In exasperation after several attempts to have Groucho Marx read one of his lines in the manner director Sam Wood had requested, Wood exclaimed, "I guess you just can't make an actor out of clay." Groucho Marx instantly responded, "Nor a director out of Wood."
Producer Irving Thalberg would often call people in for meetings, and then keep them waiting in his office for hours while he attended other meetings on the MGM lot. One day, during pre-production for this picture, Thalberg kept The Marx Brothers waiting for several hours in his secretary's office while he was in his own office making phone calls. When Thalberg's secretary went home for the day, the brothers decided they'd had enough. They pushed the office file cabinets against Thalberg's door, trapping the producer in his office. Afterwards, Thalberg kept his appointments with the Marx Brothers, but would often interrupt his meetings with them and step out to attend other meetings--again keeping the brothers waiting for hours. One day Thalberg came back from another meeting to find Groucho Marx, Chico Marx and Harpo Marx sitting in his office completely naked, and roasting potatoes on sticks in his office fireplace. Thalberg sat down with them, had a potato and never missed or interrupted another meeting with the Marx Brothers.
The famous "stateroom scene" was originally conceived as a way of getting a cheap laugh by having Groucho Marx, crowded out of his room, changing his pants in the corridor. After this was not liked by test audiences, the scene was improvised on the spot. A total of 15 people were in the scene: Driftwood (1); the stowaways Fiorello, Tomasso and Riccardo [who were in the trunk] (2-4); two chambermaids (5-6); an engineer who comes to turn off the heat (7); a manicurist (8); the engineer's burly assistant (9); a young woman looking for her Aunt Minnie and asking to use the phone (10); a cleaning woman (11); and four staff stewards bearing trays of food (12-15). They all tumble out when Mrs. Claypool (Margaret Dumont) opens the door.
In Leonard Maltin's commentary on the current DVD release, he states that there was a longer opening sequence. Starting with a title card that places the movie in Milan, Italy, there was then a musical number in which people on the street were "passing along" the melody line of a song, as in the Maurice Chevalier vehicle Love Me Tonight (1932). The song was followed into the restaurant where Mrs. Claypool was waiting for Otis B. Driftwood. Maltin says the scene was cut during World War II to remove references to Italy, and unfortunately, the main negative was cut as well, so the scene is now lost. This was why the stated running time of the movie was three minutes longer than it is now.
Sam Wood, freshman The Marx Brothers director in this film, was a perfectionist. The scene in which Tomasso hangs from the rope was filmed so many times that Harpo Marx's hands became cut and swollen from the rope.
An additional scene was cut from the picture in subsequent releases, and is now considered lost. The scene occurred just after the scene in the park when Rosa tells her friends she has been fired from the opera. The Marx Brothers, Rosa, and Ricardo hop on a passing fire engine, which takes them to the opera house. After lighting his cigar in the fire engine's smokestack, Groucho Marx comments, "This is the first car I've ever been in where the cigarette lighter actually works!"
Sam Wood's stuffiness made him the perfect target for The Marx Brothers. The director had an ulcer, so he started each day with a big glass of milk. The brothers began to have it delivered to him in a baby bottle - a joke Wood never got. He also imposed a fine for being late to the set, which Groucho was in favor of at first. But Chico and Harpo nailed their brother's garage door shut, making him the first to pay the $50 penalty. Then the three turned the penalty into a game, betting on who would be the next to be fined. Wood eventually abandoned the idea.
Kitty Carlisle said the atmosphere on the set was "deadly earnest." She recalled how Groucho Marx would come up to her from time to time, try out a line, and ask, "Is this funny?" If she said "no," he would "go away absolutely crushed and try it out on everyone else in the cast." On the other hand, Chico Marx was always off in a back room playing cards and Harpo Marx would work very diligently until about 11 a.m. and then plop himself down on the nearest piece of furniture and begin yelling, "Lunchie! Lunchie!"
The film was to have originally begun with each of The Marx Brothers taking turns roaring in lieu of Leo the Lion (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer's logo mascot); Harpo Marx was to have honked his horn. A trailer for this movie begins with a different lion roaring once in the logo, then dissolves to Groucho inside the circle roaring to the sound of the actual lion, with the motto at the top of the circle changing to "Marx Gratia Marxes". Chico then roars also to the lion's sound, but when Harpo tries to do the same, his roaring action is met with silence, after which he honks his horn.
When the movie was to be edited for length, Allan Jones' song "Alone" was almost cut. Jones pleaded his case to producer Irving Thalberg, who replied, "The Marx Brothers know their comedy, and you know songs. I'll keep it in." "Alone" went on to become the only hit song from a Marx Brothers film.
This was The Marx Brothers' first film with MGM. In preparation MGM sent them on a nationwide tour, performing potential bits live before current MGM films were shown. This opportunity for advance audience feedback is one reason this film became known as one of their best.
When Tomasso, Fiorello, and Ricardo are impersonating the three aviators in front of the mayor, Driftwood turns around to speak to them in a "foreign language." What is actually being said is a direct response to the accusations of impostors, only the audio track is played backwards. The first time Driftwood actually says, "Did you hear what he said? He said you were frauds and impostors!" which is then followed by Fiorello and Ricardo protesting loudly, "How can he say a thing like that?", "This is ridiculous," and other such comments.
A persistent rumor involves the presence of The Marx Brothers' father, Sam Marx (aka "Frenchie"), in the film as the ship leaves dock. He is not in this film - he died in 1933. The rumor came about because he had a cameo in a similar scene in Monkey Business (1931).
According to MGM's dialogue cutting continuity, the film originally began (after the opening credits) with the image of a "boat on canal." A superimposed title reads: "ITALY - WHERE THEY SING ALL DAY AND GO TO THE OPERA AT NIGHT." What follows is a musical number featuring bits and pieces from Ruggero Leoncavallo's "Pagliacci" performed by "everyday" Italians. A street sweeper sings part of the prologue ("Un nido di memorie...") as he greets a man who then hands out opera tickets to a group of children emerging from a store; the kids respond with "la-la-la-la-la, verso un paese strano." A "captain" comes down a set of steps, salutes a sentry, then bursts into "Vesti la giubba." There's a lap dissolve to a hotel lobby, where a "baggage man" is rolling a trunk and crooning about "nettare divino" (divine nectar). He's joined in song by a waiter who then enters the dining room, where he sings as he serves a man who also gets in a few notes. The waiter then crosses over to speak to Mrs. Claypool (Margaret Dumont), marking the beginning of the film in existing copies.
As Otis and Mrs. Claypool are boarding the ocean liner, she asks him, "Do you have everything, Otis?"; he replies, "Well, I haven't had any complaints yet." In two different interviews with Dick Cavett, Groucho Marx claimed that that exchange of dialogue was banned in a majority of states when the film was released because it was too suggestive, although the number of states varied with different tellings of the story.
In 2008, a film student reported that the Hungarian National Film Archive possesses a longer print of the film. While the print does not contain the opening musical number, it does contain several excised lines referencing Italy that had been cut upon the film's re-release in the 1940s. With the opening number still missing, it may be that this scene was cut after its original preview screenings during the 1930s rather than during its re-release, as previously thought. However, the discovery of the Hungarian print has not yet been independently verified, and Warner Brothers, who owns the rights to the film, has not indicated that any restoration is forthcoming.
A rejected plot for the film circulated for more than three decades as a Broadway legend and popular backstage tale. The plot featured Groucho Marx as a producer plotting to stage the worst opera in history so that the show would close quickly. The backers he had soaked for ten times the production costs would assume they had lost their money, and Groucho could escape to South America with the sizable profits. But his plans are thwarted when the opera becomes a huge hit and he is left owing ten times what the show actually brings in. Groucho loved the idea, but producer Irving Thalberg nixed it. He explained that he didn't want a funny story but a good, simple plot that the Marx Brothers could use as a springboard for their comic ideas. The basis of the plot floated around both Hollywood and Broadway for many years, before Mel Brooks filmed a version of the plot with his breakout hit, The Producers (1967). It is unclear which of the myriad writers for this film was responsible for suggesting the now-famous bogus play idea.
Groucho Marx does a very brief Jack Benny impression in the film. After Otis P. Driftwood makes the speech to the audience, Groucho gestures to the orchestra pit and says, "Play, Don!" This is a Benny line from the radio series; his orchestra leader, Don Bestor, was always cued this way (by the way, Bestor originated the J-e-l-l-O jingle for the Benny show).
Irving Thalberg convinced The Marx Brothers to go on a lengthy publicity and live-preview tour of the West Coast, before any of the film was shot. The brothers took five scenes on the live-show road tour of Seattle, Salt Lake City, Portland, and Santa Barbara. The troupe performed four shows a day, and screenwriters Al Boasberg and Morrie Ryskind sat through each performance in order to judge the audiences' reaction. Unless a joke produced roaring laughter it was sent back to the drawing board to be refined or dismissed entirely. The brothers completed their road shows before recording a single minute of the film.
Sam Wood was by most accounts a very serious, conservative man who had little or no sense of humour. Allan Jones remembered him as "a disagreeable guy, very insecure." Jones also said Wood responded to actors' questions by saying, "I don't know, I don't know. Just do it again." Wood, who was against improvisation and ad-libbing, would shoot as many as 20 takes of each scene, a method the Marx Brothers found irritating and inhibiting. Jones believed he shot so many takes because he wasn't really sure which was the best until he looked at the day's work.
An Hollywood Reporter news items noted that at one time The Marx Brothers insisted that Lesley Selander be fired because they objected to his disciplinary actions on the set. The same news item indicates that considerable reshooting was being required because a change in the picture's make-up men resulted in the "wrong" set of beards being used by the Brothers. (in the sequence in which they impersonate aviators).
The Marx Brothers's transition from Paramount to MGM resulted largely from Chico Marx's and Irving Thalberg's affinity for gambling. Chico and Thalberg were bridge partners and close friends, and when it became clear that the troupe's days with Paramount were numbered, Chico negotiated the move to MGM with Thalberg over a game of bridge. The first project that the two considered was this film.
When producer Irving Thalberg learned that the fourth member of The Marx Brothers, Zeppo Marx, would not be joining the brothers at MGM he asked the troupe if they would be willing to take a pay cut from their usual fee. Groucho Marx did not miss a beat when he responded "Without Zeppo we're worth twice as much."
Although Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby worked on the film's script for several months, the writers' only contributions to the final version of the film were the names of Groucho Marx's and Margaret Dumont's characters, Otis B. Driftwood and Mrs. Claypool.
Groucho Marx said he was so appalled by an early draft of the script-which was reportedly written by Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby -that he screamed, "Why fuck around with second-rate talent, get Kaufman and Ryskind [to write the screenplay]!"
The first sneak preview for this film, held in Long Beach, California, is generally considered one of the greatest bombs in Hollywood history. The Marx Brothers and Irving Thalberg wanted to survey the public's reception to the film, which contained greater continuity and a lengthier side-story romance than the troupe's previous films with Paramount. The audience at Long Beach, the first stop on the preview tour, despised the film and barely uttered a laugh. Cast members reported that Groucho Marx was despondent, and nearly suicidal, immediately following the poor Long Beach reception, while Chico Marx suggested that the crowd may have simply been feeling the after-effects of the recent death of the town's mayor. The reasons for the cool reception in Long Beach is unclear, but Thalberg urged the brothers to continue with the tour, and the next night's preview in San Diego produced riotous laughter that calmed the nerves of everyone involved.
Screenwriter Al Boasberg was brought on to punch up some of the jokes and add some new scenes to the film, his most notable contribution is the now-famous stateroom scene. However, producer Irving Thalberg frequently hounded Boasberg to complete his material, much to his annoyance. Boasberg finally called Thalberg to let him know that his material was ready, and that he could come get the script in his office. When Thalberg and The Marx Brothers showed up to Boasberg's office, they found no script and no Boasberg. The men searched the office to no avail and were about to give up when Groucho Marx happened to look up and find the script ripped to shreds and nailed to the ceiling. According to Groucho, it took the men hours to piece together to script, but they were quite pleased with Boasberg's work once they had restored it.
According to Oscar Levant, the first preview was a "disaster", with "hardly a laugh" as was the second. Irving Thalberg and George S. Kaufman spent days in the editing room, adjusting the timing to match the rhythm of a stage performance. About nine minutes was cut from the running time, and the result was a hit.
Kitty Carlisle and Allan Jones, who were both trained in operatic singing, provided their own singing voices in the film. Walter Woolf King was a trained baritone but he portrayed a tenor in the film. His singing was dubbed by Metropolitan Opera tenor Tandy MacKenzie.
Following the film's initial run, MGM quickly re-released it in 1936 to run as a double-feature with San Francisco (1936). The move was a huge financial success and renewed the public's fascination with The Marx Brothers.
The film's first screenwriter was James Kevin McGuinness who concocted a plot based on Harpo Marx being the world's greatest tenor, who never sings or speaks throughout the film. Irving Thalberg rejected the idea, however, and McGuinness became the first in a long string of screenwriters to be dismissed from the film.
This film was first telecast in Philadelphia Thursday 13 November 1956 on WFIL (Channel 6), followed by New York City Wednesday 5 December 1956 on WCBS (Channel 2); it eventually found its way to San Francisco where it received its local television premiere 31 January 1958 on KGO (Channel 7), but there is no record of it being telecast in Los Angeles until Wednesday 28 December 1960 on KTTV (Channel 11).