Rule of thumb, the earlier a Marx Brothers movie was made, the better it probably is. The initial impulse of the brothers’ manic energy and inventive wordplay was difficult to reproduce as time wore on, although they did make seven first-rate Marx Brothers movies before tailing off (the last really good one being A Day at the Races from 1937).
The first two Marx Brothers movies were The Cocoanuts (1929) and Animal Crackers (1930), and both were based on successful Broadway musicals. Monkey Business from 1931 was the first script that was originally developed to be filmed by a Hollywood studio, that being Paramount.
For my money, Animal Crackers might be the quintessential Marx Brothers movie. Groucho plays an African explorer named Captain Jeffrey T. Spaulding, and the movie opens with a bang when four African men carry Capt. Spaulding into a hoity-toity gala party in a sedan chair. Groucho immediately breaks into “Hello, I Must Be Going,” which prompts the entire chorus, including Margaret Dumont and Zeppo, to break into “Hooray for Captain Spaulding,” in which Groucho actually doesn’t do much singing, he mainly does funny dances between the choruses.
The song was written for the stage musical by Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby in 1928. Interesting choice for a name, “Captain Spaulding,” because that name was actually associated with a cocaine dealer who had gotten into serious legal trouble a few years earlier. It’s hard to project back in time to know what it meant to name a Groucho Marx character Captain Spaulding, but it seems a fair supposition that for certain ears, the phrase “Hooray for Captain Spaulding” might essentially have been the equivalent of “Hooray, my coke dealer is here!”
Who was this original Captain Spaulding? For that we turn to the tragic life of one of Hollywood’s early stars, Wallace Reid, who had appeared in D.W. Griffith’s two most famous movies, Birth of a Nation and Intolerance, but was better known as a romantic lead in movies like Carmen (1915) and The Affairs of Anatol (1921). After suffering a serious injury in a train wreck in 1923, he became addicted to morphine and passed away at the age of 31.
In his biography Wallace Reid: The Life and Death of a Hollywood Idol, E.J. Fleming described the drug scene in the silent era as follows:
Drugs were plentiful and expensive. Stars used them to cure hangovers from “bathtub gin” or from fruit punch laced with 200-proof alcohol. The bigger dealers concentrated on a single studio and used a network of low-level studio employees as paid couriers. “Mr. Fix-It” served Fox, “the Man” and “Captain Spaulding” at Lasky. “Spaulding” was once arrested for selling drugs but when he threatened to name names the charges were dropped.
So one of the main drug dealers in Hollywood used the name “Captain Spaulding” in Hollywood, but there was also an incident in Paris in 1920 that gave the name a strong association with cocaine. Olive Thomas was a silent film actress who died in 1920 at the age of 24 of acute nephritis caused by accidental poisoning. Her death was eventually declared accidental, but her sudden hospitalization and initially mysterious death ensured that her case would be headline fodder for weeks. A man with the name of “Spalding” was connected to the case, and actually was given a prison sentence for smuggling cocaine into France. As the New York Herald reported on September 6, 1920:
American is Imprisoned for Smuggling Cocaine
An American who gives his name as Spalding has been sentenced to three months’ imprisonment for smuggling cocaine into Paris from Germany. The supply, which amounted to four kilogrammes, was concealed in a trunk which went astray and was sent to the depot for lost articles.
Here, after several days, it was claimed by Spalding, who declared to the Customs’ officers that it contained nothing of a dutiable nature, a statement which was disproved upon examination. In his defense, Spalding stated that the trunk had been consigned to him by a friend, one Mrs. Green, from Mainz.
This “American named Spalding” actually was a captain and was referred to as such in an article that appeared a week later.
More after the jump…