Feature-length screenplay | 98 pages
To Harpo From Woollcott is a script about the amazing friendship and unrequited romance that took off with the roaring twenties when Alexander Woollcott met Harpo Marx. The two couldn't have been more different. Woollcott was a vitriolic theater critic, and Harpo was the sweet-loving member of the comedy team known as the Marx Brothers. I wrote the script while a graduate fellow at the American Film Institute.
My dream casting: Sam Rockwell as Harpo opposite Paul Walter Hauser as Woollcott
As I've been updating my portfolio, I've been reflecting on writing lessons I've learned from each project. This entry cares less about the craft of writing. It really just wants to be a celebration of a wonderful human being who goes by "BillO."
If you insist that I must sneak some writing wisdom in here, let's title this entry:
"How to Make it Look Like You're Wiping Your Butt in a Spoon's Reflection in the Name of Historical Research." (Read on and hopefully this title will make a LOT more sense.)
Amazing! Now this entry has purpose.
Before I get to BillO, here's a strange, purposeful interlude:
I was four when I saw my first Marx Brothers' movie.The Big Store was a flop that I adored. It's the perfect movie to introduce kids to the Marx Brothers. As a four-year-old, I loved its slapstick, but I related to it even more on a personal level — for a few reasons. The first is its setting. The movie takes place in a department store. My grandfather was a Harpo-like individual full of warmth and kindness, and he ran a department store. When I was a kid, my mom would bring me to visit him at his office. It was home away from home. When I watched The Marx Brothers' The Big Store, it felt like being back home.
The Marx Brothers also felt like an extension of my own family. My family is Jewish, so there's the cultural connection and that sense of humor. My mother is one of three sisters who are very silly, so I grew up essentially feeling like the Marx Brothers were my aunts.
So, the setting, the Jewish cultural connection, and the humor all drew me in as a Marx Brothers' fan, but I don't think I would have been as devoted to the brothers if it weren't for Harpo, the (mostly) silent Marx Brother.
As a kid, I had speech problems. Until I was seven, most people didn't understand what I was saying. Only my brother did, and he'd interpret my actions and translate them for everyone else. I think that's why I fell in love with Harpo. Every kid loves Harpo's antics. For me, I found them empowering. They showed me that you didn't have to speak to be understood. In fact, you could have a lot of fun and say a lot without ever saying a word.
So that's why I love the Marx Brothers and, specifically, Harpo. When I was a student at the American Film Institute, I drafted a short film script (read it here), which was based off a story in Harpo's autobiography.
I then wrote the silliest of emails, including a photoshopped image of myself with Harpo, and sent that off to the Marx Brothers' fan society. The purpose of the email was to inquire how to get permission to make the film. The film never got made. But something even better came of it. I didn't know that Bill Marx, Harpo's son, would be on the receiving end of the email or that we'd strike up a friendship or that he'd one day teach me how to make it look like I was wiping my own butt in a spoon's reflection.
(More on that spoon soon!)
If there's a writing lesson in here (in addition to the spoon), it's that you should allow your passions to inspire your creative choices. I have worked on projects before because I thought they were commercial, and those projects rarely coalesce. My recommendation is that you work on projects that are born from who you are.
Bill enjoyed my script enough that he invited me to visit him at his home in the desert. As thanks, I brought him a bottle of wine filled with "gripes" instead of grapes. The "gripes" were jokes I had written up — messages in a bottle — that he could read once a day with a glass of wine. (He would have to purchase the wine himself.)
One of my earliest visits with Billo.
Two years later, a few days before Bill's 80th.
Now, it's time to celebrate the wonderful person that is William Woollcott Marx aka BillO. He professes to be the luckiest man alive. He was adopted by Harpo and his wife, the actress Susan Fleming. For father Harpo and son BillO, there could not have been a more fortuitous pairing. Harpo, the silly comedian who taught himself how to play the harp, was now father to a boy with innate musical ability. In Bill, Harpo now had a son who would one day study at Juilliard, compose albums for him, and teach him how to play the instrument that was his namesake.
When Bill and I first met, it felt like I was meeting a Marx Brother. Bill has his father's sense of humor. Any turn of phrase he turns into a pun, which must be punned again until any initial attempt at sensible communication loses out to the pure pleasure of sheer absurdity.
My initial visits were probably planned in the name of research. On those visits, Bill shared family home movies with me, thoughts, and anecdotes that might prove useful for my writing efforts.
My original idea for a short film grew into a full-length feature script at Bill's urging. He thought I should write a film about the wonderful relationship that his father shared with Alexander Woollcott, who also was Bill's godfather. If it wasn't for Bill, I never would have learned as much as I did about two of the most wonderful human beings to have ever played croquet, namely Harpo and Woollcott.
So, now I should probably get to that spoon! I'm not sure why I've chosen it as a focal point for some grand writing lesson. But I have.
As he reads this, my guess it that Bill might even be saying, "What idiotic spoon?" He might not remember showing me how to position your fingers — just so — to create the butt-wiping illusion. I wouldn't even remember if I hadn't thought I recorded the moment. But I didn't. The recording I took failed to capture the moment in history that I thought it had.
This writing lesson is really about history. It's about the past and how we try to recapture it. I've worked on a few historical projects now. A question that often comes up is "Why tell this story now?" What makes any historical story relevant to life in the present moment? For Harpo and Woollcott, Bill and I talked about how people of vastly different walks of life can not only get along, but actually come to love each other. In our present world, responding to its dividedness, we wished to focus on a heartwarming relationship and two individuals who could not have been more different and yet loved each other.
That's why you might want to tell a story about the past — because you think it can impact the present.
But how do you recapture the essence of a past that is no more? How do you do the research? How do you live with the characters when they are no longer living? How can you be honest to the world and the story when you did not live through that time?
I found that you have to immerse yourself in the time period as best you can. I watched countless movies and read countless books. One historical project led to the next and, with each, my understanding of the past increased. But you can't learn everything. It is impossible to be one-hundred percent truthful to a past that you never knew. Even when writing about your own life, your memory, of course, is imperfect. At best, you can approximate the truth until even the most discerning eye accepts the facsimile (or not).
In fictionalizing history, you must choose to shape it, in such a way, to bring out what you believe is the essential truth of the historical moment, and why you believe it relates to now. You choose what gets remembered. In your choice and emphasis, you also choose what will not be remembered — therefore, what might be forgotten.
With historical projects, I always feel a tremendous amount of responsibility to the subject matter. Mostly, I feel responsible to the people and the lives they lived, as whatever I write will shape how people think of them, and that brings us back to the spoon!
Marx fanatics, correct me if I'm wrong. I believe the following has never been written about in any Marx biography or history. If it has, it hasn't been written about sufficiently to ensure that I would remember it. And so, I now take on the responsibility of recording a moment of history, perhaps, for the first time.
One day, in Bill's kitchen, we were having breakfast. Spoons were on the table. Bill recalled a party trick his father enjoyed. Harpo could make it look like he was wiping his backside in a spoon's reflection. Through sleight of hand and the right angle, he would bend his ring and middle fingers to make the knuckles resemble a pair of butt cheeks. Harpo then used a third finger to make it look like he was wiping his own (finger) butt.
I distinctly remember Bill performing this parlor trick for me and it being one of the funniest pieces of nonsense I had ever seen. The video I did take (below) was a few minutes after his initial performance. I didn't properly capture his hands on camera, so you can't quite see the necessary technique to accomplish the trick. But now you know the importance of recording history. In writing about it, you get to choose what to emphasize and why. What you focus on in your story will come to represent your subject matter.
In that vein, from now on, when you think of Bill, you might recall the delightful pieces of humor that he brings up around breakfast time. When you think of me, you might recall how I admire those who can wipe their "butt." And yet the skill escapes me.