A few years ago, while browsing through a local bookstore, I came across what I now regard as a minor treasure of my home library, a book called By George. Compiled by someone named Donald Oliver, this is a collection of some of the lesser-known writings of George S. Kaufman, the man once widely known as “the gloomy dean of American comedy.” Kaufman was one of the greatest wits of the golden age of the American humorous essay, the era of James Thurber, Robert Benchley, Dorothy Parker, S.J. Perelman, and the like. Kaufman wrote primarily for the stage, most famously now in collaboration with others–Beggar on Horseback (with Marc Connelly), You Can’t Take It With You and The Man Who Came to Dinner (with Moss Hart), Of Thee I Sing (with Morrie Ryskind and Ira Gershwin), The Royal Family and Dinner at Eight (with Edna Ferber), and so on. He was also a noted director, and was greatly in demand as a play doctor, that now vanished breed that used to be called in for round-the-clock rewrites of Broadway-bound plays stalled in Philadelphia, Boston, or Hartford.
Kaufman’s scripts are readily available, and many of his plays are still produced regularly–albeit mostly on amateur and high school stages. What Oliver made available in By George, so far as I know for the first time in book form, were Kaufman’s occasional journalistic essays, most of them gems of the form, and–even harder to come by–a few scripts of sketches he’d contributed to Broadway revues, a lampoon of H.M.S. Pinafore, and (rarity of rarities) the script for the Marx Brothers hit comedy The Cocoanuts. Not the screenplay, mind you. We’re talking about the 1925 Broadway musical (songs by Irving Berlin), which was the second of their three successive Broadway hits and the first to be filmed (Paramount, 1929), launching the brothers Marx on their film career.
The script came as a revelation. Sure, I’d noticed Kaufman’s name, among others, in the opening credits; sure, I’d known that all the films were scripted–how else could you account for those terrible romantic scenes you had to sit through to get to the good stuff? But I’d never really taken the idea of a script seriously. I’d always let myself believe that Groucho and Chico and Harpo were just making it all up as they went along. And to a certain extent they were. That was one of the great things about reading a Marx Brothers stage script. It moved along as smoothly as any other script, setting up the basic situation of Groucho’s mismanagement of a Florida resort hotel. But as soon as Chico and Harpo arrived, the script developed some curious hiatuses:
CHICO: Hello. We sent you a telegram. We make reservache.
GROUCHO: Oh. Welcome to Cocoanut Manor. (Business) What do you boys want? Garage and bath?
CHICO: We go together him.
GROUCHO: You go together him?
CHICO: Sure me.
GROUCHO: Would you mind coming in again and starting all over?
CHICO: We want room and no bath.
GROUCHO: Oh I see. You’re just here for the winter. Step this way. Now if you’ll just sign the register. (Offers pen. Business with HARPO. GROUCHO rings bell, gives HARPO a cigar) Now how about signing the book?
CHICO: No, no. We no sign nothing without our lawyer. (Business with mail)
And so it goes: “Business with register,” “Business with bellboys,” “Quote business,” “Badge business”–all through the script. All this business business is a holdover from vaudeville, the medium in which the Marxes first made their marks. Each “business” notation indicates a space for some of the brothers’ unique shtick–some of it most likely cannibalized from their earlier routines. Whatever names appeared on their scripts and screenplays, the Marxes really did make up a lot of their best gags as they went along–which The Cocoanuts script makes clear. Three of the four brothers who moved from vaudeville to Broadway (Gummo had dropped out by this time) were famous (fellow actors would say notorious) for jettisoning script and direction whenever they felt like it and launching into wild, sometimes extended improvisations. The “Why a duck?” routine–one of Groucho and Chico’s most famous interchanges (“Here is a viaduct leading to the mainland.” “Awright. Why a duck?” And on into terminal confusion)–doesn’t appear in Kaufman’s script. It was added during the Broadway run, and remains a high point of the movie.
The immediacy of the Marx Brothers’ anarchy must have been overwhelming, something–as Robert Benchley wrote in his Life magazine review of their first show, I’ll Say She Is–to make you “feel a glow at being alive in the same generation. . . . Not since sin laid its heavy hand on our spirit have we laughed so loud and so offensively. And as we picked ourself out of the aisle following each convulsion, there rang through our soul the joyful paean: ‘Grandpa can laugh again! Grandpa can laugh again!'” They were, as Benchley wrote of them in Animal Crackers, “a frantically transitory comet formation which we can proudly tell our grandchildren of having seen one night in 1928. For we doubt that the Marx Brothers have any successors.” Despite the great success of recent Cocoanuts and Animal Crackers revivals with Marxist impersonators in Washington, Boston, and Atlanta, I haven’t the slightest doubt that Benchley was right.
The filmed versions of The Cocoanuts and Animal Crackers are probably the closest we can come to experiencing the Marxes onstage, given that they’re virtually cinematic recordings of the Broadway shows (filmed by Paramount at its Long Island studios). But, of course, the routines remain set in stone there. In a sense, Horse Feathers and Duck Soup–both reportedly largely improvised in the making and drawing heavily on the brothers’ vaudeville shtick–are true records of Marxist humor in the medium they were to work in for most of their careers. As for their brief, 26-episode contribution to the golden age of radio comedy, nothing remains but the scripts.
What? You didn’t know that there ever was such a thing as a Marx Brothers radio show? Well neither did I until I came across another little gem of a book recently, Flywheel, Shyster, and Flywheel: The Marx Brothers’ Lost Radio Show, compiled and edited by popular culture scholar Michael Barson. Of course, not all of the brothers were involved in this 1932 show: Harpo’s genius for, in Benchley’s phrase, “the universal language of pantomime (and lechery)” was never meant for the airwaves. Also missing was Zeppo, who would only make one more picture with the group before retiring and had no genius at all to speak of. Nor was the short-lived show the Marxes’ only venture into radio as more than a solo act. Barson tells us that Groucho and Chico tried again, in 1934 on CBS, very briefly, with a show satirizing news broadcasts: Groucho was Ulysses H. Drivel, “eagle-eyed news hound,” and Chico “the doughty Penelli.” After that there were the occasional guest appearances in the late 30s, before Groucho was left to explore the medium alone, trying a few more ventures (even turning down the lead in The Life of Riley, which he’d helped create), and finally hitting gold with You Bet Your Life on ABC in 1947.
Most of these shows were recorded, and at least segments of them still exist, but not Flywheel, Shyster, and Flywheel. Groucho and Chico’s voices evaporated even as they were entertaining listeners across the land. The show apparently was lost in toto, until Barson uncovered the fact that the scripts had been sent to the copyright office of the Library of Congress, “where they were eventually put in deep storage.” With some effort, Barson retrieved all but one of the 26 episodes, and has reprinted them here along with a brief, informative introduction, an even briefer interview with Nat Perrin, who wrote the scripts with Arthur Sheekman (the two had worked on Monkey Business and Horse Feathers), and a 1934 article by Groucho describing his invention of the radio.
Beagle, Shyster, and Beagle featured Groucho as Waldorf T. Beagle, a very marginally employed attorney (“If it weren’t for my own arrests, I’d never get a case”), and Chico as his unwanted but persistent assistant (“Say, you look exactly like a fellow I used to know, by the name of Emmanuel Ravelli”), Emmanuel Ravelli (“No wonder you look like him. But I still insist there’s a resemblance”). That’s the way it was when the show opened on November 28, 1932, as the first production of Esso’s Five Star Theater on the NBC Blue Network. Five Star Theater was Esso’s attempt to go head-to-head with Texaco’s hugely successful Texaco Fire Chief Program (featuring Ed Wynn); a variety show, Five Star Theater offered Charlie Chan mysteries on Fridays, concerts and operettas and radio dramas the rest of the week, and Groucho and Chico on Monday evenings.
Three episodes later, after the sponsors had heard from a litigious lawyer whose name really was Beagle, the name of the show and one of its leads underwent an almost unannounced change; Groucho became Waldorf T. (for Tecumseh) Flywheel (“the boss got a divorce and changed his name back to Flywheel”)–prefiguring Groucho’s private eye in The Big Store (1941), Wolf J. Flywheel (with Chico as Ravelli).
The half-hour show ran weekly until May of the next year and was, says Barson, a pretty sweet deal for Groucho and Chico, who were earning a combined $6,500 a week (a top salary at the time). Of ourse the brothers–who had moved to Hollywood after the crash of 1929 had made Broadway show biz a bit too precarious–and their two writers had to commute weekly to New York, where the shows were broadcast live over WJZ. (At least that’s what Barson says, although that schedule sounds so grueling that it taxes my credulity.) But even that inconvenience was removed after two months when the show took over an RKO soundstage in LA.
No one seems to know exactly why the show went off the air. Perrin just says that “none of us really minded. . . . We had Duck Soup ready to go back in Hollywood.” Barson argues that the ratings were fairly good at 22.1 (higher than The Shadow and Al Jolson’s show), but so far below Texaco’s 44.8 that Esso probably just decided to throw in the towel. He also quotes Groucho’s explanation: “Company sales, as a result of our show, had risen precipitously. Profits doubled in that brief time, and Esso felt guilty taking the money. So Esso dropped us after 26 weeks. Those were the days of guilt-edged securities, which don’t exist today.”
Whatever the reason, the show disappeared. So too did the lines as actually spoken by Groucho, Chico, and their supporting cast (who remain, alas, uncredited)–at least until some space probe happens upon that unknown realm where the voices of old broadcasts still reverberate. All that remain are the scripts.
I didn’t actually stumble upon Flywheel, Shyster, and Flywheel in a bookstore. I heard it, appropriately enough, on the radio, on an NPR program (All Things Considered, I believe) whose producers had hired actors to impersonate the Marxes. The quality of the impersonations was enough to convince me that I’m really not all that anxious to see one of those Cocoanuts or Animal Crackers stage revivals, but the quality of the material they were reading was enough to make me rush to get the book. The next best thing to hearing Groucho and Chico deliver the lines in reality is probably hearing them deliver them in your head.
And the scripts are classics. They’re filled with Groucho and Chico’s trademark puns–both the groaners and the ribticklers: “Listen Ravelli. You’ll have to stop berating this car. What do you think you are a carburetor?” “Hey, my little brudder he goes to a millinery school. He’s gonna be a soldier.” “If it takes two pints to fill a quart, how much does it take to Philadelphia?” “Well, if da chain store isa doing so good, why don’t you sell chains, too?” It’s got the ridiculous non sequiturs: “Well, I was in a hurry. The brakes on this car don’t work, and I wanted to get there before we had an accident.” It’s got all those patented Groucho insults: “He has the nose of a bloodhound, and his other features aren’t so good either.” “Ravelli, if you’d only wait until you’re spoken to, you’d never have to open your mouth.” It’s filled with extended sanity-bending interchanges:
MRS. BRITTENHOUSE: Dear, dear. I must hurry. My daughter can’t get married unless I get her trousseau.
CHICO: Trousseau? You mean Robinson Trousseau?
GROUCHO: Your daughter’s marrying Robinson Crusoe today? Monday? Wouldn’t she be better off if she’d marry the man Friday?
PORTER: Well, suh, the lower berth costs more than the upper.
GROUCHO: Just a minute, porter, are you trying to tell us that the lower is higher than the upper?
CHICO: No, boss. I explain it to you. He means da higher is lower dan da lower–but if we want to hire a lower for tonight, we’ll have to go a little higher.
And there are even such inspired Grouchonian monologues as:
“Do you know what this country needs today? . . . A seven-cent nickel. We’ve been using the five-cent nickel in this country since 1492. That’s pretty near a hundred years daylight saving. Why not give the seven-cent nickel a chance? If that works out, next year we can have an eight-cent nickel. Think what that would mean. You could go to a newsstand, buy a three-cent paper, and get the same nickel back again. One nickel carefully used would last a family a lifetime.”
Sound familiar? That speech was lifted almost verbatim from Animal Crackers. And it’s far from the only one. Two of the episodes are built about the stolen-painting plot device from that show, and quite a few routines are borrowed as well–including the classic “house building” bit (“Suppose nobody in the house took the painting?” “Den we go to da house next door.” “Well, suppose there isn’t any house next door?” “Well, den of course, we got to build one.” “Well now you’re talking. What kind of a house do you think we ought to put up?”). Another whole episode (and a few scattered other bits) comes from The Cocoanuts, including the “Why a duck?” routine, and there are generous borrowings from Monkey Business as well. Whoever the writers on any particular show and whatever the medium, the brothers Marx were always recycling their work.
Which is why a lot of routines in Flywheel, Shyster, and Flywheel are familiar not from the earlier Marx Brothers movies, but from their later ones. You’ll find a lot of Duck Soup here, a Romeo and Juliet lampoon that prefigures the destruction of Il trovatore in A Night at the Opera, and material you should recognize from every succeeding film from A Day at the Races to The Big Store.
Of course as good as the book is, it’s no substitute for seeing the films (regular visits to your local videotape connection can vastly increase your enjoyment of the scripts). There’s no other way to experience the sublime zaniness of Harpo or the moments when that all-time world champion imp turns cherub at his instrument or Chico delightfully shoots the keys of his piano or Groucho executes those brilliant, underrated eccentric dance routines. You get some of the subversive quality of Marxist humor in the scripts–there’s always the basic situation of these lower-class schemers going up against the political, social, legal, or cultural establishment. But it never reaches its full flavor without Harpo’s anarchic presence and those curious production numbers, steeped in stereotypes as they are, where–just when they’re most at odds with the establishment, or running from the cops–the brothers celebrate solidarity in song and dance with steerage-class Italian immigrants (A Night at the Opera) or shantytown blacks (A Day at the Races).
But what the book does make clear is Chico’s coequality as a master comic in his own right. Chico and Groucho’s repartee has a quality all its own: it’s not the usual give-and-take between comic and straight man, but a constantly shifting ground with the two feeding setups to each other. They’re both straight men; both comics. It’s like watching a baseball game where the pitcher delivers the ball, the batter hits a line drive back to the pitcher, and the pitcher pulls out a bat and hits it right back–if not out of the park.
That’s the kind of skill that’s documented in Flywheel, Shyster, and Flywheel, and that’s what makes this book a must if you’re a fan of the Marx Brothers. And if you’re not, why are you wasting my time?
Flywheel, Shyster, and Flywheel: The Marx Brothers’ Lost Radio Show, edited by Michael Barson, Pantheon (paper), $9.95.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Kurt Mitchell.