Sunday Night at Nine: Harpo’s Wild Ride

By Ray Schultz

Marx Brothers fans tend to have favorites from different periods. Some like The Cocoanuts and Animal Crackers, Broadway hits shot on a sound stage in Astoria in 1929 and ‘30. Others prefer the wacky Paramount comedies made in Hollywood from 1931 to ’33—Monkey Business, Horsefeathers and the anti-war Duck Soup. And some favor the lavish yet very funny MGM musicals developed by Irving Thalberg: A Night at the Opera and A Day at the Races. But few would choose Love Happy, the final film made by the Marxes, despite the fact that it was Marilyn Monroe’s first.

Initially, the 1949 flick was a vehicle for Harpo Marx, the silent, harp-playing brother. But he had to enlist Groucho and Chico to get backing, and their parts were hastily written into the script.

Now entering their dotage, the Marx Brothers had not appeared on screen together since A Night in Casablanca in 1946, and the film before that was The Big Store, circa 1941. Fearing it had a turkey on its hands, United Artists pulled out. But producer Lester Cowen was resourceful: He went to several brands and “solicited paid advertising just to get the movie completed,” according to The Marx Brothers, by Mark Bego (Pocket Essentials, 2001). In other words, it was an early example of product placement.

These were squeezed into a memorable Times Square chase sequence, in which Harpo scampers on rooftops with neon signs flashing around him. The brands? Kool Cigarettes and Bulova Watches. But the climactic moment belonged to Mobil Gas. Cornered by his pursuers, Harpo mounts the Socony Mobil winged horse and rides the neon Pegasus into the sky. Stoned-out hippies later cheered that scene.

Meanwhile, back on earth, private eye Groucho is approached by a dark-haired Marilyn Monroe.

“Some men are following me,” she says.

“Really?” Groucho says. “I can’t imagine why.”

But that was the best of it. The movie tanked at the box office, and Groucho turned his attention to You Bet Your Life, his popular TV show. And yet, true Marx fans sob with gratitude when they get a glimpse of Love Happy on TV. Maybe it’s not their favorite, but there were only 13 Marx Brothers films after all, and each one was special in its way.

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