Suspended Animation #353
The Marx Brothers (Groucho, Chico, Harpo and sometimes Zeppo or Gummo) are considered among the most influential and beloved comedy teams of all time.Groucho Marx used to joke, “There are more books about (Marx Brothers) films than there are films that we made.” While that is certainly true, Groucho was not taking into account the many animated shorts that featured him and his brothers or variations of them.
Amazingly, at the age of 85 years old, Groucho had never seen any animated cartoon with the Marx Brothers caricatures.
On February 13, 1975, Disney Archivist Dave Smith invited the iconic comedian and his companion, Erin Fleming, to come to a screening room at the Burbank Disney Studio to view Mickey’s Polo Team (1936), Mother Goose Goes Hollywood (1938) and The Autograph Hound (1939).
Groucho apparently enjoyed the shorts so much that he borrowed copies of the films to show at his house to visitors. Groucho would pass away August 1977.
In 1961 during a period when college students were re-discovering the comedy team, Screen Gems announced they had plans for a Marx Brothers animated series to be produced by Hanna-Barbera. Like so many other projects, it never developed beyond the announcement.
On February 14, 1966, the trade publication Broadcasting Magazine carried an advertisement from Filmation for a proposed series titled The New Marx Brothers Show. The series was to consist of 156 seven-minute animated shorts
As Lou Scheimer of Filmation recalled in his biography, “Groucho had signed on as the technical advisor. Miles Films was going to distribute us.
Jay Burton, Mort Goode and Mike Maltese were the writers and Hal Sutherland directed the pilot short, A Day at the Horse Opera. I believe that I designed the characters and I did all the layout.”
The title was to reference the Marx Brothers’ film A Night at the Opera and the pilot was done as a Western that was sometimes referred to in early television as a “Horse Opera”.
Schiemer seems to have been at least partially inspired by the commercial success of Cambria Studios’ syndicated cartoon show The New Three Stooges (1965) as well as the animated shows co-produced by Hanna-Barbera The Abbott and Costello Show (1967 although episodes were made as early as 1965) and The Laurel and Hardy Show (1966 although Larry Harmon had been working on the series since 1961).
As Scheimer recalled, “One day I got a call from Groucho. ‘Lou? I’ve got a perfect voice for you to play me.’ And I said, ‘Well, who is it, Groucho?’ He said, ‘You’re talking to him’. It was Pat Harrington Jr., Groucho’s friend. He was the perfect Groucho.”
Although it was thought to be lost forever, Scheimer screened the short for an audience at the 2012 San Diego Comic-Con.
Groucho’s opening narration states that the story takes place “100 years ago BC – that’s before credit cards” while Harpo swings on a statue of Horace Greeley pointing westward. Greeley’s celebrated advice to “go west, young man” becomes physical when the giant statue kicks Harpo into the air towards the Wild West.
A hostile tribe of Indians has driven the U.S. Cavalry from their fort. This creates chaos in Washington, where a meeting of generals and senators decide to send an ambassador to appease the Indians. But the Indian chief refuses to consider a peace treaty until his daughter Minnie Ho-Ho marries a man that resembles a rock formation called The Great Stoneface that is the spitting image of Groucho.
Groucho is out West with his brothers running a shady medicine show out of a wagon when confronted by an irate customer and they all beat a hasty exit. They wind up at the Indians’ camp where Groucho’s resemblance to the rock formation is instantly recognized and Groucho quips, “I must have posed for that when I was stoned.”
Groucho and his brothers escape to the abandoned fort and must fight off the attacking Indian warriors. Harpo’s hat hides multiple devices on the end of an extending crane from a gun to a bugle to a match. At the end, Groucho forcibly disguises the ambassador as himself and throws him at an overjoyed Minnie Ho-Ho who carries him off.
As Bob Kane, co-creator of Batman, wrote in his autobiography Batman and Me, “In 1975, I was living with a friend, Russ Gerstein in Las Vegas. We were building a television center there and planned to produce graphics, films, and television shows.
“I have always been a great fan of the Marx Brothers and never missed one of their comedies. I particularly liked Groucho and watching reruns of his 1950s game show You Bet Your Life became a nocturnal habit. While watching the show one night I got the idea for doing an animated cartoon series starring the Marx Brothers.
“One day, I had the pleasure of being invited by Groucho to talk over the idea with him. I was very impressed with his sumptuous mansion. While Groucho excused himself to take a catnap, Erin (Fleming, his companion) and I chatted about the proposed animated series. She said that a couple of major animation studios had produced pilots for a Marx Brothers series but failed to catch their unique personalities, mannerisms and likenesses as well as their zany humor and satirical dialogue.
“When I showed (Groucho) the caricatures of him, Chico and Harpo, Groucho studied them silently and then smiled. I received his final approval as he shook my hand. Unfortunately, I never got to make the Marx Brothers series. Erin, who also doubled as Groucho’s business agent, wanted a hundred thousand dollars in advance before the series was produced and this would not have been feasible.”
In his book, Kane reproduced the presentation artwork he supposedly drew and showed to Groucho. Harpo is racing up a ladder honking his horn chasing a scantily clad showgirl who jumps off the top of the ladder into the waiting butterfly net held by Chico. Groucho swings on a swing with Margaret Dumont with a little French poodle underneath running away from a love-sick dog.Groucho has a speech balloon: “Miss Dumont – I always wanted to swing with you! And another thing – I think that I’m in love with you and your French poodle…it’s a toss up who I love best…However after thinking it over – I’ll take the poodle! At least she is one female who can’t talk back!!!
In 1979 Filmation made an agreement with the estates of the Marx Brothers to sell a different animated series than their 1966 proposal. As Scheimer remembered, “The expectation was to sell it to prime time and we budgeted it at around $500,000 per episode.
“We were talking with S.J. Perelman who scripted the Marx Brothers films Monkey Business and Horse Feathers when he passed away (October 1979). We only secured the rights to Groucho, Harpo and Chico leaving out Gummo and Zeppo. The rights were granted for prime time only with an expiration date of June 1, 1980 to make a sale with a minimum of thirteen episodes.”
Apparently, over the decades there were other proposals including a Saturday morning cartoon called The Little Marx Brothers as well as concepts from Morey Amsterdam and Bill Melendez. Perhaps we should all be grateful they never got made and, after all, how many young people today are familiar with the Marx Brothers?