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The Bootleg Files: A Day at the Horse Opera

BOOTLEG FILES 576: “A Day at the Horse Opera” (1966 animated short inspired by the Marx Brothers).

LAST SEEN: An unauthorized video dupe is floating around Facebook.

AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: None.

REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: A possible problem with rights clearance.

CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: Not likely at this time.

On February 14, 1966, the trade publication Broadcasting Magazine carried an advertisement from Filmation Associates for a proposed series titled “The New Marx Brothers Show.” The series was to consist of 156 animated shorts featuring characters inspired by Groucho, Harpo and Chico Marx. (Yeah, no love for Zeppo, again!)

This endeavor seemed to have been inspired by the commercial success of Cambria Studios’ syndicated cartoon show “The New Three Stooges,” which created new animated adventures for Moe, Larry and Curly-Joe. That program debuted in 1965 and obviously inspired another animation company, Hanna-Barbera, to create syndicated cartoon series based on two other classic comedy teams, Abbott and Costello and Laurel and Hardy.

But “The New Marx Brothers Show” never occurred. Only a single pilot episode was created, and it remained unseen for 46 years.

Lou Scheimer, the co-founder of Filmation, recalled in his 2012 autobiography that Groucho was signed as a technical adviser for the project, but the 77-year-old was not up to the task of doing the voice performance for his character. Comic actor Pat Harrington was hired and he did a spot-on imitation that perfectly captured the sedate, “You Bet Your Life”-era comic’s vocal style. Ted Knight, who was then an under-the-radar character actor, voiced Chico and most of the other male characters in the short, while veteran funnyman Joe Besser was tapped to bring his highly distinctive voice for a single role. Comedy writers Jay Burton and Mort Goode teamed with Termite Terrace icon Michael Maltese on the script, while Filmation co-founder and former Disney artist Hal Sutherland directed the pilot.

The resulting work, titled “A Day at the Horse Opera,” didn’t capture the brilliant anarchy of the Marx Brothers classics. But despite the limits of Filmation’s flat animation, the short was a charming effort that offered some amusing moments.

Groucho’s opening narration informs the viewer that the short takes place “100 years ago BC – that’s before credit cards” while Harpo happily swings on a statue of Horace Greeley pointing westward. Greeley’s celebrated advice to “go west, young man” is accentuated when the giant statue unexpectedly kicks Harpo into the air towards the Wild West. Alas, a hostile tribe of Indians has driven the U.S. Cavalry from their fort. This creates chaos in Washington, where a meeting of generals and senators decide to send a peace emissary to mollify the Indians. But the Indian chief (voiced by Joe Besser, packing in his sublime whiny intensity) refuses to consider a peace treaty until his daughter Minnie Ho-Ho marries a man that resembles a rock formation called The Great Stoneface. And, no, the formation looks nothing like Buster Keaton – but it is the spitting image of Groucho.

Meanwhile, Groucho (brandishing his trademark cigar – remember, you could still smoke in cartoons in the 1960s) and his brothers are running a shady medicine show when an irate complains that the hair tonic he purchased from them grew dandelions on his scalp. “Why don’t you rub some on your chest and become your own lawn?” Groucho asks before the Marxes beat a hasty exit and wind up at the Indians’ camp. The Washington emissary becomes ecstatic when he sees Groucho, for he believes that his resemblance to The Great Stoneface will result in the marriage needed to secure peace.

“I must get to the White House immediately,” the emissary says. Groucho pauses, looks at the camera and deadpans, “Spoken like a true Republican. But I don’t think he’ll make it either.” Groucho then sees The Great Stoneface formation and quips, “I must have posed for that when I was stoned.” But when Minnie Ho-Ho appears and is revealed to be a giggling behemoth, Groucho remarks, “For a minute I thought it was King Kong in a nightgown.”

Groucho and his brothers escape to the abandoned fort to fend off the unwanted marriage ceremony. The chief has his secretary – a pretty young woman sitting a desk with a typewriter that sends off smoke signals – summon all warriors. The Marx Brothers fight off the Indians by themselves – Harpo uses his harp as an oversized bow to send multiple arrows at once, while his top hat has a mechanized device that shoots off a revolver and lights a match to fire a cannon. The chief fires a rocket into the fort and it lands in the ground without exploding, although a ticking noise is heard. “It can’t be a time bomb because they haven’t been invented yet,” Groucho exclaims.

In the end, Groucho forces the peace emissary into a Groucho disguise and throws him at the chief, who throws him at the elated Minnie Ho-Ho. The emissary looks sadly at the camera and riffs on a classic “My Fair Lady” tune by sighing, “I’ll never grow accustomed to her face.”

For a short running less than seven minutes, “A Day at the Horse Opera” packs a lot sight gags and a surprising amount of topical humor, including references to Jack Benny, Dr. Spock and the perennial struggles of baseball’s Washington Senators. There is even a tribute to “You Bet Your Life,” with a descending stuffed duck arriving (on Groucho’s head) at the utterance of the secret word. Mercifully, the comic depiction of American Indians not racially offensive – and how can anyone be upset over the concept of Joe Besser as a tribal warrior?

Alas, “A Day at the Horse Opera” was met with disinterest and no offers were put forth to bring “The New Marx Brothers Show” to life. Filmation found its groove later in 1966 with a series based on the Superman comic strip, and in 1968 it produced “The Archie Show” – which, as every Saturday morning television fan knows, was the source for the pop music classic “Sugar, Sugar.”

There is no record that “A Day at the Horse Opera” was ever telecast, and the short was filed away and forgotten. A 2009 posting on Jerry Beck’s influential Cartoon Brew website presented a copy of the Broadcasting Magazine advertisement, and in 2012 Lou Scheimer screened the short for an astonished audience at the San Diego Comic-Con. An audience member shot a video of the screening on his cell phone, and for a while this was the only way people could see “A Day at the Horse Opera.”

Today, a collector-to-collector operation specializing in grey market material is offering a none-too-pristine copy of “A Day at the Horse Opera” along with other Filmation pilots that never sold. A video of this short is circulating on Facebook among animation aficionados, and it may eventually turn up on other video sites. Getting a proper home entertainment release would involve clearing the rights to the Marx Brothers’ estate to use their characters, and the commercial viability of this effort is, at best, somewhat minimal.

Nonetheless, “A Day at the Horse Opera” is a pleasant surprise and it is easy to wonder how Filmation could have followed this with another 155 cartoons featuring the Marx Brothers characters. And speaking of long-running series, this marks the return from a two-year break of The Bootleg Files, which ran for 12 years and 575 columns at another site. (You can check out those older columns here.) Many of the titles featured in this column are based on suggestions from readers – this week’s offering was brought to my attention by animation expert Chris Sobieniak – and if you have any suggestions for future columns, please leave your comments at the bottom of this page.

Yes, it’s great to be back. See you next Friday with more bootleg fun!

IMPORTANT NOTICE: While this weekly column acknowledges the presence of rare film and television productions through the so-called collector-to-collector market, this should not be seen as encouraging or condoning the unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either through DVDs or Blu-ray discs or through postings on Internet video sites.

Listen to Phil Hall’s weekly SoundCloud podcast “The Online Movie Show,” with a new episode every Monday.

  • Eric Fuller

    Now that is something I would like to see.

    • It has it’s moments (definately the writing, which should’ve been FIlmation’s strong suit had it gone the same route as Jay Ward did with hiring excellent writers for their productions). It’s an interesting look at a studio just starting out and not sure where to go.

  • Kenny G.

    It’s great that this column is back! I love it!

  • Steve Burstein

    The Marx Brothers’ movies had never been out of circulation-they were revived theatrically in the late 40s-early 50s, and on TV thereafter-but did kids in the 60s, before the really big renaissance of their films, know who they were?