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Humor Risk (1921)

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Humor Risk

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Humor Risk CastThis silent film was the first (but never released) Marx Brothers film, and is presumed lost. It may have been destroyed by Groucho, who is said to have burnt the negative after a particularly bad premiere screening. It is also said that the print was accidentally thrown away when left in the screening box overnight.

All four Marx Brothers are known to have been in this short film. It was the last film directed by Dick Smith (1886-1937), and the first film written by Jo Swerling.

The film was made privately by the Marxes with money from friends.

Information about the film's premise is sparse. Its title was "apparently a spoof of the then-popular drama Humoresque, one of the biggest film hits of 1920." In addition, "the brothers were working separately rather than as a team" and did not incorporate their trademark comic personalities that they would later become famous for. Harpo played the hero, a detective named Watson who "made his entrance in a high hat, sliding down a coal chute into the basement." Groucho played an "old movie" villain, who "sported a long moustache and was clad in black." Chico was probably his "chuckling [Italian] henchman." Zeppo portrayed a playboy who was the owner of a nightclub in which most of the action, including "a cabaret, [which allowed] the inclusion of a dance number," took place. The final shot "showed Groucho, in ball and chain, trudging slowly off into the gloaming." Harpo, in a rare moment of romantic glory, evidently gets the girl in the end.

It was maybe never completed but nevertheless screened once in Bronx in a matinée for kids, with not much success, which in the end let to it being retracted from circulation.

The earliest known reference to the film was in Wid's Daily on 8 April 1921. Under the headline MARX BROS. IN FILMS? it says that it was reported "yesterday" that the Brothers are supposed to have signed with Caravel for a series of two-reelers.
Moving Picture World also wrote about the film on 16 April 1921, page 738:
The Four Marx Brothers, Julius, Arthur, Leonard and Herbert, well-known to vaudeville audiences, have made their screen debut and will be featured in a series produced by the Caravel Comedy Company, known as "Comedy Without Custard". The first is from a story by Jo Swerling of the New York American. It is titled "Humor Risk" and was directed by Dick Smith with A. H. Vallet at the camera.

In his book The Marx Brothers - Their World of Comedy, Allen Eyles informs that the film was made in two weeks and this seems to be confirmed by the notes in Wid's Daily and Moving Picture World - on the 8th, the Marxes "are supposed to have signed with Caravel" while on the 16th, they "have made their screen debut" in a film that "was directed by Dick Smith".

The writer Jo Swerling (who also had written "Street Cinderella") wrote the script and raised $6,000. Other financers were the Four Marx Brothers themselves, cartoonist Alvah "Al" Posen, actor Nathan "Nucky" Sachs and Max Lippman.

Related Links



Harpo Marx   Watson, Detective and/or the Love Interest (?)
Groucho Marx   (Villain)
Chico Marx   (Italian)?
Zeppo Marx   Love interest(?)
Mildred Davis   (Heroine)?
Jobyna Ralston   (Heroine)?
Mr and Mrs Ralston   (?)
Chorus line from a Shubert theatre   Dancers

Director  Dick Smith
Written by  Jo Swerling
Producer  Al Posen
Photography  A. H. Vallet
Runtime  1 reel
Silent movie  
Uncompleted (?)  
Produced  1921

This site uses material originally created by Frank Bland for his website Why A Duck?. Frank did kindly give me permission to use this material.

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