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The Marx Brothers from stage to screen, part 1

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In celebration of the New York revival of I’ll Say She Is, the Marx Brothers' first Broadway success, in New York City this month, here is an examination of Marx Brothers films and scenes that have their origins on the stage.

The Cocoanuts (1929), the first Marx Brothers film, was not only one of the first Broadway musicals ever filmed in the sound era but also a reasonably accurate, if sometimes sluggish, record of what the stage show might have looked like. A comparison between the opening night transcript of the stage play and the movie itself shows how much the show changed over several many performances. For example, the famous scene between Groucho and Chico, in which Groucho’s reference to a viaduct prompts Chico to wonder “Why a duck? Why-a no chicken?”, is nowhere to be found in the stage script and is believed to have been ad-libbed and expanded upon by the brothers themselves during the run of the show. The brothers, Groucho especially, were such expert ad-libbers, there is an often-told story of a night when the play’s author George Kaufman, attending a performance, interrupted a companion’s conversation and then explained the interruption with “I thought I heard one of the original lines.”

Animal Crackers (1930) is a much tighter, faster-paced film than The Cocoanuts. The Cocoanuts film was truly a musical comedy, with several songs and dances numbers sprinkled throughout the film, whereas, after Animal Crackers' classic opening “Hooray for Captain Spaulding” production number, there is only one song, sung by the film’s young lovers, to interrupt the comedy of the brothers. The third act of the stage play consisted of a costume party scene, known as the “Dubarry” scene, which was entirely eliminated from the film version by director Victor Heerman, a truly “lost” Marx Brothers scene that, curiously, is not often mentioned by hardcore fans.

While I’ll Say She Is was never filmed, two sketches from the play did wind up on film. In 1931, Paramount Studios released the short feature The House That Shadows Built to movie exhibitors. A celebration of all things Paramount, the film contained one short scene with the four brothers – Groucho, Harpo, Chico and Zeppo – recreating their introductory scene from I’ll Say She Is in which they each enter a theatrical agent’s office looking for work. The final comedy scene of I'll Say She Is, popularly known as the “Napoleon” scene, was recreated in animated form in the 1970 TV special “The Mad, Mad, Mad Comedians” with Groucho Marx himself voicing his own part.

Monkey Business (1931) and Horse Feathers (1932) were the first Marx Brothers films written directly for the screen, but they do have some remnants left over from the stage. In Monkey Business, all four brothers share their imitations of singer Maurice Chevalier, a bit based up business adapted from I’ll Say She Is and revived in The House That Shadows Built. In Horse Feathers, college professor Groucho has one classroom scene where he must contend with disruptive students Harpo and Chico, business that is highly reminiscent of one of their earliest vaudeville sketches “Fun in Hi Skule”. Duck Soup (1933) may or may not have any specific gags or scenes with their origins on the stage, but it does open with an elaborate musical number introducing Groucho that clearly recalls the lengthy “Hooray for Captain Spaulding” scene from Animal Crackers.

In part two of this article, we will examine some of the later films of the Marx Brothers in which major comedy scenes were first tested on the road before being committed to film.

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