In the midst of Devin’s post today delivering the good news about the recently uncovered footage from the original cut of Metropolis, he mentioned briefly the Marx Brothers picture Humor Risk. This short film is a great source of speculation and interest for hardcore Marx fans. You may have noticed that when I did my series of articles on the leading men of Marx Brothers films, I didn’t mention Humor Risk for the exact same reason Devin did mention it, that is that it’s entirely lost. But even amongst lost films, Humor Risk is rather unique.
You see, not only is Humor Risk unable to be watched today, it’s likely that only a handful of people ever saw the film! Humor Risk was a silent comedy two reeler, the kind many of the great directors cut their teeth on. As such the picture would only have run about 20 minutes in total. It was the first of a planned series of two reelers featuring the brothers. There are a few reasons and stories about why no more shorts were produced, but the most likely is that the first instalment was simply terrible.
As far as we know, the film was produced in 1921, partly with the Marx Brothers own money. It was written by Jo Swerling, who would go on to write The Pride of the Yankees, Lifeboat and co-write It’s a Wonderful Life and the Broadway book for Guys and Dolls. All four brothers appeared, but their roles are ill defined. I often get nervous when articles on the film speak with authority as to things like this, when we all know there are not many sources to base it on. Many seem to agree that Groucho was the villain and not his usual Groucho character, and that Harpo was a kind of detective in the film. That, at least, seems safe. Beyond that, however, not even the stars were sure of the content.
For instance, Groucho once mentioned that Harold Lloyd’s leading lady (and later wife) Mildred Davis was the female star of the picture, but he was most likely mistaken. By 1921, Mildred Davis had already been working exclusively with Harold Lloyd for a number of years. One photograph of the main cast survives from a set visit and, while a little indistinct, the lady in the picture does not much resemble Mildred Davis. Mikael Uhlin makes a great case on his Marx Brother’s website Marxology that the lady in the picture is most likely another Lloyd actress Jobyna Ralston, and Groucho had gotten them mixed up.
We know that Groucho really thought Humor Risk was a stinker as he said so in a number of interviews. We know that he also didn’t like their first feature, The Cocoanuts, and tried to burn the negatives on that film. It’s possible that with Humor Risk, he may well have succeeded. A number of sources seem to suggest that the film was only ever shown once, and did not go over well. There was reportedly only one print made, the one that Groucho perhaps destroyed. The negative of the picture, according to the book Monkey Business by Simon Louvish, was kept by producer Al Posen, who abandoned it in a private projection booth in the mid 20s, after which no one can account for it’s whereabouts.
Humor Risk is indeed a strange case all round, a film that is not so much lost as it was buried. Other films have been lost due to improper storage or care. Humor Risk has been lost on purpose, to the extent that it takes a lot of detective work to even prove this short even existed. In fact, since there was only ever a negative and a single print of this film in existence, and it’s time running on a screen in all of history adds up to 20 minutes, this is perhaps the briefest blip of cinema to be so pursued. It’s also likely to not be any good, the brothers are playing against type and the silent format wouldn’t play well for the verbal comedy styles of Groucho and Chico. While of great interest to historians and Marx fans, it’s not quite on the level of found footage excised from Metropolis, and the chances of a copy ever appearing are almost certainly nil.