… And it ends with Groucho Marx as God (Part One)

*contains spoilers

This article looks at the back end of comic genius Groucho Marx’s (1890-1977 pneumonia) later career around the end of the comedy team that was the Marx Brothers. They made over a dozen features together.

A portrait of Groucho Marx around the time of Copacabana in 1947

Groucho starred in a few films without his brothers Chico (1887-1961 arteriosclerosis) and Harpo Marx (1888-1964 after heart surgery). They are not classics by any means and neither is his last appearance on film Skidoo (1968) but they are worth a look just the same.

After the Marx Brothers made A Night in Casablanca (1946), which was made five years after their farewell film The Big Store (1941), it was at a point in Groucho’s career where he was suffering a bit of a lull. Television and radio projects didn’t pan out…

The Marx Brothers… Harpo, Chico and Groucho

However, the following year Groucho alone was asked to do a quiz show for radio entitled You Bet Your Life. This would go onto lasting success as it played on radio from October 1947 until 1960 and played on radio and television between 1950 to 1960, lasting for another year on tv before ending in September 1961 a few weeks before Chico died.

A foreign release Copacabana poster

A few months before the successful launch of You Bet Your Life on radio, Groucho starred in the film Copacabana (1947) alongside Carmen Miranda (1909-55 heart attack). Groucho made this film after he ditched the greasepaint moustache and grew a real one – well, it looks real – before the “last” Marx Brother’s movie Love Happy (1949). I say last because Groucho always considered A Night in Casablanca the last Marx Brothers movie because he thought Love Happy was so bad. In fact, the three Marx Brothers never really have a scene with all three of them together in that movie.

Copacabana has copped a lot of flak too over the years and it is a dated relic. But what old movies aren’t as we are meant to take them in context….

Barry Manilow’s Copacabana song

It opens with Miranda singing the title song over the credits. There really was a nightclub called the Copacabana once upon a time, probably several, and even Barry Manilow’s famous tune is set in some nightclub of the same name.

In the Copacabana of the movie we see the famous Copa girls sing and Groucho makes his entry with a few good jokes, that is until: “This is an outrage, you’ll hear from my lawyer… as soon as he gets a telephone!” A bit flaccid!

Groucho has been engaged to Miranda for nearly ten years and as a comedy team in the film they aren’t making the grade. Something must be done to pay their hotel bills – they have separate rooms – and let them buy dinner as they steal peanuts from a monkey owned by the local organ grinder.

Groucho with Carmen Miranda who is still at her peak in Copacabana (1947)

This was Miranda’s first film after leaving Twentieth Century Fox and despite still being a magnetic performer, her Technicolor days with major studios was over. This United Artists release is in black and white. Miranda, who was rumoured to keep cocaine in her high heel shoes, was formerly known as the Brazilian Bombshell and her performance of Tico-Tico in Copacabana shows just how great she was. She was still in her prime in this movie.

What the pair do is split the act, to the point where Miranda must play two performers with different personalities, one Carmen Navarro, which is typical Miranda and the other Mademoiselle Fifi, who wears a veil and has blonde hair. In fact, when the film was released in Latin countries there was outrage at the fact Miranda had abandoned her Latin looks and so the scenes were reshot for foreign release with her hair her natural colour.

Miranda with the blonde hair which offended her Latin fans back in the day

Also appearing in the film for the younger generation of the day to take interest in was singer Andy Russell (1919-92 complications of stroke) playing himself and actress Gloria Jean (1926-2018 pneumonia and heart failure). Steve Cochrane (1917-65 on his yacht out to sea of an acute lung infection) plays the manager of the Copacabana who spots Miranda’s talent with a little help from Groucho.

Steve Cochrane, Miranda and Groucho with Andy Russell on the right.

For me the best joke in the film is when Groucho speaks to the relatively innocent Russell, telling him he’s going to Niagara Falls for a honeymoon.

“Niagara Falls,” says a bemused Andy. “I’d really like to see those falls.”

Groucho quickly replies: “I’d really like to see those falls. I’ve been there three times and never got to see them!” And Groucho departs the scene with his cigar in his usual style.

Carmen Miranda performs Tico-Tico from Copacabana

Groucho does don the greasepaint for a musical number Go West, Young Man reminiscent of his best work and at his peak. It’s a bright spot along with the Miranda numbers. Meanwhile Russell also sings and sounds a lot like a young Frank Sinatra.

Copacabana (1947) trailer

Copacabana wasn’t a total dud at the box office and nearly made its money back. Based on a story and screenplay by Hungarian screenwriter Laszlo Vadnay (1904-67). He had the distinction to die the day I was born. I guess that’s Way, Way Out (1966), the name of the Jerry Lewis film and the last screenplay of his produced before his death. There were four writers on Copacabana which isn’t always a good sign as too many cooks spoil the broth. Today, if there are too many cooks, they are not credited because of this very stigma!

US release poster

The low-point of the movie is the second rendition of Stranger Things Have Happened by Jean as she goes – “la ta da dee dee”. But that’s as strange as the film gets! The fact Groucho’s character’s name is Lionel Q. Deveraux harks back to the heyday of the Marx Brothers with such characters as Rufus T. Firefly from Duck Soup (1933) and Otis B. Driftwood from A Night at the Opera (1935). No prize for guessing Rob Zombie’s inspiration for names for the villains in his Devil’s Rejects trilogy.

I guess Groucho did the film out of desperation, as there was nothing else on the horizon… then came You Bet Your Life. Copacabana isn’t a bad movie, Miranda makes sure of that, but Groucho’s cinematic glory days were surely over.

Double Dynamite (1951) poster

Then there is the Double Dynamite (1951), which was one of those RKO movies made under Howard Hughes destructive tenure at the studio. It is hard to say but from what I can gather this film was shot in 1948 and released in 1951 and was at the mercy of Hughes’ tinkering. Why he did this to so many films… I can only gather that he liked to torture the stars for some reason, or was just plain nuts!

The film features Groucho alongside Jane Russell (1921-2011 respiratory related) and Frank Sinatra (1915-98 heart attack). Sinatra was, incidentally, married to fourth Marx Brother Zeppo’s (1901-79 lung cancer) former wife Barbara Marx Sinatra (1927-2017 natural causes).

Fourth Marx Brother Zeppo with then wife Barbara Marx Sinatra

By the time the film was released Groucho was riding high on tv while Sinatra’s career was in the doldrums. As for the title of the movie, Hughes’ obsession with Russell’s breasts continues as Russell had a Double D cup bra-size. A 38DD to be precise, so thus the film’s title!

Jane was Double Dynamite alright! Or so the publicity told us so!!

She certainly doesn’t show much cleavage in the finished product and as a result the film reminds me of that fictional pornographic magazine from over a hundred years ago entitled Bare Ankle! But I lie, as we do see her legs and there’s a shower scene that shows her from the neck up.

“I want to… stay out so late the neighbours will talk… I want to live dangerously,” says Russell.

The story, as it is, has over $70,000 going missing from the bank where Russell and Sinatra work at the same time that Sinatra wins $60,000 from the local bookies. So he could be a suspect! Groucho is meanwhile a waiter at the local Italian restaurant named Emile J. Keck. Keck means being about to vomit. It’s a name which sounds like kike which is an offensive anti-Semitic jibe (Groucho was Jewish), but the original story was written by Jewish humourist and Yiddish lexicographer Leo Rosten (1908-97), so I think it was a fun play on words rather than a nasty one.

Screenwriter Leo Rosten

Double Dynamite was also written by the Jewish screenwriter Melville Shavelson (1917-2007 natural causes) who also wrote many Bob Hope movies, it is perhaps also a coincidence that the missing bank money element was also used in the Hope film Eight on the Lam (1967) which in turn was based on a story by Arthur Marx (1921-2011) who was Groucho’s son.

The Dark Corner (1946) was also written by Leo Rosten

“It’s only money but you can’t get enough… the poor shnuk without it, the girls don’t give dates,” sing Groucho and Sinatra as they walk down the street together. Shnuk in Yiddish is a stupid or victimised person. It’s hardly The Jazz Singer in terms of Jewish references but the movie is passable as a slight comedy.

What is surprising about Double Dynamite is that Groucho is given so few quips and one-liners for which he is best suited… Except for a scene with Groucho hiding in a bubble bath to which the villain says: “Well, I like this!” to which Groucho, with only his face above the bubbles says: “You do? Then join me!”

RKO’s owner Howard Hughes seemed to have it in for some of his stars

Was Double Dynamite Hughes’ joke on the public? Or on its stars? Russell started shooting Double Dynamite in November of 1948 after Hughes had taken control of the studios in May of that year. This film is one of the first after Russell renewed her contract with Hughes for another three years. It would seem she would be his even though she was married to someone else… Like Faith Domergue, another lover who was yet another bauble under contract to Hughes for possible career and personal torture. Russell in her autobiography doesn’t even mention Domergue once, despite that actress’s long and deep relationship with Hughes. Such must have been the jealousy between the two actresses.

Double Dynamite stars Frank Sinatra, Jane Russell and Groucho Marx

Russell called the script for Double Dynamite “a big nothing”. Maybe Hughes just hid the film along with Russell’s Montana Belle (1952), which was also shot at the same time as Double Dynamite for her sake.

Jane Russell’s also long delayed release Montana Belle (1951) trailer

“Of course you could hollow out the heel, hide it in your shoe,” says Groucho about hiding money, which could also be a hint at Copacobana co-star Miranda’s rumoured stash for her cocaine as mentioned in Kenneth Anger’s (1927-) largely unreliable Hollywood Babylon book. Miranda and cocaine come from South America but that’s where the similarity apparently ends according to more sympathetic sources.

Kenneth Anger’s notoriously unreliable Hollywood Babylon book

Groucho and Russell got billing over Sinatra at Hughes’ insistence and Sinatra had only done the film because he owed RKO a picture. As much as Hughes tried to strangle Sinatra’s career – he failed, as the actor would receive an Oscar for his dramatic performance in From Here to Eternity (1953). Russell would do Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953) at 20th Century Fox with Marilyn Monroe while Groucho went on from strength to strength with his television show which would film over 200 episodes.

The trailer for Double Dynamite (1951)

As Sinatra is hunted down by police in Double Dynamite, the police radio dispatcher says over the airwaves: “Caucasian, brown hair, blue eyes… wears elevator shoes, anaemic looking… resembles Frank Sinatra.” Was this in the original script, or was it inserted later by Hughes?! It’s funny nonetheless.

Double Dynamite disappoints and Copacabana is a better movie.

Groucho and Sinatra sing It’s Only Money which could have been written by Hughes

There’s a reprise of that song at the end: “It’s only money… and people who crave it and worship and save it all come to know, you can’t take it with you when you go!” Pleasant thought it you haven’t any!

Mention should be made of Love Happy which was made, ostensibly, just after, or around the same time Double Dynamite was filmed but released long before.

An outrageous Love Happy (1949) foreign release poster

Love Happy (1949) is the last Marx Brothers movie and was originally meant as a vehicle for Harpo Marx. However, Chico Marx found himself heavily in debt due to his constant gambling and so he was added to the cast. Groucho then joined in as a kind of narrator to the goings on. He wears a real moustache and no greasepaint, in fact the moustache looks even more real than the one he had in Copacabana. Love Happy isn’t the total disaster that many critics say it is. Harpo was always worth the price of admission and you can see how the film is really his, but his harp playing and silent comedy were something that would become dated as the 1950s dawned.

Harpo with his harp was funny and yet enchanting

Harpo’s career, and he was over sixty when he made Love Happy, would never have survived rock and roll. His last film was a bit part in The Story of Mankind (1957) along with Groucho and Chico in separate scenes. As they are just cameos that film can’t be classed a Marx Brothers movie. The plot of Love Happy, which revolves around some expensive diamond jewellery hidden in a can of sardines, is something to keep the kids happy, but has nothing of the biting satire and wit of the Marx Brothers Duck Soup (1933) or even their later MGM movies.

We follow Groucho to the not so bitter end in PART TWO.

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