The Titular Devil, With Hand

The Titular Devil, With Hand

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

A Night At Gatsby's

I’ve been a big Marx Brothers fan since I was in my early teens; I used to watch all their movies on New York TV, and I thought (still think) the best ones, like Duck Soup, are just about the funniest movies ever.You might well have noticed a lot of Marx Brotherish stuff in Samurai Cat, for example. Anyway, I was  very sorry that they didn’t make more films, and was rather surprised to learn that they really weren’t that popular during the thirties...their movies got great reviews, and everybody agreed they were sensational, but audiences just didn’t flock to their stuff—I believe that the Ritz Brothers, who nobody watches today, were much better box office. The aforementioned Duck Soup was the fifth Marx Brothers film for Paramount, and it didn’t do well...their contract ran out, and the studio dumped them. They got picked up by Metro-Goldwyn Mayer, who insisted on a rather different approach, involving more plot, romantic stuff, and big musical numbers (in addition to harp and piano solos by Harpo and Chico). The first two MGM movies, Night at the Opera and Day At the Races, set the mold, and they were still pretty good, but things declined after that.

Now, what I didn’t know is that Opera actually got its start as their last Paramount project, namely, an adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Originally it was going to be called Scrambled Eggs, after East and West Egg in Long Island, where the novel is set; but then the title was changed to A Night at Gatsby’s. The script was by George S. Kaufman, Morrie Ryskind, and S.J. Perelman, although by the time it hit the theatres, it would undoubtedly have been pretty well transformed by adlibs, as always happened with Marx Brothers movies. Certainly, the source material got a pretty drastic working over...Dr. T.J. Eckleburg was substituted for the Nick Carraway character, because Groucho felt that TJ Eckleburg was a great Groucho name. Chico was given Meyer Wolfsheim’s part, because it was felt that Italians and Jews were a similar species, as evidenced by the fact that Chico always played an Italian. Wolfsheim served as Gatsby’s interpreter, Gatsby being played by Harpo, who communicated entirely in horn this time, Zeppo was out of the picture.

The story had Eckleburg moving in next to Gatsby and observing some wild parties. Receiving an invitation to one of these shindigs, Eckleburg runs into Meyer Wolfsheim, Gatsby’s business partner. A filmed version of this scene, and several others, actually survives...the Brothers were in the habit of testing material on audiences to see what worked and what didn’t, and it’s possible to hunt this stuff down on the web. Filled with adlibs, these little slices of comedic gold diverge a damn sight from the script:

Wolfsheim: Heckleburg, Heckleburg...

Eckleburg: Yes, Dr. TJ Eckleburg.

Wolfsheim: Where do I knowa that name from...

Eckleburg: There’s a billboard...

Wolfsheim: Yeah right. With you eyes all big...looking out in the ash...Hey, you make an ash of yourself!

Eckleburg: I get that all the time.

Wolfsheim: Well, it’s a good one, hey boss?

Eckleburg: You don’t seem very much like a Wolfsheim.

Wolfsheim: I don’t think so too, but you gotta be what you are.

Eckleburg; Well, speaking of that, who is this Gatsby fellow anyway? I live right next to him, but---

Wolfsheim: We make alotta dough together, but there’s some things I don’t know.

Eckleburg: Like what?

Wolfsheim: I can’t say.

Eckleburg: He spends all day looking at a dock.

Wolfsheim: Why a dock? He wanna make soup?

Eckleburg: No, not a duck. A dock.

Wolfsheim: He look at you?

Eckleburg: Why would he?

Wolfsheim: You’re a Doc. Doc Heckleburg.

Eckleburg; No, no, not doc, dock. D-O-C-K. You know, where the boats come up.

Wolfsheim: Come up? Lika the U-boat?

Eckleburg: No, not like that. A regular boat.

Wolfsheim: But itsa  you boat, right? I’d like to take a ride in you boat.

Eckleburg: I don’t have a boat.

Wolfsheim: Atsa shame.

In another test, we have all three brothers plus Paramount starlet Grace Bradley as Daisy, and Margaret Dumont, who plays Daisy’s mother, Mrs. Madeleine Effingwell. Gatsby has learned that Eckleburg is Daisy’s optometrist, and has asked him to invite her over to his house, so he can rekindle their old romance. But  he doesn’t reckon on Mrs.Effingwell tagging along as a chaperone. The scene begins with Gatsby and Wolfsheim showing up at Eckleburg’s:

Gatsby: Honk.

Eckleburg: What did he say?

Wolfsheim: He say he very nervous, wonder if this was good idea.

Eckleburg: All that with one honk?

Wolfsheim: Great, huh?

Eckleburg: How did you learn to understand him?

Gatsby: Honk.

Wolfsheim: He don’t want you to know.

Eckleburg: Why not?

Wolfsheim: He’s a mystery man.

We hear car doors thumping. There’s a knock at the door, and Eckleburg jumps to answer it. In come Mrs. Madeline Effingwell, and her daughter, Daisy. Gatsby begins to honk furiously.

Wolfsheim: He say itsa no good, he no wanna the mother, just be alone with his girl.

Mrs. Effingwell: I have come to make absolutely certain that nothing untoward occurs...

Gatsby honks and goes to stand in the corner.

Mrs. Effingwell to Eckleburg: What is the meaning of this?

Eckleburg: It’s sort of like that, but---

Mrs. Effingwell:You misunderstand me...

Eckleburg: No, I misunderstand you.

Mrs. Effingwell: What are you doing, arranging assignations between that man...(She points at Gatsby, who honks) and my Daisy?

Eckleburg: Do I look like someone who would assignate? You cut me to the quick.

Mrs. Effingwell: I thought you were an optometrist....

Wolfsheim: No, he don’t think things ever work out...

Eckleburg (vehemently): I refuse to be characterized as a pessimist.

Wolfsheim (pouncing): Too late.

Mrs. Effingwell: My daughter is a married woman!

Gatsby: Honk.

Wolfsheim: He say, it’s okay, he no mind.

Mrs. Effingwell: Who is this, this foreigner?

Wolfsheim: I’m the guy who fixed the 1919 World Series.

Mrs. Effingwell, in high dudgeon: A mobster?

Wolfsheim: I no think so...I no hava the big red claws.

Mrs. Effingwell: A racketeer then?

Wolfsheim: I no play tennis.

Mrs. Effingwell: But...

Wolfsheim: And I no zoom up and go boom.

Mrs. Effingwell: Yes, yes...

Wolfsheim: And I no swordfight in France...

Eckleburg: This is getting us no place.

Wolfsheim: I think we been there a while.

Gatsby: Honk.

Daisy (desperately): I love you too!

Eckleburg: You understand him?

Daisy: I went with him for two years, before he joined the army...

Mrs. Effingwell: I never knew...

Eckleburg: And here you were, accusing me of assignating..(He sidles up to her) On the other hand, I can imagine an assignation with you. An assignation so big I don’t think I could see round it...Is that all you, or do you have a Siamese twin? Don’t answer that.

Mrs. Effingwell: I don’t know what to say.

Eckleburg: Then count to ten and take me to your bosom. That’s if your arms are long enough.

Ultimately, Gatsby and Daisy do get together, but her horrible busband Tom  manages to break it all up, in an ugly scene that erupts during the film’s climactic party. Having guessed that Gatsby is probably a phony and a bootlegger, Tom decides to peel away his disguise in front of everyone:

Tom: An Oxford man, eh?

Gatsby: Honk.

Wolfsheim: He say he hate to brag, but...

Tom: What did he study?

Gatsby: Honk.

Wolfsheim: He study all about Cambridge.

Tom: He studied Cambridge at Oxford? How pointless!

Gatsby: Honk.

Wolfsheim: He say it make him very mad. So he went to Cambridge to study Oxford.

Tom: I think he never went to Oxford.

Gatsby: Honk.

Wolfsheim: How you explain-a the accent?

Tom: He doesn’t have an English accent.

Wolfsheim: Yeah, but he meet a lotta nice geese.

Daisy (running in): Jay! There you are!

Gatsby simpers with his finger in his mouth. Then she notices her husband.

Daisy: Oh! Tom! .

Gatsby: Honk.

Daisy: I do love you, but I can’t say I never loved Tom!

Gatsby (heartbroken): Honk.

Daisy: I’m so confused.

Tom (sneering at Gatsby): Hah!

Despairing, Gatsby produces one of those bug-sprayers that has a handle-pump and a cylindrical can, and proceeds to spray Tom and Daisy. They drop dead. He gets Mrs. Effingwell too, and moves on to the other guests.

Eckleburg (turning to the camera): The very rich are not like you and me.

Gatsby sprays him, then Wolfsheim, then himself, and they all crumple, twitching.

Now, the brothers, who’d been known to hobnob with Scott Fitzgerald at parties on Long Island, had expected to procure the rights, but they presumed a bit too much on their friendship, it seems; Fitzgerald came away with the distinct impression that his work was being mocked, and the negotiations collapsed...since a certain amount of money had already been spent, this proved the last straw for Paramount, and the brothers were left with no contract, the unfinished script, and the test footage. Ultimately, when they wound up at MGM, the script was completely revamped, and turned into Night at the Opera....some of the test footage that didn’t survive involved an early version of Opera’s celebrated stateroom scene, in which Gatsby and Daisy, hiding from Tom, wind up at Eckleburg’s tiny bungalow, and everybody from the party next door comes over and squeezes in too. But, unfortunately, that piece of film was on nitrate stock, and went up in a fire along with the last known copy of Lon Chaney’s London After Midnight...

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