Friday, June 24, 2016

The Thrill Of It All

There are a lot of turning points in the story of the Marx Brothers.  New York street urchins in the 1890s, one by one they entered Vaudeville in the early days of the 20th century.  They were a musical act but morphed into a comedy act. They hit the top in Vaudeville, but were stuck there--until they managed to get a Broadway show and were discovered by the tastemakers. They were the toast of Broadway until they moved to Hollywood in the 1930s and became film stars.  They switched from Paramount to MGM in 1935, but their career as a team petered out somewhere in the 1940s, though Groucho went on to great fame in TV in the 1950s.

If I had to pick the most significant turning point, it'd be May 19th, 1924, when they first opened on Broadway in an unassuming revue called I'll Say She Is and became overnight sensations.  Everything up till then had been preparation for this moment, and everything after was them at the top showing the world what they could do.  This show is also the Holy Grail--their earlier Vaudeville apprenticeship can be generally understood, and their later Broadway shows, The Cocoanuts and Animal Crackers, were turned into movies and are even sometimes revived on stage, but the Broadway show that launched them is all but lost.  Books about the boys describe it somewhat, but Marx Brothers fans want to know more.

And now we have a book to slake that thirst, Gimme A Thrill, by Noah Diamond.  He's done deep research and describes how the show came about, as well as what was in it.  He tells not just about the Marx Brothers themselves, but Will B. Johnstone, a multi-talent who wrote the book and lyrics, and helped developed their characters before George S. Kaufman ever laid eyes on them; Joseph M. Gaites, their low-budget Broadway producer who tended to make money with even lower-budget touring shows; James P. Beury, the other producer who helped get them across the finish line; and all the performers, including leading lady Lotta Miles.

Turns out many of the tales told about the show--usually by the Marx Brothers years later--aren't true.  They said the producer (Beury, though they didn't use his name), was a pretzel-salt magnate who only invested in the show to get a spot for his no-talent girlfriend. Actually, Beury's money came from coal, but he was serious about show biz--this wasn't his first production--and there probably was no girlfriend.

Just before they signed on to the show, the Marx Brothers were in trouble.  A tour of England hadn't gone well, and since they'd done it without the permission of vindictive Vaudeville impresario E. F. Albee, they found themselves banned from the top houses on the circuit.  They took up an offer to play in the "Advanced Vaudeville" that Broadway's Shubert Brothers were trying to make work, but that came to little.  So they were looking for something to reignite their careers.  Gaites, working with Johnstone, had twice produced revues based on the idea of a lovely young lass searching from scene to scene for a true thrill (hence the title of the 1922 revue Gimme A Thrill), but they hadn't worked out. Then the Marx Brothers were added into the mix, which was all the show really needed. (They're all any show needs).

They opened out of town in Philadelphia where they were such a hit they played through the summer. That was followed by a never-ending tour around the country. Gaites was making so much money it seemed he didn't want to get to Broadway.  The Marx Brothers were getting antsy.  Beury bought out Gaites and after playing for a year--and improving along the way--the show finally became the New York smash it was meant to be.

The Marxes ruled Manhattan.  Everyone wanted to see their show, and get to know them.  And Diamond does a great job walking us through each scene of I'll Say She Is--with or without the Brothers.  Some of it is known to fans--especially the theatrical agent scene, which they later filmed as a promotional short for Paramount--and the big closer, with Groucho as Napoleon (as Groucho) and the others as Josephine's lovers.  People at the time said the last bit was the funniest thing they ever did. After running the better part of a year, I'll Say She Is went back out on the road, until the tour ended abruptly when Chico walked out on the show (probably running from gangsters whom he owed money).

So if you want a book that really gets into I'll Say She Is, you can't do better than Gimme A Thrill.  Yet that's only the first half.  The second half of the 360-page book is author Diamond's story.  He grew up a big fan of the Brothers, and become a writer and performer.  Then he got the idea of putting on the first production of I'll Say She Is since 1924.  His research got him information most fans thought lost--including old sheet music and Johnstone's typescript of the show (a bare-bones version).

Diamond reconstituted the show, and also rewrote it, always with a view of being faithful to the meaning of the work. Then, in 2014, ninety years after the original opened, it was performed at the New York International Fringe Festival.  Diamond played Groucho.  This led to offers--including a book deal--and a production that is now playing off-Broadway.  I'm hoping some day it gets out to Los Angeles.

A fine book, written with care (a few minor errors, but I'll let them go) and love. 

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