Humor Risk: the Marx Brothers' Silent Film

Neatorama presents a guest post from actor, comedian, and voiceover artist Eddie Deezen. Visit Eddie at his website or at Facebook.

I’ll bet you didn't know the Marx brothers did a silent movie. Well they did. Humor Risk (also listed as Humorisk by some sources) was the Marx's first ever movie. It was a silent short film.

In 1920-21, the four Marx brothers were one of America's top vaudeville acts, trodding the boards and evoking audience's laughter from New York to San Francisco and all points between. It was during this period that Groucho, Harpo, Chico, and Zeppo each decided to kick in a thousand dollars to help finance an actual movie. There were two or three other investors and the film's final budget was somewhere around $6,000 (possibly as high as ten grand).

Details of the film are sketchy and nebulous at best- later opinions, statements and memories from those involved are mainly foggy and somewhat at odds. The film was supposed to be a silent comedy with pathos, in the Charlie Chaplin mold.

The film's title was a satire of a then very popular movie drama called Humoresque based on a novel by Fannie Hurst. Humoresque was a huge hit in 1920.

The four Marx brothers were the stars, with three of the four playing characters nothing like the ones they would make famous a decade later in their classic comedies of the 1930s and '40s.

Harpo was the leading man, the "good guy.” He played detective named “Watson" and either wore a top hat or a deerstalker cap (or perhaps both). Harpo (Watson) enters the film sliding down a coal chute into the basement.

Groucho was cast as the villain of the piece, sporting a long mustache and dressed in black. Youngest brother Zeppo was cast as a playboy who ran the dance hall that was the film's main locale.

Only brother Chico, who plays a "cackling Italian henchman" (Groucho's assistant, one presumes) portrayed a character in any way similar to his later immortal screen persona. In the one photo of Chico from Humor Risk, he is seen looking very nerdy, wearing glasses and a plaid golf cap. Compared to his later film persona, he is unrecognizable.

Groucho and Harpo prop their arms on director Dick Smith’s legs. Chico is wearing glasses, behind Groucho. Zeppo is in the white dickey, behind Harpo.

Unlike the later Marx Brothers films, the four all act separately in their respective scenes, except, possibly, Groucho and Chico being partners in crime. What little plot of the film included a dance number in a cabaret and Groucho trudging off slowly at the film's conclusion, complete with a ball-and-chain. Also, uncharacteristically, in the end, Harpo "gets the girl.”

The screenplay of Humor Risk was written by Jo Swerling, it was to be Swerling's first-ever movie. He was later to become a very successful screenwriter, working on both Gone With The Wind and It's a Wonderful Life.

Directed by Dick Smith and photographed by A.H. Vallet, Humor Risk was filmed in two weeks, most likely in Fort Lee, New Jersey. (In 1973, Groucho was recall it being shot "on the west side of New York.”)

By most accounts, the film was never actually completed.

The Humor Risk leading lady is somewhat in dispute. There is only one surviving still photo of the cast and crew and a very beautiful, sexy leading lady is clearly shown, but she could have been any one of four actresses. Most likely she was an actress named Jobyna Ralston, who the photo closely resembles.

Strangely, in a 1931 Saturday Evening Post interview, Groucho would recall the leading lady as being Mildred Davis, who was then Harold Lloyd's leading lady and later his wife.

Humor Risk, according to most sources, had only one public screening, at a kiddie matinee in the Bronx. The screening was reputedly a disaster, leaving all four brothers disappointed.

One wonders about Humor Risk and how the Marx boys would have come across in it. Groucho and Chico, both such verbal comedians, would have undoubtedly lost something in a silent. And one assumes Harpo would be a perfect fit for a silent film, being a non-speaking actor, but part of Harpo's magical surrealism was his being a silent actor living in a talking universe.

No copies of Humor Risk currently exist and it is almost always included on the list of "great lost films.” Why did it disappear?

It is thought that perhaps after the terrible screening, the copy of Humor Risk was just left sitting in the projection booth.

Another theory states that Groucho hated the film so much he burned the copy. Groucho was to recall about Humor Risk: “We did two reels, which didn't make any sense at all. It was just trying to be funny.” Groucho usually dismissed the film and seemed disinterested in ever locating it.

After hearing one too many false rumors that it had been re-discovered, he finally resigned himself to that fact that it had "been cut up into guitar picks.” But interestingly, late in life, he offered anyone $50,000 if they could locate a copy of Humor Risk.

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The one chance to actually hear Harpo talk in a movie where he isn't playing his normal non-speaking character and it's a SILENT movie. Oh the irony!! Great piece Eddie. I learned something new!
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