Wednesday, February 20, 2013

A NIGHT IN HEAVEN

Being a Marx Brothers fan is a frustrating thing. When you get right down to it, there are only a handful of their 13 movies worthy of them. The others are weighed down by sappy romantic subplots, even sappier music and scripts that range from just OK to mediocre.

What makes it even more disappointing is knowing there could have been more great Marx movies if they'd only gotten past the discussion stage. Orson Welles, Billy Wilder and even Salvador Dali had ideas ready to go, all undoubtedly more interesting than most of what was eventually made.

Yet one unfinished project that actually got before the cameras in 1959 was, of all things, a sitcom. Deputy Seraph was to star Harpo and Chico as angels who, every week, would straighten out the problems of a different inhabitant of earth. The earthlings would never physically interact with the Marxes. Rather, they would take on the angels' characteristics while being inhabited by them -- which, in the case of Harpo and Chico, consisted of communicating via pantomime and a comedic Italian accent respectively.

In other words, about 50% of each episode would have been actors imitating actors who imitated a mute and an Italian. It's difficult to see the entertainment value in such a series. Perhaps this was why writer/producer Phillip Rapp convinced Groucho, still hosting You Bet Your Life, to appear in every third episode as God's right-hand man -- the deputy seraph -- giving orders to the angels and taking part in their duties when necessary. (The Jackson brothers nobody cared about used a similar tactic whenever trying to interest producers in a reality series, i.e., "Michael will make an appearance!" Unlike Rapp, however, they never bothered asking Michael first.) The Marxes' agent -- conveniently, younger brother Gummo -- finalized the deal. Youngest brother Zeppo presumably congratulated them with grapefruits from his ranch.

Roughly fifteen minutes of the Deputy Seraph pilot, consisting only of the Marx Brothers, were shot on a Hollywood soundstage. Producer Rapp must have been counting on the goodwill of the audience to help put this over. Even taking into account that this is faded raw footage, lacking proper edits, sound effects and voice-overs, it's still pretty chintzy. The set -- nothing more than foam "clouds" and a black backdrop -- looks less like Heaven and more like a cheap strip club. The angels' gossamer robes appear to have been made from discarded sheets of Reynolds Wrap. Close-ups of Harpo and Chico are badly edited into footage of their doubles using the "clouds" as trampolines. As Groucho once wrote a friend regarding the second-rate Marx Brothers comedy Go West, "This is a fine comedown for a man who used to be the toast of Broadway."

There doesn't seem to have been much effort put into the script, either. Bits from Marx Brothers movies appear throughout, while Groucho's dialogue leaves a lot to be desired -- like real jokes:

GROUCHO: (flicking cigar ashes down to earth) There. That's the first time they ever had snow in Bali Bali.
CHICO: Bali Bali?
HARPO: (honks horn twice)
GROUCHO: Bali Bali?!

It's one of the one fixed rules of comedy: just because a name sounds funny doesn't mean it is. Especially when it's spoken three times in a row for no good reason. Perhaps that's why Harpo comes off best throughout-- all he has to do is make faces. And it's remarkable how he appears younger and, well, more angelic than his 71 years. Still, he and Chico have the whiff of long-ago vaudeville about them, while Groucho, despite his mediocre dialogue, comes off as the most contemporary. It's easy to picture the new wave of '50s comedians, like Mort Sahl and Lenny Bruce, enjoying You Bet Your Life while wondering why his brothers were still going through the motions.

Unedited reaction shots that take up some of Deputy Seraph's running time actually provide the most interesting footage. But it's a little painful to see Chico continually screwing up his lines -- an affliction going back to his stage years -- and having to take inane off-screen direction: "Say 'Look!" "Don't say 'Harpo'!" "Give me the full treatment on the dialect!" Seventy-two at the time, Chico seems not just tired but defeated, as if wondering what he was doing on a drafty soundstage when he could have been playing gin with his buddies at the Hillcrest Country Club.

If so, he had only himself to blame. A gambling addict since childhood, Chico bordered on insolvency even at the height of his career. There's a good chance the Marx Brothers never would have made any movies after A Day at the Races in 1937 if it hadn't been for his money problems. (And judging by their subsequent output, that might not have been such a bad idea.) By 1959, Harpo was content with the occasional TV and concert gigs, while Groucho was busy with You Bet Your Life. They probably went along with Deputy Seraph just to make sure their brother had a paycheck.

In the end, it didn't matter. A medical check-up discovered that Chico had arteriosclerosis, preventing him from being insured. As a result, production on Deputy Seraph ceased. (Billy Wilder's intended Marx Brothers movie, A Day at the United Nations, was shelved for the same reason.) The footage was promptly forgotten until pirated versions turned up on video three decades later, simultaneously surprising and disappointing Marx fans everywhere. 

Even with Deputy Seraph's demise, Groucho still had a couple of years of You Bet Your Life left. And Harpo and Chico, either separately or apart, were nightclub mainstays and commercial pitchmen for products ranging from shampoo to beer. It's a testament to the Marx Brothers longstanding popularity that they probably would have found an audience for all 39 proposed episodes of the series. But as Groucho says in Deputy Seraph, "Well, you can't win 'em all."

Hollywood Götterdämmerung: Gummo, Zeppo, Chico, Groucho, Harpo



No comments: