The Marx Brothers
I've collected as much info as possible on the legendary first but lost Marx Brothers-film with a lot of help from Robert Moulton, Steve Massa, Annette Lloyd, Richard Koszarski, Rob Farr, Jo Swerling Jr, Dennis Lambert, Dave O'Malley, Joe Adamson and others.
This cast shot from Humor Risk is a screen grab from "The Marx Brothers in a Nutshell"-documentary, provided to me by Robert Moulton. The photo was supplied to Joe Adamson and Bob Weide by Dick Smith's stepdaughter Yvonne Stevens in 1981. On the back of the photo Ms Stevens wrote:
"New York - 1921 - 22 ?
Dick Smith - my stepfather sitting in chair - derby Hat
Jobyna Ralston - girl with arms around Dick - He encouraged her to go to California where she became Harold Loyds (sic) leading lady and married Richard Arlen
Groucho Marx - 3rd from left front row
Harpo Marx 4th " " " "
Chico Marx to right of Jobyna
Zeppo Marx to lef (sic) of Jobyna
I'm sure these are theater owners or exhibitors and their wives visiting the studio. They always had their pictures taken with the company who happened to be working.
Yvonne Stevens 10/4/81"
man standing to Dick Smith's left, with the black tie, may be Jo
Swerling. His son, Jo Swerling Jr (who wasn't born at the time), isn't
sure but says that this man bears a slight resemblance to his father
and could be him.
The silent Humor Risk
was made privately by the Marx Brothers in 1921. According to popular
belief, it was never completed but nevertheless screened once in Bronx
in a matinée for kids, whose lack of interest accounted for the movie
to remain unreleased. There has also been a rumour that Humor
in fact was packaged for distribution in the late 1920s by one of the
lesser short comedy distributors, possibly with the title changed. The
earliest known trade paper reference to the film (provided to me by
Richard Koszarski) was in Wid's Daily (later
renamed Film Daily) on 8 April 1921. Under the
headline MARX BROS. IN FILMS? on
page 2, the Wid's piece says that it was reported "yesterday"
that the Brothers are supposed to have signed with Caravel for a series
of two-reelers. Caravel's office address was given as 130 West 46th
Street. Silent shorts were generally sold to distributors as being part
of a series but it looks like this series started and folded with Humor
Risk. Moving Picture World also wrote
about the film on 16 April 1921, page 738 (unearthed by both Rob Farr
and Annette Lloyd at haroldlloyd.com
and provided to me by Robert Moulton):
MARX BROTHERS IN NEW COMEDY SERIES
Four Marx Brothers, Julius, Arthur, Leonard and Herbert, well-known to
vaudeville audiences, have made their screen debut and will be featured
in a series produced by the Caravel Comedy Company, known as "Comedy
Without Custard". The first is from a story by Jo Swerling of the New
York American. It is titled "Humor Risk" and was directed by Dick Smith
with A. H. Vallet at the camera.
This short article indicates that the film was completed and also confirms that the title was Humor Risk (and not Humorisk). The chronology is also interesting. In his book The Marx Brothers - Their World of Comedy, Allen Eyles informs that the film was made in two weeks and this seems to be confirmed by the notes in Wid's Daily and Moving Picture World - on the 8th, the Marxes "are supposed to have signed with Caravel" while on the 16th, they "have made their screen debut" in a film that "was directed by Dick Smith".
Russian-born writer Jo Swerling (who also had written their unsuccesful show Street Cinderella and later got famous for writing the musical Guys and Dolls ) wrote the script and raised $ 6,000. Other financers were the Four Marx Brothers themselves, cartoonist Alvah "Al" Posen (named "producer" by Kyle Crichton), Nathan "Nucky" Sachs and Max Lippman.
Moultons' research shows that Dick Smith had just finished up a series
of Alice Howell Reelcraft comedies in Chicago at the time. Both Smith
and photographer Vallet have credits on the IMDB. Steve Massa adds that
besides being Alice Howell's frequent director and co-star, Dick Smith
was her husband from 1910 until his death in 1937. He also acted at
L-KO and Vitagraph, where he supported Jimmy Aubrey along with Oliver
Hardy. After Humor Risk he directed comedy shorts
until the end of the silent era. His grandson George Stevens Jr. used
to be director general of the American Film Institute.
Correspondence, idea file for comic strips, newspaper clippings and original drawings of Al Posen are today hosted by the Syracuse University Library as "the Alvah Posen Papers". I've contacted them to see if there is anything that refers to the Marxes or others involved with Humor Risk, but there isn't and the University have no contact with any present-day relatives.
Sachs was a Latvian-born actor who appeared in several silent shorts between 1914 and 1921, variously calling himself Nat Sachs, Nathan Sack, Nat Sack, Nathaniel Sacks and Nathaniel Saxe. A woman identified as "Mrs Nathan Sachs" appears on a photo with the Marxes and Chico's wife and daughter on the set of Duck Soup. IMDB has two notes on a Max Lippman, referring to a still photographer in two British movies from 1948, "Leather Gloves" (aka "Loser Take All") and "Return of October" (aka "A Date with Destiny"), but it's uncertain if he's the Humor Risk-guy. The son of writer Jo Swerling, Jo Swerling Jr., has been working in the TV and movie business himself but when I was in contact with him in November 2001, he was unable to shed any light on the Humor Risk-mystery. 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.".
Much of the information regarding the film is contradictory
and it isn't easy to find the exact studio location. In his book The
Marx Brothers - Their World of Comedy
(1965), Allen Eyles informs that the film was made at Fort Lee Studios
in New Jersey and in a studio at 49th Street and 10th Avenue in New
York. In The Marx Bros. Scrapbook (1973), Groucho
says that they "shot it on the west side of New York".
In Charlotte Chandler's book Hello, I Must Be Going
(1978), Groucho adds that they "only
made two reels over at Fort Lee, and Jo Swerling worked on it. But we
were playing at the Palace Theatre at the time, and we used to run over
to Weehawken and do a scene". In the chronological list,
Chandler sums it up: "shot in New Jersey, lost in New York".
Richard Koszarski has done a lot of work on studio locations in this period. He contacted me in March 2002 saying that he doesn't know of any studio on 10th Avenue and 49th Street, nor does he think it likely that a two reeler would have had to be filmed in two different studios in two different states. In 1921, the old Ideal Studio in Hudson Heights, New Jersey was often used for making inexpensive short films. It operated under various names (like the Briggs Studio), and RKO used it to film the WC Fields short The Golf Specialist. The location was at 1996 Boulevard East in an area that today is called West New York. This was the closest New Jersey studio to Weehawken and the 42nd Street ferry, considerably closer than Fort Lee. This would have been a likely spot for shooting Humor Risk.
Groucho told writer Kyle Crichton that the film was an attempt at a Chaplinesque "humor with pathos" - a comedy without custard, indeed. Groucho: "We did two reels, which didn't make any sense at all. It was just trying to be funny". In this evident parody of movie melodrama, Harpo reportedly played the romantic lead. In his book The Marx Brothers, Kyle Crichton writes:"Harpo played a character named Watson and made his entrance in a high hat, sliding down a coal chute into the basement". In the filmography-section of his book Monkey Business, Simon Louvish adds that Watson was a detective and also that Chico played an Italian. All sources indicates that Groucho appeared as the "old movie" villain and that "the finale showed Groucho, in ball and chain, trudging slowly off into the gloaming." (Crichton). Hector Arce's book Groucho provides a further clue to the action by describing a scene taking place in a cabaret, allowing the inclusion of a dance number. He also cites a supporting cast that included a married couple named Ralston, along with a chorus line from one of the Shubert theatres. Simon Louvish says that several cast members of the Marxes' vaudeville-show at the time (which was On the Mezzanine Floor, later renamed On The Balcony) "joined in the mayhem". In his 1931 Saturday Evening Post essay Bad Days Are Good Memories, Groucho identifies the leading lady as Mildred Davis, who performed the same task in Harold Lloyd's films until marrying him in 1923.
Lately, some new but unconfirmed and uncertain info have popped up. On the ducklist-digest from Sunday, February 27 2000 (Volume 01 : Number 084), a poster claims that Harpo (as detective Watson) wore a deerstalker cap in the film and that Groucho (as the villain) sported a long moustache and was clad in black. Furthermore, Chico was pointed out as the villain's "chuckling henchman"! According to this account, the leading lady was tied up in the cellar by Groucho when Harpo came to her rescue by sliding down the coal chute, thus sending evil Groucho to prison. www.filmthreat.com presents a "Top 10-list of lost films", which includes Humor Risk. New bits in this presentation are the claims that the brothers were working separately rather than as a team and that Zeppo played a playboy and/or a nightclub owner. The title of the film apparently was a spoof of the then-popular drama Humoresque, one of the biggest filmhits of 1920, originally a novel by Fannie Hurst that was adapted for Broadway in 1923 and filmed again in 1946. Although the parody probably ended with the title, the storyline of Humoresque seems to fit the Marxes' real life in an odd way. It portrayed a Jewish mother who sacrifices everything for her son who grows up to be a successful concert violinist, taking his family out of poverty.The boy is injured in World War I but miraculously recovered through love. This could almost be the story of the Marx Brothers, with their mother Minnie sacrificing everything for her sons, who grow up to be successful movie comedians, miraculously recovered after the failure with Humor Risk.
To me, Humor Risk doesn't seem to have been so far apart from the rest of the Marx Brothers' work as have been suggested. There apparently was a love story involving Zeppo (or maybe Harpo) and there may have been an Italian character played (as usual) by Chico. Accepting Harpo as a detective isn't any harder than seeing him as a Professor (like in Animal Crackers) and in fact he was disguised as a detective in some of the other films as well (wearing a deerstalker cap as the one described on the ducklist-digest). There were also dancers and a visit at a cabaret in the film, and a villain who commited some crime which got him punished in the end (probably after an elementary solution by Detective Watson). The vital difference from any other Marx-project was that the real Groucho wasn't in it. There's no doubt that the lack of sound must have limited him the most, and to play the villain was probably a less sacrifice than being unable to talk. This may also explain why Groucho always tried to downplay the quality and importance of this film.
In an email sent to me on 3 February 2000, Robert Moulton suggested that Groucho was misremembering about Mildred Davis; "By 1919 Mildred Davis was already Harold Lloyd's full time leading lady in Hollywood, a role that continued into 1923". Additionally, despite being born in Brooklyn, New York on 1 January 1900, it appears that Mildred was in Los Angeles already by 1914, as her brother Jack Davis (also an actor) was born there on 5 April 1914.
Another email from Steve Massa on 30 October 2001 offered a very logical explanation - the woman in question was in fact Jobyna Lancaster Ralston, who became Lloyd's leading lady in 1923 when Mildred Davis retired to become Mrs. Lloyd. The research of Dennis Lambert shows that Jobyna knew the Marx Brothers closely. Jobyna Ralston was born on 21 November 1899 in South Pittsburg, Tennessee. It has always been stated that she was born in 1900, which is also listed on her tombstone. However, recent investigation by Dennis Lambert (who's working on a short biography on Jobyna Ralston) has revealed that 1899 is the correct year. It appear in census records and is also confirmed by the announcement of her birth in the local newspaper dated 24 November 1899. She was named after actress Jobyna Howland, a favorite of her stagestruck parents Joe Ralston and Sara "Kempt" Brady Ralston. They may be the Mr. & Mrs. Ralston rumoured to be in the Humor Risk-cast. They were well-to-do and may have kicked in with money for the production. Jeffrey Vance at the Harold Lloyd Trust added that Jobyna Ralston had a first marriage at a very young age and that the "Mr. and Mrs. Ralston" may not be Jobyna's parents but rather her and her first husband. Jobyna appeared in some 1920 Reelcraft comedies with comedian Billy Quirk (for example Don't Mary) and was studying acting and dancing at Ned Wayburn's school in New York in 1921. She later landed a theatrical role on Broadway singing and dancing chorus in the latter part of the running of the George M. Cohan musical comedy Two Little Girls in Blue. The show ran a total of 135-performances at the George M. Cohan's Theatre from 3 May 1921 to 27 August 1921. In the fall, Jobyna appeared as an extra in Harold Lloyd's The Sailor-Made Man, which was released in December 1921 and featured Mildred Davis as leading lady. The Sailor-Made Man was filmed from 26 August to 21 October 1921 in Southern California. Jobyna remained in Hollywood and in 1922 she worked for Max Linder (Three Must-Get-Theirs), Charley Chase's brother Paul Parrott and Hal Roach. In 1923 Jobyna was listed as a WAMPAS Baby Star, an award the Western Association of Motion Picture Advertisers bestowed upon 13 Hollywood actresses perceived as most likely to succeed. And Jobyna made it, co-starring with Harold Lloyd in five of his best silent features: Why Worry? (1923), Hot Water (1924), Girl Shy (1924), The Freshman (1925), For Heaven's Sake (1926) and The Kid Brother (1927). In 1927, Jobyna worked with Eddie Cantor in the silent Special Delivery (directed by Roscoe Arbuckle) and she also co-starred with Richard Arlen (real name Van Mattimore) in the first Oscar-winning film Wings. Jobyna and Richard Arlen got married the year after. The engagement announcement appeared in The Independent, St Petersburg, Florida on 17 August 1928, and they eventually had one son, Richard Arlen Jr. The research of Dennis Lambert shows that one of the Marx Brothers nicknamed Richard Arlen Jr "Elmer" a few months before he was born. Jobyna Ralston's film career ended after two early talkies. In her last film Rough Waters from 1930, she played against Rin Tin Tin. Jobyna and Richard divorced in 1945 and Jobyna died in Woodland Hills, California, on 22 January 1967. People at haroldlloyd.com and Classic Films agrees that the leading lady of Humor Risk looks like Jobyna Ralston, while some of her relatives (her cousin Fay Carney Melton and Joe Hughes Beasley, whose great-uncle was married to Jobyna's maternal aunt Anthia Brady Hughes) are unable to identify her. Joe Beasley (who is curator of the Brady-Hughes-Beasley Archives in McMinnville, Tennessee) adds that there is "no oral history in the family of her being in the Marx Brothers' movie. Just primary about "Wings" and the Harold Lloyd movies".
Dennis Lambert has continued his research on Jobyna and has, for the most part, completed the short biography on her. He's compared the Humor Risk-photo with several that he has of Jobyna and he finds the similarities between her and the lady in the picture uncanny. However, he also thinks that the lady in the picture looks a lot like actress Esther Ralston. Esther bears a striking resemblance to Jobyna but they are not kin to one another. According to one website, Esther Ralston and her family had their own traveling show, with her parents being owners and actors in the play. So, there's a possibility that the leading lady of Humor Risk may be Esther Ralston and that her parents also were in the movie. On the other hand, Esther was in films already from 1916 and although she lived until 1994 and was interviewed extensively, she never mentioned working with the Marx Bros.
In digging more info on Jobyna, Dennis Lambert acquired a book on Hollywood stars from 1930. In this book was not only a picture of Jobyna but also of Helen Kane, "The Boop-a-Doop Girl", who inspired both Betty Boop and Marilyn Monroe and who physically looks very much like the leading lady of Humor Risk. She was born in the Bronx as Helen Schroeder (or Schroader) and appeared in numerous stage plays in New York before being discovered for films. The book gives her birth date as 4 August 1908, which would make her quite young to have appeared in Humor Risk, but other sources says she was born in 1903 and if so, the chronology would fit. Helen went with the Marxes to Britain (On The Balcony) in 1922, so there's a definite connection between them. But why then did Groucho mention "Harold Lloyd's leading lady" and not the "Boop-a-Doop Girl" in connection with Humor Risk? Another misremembrance in his old age?
So who was the leading lady in Humor Risk? Will we ever find out? The chronology seems to talk in favour of Jobyna Ralston. In 1921, her career was still in progress while Mildred Davis and Esther Ralston already had been making films for a couple of years. And if Humor Risk was filmed during a couple of weeks in April 1921, Jobyna would still have found time to appear in George M. Cohan's Two Little Girls in Blue (3 May to 27 August 1921) and Harold Lloyd's The Sailor-Made Man (26 August to 21 October 1921). On the other hand, Helen Kane worked with the Marxes on stage during this period, which would fit the claim from Simon Louvish that several cast members of the Marxes' vaudeville-show at the time "joined in the mayhem".
Kyle Crichton claims that the film was destroyed but for one rogue print and he implies further that the Marxes' friends sometimes used this print, actual or imagined, to engage in some jovial blackmail. Hector Arce in turn claims that the only print was burned and the negative consigned to Al Posen's closet. Simon Louvish says that Alexander Woollcott demanded a screening of Humor Risk at the end of the 1920s after the Marx Brothers had made it on Broadway with I'll Say She Is! Al Posen came up with a can of film which, the projectionist discovered upon cracking it open, contained only the negative. The Marx Brothers reportedly slunk off, forgetting the can of negative film in the projection booth from whence it promptly vanished forever (unless it's filed somewhere as "a Comedy Without Custard" or "a Caravel Comedy"). There's still a possibility though that some photos, oral or written recollections or even the script exist somewhere. Humor Risk have often been confused with another movie project from 1926. According to an article in Variety on 24 March 1926, the movie company First National negotiated with the Marxes to make a motion picture. Like Humor Risk, this film would also have been silent as First National was not making talkies at that time. The 1926 film was probably intended to be a feature, as Variety referred to it as a "motion picture" rather than as a "short subject". Variety further informed that the "story has been written by Will B. Johnstone...author of 'I'll Say She Is'". It's also interesting to note that Dick Smith was present when the Marxes were filming Monkey Business (see Will B. Johnstone Virtual Gallery).
A Comedy Without Custard produced by Caravel Comedy Company
Watson, Detective and/or the Love Interest (?) - Harpo
The Villain - Groucho Marx
The Italian (?) - Chico Marx
The Love Interest (?) - Zeppo Marx
A Leading Lady
Mr and Mrs Ralston (parents of Jobyna or Esther?)
and a Chorus line from a Shubert theatre (the N'Everything-cast?) as dancers
Producer Al Posen
Director Dick Smith
Screenplay Jo Swerling
Photography A. H. Vallet