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The Bootleg Files: Myrt and Marge

BOOTLEG FILES 621: “Myrt and Marge” (1933 feature film with the Three Stooges).

LAST SEEN: It is on YouTube.

AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: None.

REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: It fell through the cracks.

CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: Possible, but not likely.

Fans of the Coen Brothers may recall a scene from “O Brother, Where Art Thou” where the central characters pause from their shenanigans to watch a corny musical movie. The film within the film was a 1933 musical comedy called “Myrt and Marge,” though most people would probably not have recognized it. So why did the Coen Brothers pick this, of all films? Well, it was because the Three Stooges were in that film, but due to rights clearance issues to the Stooges’ imagery the Coens could not use their footage – thus, they were forced to use a non-Stooges segment from that flick.

Indeed, the only reason anyone today would seek out “Myrt and Marge” is because of the Stooges’ presence. But back in the day, the slapstick trio were not the main selling point of this film.

“Myrt and Marge” had its origins in a radio program that debuted in November 1931. The show was created by actress Myrtle Vail, who believed that her experiences in vaudeville could offer a wealth of stories for a daily serial. Vail played the character Myrt, an older chorus girl, and her real-life daughter Donna Damerel was cast as Marge, an inexperienced younger performer who bonded with Myrt. The program quickly became very popular, and Universal Pictures thought there would be an opportunity to transfer “Myrt and Marge” to the big screen.

“Myrt and Marge” opens with a troubled rehearsal for a musical revue. Vail’s Myrt is the lead dancer, but her bulky headdress keeps falling off and the poor choreography has the dancers narrowly avoiding collisions. When the show’s producer announces his withdrawal from the endeavor, Myrt gladly trades her role as leading performer to producer, with the goal of raising funds to bring the show to New York.

Along the way, Myrt signs a brash young comic named Eddie (Eddie Foy Jr.) to become the show’s leading man. A new financial backer named Jackson is located, and a fresh young leading lady is found in the unlikeliest of places: she’s Marge, the daughter of a boarding house owner in Altoona, Pennsylvania, who provides lodging to the production company during their journey through the Keystone State. But when the financial backer has lascivious plans for Marge, Eddie – who, naturally, is smitten with her – comes to her rescue and nearly goes to jail for slugging Jackson. Of course, everything works out for all involved and the show goes on, climaxing in a wild number featuring chorus girls dancing on a set built to resemble a coiled snake.

Okay, so where do the Three Stooges come in? At the time, there were no “Three Stooges” – Moe Howard, Larry Fine and Curly Howard were providing support to comic headliner Ted Healy. Billed as “Howard, Fine and Howard,” they were joined in this act by Healy’s off-screen girlfriend Bonnie Bonnell, who usually played a scatterbrained interloper that intruded in the mirthful mischief.

At the start of 1933, Healy, the Stooges and Bonnell were under contract at MGM and appeared in several two-reelers. Healy and the Stooges also appeared separately in MGM films, while Bonnell only appeared in the Healy-Stooges two-reelers. Universal Pictures reached out for Healy’s participation in “Myrt and Marge,” and the comic and his three rough-house sidekicks were cast as stagehands. Bonnell came along as a dimwitted would-be performer who constantly tried to crash the show – for no clear reason, she did not receive screen billing even though she had a major supporting role.

If a Stooges fan approaches “Myrt and Marge” expecting the noisy knockabout of the classic Columbia shorts from the 1930s and 1940s, they are in for a big disappointment. Their well-loved screen personas were barely formed in this film, with Curly mostly observing the action, a passive Moe offering a faint attempt at leadership and Larry getting a lion’s share of dialogue. This was due primarily to Healy’s insistence on hogging the camera time with bad jokes, obnoxious sarcasm and unquestioned violence. For example, he asks pianist Moe if he knows “The Road to Mandalay.” When Moe asks if he wants him to play it, Healy responds, “No, I want you to take it.” Or when Healy asks Larry if he knows what a burden is, Larry’s response of “a burden the hand is worth two in the bush” is met with a loud and rather nasty Healy slap. Healy also does a seemingly endless imitation of Al Jolson singing “Mammy,” which is supposed to be a comic highlight. (It isn’t.) In fairness, one Pre-Code wisecrack from Healy is funny: “When I walk out, I’ll have a piece of mistletoe on my coattail.”

And speaking of Pre-Code humor, the only real laughs in “Myrt and Marge” comes from Ray Hedges, who recreates his radio show character of Clarence, the unapologetically effeminate costumer. While gay humor popped up in Pre-Code comedies, it was rarely as blatant or visceral as it is here. “If we could get the runs with this show that these dames get in their stockings,” Clarence hisses, “I’d be able to make the payment on my second kimono.” Later, when a chorus girl demands that Clarence put her costume in a storage trunk, he sneers and spits out, “Selfish!” Clarence also plays (pardon the expression) straight man to Bonnell, who does a Gracie Allen-worthy bit in explaining the mystery of her birth. Hedges was wonderful in this role, and it is a major shame that this was his only screen performance.

As for the title characters, neither Vail nor Damerel registered on screen – Vail came across as bland and charmless, while Damerel seemed like a second-rate Ruby Keeler. (In an acrobatic dance number, Damerel was clearly doubled by a semi-lookalike, which didn’t help her cred.) In a belated effort to remind the audience of their radio popularity, the film abruptly wraps up in a variation of the clichéd dream ending that involves the women performing behind an oversized microphone while the rest of the cast watches them and then walk off, stopping briefly to nod and smile at the camera.

“Myrt and Marge” was a box office flop and Universal opted not to make additional films using these characters; the radio show remained on the air until 1942. The Stooges were also unhappy with their second fiddle status with Healy, and they signed papers to end their partnership shortly after production was over. Bonnell saw her film career come to a sudden close; with no offers from other studios, she left show business and married an auto parts salesman, living a quiet life until her untimely death from liver disease in 1964 at the age of 58.

“Myrt and Marge” was never re-released by Universal, and for years the film was unavailable for review. Due to its long absence, confusion arose on whether the Stooges were in the film – Moe Howard never mentioned it in his autobiography, although a still from the film was used in the book but was mistakenly identified as a scene from the MGM “Dancing Lady.” The film eventually turned up in a few cable television broadcasts in the 1980s, but there has never been any commercial home entertainment release. Bootleg videos of the film circulated for years and the full film can be found on YouTube.

Stooges fans who never saw the film may want to watch it (on fast forward) just so they can have a sense of completion in watching all of their movies. For everyone else, this should remain in its well-deserved obscurity.

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.

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