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The Marx Brothers
Marxology - Street Cinderella


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Street Cinderella

Street Cinderella Girl (a.k.a. The Cinderella Girl) was one of the few fiascos the Marx Brothers ever experienced. The show was written by Jo Swerling (who also wrote the script to Humor Risk) and featured songs by Gus Kahn and Egbert van Alstyne. It opened in Grand Rapids, Michigan, during the Spanish influenza epidemic on 28 September 1918. Even if the show had been good - which Groucho admitted it wasn't - there was no chance whatever of merely breaking even at the box office, since local health regulations allowed them to sell only every other seat and every other row. The premiere was awful and at the beginning of the second act, Groucho stepped forward and said: "Folks, that first act wasn't so good. We're gonna ad-lib from now on." One of the features described by Groucho was a flimsy steamship cutout that rolled away on wobbly wheels from a shaky pier. Whenever the wheels jammed, which was often, Harpo had to tow the ship out of the harbor in full view of the audience. However (as pointed out to me by fellow Marxonian Steven R. Wright in an e-mail on 5 January 2001), Groucho's description of a flimsy boat in tow seems more likely from Home Again, unless it appeared in both shows. The brief engagement in Grand Rapids was followed by five indifferent days in Benton Harbor, closing on 3 October. In I'll Say She Is there was a scene called Cinderella Backwards, which may be an ironic nod to their earlier fiasco.

At least one of the Cinderella-compositions by Gus Kahn and Egbert van Alstyne may have been salvaged when Cinderella flopped, namely Sailin' Away on the Henry Clay, which was published in 1917 and appeared in later versions of Home Again. Grace Kahn, the wife of Gus, mentions the song in Charlotte Chandler's book Hello, I Must Be Going when recalling her days as a song plugger for Chicago-based music publisher Jerome H. Remick; "Now, at this point Groucho was doing an act in Grand Rapids, something in vaudeville, so my boss sent me to Grand Rapids to get Groucho to sing a song when he arrived in Chicago. Groucho liked the song, and when he got to Chicago he sang it." Chandler asks if Grace remembers the song she were plugging for Groucho, to which Grace replies. "Yes, I certainly do. Sailin' Away on the Henry Clay, that was the name of the song. They'd travel around the country for about a year in those days, and Groucho kept the song on for all that time." Gus Kahn died in 1941 but two years later his and Grace's daughter Irene married Groucho's son Arthur. Groucho remained friends with Grace for the rest of his life and they also had grandchildren Steve and Andy Marx in common. Two more Kahn/van Alstyne-titles found on the net also fit chronologically as Cinderella-leftovers. The prophetically entitled What Are You Going To Do To Help The Boys was published in 1918 (also by Jerome H. Remick) while Your Eyes Have Told Me So (written by Kahn/van Alstyne together with Walter Blaufuss) appeared in a 1919-movie called Sing Me A Love Song (which - by the way - was filmed again in 1936). I've found a third song by Kahn/van Alstyne, Memories, but it was copyrighted in 1915, seemingly too early to be connected with Cinderella.

In November 2001, I was in contact with Jo Swerling Jr, the scriptwriter's son, but he couldn't shed any more light on Cinderella. In an e-mail, he wrote: "During my early years, I had the pleasure of being with Groucho and Harpo on many social occasions with my parents. Groucho was always "on", while Harpo, not unlike his on-screen persona, was much quieter and more reserved than his brother. Unfortunately, my father didn't leave anything in writing about his friends, the Marx Bros., nor do I recall any verbal anecdotes that aren't available in books or articles already published about them. I do remember one occasion when we were having lunch with Groucho at Nate and Al's, a legendary Beverly Hills delicatessen. Groucho turned to a middle-aged woman in the next booth and politely asked her if he could borrow a pencil. Of course, she recognized him and happily handed him one, which he then used to poke a hole in the end of one of his signature cigars before lighting it. He then handed the astonished woman her pencil back. I've often wondered if she kept it as some sort of hallowed celebrity artifact.".