THE SOUND OF SILENTS

You sure you can’t move? –what Harpo Marx “said” to the tied-up hero (Richard Dix) before punching him in the 1925 film TOO MANY KISSES (fortunately, the film survived)

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Italicized above are the only words ever “spoken” (but not heard) on film by the man whose birthday we note today, HARPO MARX. The audience didn’t hear those five words because the film was a “silent” — “talkies” didn’t come on the scene until 1927, two years before the first of thirteen Marx Brothers movies (1929-49). Harpo spoke in none of them.

But why, oh why-o, should I try-o to “bio” Harpo, when here-o you can click on the official thing from his offspring:

https://www.harposplace.com/

Because Harpo associated with Dorothy Parker, Robert Benchley and other wits in the famed Algonquin Round Table repartee, I expected to turn up a number of witty Harpo Marx quotes for this piece. No such luck — I found only one I enjoyed enough to post here (both the “she” referred to in the quote, and who it is addressed to, are unknown):

“She’s a lovely person. She deserves a good husband. Marry her before she finds one.”

One quote being three quotes short of a gallon, I shall return to giving you “the silent treatment” with a quota of four quotes of silence said by forethoughtful others:

“Listen to the sound of silence.” –Paul Simon, American singer, songwriter, and actor

“Silence is golden unless you have kids, then it’s just plain suspicious.” –anonymous

“If nobody ever said anything unless he knew what he was talking about, what a ghastly hush would descend upon the earth!” –A. P. Herbert, English humorist, writer, and politician

“I believe in the discipline of silence and can talk for hours about it.” –George Bernard Shaw, Irish playwright and critic

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Since I didn’t give Harpo the last word, I’ll let him give his audience the last laugh….and though he doesn’t speak, you’ll hear captivating sounds escape his lips 2:42 into this clip:

Bravo, Harpo!

EPILOGUE: Listen — 90+ years after the “silents” ended*, you can still hear….

*with the exception of two Charlie Chaplin masterpieces in the 1930s, CITY LIGHTS and MODERN TIMES

PARDON MY QUOTES

It is easier to buy books than to read them, and easier to read them than to absorb them. –William Osler

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Now that’s a quote I can relate to — of the near-50 books I bought at that November used book sale I wrote about recently, in 3 weeks I’ve managed to find time to read all of 2 1/2; that’s all of two books (plus half of one) traversed in 21 days, as the crow flies. At that rate, I’ll have bought 50 more books before I’ve read an iota of my quota from the last batch — and I’ve already bought ten more books since then. Nonetheless (actually all the more, both batches combined), rather than completely skip a post as I did December 5, I’ll at least try to save composing-time by posting (aka com-posting) the words of others.

Fittingly, I’ll quote the six Masters of Wit (from my previous post) to whom Groucho Marx dedicated his book GROUCHO AND ME. The last quote below cites another timesaver some people practice, but rarely admit….however, I’ll open with Robert Benchley, who undoubtedly said the following following A Night At The Opera with the Marx Brothers:

Opera is where a guy gets stabbed in the back, and instead of dying, he sings.
–ROBERT BENCHLEY

I didn’t like the play, but then I saw it under adverse conditions  — the curtain was up.
— GEORGE S. KAUFMAN

An optimist is a girl who mistakes a bulge for a curve.
–RING LARDNER

Well, if I called the wrong number, why did you answer the phone?
–JAMES THURBER

The fact is that all of us have only one personality, and we wring it out like a dishtowel. You are what you are.
–S. J. PERLEMAN

Prejudice is a great time saver. You can form opinions without having to get the facts.
–E. B. WHITE

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GROUCHO AND M(US)E

Although it is generally known, I think it’s about time to announce that I was born at a very early age. –Groucho Marx, Chapter I, GROUCHO AND ME

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As long-time readers of my blog know, I’m a big fan of Groucho Marx/The Marx Brothers, so it should come as no surprise that one of the first books I read from my used book sale haul (see previous post) was Groucho’s autobiography, GROUCHO AND ME. And who, you ask, is the ME in that title? (Hint: it’s not me).  It’s none other (says the back cover) than “a comparatively unknown Marx named Julius, who, under the nom de plume of Groucho, enjoyed a sensational career on Broadway and in Hollywood with such comedy classics as Monkey Business, Horse Feathers, Duck Soup [and] A Night at the Opera.”

Julius Groucho Marx (1895-1977) wasn’t just a comedian — he was a wit who appreciated wit in others and “Gratefully Dedicated This Book To These Six Masters Without Whose Wise and Witty Words My Life Would Have Been Even Duller: Robert Benchley / George S. Kaufman / Ring Lardner / S. J. Perelman / James Thurber / E. B. White.”

I already owned several Marx Brothers books (written by others) and had at least a whit of an impression of Groucho’s résumé before sinking my teeth into this book….but there’s nothing like an autobio for getting it straight from the Horse’s mouth (Feathers and all). At least, that’s what I thought until I got to page 11, where Groucho wrote:

“This opus started out as an autobiography, but before I was aware of it, I realized it would be nothing of the kind. It is almost impossible to write a truthful autobiography. Maybe Proust, Gide and a few others did it, but most autobiographies take good care to conceal the author from the public.”

Well, I’ll be a monkey’s uncle. This is a different kettle of soup. You pay coal hard cash for an autobiography, and what do you get? A bit of Cash back, another day older and deeper in debt.

Well, two can play that game. This opus began as a book review of GROUCHO AND ME, but Groucho’s bait-and-switch gives me no choice but to turn it into a GROUCHO AND me thing (sorry, readers, no refunds) by invoking the Sanity Clause in my contract….

As I started to say before me was so rudely interrupted, you will have to be satisfied with some suitable quotes from Groucho’s book, which left me in stitches:

My Pop was a tailor, and sometimes he made as much as $18 a week. But he was no ordinary tailor. His record as the most inept tailor that Yorkville ever produced has never been approached. This could even include parts of Brooklyn and the Bronx. The notion that Pop was a tailor was an opinion held only by him. To his customers he was known as “Misfit Sam.”

They say that every man has a book in him. This is about as accurate as most generalizations. Take, for example, “Early to bed, early to rise, makes a man you-know-what.” Most wealthy people I know like to sleep late, and will fire the help if they are disturbed before three in the afternoon. You don’t see Marilyn Monroe getting up at six in the morning. The truth is, I don’t see Marilyn getting up at any hour, more’s the pity.

Recognition didn’t come overnight in the old days. We bounced around for many years before we made it. We played towns I would refuse to be buried in today, even if the funeral were free and they tossed in a tombstone.

After we hit the big time on Broadway, naturally our lives changed. Each member of the family reacted differently. Chico stopped going to poolrooms and started to patronize the more prosperous race tracks. After he got through with them, they were even more prosperous. Zeppo bought a forty-foot cruiser and tore up Long Island Sound as though to the manner born. Harpo, a shy and silent fellow, was taken up by the Algonquin crowd, at that time probably the most famous and brilliant conversational group in America. The quips flew thick, fast and deadly, and God help you if you were a dullard!

I am not sure how I got to be a comedian or a comic. As a lad, I don’t remember knocking anyone over with my wit. I’m a pretty wary fellow, and have neither the desire nor the equipment to know what makes one man funny to another man. My guess is that there aren’t a hundred top-flight professional comedians, male and female, in the whole world. But because we are laughed at, I don’t think people really understand how essential we are to their sanity. If it weren’t for the brief respite we give the world with our foolishness, the world would see mass suicide in numbers that compare with the death rate of the lemmings.

And so ( just between Groucho and us) it seems that there is a Sanity Clause after all. 🙂

 

 

 

 

WAR AND WONDER BOY

At the risk of making this a too-lengthy piece (lengthy peace, I’ll leave to miracle workers) I am going to blend a very disparate “double feature” into a two-for-the-price-of-one post….for today is not only Memorial Day, when America honors those killed in military service, but it’s the birthday of a man who literally changed the long-term ‘picture’ of the Marx Brothers after their riotous anti-war film, the anarchic classic, DUCK SOUP (1933).

But first, for those who are interested and may be unfamiliar with the 100+ years history of war movies, I highly recommend taking time to check out this link for context: http://www.filmsite.org/warfilms.html (DUCK SOUP is listed under “Black Comedies”)

I don’t necessarily agree with a blogger who wrote, “As we all know, every good war film is [an] anti-war film” — though I think any war picture which doesn’t contain at least an element of “war is madness” (as in BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI, below) is, at best, simplistic patriotism (e.g. John Wayne’s GREEN BERETS; I’d add Cagney’s YANKEE DOODLE DANDY, but it’s a rousing glorification of a man’s patriotism, not a war film).

Back to that birthday man (Irving Thalberg), the film producer known as “The Boy Wonder” for becoming head of production at MGM at age 26 and turning it into the most successful studio in Hollywood during his reign (1925 until his death in 1936). Quoting Wikipedia, “He had the ability to combine quality with commercial success, and [to bring] his artistic aspirations in line with the demands of audiences.” Within this framework, we can appreciate this passage from ROGER EBERT’s great book, THE GREAT MOVIES:

The Marx Brothers created a body of work in which individual films are like slices from the whole, but Duck Soup is probably the best. It represents a turning point in their movie work; it was their last film for Paramount. When it was a box office disappointment, they moved over to MGM, where production chief Irving Thalberg ordered their plots to find room for conventional romantic couples.
A Night at the Opera (1935), their first MGM film, contains some of their best work, yes, but [also] sappy interludes involving Kitty Carlisle and Allan Jones. In Duck Soup, there are no sequences I can skip; the movie is funny from beginning to end.

This may not be one of the funniest sequences in DUCK SOUP, but it certainly makes for a glorious celebration of war as madness:

  

As even the longest war must eventually come to an end, so too must this Memorial Day piece (de résistance). Even so, it ain’t over till the DUCK SOUP fat lady sings: http://www.dailymotion.com/video/xnec7z_freedonia-at-war-part-3-from-duck-soup-1933_shortfilms

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P.S. The state of Ohio imprints the words ARMED FORCES on driver’s licenses whose bearer is/was a member. The last time I went in to renew my license, the BMV clerk took a look and thanked me for my service, which took me by surprise because my service is ancient history and I’d never been, or expected to be, thanked. I was a 1960 draftee who served during the so-called Cold War, not a volunteer in the Civil War (or whatever hot war my hoary appearance makes me look like I served in). But I realize that a bullet or bomb doesn’t care if you’re a draftee or volunteer when it takes you out, so to those who died in the service of this country and its professed ideals (and who had no choice as to whether or not the war they were in was worthy of their sacrifice), I thank youYou are the ones fate chose to earn this day.

 

 

STRAIGHT WOMAN, WITH CHASER

Today marks (or should I say, Marx) the 133rd birthday of my favorite comedic character actress of all time — a woman so well preserved that she doesn’t look a day over 1933, when she appeared as Mrs. Gloria Teasdale, or 1935, as Mrs. Claypool….not to mention 1929 (Mrs. Potter), 1930 (Mrs. Rittenhouse), 1937 (Emily Upjohn), 1939 (Suzanne Dukesberry), or 1941 (Martha Phelps).

Yes, thanks to that most wondrous of preservatives called celluloid, those larger-than-life ladies, played by and fka (forever known as) the wonderful Margaret Dumont, live on in blessed memory in two of the funniest films ever made: DUCK SOUP (1933) and A NIGHT AT THE OPERA (1935)….as well as in such other Marx Brothers mayhem as THE COCOANUTS (1929), ANIMAL CRACKERS (1930), A DAY AT THE RACES (1937), AT THE CIRCUS (1939), and THE BIG STORE (1941).

“Who was Margaret Dumont?” asks Roy Blount Jr. in his book HAIL, HAIL EUPHORIA! Presenting THE MARX BROTHERS IN DUCK SOUP, THE GREATEST WAR MOVIE EVER MADE. “From the book Hello, I Must Be Going by Charlotte Chandler, I got the impression that she grew up in Atlanta in the home of her godfather, Joel Chandler Harris, author of the Uncle Remus stories. Even though a descendant of Harris assured me that this wasn’t true, I want to believe it because I like to imagine B’rer Rabbit and Margaret Dumont doing a scene together.”

“But no. Margaret Dumont was born Daisy Baker in Brooklyn, New York, in 1882. Her father was an Irish seaman, her mother a French vocalist. Daisy became a showgirl. In 1915 she married an heir to a sugar fortune. In 1918 he died. She was presumably not left as well off as Mrs. Teasdale [Groucho’s  straight woman in DUCK SOUP] because she went right back to work.”

Which brings us to the reel Margaret Dumont, the indispensable straight woman/comedic foil to Groucho’s lecherous leerings who (quoting Wikipedia) “played wealthy high-society, posh-voiced widows whom Groucho alternately insulted and romanced for their money.” Never has an actress been more perfectly typecast….as evidenced by these scenes:

HAIL, HAIL EUPHORIA is, of course, a play on HAIL, HAIL FREDONIA, Fredonia’s satirical national anthem in DUCK SOUP, with Groucho as Rufus T. Firefly and Margaret as Mrs. Teasdale:

HAIL, HAIL MARGARET DUMONT! RIP.