Monday, August 23, 2010

The Marx Brothers- Capt Spalding's Adventures in Africa/ "Animal Crackers" (1930)

In the early Seventies, the Marx Brothers films and their anarchistic collisions with authority in high society, grand shipboard cruises, the halls of government and the groves of academia were very popular on American late-night and sometimes prime-time television. The main surviving Marx Brother, Groucho, was a celebrity above celebrities and could be seen from time to time on talk-shows, expounding his own wit and talking about the great scenes in his films.

The brothers honed their talent on the vaudeville stages of America and Canada.

Oddly enough, when the brothers first played in England, their act, a tried and true spoof of a school room, did not go over well and the audience threw pennies at them! Something didn't translate in the sketch. Later, of course, their stock went up "over there" when the movies came out. .

Otherwise their career was quite successful. W.C. Fields, a comic juggler and no median wit himself, actually refused to go on stage one week in Ohio when he was booked in a vaudeville show with the Brother Marx as the opening act. They literally wore their audiences out with their mayhem. "The only act I could never follow!", the great Fields later said.

The first two of their sound films, including this one, were originally stage plays and were shot in an early sound stage for Paramount studios near New York City.
The Marxes, particularly Groucho, ad-libbed so much on stage it drove the writers of the shows around the bend! "Hold on!" the prolific scribe George S. Kaufman said from the wings at a Broadway performance of "The Coconuts" , "I think I heard a line I actually wrote!"

Buoyed by the efforts such great comic writers as Kaufman--who wrote "The Man who Came to Dinner" and many other comic and dramatic hits--as well as the equally famous S.J. Perlman, Harry Ruby and Mort Ryskind, the brothers took to Hollywood where original screenplays were put together at Paramount and later MGM studios to suit their blend of physical and wise-cracking comedy.

Here is one of Groucho's best bits--as the famed but likely fake African great white hunter Captain Spalding in "Animal Crackers". Enjoy.

The Tuscaloosa is a river in the state of Alabama just so you know.


  1. Groucho takes a bow! A clip from the late-night "Dick Cavett Show" from 1969. I was a big fan of his films as were my friends and It was nice to know the old boy was still around to bask in kudos from a new generation. He died in 1977, aged 87. :

  2. Third times a charm, and the last. From their second Hollywood film, "Horse Feathers", a tale of college life and a fixed football game, with Groucho as a most unlikely university dean of Huxley College and Chico as his assistant. Here Chico's attempt to clandestinely romance a gangster's girlfriend runs awry when said gangster shows up unannounced at her flat. (Groucho showed up on a similar mission- a step ahead of the gangster and a step behind Chico.)

    Forced to hide the tete-a-tete, Chico and Connie (played by Thelma Todd) turn their romance into a singing lesson to avoid getting "plugged".

  3. You read my thoughts Jim. Thanks for stopping by!

  4. Always a pleasure to drop in and be educated.

  5. Great humour, Doug. Groucho's eyebrows always looked as though they were out for a fight with the moustache.:-)

    The Marx brothers films are now cult, so I doubt they will go away, fortunately for us!

  6. Agreed Cassandra! As long as there is a need for satire, and just making people laugh at pretension and authority, I think the Mark Brothers will indeed stay the center of a very healthy international cult!

    Groucho's eyes and that painted mustache were indeed not apparently on friendly terms!

    He once forgot to pack a fake mustache before a performance on stage and so just painted one under his nose with grease paint. For some reason, it improved the laughs so he kept the painted one.

  7. That crack about taking pictures of girls in Africa but they're not developed yet ....would not only be banned now in the UK but could even result in inclusion on some serious black list alongside Gary Glitter.

    It is very interesting what humour tells us a lot about a society, not only in what it says but also in what it doesn't and cannot say, great Marx Bros clips here though Doug!

  8. Thanks AA. Yes , the Production Code, in force since the twenties, was given real teeth after July, 1934,when all movies had to have a seal of approval from an official film censorship board, now led led by staunch conservative Catholic priest , Joseph Breen.

    Between 1930 and mid-1934, however, the advent of sound and the importation of Broadway comedies and dramas to film audiences all over America brough much racier fare to smaller burgs were prudery was still a norm in some quarters.

    For a while, monolouges like Captain Spalding's travels and partial nudity were sometimes allowed past the censors because of the need to fill seats in Depression-era America, and to follow the general lead of the Broadway stage material the studios were relying on.

    It was a nod and a wink arrangement with the producers and their appointed censor, Will Hays, a former "Postmaster General" of the Harding Administration, known as "The Little Postman" to Hollywood Insiders.

    By the early Thirtes, however, there began a drumbeat led by special interest "moral decency" groups to rein in Hollywood's proclivity to show a more urbanized and frank side of American life, one in which Groucho and his peers could thrive. The moral prudes took a lot of the funniest material out of the Marx Brothers, WC Fields and Mae West vehicles, as well as taking much that was adult out of adult drama.

    The more emancipated woman was also targeted for extinction around this one, as were her plunging necklines and desire to choose a job over hearth and home. That backlash held in Hollywood until the mid-Sixties, coincidentally about the same time a lot of rules in society lossened considerably.

  9. The Marx Brothers films are always such fun and it certainly is good to see the their humour caters for all ages.

    Hahahahaha, brilliant. That is a tip that would have allowed Hitler to concentrate on the war. Just think of all those hours saved grooming if he had used grease paint.

    "The Lady Eve, arrived", I thought it was quite a polished performance From Henry Fonda and Barbara Stanwick. Thank you for pointing me in its direction, Doug.

  10. I noticed that when I went to a couple Marx Brothers films in retrospective movie houses back in the eighties, they did indeed have all ages, including families, in the theater. I think Harpo was a particular favorite with kids.

    Amusing to think of Hitler going with the 'greasepaint' look. Might have inserted some real laughs into his speeches. And when, say, growing his own facial hair wasn't getting the laughs he was used to at the Reichstag, Herr Furher could have parachuted into Scotland back in '41 with Rudolph Hess and played a music-hall or two before an extended engagement at the Tower of London.

    Glad you enjoyed "Lady Eve" Cassandra! One of the best USA comedies of that era I think , and also one of the wildest and most satisfying conclusions in all of "screwball comedy". Also fun to see Henry Fonda in a less serious role.