“Elephant” Business; or, Monkeying with a Marx Brothers Script

“You’ve got to be kidding,” I’m sure many of us are exclaiming these days whenever we approach a filling station. As of today, a gallon of unleaded goes for well over $8 here in the UK. Now, I have not driven a car since the Reagan era, but that does not stop me from taking note and commiserating with the one in charge of chauffeuring me about. Back in 1932-33, the Standard Oil Companies of New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Louisiana, together with the Colonial Beacon Oil Company were spending some of their revenue to send in the clowns to entertain a Depression-stricken public that, for the most part, was going nowhere fast. The clowns were none other than Groucho and Chico Marx, who were heard each week in a radio comedy titled Flywheel, Shyster, and Flywheel.

On this day, 22 May, in 1933, their vehicle ground to a halt after having sputtered along for six months on the air. Flywheel, Shyster, and Flywheel did not return for a second season, a cancellation that, as Michael Barson reminds us in his foreword to the published scripts for the series, Groucho Marx attributed to the soaring profits the sponsor enjoyed as a result of the broadcasts, which presumably made Esso feel “guilty” for “taking the money.” It might have been that the puns had all the sophistication of a program geared toward those to young to drive. Contemplating their activities during what was then thought of as a summer break, Chico dreams of going “away on a ranch,” . . . if only he had the money:

Groucho. Well, If the ranch were far enough away, I’d give you the money.

Chico. At’s-a fine. I can go on a ranch and ride a horse wit-a leettle lasso.

Groucho. Ride a horse with a little Esso? You’re crazy. You ride in a car with Esso, which is more powerful than any gasoline.

Since the final broadcast is the only one preserved both in print and as a recording, it offers some insights into the changes that were made to a script before it aired. Not that each revision constitutes an improvement.

“Three of your elephants are loose on the boat,” someone alerts Groucho (as attorney at law Waldorf T. Flywheel, at that instant a stowaway mistaken for a famous explorer). “The elephants are loose?” Flywheel replies. “Well, am I responsible for their morals?”

In the sketch that aired on 22 May, Groucho is told instead that “three of [his] monkeys are loose on the boat.” “Monkeys are loose?” Groucho retorts. “Well, get a monkey wrench and tighten them up.”

Sponsors are like elephants. Those straitlaced folks never forget to tighten a “loose” line, no matter how many Esso references you may be able to spin out of a lasso. So, was it the double entendres that proved too much for the oil companies, who subsequently refused to pump in the money for a second season of monkeyshines? To NBC, at least, the show appeared to be far less sustainable than the resources the deserting sponsor was touting as superior.

Given the raw material, penned by Nat Perrin and Arthur Sheekman, the cancellation was not such a loss to those tuning in at home. If you ask me, the Marx Brothers, who depended on visuals for much of their clowning, might as well have monkeywrenched the entire project.

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