I discovered the Marx Brothers at the tender age of thirteen. Very simply, I caught a broadcast of ''Duck Soup'' on TV one night and it changed my life. Through eighth grade, all through high school and well into college, I remained obsessed with the Marxes. While other kids my age were idolizing sports figures or rock stars, I was hanging posters of the Marxes, buying any books about them, researching old magazine articles at the library, running off to revival houses (in the days just prior to home video), and memorizing all the dialogue from their films. It’s fair to say that because of them, I knew that I would have to be involved with making movies.
In 1978, I was taking film production courses at Orange Coast College in Costa Mesa, CA. I remember casually mentioning to my instructor one day that I planned to embark on producing a full-length documentary on the Marxes. I remember him chuckling and telling me that I should probably plan on devoting four years of my life to such a venture. I figured he had a screw loose. How could it possibly take four years to assemble a few film clips, photos, interviews and narration?
''The Marx Brothers in a Nutshell'' premiered on PBS in March of 1982 -- four years later. My film instructor must have minored in math. I won’t recount all the machinations it took to get this little film off the ground. Suffice it to say, during that four year period, I spent every day working on getting this film made like it was my paid vocation. I was eighteen years old when I embarked on the odyssey, twenty-two when it was completed. I now look back at the experience through a rose-tinged nostalgic haze, but the truth is, it was a baptism by hellfire. Mainly, I remember a lot of lawyers.
Another big plus on my side was that I was an inexperienced kid. My only prior credit was that I had been rejected from USC’s film school no less than three times. (Now I’m a guest speaker there almost every semester.) I had to deal with the various attorneys for the Marx family and business affairs executives employed by the studios (Universal and MGM) who were simply not in the habit of letting anybody use their film clips. The problems didn’t seem to amount to a simple roadblock, it was more like hiking up Everest in bare feet. But I simply loved the Marx Brothers and I was young, which meant I still had a lot of energy and ambition.
Oddly enough, the easiest part of the process was selling the idea to PBS. I put an awful lot of work into a written proposal, treatment and budget which I simply mailed off to them. I heard back within a couple of weeks. They were interested in financing the program to use as one of their fund-raisers during their pledge weeks. Unfortunately, when their response came, I still hadn’t secured the needed clips. The deadline by which I’d have to commence production in order to deliver it in time for the pledge drive was quickly approaching. Then it passed. PBS and I took a rain check.
In February of 1981, I went to work as a runner for the management/production company of Rollins , Joffe, Morra & Brezner. Jack Rollins and Charlie Joffe were perhaps best known for producing Woody Allen’s films. (More on my job there on Billy Crystal.) Although I was simply their errand boy, the guys took an interest in this ambitious project of mine and offered to help. Charlie Joffe put in some well-placed calls to friends of his at both Universal and MGM and got them to agree to at least meet with me to discuss the clip situation. Eventually, deals were struck and the needed clips were obtained. Exactly one year after their initial offer, I was now back in touch with PBS who was ready to venture forth with me again, and this adolescent pipe dream of mine started to become a reality.
I had hired a wonderful documentary filmmaker, Richard Patterson, to serve as director. Among other credits, Richard had edited Peter Bogdanovich’s documentary, ''Directed by John Ford'' and also directed a remarkable documentary on Charlie Chaplin called ''The Gentleman Tramp.'' Having Richard on as my director took the onus off my own lack of experience when it came time for PBS to entrust a few hundred thousand dollars to a twenty-two year old film-school flunkie.
Also on board to serve as editor and co-writer was Joe Adamson who wrote what remains, to this day, the finest book on the Marx Brothers’ work, ''Groucho, Harpo, Chico and Sometimes Zeppo.'' By the time we were able to commence production, Richard Patterson was employed with another full-time gig, so his role ultimately became one of advisor, as Joe and I logged the hours together, essentially making the film ourselves. I never groused about giving up the directing credit because clearly Richard’s name lent my proposal the credibility it needed to secure financing. (His consulting was also invaluable to us.)
Joe and I were extremely comprehensive in the early days of editing. In fact, our first cut of the film was seventeen hours long! I jokingly came to refer to the film as "The Marx Brothers In An Immense Nutshell." It actually took three full working days just to view this first cut. But we whittled and whittled and with Richard’s help, finally got it down to fighting weight (97 minutes.)
I do regret how much unusual and rarely seen footage that was available to us which we simply didn’t have time to include. "Nutshell" was the first true documentary ever produced on the brothers, and I really wanted to lay down the basics with regard to their major film works, although we did manage to include lots of tidbits that even hard-core Marx fans had never seen before.
Some of the rare clips we had to pass on eventually found their way into other Marx compilations, but "Nutshell" (narrated by Gene Kelly) remains the definitive film bio on the boys.
When it premiered on PBS, it became the 22nd highest-rated program in the entire history of the network. The reviews were also solid and it looked like I just might have a career as a filmmaker after all.
A lot of the feature press at that time centered around my having produced this film at the age of 22. I thought all the "boy wonder" stuff was silly, figuring that there was no good reason why the average 22-year-old shouldn’t be that productive. Now, of course, I look back at the experience and all I can think is, ''My god... I was only 22!''
Incidentally, one of the venues on which I promoted the film, complete with a healthy dose of clips, was on a new NBC talk show that had premiered just three weeks earlier called ''Late Night With David Letterman.'' (I would appear on that show a second time to promote my 1984 film The Great Standups for HBO.) This was in the days before Letterman’s show was so celebrity driven. A documentary filmmaker whose name is less than a household word (like me, for instance) could never cut the mustard on Dave’s show today. My only hope of getting booked on the show now would be to change my name to Ken Burns.
Along with our Emmy winning film, W.C. Fields Straight Up (1986), ''Nutshell'' had a run on The Disney Channel after the PBS deal expired, and then aired for a while on American Movie Classics (AMC). I am currently working on a new cable deal to get these films back on the air. Check back here for updates.
Marx Brothers In A Nutshell'' is finally available for
the first time on DVD, along with my film ''W.C. Fields
Straight Up.'' Click
here to order directly.