January 4, 2012

A Times Square Fantasia With Harpo Marx, Charlie Parker, and the 1911 Club

By Stuart Mitchner

I don’t have the evidence to prove it but I’d bet that the majority of first-run movies made between 1920 and 1950 are set in New York City and that of those, more than half open with a shot of Times Square at night. Since Times Square and New Year’s Eve are virtually synonymous, this, the first column for 2012, features the Times Square fantasia from Love Happy, the last, least shown, and most roundly dismissed and generally disdained of the Marx Brothers’ pictures.

Love Happy opened at the Criterion Theatre on Times Square the first week in April 1950. Among several things the “horrible movie” (Groucho’s comment) has going for it is Marilyn Monroe, who pays a brief, breathtaking, off-the-shoulder-evening-gowned visit to Groucho’s nearsighted private eye Sam Grunion (“Men follow me” is how she explains her predicament). There’s also a classic Harpo routine in which three heavies looking for a stolen diamond necklace search in his bottomless coat, extracting, among other things, the leg of a female mannequin, a welcome mat, an umbrella, a barber’s pole, a mailbox, the mannequin’s other leg, an inner tube, and a dog. In addition to the thankless task of frisking the silent one, the thugs are [my italics] asking Harpo questions: “We have ways of making you talk!” Which is like telling the Rock of Gibraltar “We have ways of making you move.”

Above all, there’s Harpo’s flight. Some might call it a chase scene with the three hoods in pursuit but in truth it’s a Harpo Marx solo, “Swinging on a Star” meets “Racing with the Moon” in a slapstick scramble across the floodlit playground of animated neon above Times Square. First he seeks refuge in the massive company of the yawning, pajama-clad Fisk Tire boy, stifling a yawn himself before blowing out the big sleepyhead’s candle and diving under a Wheaties box the size of a house, only to rise through some mad gremlin power of his own to the flying red horses of Mobil, a flashing sequence of neon steeds, leaving his earthly pursuers falling all over themselves on the rooftop below. Seconds later, with the villains at his heels again, he catches hold of the swinging neon pendulum of the big Gruen clock, a primitive version of the one that marked the 2012 countdown four nights ago with some help from a silver-sheathed Lady Gaga. Hanging on, swinging high and low, he lets the pendulum do all the work; every time the bad guys try to grab him on the downswing, boom, ass over backwards they go, the hands of the clock spinning like a roulette wheel as Harpo flies headlong, arms out, straight into the open beak of Joe Kool, the chain-smoking penguin. When Joe opens his beak to exhale another puff, it’s Harpo’s lunatic gargoyle face and mashed stovepipe hat you see; it takes three tries before he manages to extract himself, climbing out wrapped in a blast of smoke and sliding down the penguin’s wing to the floodlit parapet, where he staggers around, smoke-drunk, pushed to the sheer edge of the roof by the three hoods, lights of cars far below on Broadway, oh-oh it’s all over, he’s cornered, nowhere to go but straight down except that when they punch at the junky inner sanctum of his big coat, he erupts, Mt. Harpo belching forth a fat stream of smoke that blinds his assailants. He’s sated with secondhand smoke, teeming with it, cranking his arms, blowing it out both ears, like some crazed pagan spirit, the god of Pandemonium lording it over the Great White Way.

Bird at the Roost

In the relatively real world down below at the Royal Roost, the House That Bop Built, 1580 Broadway, practically next door to the Criterion at 1530 where Love Happy will open more than a year later, it’s December 31, 1948, midnight’s looming, and Charlie Parker has just completed a solo flight on “How High the Moon” that could be transcribed to score every fast and fluid rise and fall and starry surprise of Harpo’s flight from Fisk to Kool on the big signs overhead. And if that seems like excessive synchronicity, what better occasion than the changing of the years on a square named for the Times? Surely this is the one night out of 365 that begs for the muse of fantasy.

In fact, the music, the time and the place are for real. You can hear the New Year’s Eve Broadcast on Bird at the Roost: The Savoy Years Volume Two, with Symphony Sid sending it out live over WMCA, courtesy of Music Hall Credit Jewelers, which “give up their time just to wish you all a very happy new year from the Original Metropolitan Bopera House.”

The 1911 Club

So here I am looking back on 2011 and realizing that my only celebrity centenary columns were on Ronald Reagan and Ginger Rogers, which is why I’m imagining that the old Times Square magnetism has lured a whole host of 1911 birthmates down the stairway into the cozy confines of the Roost for a New York New Year’s Eve with Charlie Parker. All in their prime at 37, the members of the 1911 club waiting for 1948 to become 1949 undoubtedly suggest a “strange bedfellows” scenario, as scholar anarchist Paul Goodman discusses baseball and Thoreau with slugger Hank Greenberg while Butterfly “Prissy” McQueen shares a shrill toast with Big Joe Turner in memory of Jean Harlow and Robert Johnson, two members of 1911 club who died in the late 1930s. A few minutes ago, during intermission, Roy Rogers and Vaughan Monroe had been prevailed upon to team up for an impromptu a cappella rendition of “Ghost Riders in the Sky,” the song Monroe will put on the musical map later in the new year. Now here comes Lee J. Cobb, dropping in to unwind after weeks of heavy rehearsing for the part of Willy Loman; in a month he’ll be opening around the corner at the Morosco in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. Right now he’s talking shop with Broderick Crawford, who will play the role of his life and cop an Oscar in 1949 as Willie Stark in All The King’s Men.

The handsome guy handing his coat to the coat check girl is Nicholas Ray, whose first film, They Live By Night, is due for release later in the new year. Jules Dassin, there with his first wife Bea, has been talking about the location filming he did for The Naked City after hearing from Nick about the controversy he encountered directing Duke Ellington’s interracial musical Beggar’s Holiday a few years back. Ray’s new wife Gloria Grahame has settled down at a ringside table meanwhile and is already flirting up a storm with trumpeter Roy “Little Jazz” Eldridge and the artist Romare Bearden, who has been sketching the scene onstage where Bird and his All-Stars are playing “Half-Nelson” at breakneck speed. Sharing the adjacent table though they appear not to know one another are Marshall McLuhan and L. Ron Hubbard, both busy taking notes.

Also seated at ringside are three imposing women to whom Parker is devoting special frenzied attention as his solo peaks and falls back, appearing to falter only to soar into brave new worlds. The tall redhead in the big hat is Lucille Ball, who is distracted by the fear that her husband Desi may be playing a New Year’s Eve gig in the Never Never Room of The Hotel Showgirl. Next to her is Gypsy Rose Lee, hatless, bejeweled and serenely beautiful in a fabulous Aubrey Beardsley dream of a dress. On Gypsy’s left wearing a confectionary headpiece that doesn’t go with her natural good looks is Tarzan’s first Jane, Maureen O’Sullivan, the only person at the table willing to give herself up to the music.

An interlude of softly swinging pianistic magic from 24-year-old Al Haig gives Charlie a chance to chat up “Jane” before falling into a conversation about Honegger’s “Song of Joy” with Gian Carlo Menotti, whose Medium and Telephone are at City Center, and Stan Kenton, who is still beaming about the nice things Bird said about him (“the closest thing in jazz to classical music”) in a recent Blindfold Test. Keeping his own counsel at the same table is Bernard Hermann, whose score for Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train has just been quoted, with a wink for the composer, by Al Haig. At the next table, Elizabeth Bishop and Tennessee Williams, are talking about Key West, Bishop’s asthma, which is always less of a bother in New York, and her next door neighbor, who happens to be Jessica Tandy’s understudy in Streetcar Named Desire. Williams’s latest play, Summer and Smoke, has just opened at the Music Box.

There’s a buzz in the room as Merle Oberon enters with her new husband cinematographer Lucien Ballard. Haig salutes her with Cathy’s theme from the score of Wuthering Heights. Another gasp from the crowd greets Harpo Marx’s backstage emergence. Out of costume and out of breath after his night flight amid the billboards, Harpo mutely counts down the last ten seconds of 1948 with Symphony Sid as Spike Jones, Robert Taylor, and Vincent Price hurry in with their significant others, fresh from the Times Square crush.

Midnight! 1949! Over the cheering and kissing hoopla, Charlie Parker shouts “If music be the food of love, play on!” as he makes way for Mahalia Jackson, who leads everyone in a spine-chilling rendition of “Auld Lang Syne.”

Note: Everyone I imagined showing up at the Roost that night was born in 1911 (all 26, not counting Harlow and Johnson) with a few obvious exceptions. To see who didn’t show up, google “Born in 1911” (http://www.nndb.com/lists/910/000105595/) which is still incorrectly listing Margaret Sullavan, who was born in 1909 and the subject of my May 13, 2009 column. A DVD of Love Happy was released in 2004 by Republic Pictures. A limited number are available on Amazon.