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Was Groucho Marx’s famous anthem ‘Hooray for Captain Spaulding’ actually a celebration of cocaine?
12:42 pm


Groucho Marx

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…

Posted by Martin Schneider | Leave a comment
Groucho Marx and William F. Buckley debate the nature of comedy on ‘Firing Line,’ 1967
11:51 am


William F. Buckley
Groucho Marx

On July 7, 1967, Groucho Marx appeared as a guest on William F. Buckley’s current affairs show Firing Line to debate the topic “Is the World Funny?” Firing Line had been in existence only for about a year at that point, broadcasting on WOR channel 9 in New York City; four years later, the show would move to PBS.

Groucho was there to promote his new book The Groucho Letters: Letters From and To Groucho Marx, in which he reproduced selected correspondence with figures like Jerry Lewis, Irving Berlin, E.B. White, Peter Lorre, Edward R. Murrow, David Susskind, Booth Tarkington, Harry Truman, and James Thurber. The book is still in print today. Contrasting himself with Bob Hope, whom Groucho regards as possessing a quasi-pathological need to perform in front of audiences, Groucho asserts at one point that if he weren’t promoting a book, he’d never appear on a show like Firing Line.

Presiding as a kind of arbiter was C. Dickerman Williams, an attorney who had once been director of the American Civil Liberties Union and had defended Buckley’s National Review in a number of free speech cases.

Groucho discusses an appearance he made two years earlier, at a memorial service for T.S. Eliot that was organized by Laurence Olivier and Kenneth Tynan and held at the Globe Theatre in London on June 13, 1965. It turns out that T.S. and Groucho had a prickly frenemy relationship for a few years. On Firing Line, Groucho asserts that Eliot was probably jealous of William Shakespeare.

Groucho’s freeform and scattershot mentality isn’t well suited for a true debate on the nature of comedy and he actually upbraids Buckley whenever he tries to stay on point. During a discussion of ethnic humor, he states that “I don’t regard myself as a Jew when I’m publicly performing,” which is interesting because it’s mainly true, Groucho’s humor might have been generally Jewish as a matter of lineage but not particularly Jew-ish as such.

Groucho also says that he would have voted for Buckley when he ran for mayor in 1965 (he got 13.4% of the vote, not bad at all).

This episode of Firing Line is actually available on DVD too.


Previously on Dangerous Minds:
Huey Newton compels William F. Buckley to side with George Washington, 1973
Turn on the tube: Timothy Leary and William Buckley arguing about L.S.D. on TV
Paul Krassner: I dropped acid with Groucho Marx

Posted by Martin Schneider | Leave a comment
Marxism: Highlights from Groucho’s FBI file
12:06 pm


Groucho Marx

The other day I was refreshing my memory on Groucho’s LSD escapade with Paul Krassner, when it occurred to me that it might be beneficial to see if the FBI ever had a file on Groucho.

Of course they did, and it’s available for anyone to look at, heavily redacted of course. The Xerox machines at the FBI a few decades ago were super shitty (a feature not a bug?) so a lot of the pages you can’t make out a damn thing, but other sections are perfectly legible.

If you know anything about J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI, the contents here aren’t too surprising—they were mainly worried that Groucho might be a Commie (if not a Marxist) in the early to mid-1950s. There are countless (redacted) reports to the effect that Groucho had a lot of pro-Communist sympathies but was almost certainly not an actual party member. (I guess the G-men already knew that he’d refuse to join any club that would have him as a member?)  There are some interesting references to a quotation of Groucho’s that appeared in the Daily Worker in 1934 that went “The battle of the Communists for the lives of these boys is one that will be taught in Soviet America as the most inspiring and courageous battle ever fought.”

Keep in mind that in 1934 Hitler was running Germany but not yet regarded as an obvious scourge to be eliminated. Still his anti-Jewish sentiments were clear enough. As a well-informed Jewish American it would be weird if Groucho hadn’t gotten interested in Communism around then. Plus for similar reasons the mid-1930s was a high-water mark for leftist and/or pro-Soviet feeling, especially once the Spanish Civil War got going in 1936. A lot of people who weren’t all that political got into trouble later for things they did (and thought) before WWII.

There’s also some business about Groucho and Chico being found guilty in a copyright infringement case in 1937 and having to pay a $1,000 fine.

For some reason Groucho (né Julius) is invariably referred to as “GRAUCHO MARX.” Once we reach the 1960s he is referred to as “Groucho.” I don’t know what’s up with that. In the summary sections of the file there is some background about how musically talented Groucho and his brothers are—the musical talents of Harpo and Chico are well known, but the file also, intriguingly, says this: “GRAUCHO MARX is rated as one of the best guitar players in the country.”

Did any of you know that?? So Groucho Marx, was, in a sense (at least according to his FBI file) a peer of Charlie Christian, Jimi Hendrix, and Eddie Van Halen? Well, maybe, maybe not.

There’s some business I don’t understand from 1957 about someone trying to “extort” Groucho. I can’t tell if it’s just a weird piece of fan mail that was referred to the FBI that they were obliged to look into or something more serious. On that page there is this chilling passage:

The death threat letter sent to GROUCHO MARX from ELVIS PRESLEY fanatics from Brooklyn stating that GROUCHO wouldn’t live through the holidays, might seem ridiculous if it weren’t such a serious offense to send such a threat through the mails.

Much more from the Groucho file, after the jump…....

Posted by Martin Schneider | Leave a comment
When Dali Met Harpo: Read Salvador Dali’s script for the Marx Brothers

Salvador Dali loved the Marx Brothers. He loved their madcap, anarchic comedy. In particular Dali loved Harpo Marx—the blonde corkscrew-haired comic mime whose visual comedy—unlike the quick witty repartee of his brother Groucho—was universal and needed no translation. Dali described Harpo as one of America’s three great Surrealists—the other two being Walt Disney and Cecil B. DeMille.

The pair first met at a party in Paris in 1936. Harpo told Dali how much he liked his paintings. Dali told Harpo how much he loved his films—in particular Animal Crackers which he described as “the summit of the evolution of comic cinema.” Dali gushed over Harpo’s performance where he pulled fish and cutlery from his pocket and shot the hats of beautiful women—this was true Surrealism!

Understandably, the two men became friends.

Dali later wrote “an entertaining, if rather implausible account” of his meeting with Harpo for Harper’s Bazaar in 1937:

I met Harpo for the first time in his garden. He was naked, crowned with roses, and in the center of a veritable forest of harps (he was surrounded by at least five hundred harps). He was caressing, like a new Leda, a dazzling white swan, and feeding it a statue of the Venus de Milo made of cheese, which he grated against the strings of the nearest harp. An almost springlike breeze drew a curious murmur from the harp forest. In Harpo’s pupils glows the same spectral light to be observed in Picasso’s.

When Harpo returned to America, Dali sent him a harp wrapped in cellophane with barbed wire for strings and spoons, knives and forks glued all over its frame. In return Harpo sent Dali a photograph of himself playing the harp with bandaged fingers. He invited Dali to Hollywood saying he’d be more than happy to pose for the great artist—if he cared to smear paint all over him. Dali was delighted to take up the offer. In 1937, he arrived in Hollywood with his wife Gala. He visited Harpo and sketched him playing his barbed wire harp with a lobster on his head. Natch.
Dali’s sketch of Harpo playing the harp.
Dali brought Harpo a gift—a movie script he wanted the Marx Brothers to make. The script was called Giraffes on Horseback Salads or The Surrealist Woman. It was a series of unconnected scenes typed in blue ribbon over twenty-two pages with various notes written in ink. Dali had already made two infamous films with his friend the director Luis Buñuel—Un Chien Andalou (1929) and L’Age d’Or. Now he wanted to cast Harpo and cinema’s “greatest Surrealist act” the Marx Brothers in a film that just might revolutionize Hollywood—or maybe not...

Read Dali’s script and see his sketches for ‘Giraffes on Horseback Salads,’ after the jump…

Posted by Paul Gallagher | Leave a comment
Paul Krassner: I dropped acid with Groucho Marx
10:49 am


Paul Krassner
Groucho Marx

Paul Krassner has lived a remarkable life, with singular experiences including publishing The Realist, acting as editor of Hustler, becoming a “one-man underground railroad of abortion referrals,” testifying at the Chicago 7 trial while tripping on acid, co-founding the Yippies, and so forth.

Not the least of his adventures was the time he acted as “sort of a guide for Groucho Marx” for Groucho’s first acid trip.

As he wrote in the February 1981 issue of High Times, “We ingested those little white tabs one afternoon at the home of an actress in Beverly Hills.” At the end of the anecdote, Groucho says that he is looking forward to playing “God” in Skidoo, the legendary cult movie from 1968 directed by Otto Preminger in which Groucho smokes pot, so the timing of this acid story must have been late 1967 or early 1968. Wikipedia asserts that Groucho took acid to “prepare” for Skidoo, but Krassner’s article definitely does not say that. In fact, Krassner’s article is something of a mishmash, covering 3-4 different stories, and he doesn’t really explain anything about what led to his acid trip with Groucho. Here’s a little bit of what they did do, though:

We had long periods of silence and of listening to music. I was accustomed to playing rock ‘n’ roll while tripping, but the record collection here was all classical and Broadway show albums. After we heard the Bach “Cantata No. 7” Groucho said, “I may be Jewish, but I was seeing the most beautiful visions of Gothic cathedrals. Do you think Bach knew he was doing that?”

Later, we were listening to the score of a musical comedy Fanny. There was one song called “Welcome Home,” where the lyrics go something like, “Welcome home, says the clock,” and the chair says, “Welcome home,” and so do various other pieces of furniture. Groucho started acting out each line as if he were actually being greeted by the duck, the chair and so forth. He was like a child, charmed by his own ability to respond to the music that way.

He also says, remarkably, that “the acid with which Ram Dass, in his final moments as Dick Alpert, failed to get his guru higher was the same acid that I had the honor of taking with Groucho Marx.”

There’s a lot more in the article, so read the full thing here.

Interestingly, in his account Krassner mentions the tour buses of Haight-Ashbury hippiedom of the late 1960s, which DM covered just a couple of weeks ago.

It’s not acid, but here’s a little clip from Skidoo with Groucho smoking reefer:

Hat tip: Showbiz Imagery and Chicanery

Posted by Martin Schneider | Leave a comment
Groucho Marx roasts Johnny Carson, 1968
11:25 am


Johnny Carson
Groucho Marx

Groucho Marx “honors” Johnny Carson at his Friars’ Club roast, broadcast on The Kraft Music Hall program on October 23, 1968. Six years prior (October 1, 1962), Marx introduced Carson on his very first Tonight Show.

Others there to “honor” the talk show king were Don Rickles, New York’s then-mayor John Lindsay, Ed Sullivan, Steve Allen, Dick Cavett and host Alan King.

Carson gets roasted by Dean Martin, Redd Foxx, Truman Capote and many others after the jump…

Posted by Richard Metzger | Leave a comment
Great heads of the 20th Century: Groucho Marx’s marijuana diet
04:52 pm


Groucho Marx

In 1943, Groucho Marx wrote a letter to U.S. troops stationed in Suriname in 1943 in a gesture of solidarity. It’s quite funny and the mention of marijuana in 1943 proves Groucho was a head of his time.


August 18, 1943.

Dear Corporal Darrow,

You asked me if I have a message for the soldiers in the jungle. I could probably send one but it would be collect and would only run into money. I imagine it’s difficult enough to stay awake on those lonely islands without having to read messages from me.

I don’t want you to worry much about the 4-Fs back home—true, we have been deprived of a few things but nothing of any importance. We don’t get much meat any more—the butcher shops have nothing in them but customers. Fortunately, I don’t rely on the stores for my vegetables. Last spring I was smart enough to plant a Victory garden. So far, I have raised a family of moles, enough snails to keep a pre-French restaurant running for a century and a curious looking plant that I have been eating all summer under the impression that it was a vegetable. However, for the past few weeks, I’ve had difficulty in remaining awake and this morning I discovered that I had been munching on marijuana the whole month of July.

Anyhow, we miss all you boys (I have a son in the Coast Guard) and we wish you were all back again raising hell and children. We are doing what little we can to further the war effort—we buy bonds, play service camps and short-wave broadcasts to our soldiers on the foreign fronts. We drive carefully, we take no vacations and, in general, do what we can. God knows it’s little enough. We all know that you boys are doing the real job.

In closing, all I can say is good luck, God bless you all and hurry home—remember, America is pretty empty without you kids.

(Signed, ‘Groucho’)”

Via Letters Of Note

Posted by Marc Campbell | Leave a comment
Beatnik TV: Lord Buckley on the Groucho Marx Show, 1956

In 1956 hipster humorist Lord Buckley appeared on TV game show You Bet Your Life hosted by Groucho Marx. This was a meeting of two brilliant minds and it’s hard to believe that it actually occurred on network television. But, Buckley was so underground that the viewing audience was clueless as to who he was. While he’s rather low-key on the program, he still manages to slip some of his bebop prose into the mix. The ‘housewife’ Buckley’s teamed up with is a pretty cool broad herself. In contrast to the two contestants, Groucho comes off a bit square.
As an added attraction, I’ve included a rare clip of Buckley’s appearance on TV’s Club 7 circa 1949.

more Buckley after the jump…

Posted by Marc Campbell | Leave a comment