Almost every movie the Marx Brothers appeared in had some kind of love story element, copying the successful format laid down by their first film The Cocoanuts, which I wrote about yesterday. When the boys moved to MGM, Irving Thalberg also considered the romantic drama element important to the Marx Brothers formula. Duck Soup, which had underperformed for Paramount, lacked such a device. Over the years, quite a lot of famous actresses turned up in the films as the romantic female lead, from Maureen O’Sullivan to Ann Miller, but what of the male leads?
Technically these men were also the stars of the picture, some had their name written huge on the poster, but of course they were usually completely upstaged by the antics of the brothers. Their scenes are most people’s least favourite parts of the movies, but somehow I’ve always been fascinated with these actors. So, if you’ll indulge me, I’d like to take a look at the second bananas of the classic Marx Brothers pictures, one by one.
For the purposes of this article and my own sanity, I’m counting the classic Marx films to be the pictures spanning from The Cocoanuts to The Big Store, not including the terrible RKO oddity Room Service, or the last two stinkers Love Happy and A Night At Casablanca, which I can’t stand. I’ll be posting a few of these over the next couple of days (so that one post doesn’t become so massively intimidating) so please check back for the rest of the article if you like the first part.
The Cocoanuts (1929) – Bob Adams played by Oscar Shaw
Cocoanuts starts the convention of the male lead having some kind of strange job, or mix of jobs. In this case, Bob Adams is a trained architect, but he is also working as a clerk in a Florida hotel. You know how hard it is out there for architects to make ends meet. Despite being a hotel clerk, he never seems to be working. He’s usually on the beach or out gallivanting while Zeppo mans the desk. Perhaps the majority of the film actually takes place on Bob’s day off. We do see him design a house though, so the architect side of things rings true. Despite being discriminated against by his girlfriend’s mother for his lowly clerking status, Bob is incredibly well spoken. He names the house he designs “Heaven…for Polly and Me” in an unsurprising show of good grammar.
I wrote a little about the actor Oscar Shaw in my previous article about this picture, in which I said he looked like Lon Chaney in Phantom of the Opera. In fairness, his strange glowing pallor is probably part the responsibility of famous director of photography George Folsey’s unique black and white lighting techniques, but he’s still a fairly odd looking fellow. Shaw was actually more of a stage actor than a film actor, and this may somewhat account for his performance. Remember that Cocoanuts was originally a successful play too. Also, in the early days of sound, when the film was made, a large number of stage actors and directors were drafted into movies as it was assumed they knew much more about dialogue.
Oscar does not really get any funny moments in The Cocoanuts, and a few moments where he is supposedly being witty just fall flat. Shaw sings one of the Irving Berlin songs in the film, When My Dreams Come True. It’s not much fun to listen to and both Oscar Shaw and Mary Eaton seem to be singing it as high and politely as they can. Shaw has that strange warbling kind of singing voice, the kind you might hear out of a really showy member of a church choir, but not the kind of thing you expect to hear out of a man.
Bob Adams is a poor part played poorly by Shaw. Unfortunately, this sets the tone for most of the male leads in the later pictures.
Animal Crackers (1930) – John Parker played by Hal Thompson.
John Parker (“of the Central Parkers” as he’s introduced) is a very similar character to Bob Adams. He is frustrated in his profession and in love with a rich girl whose society dame mother, invariably Margaret Dumont, doesn’t approve. In this case, he’s a struggling painter rather than an architect. John even has a little back-story, he studied and practiced his art in France for a few years before the events of the film. Parker and his girlfriend Arabella have one of the most obnoxious love story plots in the Marx movies, which makes them very hard to sympathise with.
Their plan is to steal a famous painting that is to be exhibited at a party being thrown by Arabella’s mother and replace the original with a copy that John painted in Paris. When the pretentious art snobs at the party crow about how nice the painting is, the pair will reveal that it’s actually the work of John. Apparently this work of theft and forgery is going to increase John’s standing in the art world. Personally it seems there are a few flaws in that plan. Certainly if the Pulitzer Prize was judged on your ability to come up with cunning schemes, writer George Kaufman would have had his revoked. The plan is complicated by a double and then triple swap of the picture that you probably won’t be able to follow when first watching the picture and won’t want to follow on subsequent viewings.
Actor Hal Thompson was never a big name, he only appeared in a handful of films and even here, the attention would more likely have been on Lillian Roth then him. That said, he is actually one of the better second bananas to appear in the movies. Thompson sings once in the picture, like Cocoanuts a duet with the female lead called Why Am I So Romantic, a much better song than the Cocoanuts tune and he sings it much better. Thompson is comfortable on camera and has a more casual atmosphere about his performance than someone like Oscar Shaw and shows Lillian Roth’s cutie-pie act up a few times in line readings. Once again though he doesn’t get to join in on the antics the boys get into and hardly interacts with them at all until near the end of the movie. In fact, he hardly interacts with anyone at all, having just about the least screen time of any of the male leads. Sadly, after Animal Crackers, Thompson made only one more picture and then never worked again.
Tomorrow, I’ll be looking at two of the most important male leads in the Marx brothers pictures, Allan Jones and Zeppo Marx himself!