Monday, November 26, 2012

The Document That Changed the Course of Marx Brothers' History

Minutes Of 1st Meeting of Marx Bros. Inc. Signed by Groucho, Harpo, Chico, and Zeppo Marx
The Marx Bros. translated their success in vaudeville onto film under contract with Paramount Pictures. Harpo, Chico, Groucho, and Zeppo became household names and made five great films in five short years –The Cocoanuts (1929), Animal Crackers (1930), Monkey Business (1931), Horse Feathers (1932), and Duck Soup (1933).

Although these films were zany and madcap, all was not rosy behind-the-scenes. Both artistic and financial differences raged – in particular during pre-production for Duck Soup. Paramount had been developed from Adolph Zukor’s Famous Players and Jesse Lasky’s company, and a reorganization of Paramount around the time of Duck Soup brought fears that money due the Marx Bros. wouldn’t be paid.

In 1933 the boys surprised the world by forming their own company – a challenge to the powerful studio system that was akin to therevolutionary formation of United Artists 1919 by D. W. Griffith, Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks. These actual typewritten minutes from the first meeting of the newly minted corporation document the moment the Marx Bros. struck out on their own – March 28, 1933.

All four signed on the second page their given and stage names: “Arthur Harpo Marx,” “Herbert Zeppo Marx,” “Leo Chico Marx,” and “Julius Groucho Marx.” On the first page, “Arthur Harpo Marx” signed again as Chairman and “Leo Chico Marx” signed again as Secretary. Both pages are double cloth matted and framed with an unsigned vintage 8 x 10 inch photo of the brothers playing saxophones to an overall size of 18 x 31 inches. When Marx Bros. Inc. was born, the new corporation wasn’t simply a negotiating ploy. Eventually Duck Soup was completed and released, but both Paramount and the Marxes knew the relationship was over.

Chico Marx played cards with producer Irving Thalberg who told the Marx Bros. that he wanted to do things differently than they had been done at Paramount – not make “lousy pictures like Duck Soup.” Groucho recollected being annoyed by that statement, but Thalberg explained that he could “make a picture with you that would have half as many laughs as your Paramount films, but they will be more effective because the audience will be in sympathy with you.” (p. 203 Marx Bros Scrapbook

Groucho would soon learn that Thalberg was right. The brothers began making pictures with Irving Thalberg and putting them out through M-G-M. Thalberg insisted on a stronger story structure than in the Paramount films with the Marxes playing more sympathetic characters.

In a 1969 interview with Dick Cavett, Groucho said that the two movies made with Thalberg - A Night at the Opera (1935) and A Day at the Races (1937) - were the best that they ever produced. If the Marx Bros. had never left Paramount and formed Marx Bros. Inc. we may never have had the famous overcrowded stateroom gag, Chico’s oft-quoted line “There ain't no sanity clause,” or countless other priceless laughs. The second act of their career all began with this two-page document, and the rest they say, is history.

Article by Kevin Segall, Proprietor of Collector's Shangri-La

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