Cracker Crumbs

[Originally published in Movietone News 32, June 1974]

At least half of Seattle knows by now that the Seattle Film Society did not show Animal Crackers as originally announced for May 18. They know because at least half of Seattle was planning to come see Animal Crackers at St. Mark’s Cathedral. This is what happened.

Animal Crackers is the one among the thirteen films of the Marx Brothers that has not been in general release for years. Like its predecessor Cocoanuts, it was based on—it virtually is—a stage show the boys did late in the Twenties. The original producer was Paramount Pictures, the studio that produced all of the first five Marx films (Cocoanuts, Animal Crackers, Monkey Business, Horsefeathers, Duck Soup). Paramount no longer distributes its post-silent, pre-1950 films; they were picked up for nontheatrical distribution and TV leasing by Universal MCA. Because of some hassle involving the copyright on the preexisting stage material, Universal has never troubled to clear the way toward officially rereleasing Animal Crackers. Hence its increasingly conspicuous absence on the repertory circuit otherwise wellnigh glutted with Marx Brothers movies.

The film has been shown in the last couple years. Diligent scanners of the movie ads in The Village Voice have sported it now and again; it was in San Francisco somewhere last summer. The Seattle Film Society programming section thought it would be the niftiest possible attraction for our year-end bash, and some longdistance phoning was done to find it. One reputable distributor replied, “Uhhhhhhhh, no, we don’t rent that film … that is, er, we don’t rent that film … I mean to say, we don’t rent that film.” Interesting, no? Wherever the emphasis properly belonged, we never did conclusively find Animal Crackers and settled for the original Technicolor The Gang’s All Here instead.

Then a source turned up. A private source. That is to say, a collector. Now, private sources aren’t always legal sources. In fact, quite often they’re not legal sources. But sometimes they are legal sources. And often they’re only sources. Sometimes a collector or two are the only people who’ve bothered to save a copy of a vintage film. More than a few of the screen’s classics exist today only because some retired projectionist or theater manager or just plain accidental acquirer had a print stashed, even forgotten, in his garage, attic, or secret cubbyhole. We didn’t know the legal status of Animal Crackers. We did know that neither Paramount nor Universal had visibly done anything to make the film available to motion picture audiences. Questions of legality aside, that seemed—still seems—downright immoral. And the Seattle Film Society is nothing if not moral.

So we booked the movie and announced it for May 18. Wonderful! Hearts began going anticipatorily pit-pat. The Board prepared to erect another SFS milestone. At least one casual phone caller lost control of himself when told Animal Crackers was coming up in the near future and promptly joined the Film Society.

The film arrived and a few people previewed it. It proved to be, as expected, a movie only insofar as Groucho periodically violates the customary proprieties of the screen-to-audience relationship, along with all the other proprieties he’s violating. So it wasn’t, in the strictest sense of the word, cinemah—but it sure was one funny-as-hell show, and it shaped up as the ideal Marx Brothers picture to be rediscovered after a couple decades. When Groucho’s Captain Spaulding theme strikes up and the entire lumbering showbiz apparatus steels itself to receive the thrust of his entrance, we had no doubt the whole of St. Mark’s Cathedral would momentarily levitate from the audience’s cheers. And the ending represents such a distillation of Marxian destructiveness at its most daftly benign that I was sure a few people would start weeping hysterically.

That, most of all, was why we wanted to show Animal Crackers. It would have been An Event to remember for years—and I hope the first local public screening has a chance to be that kind of Event. It’s in the hands of Universal pictures.

Because a week before the showing The Event started coming apart. Our Varietys have been coming through later and later, and we don’t get Boxoffice, so John Hartl’s May 12 Sunday column in The Seattle Times was our first indication that, of all the available moments in the last twenty years, Universal Pictures was picking this one to give Animal Crackers an official rerelease. That same column advised Mr. Russell Brown, the local Universal Film Exchange manager, that the Seattle Film Society was planning to show the movie the very next Saturday night. This we didn’t know for several days, of course; when we did get the news, it included some thirdhand quotes to the effect that Universal “would do anything necessary to stop those guys.”

Maybe no one really said that. Probably someone did. We knew it could happen, though. We were no longer in the position of showing a movie by the only means that it could be shown—we were about to have a clearly illegal showing of an unauthorized print of a movie that would very shortly appear in motion picture theaters. The situation was abundantly clear: Universal did, after all, have the rights to the film. If we went ahead with the showing we’d be in the wrong and would get in trouble for it. And if we went ahead with the showing, in all probability we wouldn’t even be able to go ahead with the showing because some very official-looking policeman might jolly well confiscate the print right off the projector, and we’d be in dutch with our well-meaning collector friend as well. And, most importantly of all, Animal Crackers was going to be available in a big way: a second “premiere” was to be held in L.A. with the surviving Marx Brothers in attendance, and Universal would give the picture first-run treatment, a downtown opening, the works.

Very early Thursday morning, May 16, Animal Crackers was officially cancelled by the SFS programming section. We scrambled for a replacement. A title had to be selected, rented, and got here by Saturday evening—two days away. I had a mini-inspiration: the Mitchell Leisen–Preston Sturges screwball comedy Easy Living: Thirties, Paramount, zany, and—the inspiration part—in town right then because I was using it in my Thirties comedy course at the UW. Phone call to Universal to obtain clearance for using the print, then resting in University Audio Visual Services. Four Universal authorities necessary to decide that the film had another booking too close behind to permit any delay in its return to the Universal library (it would have been shipped out on Thursday, normally—and was). Next idea?

Ron Green, Dave Willingham, and Bob Dale all thought the replacement ought to be another Marx Brothers movie even though all the others have been shown plentifully. I had my eve on a couple cheap, newly available English Hitchcocks, but went along with the majority. We called Universal 16 in L.A. to try for Monkey Business, which seems to be the least-shown of the really good Marxes—Monkey Business or, failing that, Duck Soup, the best of the Marxes, no matter how often it’s shown. Talking with Universal was an experience. The hotlines had obviously been burning. While the booker who answered initially was off checking on the availability of Monkey Business, a branch manager came on the line with an I’m-not-doing-anything-else-right-now-so-why-not-chat-with-you air and began asking ever-so-casual questions about the sorts of movies the Seattle Film Society runs. He ought to have known that we’d rented Lubitsch’s Design for Living from his office a month earlier. I mentioned that, and rattled off a list of films past and future—all from reputable film libraries. Our pleasant chat ended and the booker came back on to say that she’d have to call Chicago about Monkey Business and would call me back “in a few minutes.”

Two hours later she hadn’t called back. I’d called once again and been reminded that she was going to call me back. Oh. I watched the clock. The margin of time necessary for getting a print to Seattle from L.A. or San Francisco or wherever is not infinitely compressible. I gave her another half-hour. Nothing. I picked up the phone, called Budget Films of Los Angeles, and booked Alfred Hitchcock’s Young and Innocent in a minute and a half. Ten minutes later the phone rang. It was Universal, “We can’t get you Monkey Business but there is a print of Duck Soup.” “You’re too late”; and everything, I thought, was settled. High time, too.

Later in the day Dave Willingham, as President of the SFS, phoned Russell Brown at the local office to say that Animal Crackers was off and that we’d had no idea when we originally planned the showing that the film was about to be rereleased. Brown came across very straight and un-outraged, confirmed our assessment of Universal’s legal position (a Portland showing—in a theater, yet—had been shut down a couple weeks ago), and asked whether he could help us secure a replacement title. Dave ended by requesting that he do that, and the SFS laid on the best possible compensatory program for Saturday night: Duck Soup for the Marx freaks, Young and Innocent for the first-time-in-years-if-ever cachet.

And that, at this moment, seems to be that. We don’t know how many people came to the door of Bloedel Auditorium, saw the cancellation sign, and left (the newspapers also printed announcements on Friday and Saturday), but a great many came in, many of them to see Duck Soup only. As for Universal, several of the higher authorities we spoke with expressed appreciation for the SFS’s cooperation. (Universal had something to lose, by the way—not so much the several hundred potential customers who’d have seen Animal Crackers at Bloedel, but also a lot of bargaining power with whoever turns out to be the first-run exhibitor of the rereleased film: “Whuddayuh mean, ‘first run’—they showed it up at St. Mark’s last month!”) So, short of getting to show Animal Crackers and pick the rediscovery bloom ourselves, we pulled out of the potential disaster about as nicely as one could imagine.

A last word, for Universal and that lucky exhibitor who’s going to open the film: Don’t just show it some Wednesday at noon and spin it off for a week or three or six. I mean, you’ll do that, and fine. But don’t open it that way. Do something special. No dancing girls, no Sears fashion show, no nudnik radio or TV personality. But give the movie a first night all its own. Captain Spaulding deserves it.

RTJ

Copyright © 1974 Richard T. Jameson

2016 postscript: That grand Seattle opening never happened. The movie simply started its standard run, at the Varsity as I recall, and that was that.