Sean Paul Murphy, Writer

Sean Paul Murphy, Writer
Sean Paul Murphy, Writer

Monday, June 17, 2019

TOUCHPOINT PRESS TO PUBLISH CHAPEL STREET


I have great news. TouchPoint Press is going to publish my novel Chapel Street.

Here's a short synopsis for the uninitiated:
Rick Bakos, 35, lives an isolated life. Already damaged by the death of his father when he was a young boy, Rick spent a grueling decade trying in vain to help his suicidal older brother Lenny. Nor could he maintain a relationship with his long-time girlfriend Gina Holt because of pressure from his overly possessive mother Alice, who eventually took her own life as well. 
In an attempt to understand the suicidal tendencies of his family, Rick became an avid genealogist and a volunteer for a genealogical website called RestingPlace, which records graves all around the world. Sadly, competition from another volunteer, Tombstone Teri Poskocil, threatens his status as the top contributor in the Baltimore, Maryland area.
Seeing a request to photograph a grave, Rick races to Eternal Faith Cemetery to beat Teri to the punch. Instead Rick finds himself drawn to a vault decorated with a ceramic photo of the deceased Betty Kostek. Her eyes draw him forward. He photographs the grave and picture before fleeing the cemetery. After some inexplicable misgivings, Rick posts the grave and the photo to the website. 
That night Rick starts dreaming of his late brother Lenny. Each visit brings him closer to madness and suicide. Teri, who was also drawn to the grave of Betty Kostek, experiences similar dreams of her late uncle Charlie, who also killed himself. Rick and Teri team up to discover their pairing wasn’t a coincidence. Their great-grandparents were next door neighbors on Chapel Street nearly a century earlier. So were Betty’s grandparents. 
The two of them find themselves bearing the brunt of a multi-generational demonic curse that has decimated the families of Chapel Street. With the help of two priests, they must break Betty’s spell before they die by their own hands.
This is a bucket list moment for me. I was a voracious reader as a child, and, very early in life, I felt the nascent desire to become a writer. And, to me, writers were people who wrote books. Novels, in particular. So when Chapel Street comes out, I will have finally achieved my first goal as a writer.

I am also very happy that the book is being published by TouchPoint Press. Publisher Sheri Williams took a leap of faith with me regarding my memoir The Promise, or the Pros and Cons of Talking with God.  It was an oddball choice. Think about it: I am mainly known as a screenwriter, but I only devoted about three paragraphs describing my movie career. Instead, I detail a very personal spiritual journey most people would find out of the ordinary. I am grateful Sheri took a chance on me.

TouchPoint Press is also a natural home for my novel since, in a very real sense, Chapel Street is a parallel narrative to my memoir.

Let me explain.

Family members and close friends who read my first book asked why I didn't talk more about my doomed brother Mark Brendan Murphy, who killed himself in a rather public manner in Flint, Michigan, in 1999. Two reasons. One, Mark wasn't as much a factor in the narrative thrust of the narrative of my first book as my late sister Laura Lee Murphy Valenti, who shot herself in 1994. Two, I was planning to discuss Mark, and my complicated relationship with him, in another nonfiction book.

Mark Brendan Murphy

Other Murphy family insiders asked why I didn't discuss The House in my first book.

By The House, they meant the large Victorian home my family bought in the summer of 1974. From the beginning, my sisters said the house was haunted. I was mostly oblivious or highly skeptical of their claims, aside from hearing our spooky old Church pump organ play a single note on its own once. However, after my mother and a friend of hers tried to communicate with the entity in the mid-1980s, we quickly entered full blown poltergeist territory.

Those stories were also outside of the narrative thrust of my first book. And, frankly, I never intended to write about those events for two reasons. One, we learned the hard way that talking to or about the entity seemed to empower it. For that reason, we never even discussed our own experiences in any detail among ourselves despite the fact that our family hasn't lived in the house for over a decade. Two, I didn't think I had the writing skill to articulate the terror and dread inspired by the sometimes subtle/sometimes not to so subtle actions of the entity.

I would have never written about any of this until my mother asked me this question: "Do you think the thing in the house had anything to do with Mark and Laurie's deaths?"

My answer was a firm: "Yes."

I had always considered that possibility and I wrote Chapel Street to explore my thoughts on the subject. This novel is fiction, but everything is undergirded by emotional and spiritual reality. However, in some ways, the book is less an exaggeration of the events than I thought.

After reading a draft of Chapel Street, my sister called a meeting of my surviving siblings who had lived in the house during the peak of the haunting to openly discuss the events for the first time. This was only a preliminary discussion, but it chillingly underlined my contention that the entity intended to drive us all to our deaths. My brother Mark hung himself. My sister Laura shot herself. My father drank himself to death in a manner I view as a slow-moving suicide. (I can't blame him. I would probably do the same thing if I lost two children like he did.) I discussed my own close call with suicide in my first book. However, I discovered there were other attempts as well as direct actions by the entity which would have appeared to be suicides had they been successful.

It was indeed a house of blood.

The previous owner of The House was found dead
on a landing beneath this stained glass window.

I will probably write again about the link between Chapel Street and the real events that inspired it, but I still have to process the information I just learned.

You can never really predict how the audience will react to the book. I believe fans of the genre will love it. And I was already able to generate interest in a film adaptation. Regardless, like my first book, the writing process itself proved beneficial to me. It helped me deal with some of my unresolved issues regarding the "haunting" and my relationship with my late brother. Psychological healing, courtesy of TouchPoint Press.

I hope you all enjoy the book when it is published. I don't have a date yet, but it will be released in hardcover, paperback and digital formats. If you enjoy it, rest assured I already have sequels and prequels in mind.

Thanks, Sheri, for taking another chance on me!

Sheri hasn't asked me to take down this sneak preview of Chapel Street yet, so take advantage of it while you can:


Sample Chapters:
Prologue - My Mother
Chapter 1 - RestingPlace.com
Chapter 2 - Elisabetta
Chapter 3 - The Upload
Chapter 4 - The Kobayashi Maru
Chapter 5 - Gina
Chapter 6 - Tombstone Teri
Chapter 7 - The Holy Redeemer Lonely Hearts Club
Chapter 8 - A Mourner
Chapter 9 - War Is Declared
Chapter 10 - The Motorcycle
Chapter 11 - Suspended
Chapter 12 - The Harbor
Chapter 13 - Bad News Betty

While you're waiting on Chapel Street, be sure  my true story of first faith and first love and how the two became almost fatally intertwined:

Sunday, June 16, 2019

The Chaplin Mutual Shorts Ranked


Charlie Chaplin was the first true international superstar.

Full stop. Period.

There have been a multitude of great performers before him. No doubt about that. We can still read reviews of the great Shakespearean actors and operatic singers from yesteryear. We cannot, however, see them. Neither could the bulk of the people of their own time. Unless you lived in a large cosmopolitan city, you couldn't dream of seeing or hearing one of those great performers.

Until the movies came along.

Movies gave people all around the world, regardless of class, economic status or religion, to view the same performance. Chaplin was not the first movie star, however, he connected with the audience in a way no one else ever had -- or ever would.

Why? I credit the simplicity of his main character. Chaplin developed his famous Tramp persona in his second film Kid Auto Races at Venice. The primitive, short film shows a tramp disrupting a documentary crew filming kiddie car races in Venice, California. In this film, Chaplin addresses the camera head on and builds a relationship with the audience that would last for the rest of his life.


The Tramp proved to be a truly universal character. Everyone could identify with a carefree drifter unwilling to submit to authority and who was only too happy to puncture pomposity whenever he saw it. Using only pantomime to express himself, no language barrier separated Chaplin from the global audience. His films played equally well in Polynesia as they did in America and Europe. He understood the power of silence. He successfully resisted making a true talking picture until 1940's takedown of Hitler,  The Great Dictator.

But, aside from his own personal success, Chaplin was a key innovator in the advancement of screen comedy in general. When Chaplin entered the movie business in 1913, screen comedy consisted primarily of the broadest possible knockabout slapstick humor. That's how he began, too. However, as each ensuing contract gave him more freedom to follow his muse, he expanded the boundaries of screen comedy, adding heart and tackling formerly taboo subjects.

To me, the most pivotal period of Chaplin's development as a filmmaker took place during his twelve film contract to Mutual between 1916 and 1917. Mutual gave him the resources to build his own studio and total freedom to do as he pleased. He also assembled a highly-talented troupe of actors. Most importantly, he hired the imposing Eric Campbell, who, in my opinion, would prove to be the best comic heavy in film history. Sadly, Campbell would die in a car accident at the age of thirty-seven in December 1917, two months after the final Mutual film was released. (To compound the tragedy, Campbell's wife had died unexpectedly of a heart attack in July 1917, and his only daughter was seriously injured in a car accident on her way to buy mourning clothes.)

Eric Campbell
Chaplin was also aided by Edna Purviance, 1895-1958, a delightful leading lady he had hired during his previous contract with Essanay. (She retired from acting in 1927, but Chaplin kept her on the studio pay roll for the rest of her life.) He was also assisted by Albert Austin, 1881-1953, who had come to America with him in the Karno troupe and Henry Bergman, 1868-1947, who would remain working with Chaplin both on and off screen until his death in 1947.

Edna Purviance
Now a little background on Chaplin, for the uninitiated.

Charles Spencer Chaplin was born on 16 April 1889 in London, England. He endured a childhood with enough poverty and hardship to make Charles Dickens blush. His father disappeared and his mother would be sent to an insane asylum. Chaplin was sent to a work house twice before the age of nine. Both of his parents had theatrical backgrounds and he followed them on the stage. It proved to be his path out of poverty. At the age of nineteen, he joined the comic Fred Karno Company, which brought him to America.

In 1914, Chaplin was signed to Keystone Studios by Mack Sennett, the then king of silent comedy, for $150 a week. He made thirty-six films, mostly primitive one-and-two-reelers, during that year. By the time his contract was up, he had already achieved international stardom. Chaplin jumped ship to Essanay in 1915 for a salary of $1250 a week and a signing bonus of $10,000. Quite a raise. He made fifteen films for Essanay. These films showed growth from the Keystone period, as Chaplin attempted to tell more complicated stories and incorporate pathos. In 1916, he went to Mutual for $10,000 a week and a $150,000 signing bonus. The contract was ultimately worth $675,000, making him one of the most highly paid people in the world.

Chaplin called the Mutual period the happiest time of his life. The joy is evident in all of  the films, and so is the ambition. The technical quality of the film making progressed in all categories. He added more humanity to the Tramp, as well as the characters he interacted with. The Tramp began to subtly change. Originally, the character seemed to be a tramp by choice. A free spirit. Now, he began appearing as a victim of circumstance. This gave the persona more depth, and allowed Chaplin to deal with social issues never before dealt with in comedies.

I first became familiar with the films in my youth. I collected Super 8mm films and began buying the Mutuals from Blackhawk Films. They would put out a catalog every month and usually featured at least one of these films at half price. I still consider them the epitome of silent short comedy, along with some films by Keaton, Lloyd and Laurel & Hardy.

I always wanted to do a Robert Youngson-style documentary about Chaplin at Mutual, highlighting the little innovations throughout. I wrote a script, but never found public domain copies of the films of suitable quality. Perhaps one day I will find the prints and make the film.

Until then, here's my list of the films from weakest to strongest:

12. THE FIREMAN, 12 June 1916
Directed by Charles Chaplin

The Firemen, the second of Chaplin's Mutual comedies, is probably my least favorite of the bunch. It is a typical occupational comedy, where a comedian is placed in a certain job and wrings the comic potential from the tools of the trade.

It's not a terrible film by any stretch of the imagination. There are laughs, and Chaplin does milk some simple gags, like the incessant butt-kicking, more successfully than he did at Keystone or Essanay. (For example, in a Keystone comedy, if someone bent over, someone else would automatically kick them in the butt. Here, if you bend over you will still get kicked, but Chaplin makes a little more of it. He will consider the butt, address it as it were, before he makes his kick. It is a small step to be sure, but every step is important.) Chaplin also attempts some backward motion gags, but they are obvious and not very funny.

Overall, the film suffers because it does not reach the standard Chaplin would set for himself with his later efforts.

11). THE COUNT, 4 September 1916
Written and directed by Charles Chaplin

Chaplin plays an apprentice to tailor Campbell. He is fired for burning the pants of a customer. The customer was a count, and, finding the invitation to a swanky party, both Chaplin and Campbell go and impersonate the Count and vie for the hand of Miss Moneybags, Edna Purviance. 

Likable, but nothing too fresh or new.  Impersonation and mistaken identity are common themes in Chaplin's oeuvre.  How else would the tramp be able to mix with the rich and pompous? The film features simple slapstick that could have just as easily played in one of his Essanay shorts. It is, however, elevated by higher production values and better performances from his cast.

10). BEHIND THE SCREEN, 13 November 1916
Written and directed by Charles Chaplin

Chaplin has various misadventures while working in the property department of a movie studio. For some reason, this film turned out to be the last of the Mutual shorts that I saw. I really looked forward to seeing it, thinking Chaplin would make the most of the studio location.

Sadly, if only because of my sense of anticipation, I was a bit disappointed. I didn't find it as funny as the bulk of the other Mutual shorts. Despite a location rich in potential, I found the funniest moments in this film to be some of the smallest ones, –like Charlie trying to steal bites from Albert Austin's lunch.

Still, the film retains interest as a behind the scenes view of motion picture production circa 1916. (A superior and more concise view of the world of producing silent films can be found in Singin' In The Rain as Gene Kelly walks through a silent studio.) To me, the most interesting thing about this film is Chaplin's hostile attitude toward the striking union workers. If he had made this film later in his career, the radical unionists might have been the good guys!


9). THE FLOORWALKER, 15 May 1916
Directed by Charles Chaplin

A floorwalker, Lloyd Bacon, and manager, Eric Campbell, rob the safe of a department store. Before they can leave with their ill-gotten gains, the floorwalker knocks the manager out and steals his share. To evade detectives, the floorwalker induces a look-alike tramp, Charlie Chaplin, to trade places with him. When the detectives arrest the real floorwalker, Chaplin is left with a suitcase of money and one small problem: Campbell wants the money and revenge.

The Floorwalker was the first of Chaplin's films for the Mutual Company. It is more heavily-plotted than most of his earlier shorts. It uses Chaplin's common plot device of mistaken identity which he frequently employed from 1914's Caught in a Cabaret to 1940's The Great Dictator. This time he doesn't reach as high - merely to the ranks of the employed.

The gags are good, in particular Chaplin makes excellent use of an escalator, although the film isn't as funny as many that will soon follow. Still, The Floorwalker remains one of my favorite Mutuals, if only for the sentimental reason that it was the first full-length two-reeler I bought in Super 8mm when I was a kid.

Well worth a look, but not the best introduction to Chaplin.


8). ONE A.M., 7 August 1916
Written and directed by Charles Chaplin

Chaplin plays a drunk who spends the entire film trying to get into his house and go to bed. In a comic experiment, Chaplin appears alone in this film, aside from Albert Austin, who briefly appears at the beginning as a cab driver. Chaplin draws the humor from his interaction with various objects around the house, most humorously with a hostile Murphy bed.

Is this comic experiment successful? Yes, for the most part. It is a funny short, but, in my opinion, nowhere near his funniest. Still, one must admire Chaplin's boldness. When one watches this film, one sees a talented film maker testing the limits of his skills. Bravo.


7). THE PAWNSHOP, 2 October 1916
Written and directed by Charles Chaplin

Charlie plays an assistant at a pawnshop with a eye for the owner's daughter and a skill for making mischief. The Pawnshop is perhaps the least plotted of Chaplin's Mutual films. Charlie thwarts Eric Campbell's plan to rob the business, but little screen time is devoted to that story.

This is a situational, or should I say, occupational comedy, where Charlie and his talented cast and crew try to make the most of a particular setting. The best sequence comes when customer Albert Austin arrives with a clock to pawn. Charlie hilariously and inventively destroys the clock in his attempt to discern its value. This "business" - the ability to wring comic potential from simple everyday items - is a lost skill among modern comics. Chaplin was a master at it, and this film serves as a good example why.

6). THE VAGABOND, 10 July 1916

In The Vagabond, Charlie plays a street musician who rescues a girl, Edna Purviance, from a gypsy camp. They set up their own little camp and Charlie soon falls in love with Edna, but before long a rival soon appears in the form of a painter who asks Edna to model for him. A wealthy woman sees the painting in an exhibit and, as a result of a birthmark, recognizes Edna as her daughter who was stolen away as a child. The mother and painter come and sweep Edna up away from Charlie. However, as they drive away, she suddenly demands that they go back and get Charlie, who gets into the car with them and they all live happily ever after.

The Vagabond, the third of Chaplin's films for Mutual, is probably the least humorous of the series, but it is also one of the most interesting. It is essentially a melodrama, and serves as an important creative building block toward his heartfelt feature triumphs that would follow in the twenties and beyond. A film like this was a riskier proposition back in the age of slapstick when comedy was comedy and drama was drama. Today, this is not the first place to look for Chaplin the laugh-getter, but an interesting curio to examine when studying Chaplin's growth as an artist.


5). THE RINK, 4 December 1916
Written and directed by Charles Chaplin

Charlie plays a waiter with a penchant for roller skating in this very funny short.

There isn't much of a plot in this film, but it generates a great many laughs nonetheless. The scenes featuring Charlie as a waiter are amusing enough, particularly as he mixes a drink, but Chaplin really shines in the skating scenes. Although he was always an agile and physical comedian, few of films display his skills as fully as The Rink. (W.C. Fields called him "a damned ballerina.") Chaplin was so good on skates that one regrets he didn't put them on more often, although he did so to great effect in Modern Times.


4). THE ADVENTURER, 22 October 1917
Written and directed by Charles Chaplin

In The Adventurer, Charlie plays an escaped convict who briefly manages to enjoy the good life after rescuing a drowning rich woman before the police find him again.

The Adventurer is the last of Chaplin's films for the Mutual. Lacking any attempt at the pathos and social commentary that Chaplin injected in some of his previous Mutual shorts, this chase comedy almost appears to be a throwback to his rough-and-tumble roots at Keystone. However, there is one major difference, this film is much funnier than anything he did at Keystone. While I do not consider this to be his best short, it is arguably his funniest. The chases that bookend the film are hilarious. The middle is hilarious too. The film is a laugh fest through and through. If this film doesn't put a smile on your face, check your pulse.


3). THE CURE, 16 April 1917
Written and directed by Charles Chaplin

Charlie, an alcoholic, goes to a health spa for the water cure. He does so, however, only half-heartedly since his luggage is filled almost entirely with alcohol. Once at the spa, he flirts with the always-delightful Edna Purviance and battles with the always-menacing Eric Campbell, who finds himself at a slight disadvantage in this film since his character suffers from gout.

This film, Chaplin's tenth under his twelve-film Mutual contract, doesn't quite scale the heights of his previous one, Easy Street, but remains one of his most consistently funny shorts. A revolving door is used repeatedly for great comic effect, but the highlight of the film is the massage sequence where Charlie desperately tries to avoid the rough treatment masseur Henry Bergman deals out.

Charlie interestingly abandons his normal tramp persona for this film. Although he felt rich drinkers were ripe targets for comedy, he felt that alcoholism in the working class was a serious problem which wasn't suitable for comedy. (Don't ask me for attribution, but I know he said that somewhere.)


2). THE IMMIGRANT, 17 June 1917
Written and directed by Charles Chaplin

Chaplin plays an immigrant on a ship bound for America. While on the ship, he helps a fellow immigrant, Edna Purviance, whose mother had been robbed. Chaplin meets Purviance later at a restaurant where they are spotted by an artist who hires them to be models. Chaplin uses the advance to buy a wedding license for them.

The Immigrant is generally considered to be one of Chaplin's finest shorts. That is true. It is one of his funniest, too. However, I do not consider it as finely-structured on the whole as many of the other Mutual films. The Immigrant feels like two separate one-reelers, featuring some of the same characters, strung together. We have a shipboard reel and a restaurant reel. The only common characters from both segments are Chaplin and Purviance. (I don't count members of the stock company who appear in both segments as different characters.) The film also suffers from the lack of a consistent heavy throughout.

This weak story structure slightly hampers the overall effectiveness of the short, but doesn't detract too much from the comedy. The first segment has some of the more elaborate gags, like eating dinner on the wave-tossed ship, but I prefer the more subtle humor of the second half as Chaplin tries to figure out how to avoid the wrath of his tough waiter when he discovers he doesn't have any money to pay for his meal.

Much political hay is made of Chaplin kicking the immigration officials after the ship passes the Statue of Liberty. Leftist supporters look at it as an early example of his "heroic" anti-totalitarian political sentiments, while critics take it as a nasty, early anti-American statement. I believe both groups are guilty of wrongly transposing the political sensibilities of the late-forties and early-fifties back into the teens. Robinson's excellent book Chaplin: His Life and Art thoroughly examines the issue and shows that Chaplin intended no political message.

Charlie, however, would have plenty of time for politics later!


1). EASY STREET, 22 January 1917
Written and directed by Charles Chaplin

Easy Street starts with Charlie as a poor, destitute tramp. After attending a storefront revival service, and meeting the always delightful Edna Purviance, he decides to turn his life around. He quickly gets a job as a policeman and he finds himself assigned to Easy Street, the worst neighborhood in the city ruled by tough Eric Campbell. Using his own unorthodox tactics, Charlie eventually subdues Eric and the neighborhood and they all live happily ever after.

 Easy Street is easily the best of the Mutual comdies. It is a very funny short. This is the film I show when I want to introduce someone to Chaplin or silent films in general. The gags are inventive, and they are extremely well-played by his regular company of Mutual performers. Chaplin himself is at his best in this film, but where would he be without Eric Campbell, the best heavy he ever played against.

But there is more to Easy Street than laughs. It is unusually mature for a silent comedy of its period. Chaplin usually presented his tramp character as a happy-go-lucky figure - a vagabond by choice, not circumstance. This film starts with the tramp as a down-and-out character, much in need of the new beginning he gets at the mission. In perhaps his first attempt at social commentary, Chaplin provides an unblinking view of the ills of the society of the time. The most graphic example is the drug addict shooting up with a needle. People often have a misconception of silent comedies being simply quaint. That isn't quaint.

This is a must see.


After Mutual, Chaplin signed an even richer deal with First National which gave him more freedom and even ownership of his films. However, he would only make three more two-reel comedies. As his budgets rose, economics (and his own inclinations) required him to turn instead to feature length films. The Kid would be his first true feature as a writer, director, producer and star. When he left First National for United Artists, a company he founded with Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks and D.W. Griffith, Chaplin would devote himself to features only.

Chaplin would enjoy an amazing run with features despite bucking the tide of talkies. However, his popularity rapidly fell in the 1940s after a scandalous paternity case and suspicions that he was a communist sympathizer.  Having never become a citizen, Chaplin was eventually forced to leave the United States, but he returned in triumph to receive an Oscar in 1972.

Here's the clip:


Here are some other lists:

Top 10 Comedies of the 2000s
Top 10 Comedies of the 1990s
Top 10 Comedies of the 1980s
Top 10 Comedies of the 1970s
Top 10 Comedies of the 1960s
Top 10 Comedies of the 1950s
Top 10 Comedies of the 1940s
Top 10 Comedies of the 1930s
Top 10 Horror Films of the 2010s
Top 10 Horror Films of the 2000s
Top 10 Horror Films of the 1990s
Top 10 Horror Films of the 1980s
Top 10 Horror Films of the 1970s
Top 10 Horror Films of the 1960s
Top 10 Horror Films of the 1950s
Top 15 Horror Films of the 1930s and 1940s
My 10 Favorite Faith Based Films
7 Guy Films
My 5 Favorite Westerns
20 Films, or Confessions of a Misspent Youth
The Marx Brothers Films Ranked
The Chaplin Mutual Shorts Ranked
Beatles Albums Ranked
My 20 Favorite Beatles Songs
My 5 Least Favorite Beatles Songs
My 5 Favorite Rolling Stones Albums
My 5 Favorite Dylan Albums
Halloween Recommends

And, of course, no blog would be complete without some self-promotion. So feel free to check out my  memoir The Promise, or the Pros and Cons of Talking with God, published by TouchPoint Press. It is my true story of first faith and first love and how the two became almost fatally intertwined.



Here are some sample chapters of The Promise:

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

A COMEDY OF HORRORS, VOL. 1., ANNOUNCED


I am delighted to report that A Comedy of Horrors, Vol. 1., has been officially announced.

The film is being brought to you by the creators of the 2017 acclaimed horror comedy The Night Watchmen and a bunch of other cool people. Hmmm. I guess that makes me one of the cool people.  I only wish I had earned that status in high school!

Check out the trailer for The Night Watchmen:



A Comedy of Horrors, Vol. 1 is an anthology film featuring a collection of short comedy horror films by different writers and directors. The masterminds of the project are Ken Arnold and Dan DeLuca. I go way back with Ken. I first met him when he and his wife ran the Annapolis Film Festival where my first feature 21 Eyes played.

In an ironic twist of fate, I next met Ken on the set of my short horror comedy Maestro Percival. In that film, a photographer hopes to hit the big time by photographing the famous violinist Edward Percival for his new album cover, but the assignment proves somewhat complicated after reports of the violinist's death. Ken played the titular zombie violinist. The film was the 2006 winner of the 48 Hour Film Festival HD Filmmaker Showdown.


Maestro Percival was directed by my old friend David Butler. We have partnered on projects since our days together at Towson University. David brought Ken and I together again. Eduardo Sanchez, of The Blair Witch Project fame, was originally slated to direct The Night Watchmen. Unfortunately, he was unavailable to shoot the teaser trailer the production team needed to show investors. Ken and Dan brought David in to direct it, and David later brought me in to fine tune the edit.

Watch Ken and I discuss The Night Watchmen on the Yippee Ki Yay Mother Podcast.


Ken and Dan recently offered David and me the opportunity to contribute a tale to this film. Our story is called Scare B & B. The short is a partly a spoof of the magnificent recent Netflix series The Haunting of Hill House. In our story, a yuppie couple has rehabbed an old mansion, but can't sell it because of its reputation for being haunted. They hope to stem their losses by converting it into a bed and breakfast. Newly opened, the couple will stop at nothing to make sure their first customers have a peaceful and uneventful night. Our segment will be shot some time in July. I will keep you updated on its progress.

Until then, please like and follow the film on Facebook Here:  A Comedy of Horrors, Vol. 1
Follow Ken Arnold on Twitter here:  Ken Arnold
Follow Dan DeLuca on Twitter here: Dan DeLuca
Follow yours truly on Twitter here: Sean Paul Murphy

If you like your horror more serious.  Check out these sample chapters of my upcoming novel Chapel Street.


Sample Chapters:
Prologue - My Mother
Chapter 1 - RestingPlace.com
Chapter 2 - Elisabetta
Chapter 3 - The Upload
Chapter 4 - The Kobayashi Maru
Chapter 5 - Gina
Chapter 6 - Tombstone Teri
Chapter 7 - The Holy Redeemer Lonely Hearts Club
Chapter 8 - A Mourner
Chapter 9 - War Is Declared
Chapter 10 - The Motorcycle
Chapter 11 - Suspended
Chapter 12 - The Harbor
Chapter 13 - Bad News Betty

Learn more about the book, click Here.

Sunday, June 2, 2019

The Marx Brothers Films Ranked


Lately I have been listening to Gilbert Gottfried's Amazing Colossal Podcast, which revels in stories of old Hollywood, and heard a few guests claim that people don't know who the Marx Brothers are anymore. I was horrified by the thought. The Marx Brothers were a huge influence on me. My first "script" was stringing out a number of their routines into a different order. In fact, I first became of aware of the existence of screenwriters when I read a book about the making of their films. I was disillusioned at first. I assumed the actors made up all of the witty things they said. However, I soon became intrigued by these mysterious people who put words in the mouths of my screen idols.

I preferred to believe that millennials still knew and respected the Marx Brothers. Then I took my lovely wife Deborah to lunch a few weeks ago. We had a chatty young waiter who was a self-proclaimed movie fan. We were having a nice discussion until my wife mentioned Groucho Marx. That name elicited a blank expression from the waiter. My wife said surely you've heard of the Marx Brothers. He hadn't.

Oh well. At least he inspired me to pick up Blu-Rays of the Paramount films. It was like seeing them again for the first time....  (And this is coming from someone who actually still has some of their movies on 16mm.)

For the uninitiated, here's a brief summary of the team and their comic stylings. The classic formation of the group consisted of the four brothers: Leonard "Chico" Marx, 1887-1961; Arthur "Harpo" Marx, 1888-1964; Julius "Groucho" Marx, 1890-1977; and Herbert "Zeppo" Marx, 1901-1979. The brothers honed their skills and developed their comic personas in vaudeville. Groucho was the quick-witted would-be ladies' man specializing in puns, insults and wordplay. He also sang comic songs. Chico, pronounced Chick-O, parlayed the popular ethnic comedy of the era into his persona of an Italian immigrant schemer who was smarter than he appeared. He also played the piano well to comic effect. Harpo never spoke in their films. He embodied a spirit of pure, anarchic slapstick, but he played the harp with a great deal of seriousness. Zeppo came to the group late. He replaced his brother Milton "Gummo" Marx, 1893-1977, who left to troupe to fight in World War  I. Zeppo generally played a straight character, without the exaggerated characteristics of his brothers.

Zeppo, Groucho, Chico, Gummo, Harpo
The team achieved a great deal of success in vaudeville and parlayed it onto the Broadway stage. They had three successful shows, I'll Say She Is, The Coconuts and Animal Crackers. Hungry for sound productions, Paramount filmed the final two plays in its New York Astoria studios. Being movie stars was never high on the brothers' ambitions. They were stage performers. In 1921, they had self-financed a short, Humor Risk, which they didn't deem worthy of release. However, because of their financial losses in the stock market crash, the brothers made the move to Hollywood.

Structurally, the four Marx Brothers generally began as pairs in their stories. The films usually began by establishing Groucho and Zeppo's characters. Zeppo almost always acted in a subservient position to Groucho, often as an employee or even, in the case of Horse Feathers, as his son. Zeppo once summed up his role in the films as "introducing Groucho at a party." However, there was much more to it than that. Zeppo gave Groucho someone to play off until Chico and Harpo arrived. They had some very good scenes together, like the dictation scene in Animal Crackers. Zeppo left the team at the end of their Paramount contract after Duck Soup, turning the foursome into a trio, and opening the door for lame MGM straight men like Allan Jones, Kenny Baker and Tony Martin.

Chico and Harpo usually started a film as friends and equals. Regardless of their jobs, they usually had a bit of larceny in their hearts. However, they were generally good natured. Some would argue that they became too sentimental as the films progressed. Chico and Harpo would start the film at odds with Groucho (and Zeppo), but they would be working together by the end. That said, it was always interesting to see the team shake up their template a bit, like in The Big Store where Harpo starts working with Groucho, and A Night In Casablanca, which starts with Harpo rather than Groucho, who enters surprisingly late in the film.

I am not including Humor Risk on the list since no one still alive has ever seen it. Many consider it the Holy Grail of Lost Films (along with Orson Welles' original cut of The Magnificent Ambersons.) I am not including 1949's Love Happy because that film was designed as a solo vehicle for Harpo and the other brothers were added later. Groucho is hardly in the film, and the three brothers never share a scene.* The same is true of 1957's The Story of Mankind. The brothers appear separately in short sketches about historical figures. Nor do I include 1959's The Incredible Jewel Robbery, a silent, half-an-hour episode of TV's GE Theater. To me, it's more of a curio than a film. Groucho, uncredited, only appears in the last shot and delivers the only line of dialogue.

Here's their films, ranked according to my preference. On another day it might be different, but this is how I'm feeling now.**

12. THE BIG STORE, 1941
Directed by Charles Reisner
Screenplay by Sid Kuller & Hal Fimberg and Ray Golden
Original story by Nat Perrin

The Marx Brothers team up to protect singer Tony Martin, who inherited a department store, from the manager who wants it for himself.

Director Charles Reisner had a distinguished career in comedy, working as a gag writer, actor and assistant director for notable talents such as Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. He is probably the best comedy director the brothers worked with aside from Leo McCarey who directed Duck Soup in 1933. However, even he wasn't able to infuse much energy into this picture. The brothers looked tired, and they knew it. They announced their retirement prior to the release of the film.

Still, there are a few good moments here and there. This is a rare film that opens with a rare Groucho and Harpo combination, and that's fun to watch.  However, any energy the film starts to generate disappears when they cut to leading man Tony Martin. He's probably the worst of their straight leads, and his interminable "Tenement Symphony" is easily the worst musical number in any of their films. The high energy, climatic chase through the store on roller skates had potential, but suffered from the obvious use of stunt men and process shots.


11. AT THE CIRCUS, 1939
Directed by Edward Buzzell
Screenplay by Irving Brecher

The Marx Brothers try to save annoying rich-boy Kenny Baker's circus in this disappointing comedy.

After the creative holding action of 1938's Room Service, produced by RKO, the Brothers began their creative decline in their first MGM film after the death of famed producer Irving Thalberg.

I doubt this film would have been made had Thalberg been alive. He understood an essential thing about the brothers: They were masters of destruction, and, for that matter, deconstruction. Who wants to see them save a circus? We want to see them destroy a circus, the same way they destroyed the opera.

MGM was doing to the Marx Brothers what they had done to the Little Rascals. When Hal Roach produced the Little Rascals, they were children dealing with the concerns of children. When MGM started producing the series, they dealt with more adult concerns, and were always having to figure out a way to save the farm. That's what's happening here. Now the Marx Brothers, instead of being comic anarchists, have to save things throughout the rest of their MGM career. Granted, the Marx Brothers saved the sanitarium in A Day At The Races, but they deconstructed the pomposity of medicine in the process.

At The Circus also suffers from the performance of straight man Kenny Baker, especially when he's singing "Two Blind Loves." He's not quite as bad as Tony Martin from The Big Store, but he's close.

Miss Zeppo yet?

As would be expected, there are some amusing moments. Groucho gets to sing his signature number "Lydia The Tattooed Lady," and his scenes with Margaret Dumont still resonant, but much of the interplay between the Brothers themselves fails to click. The scene with Chico refusing to allow Groucho on the train is a pale shadow of the swordfish scene in Horse Feathers. The cigar scene with the midget and the scene with Chico and Harpo searching Goliath's room also amuse, but there is little else. The big circus finale is forced and too reliant on trick shots.


10. THE COCONUTS, 1929
Directed by Robert Florey and Joseph Santley
Adapted by Morrie Ryskind

Groucho plays the owner of a failing Florida hotel who must contend with larcenous guests, including Harpo and Chico, while trying to woo the always dignified Margaret Dumont.

I clearly remember watching this film for the first time. I couldn't have been more than six or seven. It was a Friday night, and I was staying at my grandmother's house. My bedroom, which was recently vacated by my great-grandfather John "George" Rosenberger upon his death, had a black and white television in it. I turned it on and found this film. It was love at first sight for me and the brothers Marx. 

Over time, my affection for this specific film has waned. This was their first feature film. It is a very early talkie, and displays all of the weaknesses of such films. The movie is very stagey. It was a filmed version of their recent Broadway hit. It was shot during the day in New York City while they performed their current Broadway hit, Animal Crackers, in the evening.

There are a couple inspired moments, particularly from Harpo, but the film is overly-plotted and dragged down by dull acting from the rest of the cast, with the exception of the venerable Margaret Dumont, and too many unmemorable songs and dance numbers. The film also suffers from poor sound recording. Still, despite the technical limitations, it has an energy missing from the later MGM films.

Here's a clip:



9. GO WEST, 1940
Directed by Edward Buzzell
Screenplay by Irving Brecher

Like so many comedians before them, and so many who would follow, The Marx Brothers spoof western clich├ęs in this enjoyable late MGM feature. Not classic Marx Brothers but it is a definite improvement over their previous film At The Circus.

The film, with a plot reminiscent of Laurel & Hardy's 1935 classic Way Out West, starts very well with con man Groucho getting conned by Chico and Harpo instead. Sadly, despite many good moments, the film descends into sentimental MGM malarkey. Discarding the zany, anarchic spirit of their Paramount features, MGM worked to tame the brothers by focusing their activities on laudable goals, like, in this case, helping a nice couple from being cheated out of valuable land. Fortunately, the final reel of this film, featuring the train chase, is hilarious. That sequence alone redeems the film.


Directed by Archie Mayo
Screenplay by Joseph Fields and Roland Kibbee

Groucho is hired as the manager of a hotel in Casablanca where he, and Harpo and Chico, must tangle with former Nazis over a treasure.

The Marx Brothers of the 1940s were a pale shadow of the Marx Brothers of the 1930s. They knew it, too. If they were action heroes in the 1980s, they would have collectively said "I'm too old for this s**t." They apparently only did this film to help Chico with his gambling debts. Still, I prefer this film to the late MGM ones.

The film opens very well with a great visual gag by Harpo. It is soon followed by another fun bit with Harpo getting into a sword duel with one of the Nazi henchmen. Harpo dominates the humor, and the story. Groucho appears uncharacteristically late in the film, but manages to score with some great one-liners. I get the sense that the brothers realized this would be their last film and worked to make it worthy of their legacy.

This was the second to last of the Marx Brothers films I saw. It wasn't part of the movie packages that played endlessly on the locals stations in the sixties and early seventies. I remember the film getting some special advertising prior to the first screening. It didn't play on prime time, but rather at eleven-thirty, after the local news. I think it was a school night, but I stayed up and watched it anyway.

I wasn't disappointed.

Here's a clip from the film:


7. ANIMAL CRACKERS, 1930
Directed by Victor Heerman
Screenplay by Morrie Ryskind
Based on the musical play by George S. Kaufman,  

Society matron Margaret Dumont throws a weekend shindig to entertain the famous African explorer Jeffrey Spaulding (Groucho), and Chico and Harpo show up as larcenous musicians. There's another plot involving the rest of the cast, but who cares?

This was the last one of their films I managed to see. I believe copyright issues kept this film out of the public eye for decades. When the issues were finally resolved in the seventies, the film managed to get a limited theatrical release. I saw it at the Towson Theater with my friend Bob Burgess. It make the event even cooler, it was accompanied by two shorts: The Vagabond, by Charlie Chaplin, and Helpmates, by Laurel and Hardy. (That was also the first time I had seen The Vagabond.)

I was not disappointed by the film. The Marx Brother's second feature was a vast improvement over the first one. It is nowhere near as stagey and static as the first one, and it is less bogged down with secondary plots and musical numbers.  The material definitely holds up better than The Coconuts. One of my cousins recently appeared in a hilarious high school revival of the play.

Here's a clip:


6. ROOM SERVICE, 1938
Directed by William A. Seiter
Screenplay by Morrie Ryskind
Based on the play by John Murray & Allen Boretz

Groucho plays a disreputable Broadway producer who, with the help of his loyal henchmen, Chico and Harpo, uses any means necessary to provide a stage for his play and room and board for his cast.

This film, done on a loan-out to RKO, is the only feature they made based on material not written especially for them. As a result, we miss some of the brothers' normal dynamics. For example, Groucho usually starts at cross purposes with Chico and Harpo, only to combine forces in the end. Here they are working together from the beginning. Also, the confined setting gives Harpo few women to chase, and even few moments to shine. As a result, Groucho still manages to amuse, but Harpo and Chico are marginalized. If they were written out of the plot, you would hardly miss them.

Still, I can't despise the film. It isn't as wild and chaotic as the Brothers at their prime, but the film still generates quite a few laughs. There is one thing I have noticed about it. I have had the opportunity to watch this film with people who do not normally care for the Marx Brothers. This film, however, they tend to enjoy. It is indeed a Marx Brothers film for people who do not like the Marx Brothers.

Plus, it features some early Lucille Ball.


Directed by Sam Wood
Original Story by Robert Pirosh & George Seaton

Groucho is Dr. Hugo Hackenbush, a vet posing as a doctor, who, with the help of a jockey and racetrack tout, tries to keep a struggling sanitarium open.

This was the brothers second film for MGM and their last one under the direct supervision of the "boy genius" producer Irving Thalberg. He had a real affection for the team, and confidence on their box office potential. He signed them after their Paramount contract ended. His vision led to their initial success with A Night At The Opera. Sadly, Thalberg would die during the production of this film. MGM was never not a comedy powerhouse. It should be noted that the brothers had not been signed by MGM itself after their contract with Paramount ended. They were signed to a personal contract with Thalberg. Without his protection, MGM would give them the same treatment they gave to Buster Keaton and Laurel & Hardy.

Still, this is a fine film. And a bigger hit than A Night At The Opera. It doesn't have the same manic energy of the Paramount features, but there are a number of solid set pieces, particularly the examination of Margaret Dumont and Groucho and Chico's Tootsie Fruitsie Ice Cream routine. The ending also keeps the energy high.

This was the only Marx Brothers film nominated for an Academy Award. Dave Gould was nominated for Best Dance Direction for the "All God's Children Got Rhythm" number.

Here's a clip:

4. MONKEY BUSINESS, 1931
Directed by Norman Z. McLeod
Screenplay by S.J. Perelman and Will B. Johnstone
Additional dialogue by Arthur Sheekman

Groucho, Chico, Harpo and Zeppo are stowaways on an ocean liner who get involved in a rivalry between two gangsters in their first comedy written directly for the screen.

Monkey Business was their third feature film, and it refreshing abandoned the stodgy proscenium of their first two features. The first two-thirds of the film are very funny as the brothers attempt to elude the ship's crew. Chico and Harpo have many inventive gags and routines, and Groucho wisecracks with abandon. And Zeppo... Well, does it really matter what Zeppo does?

Sorry, I don't mean to disparage Zeppo. I wish he would have remained in the team. He could have certainly handled  the "straight" business in the films better than some of the 2nd tier leading man wannabes that ended up in the films. Think Zeppo in place of Kenny Baker in At The Circus. See what I mean?

The climax of the first part of the film, as the brothers try to sneak off the ship disguised as Maurice Chevalier, is a classic. (And a lift from their play I'll Say She Is.) Sadly, the land bound finale is rather weak in comparison as the inconsequential plot plays itself out. Still, the first part of the film is prime Marx Brothers at their best.


3. HORSE FEATHERS, 1932
Directed by Norman Z. McLeod

Groucho plays Professor Quincy Adams Wagstaff, the new head of troubled Huxley College where his son Zeppo (!) is a student. Groucho decides only a good football team can save the college and goes to a speakeasy to find some professionals to play on the team as ringers. He ends up signing Chico and Harpo, who are.... Who cares? Just know that it is funny. Very funny.

The film is filled with great gags, and we get to see all four brothers try to romance the always delicious but doomed Thelma Todd. The film holds together better than their earlier films as a story and leaves the brothers free to play without a serious romantic subplot played by others. Pure Marx Brothers. You can't go wrong with this film!

Here's a clip:


2. DUCK SOUP, 1933
Directed by Leo McCarey
Story by Bert Kalmar & Harry Ruby
Additional dialogue by Arthur Sheekman and Nat Perrin

Groucho plays Rufus T. Firefly, leader of Freedonia, with brother Zeppo at his side, while Chico and Harpo play spies working for which ever side the comic wind blows in the last film featuring all four of the Marx Brothers.

This film is easily the funniest and most consistent of their Paramount features, and many believe it to be their funniest film overall. Either way, it remains one of the funniest movies in history. That said, however, although it began to be fashionable to say so during the 60's, the film is no more an anti-war film than Horse Feathers is an anti-football film.

Duck Soup strongly benefits from the presence of director Leo McCarey, who learned the comedy business at the Hal Roach studio with folks like Charley Chase and Laurel and Hardy. McCarey even brought some Roach regulars like Charles Middleton and Edgar Kennedy to the film. Kennedy, in particular, as the lemonade vendor, proves to be a wonderful foil for Harpo and Chico. Their exchanges makes one wish he could have become a regular in their films like always welcome Margaret Dumont.

A must see.

Here's a clip:


Directed by Sam Wood
Screenplay by George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind

Shady business manager, Groucho, promises to get wealthy widow Margaret Dumont into high society by making her a sponsor of the arts. When they go to Europe to hire the world's greatest opera singer, Groucho runs into Chico and Harpo, who trick him into signing a talented unknown, Allan Jones. The three brothers then see to it that Jones sings in New York, even if it means destroying the opera in the process during the hilarious climax.

The Marx Brothers' first film for MGM is arguably their best. Granted, we must endure a romantic subplot featuring Allan Jones and Kitty Carlisle and some non-comic opera singing, but it is a small price to pay for the laughs. My eyes only glaze over during the Jones/Carlisle duet at the boat. The rest of the numbers aren't bad, and Chico and Harpo's musical interludes were never better than in this film. The stuffy world of the opera provides the perfect backdrop for the Marx Brothers' creative anarchy.

Producer Irving Thalberg really believed in the Brothers and worked to craft them a perfect comic environment to play against. The Paramount films all have a slapdash, low budget feel to them. Thalberg gave the brothers a wonderful script, which they honed on the road, and first-rate A-list production values. Technically-speaking, this is their best-looking and sounding film. It features nice sets and uniformly good performances from the supporting cast. Too bad Thalberg didn't live longer.

One final point. Before you give me any crap about making this film number one on my list, Groucho himself declared that the two Thalberg features were their best. (I do have to disagree with The Great Man about A Day at the Races.)

Here's a clip:


*In his first memoir, Groucho did not list Love Happy as a Marx Brothers film.
**I repurposed some of my previous writings use elsewhere in this blog.

Here are some other lists:

Top 10 Comedies of the 2000s
Top 10 Comedies of the 1990s
Top 10 Comedies of the 1980s
Top 10 Comedies of the 1970s
Top 10 Comedies of the 1960s
Top 10 Comedies of the 1950s
Top 10 Comedies of the 1940s
Top 10 Comedies of the 1930s
Top 10 Horror Films of the 2010s
Top 10 Horror Films of the 2000s
Top 10 Horror Films of the 1990s
Top 10 Horror Films of the 1980s
Top 10 Horror Films of the 1970s
Top 10 Horror Films of the 1960s
Top 10 Horror Films of the 1950s
Top 15 Horror Films of the 1930s and 1940s
My 10 Favorite Faith Based Films
7 Guy Films
My 5 Favorite Westerns
20 Films, or Confessions of a Misspent Youth
The Marx Brothers Films Ranked
The Chaplin Mutual Shorts Ranked
Beatles Albums Ranked
My 20 Favorite Beatles Songs
My 5 Least Favorite Beatles Songs
My 5 Favorite Rolling Stones Albums
My 5 Favorite Dylan Albums
Halloween Recommends

And, of course, no blog would be complete without some self-promotion. So feel free to check out my  memoir The Promise, or the Pros and Cons of Talking with God, published by TouchPoint Press. It is my true story of first faith and first love and how the two became almost fatally intertwined.



Here are some sample chapters of The Promise: