In Search of the Mysterious Mr. Moskowitz

Clockwise from upper left: Groucho Marx, Lee Tracy, Milton Wallace and Walter WinchellOne of the joys of being an old-movie buff is when an actor in a bit part sparks your interest and you start to do a little research on him or her, which causes you to tumble down a rabbit hole of odd facts and coincidences. Sometimes one finds unlikely connections between that unfamiliar performer and some much bigger names—such as when, say, Groucho Marx, Lee Tracy, Walter Winchell have a connection to…Milton Wallace?

We recently attended a screening of Blessed Event (1932), a classic precode comedy in which Lee Tracy plays a character that is obviously inspired by gossip columnist Walter Winchell, who was all the rage back then.

We were especially excited to attend the screening, as we had been informed that some footage that had long since been excised from the picture was back in. Reportedly, it had been there all along, but only in the print that belonged to the Library of Congress. Virtually no one knew about it till Bruce Goldstein, director of repertory programming at NYC’s Film Forum, screened the print at the TCM film festival and realized what a find he’d uncovered.

For those not familiar with Winchell, we’ll catch you up just a bit: A former vaudevillian, he turned to a scandal-mongering form of journalism when his performing career wound down. His popular newspaper column was syndicated and he had a huge following on national radio, too. He was known for coining any number of phrases still used today, including the above-cited “blessed event” used to signal the pending birth of a baby (the guardians of broadcasting decency in those days were convinced that American ears were too tender for that oh-so-coarse term “pregnant”).

Winchell’s broadcasts included remotely broadcast performances by bands and singers around the country, and right before switching to those remote locations, he would blow a siren whistle and say, “Okay, America!”

In the film, as the title suggests, Tracy’s Winchell-esque character relies on the same “blessed event” catchphrase that Winchell used. But in the restored scene, a short, middle-aged, somewhat stereotypical (though not, in our opinion, disparagingly so) Jewish man, played by one Milton Wallace, shows up at the newspaper office to give Tracy a “blessed event” tip: He, Mr. Moskowitz, and his wife are soon going to have their seventh child and he thinks maybe Tracy would want to put that into his column.

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Spend New Year’s Eve with the Marxes & the Charleses

What are you doing New Year’s Eve? We’re not referencing the classic song of that name (a favorite of ours, by the way); we’re asking the question. Because Turner Classic Movies has arranged a day of programming that, for our money, negates any need to even think of joining the inebriated hordes who’ll be out on the town, paying too much to have too little fun. Stay home instead, and enjoy the Marx Brothers all day and Nick and Nora Charles (and Asta, too) all night!

The Marx Brothers‘ first—and finest—seven pictures will air (slightly out of order, which is a bit of a head-scratcher) beginning at 8:15 a.m. ET, followed by all six Thin Man movies (which are being shown in proper order) beginning at 8 p.m. ET.

It’s nearly 23 hours of programming, so you’ll want to get plenty of rest tonight.

New Year's Eve -- Duck Soup and After the Thin Man posters

Happy Birthday, Groucho Marx!

Today marks the 123nd anniversary of the birth of the great Groucho Marx.

All of the movies Groucho made are available on DVD, and there are some terrific collections of his hilarious game show, You Bet Your Life, available as well.

Most, if not all, of the books he wrote are available, too.

So it’s up to you how you do it, but really, don’t you think you should spend some time with Groucho on his birthday?

We think so, too.

Just to help you out in a pinch, here are the very memorable first few minutes of Animal Crackers (1930), the Marx Brothers’ second movie, filmed at Astoria Studios in Astoria, Queens:

Saying Goodbye to Groucho

We’re not much for marking the day people pass away; we prefer to celebrate the day they were born. But the anniversary of Groucho Marx’s passing—he died on this day in 1977—carries with it some sad, sweet memories that are worth revisiting.

We can still vividly remember our first Marx Brothers movie. It was 1974 and, having just turned sixteen, we were given permission to borrow the family Volvo to drive across town to catch a double feature of Horse Feathers and Monkey Business.

We were thoroughly and completely hooked—on the entire Marx clan, of course, but especially Groucho. Our prized possession to this day remains the autographed photo we received from him after sending him a birthday card on what proved to be his last birthday.

On August 19, 1977, we were on a camping trip in Colorado with our parents and siblings. We were sporting a Groucho t-shirt, as we often did in those days, and a kid we’d met the night before at the campground where we were staying walked up and said, “Hey, guess what happened?”

At that moment, we had a sort of premonition about what he was referring to, though we hadn’t heard any news, having only just crawled out of our sleeping bag.

“Groucho died,” we said. A statement, not a question.

“Yeah, how did you know?” he asked.

We didn’t know exactly how we knew, but we did, somehow. And we were more than a little bit heartbroken over it.

Distraught, we sought out our folks for the solace they could provide. We found them at the campground’s general store, where they were in the process of buying all the copies of that day’s newspaper, so that we might be spared the sad news of Groucho’s passing, which they feared would spoil the last two days of the trip for us.

It was one of the sweetest things anyone ever did for us.

The other sweetest thing? Our father, hoping to cheer us up, gave us some money and told us to go have some fun. We went to an Old West-themed amusement park, where we bought (well, placed an order for—they were delivered via the mail) three one-dollar bills with pictures of Groucho, Harpo, and Chico superimposed over George Washington’s face.

When they arrived in the mail some weeks later, we had them framed, and they hang on our wall to this day.

We can remember how, on the long ride home from Colorado to Oklahoma City, the deejays on the radio kept going on and on about Elvis, and we were thinking, “But Groucho died! What about that?”

We told our mother that day that it was the only time in his life that Groucho’s timing had been off.

We’re still not over Groucho’s passing. The world was a better place with him in it.