Retro : Remarxable : DISNEY DOCUMENTARY OFFERS SOME MARX BROTHERS RARITIES
Did you know that Harpo Marx “spoke” in a 1925 silent movie and performed with the Leningrad Symphony in the 1930s? Or that the pilot for Groucho Marx’s classic TV series “You Bet Your Life” still exists?
Even the most ardent fan of Groucho, Harpo, Chico and Zeppo is in for some surprises with the new two-part Disney Channel documentary “The Unknown Marx Brothers.”
Part 1, titled “On Your Marx, Get Set, Go,” premieres Sunday. Part 2, called the “Lost Treasures and Last Remarx,” airs Nov. 14. Besides clips, the documentary also features insights from Chico’s daughter, Maxine; Harpo’s son, Bill, and Groucho’s eldest daughter, Miriam.
Producers John Scheinfeld and David Leaf have been lifelong fans of the legendary comedy team. And they approached the documentary from the point of view of a fan.
“By legend, there’s all of this unknown material which has been kept in family archives--scrapbooks, home movies and unfinished programs,” Leaf says.
“The approach we took was to imagine what it’d be like if the Marx Brothers family invited you over and sat down with their scrapbooks and took you through them.”
The producers became amateur Sherlock Holmeses in tracking down the missing material. First, they plugged into the “super fans” Marx Brothers network, which was eager to help them. “There are things they always dreamed of finding,” Leaf says. “What we were able to do in the context of researching the program is to have a legitimacy to actually find that stuff.”
One of their big finds was the 1925 silent film “Too Many Kisses,” which features Harpo in his one and only speaking part: His character “talks” in a title sequence.
“That had sort of been rumored to be around for many years,” Scheinfeld says.
One collector in Orange County supposedly has a print, but never returned their calls.
“So our research took us to the Library of Congress and there it was, buried in some box. It only existed in negative form, so we had to pay to have a print made.”
Leaf and Scheinfeld found the original master print of “Deputy Seraph,” a 1959 TV pilot made by Groucho, Harpo and Chico. The pilot was never completed because Chico was diagnosed with hardening of the arteries during its production and couldn’t be insured.
“Deputy Seraph” was found in the attic of the son of the man who wrote and produced the show. “The film was on one reel and the sound was on another,” Scheinfeld says.
One of Groucho’s grandchildren had a kinescope of Groucho’s appearance on “The Jack Benny Show.” “It was in the basement somewhere,” Scheinfeld says.
The two also sought the best prints possible. Case in point was the footage of Harpo’s appearance with the Leningrad Symphony.
“We had seen that in real battered condition,” Scheinfeld says. “It took us six weeks to find it in the pristine condition that we did. There is just something fun about it for us, the ferreting out. The detective work is really sort of exciting.”
Especially exciting, Leaf adds, when they found something rare and it happened to be good, too.
“There’s a curiosity value that exists, but that doesn’t particularly play well on television after five seconds. We really wanted to make sure that the things of curiosity value had entertainment value.”
At times, the producers came up empty-handed. One item high on their wish list was “Humor Risk,” a silent film produced in the ‘20s. “They think they tossed it because it was really pretty bad,” Scheinfeld says.
“The second thing we really tried to find was a TV series Chico did, ‘College Bowl,’ that premiered the same week Groucho did with ‘You Bet Your Life.’ We had pictures, but nobody seems to have a kinescope. We tried everywhere. That was a real disappointment.”
Leaf and Scheinfeld found, by accident, Groucho’s appearance at age 85 on the 1973 “The New Bill Cosby Show.” “We were renting offices from (producer) George Schlatter,” Scheinfeld recalls. “He wandered in one day and talked about being a big Marx Brothers fan and that he had done a show with Groucho. They had to dig it out of the vaults, but we found it. What’s great for us was to see how sharp Groucho’s mind still was.”
“The Unknown Marx Brothers: On Your Marx, Get Set, Go” airs Sunday at 9 p.m. on the Disney Channel and repeats Monday at 3:10 a.m.; “The Unknown Marx Brothers: Lost Treasures and Last Remarx” airs Nov. 14 at 9 p.m.