- The Marx Brothers quickly rose to become the undisputed kings of vaudeville and Broadway
- They went on to craft an equally successful, almost perfectly formed body of madcap movies
- Influence on generations of stage and screen comedians ever since is unfathomable and enduring
- But whatever became of their debut celluloid offering, a modest and little-seen silent film?
- Now, with help from R.S.H. Tryster, noted film historian Matthew Coniam uncovers the mystery
- He authored The Annotated Marx Brothers (2015) and That’s Me, Groucho! The Solo Career of Groucho Marx (2016)
This article was a Number 1 Pick of the Week on RogerEbert.com’s Thumbnails chart
The recent discovery of an uncut print of Animal Crackers (1930) at the British Film Institute in London has been greeted with justified delight by Marx Brothers fans the world over. Because they appeared in so few films compared to just about every other of the great screen comedians, the fact that a number of their films exist only in prints of very poor condition, or with missing and deteriorated scenes seems especially galling. All the more reason, therefore, to remember that there is also an entirely lost Marx movie out there somewhere – or not, as the case may be.
- A risk not worth taking?
- Boxed, burned or buried?
- Never trust a Groucho!
- The story so far
- A surfeit of Ralstons
- Jettison Kane
- To Victor the spools
- Rumor Risk
- We’re heading for a curve
- Aspirin or Caravel?
- The reel story?
- All are not lost!
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  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 (1973) 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 (1950), 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 (1979), 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 (1980). Mike’s descendants have confirmed that he is the figure with the doleful face stood next to Zeppo in the famous Humor Risk group portrait, as confirmed by this exclusive shot of he and Flo in 1923:
(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 Motion Picture Studio Directory and Trade Annual 1921 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?
Never trust a Groucho!
Humor Risk is a film about which very little is certain, and what is claimed is frequently contradicted. This ambiguity extends to definite confirmation of certain members of the cast, where it was shot, whether it was ever completed, whether it was ever shown, whether it ran one reel or two, the year of production, what happens in it, and even the title.
What we think we know derives mainly from Groucho’s recollections in a 1931 Saturday Evening Post article called Bad Days are Good Memories. It’s a great read, but not one that should make us ashamed of nurturing a certain degree of scepticism. It is, after all, hardly unlikely that Groucho might embellish his story for comic effect should the opportunity arise, nor that after the passage of a decade (and what a decade!) those memories, good or bad, may no longer be of the clearest. Neither is it unreasonable, despite robust and hearty claims to the contrary, to suspect the input of other hands in Groucho’s newspaper and magazine work around this time. It’s from Groucho that we have the background, the fragments of plot and casting, and the story of the film’s reception and fate, of which more anon.
Let’s start with the basics. The film is usually known as either Humor Risk or Humorisk – an obvious parody (albeit, judging by the synopsis, one extending to title only) of Fannie Hurst’s novel Humoresque, a hit film version of which had been released in 1920. (Indeed, Humoresque itself has frequently been offered as another potential title; logic, however, demands that the very existence of the two parody titles negates the possibility of anything so bland as a possible third.) As to which of those two is correct, it may be that there is no definite answer, since according to Hector Arce the team never got as far as shooting any titles, and the film’s one and only showing was innocent of all such identifying marks. As such, it had always been a simple case of go with the one you prefer. As for the year of production, claims have been made for 1920, 1921 and even 1926. (Kyle Crichton places it at the time of the Cocoanuts stage show.)
We do now have the company’s official announcement, however, as well as production announcements in Variety and other contemporary newspapers, all of which confirm its birth in early 1921. The New York Clipper on March 9 states that production on the film was now beginning, and the Brothers wrote to Film Daily in the third person on April 11 to announce it had been completed:
In your issue of April 8th we notice a story on page 2 with the following headline:
‘Marx Bros. in Films?’
We would appreciate it very much if you will remove the question mark, as there is no question about the fact that they are in films. The four brothers, Julius, Arthur, Leonard and Herbert, have been signed up by Caravel Comedies for a series of comedies, the first of which has just been completed. It is entitled Humor Risk, scenario by Jo Swerling, directed by Dick Smith, cameraman A. H. Vallet. Forthcoming releases are entitled Hick, Hick, Hooray and Hot Dog.
So 1921 it is, and let’s go for Humor Risk as the definitive title.
The announcement is useful for a few other details, too, those two proposed subsequent titles being only the most mouthwatering. We are also given the useful information that A. H. Vallet cranked the camera, that nobody else in the cast was deemed worth a mention (we’ll come to the significance of that in a moment), and that Dick Smith was the director.
The latter is one of the few claims about the film consistent in every latter day account, and for the not too perplexing reason that it’s true. Nonetheless, the earliest reports, when the film was just going into production, name one John William Kellette as prospective director.
Kellette had handled comedies for Fox and Paramount and was also a scenario writer, though his most lasting bequest to popular culture was as a songwriter. His ‘I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles’ remains widely familiar, and was much performed by Harpo in his later career. It is possible he may have had to pull out of the project due to ill-health: he died in 1922, following what the Variety obituary calls “a lingering illness.” “Kellette died a poor man,” the report adds. “He had been ill for months,” confirmed the Washington Times.
After the team was assembled, at some point they all posed for the group photograph that remains the only tantalising visual evidence of the entire production. Making its internet debut here (courtesy of Robert Weide, who donated it to Daniel Kinske’s book, Art Ducko (2018), and of Mr Kinske who has kindly allowed us to use it here) this new scan reveals a number of details that had been obscured in the only version available hitherto.
In the centre, smiling in the dapper bowler hat, is director Dick Smith. The leading lady (whose identity is settled anon) stands behind him with her hands on his shoulders. Groucho sits at his right hand; Harpo at his left. That’s Chico in the cap and glasses on our leading lady’s right (left of her in the photo), and a dinner-jacketed Zeppo on her left (our right). Next to Zeppo is Oscar ‘Mike’ Mirantz. I’ll lay even money on that being Groucho’s wife Ruth on Chico’s other side.
There has been some uncertainty as to whether this was an ‘on-set’ photo of the production team or not, and therefore if the Marxes are costumed, and if other cast members might be present. (Is Chico dressed for his role or just in exceptionally natty civvies?) We can now see that the somewhat Mack Swain-ish gentleman standing top right is clearly made-up, presumably for a comic supporting role in the film. Dick Smith was known as a performer as well as director, and the new scan suggests he too may be togged-up for a role, as Ruth must be (if Ruth it is). Mike Mirantz may have been just visiting the production, or he too may have been stretching his acting muscles: according to his surviving family he also took a part in the film. The gentleman crouching next to Harpo holding a clip-board further suggests on-set activity. I would argue, therefore, that this photo marks a break in production, or perhaps its first day, and that Chico’s and Groucho’s sporting tweeds and Zeppo’s fancy tuxedo are therefore their onscreen apparel.
The story so far
As far as the actual content of the film is concerned, little has been subsequently added to the standard account that Groucho is a villain who ends up being taken away with a ball and chain on his leg, and Harpo is the top-hatted love interest, making his entrance down a coal chute and rejoicing in the spectacularly non-Harpoesque name of Watson. Mikael Uhlin’s guide to the film on his Marxology website fleshes things out a little with some more recent suggestions: that Harpo’s character may have been a detective, Chico may have played his usual Italian, albeit in silent form, and may have been Groucho’s henchman, and Zeppo may have played a nightclub playboy. Others, however, are wary of any of this: Joe Adamson has suggested that these small details are probably not indicative of any coherent plot, and adds that he was told by Dick Smith’s stepdaughter that the film was essentially a compilation of their existing routines. Meanwhile Hector Arce added the funny detail that one scene was set in a cabaret and featured Al Posen’s mother, who, visiting her son one day, had obliviously sat herself at one of the tables on the set and was then forced to return for the next three days’ shooting for the sake of continuity.
All of which has prompted a somewhat heretic suggestion. Do we know for certain that the Marxes were the leads of the film? All the reports seem to suggest so. But ‘Watson’ seems a singularly unlikely name for a detective – unless a deliberate joke, decades of conditioning from Arthur Conan Doyle and Alexander Graham Bell have trained us to think of Watson as the assistant. Now look again at Dick Smith in the photo. His bowler hat may not seem especially suggestive to us now, but at the time it would have screamed ‘detective’ as surely as if the word were written on its brim. (Even Laurel and Hardy didn’t don their characteristic headgear until they were tasked with protecting Judge Foozle in Do Detectives Think?, 1927) Now consider his positioning: right in the centre of the image, flanked subserviently by the Marxes on all four corners, and with his leading lady’s arms draped affectionately over his shoulders. Everything about the composition suggests that he is the centre of interest. (He also seems to be the only person in the photograph with a chair, with two rows standing behind him and one crouching in front.) Is this simply because he is the director? Or because he is also the love interest and nominal lead, with Harpo playing his assistant?
In this formulation, we would have the Marxes as principal comedy support to two comic-romantic leads, still more than prominent enough as screen newcomers to justify their centrality in the announcements. (In any event, the announcements were coming from Caravel, their own concern, and so have a vested interest in playing up their involvement over anybody else’s.) This slight but radical switch in focus may seem a drastic one, but it leaves the rest of the film much as before: a farcical detective story, with comic villains and sleuths.
Crichton, however, quotes Groucho describing the film in a way that squares not at all with any other account, including any other of his own: that the film was an exercise in “humour with pathos, like Chaplin,” as a result of which “I was going to be great, get rid of those dopey brothers of mine, and be famous.” Glenn Mitchell in The Marx Brothers Encyclopedia (1996-2012) generously presumes that Groucho was “obviously joking”, but given that all bets are basically off when it comes to Crichton, is it possible that this is a transposed comment of Groucho’s describing, somewhat sarcastically, Harpo and Love Happy (1949), the team’s current project when the book was being prepared? Perhaps during one interview session he wandered off the subject and on to that of Love Happy, and the quote either got lumped in with the discussion of Humor Risk accidentally, or Crichton didn’t even realise that Groucho’s focus had drifted and transcribed it obliviously. It sounds like a long shot, and yet it is not only so unlike Humor Risk as everyone else describes it – including Groucho everywhere else – as to defy understanding, it is also very recognisable as Groucho’s known take on Love Happy, even down to the citing of Chaplin as Harpo’s optimistic role model. (See, for example, in Richard Anobile’s Marx Brothers Scrapbook, 1973-1989.)
A surfeit of Ralstons
Beyond the four Marxes, the only cast member Groucho names for us (in The Groucho Phile, 1977) is Mildred Davis, best known to posterity as co-star and wife of Harold Lloyd, as the film’s leading lady. Hector Arce, in common with most of the major sources, goes along with that, and also tells us the cast was augmented by “a husband and wife team named Ralston, a line of chorus girls from a Shubert unit working in New York, and several fringe performers from the Marx Brothers act.”
In recent years, however, convincing doubt has been cast on the likelihood of the female lead being Davis. Marxology notes that she was already Harold Lloyd’s regular leading lady by this time, and so unlikely to have committed herself to so plainly minor a production. Now remember a few paragraphs back, when the Marxes were posting that announcement in Film Daily, and I pointed out that while they bothered to name the cameraman they didn’t mention their female lead. This, likewise, suggests that it wasn’t a name as useful as Davis’s – and probably, by extension, not a ‘name’ at all.
Though Groucho is surely in error here, he is just as surely providing a clear and explicable bridge to the truth. The relevant factor is Harold Lloyd, but the actress is almost certainly Jobyna Ralston, who took over from Davis as Lloyd’s co-star the year after the production of Humor Risk. Groucho had simply, and understandably, got the two women confused.
Arce, you’ll recall, added a mysterious ‘husband and wife team named Ralston’ to the cast list: these might be Jobyna’s own parents. Mikael Uhlin describes them as ‘star-struck’ and the fact that Jobyna was named after an earlier film star, Jobyna Howland, is something of a giveaway on that score. The alternative suggestion that the husband and wife might be Jobyna herself and her first husband, John Campbell, seems less likely if a 1928 issue of Photoplay is correct in stating that she had divorced him before her move to New York.
Her route to the film may well have been via Ned Wayburn, whose relationship to the Marxes stretched back to their very first theatrical manifestation as the Nightingales and, indeed, before. Jobyna had studied dance and acting at Wayburn’s theatre school, and within a month or so of completing the film she would join the Broadway cast of Two Little Girls in Blue, which Wayburn staged. (This show ran between May and August of 1921, not 1922, as claimed by the IMDb, and was not a George M. Cohan show, as usually claimed, but merely staged at the Cohan theatre. The actual creators were Fred Jackson [book], Paul Lannin and Vincent Youmans [music] and Arthur Francis [aka Ira Gershwin, lyrics]. Oscar Shaw was in it, too!)
I really don’t think we need look any further than Jobyna for our female lead, but we should note for completeness two other proposed candidates. One of them, Esther Ralston, though no relation to all previously-cited Ralstons, does seem to underline Jobyna’s candidacy, given that her actual claims are weak (she had been in films regularly since 1916, and, though much interviewed, never mentioned the Marxes in later life) while at the same time the reason she might be suggested mistakenly is so obvious. (And it certainly happened: that aforementioned 1928 Photoplay magazine claims that the article on Jobyna is about Esther on its contents page.) Someone who certainly did mention working with them in later decades, however, was Boop-a-Doop bombshell Helen Kane. She, too, has been nominated as our mysterious leading lady, but in my scientific opinion (credentials supplied on request), you’d have to be nuts to think that’s her in the group photo.
There is a slightly more elaborate theory concerning Kane, however, which is worth a minute or two’s consideration, if perhaps not much more. Though surely not our leading lady smiling in the middle of the photo, there is a woman on the extreme right who could pass for her – except for the inconvenient fact that her face seems to have been rubbed away. In recent years, the extraordinary claim has been put forward that this is indeed Kane – and that she has been blotted out of the photograph not accidentally but as part of a deliberate effort to remove her from all record of the Humor Risk story.
Helen was certainly among the cast of the Marxes’ stage revue On the Mezzanine, and it has been suggested she may have been in place in that capacity by the time they made Humor Risk. She recalled their first meeting in 1961: “I tried all the theatrical booking offices and I never got by the office boy. One day I was talking to one of these kids and a man walked in and asked me what I could do. I told him I could sing, dance and act. He said he was doing a brother act at the Fordham in the Bronx and his name was Chico Marx. He invited me to meet Harpo, Groucho and Zeppo. I did and I got a job, at $65 a week. My mother didn’t like the idea. My father was hurt by it. For years, he had worked for $50 a month.”
Certainly she was with the company when they made their ill-fated trip to London in 1922, and that, so this theory goes, is where the trouble starts. As the Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported in 1933, when the act famously failed to meet with boorish British approval and emergency measures were implemented, British impresario Sir Oswald Stoll demanded that the Brothers dispense with the services of “that squeaking thing.” Subsequent ill-feeling over this and poor Helen’s early return to America, some contend, led to her being written out of the record with regards Humor Risk, to the extent even of the obliteration of her image in the group shot.
Interesting indeed, but like most interesting conspiracy theories, if you blow on it slightly it falls over and lies there looking silly. If anyone – and we will need to start thinking in terms of who this would actually be – was in the business of striking Kane from the Marxian record, wouldn’t they start by ignoring her involvement in the show that caused the trouble in the first place, rather than a film that had been pretty much forgotten ten minutes after they shone a bulb through it?
The Marxes never tried to deny or even downplay her presence in Mezzanine, and she’s even name-checked by Kyle Crichton in their official history. Admittedly, Crichton has her missing the boat in America and so never arriving in London, but given the outcome this could be a kind of gallantry, denying her a role in (and therefore, however tacitly, a responsibility for) the initial debacle, or an understandable error given that, if she did slink off ahead of them and they returned without her, they may well have forgotten she was ever there at all. (Or, of course, it could just be Kyle Crichton racing for the Pulitzer.) For her part, throughout her life, and even in that 1933 article quoted above, she spoke of them in nothing but glowing terms.
Finally, the fact is that she was not appearing with them elsewhere by the time the film was in production. Her vaudeville double act with Harry Wilson was announced as split in October of 1921, and the reports then add that Helen was then about to join the Marx Brothers’ company: over half a year too late for Humor Risk. Though she still might have begun her association with them in the film, unreported, and then graduated to stage appearances, she herself is very explicit in her reminiscences that her introduction to them led straight away to stage work. And a missing face in a photograph is no reason to believe otherwise.
A comparison of the new scan of the photograph with the generally available one shows that, while the contested face is indeed somewhat bleached, the features have not been obliterated – and neither do they belong to Helen Kane. It’s all just a trick of the light…
To Victor the spools
One of the smaller mysteries surrounding the film is just where it was shot. As stated, many accounts posit the use of two studios: Fort Lee, New Jersey, and an uncertainly identified studio in New York. As Mikael Uhlin notes on his Marxology post, Groucho seems to vacillate between the two in his recollections, and it makes sense to presume it was one or the other rather than both, since it is unlikely that a two reeler, especially an independently financed one, would either need or presume the luxury of two studios to shoot in, let alone in two states. It has therefore been suggested that the film was shot at the Ideal Studio in Hudson Heights, as it was often used for short films, and was the closest studio in New Jersey to the 42nd Street ferry.
Of course, it’s impossible to be certain of these things now, especially since the film itself is no longer in front of us to study, and it may be that for some reason lost to us the Marxes really did use two studios, one of them in Fort Lee, an inconvenient distance from where they were working on stage at the time. However, I would like to propose a new suggestion for the New York studio that has the satisfying side-effect of possibly clearing up the ‘two studios’ mystery, and accounting for the confusion that may have created it at the same time.
Though a couple of the announcements for the film in trade papers have now come to light and been widely quoted, one that might be new to this essay is the paragraph in Vaudeville News of April 1, 1921, that tells us the film is being made “at the Victor Studios”. This extra detail, I suspect, is the key that unlocks incomprehensibility’s door, for the simple reason that there were two Victor Studios at this time. One was the studio formerly owned by the Victor Film Company, formed by Florence Lawrence and Harry Stoller in 1912, and based at Fort Lee. This studio was bought out by Universal in 1917, but – crucially for us – was still informally referred to as Victor Studios well into the 1920s. This, I suggest, may be the reason why Humor Risk and Fort Lee have erroneously teamed up and held hands through the decades.
But the other Victor Studios, referred to for a while as the “the new Victor studio”, was opened on June 19, 1915, by the Palace Play Film Corporation, and was located at 645 West 43rd Street, New York. This made it very convenient for the Marxes, and not just because it was so much nearer to where they were performing. An advert in Film Daily of March 10, 1920, offers the studio for rent “by day, week or month” and describes it temptingly as the “cheapest studio in New York to work in”. Just the place for Humor Risk, then!
Therefore, my submission is that the film was made at Victor Studios, 645 West 43rd Street, New York – and that confusion over the fact that there was also a studio at Fort Lee known as Victor is at the root of the ‘two studios’.
The story of the film’s negative reception is the cornerstone of its reputation. “Fascinating as this film would be to antiquarians today,” noted Joe Adamson sagely, “there weren’t enough of them around at the time to guarantee it any success.” But just who did see it and give it the thumbs down?
Let’s start, at least, with the famous claim, widely quoted and very funny, that Chico managed to arrange a disastrous afternoon premiere, for a Bronx audience that “consisted mostly of backward children.” To this, Hector Arce adds an apocalyptic sequel, telling us that the film was deliberately destroyed as a result of this disappointment, and only the negative retained by Posen. Then, later, we have Alexander Woollcott demanding a viewing of it, whereupon Posen’s canister was acquired and a screening arranged. But when the assembled audience discovered it to be a negative they departed sadly – leaving Humor Risk in the projection booth, never to be seen again. (Joe Adamson queries the projection booth: he says that a researcher named Geoff Brown was told that Posen left the film on a subway car; Arce was informed of this but went with the booth story in his book, presumably gleaned from another source.)
No prizes for guessing that the description of the raucous premiere comes from the 1931 Groucho article, and the fact that it is very funny should be enough for us to withhold our full endorsement. Certainly Groucho tended not to repeat the story subsequently: there’s no mention of it in the Phile or the Scrapbook. Kyle Crichton says outright that the film was never shown, and while that should of course be treated with the same caution we extend to that enterprising scribe generally, the fact that the Marxes were nonetheless his sources suggests they didn’t share anything of this comical test screening with him: a surprise, perhaps, given its obvious anecdotal value. Further, Groucho is quoted by Leonard Maltin (in Movie Comedy Teams, 1970-1985) as saying that the film “was never finished,” while to Charlotte Chandler he claimed that it was finished, but he never personally saw it.
Now, any of these different claims could be true, and the others reflective merely of a momentary loss of memory on Groucho’s part (or Groucho saying the first thing that comes into his head because he’s Groucho). On the other hand, the fact that so many slightly different accounts are coming from the same source, and that all but one of them must therefore be wrong, just as strongly argues that they all might be.
Groucho, of course, should always be taken with a pinch of salt, but on this occasion, I think he had little real recollection of the film or its production at all. But he was far from disinterested in finding it, and in Hello, I Must Be Going (1978-2007), Charlotte Chandler quotes him as saying he’d “give fifty thousand dollars for a print,” though she implies he’s not being completely serious. But he seems serious in The Marx Brothers Scrapbook when he tells Anobile: “I hear each year that someone has it but it has never turned up. I’d give anything to get that picture.”
And Harpo certainly was serious in 1935, when he publicly offered a genuine reward of a thousand dollars for the chance to see it again. And he was still appealing for its return ten years later, by this time with the reward upped to ten thousand. Clearly he, at least, didn’t think it was a wild goose chase. And here’s a thought – if there were only ever one or two prints, and if they were unlikely to have ever left the hands of five or six people, all of whom Harpo knew personally, why on earth is he going to the press and offering ten thousand dollars?
We’re heading for a curve
Okay. Now we’ve taken the bold step of declaring ourselves apostate from the Gospel According to Groucho, let’s really go out on a limb, and into the realms of outright heresy.
What if he was wrong not just about the circumstances of the film’s fate but also the most basic and fundamental fact of it? What if the film not only wasn’t destroyed, and wasn’t unfinished, but also wasn’t unsold?
After all, the negotiations and decisions informing what happened next were far more likely to have been the province of Sachs, Posen and Lippman than the Marxes. Even if they saw the film and recognised not so much a probable flop as a film that had simply not been made with sufficient professional competence, it is highly unlikely that their first instinct would have been to shrug their shoulders and call it a day. They’re not Marx Brothers. They’re not madcap comics, putting their spare cash into the production for a lark, and just as happy to throw it away when things don’t go as planned. They are financers: traditionally among the least comedically-minded people on earth.
Expecting plenty of humor and not much risk, they put money into the project for one reason only: to make it back, at a profit. It follows that, unless they were rank amateurs, they had reasonable expectations of doing just that, and – no matter how disappointingly the film turned out – they would have tried every trick they knew to bring it about. Their investment also, of course, conferred upon them certain rights as to the fate of the end product that would be decided not upon whim or aesthetic temperament but the prosaic mindfulness of their bank balances.
So were they rank amateurs, then? Were they men with no tricks to try, the sort of people who would be happy to test their investment in front of a random assortment of rowdy kids and then, on that basis alone, either abandon the whole idea or petulantly destroy the film?
No. Of course they weren’t. This is a story about a Marx Brothers film. It isn’t a Marx Brothers film.
Aspirin or Caravel?
Time now to rewind to the very start of the story, and the formation of Caravel Comedies. Because we know that Caravel was just the Marxes and the other investors, and because we think we know that the whole idea was a boys’ adventure, a whim that became a shambles, the automatic assumption has been that Caravel was never a ‘proper’ business concern, probably just a post office box and a ream or so of headed paper, printed cheap. A somewhat different picture emerges if we drop in at 130 West 46th Street, to see in what kind of neighbourhood Caravel actually pitched up.
It was, in fact, the Leavitt Building – decidedly not a hole in the wall. World Film Corporation was also based there, as was Casey Comedies, as was Alexander Film Corporation, as was Helen Kane’s possible future enemy Oswald Stoll, as indeed were many, many more – including Fox, who occupied seven of the building’s twelve floors. Crowds of would-be extras would congregate daily outside the building, looking for work. Throughout these years references to both the building and the address are scattered casually through the trades without the need for further explanation. Nobody, it seems, was in any doubt that they referred to the epicentre of the New York film scene. So whatever else they were, Caravel were not half-hearted.
Let us then return to those other investors. Little has been discovered about them hitherto. According to the most up to date sources, Al Posen was a cartoonist, Nathan Sachs a Latvian actor and Max Lippman, most elusive of the bunch, possibly a stills photographer on British movies in the 1940s.
We’ll start with Posen. Sadly, nothing pertaining to Humor Risk, or any other film association, is to be found among his preserved papers at Syracuse University Library, and he has no known living relatives on whom to test any propositions. So all we have of him is history’s résumé: a cartoonist who worked briefly in film advertising between the completion of his war service and the finding of his true vocation in the early twenties. What little there is online linking him to Humor Risk often describes him going about New York with the reels stashed in his overcoat, literally begging cinemas to show it. This has benefited the popular image of the movie as an amateur experiment, cooked up by a gang of disparate novices.
But it is likely that Posen’s links to the film world went a little deeper. He is surely the same Al Posen we find in Variety in 1915 joining the publicity department of the American Correspondent Film Co., who helps set up the distribution company Strand Film Services in 1916 (and is described by Moving Picture World as “well known in the trade”), and who the same paper announces as handling New York distribution of the film The Sunset Princess in 1918. Not for the last time in this story, then, the image of the dilettante fades, to be replaced by a competent and serious movie man, with specific experience of New York film distribution and publicity. And the same goes for our mystery man, Y.C. Alley. As well as a master of all trades vaudevillian and theatrical, he had also (at some point prior to a 1921 profile in the Charlotte Observer) worked for the William Fox movie company, also based in the Leavitt Building at the time of Caravel’s formation.
Of Nathan Sachs and Max Lippman, however, we can be entirely certain. Again, because we are so determined to think of Caravel and the film as a mere jeu d’esprit, the inevitable temptation has been to look for the names among actors and other film personnel. Our Lippman and Sachs, however, were partners in a New York law firm: more serious money for a serious venture. (Arce alone calls Sachs “an attorney” rather than an actor, but the lead is not followed, and no connection with Lippman, whose contribution he says “no one could recall”, is proposed.) And they had money to invest – contemporary reports show them to have just made a fortune in the oil game, and naturally keen to sink some of it in lively speculation. (Ugly lawsuits relating to the company’s appropriation and misuse of oil shares were to flare up in the thirties and are widely reported, persisting until after both men’s deaths. We can only wonder if Lippman’s estate, still being apportioned and squabbled over as late as 1938, contained any dull-looking, unmarked film cans.)
There is much independent evidence of their association with the other main players in the Humor Risk story. Matthew Swerling, Jo’s brother, had also joined the firm by 1931. A 1929 Variety article describes Groucho, Harpo and their producer Sam Harris as “among the heaviest stockholders in the Silver Rod stores, the general emporiums”; this investment, made right before the Crash and with predictable consequences, is also mentioned in Crichton. Neither source, however, notes the fact that this business was owned by Lippman. Additionally, the firm of Lippman and Sachs represented Gallagher & Shean (the famous double-act one half of whom, Al Shean, was of course the Marxes’ uncle) against Fox in a breach of contract suit. And thanks to the New York Sun, we now know that among the pallbearers at Sachs’s funeral in 1928 were a couple of incognito theatricals named Julius H. Marx and Arthur Marx.
This is surely enough to cast serious doubt on the standard account of what happened after production. It’s hard to picture so many experienced hands overseeing so shambolic a venture, or giving up on their time and investment so glibly. But it is easy to imagine how their opting to disband the company, and cancel the two projected follow-ups, might mutate over time into a memory of Humor Risk itself being junked.
So imagine if cutting their losses with regards to the film meant not destroying or abandoning it but simply selling it on, to a distribution and releasing company specialising in independent product. Such companies existed, and were not hard to find. Also based in the Leavitt Building, for instance, was Pioneer Film Corporation, who took out a full-page ad in Motion Picture News in 1920, offering “co-operation, exploitation and distribution” to the independent producer in need of “an assured and profitable outlet for his product.”
But of course, they didn’t offload the film to Pioneer, because if they did, the chances are we’d know about it, and the world would know about the movie. But what if there was a company that was an even better fit for just such a salvage job, and which at the same time presents us with a readymade explanation of why the trail then goes cold?
The reel story?
Established in 1920, Reelcraft was a merger of several smaller companies that specialised in short comedies. Because of their phenomenal rate of output, they also supplemented their own productions with unreleased films from other sources, acquired cheaply in considerable quantities. (Lucky Dog, the ‘accidental’ first teaming of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, was among them.)
“Our distributing schedule at the present time,” announced company president R.C. Cropper in June of 1921, “calls for the release of a single one-reel comedy and a two-reel comedy each week, making for a total of 104 releases a year.” Understandably, therefore, quality control regarding these acquisitions may not have amounted to much more than checking they were in focus and that the sprocket holes were equidistant. Jobyna Ralston already had a working relationship with the company. So did Dick Smith, Humor Risk’s director, having worked on a series of comedies starring his wife, Alice Howell. What more natural home for Caravel’s white elephant?
But again, if Reelcraft did pick up Humor Risk, surely we’d all know about it? Not necessarily. For one thing, the company released state by state rather than nationally, so records are bitty. For another, the films they acquired from independent sources were very often retitled before release. But most importantly because, despite Mr. Cropper’s breezy predictions, all was not well with the company.
Reelcraft went into liquidation in 1922, and their existing holdings of nearly 200 negatives were purchased at auction that October by Export & Import Film Company, Inc. It is not impossible that Humor Risk was and is yet among them, perhaps unhelpfully renamed, having been prepped and scheduled for release by the company just before they hit the canvas. (Lucky Dog had sneaked out moments before the bell tolled, in the last days of 1921.) The company’s bankruptcy might have killed the release, but not the striking of a good number of prints.
At the very least, nothing in this alternative account defies sense – whereas the standard version, when you factor in the serious aspirations of Caravel in general (and Posen, Lippman and Sachs specifically), frankly does. So maybe all those great stories – the kids at the premiere, the film being destroyed, or left on the bus, or in the projection room – are just that. They are Groucho dressed as Napoleon getting stuck in traffic during the run of I’ll Say She Is. They are the three brothers stripping naked and roasting potatoes in Thalberg’s office. They are Robert Florey couldn’t speak English. They are Margaret Dumont didn’t get the jokes. By contrast to that comedy version of what happened, selling the film to a company like Reelcraft is exactly what we should have expected the film’s financers to have done.
Such supposition is all very well, but it butters no parsnips, of course. No amount of smoke is of itself sufficient to create a smoking gun. Nonetheless, there is a film historian – a proper, respected one, not a former dog catcher with ‘film historian’ written on his hat – who has recently spent far too much time for his liking assuring yours truly that he has actually seen a Reelcraft press release listing some of the performers who will be seen in their latest batch of titles, and among them are to be found the Four Marx Brothers. And furthermore, this announcement was made at the exact point necessary for the entire argument of this essay to hold – in early 1922, right at the moment the axe fell and the company’s assets were scattered to the winds. True, it doesn’t actually say Humor Risk (or any other title), but – unless there remain surprises to be unearthed in this story even bigger than this one – what else could it be? That was the only movie the Marx Brothers had made that year.
It’s still a long shot, and I’m not asking you to change your minds on the basis of one uncorroborated claim. Of course definite proof of that press release is very much needed. But it’s already enough to change the game. It provides a plausible, coherent means by which there could be multiple prints of the movie, widely dispersed, and possibly hiding under some new, unrecognised title. If nothing more, that massively upgrades the possibility of our ever seeing this near-mythical film again from ‘next to impossible’ to just ‘very unlikely’.
Call me crazy, but those are odds I’m prepared to work with.
(Updated 29.5.2016 and 14.8.2018)
Original archive research by R.S.H. Tryster, who would like to dedicate his contribution to this essay in memory of his father, whose copy of Harpo Speaks (It | De | Sp) was appropriated about 45 years ago and who passed away at the height of work on this article, August 19th 2015, on the 38th anniversary of Groucho’s death.
By Matthew Coniam:
- The Annotated Marx Brothers (2015) | Kindle
- That’s Me, Groucho! The Solo Career of Groucho Marx (2016) | Kindle
- Jane Austen: Inside Her Novels (2017)
- Egyptomania Goes to the Movies: From Archaeology to Popular Craze to Hollywood Fantasy (2017) | Kindle
- Movies Are a Conspiracy: Selected Essays on Cinema (2019)
- The Patton Brothers: Laughing All Our Lives (2018) – w/Brian and Jimmy Patton
All are not lost!
Until Humor Risk shows up we’ve still got the cream of the brothers’ studio output to console ourselves with. For a complete collection of Marx movies you’ll need at least two box sets, for their pre- and post-Paramount films. These are the best options for the countries listed and they’ll be kept updated.
The Brothers at Paramount
October 2020 update: the brothers’ first extant screen appearance was in studio promo The House That Shadows Built (1931, 47min). It contains a specially-shot, six-minute segment from their first successful Broadway revue I’ll Say She Is (1924), in addition to featuring every other silent film star you’ve ever heard of. Long available only in very poor quality, it’s finally been restored alongside Hapro’s official big screen début, Too Many Kisses (1925). The two are now available on a region-free Blu-ray with the latter accompanied by a new score from composer Bill Marx, son of Harpo. More details; order it here.
The Marx Brothers’ first five features have been available for years on DVD, but were recently restored after an extensive search for missing footage. Three recent Blu-ray box sets and their DVD counterparts from France and Oz include a newly discovered uncut print of Animal Crackers, plus missing snippets and upgraded footage for the other Marx Paramount films. As if that wasn’t enough, they’re chocker with generous extras and a handy book.
- US: Universal 3-BD MB Silver Screen Collection (2016)
- UK: Arrow 3-BD 4 MB at Paramount 1929–1933 (2017)
- France: ESC Editions 5-BD MB Cult Edition and 5-DVD set (2017)
- Spain: Universal 5-BD Películas de la gran pantalla (2019)
- Australia: Umbrella 3-DVD MB Collection (2017) – region 0, NTSC: plays anywhere
- US: Universal 6-DVD MB Silver Screen Collection (2004, 2-DVD reissue 2013)
- UK Universal 8-DVD MB 8 Movie Collection (2006) – w/Room Service, Love Happy and Groucho’s A Girl in Every Port
- Italy: Universal 3-DVD and 4-DVD I Fratelli Marx Collection (2005)
- Germany: Universal 4-DVD Paramount set (2004)
- France: Universal 5-DVD MB Coffret (2005, reissued 2007)
- Spain: Universal 5-DVD Los hermanos Marx: Lo Mejor (2010)
The Brothers at MGM, RKO and United Artists
Only a few restored Blu-rays for these as yet, with several also available in digital HD. These include the brothers’ last joint film, Love Happy (1949), with a pre-fame Marilyn Monroe putting in a much-touted but brief appearance. There’s also Groucho’s final onscreen appearance in Skidoo (1968), going out on a high as God, no less. Thankfully, the rest are available via some fine DVD box sets – great for when it’s too dark to read.
- US: Warner 7-film/5-DVD MB Collection (2004)
- UK: Warner 6-DVD MB Collection (2004)
- Italy: Universal 4-DVD I Fratelli Marx Collection (2005, 3-DVD version)
- Germany: Warner 5-DVD MB Collection (2004)
- Warner Amazon Video HD: A Day at the Races
- France:Warner 7-DVD La Collection MB (2004)
- Spain: Warner 5-DVD HM Selection (2011, steelbook reissue 2015)
- Poland: Warner 6-DVD Bracia Marx Kolecja (2004) – DVDmax | punkt44
- Australia: Warner 5-DVD MB Collection (2004)
Beware the bootlegs: in particular, the French transfer of A Night in Casablanca has been ripped off on BD and DVD by prolific German pirates daredo/Soulfood, who I’ve written about in more detail here. Meanwhile, Love Happy has been released on a Spanish BD-R by über pirates Resen, as has Copacabana (1947), Groucho’s first solo starrer, with an average SD transfer culled from god knows where. Seriously, it’s no joke.