Movies: “Esio Trot”

February 15, 2016

Esio 1

Lucy Mangan, writing in The Guardian, had this to say about the film Esio Trot: “Just watch it. Once a week, I’d recommend, for the rest of your life.”

Some may think that suggestion is excessive, but it certainly heightened my curiosity, which had already been aroused by the fact that this BBC television movie co-stars Judi Dench and Dustin Hoffman. This movie, based on a children’s novel by Roald Dahl, first appeared on British TV in 2014 and still hasn’t been released in the United States. Nor is it available in a DVD format that will play on most American devices. But I poked around on the Internet long enough to find that the movie is available at THIS LINK. You can click on “CC” at the lower right to turn off the Dutch subtitles.

esio 2

Esio Trot concerns Mr. Hoppy (Hoffman), an introverted aging bachelor who has two passions in life—the lush garden he keeps on his apartment balcony and his lovely and charismatic neighbor, the widowed Mrs. Silver (Dench). Although he and Mrs. Silver often meet, particularly in the apartment building elevator, and although Mr. Hoppy often chats with her when they are on their respective balconies, Mrs. Silver seems to reserve all of her affection for her pet tortoise, Alfie. Mr. Hoppy doesn’t have the courage to tell Mrs. Silver how he feels about her—that, in fact, he would like to marry her—but he sees an opening when she expresses her concern that Alfie never grows any larger. She had dreamed of a more imposing tortoise to keep her company in her solitude. Mr. Hoppy determines to fulfill this dream for Mrs. Silver, and he devises an elaborate, somewhat devious, and ultimately hilarious means of accomplishing it.

esio 3

The story line in the movie departs from that in the novel, and the differences include a character who appears only in the movie—the boorish Mr. Pringle, played by Richard Cordery—who is Mr. Hoppy’s rival for Mrs. Silver’s attention. The movie is also enlivened by the presence of James Corden, who narrates the story while rushing around London.

Judi Dench, Dustin Hoffman, Richard Cordery, and James Corden are perfect in their roles. (No one is better than Hoffman at playing woebegone figures, and Dench—well, she’s Judi Dench, for Pete’s sake.) But the texture of this movie is made richer by the fact that all the minor characters, from children to shopkeepers, are perfectly cast and utterly believable in an implausible situation.

I don’t know about once  week, but I certainly recommend that you watch Esio Trot.

 

HENRY RATHBONE

HENRY RATHBONE

Last summer, I wrote a post here about Scott Martelle’s book, “The Madman and the Assassin,” which was a biography of Thomas “Boston” Corbett, the eccentric soldier who shot John Wilkes Booth. What was interesting about that book, besides the fact that Martelle executed it so well, was the fact that in the 150 years that elapsed since Booth died, no one else had written a book-length account of Corbett’s life. Now, hard on Martelle’s heels, comes Caleb Jenner Stephens, with a rare and perhaps unique book-length account of the life of Henry Rathbone, one of only four people present when Booth murdered Abraham Lincoln. Rathbone, an army major at the time, and his fiancé, Clara Harris, joined Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln at Ford’s Theater on April 14, 1865 for a performance of the comedy Our American Cousin.

CLARA HARRIS RATHBONE

CLARA HARRIS RATHBONE

The only reason the couple accompanied the Lincolns that night was that everyone else who had been invited—notably including General Ulysses S. Grant and his wife, Julia—had declined. The advance chatter that the Grants and the Lincolns might attend together just days after Robert E. Lee surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia had caused some excitement in Washington, but Julia Grant was one of many people in the capital who could not abide Mary Lincoln, so the Grants avoided the appointment by repairing to New Jersey to visit their children. Rathbone, who was sitting in the rear of the presidential box when Booth entered, confronted the assassin after the murder had been committed and sustained a serious knife wound in his left arm.

The dagger with which John Wilkes Booth wounded Maj. Henry Rathbone

The dagger with which John Wilkes Booth wounded Maj. Henry Rathbone

Despite the injury, he tried unsuccessfully to prevent Booth from leaping from the box to the stage from whence he made his escape. Rathbone, who came from a wealthy Albany family, later married Clara Harris, who was also his stepsister, and the couple had three children, including U.S. Representative Henry Riggs Rathbone of Illinois. Rathbone recovered from the wound to his arm, but his mental health seems to have been permanently impaired by his experience at the theater and especially by the fact that he had been unable to either prevent Lincoln’s death or keep Booth from escaping. It was unreasonable for Rathbone to assume guilt for this, but the event was so sudden and shocking that reason didn’t play a part in his reaction to it. Stephens makes that argument, in some detail, that Rathbone suffered from what is now known as post traumatic stress syndrome. The author also explores an account of the murder—raised in a contemporary publication—which holds that Rathbone saw Booth enter the presidential box before the murder and rose to ask Booth what business he had there, but was brushed aside as Booth approached the president from behind and fired the fatal shot.

JOHN WILKES BOOTH

JOHN WILKES BOOTH

I am not aware that this version appears in any public record. Stephens attributes it to The Public Ledger, a daily newspaper then being published in Philadelphia. According to The Public Ledger, Clara Harris gave this alternative version during an interview with Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton. Stephens gives weight to this account and repeatedly—and, I think, unfairly—refers to Rathbone’s “failure to protect the president.” In one instance, in fact—in a stunning exercise of hyperbole—the author accuses Rathbone of “failing the whole world.”

Rathbone remained in the army until 1879 and retired with the rank of brevet colonel. He and his family were living in Germany on December 23, 1883, when, after many years of psychic and emotional instability, he murdered Clara and tried to commit suicide. He was consigned to a reasonably comfortable asylum in Germany for the remaining twenty-seven years of his life. This book suffers from bad grammar and syntax to a degree that is very distracting. However, Stephens has made a contribution to the literature surrounding the murder of Abraham Lincoln by compiling a chronicle that has been neglected.

 

“Stay just 1:36 longer”

January 25, 2016

MAURICE WILLIAMS

MAURICE WILLIAMS

My recent post about Dave Somerville—among other things, lead singer with The Diamonds—reminded me that that group’s most enduring hit, “Little Darlin,’ ” was introduced, with far less success, by a different group.

The song was written by Maurice Williams, and it was first recorded in 1957 by Williams’ rhythm-and-blues group, The Gladiolas. That original version was recorded on the Louisiana-based Excello label; the song reached No. 11 on the R&B charts.

Shortly after The Gladiolas introduced the song, The Diamonds covered it, cutting a single for RCA Records that was released on July 19, 1957. That version reached No. 2 in sales in the Billboard Hot 100; Billboard ranked it the No. 3 song for 1957 after Elvis Presley’s “All Shook Up” and Pat Boone’s “Love Letters in the Sand.”

Gladiolas

The Diamonds’ rendering of this song has been described by some commentators as self-parody, and the group’s body language in THIS VIDEO might be admitted as evidence.

In any event, the impression The Diamonds made has kept the song popular for almost sixty years, and it has been covered or performed by a wide variety of artists, including Presley, Joan Baez, Sha Na Na, The Chevrons, The Four Seasons, and The Monkees. The song also surfaced, in a hilarious fashion, in the Columbia Pictures film Ishtar, which Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel jointly described as the worst movie of 1987. However that may be, THIS VERSION of “Little Darlin’,” performed by Dustin Hoffman and Warren Beatty, is worth the click.

 

Dustin Hoffman

DUSTIN HOFFMAN and WARREN BEATTY

Don’t shed any tears for The Gladiolas, by the way. That group morphed into Maurice Williams and the Zodiacs. Under that name, the group recorded “Stay” in 1960; Williams had written the song in 1953 when he was 15 years old, putting to words and music, according to him, an actual experience in which he unsuccessfully tried to convince a girl he was dating to stay out a little longer. The song was released on Herald Records and reached No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. The recording–one minute and thirty-six seconds long– has the distinction of being the shortest single to reach the top of record charts in the United States.  To date, an estimated ten million copies have been sold.

The Beatles performed “Stay” during their live appearances from 1960 to 1962, and the song has been covered by, among others, The Dave Clark 5, The Four Seasons, Cyndi Lauper, and Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band.

The Gladiolas’ version of “Little Darlin’ ” is HERE.

To hear The Zodiacs sing “Stay,” click HERE.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ishtar: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KadgeZuL5wE

 

The Diamonds

Tom Hanks’ father was not the lead singer with The Diamonds. He was not. That idea concerning Hanks’ parentage was presented the other day in one of those e-mail messages with the screaming warning sign in the subject line, namely “Fwd.” There are a couple of people, who have too much time on their hands, who circulate such nonsense to us and a long list of other addressees. We usually ignore them, but this one caught our attention because it was so far-fetched. How did such a notion originate, we wondered: was it concocted deliberately (and, if so, to what end?) or did  it begin as a misunderstanding? Probably, we’ll never know; still, the false story led us to the true story, which was worth learning.

For the record, Tom Hanks’ father, Amos Mefford Hanks, was a cook. The lead singer with The Diamonds was Dave Somerville. I was familiar with The Diamonds because they became popular in the 1950s when I was in my teens. Their biggest hits, “Little Darlin'” and “The Stroll” were released in 1957. However, I didn’t know until the scurrilous e-mail piqued my curiosity what a varied and productive career Dave Somerville had.

Dave Somerville (2)Somerville, who was–as were all of The Diamonds–born in Canada, studied voice at the Royal Conservatory of Music at the University of Toronto. In 1953, he met Stan Fisher, Ted Kowalski, Phil Levitt, and Bill Reed, at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. The four had formed a quartet, and Somerville coached them; when Fisher dropped out, Somerville became the lead singer. That group became The Diamonds.

In 1955, The Diamonds tied for first place on an installment of Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts, a radio and television show that originated in New York. In 1956, they signed a contract with Mercury Records. The group had sixteen songs on the Billboard charts over the next eight years.

David Troy.gif

Dave Somerville, billed as David Troy, in the 1966 Star Trek episode, “The Conscience of the King”

After leaving the Diamonds, Somerville worked for six years as a folk singer, using the name David Troy–Troy being his middle name. He also studied acting with Leonard Nimoy; his television acting appearances included The Fall Guy, The Misadventures of Sheriff Lobo, Quincy ME, McCloud, Gomer Pyle USMC, and Star Trek.

Somerville and Gail Jensen wrote a song, “The (Ballad of the) Unknown Stuntman,” that prompted Glen Larson, the original baritone with the Four Preps, to conceive of the characters and format for what became the television series The Fall Guy, which ran for 112 episodes with Lee Majors in the title role. “The Unknown Stuntman,” which Larson embellished with added lyrics, was the theme.

Somerville also did voice-over for hundreds of radio, television, and cable TV ads.

Dave SomervilleIn 1967, Somerville joined The Four Preps as a replacement for Ed Cobb. In 1969, he and Bruce Belland, the original lead singer with the Four Preps formed a folk music and comedy act and appeared in concert with Henry Mancini and Johnny Mathis. They were also regulars on The Tim Conway Show. Somerville and Belland wrote “The Troublemaker,” which was the title track of two Willie Nelson albums. Somerville and Belland also sang with a later iteration of the Four Preps.

In 1972, Somerville formed a group called WW Fancy; in the 1980s he sang with the original members of The Diamonds and also returned to The Four Preps.

He made a children’s album, The Cosmic Adventures of Diamond Dave, that comprised many of his original songs.

He also appeared in a stage show, On The 1957 Rock & Roll Greyhound Bus, that was based on a tour in which The Diamonds traveled with Fats Domino, Chuck Berry, Paul Anka, The Everly Brothers, Buddy Holly, and others.

Dave Somerville died in 2015 at the age of 81. He hadn’t sired Tom Hanks, but he had made his own mark on American entertainment.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Jimmy Davis

Among the ads that are “trending” on Facebook lately, on my account at least, is one that is shilling a little pendant with the inscription “You are my sunshine, my only sunshine” with a suggestion that this would be a good gift for one’s grandchildren. I don’t believe I’ll try it on my grandchildren, but the ad reminded me that we used to sing that song when I was in elementary school, and I used to wonder why.

I was puzzled about that because the song is about an adult theme and is rather morbid.

The chorus is a set-up; the first three lines sound cheerful enough, but the last line implies that something is going on that we are not aware of:

You are my sunshine, my only sunshine. / You make me happy when skies are grey. / You’ll never know, dear, how much I love you.

So far, so good, but then the hammer drops:

Please don’t take my sunshine away.

“Whoa,” I used to think when we sang that song. “Where did that come from? What did the songwriter know that we don’t know?”

The combination of the plaintive melody and the sudden implication that catastrophe looms ahead seemed out of place in my Howdy Doody, Lincoln Logs world.

The verses were even more disturbing.

In the first one, we found ourselves singing in our flutey little voices about someone fantasizing about sleeping with a lover.

The other night, dear, as I lay sleeping / I dreamt I held you in my arms.

But any stimulation our young psyches derived from this image was quickly dispelled:

When I awoke, dear, I was mistaken / so I hung my head and cried.

Clearly, we were not dealing with “April Showers” or “Yankee Doodle.” We knew that before we got to the second verse, it’s dark threat:

I will always love you and make you happy / if you will only say the same. / But if you leave me to love another / you will regret it all one day.

It sounds like the last scene of I Pagliacci. The only thing missing is the knife.

The denouement comes in the third verse, and it isn’t pretty:

You told me once dear, you really loved me / and no one else dear, could come between. / But now you’ve left me and love another. / You have shattered all my dreams.

Jimmie_Davis (2)

 

“You Are My Sunshine” was recorded on February 5, 1940 by Jimmy Davis and Charles Mitchell. It is, in fact, the most recent state song of Louisiana, so designated in 1977 by a legislature that apparently hadn’t read the lyrics. I say “the most recent state song” because Louisiana adopted two “official state songs” before this one, and it has at least three other “official songs” for specific purposes. The action in 1977 was based largely on the fact that Jimmy Davis had served as governor of Louisiana from 1960 to 1964.

But before the Davis-Mitchell recording, two other versions of the song were cut in 1939—one by the Pine Ridge Boys (Marvin Taylor and Doug Spivey) on August 22 and one by The Rice Brothers Gang on September 13.

When Davis ran for governor in 1944, he often appeared during his campaign riding on a horse named Sunshine and singing this song.

Although Davis or Davis and Mitchell together are usually given credit for writing the song, it appears that Davis actually bought the rights to it from Paul Rice (of the Rice Brothers). Davis took credit for the tune, but never claimed to have written it.

Although it was an odd choice for us kids, “You Are My Sunshine” played an important in the evolution of American popular music. The Jimmy Davis version was popular enough that it made the country sound attractive to people who normally would have ignored it. In 1940, the song was covered four times, including by cowboy singer Gene Autry, but also by Bing Crosby and Lawrence Welk, so that the crossover occurred almost immediately. Among those who have covered it since then are Nat “King ” Cole, Johnny Cash and June Carter, Ray Charles, Ike and Tina Turner, Aretha Franklin, and Mtume.

 

 

 

 

Loretta Young - poster

Nepotism may be problematic in terms of morality, but it sometimes works out for the best. We watched an example the other night: The 1951 film Cause for Alarm.

This movie didn’t do well at the box office, and it has been so neglected that it is in the public domain. But it’s a thriller that still holds up after more than sixty years, and its merit is due in large part to its simplicity.

Cause for Alarm stars Loretta Young as Ellen Jones, Barry Sullivan as George Jones, and Bruce Cowling as Dr. Ranney Graham. The score is by Andre Previn.

In this story, which Young narrates, Ellen meets George, an army pilot, during World War II. They are introduced by Dr. Graham, who is fond of Ellen but seemingly too busy for a relationship. George comes across as annoyingly self-assured and narcissistic, but Ellen falls for him and, after the war, they marry.

BARRY SULLIVAN and LORETTA YOUNG

BARRY SULLIVAN and LORETTA YOUNG

Fast forward their lives, and George has suffered a serious heart attack and is bed-ridden at home. He has become paranoid and imagines that Ellen and Dr. Graham are plotting to kill him by administering overdoses of his medications. He makes this accusation in a letter to the district attorney—addressing it to the DA only by name, not by title—and asks Ellen to mail it, telling her that it’s related to his insurance business. When Ellen has handed the letter to the postman, George accuses her directly and threatens to kill her with a pistol, telling her that he will argue that he did it in self defense. At this moment, George suffers a fatal heart attack, and the rest of the film concerns Ellen’s frantic effort to conceal George’s death long enough to recover the letter to the DA.

IRVING BACON and LORETTA YOUNG

IRVING BACON and LORETTA YOUNG

Most of the action in this film takes place in the Joneses’ home or outdoors in the neighborhood nearby. A significant portion of the setting for the story is George’s bedroom. In this mundane domestic atmosphere, the tension generated by Ellen’s growing anxiety is magnified. Although the situation is implausible, and the acting is of the arch variety that was typical of that time, the story is compelling as Ellen descends toward hysteria.

The producer of this film was Tim Lewis, who at the time was the second of Loretta Young’s three husbands. Lewis had considered Judy Garland for the role of Ellen, but decided to cast his wife instead. The film required an actress who could project simplicity, even naiveté, because what makes the story work is that it is such woman who, through no fault of her own, finds herself in this dangerous position. No doubt Garland, who was only 31 when this film was made, would have done Ellen justice, but I doubt that in this instance she could have outdone Loretta Young.

The director, Tay Garnett, shot this film in fourteen days by throughly prepping the cast and the crew in advance. An interesting sidelight is that the postman is played by Irving Bacon, who appeared in well over five hundred films and television shows between 1915 and 1965, including twenty-eight films based on the comic strip Blondie in which he played a postman.

 

 

 

A FIREFLY/almanac.com

A FIREFLY/almanac.com

Johnny Mercer was going for a rhyme. Little did he know that that lyric, which he wrote around 1952, would presage an environmental phenomenon to occur six decades in the future: the vanishing firefly.

We became aware of this on a recent night when we were sitting on our backyard deck after dark, admiring the moon—a natural wonder that has suffered relatively little, so far, from human activity. There is a swath of lawn maybe thirty feet wide between the deck and a thick patch of woods; when we first moved here about 14 years ago, fireflies would flit around in that space on summer nights. As I sat there the other night, I remarked that I hadn’t seen a single firefly this summer. A little research on the iPhone turned up the fact that the firefly population all over the world has been sharply diminished. Those with knowledge of the subject speculate that the factors in this melancholy situation are overdevelopment, which destroys the firefly’s habitat and natural prey; artificial light, which interferes with the mating rituals of fireflies—that’s what those little flashes are all about; and pesticides.

There are some places in the world in which fireflies are so numerous—or have been until now—that they constitute a tourist attraction. I also read about one river in Asia on which they are considered an aid to navigation as their thousands of winking lights along the shore outline the course of the water on dark nights. And, of course, fireflies have been among the charms in the lives of uncounted children.

The firefly was an inspiration to the prominent German composer Paul Lincke, who included a song called “Das Glühwürmchen”—”The Glow Worm”—in his 1902 operetta “Lysistrata.” A lyricist named Lilla Cayley Robinson translated that song into English, and it was used in the 1907 Broadway musical “The Girl Behind the Counter.” But its permanent place in the popular songbook wasn’t sealed until Mercer got a hold of it and put his own spin on it for the Mills Brothers, who recorded it in 1952 as “Glow, Little Glow Worm.” It was the number-one song in the country for three weeks that year, and it was on the charts for twenty-one weeks.

Whoever thought that song might be all we’d have left.

You can see and hear the Mills Brothers sing this song on the “Nat King Cole Show” by clicking The Mills Brothers sing “Glow Worm” .

Dempsey 2

In the episode of the television series Taxi in which Jim Ignatowski is hired as a driver for the Sunshine Cab Company, the first scene takes place in Mario’s, the cabbie hangout. The core group of drivers on the show are there to celebrate the fact that one of them, Tony Banta, has finally won a prize fight. Their excitement isn’t dampened at all by the fact that Tony won by default when his opponent fell while climbing through the ropes and knocked himself out. After all, Tony argued, he had to make it through the same ropes. In that scene, one gets a fleeting glimpse of a framed print among the clutter behind the restaurant bar. It is a reproduction of Dempsey and Firpo, the 1924 painting by George Bellows. The painting portrays the incident a year before when 80,000 people were admitted to the Polo Grounds in Upper Manhattan—the baseball park had a capacity of 55,000— to watch Jack Dempsey defend his world heavyweight boxing title against the popular Argentinian Luis Firpo.

Dempsey 1

The fight lasted only into the second round, and both men took their licks. In the first round, Dempsey knocked Firpo down seven times; that was made possible by the rules that prevailed at the time, permitting a boxer to stand over a floored opponent and knock him down again as soon as he got up, and also by the fact that three knockdowns in one round were not yet considered a technical knockout. A rule adopted later required a boxer to go to a neutral corner when his opponent was knocked down.

Later in the first round, Firpo landed a right on Dempsey’s chin and knocked him through the ropes and into the ringside seats. What happened next generated one of those exquisite controversies that arise in sports. The sports writers sitting at ringside helped Dempsey back into the ring. Analysis of the film of the fight indicates that the referee had counted only to four when Dempsey was back on the canvas, but observers who were checking their watches claimed that as many as fourteen seconds had elapsed when Dempsey was ready to continue.

JACK DEMPSEY

JACK DEMPSEY

Because of the count, and because Dempsey didn’t get back into the ring under his own steam, the argument arose and has persisted that Firpo should have been awarded a knockout and crowned heavyweight champion of the world. If Dempsey had been out of the ring for twenty seconds, the rule in place at the time would have resulted in a TKO. As it turned out, Dempsey knocked out Firpo in fifty-seven seconds of the second round, and Firpo never did win the title. Dempsey who was a wild and wooly character, often involved in controversy, earned enormous amounts of money as a fighter. He later operated a popular restaurant in Manhattan. Firpo became an automobile dealer and a large-scale rancher. He and Dempsey later jointly managed an Argentinian boxer named Abel Cestac who became the heavyweight champion of South America.

I don’t follow boxing any more, but when I was younger I had a conflicted relationship with the sport. I enjoyed its history, its characters,  and its ritual, and I admired boxers such as Archie Moore, Carmen Basilio, Rocky Marciano, Ray Robinson, and Floyd Patterson. On the other hand, I thought, and still do, that boxing is fundamentally barbaric.

Boxing was a subject that interested George Bellows, who did a number of works that portrayed amateur fights. He may be best known for his scenes of New York City life. He promoted American intervention in World War I and the war, including atrocities attributed to German troops, provided him with some riveting subject matter. When he was criticized for painting images of a war he did not witness, he asked rhetorically if Leonardo had attended The Last Supper.

So 1

We were at the American Museum of Natural History in New York recently, and I asked a uniformed employee of the museum how to get to the Imax theater.

He said something like the following: “So you go through that door to your left, turn left again and walk all the way through the gift shop and through the exit at the other end, and you’ll come right to the theater.”

“So.”

He started that sentence with “so.”

It wasn’t “so” as a conjunction introducing a dependent clause: “So that we’re not late for the theater, we’re catching the 9:30 train.”

It wasn’t “so” implying prior knowledge of the subject about to be introduced: “So, how was your trip to Peoria?”

And it wasn’t “so” used as an adverb: “So many people declined the invitation that we had to cancel the party.

So 2

In this usage, “so” may be best identified as an interjection that conveys no meaning of its own. I have seen the usage defined as a “linguistic pause.”

In that sense, it is similar to the words “say” and “why,” which one hears in the films noir of the 1940s: “Say, for two cents I’d knock your block off!”

I first noticed this usage of “so” while listening to an interview on NPR perhaps seven or eight years ago, but I find that it has been around much longer than that and is the topic of conversation on a lot of web sites devoted to language.

Some folks are quite passionate in their demands that the usage be stopped.

A writer on one business-oriented web site argued that using “so” in that way while engaged in commerce insults your listener, undermines your credibility, and signals that you are not altogether comfortable with what you’re about to say. (I thought there was something suspicious about that museum guide, and we did get lost on the way to the Imax.)

so 3

One person responding to that writer pointed out something that hadn’t occurred to me—that comedians for generations have used that construction: “So a priest, a minister, and a rabbi walked into a bar ….”

For me, whose life is all about the English language, this is an interesting example of how our manner of speech evolves over time. Often, change occurs without us noticing it. When did movie tough guys stop using “say”? But in this case it’s a specimen that we can observe and that probably is harming no one except linguistic fussbudgets, and that probably will fade away just as innocently as it came.

Incidentally, the bartender looked up and said, “So what is this—some kind of a joke?”

BILL MARX/pbs.org

BILL MARX/pbs.org

There is a double meaning to the title of this book, which was published in 2010. This is the memoir of Bill Marx, oldest of the four children of Harpo Marx, so the book is, in a sense, Harpo’s son speaking. The title also is an allusion to Harpo Speaks, the 1961 autobiography of the silent comedian, written “with Rowland Barber.”

Harpo Speaks may be the best of the many books about this family, due in part to the detailed memories of Harpo Marx and the writing skills of Rowland Barber, who also wrote The Night they Raided Minsky’s and co-wrote Somebody Up There Likes Me with boxer Rocky Graziano. Son of Harpo Speaks is not in the same class. It’s not that Bill Marx didn’t have a story to tell, or even that he didn’t tell it. It’s that he told it without focus or precision. The grammatical and spelling errors, while trivial as individual faux pas, are distracting in the aggregate. The absence of a professional co-author and a rigorous editor is evident on every page.

BILL and HARPO MARX on a movie set.

BILL and HARPO MARX on a movie set.

Nevertheless, I’m grateful that Bill Marx wrote this book, because it preserves facts and insights about his parents and the rest of the Marx family that might otherwise have been lost. That’s important to me, because I have been a student of the Marx clan since I was about 13 years old and someone gave me a copy of The Marx Brothers by Kyle Crichton, which was published in 1950. I use the word “student” rather than “fan” because I have always been less interested in the Marx Brothers as entertainers than in the Marx family as a phenomenon of the American experience in the twentieth century. I have read most of the other books about them and I have interviewed Miriam Marx, the eldest child of Groucho Marx; Maxine Marx, the daughter of Chico Marx; and Gregg Marx, the grandson of Gummo Marx.

Bill Marx was the first of four children adopted by Harpo and Susan Fleming Marx, and he made his career as a Julliard-trained pianist, composer, and arranger. His account of his relationship with his adoptive parents confirms what one reads in every account of their lives, namely that they were genuinely nice people. Bill Marx unabashedly admired both of them, and he revels in the fact that for many years he served as Harpo’s props manager: “I had to see that the coat he wore was properly prepared for all of his sight gags; the carrot goes into the upper right inside pocket, the telescope must be in the lower left inside pocket, the scissors for immediate availability in the small middle right inside pocket, the rubber chicken accessible in the large left inside pocket, and on and on.”

Once Bill Marx got his sea legs as a musician, he collaborated with his father on several projects, including two albums of Harpo’s performances on the complicated instrument he mastered without a lesson and without the ability to read music. He also wrote arrangements for Harpo’s live performances and TV guest spots.

HARPO and BILL MARX in collaboration

HARPO and BILL MARX in collaboration

Bill Marx also devotes considerable space in this meandering book to his personal emotional and psychic history, including his struggle to find and understand his own identity, and the personalities that influenced him, including such icons as Buddy Rich and Margaret Hamilton. He also includes a fascinating account of how he learned the names and sad histories of his birth parents through a chance acquaintance he made at Dino’s, a club in Los Angeles where he was playing piano.

I’m glad to have read this book; my only regret is that I wasn’t the editor.

(Bill Marx presides over an informative and entertaining web site, The Official Arthur Harpo Marx Family Online Collection.)