artist stood, the third element in a triangular relationship. All three were from the north of England, and were darlings of fashionable society. Ossie, who died in 1996, despite international success as a designer drifted into a life of substance abuse that destroyed the marriage and left him a marginalised, lonely figure. Celia, by contrast, has remained a confidante of Hockney’s and has sat for him regularly for five decades. Her portrait is among the most vibrant works in the present exhibition: a grandmother and in her mid 70s, she mesmerises the painter now as always. This is one of his very few close relationships with women beyond his family: as he recently remarked, “we just laugh and laugh – even though she doesn’t always like the way I paint her”.

Birtwell has become familiar with Hockney’s rigorous portrait practices. The sitter arrives at the studio and is seated in a simple dining chair, which is raised up on a platform about three feet from the ground. Each sitter wears everyday clothes. Once the pose is agreed, one of the artist’s assistants will draw an outline around the sitter’s shoes so that work can be resumed with the sitter properly placed after breaks. Always working in silence, Hockney spends the first hour or so making a charcoal drawing. This establishes a likeness, focusing mainly on the face and hands. Drawing, he insists, lies at the core of portraiture: “I accept what I’ve drawn, and I get that in the first hour: by then, I’ve caught their individuality as they sit in the chair. Everybody sits in a different way.” Painting then continues over three days, with sessions of up to seven hours per day, with a break for lunch.

Lord Jacob Rothschild (2015)

A few sitters, such as philanthropist and collector Jacob Rothschild, whose schedules did not allow them to stay for the full period, were portrayed more quickly. Hockney is not averse to having a little fun with his sitters: Rothschild, lanky and quizzical, looks too tall for the chair; Barry Humphries sports a magnificently louche tie and pink trousers, a burlesque facade that masks his other identity as an astute patron and critic of art. More simple and heartfelt are the representations of Hockney’s family – his sister, Margaret, still in Bridlington, and brother John, who emigrated to Australia. A poignant absence is that of his mother and father, scrutinised so closely in earlier years.
Margaret Hockney (2015)

Throughout the exhibition a benign atmosphere prevails, as if the tragedy of Elliott’s death can be assuaged only by a celebration of life. Perhaps the most significant encounter for Hockney came with a visit to LA by the artist Tacita Dean, her husband Mathew Hale and their 11-year old son, Rufus. Self-possessed and articulate, the boy was keenly interested in Hockney’s project and agreed to sit. His precocious seriousness was fascinating to Hockney in a world of diminishing attention spans. Inspired by this chance meeting, Hockney displays a painterly elan to match that of the old masters, capturing ambition and seriousness as well as vulnerability and youth. Staring at Rufus for many hours, Hockney recalls, his mind turned to his own self-portrait, seated in his house in Bradford in 1954. Thus an artist of almost 80 forged a largely silent bond with a boy not yet in his teens. 82 Portraits turns out to be a meditation on age, and the most commanding canvas in the series is that of its youngest sitter.
Rufus Hale, 23-25 Nov 2015.

Creating these works has brought him a rare sense of artistic and personal fulfilment. “After periods of doing other things, I always come back to the portrait, and have a burst of sanity,” he says. The exhibition stands at the apex of his career, and it seems appropriate that it should be shown at the RA, founded nearly 250 years ago by Joshua Reynolds, a master of the portrait. Yet the work is not concluded. After painting, by now, almost 90 portraits in precisely the same format, Hockney’s enthusiasm is undiminished: “It’s endless. I’m seeing them clearer and clearer. I could go on for the rest of my days.”

• David Hockney: 82 Portraits and 1 Still-life will be published by the Royal Academy of Arts on 2 July (£30). The exhibition is at the Royal Academy of Arts, London W1J, 2 July-2 October.

Friday 15 July 2016

Dead Poets Society #1 Robert Frost: Acquainted with the Night

Acquainted With The Night - Robert Frost

I have been one acquainted with the night.
I have walked out in rain - and back in rain.
I have outwalked the furthest city light.

I have looked down the saddest city lane.
I have passed by the watchman on his beat
And dropped my eyes, unwilling to explain.

I have stood still and stopped the sound of feet
When far away an interrupted cry
Came over houses from another street,

But not to call me back or say good-bye;
And further still at an unearthly height,
One luminary clock against the sky

Proclaimed the time was neither wrong nor right.
I have been one acquainted with the night.

Thursday 14 July 2016

Last night's set lists

At The Habit, York: -

Ron Elderly: -
You Better Move On
Just My Imagination

Da Elderly: -
I Don't Want To Talk About It

The Elderly Brothers: -
Love Hurts
All My Loving
Baby It's You
The First Cut Is The Deepest
Somebody Help Me

The venue was packed when The Elderlys finally showed up (about 9:30) having been delayed by a beer and curry session! There were the regulars with their loop machines, some fine purveyors of original songs and the visiting harmonica player from the US of A - he joined our host for two unforgettably good songs: Henry Thomas' Don't Ease Me In and Bull Doze Blues (which became Canned Heat's Going Up The Country). The Elderly Brothers closed the show with the usual mixture of 60s fare, including their debut of a Cat Stevens song, notably covered by P.P. Arnold in 1967. In the after-show jam there was more harmonica-fuelled music with a blues or two and a splendid time was had by all!

Wednesday 13 July 2016

The Marx Brothers - The Search for Humor Risk...

Here's a great article on the missing Marx Brothers' movie, Humor Risk, by Matthew Coniam, esteemed author of The Annotated Marx Brothers - a great book you should have by your bedside in case you awaken from a fevered dream in which you weren't able to decode the lyrics for Lydia the Tattooed Lady - as I often do.

The Marx Brothers' Humor Risk group photo
So why has the face of the woman at the right been 'removed'?

The Marx Brothers’ Lost Film: Getting to the Bottom of a Mystery

Matthew Coniam
7 September 2015

The hunt’s back on!

Universal has just announced another concerted effort to produce the completest possible restorations of the five Paramount Marx Brothers movies, so it’s all hands to the attics and storerooms once again. The prizes? Same as ever, still glittering at the end of the black and white rainbow. From Horse Feathers (1932): the scenes with Harpo and the dogs, and a version of the Thelma Todd bedroom farce that hasn’t been shredded into virtual incomprehensibility. From Animal Crackers (1930): that snipped line from ‘Hooray for Captain Spaulding’ that folks seem never to doubt was cut for a Code-era re-release… and Zeppo offering to scratch Elsie would be nice, too, if you have it. From The Cocoanuts (1929): oh, nothing in particular, but a print where certain reels don’t look as though they were photographed through wet toilet paper would be good…

Because they appeared in so few films compared to just about all the other great screen comedians, these lost Marx elements seem especially galling, and the need to replace them, perhaps, disproportionately imperative. Small wonder that we so often forget there’s also an entirely lost Marx movie out there – or not, as the case may be.

A risk not worth taking?

Humor Risk, the first ever Marx Brothers film, was here and then, seemingly, it was gone – almost immediately. But as reputations go, Hats Off (1927) or London after Midnight (1927) it is not. We’ve called off the search, if indeed it was ever on. Whenever those lists are made of the most keenly desired lost silents, there it always is: somewhere else.

There are two main reasons for this: aesthetic and practical. The former seems to me somewhat misguided. In the first place, we don’t actually know it’s lousy. We are, I think, far too willing to allow Groucho’s own famously self-deprecating judgement of the film to condition our own. Odder still is the tendency to offer the fact that it’s silent, and that the Marxes are by most accounts not playing even an approximation of their established roles, as fatal drawbacks. Each to his own, of course, but to my mind these aspects of the film are high among what makes it so desirable.

Though the idea of a silent Marx Brothers seems an absurd one, it nearly happened on several other occasions. There was the offer from First National that got as far as an announcement in 1926. Then an overture from MGM to make a series of comedies (presumably meaning screen originals) as close to the wire as 1928. And then the screen test by United Artists, for a proposed version of The Cocoanuts itself, a full year before Paramount took them up. Had the latter happened it would almost certainly have been largely if not entirely silent.

As well as these near misses, the New York Evening Post reported in 1928 that the Brothers “have been offered a staggering sum by a moving picture company to appear in a screen burlesque on the life of Napoleon Bonaparte”, with Harpo as Napoleon, Groucho as Wellington, Chico as Blucher and Zeppo as King William of Prussia. (Alas, they “are said to have refused the offer, at least for the time being.”) And that’s not counting both Harpo’s and Zeppo’s encounters with the silent camera, both in 1925, in A Kiss in the Dark and Too Many Kisses, respectively. (Actually, it’s been claimed that Zeppo can be seen as an extra in Too Many Kisses, too, though the word hasn’t travelled far as yet. But it’s Paramount’s Behind the Front [1926] that features the first sighting of an authentic Marx routine in the movies, and it doesn’t involve any of them. As Variety noted: “One of the laugh hits of the picture, where the pick-pocket drops a lot of knives and forks from his sleeves has been taken bodily from I’ll Say She Is.It’s a Marx Brothers bit.”)

Boxed, burned or buried?

Aside from Joe Adamson’s mischievous observation in Groucho, Harpo, Chico and Sometimes Zeppo that the film’s continued loss may be the price we have to pay “to keep silent film fanatics from saying it was the best movie they ever made,” there’s really only one persuasive reason why the possibility of its reclamation excites so little determination: what I earlier termed the practical objection. Humor Risk, according to every published account, differs from all the other titles on those lists of most eagerly sought lost silents in one key respect – it was never released.

The story goes like this. The Marx Brothers, noting the money being made in movies, formed a company called Caravel Comedies to produce their own two-reel shorts and grab a piece of the action. They each pitched in a thousand dollars, as did two co-investors called Al Posen and Max Lippman. So did Jo Swerling, who wrote the script. Kyle Crichton in his biography The Marx Brothers names a further investor: “their friend Nathan (Nucky) Sachs” who, he says, “gathered in $6,000 with laughable ease”. Hector Arce, in his biography Groucho, favours ‘Nuck’ over ‘Nucky’ and, more importantly, posits a friendship with the Brothers stretching right back “to their days on Ninety-Third Street”.

We should pause here to add two other names, who don’t crop up in most accounts. Arce gives us Oscar Mirantz as a kibitzer. (Strangely, he casts Sachs in this role also.) ‘Mike’ Mirantz was the husband of the cousin of Chico’s wife Betty: he and his wife are the ‘Aunt Flo and Uncle Mike’ that Maxine Marx mentions staying with at various points in her memoir Growing Up With Chico. (Bizarrely enough, we find reference in 1929 to his appearing in a play called The Kibitzer, that turns out to have been co-written by Jo Swerling, and also featured an appearance by Al Posen! “It is all as antic as something with the Marx Brothers,” wrote the Chicago Tribune of a later production that year. Sadly, another mystery for another time.) Meanwhile, the 1921 Motion Picture Studio Directory and Trade Annual lists Caravel Comedies as among the professional associations of one ‘Y.C. Alley’. This was Yeatman Cheatham Alley, and yes, that’s just one man, not a firm of three accountants. Born in 1870 and dying in 1947, he was a vaudeville comedian, theatrical director, producer and manager, among other attainments.

Once assembled, the team took residence at 130 West 46th Street, pretended to make themselves an offer, pretended to accept it, and set to work. The film was shot in between live shows (“they were doing four a day,” notes Joe), in a converted warehouse studio somewhere in New York and at Fort Lee, New Jersey. The resulting footage, however, was deemed inadequate for professional distribution, and the project was abandoned. The film itself was either soon lost or deliberately destroyed.

If any of this is true, then clearly we are looking at a loss of a very different kind to, say, a film that MGM managed to release into every territory in the world and still somehow allowed to fall down the gap between the cushion and the back of the armchair. If a few prints, or even just one, are all that were ever struck, and all accounts of the thing dry up after one showing, then the chances of finding it are so very slim that a serious search would be all but pointless, and if I was a betting man, I’d be putting my money on Bigfoot.

But is it true? How much do we really know about Humor Risk – and where are we getting our information from?