The Marx Brothers at Paramount Pictures
(Updated 2011) In 1929, in the wake of their stage successes, the Marx Brothers signed a five film deal with Paramount Pictures. During their stage run in Animal Crackers at the Forty Fourth Street Theatre, the Marx Brothers traveled to Paramount's New York facility in Astoria to film The Cocoanuts, their previous Broadway hit. Paramount had built the facility in 1920 as a convenience to New York-based actors who could not leave town. Monta Bell, the production head of the Astoria Paramount studios, assigned the script to Robert Florey, the director. When Florey asked about shooting background locations in Florida to "open up the production," Bell declined the request, commenting that it was pointless to shoot realistic scenes for a movie in which one of the lead actors insisted on wearing a fake moustache.
With the picture entirely shot on the sound stage, the resulting film is quite static, although watching The Cocoanuts gives a good sense of how the musical may have appeared on the Broadway stage. One peculiarity of the filming, according to Florey, was that the sound stage was "so drafty that everytime someone came in or went out the scenery would shake." (The Marx Brothers Scrapbook, p. 116) The shakiness is visible in the movie. Florey said that the greatest challenge was keeping the wayward brothers within the sights of his camera. The Marx Brothers weren't able to see the opening of the film at the Rialto Theatre (Broadway and 42nd Street) because they were still in the midst of their Broadway run. Their mother, Minnie, attended the opening and reported that everyone laughed.
With Animal Crackers a hit on Broadway and The Cocoanuts a top grossing picture, the brothers commanded salaries of several thousand dollars per week. Sadness would soon come, however. In September of 1929 Minnie died. In October, they watched their money disappear in the stock market. Groucho lost the most money, Harpo lost some, and Chico, who always was in trouble with gambling debts, had little left to lose.
In 1930 the brothers went back to the studios in Astoria to make the film version of Animal Crackers. The director, Victor Heerman, brought some discipline to the production, an order lacking in the free-for-all of The Cocoanuts. The movie did well, as predicted, and after they toured Europe, the Marx Brothers made their big move, away from home in New York to Hollywood. The era of New York film production was winding down anyway. The great Marx Brothers pictures of the early 1930s would follow in quick succession- Monkey Business (1931), Horse Feathers (1932), Duck Soup (1933), and A Night at the Opera (1935). Though they made new lives on the West Coast, the brothers never shed their New York-born characters.
The building that housed the soundstage for the Marx Brothers' early Paramount pictures in Astoria was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1976, and the following year the studio reopened again. In 1982 real estate developer George S. Kaufman and some celebrity partners took over the lease. The sprawling Kaufman Astoria Studios (34-12 36th Street; website) functions as a major site for film production on the East Coast.
View A Walk in Astoria in a larger map
To visit the studio and nearby attractions, take the R train to the Steinway stop. Walk a few blocks south along Steinway, a major business street with low-lying buildings that evoke an earlier postwar era, and turn right on 35th Ave. Keep walking, and you'll soon see the newer studio buildings on the left. Walk past the Museum of the Moving Image and at the corner of 35th Ave. and 36th St. (confusing, yes?) see the old studio building. Across the street from the studio, check out the impressive new modern building for Frank Sinatra School for the Arts, an academically rigorous school founded in 2001 by Astoria native and famous crooner, Tony Bennett, in honor of his pal.
By all means, visit the Museum of the Moving Image, an entertaining interactive museum that inhabits the former site of the Kaufman Astoria Studios. The exhibits of motion picture cameras, projectors, and sound equipment (television also), props, and costumes are fascinating, even for those versed in the history of the moving image, but the many interactive features make the experience fun and enlightening. Choose various soundtracks for Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo, change the chroma key for your own photo op, or create a flip book. Discover and explore Tut's Fever Movie Palace, an art installation and functioning theatre designed by Red Grooms and Lysiane Luong that serves as an homage to the art of cinema. I wasn't looking for them, but I found the Marx Brothers inside the movie palace also.
It's pointless to travel to Astoria without eating. With its international population, the cafes, street vendors, and restaurants of Astoria are well-known. A large Greek population supports some of the city's best Greek restaurants. Venture up and down Broadway or Steinway and find a variety of kebabs, empanadas, French diners, and so forth.
Museum of the Moving Image
35 Avenue at 37 Street
Astoria, NY 11106
Images: screenshots from The Cocoanuts and Animal Crackers; images of Paramount Studio building, Frank Sinatra School of the Arts, Tut's Fever Movie Palace, and kebab street vendor on Steinway by Walking Off the Big Apple. Look for more pictures on Flickr WOTBA.
This post also functions as one in a chronological series about the Marx Brothers in New York. To see other posts in the series, follow this link.