6 February 2005 | wmorrow59
If It's a Paramount Picture, It's the Best Show in Town!
Here's a real rarity that would most likely be forgotten today were it not for the presence of the Four Marx Brothers. Nowadays we'd call The House That Shadows Built an "infomercial," as it amounts to a 50-minute collection of promotional clips and trailers intended to celebrate Paramount Pictures on the occasion of the studio's 20th anniversary. It's tied together with breathlessly enthused narration and printed text, full of hyperbolic praise, over-the-top exaggeration, and general huzzahs for the studio and its boss, Adolph Zukor. The Marx Brothers are saved for last and perform a five-minute sketch from their 1924 Broadway revue "I'll Say She Is!" The scene was specially filmed and included here to advertise their latest comedy Monkey Business, although the sketch itself does not appear in that film or in any other Marx Brothers movie. The sequence is by far the highlight of this curious hodgepodge, but there are other points of interest along the way.
It all begins with rolling text explaining the title: "Paramount-- the house of modern Entertainment . . . Symbol of twenty years of progress . . . First the shadows flickered, then moved, then spoke . . . bringing to us Romance and Adventure!" The music builds to a crazed crescendo as lightning flashes and the words get bigger: "Paramount -- the greatest name in Entertainment celebrates its twentieth birthday jubilee!" Next, to put things in perspective, we see the humble barn that served as the studio's first home, followed by a flickering clip of Sarah Bernhardt in the title role of Queen Elizabeth, from 1912. This film was actually a European production partially financed by Zukor, who distributed the film in America and founded his new studio on the proceeds. But the narrator doesn't bother with such details, telling us only that Mr. Zukor "paved the way" with Queen Elizabeth, "the first feature-length film ever shown in America," which it most certainly was not. But then, Hollywood has never been scrupulous about its own history.
For the next twenty minutes or so the silent film era is saluted with a frustrating montage of very brief clips, some of which flash by so quickly we hardly have time to register what we're seeing. Many stars of the silent days appear, but some of them are visible only for seconds as the narrator intones their names in Hall of Fame fashion. Some of the names are still familiar (Mary Pickford, Harold Lloyd, Clara Bow, etc.) and others less so (Elliott Dexter). But these are only glimpses at best. If you thought MTV-style editing was invented in the '80s, think again. It's as if the people who put this tribute together were reluctant to acknowledge the silent era-- which, after all, constituted most motion picture history at the time --but wanted to rush past it as briskly as possible. It's especially frustrating to note that some of the films seen so briefly here, most notably Lon Chaney's The Miracle Man, are now believed to be lost works. It's painful to contemplate that the editors who compiled this tribute were handling -- and chopping up! -- movies that no longer exist in their entirety.
Next, as we reach the early talkie era, portraits of several contemporary Paramount players, literally pasted to stars, zoom across the sky. Again, the names of some are more familiar than others. We then see a number of marquees advertising upcoming Paramount releases, some of which were completed and can be seen to this day while others were never made at all, or at least experienced a change of title: just try looking up a Marlene Dietrich picture called An Entirely Different Woman. Interestingly, one marquee announces that the stars of the upcoming production of A Farewell to Arms will be Gary Cooper and Eleanor Boardman, which will come as a surprise to fans of Helen Hayes.
The last portion of this tribute consists of promos for Paramount's imminent releases. There are seven of these, five of which are simply excerpts from the films themselves: Josef Von Sternberg's adaptation of Dreiser's novel "An American Tragedy," with Phillips Holmes and Sylvia Sidney, Secrets of a Secretary with Herbert Marshall and Claudette Colbert, Murder By the Clock with Lilyan Tashman, Sooky with Robert Coogan (Jackie's lookalike kid brother), and The Smiling Lieutenant with Maurice Chevalier, Miriam Hopkins, and Claudette Colbert. A sixth excerpt features Ruth Chatterton in an interesting sequence directed by Dorothy Arzner, which we're told comes from a movie about the role of women in the First World War entitled Stepdaughters of War. This film looks intriguing but apparently it was never completed.
And that brings us to the stars of the show, the Marx Brothers. The scene is set in the office of a theatrical agent named Mr. Lee, played by Ben Taggart. One by one each of the brothers enters and tries to impress Mr. Lee. He remains unimpressed, so the guys give him the treatment and drive him nuts. Much of the dialog is in rhyme. The brothers take turns impersonating Maurice Chevalier singing "You Brought a New Kind of Love to Me" just as they do in Monkey Business, although in a different setting. Zeppo is given a more prominent role here, being very much a part of the team instead of the hapless straight man; even his singing is better than usual. (Check it out, Zeppo fans!) Groucho and Chico each have their regular quota of punchlines and groaners, while Harpo has a nice visual gag involving a rubber glove. The scene ends in chaos, as it should.
The Marx Brothers sequence lasts only about five minutes or so, but it is the main reason to see this oddball promotional featurette. It's not easy to find a copy, but Marx buffs and fans of early Hollywood will want to make the effort.