Scott's Term Paper

Subject: Kalmar & Ruby's Go West

Note: This is the text of Scott Alexander's May 17, 2022 post in the Marx Brothers Council group on Facebook, discussed in Episode 47 of the podcast.

 

Okay! So I camped out in the Academy's Margaret Herrick Library for an afternoon. The staff is lovely, and if any of you are ever in L.A., I'd recommend a visit. NOW -- on to my investigation. I wanted to know about Kalmar & Ruby's work on GO WEST. I was curious if it had any connections to the final movie, and if it's better. The answer, in two words, is "Yes" and "Yes." There are a ton of plot similarities, and as a screenwriter, I'm shocked that they didn't get some sort of on-screen credit (at least "Story By," at a minimum). Their treatments and scripts are not perfect, or great, but they are DEFINITELY SUPERIOR to the movie we are stuck with. They also have inspired moments, they have a Margaret Dumont character, and they have the oddball weird jokes and non sequiturs that we associate with the Paramount comedies. So, that is a bummer. As Joe said, their work is absolutely the foundation of the finished film. I was also curious about the road tour, so I read those scripts, too! I will report on that also. Let's jump in! The library has three K & R treatments from 1936: 6-17-36, 8-22-36, and 8-28-36. They have four complete scripts, from three years later: 4-15-39, 5-11-39, 11-13-39, 11-18-39. There are multiple copies, but out of curiosity, I pulled only originals with annotations. This started off exciting, as they actually have scribbles and cross-outs and new lines written in... but it quickly became a headache. These "working copies" are sort of hard to read! Sometimes dialogue is simply crossed out by typing "x"s over it, then they type it again! Anyway, that was part of the journey. The short summary is that Kalmar and Ruby wrote a movie in present day Nevada. It has the same feel as the final movie, with saloons and horses and cowboys with guns. The plot is very similar: The finished movie is about people fighting over a deed to Dead Man's Gulch. The deed gets passed around a few times, and Harpo breaks it out of the bad guy's safe. Kalmar & Ruby's plot is about a treasure map to a gold mine (it also belongs to the pretty girl's family). The map has been torn in half, and everybody spends the movie getting half and losing the other half. (Was the mine in Dead Man's Gulch? Now I can't remember.) The map keeps passing between the three guys, the bad guy, and the local Indians. It takes the whole film for the boys to get both halves, and when they show up and dig in the last scene, they instead hit oil! Which is a solid closing gag. Dumont would have been Mrs. Geraldine Val Allstyne. It's a HUGE part, probably her biggest part since Duck Soup. K & R are definitely riffing on the tropes, and so of course she is a wealthy Eastern socialite widow. Groucho spends the movie trying to rip her off, insult her, and get her money. At one point, she is conned into spending $5000 to buy half the map, so she is very integrated into the plot. It's not like At The Circus, where it feels like a contractual cameo in the third act. She's all over the script. My biggest criticism is the climax, which is horrendous in every version. Yes, the rumor is true: It turns into a rodeo picture for 10 minutes. And yes, all three brothers' stunt doubles have to bounce around on horses and mules and bulls for no particular reason. It's a lame, unsatisfying third act, and perhaps it helped kill this version? K & R play around with different ideas in different scripts, but the rodeo never goes away. As a professional screenwriter, Larry and I usually feel that our first draft is our best. Then other people give us notes and wreck our intention. So I focused on the first drafts and final drafts. In the case of the treatments, which are around 20 pages long, they got better as they went along. K & R can be a bit undisciplined (which is why we love the Paramount films), but that's not always an attribute. In the 1936 treatments, I found they improved as they went along. No good jokes got thrown out, and new things got added. It felt like K & R were just goofing around, amusing themselves, with no oversight. HOWEVER, in the case of the 1939 scripts, the process made me depressed. The first draft script is very funny, and I actually laughed OUT LOUD at a couple lines! In the middle of a library. Kalmar and Ruby delivered! It would have made a fine Marx picture. All three brothers are criminal, and they run the movie. The brothers are insolent, greedy, and liars. Dumont is abused from start to finish. We're back to Paramount! BUT -- MGM clearly was now paying attention. It's 1939, the brothers have a three picture deal, and is this their next film? So the script gets tampered with and watered down, as the drafts go along. I've seen this process first-hand many times, especially with comedy. Jokes make executives nervous, because they don't make sense. So gags get taken away, and young lovers and scheming bad guys get extra scenes. It was very frustrating to see the decline of the script, over four drafts in 1939. By the final one, "we gotta help those kids" has taken over. K & R must have been depressed by this process, but they just plugged along. I can see them just throwing in the towel, by the last script draft. In the first treatment, we're thrown straight into Groucho craziness: We're in a strange Nevada town that attracts all the divorcees and wannabe divorcees of America. Groucho is in the middle of a dance number, introducing himself to all the women as a divorce lawyer. It's very nutty! Then he meets Dumont, Mrs. Van Allstyne, who has come to Nevada to secure a divorce. Groucho crashes her fancy suite and starts selling himself to her. Of course, she has a nice nephew. I think he ends up meeting Ruby, the ingenue, whose dad used to have the map. Harpo and Chico are Pinky and Ravelli (this is some serious back to Paramount laziness). They have found the missing half of the map with some helpful Indians. The bad guy is Honest John, who runs the town and the saloon. He's basically the same villain from the final movie. The guys break into Honest John's safe and steal the second half of the map (this is all very similar to the movie). Then John kidnaps Ruby, demanding the other half of the map. Then they all go to a rodeo. What do you want from me? It's all blurring together. By the third draft treatment, things are getting more specific and better. Mrs. Ernestine Van Allstyne is now being hounded by Quincy B. Featherstone, Attorney at Law. Now that's a Groucho name! He bursts into her suite and starts asking her for money, insulting her, wooing her, everything we like. He promises he’ll get her a divorce and custody of her kids. She says she has no children, and her husband is dead! Again, everyone is searching for the lost gulch mine. Where things get interesting is that now, there is a major Carnival location. This is a total HOMERUN! Chico is now introduced as a phony fortune teller at the fair! He's doing weird Hindu shtick -- it's terrific Chico material. This is the great Chico stuff that we all crave -- the material he was never given again, after his amazing Aviators speech. So he's a fake mentalist, and as he "hears" wind and rain and spectral sounds, we reveal Harpo behind the curtain, creating the scam. It's all terrific. Harpo does lots of shtick, and then he gets confused and starts doing the wrong effects at the wrong time, screwing up Chico's routine. It's good stuff. They attempt to con Dumont. Later, there is a roulette scene at a casino, with all three brothers. (Like Night in Casablanca?) Chico promises Groucho he has a "system" for winning. The system is idiotic -- it involves telling Groucho which number to bet on, then surreptitiously sliding the piles of chips around the cloth to different numbers, as the ball bounces into them. Of course, they lose every time, and Groucho would have hit the winner if he'd just stuck with his first number. There's an Indian who gets upset and throws tomahawks at Harpo. He keeps catching them, then starts juggling them. (It too reminded me of the swordfight in Casablanca. Hm.) Every K & R version has, for some reason, Harpo escaping from the safe cracking scene by climbing onto a rope outside and doing a tightrope number across the street. I wasn't sure what the point was -- but it's always there, in some form. The big comedy setpiece is a variation on the Henderson scene. The three brothers and the young lover boy are asleep in a giant bed in Groucho's office. Suddenly BANG-BANG! The bad guys show up. Uh-oh! Groucho has to hide the three guys. It turns out the bed is a gigantic Murphy bed, and it flies into the wall, with a fake bookshelf on the outside. (Yes, like Big Store.) The guys are now hidden inside. The bad guys leave, Groucho drops the bed, Chico and the kid leave, but Harpo never wakes up. Then BANG-BANG! More people are outside. They all have to hop back into the bed, and it flies back into the wall. They do the joke over and over. I'm not selling it very well, but there are lots of variations, with people leaving, then the bed lowers, then the bad guy realizes he forget his hat and returns, then everyone has to run back inside. At one point, Dumont even shows up. It's not as good as Henderson or the Cocoanuts hotel rooms, but it's a valiant effort and fun. Now, THE SCRIPTS! 4-15-39 is the winner. This is Kalmar and Ruby giving it their best effort, and there's lots of good stuff. We meet Chico as Sanghru the Hindu Mystic! Terrific! Opening with him in this carnival, and Harpo backstage being wacky, is tons of fun. It's totally giving MGM the finger -- these guys are blatant conmen. Groucho is introduced as the shyster lawyer. They're all criminal, which is for the best! The plot is suspiciously similar to The Big Store. Groucho is competing with the town villain, who also wants to marry Dumont for her money. Groucho is a sleazy divorce lawyer, working out of the Murphy bed office. There is the standard MGM boy/girl stuff, but not much of it. There's a really fun, elaborate Why A Duck type scene for Chico and Groucho. It's hard to explain, but I'll try. They discuss the fact that they only have half the map, which they realize is useless. Quote: "Look, this is the mine where we dig-a for the gold… but we can’t dig-a because we don’t know where it is, so it’s-a no good." So, giving up, they throw it out the window. Then, they say if they know they won't get the money, then they won't have to type a letter about it. So Chico throws the typewriter out the window. Then Groucho says, if we're not typing, then I won't need a secretary to type the typewriter. So he throws her photo out the window. Then Chico says, if she's not gonna be here, then she won't need a chair, so he goes to throw the chair out the window. Where I laughed and thought, "I'm in good hands here!" is that Groucho then opens the window further, to HELP give Chico room to throw the chair out. Good stuff! It's reminiscent of the "Where's the maid gonna sleep?" discussion, but physicalized. By the end, the two of them have cheerfully destroyed Groucho's office, for absolutely no reason. There's then a punchline, where Harpo shows up, carrying everything, like he discovered a bunch of great trash on the street. There are a bunch of Hedy Lamarr jokes, which is really strange, considering her connection to Blazing Saddles. Chico and Harpo do a pantomime routine. There's a lot of fun Groucho-Dumont stuff. As he's ripping her off, “Now all you have to do is put your John Hancock on the dotted line… if you can’t spell John Hancock, sign your own name." Dumont: "Just a minute, don’t you think I ought to read this? I WOULD like to know what’s in it --" Groucho: "You'd like to know what’s in it? I don’t even know what’s in it, and I drew it up!" It uses Groucho’s delight in word repetition well. Groucho is REALLY funny, insulting her while asking her for money. To reiterate the fact that the Brecher script is based on this script, it's made clear that “Three generations of the Carey family have wasted their lives looking for the missing half of that map." As three generations of Wilsons have been looking for that gold. Wow, does that title card really say "Original Screen Play by"?

We get the Murphy bed scene. Harpo does the safe robbing scene. Instead of Chico and Groucho being in the next room, they're downstairs in the saloon. Chico is distracting everybody by playing piano. He keeps switching songs. The gag is that he's supposed to be signaling Harpo with certain tunes, but he forgot which one. So he just keeps trying different songs. Groucho keeps throwing out suggestions, or trying to stump Chico with weird titles. It's fun! As an aside, Groucho and Chico’s dialogue is sharp and funny throughout the whole script. K & R know how to write these guys! Their dialogue is amusing and a pleasure. Unfortunately, we end up in that rodeo. I don't want to see Groucho riding a bronco. I wonder if that stinker ending disheartened everyone. The final draft: 11-18-39 And... MGM has destroyed the script. I can just picture poor Bert and Harry sucking it in, convincing themselves that these little changes won't hurt the project. It's grim. By this draft, NO MARX BROTHERS ARE IN THE FIRST SIX PAGES! This is what happens when development executives take over. It's wall to wall scheming bad guys and boy/girl scenes. For six pages! It's madness. FINALLY, Ravelli and Pinky show up. They're no longer lowlifes in a criminal enterprise. Now they're introduced helping the young lovers. BOO! BOOOOOO! And now, take a deep breath... Groucho doesn't show up until page 12! Shameful. The script used to open with Groucho dancing and trying to steal women's money. Now he's gone for 12 pages.

There is an okay variation on Tootsie Frootsie: Harpo and Chico steal Groucho’s bag. Groucho asks Chico what he should do, and Chico says take it up with the Information Bureau. Groucho goes over to the booth… and it’s Chico again. Chico says, you gotta pay the guide. Groucho asks for the Guide, and it's Harpo. Harpo takes Groucho to the Lost and Found department... are you ahead of me?... and it’s Chico again. I'm gonna stop describing it at this point. There's a few more back and forths. It's sounding lamer than I remember. It's MGM Groucho being stupid. There's some nonsense where they kidnap the real fortune teller and impersonate him. Harpo and Chico get to do that routine. But at this point, it's for good (help the kids). So it's inferior to the original draft, where they were just nefarious. Oh! Groucho's name is now Quincy P. Hackenbush! This is certainly odd. It's one thing to poach names from Paramount titles... but to grab an MGM name from 2 years ago seems lazy or disinterested. Is this their tired way of saying, "Whatever. Here, MGM. We give up. It doesn't matter, since you're not gonna make the movie anyway." ??

But, a few more surprises. Groucho has a berserk SONG! I kept waiting for "Go West, Young Man," and incomprehensibly, it does NOT SHOW UP IN ANY DRAFT I READ. Truly weird. But at the obligatory Indian reservation scene (yes, Irving, it's in the earlier drafts), Groucho sings a song where he proclaims that he is an Indian! I scribbled a couple lines of lyric: "My Pa was red, my ma was white, and I was very blue. Three cheers for the red, white and blue!”

We then get the obligatory safecracking scene with Harpo... the by-now-I've-read-it-too-many-times weird Harpo on the tightrope above the street scene, and then some third act nonsense that I forgot to mention earlier. The guys end up in jail (Casablanca again!) and then in court. The court isn't up to Duck Soup standards. I can't even remember who's on which side. But there is one final attempt at an old school piece of Kalmar-Ruby magic: There is a very elaborate, hard to understand breaking-out-of-jail scene that may have been a classic. It's sort of a variation of the Duck Soup knocking on the door scene, where they keep getting in, then locking themselves out. The three brothers and the young lover are in a basement jail. One of them keeps escaping, with physical shtick where one guy gets on another's shoulders to raise him out of the window. Each time they do it, someone escapes, but then someone else gets locked back in the cell. It goes on and on, with every variation possible. As I read it, I was having trouble following the geography, but the dreamer in me trusted that Kalmar and Ruby had it all figured out in their heads, and if they could have just explained it to a director and shot it, the scene may have been a classic. So, that's it for Bert and Harry. They're off the picture. A few brief tidbits from the following year. THE TOUR The first draft was written by Dore Schary and Irving Brecher. It's got a million crossouts and revisions -- it goes on for 140 pages! To answer the million dollar question, the five scenes are: Train Station Stagecoach ride Saloon sequence, with lots of music Breaking into the safe - presented as a split stage! We see both rooms! So much better. The Indian reservation. A few notes: the train station is much, much longer. They’re trying many, many different runs of jokes. The road tour has more broad, physical gags. I'm actually confused why they would go to the trouble of rigging these visual gags on stage, then not doing them in the movie. At one point in the train station, a musket discharges. Boom! A bear trap snaps! At the end of the safe explosion, the fireplace collapses! The coach scene script refers to bouncing and hitting bumps, so I'm assuming the set was on rockers. The Indian camp finishes with an Indian war dance, which turns into a conga number with the guys. A big ending! There is a narrator who fills in the plot. There is a Nat Perrin draft, where he sharpened the dialogue in the train station. His dialogue is the final version in the movie. A great MGM document I found RATED the laughter in the theater, per joke. To quote: “X - a chuckle XX - a giggle XXX - they hold their sides.” Strangely, two jokes go off the chart! "I’ll watch my money, you watch him." "You must have given it to yourself." "Well, somebody’s giving it to me." That gets four Xs! XXXX !!! I guess the crowd liked the dirty double entendre. The ending, where Harpo cuts Groucho’s pants, gets XXXXX. Five X's! Congratulations, everyone. DON'T WORRY, WE'RE ABOUT DONE There are a bunch of reshoot pages. Irving wrote most of them. I was very amused, because I've been through this process. Clearly, there was a test screening, and some moron in the audience wrote on his card, "I don't understand the plot with the bad guys racing to New York. What are they doing, if our guys have the deed?" So a sweaty upper MGM executive demanded that they explain this with a reshoot. Poor Irving wrote not one, but TWO scenes where Groucho literally rehashes the entire deed plot. In one version, Groucho actually explains it to the totem pole that looks like him. Neither version got into the movie. I have no idea if they shot it and discarded it, or if they realized this was just stupid and it didn't matter and why drag Groucho back to the stage to say these lines? Why make Groucho state (I quote): “They want the railroad to buy their land instead of Dead Man's Gulch." Interestingly, one long reshoot did get into the movie, and it was written by a female writer, Marguerite Roberts. She later wrote True Grit! Clearly, MGM thought that "women aren't responding to the love story, so let's have a woman write a humdinger of a love scene." So Marguerite wrote the entire Eve/Terry opening sequence, starting with Eve at the mirror, then Terry riding up on a horse, then blah blah blah, I love you, darling! That's all I got! I guess it's weird that I'm getting out on a discussion of the young lovers, but maybe that's appropriate, since I'm discussing an MGM movie. I hope you all enjoyed my term paper. In conclusion, Kalmar and Ruby are really funny writers, even when they’re not delivering their best material, and their version would have been SO much better. They understood that the Marxes are bad boys and have to be presented as naughty. Groucho is introduced as a sleazy lawyer. Harpo and Chico are carnival con men. This services the guys, so that they can shine. So please give me an "A." I stayed up all night, finishing this! And I look forward to further discussion!



Thanks to Scott for letting us run this! The original post can be found here.

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