Friday, October 19, 2018

Marx Brothers, Streamlined - ongoing project

Their last group picture - Harpo, Zeppo, Chico, Groucho, and Gummo

They're practically part of my DNA, these four brothers, but I'm enough of a fan to appreciate that some of their films are challenging, and in the case of two of the MGM productions, not at a level I can share in public venues due to their 1930's-level of "appreciative stereotyping."
So.  I am working with the former Sony Vegas software and mp4 versions of their 13 films to do the unpardonable - I'm editing down Marx Brothers movies.
Many of them.  Some remain perfection on celluloid, and some (such as "Horse Feathers") could go on for another hour as far as I'm concerned. 
So, trimming out and adjusting pacing have given me the following projection times:

1929 - The Cocoanuts (the Cocoanut "reduction") - from 96 to 78 minutes - most of the cuts involved excision of the songs "When My Dreams Come True" and "Monkey Doodle Doo."  "Monkey Doodle Doo" has a lot of fun lyrics, but my ears cannot take the performance. 

1930 - Animal Crackers - 98 minutes?  Make it 398 minutes - recreate the DuBarry scene, in synthetic 2-strip technicolor, please!  And someone find Lillian Roth outtakes, too! Or find "Madame Satan" and try some fancy editing.

1931 - Monkey Business - 77 minutes, still 77 minutes.  Love the opening credits - would have loved the ending to be in the original warehouse for the bootleggers - then it could have ended with the four barrels full of Marxes ready for their next adventure.

1932 - Horse Feathers - 68 minutes - oh please, some archive find and restore the apartment scene with Thelma Todd, and the extended dog catcher sequence.  I know I saw it complete when a mere tad on an episode of "Wayne and Shuster take an affectionate look at The Marx Brothers" in the 1960s.

1933 - Duck Soup - 68 minutes to 67 and 1/2 minutes - to permit showing at my current venue, I had to excise "...and that's why darkies were born."  Nobody understands George White's Scandals anymore in academe.   At the age of 4, this film taught me perspective - how did those tiny guys squeeze into the family's 19 inch Motorola b/w?

1935 - A Night at the Opera - 92 untouchable minutes - unless someone finds the excised references to Italy that MGM carved from the ORIGINAL NEGATIVE.  MGM does NOT "get" comedy. (OK, they could trim the part where Groucho gets kicked down several flights of stairs, but that's also for another movie..)

1937 - A Day at the Races - 109 minutes down to 90 minutes - that Gabriel scene had to go, along with some other unnecessary exposition - the MGM bricks were falling on the brothers.  Much of the water carnival went to the editing bin, too.  The Sneaky Dragon podcast is spot-on in identifying the dogpile of plot errors that the MGM chefs stirred into the project fleetingly known as "Peace and Quiet."

1938 - Room Service - 78 to 72 minutes - just trimmed out dead air - it seems slightly perkier.  The background dialog between Groucho and Chico while Harpo mastered the layered look lost all the dead space, and with the miracle of compression, I kept everything Harpo did, but about 20% faster.  A second set of great opening credits that will be unscathed. Near the end, when everyone is being so solemn around the author's fake suicide, you really notice that this isn't the usual Groucho - there'd be one zinger after another if it had been "Animal Crackers."  I have never seen the original play performed may be more than somewhat dated, to judge by this performance.  Ann Miller is barely 15 here?

1939 - At the Circus - 87 minutes to 63 minutes - Out with Swingali, of course, but my stomach could not take any rendition of "Two Blind Loves," and it was an opportunity to slice back on Groucho's scene with Goliath.  Still couldn't do much with the continuity gaffe where Groucho suddenly appears on the train after being completely blocked by Chico at the station.  Best scene is still Harpo and Chico with Goliath, and the ending with Jardinet's orchestra floating out to sea remains intact and satisfying.  Wouldn't this film have been better if "Lydia" had been sung in the excised courtroom scene with Groucho, have Groucho run to the train after Chico's telegram, dive into a cab with Margaret Dumont, and then have Chico do a version of "Lydia," and then have Harpo do a version as the meantime, there is the fine edit by Bob Gassel of the Marx Brothers Council that can be sought out with some work.  He moved Chico's solo to the final third of the film and completely sliced out the ending circus "climax." He calls his versions "Paramount cuts" and even finds more appropriate title music in the process.

1940 - Go West - 80 minutes to 68 minutes - the temptation to slice out all except the opening and closing was strong, but I wanted to test how to do internal edits, such as speeding up the closing gag of the railroad official sliding into a prepared hole after he gets clobbered.  I may do another version, cutting out the reservation scene and putting back in "Ridin' the Range" - it would be a nice thing to think of the Kalmar and Ruby script - with "Go West" at the beginning, and Chico and Harpo being a pair of spies sent out to help Mr. Beecher with his greasy plans, so there could be a "Duck Soup-ish" spy update scene. 

1941 - The Big Store - 83 minutes to 60 minutes - that "Tenement Symphony" is toast, and the bed scene is distilled to a single joke.  At 60 minutes, it amounts to some adequate Groucho time, and lots of music by Chico and Harpo.  I actually like "Sing While You Sell," with the Marxes making a transition to the 1940s-style of musical comedy, and Groucho can dance.  Gassel's cut completely eliminates the entire generic chase scene, which is totally in-Marxian and what is even more shocking, isn't missed a bit!

1946 - A Night in Casablanca - pending - maybe an opportunity to play with the pacing.  But the Marxes prove they could do better than Mervyn LeRoy at producing a Marx Brothers comedy.  Deleting a pair of comedy scenes after the premiere, as read by the makers of the Sneaky Dragon sidecast "Full Marx," was utterly unforgivable, however.  Imagine Groucho running a desert hotel with a departing guest and his harem...and an extended scene with Chico talking about the camel taxi business...aaugh!

1950 - Love Happy - an earlier experiment took the 85 minutes down to 60, but I'm looking for better pre-edit material (the Marilyn Monroe sequence is far too dark in my work print).

This exercise is distraction is an extension of my experiments with the MGM Buster Keaton films.  With all the excellent raw material, even with Keaton's decline (horrifying in "What, No Beer!"), much better films should have emerged.  My video editing class showed that "Speak Easily" would have been a better, tighter film with the removal of about 6 minutes, and the consensus was that "Doughboys" (1930) would have been an ideal "part-talkie."  At class end, we had experimented with using "live" sound over a 20fps hand-crank conversion in various parts, and Keaton's traditional timing began to emerge.  MGM couldn't wrap its head around comedy.  Imagine how W. C. Fields would have fared under the umbrella of Leo beyond his "David Copperfield" appearance...

Two excellent Marx Brothers podcasts are available -
The first is from the Marx Brothers Council, soon to have a 9th episode on their website -
The second is a "side cast" from Canada, from, with all 13 films being reviewed.  The Council has a theatrical background, influencing their favorites and their focus - Sneaky Dragon is hosted by a pair of comic writers who approach the films with a more cinematic perspective.  Both are fun diversions for prolonged periods of windshield time, and both have multiple social network platforms for conversations.