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.

How to Write Copy Like Damon Runyon

By Ray Schultz

If ever a writer was good at engaging readers, it was Damon Runyon. He held them from the first sentence to the last, in any format, and he would do that online if he were alive today.

Who’re we talking about? Damon Runyon, born in 1880 in Manhattan, Kansas, died in 1946 on Manhattan Island. He was, to start with, a great reporter and columnist, as proven by his coverage—on deadline— from the Ruth Snyder-Judd Gray murder trial in 1927. (The pair murdered Snyder’s husband).

“Right back to old Father Adam, the original, and perhaps the loudest ‘squawker’ among mankind against women, went Henry Judd Gray in telling how and why he lent his hand to the butchery of Albert Snyder.

“She-she-she-she-she-she-she-she. That was the burden of the bloody song of the little corset salesman as read out in the packed court room in Long Island City yesterday.

“She-she-she-she-she-she. ‘Twas an echo from across the ages and old familiar echo, at that. It was the same ‘squawk’ of Brother Man whenever and wherever he is in a jam, that was first framed in the words:

“’She gave me of the tree, and I did eat.’”

Then there was his sportswriting. Many sportswriters wrote poems in those days, but it’s hard to top Runyon’s paean to the jockey Earl Sande:

Say, have they turned the pages
Back to the past once more?
Back to the racin’ ages
An’ a Derby out of the yore?
Say, don’t tell me I’m daffy
Ain’t that the same ol’ grin?
Why, it’s that handy
Guy named Sande,
Bootin’ a winner in!”

But it’s his fiction that has earned Runyon a small but real place in American literature. He wrote maybe 200 short stories, all in the present tense, creating memorable (if not admirable) characters like Big Jule, Nicely Nicely Jones, Harry the Horse and Sam the Gonoph.

The Snatching of Bookie Bob

Take his story, “The Snatching of Bookie Bob.” Bookie Bob is kidnapped by three thugs named  Harry the Horse, Little Isadore and Spanish John. He agrees to book their horse racing bets to pass time, and they end up owing him double the amount of the ransom.

Yes, I know—it’s the same basic plot as O. Henry’s “The Ransom of Red Chief.” But “Bookie Bob” is darker—and funnier—in its tale of Depression-era betrayal.

Consider the way Runyon starts the story, and at the same time explains why snatching is in vogue:

“Now it comes on the spring of 1931, after a long hard winter, and times are very tough indeed, what with the stock market going all to pieces, and banks busting right and left, and the law getting very nasty about this and that, and one thing and another, and many citizens of this town are compelled to do the best they can.

“There is very little scratch anywhere and along Broadway many citizens are wearing their last year’s clothes and have practically nothing to bet on the races or anything else, and it is a condition that will touch anybody’s heart.”

So the three wiseguys start nabbing people for ransom, and “much fresh scratch comes into circulation, which is very good for the merchants,” the narrator writes. He notes, however, that “you cannot snatch just anybody”—you need a reliable finger.

“The finger guy must know the guy he fingers has plenty of ready scratch to begin with, and he must also know that this party is such a party as it not apt to make much disturbance about being snatched, such as telling the gendarmes.”

It also pays to know if the victim “does not care to have matches run up and down the bottom of his feet, which often happens to parties who are snatched and who do not seem to wish to settle their bill promptly, because many parties are very ticklish on the bottom of their feet, especially if the matches are lit.”

Now what is Runyon really doing here but describing a process? He could just as well be explaining a best practice in B2B.

Butch Minds the Baby

Then there’s “Butch Minds the Baby,” an even more perfect blending of style and content. Butch, a reformed hoodlum, is offered big money to break open a safe, but his wife is at a wake, so he has no choice but to take his infant son on the job.

The narrator, “a little dopey” from needled beer, tags along, although he feels that cracking a safe with a baby present is “very dishonorable.” (Who’s this narrator? As he says in another story, “Nobody pays any attention to me, because I am known to one and all as a guy who is just around.” This is the story, by the way, that opens with the memorable line: “One evening along about seven o’clock I am sitting in Mindy’s restaurant putting on the gefilte fish, which is a dish I am very fond of, when in come three parties from Brooklyn wearing caps as follows: Harry the Horse, Little Isadore, and Spanish John”).

The scenes follow with impeccable timing. Butch heats up milk in a saucepan next to the safe, Little Isadore muzzles the baby to keep him quiet, Butch blows the safe open and the police arrive on the scene.

By this time, young John Ignatius is “beating his own best record for squalling,” the narrator writes, “and as we go walking along Big Butch says to me like this:

“‘I dast not run,’ he says, ‘because if any coppers see me running they will start popping at me and maybe hit John Ignatius Junior, and besides running will joggle the milk up in him and make him sick. My old lady always warns me never to joggle John Ignatius Junior when he is full of milk.’

“‘Well, Butch,’ I say, ‘there is no milk in me, and I do not care if I am joggled up, so if you do not mind, I will start doing a piece of running at the next corner.’”

The story is based less on a plot than a premise. But the tone is pitch-perfect. And Runyon sustains it to the very end.

Mastery of His Language

I could go on. I could tell you about Blond Maurice, who in 1936 is placed in quicklime by “certain parties who do not wish him well.” (He shows up later eating cheese blintzes in Mindy’s). I could mention Rusty Charley, who is known to carry a gun “and sometimes to shoot people down as dead as door-nails with it if he does not like the way they wear their hats—and Rusty Charley is very critical of hats.”

But why bother? You can read about these characters—and many more—in a fairly recent Runyon collection from Penguin.

Runyon has been criticized for making hoodlums loveable. But he was the first to admit that he was a “hired Hessian on the typewriter.” He wrote to entertain people, and he succeeded, for at least a dozen of his stories were made into movies, and another couple used for the musical “Guys and Dolls.”

Were there better, more profound writers around? Sure. But as novelist William Kennedy wrote, “Far more serious writers than Runyon have fallen on their faces and other parts because they lacked what he had: a love and mastery of his language, a playful use of its idiosyncrasies.”

How to Write Copy Like R. Crumb

By Ray Schultz

R. Crumb opens his comic, “The Fight,” with this line: “Uh oh, this oughta’ be good.”

Don’t ask what happens next, or the name of the comic book it was in—Crumb had not yet taken to illustrating the Bible. But what a setup: It’s a classic use of what I call the anonymous editorial voice.

It’s the voice you find in decks, captions and other unsigned copy in magazines. It’s the voice you see in old-time mail order ads, the kind Crumb read in comic books as a kid.

It’s Crumb’s voice, but he’s not using it as Crumb. Rather, he’s acting as an omnipresent narrator or huckster.

In one memorable piece, the cartoonist starts by saying, “You people better get hip to the fact that we’re livin’ in the—LAP O’ LUXURY.”

In another, he mimics a public service ad to make a satiric point:

“Cliffy the Clown says:

“‘You can help solve the OVERPOPULATION PROBLEM this quick, easy way! This year, why not COMMIT SUICIDE?”

Note that Crumb  is speaking right to the reader. He may dislike advertising, but he has learned from the great copywriters of old.

Now we’ve come full circle. The anonymous voice of which Crumb is a master is uniquely suited to content marketing.

Let’s say you’re doing a B2B white paper. Even without a byline, it has to sound like it came from a human being, preferably one you know: Think of Dick Cavett doing anonymous ad voiceovers

‘The Line, the Line’

An R. Crumb white paper wouldn’t be boring: He would take complex material and make it so vivid that anyone could understand it. And he would display two of his other great qualities: Pacing, and what one Crumb admirer has called “the line, the line.”

These are on full view in the 1975 rant, “Let’s Talk Sense About This Here Modern America!” by “that cranky old fuddy duddy R. Crumb.” As it opens, an agonized America says, “Love me or leave me,” and Crumb adds: “This is not a happy comic strip.” He then runs through some rapid-fire visual bullet points:

  • America the Cruel Bully
  • America the Glutton
  • America the Greedy
  • America the UGLY!

Moving on, Crumb denounces motorcycles, calls for the return of trolley cars, depicts jet setters working in the fields (“Tsk! I just hate this ensemble I have to wear for this work!”), insults several ethnic groups and concludes by deploring aerosol sprays. Then, as easily as he gets you into it, you’re out. It’s a breathtaking performance even for someone who disagrees with the sentiments (and it would be hard to pinpoint Crumb’s politics).

“With comics, you’ve got to develop some kind of shorthand,” Crumb told the Paris Review when discussing his illustrated Book of Genesis last year. “You can’t make every drawing look like a detailed etching. The average reader actually doesn’t want all that detail, it interferes with the flow of the reading process.”

Here’s another lesson from Crumb. He told the Comics Journal that he’s an “entertaining cartoonist,” and not much else (“Bruegel, I ain’t,” he once said). His authority lies “almost in a satiric reflection of cartooning in some way. And maybe in telling a story.” That last phrase says it all.

Finally, Crumb makes every word count. “When you write slowly you have more time to think about how to word things,” he told the Paris Review. “I don’t type, I just handwrite everything in block letters. I take the time to think out how to articulate things.”

Not bad for a guy who admits he had trouble reading as a child.