Friday, September 3, 2010

Eugene O'Neill with a Groucho chaser; or, Hello, I must be blogging

Elizabeth and I spent three days last weekend on a "working vacation" in Portland, OR. We visited old friends (some of whom I've written about here before), enjoyed the city's inherent lovely greenness, ate very well in excellent company, finally caught up with Me and Orson Welles (mostly loved it) and Kraken rum (I make a mean Dark & Stormy), and managed to catch William Hurt in the Artists Rep production of Eugene O'Neill's bleak autobiographical 1956 drama of addiction and family dysfunction, A Long Day's Journey Into Night.

Now, being a theater dude I went into Long Day's Journey aware that any company these days has a hard road to hoe in making that particular four-hour Pulitzer Prize-winner fresh and gripping for a modern audience, for whom O'Neill's once-searing and pioneering realism may have been diluted to homeopathic nullity by the intervening decades of "reality" media saturation. While I bear nothing at all against O'Neill's masterfulness — cf. my post about The Iceman Cometh — I predicted that this play in particular is now past its sell-by date and that only an extraordinary and bold production could undo that. This one was neither extraordinary nor bold, plus was riddled with artistic and directorial choices that left me wondering if everyone involved knew they were supposed to be working on the same play.

So, although actors William Hurt and especially Robyn Nevin were several kinds of terrific, I came away needing a palate cleanser and mood lifter. And for me the Marx Brothers have always been a reliable tonic when such needs arise. I reached for their second film, Animal Crackers, in which Groucho riffs on O'Neill's expressionistic play Strange Interlude by stepping forward to address the camera (that is, the audience) and soliloquizing thusly (the 2:20 mark):

Suddenly the world was brighter again.

Among the many things I love about 1930's Animal Crackers (and its 1929 predecessor, The Cocoanuts) is that they are just about our only records of what it was like to see the Marxes performing live on Broadway. The films, shot in Paramount's Astoria studios in Queens, NY, were adaptations of two of their Broadway shows. The Brothers shot The Cocoanuts at the studio during the day, then hot-footed back to Manhattan to perform Animal Crackers on stage in the evenings. It wasn't until their third (and first all-original) film, Monkey Business (1931) that they moved to Hollywood, where they spent the rest of their lives.

The original stage script was pared down for the screen, so as a film Animal Crackers is a rough approximation rather than a full-on reproduction. Still, as an historical document it benefits from unadorned point-and-shoot camerawork, a proscenium staginess, and lack of cinematic flair. A script credited to Bert Kalmar, Harry Ruby, and George S. Kaufman doesn't hurt either, even though showbiz legend has it that Kaufman, backstage during one of the shows he wrote for the notorious ad-libbers, once exclaimed, "Wait! I think I just heard one of my lines!" (I have more to say about the Marxes' Paramount films at DVD Journal.)

So when Groucho quips, "You're very fortunate the Theatre Guild isn't putting this on, and so is the Guild," it's a line that would deliver an extra layer of funny to a Broadway audience, especially since it was the Guild that had recently premiered Strange Interlude for the play's 1928-29 run. The Internet Broadway Database tells me that from Oct. 23, 1928 to February 1929, the Broadway runs of Animal Crackers and Strange Interlude overlapped as they played simultaneously at the Forty-Fourth Street Theatre and the John Golden Theatre respectively.

Oh, what it must have been like to catch both shows on consecutive nights. has more about Animal Crackers on Broadway, including sections trimmed out for the film and pages from the program book.

In his current series on the Marx Brothers, Mythical Monkey's excellent blog takes a good look at the Brothers at this stage of their stage-to-film career.