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.)

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Durante 1Two crossword puzzles that I recently completed had clues that referred to Jimmy Durante. In one, the solution was Durante’s surname; in the other, the solution was his nickname, “Schnozzola.” Designers of crossword puzzles seem to assume — accurately, for all I know — that theirs is an aged audience. But for the annual rebroadcast of Frosty the Snowman, few people today would ever hear Durante’s voice. My guess is that few people under forty years of age know who he was. This is a natural consequence of the passage of time and of changing tastes in entertainment. Durante was a talented jazz pianist, comedian, and all-around showman. He also set a standard for humility, decency, and generosity.  He probably was one of the most recognizable stars of his time, and his “time” lasted for fifty years.

Durante 4

I wonder how many people who see the 1992 film Scent of a Woman catch the reference to Durante. In that film, retired and blind army Lt. Col. Frank Slade, who is bent on suicide, is forced off the ledge, as it were, in a violent struggle with a prep school student named Charles Sims. When the climactic scene winds down, the exhausted Slade, played by Al Pacino, mumbles in a hoarse voice, “Did you ever have the feeling that you wanted to go, but still have the feeling that you wanted to stay?” Even before that line was appropriated for Pacino’s Oscar-winning role, it had been appropriated to express profound ideas about life and death — and particularly about the transition from one to the other. But it didn’t start out that way. Far from originating in deep thought, the line was written and made famous by the antithesis of deep thought, Jimmy Durante. It’s on the order of Groucho Marx’s trademark tune, “Hello, I must be going.” Durante sang the lyric as early as 1931 in a long-forgotten movie, The New Adventures of Get Rich Quick Wallingford. He sang it to Monty Wooley in the 1942 film version of The Man Who Came to Dinner. And he sang it again in the 1944 film Two Girls and a Sailor.  In that case, as on many other occasions in his long career, he used it as an introduction to another of his compositions, “Who will be with you when I’m far away?”

To see Pacino deliver the line and Durante sing it to Monte Wooley, click HERE.

To see Durante’s performance in Two Girls and a Sailor, click HERE.

Durante 2

 

Sign at a tavern in Portland, Ore.

One of the classes I taught last semester included a section on idiomatic expressions. A topic like that always calls attention to the difference in the ages of the students and the instructor. We came across many expressions that a person my age uses casually but that many or all of the students didn’t recognize. None of them, for instance, knew the expression “hocus pocus,” which refers to the things magicians do and say to create the illusion that they have paranormal resources.

Another example arose when, instead of instructing, I was telling the students about Marcello, the new cat at our house. We had met Marcello on the sidewalk outside a gift shop in North East, Md., and the chance acquaintance evolved into a permanent arrangement. Now, I told my students, Marcello is living “the life of Riley.”

Opening title of the television series "The Life of Riley"

As the words left my lips, I could read in the faces of the students that they didn’t know what that meant. My experience has been that students are a tolerant lot, and that they wouldn’t think of embarrassing the instructor by pointing that he had said something they couldn’t comprehend. They would have been content to go on living without knowing what that expression meant. So I asked them: “Do you know that expression?” They didn’t, and even though none of them asked, even then, what it meant, I told them.

That set me to wondering where that expression originated, but I didn’t have time until now to look it up. Apparently there is no definitive answer. One theory traces the phrase to a song written in 1898 by vaudevillian Pat Rooney Sr. In that song, a hotel owner named Riley looks forward the day when he strikes it rich. The phrase itself is not in the lyric of that song.

Rosemary DeCamp and Jackie Gleason

The expression does appear in a song called “My Name is Kelly,” which was written by Howard Pease in 1919. “Faith, and my name is Kelly, Michael Kelly / But I’m livin’ the life of Reilly just the same.” The fact that Pease used the phrase that way suggests that it was well known by that time. The author of a British web site, The Phrase Finder, writes that the first known instance of “the life of Riley” appearing in print in the United States occurred in 1911 in the Hartford Courant in a story about the demise of a notorious wild cow, something — I must confess — I have never heard of before: “The famous wild cow of Cromwell is no more. After ‘living the life of Riley’ for over a year, successfully evading the pitchforks and the bullets of the farmers, whose fields she ravaged in all four seasons.”

Of  course, I associate the expression with the television comedy series that starred William Bendix as Chester A. Riley; Marjorie Reynolds as his wife, Peg; the gorgeous Lugene Sanders as their daughter, Babs, and Wesley Morgan as their son, Junior.

Lugene Sanders

Although the expression implies that a man is living a life of ease, Chester Riley worked steadily in the wing assembly division of Cunningham Aircraft in Los Angeles. He was the stereotypical bumbling father who was always in some kind of scrape. He didn’t have many happy endings, and his closing line on most episodes became one of the most popular catch phrases of the era: “What a revoltin’ development this is!”

A radio show with the same title that appeared for a few months in 1941 was not related to the later series. Film star William Bendix appeared on radio as Chester Riley from 1945 to 1951. One of the developers of that series was Gummo Marx. Bendix was making a film version of “Riley” when the show moved to television in 1949, so Jackie Gleason was cast as Riley and Rosemary De Camp as Peg. A contributing writer for that series was Groucho Marx, who had once been considered for the title role on radio. The series won an Emmy, but it ended after one short season because of a contract dispute.

Bill Bendix on the cover of a Dell comic based on the series.

The show was introduced on television again in 1953 with Bendix and Marjorie Reynolds leading the cast, and it was a hit, running for six seasons. A 2009 BBC series with the same title is not related in anyway to the American shows.

While I was looking around for information about this show, I came across two modern-day uses of the expression “Life of Riley,” both with more serious and somewhat ironic applications. One is a foundation headquartered in Sarasota, Fla., that raises funds to promote awareness of and seek a cure  for pediatric brain tumors. The organization is named for Riley Saba, a 7-year-old girl who died because of such a tumor. You can visit the foundation’s web site by clicking HERE.

Another site, this one located in Great Britain, was inspired by a boy whose first name is Riley. The youngster has a form of cerebral palsy, and a group of his family’s friends formed an organization to raise funds for charities that assist kids with that or similar conditions. Riley came by his first name because his dad was attracted to the song “The Life of Riley” by the Lightning Seeds. The song was written by Ian Broudie whose own son, Riley, now plays guitar with the group. You can learn more about the charity group by clicking HERE.

LARRY GELBART

LARRY GELBART

While we were distracted by other matters, Larry Gelbart slipped away. I didn’t know Gelbart; I wish I had.

He had an ear for language, for how real people talk, and he combined that with a unique wit to produce some of the most memorable dialogue ever heard on the stage or screen. There is no better example than “M*A*S*H.” That show may have gotten bit too aware of itself but the writing when Gelbart was still working it was some of the best television has ever offered. Fortunately, that show is still being rerun, and when I watch it I marvel at how it never ages, never loses its edge.

Alan Alda and Larry Gelbart were a perfect match, and I think that’s because Alda has a classic sense of comedy – not the what-can-I-get-away-with drivel that passes too often for comedy today but the literate, witty kind of comedy one associates with S.J. Perelman and George S. Kaufman.

ALAN ALDA

ALAN ALDA

Alda — particularly in the role of “Hawkeye” Pierce — has often been compared to Groucho Marx; in fact, he has been accused of aping Groucho Marx. But Marx was never the comic actor Alda is and, in that sense, any similarity in their delivery is more a compliment to Groucho than it is to Alda. I think that perception had to do with Gelbart, who brought that wise-ass attitude we saw in Groucho Marx to a much higher plain in Alan Alda.

The loss of someone as singularly talented as Gelbart is bad enough in itself, but it also is a reminder of how the quality of writing for television in particular has declined over the decades. Gelbart wrote for the “Duffy’s Tavern” radio series, for Bob Hope, and for Red Buttons, and he was a member of the legendary stable of writers on Sid Caesar’s television show. Most writers today don’t have that kind of background, but that’s what Gelbart brought to “M*A*S*H” and “Tootsie” and “Oh, God,” and “Sly Fox” and “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.”

GRETCHEN WYLER

GRETCHEN WYLER

Back when I was still considered employable, I wrote a column taking note of the death of Gretchen Wyler, whom I did know and admired very much both as an actress and as a human being. We had seen Gretchen in “Sly Fox” when the cast included Vincent Gardenia and Jack Gilford, and I mentioned that in the column. I don’t know how Larry Gelbart found out about it, but he sent me two e-mail messages thanking me for remembering Gretchen and expressing his own respect and affection for her. The fact that Gelbart, when there was nothing in it for him, took the trouble to respond to a relatively obscure writer spoke to his loyalty as a friend and colleague.

Larry Gelbart was 81. A detailed obituary is at this link:

http://www.latimes.com/news/obituaries/la-me-larry-gelbart12-2009sep12,0,2812430.story?page=1


BARAK OBAMA

BARACK OBAMA

The television networks are getting impatient with President Obama’s requests for prime time. He’s holding a press conference on Tuesday, and that will mean – among other things – that “American Idol” will have to shift to a Wednesday-Thursday schedule. More than that, the networks will again lose top-dollar revenue that they can never recoup. Doesn’t the economic recovery program apply to them, they ask. I had a fleeting thought that the problem could be solved simply by moving Obama’s prime-time appearances off the major networks; that would separate the men from the boys, as it were, when Neilsen reported how the president did when he was up against Adam Lambert. I’d like to cast the networks as villains in this, but I can see their point even if I don’t think their revenues are more important than a public well informed on what the president is thinking in the present circumstances. I don’t have to balance their books. What concerns me more is that Obama is already overexposed, and the public may get weary of him and stop listening in the same way that it stopped paying attention to the color-coded terrorism alerts from the previous administration. As it is, expectations were unreasonably high when he took office, and the weeks since then have disabused most people from thinking they’ll see postive results overnight or in a week or a month or a year. His live TV appearances – especially following on an administration that avoided such exposure – may still be raising expectations, but that is likely to wear off. I read somewhere today that Obama is considering a series of much shorter appearances – something along the lines of Franklin Roosevelt’s radio addresses.

That reminds me of the movie “Room Service” and a scene in which Groucho Marx is trying to convince a playwright to go home to Oswego, appealing to the young man to picture his mother waiting by the fireside. “We don’t have a fireside,” the playwright says. “No fireside?” says Groucho. “How do you listen to the president’s speeches?”