Showing posts with label Loprest. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Loprest. Show all posts

29 September 2021

I Killed Gummo


I think my first exposure to the Marx Brothers was Groucho's quiz show You Bet Your Life. (In another inversion, I watched Alfred Hitchcock's TV show long before I saw any of his movies.  Growing up in the sixties…)

By the time I graduated college I was a fan of the brothers.  I remember going into New York in 1974 with a gang of friends to see Animal Crackers after it had been re-released after decades in studio-prison. I have seen all the existent Marx Brothers movies, the good ones many times.  (Seriously: has anyone sat through Love Happy more than once?  If so, did they lose a bet?)

Naturally I was delighted when Josh Pachter invited me to write something for Monkey Business: Crime Fiction Inspired by the Films of the Marx Brothers.  (It has just been published this month.)

Since I was the last contributor to join Josh told me there were certain guidelines I had to follow, largely to fill gaps and not duplicate other stories:

  • My story had to be inspired by (and titled) At The Circus.
  • The brothers themselves could not appear.
  • It should preferably be set in the year the film was released or the present day.
  • No jewel heists.
  • Please include a murder.

I hadn't seen At the Circus in decades but even before I viewed it again (and it was better than I remembered) I quickly dreamed up a plan.  You see, I had read Joe Adamson's excellent and funny book Groucho, Harpo, Chico, and Sometimes Zeppo.  In it he relates a story Groucho used to tell about the making of that movie. The plot of At The Circus involves a gorilla…

MGM had to hire a man to play a gorilla.   They hired the man, and then they found out he didn't have a gorilla suit.  (They watched him do a gorilla imitation without a gorilla suit.  They weren't convinced.)  They hired a gorilla suit for the man to wear.  The man had an agent who examined the gorilla suit.  Even the gorilla suit had an agent, and he examined the man.  The problem, as Groucho recalls, was that "Mother Nature, with her customary slipshod design, had neglected to equip the gorilla with a window."  After two hours of shooting under bright lamps on one of the warmer days of a Los Angeles summer, the man fainted, right in the middle of his gorilla imitation.  The gorilla imitator's agent said the man had been inside hundreds of gorilla suits before, and he'd NEVER fainted.  The gorilla suit's agent said that hundreds of gorilla imitators had been inside his suit before, and they'd ALWAYS fainted.  [The director] said "Lunch!"

The ape impersonator attempted to solve the problem by puncturing holes in the suit with  an ice pick. This led to the owner marching off with the suit, so that part of the movie features a different man in an orangutan skin.

In my opinion this was a Groucho-invented tall tale, but the fact that he was telling it was all that I needed.

I set the story in 1940 and created a low-rent circus owned by a Marx Brothers fanatic.  Inspired by the recent movie he purchased a gorilla suit.  Alas, the only person who fit in it was Gummo, so-called because he was the least competent of several circus-working brothers.  Suffering from fainting in the hot suit Gummo used the ice pick-perforation trick he had heard about, only to have someone perforate him.

Which gave me a chance to write something very unusual for me: a fair-play murder mystery.

I also had a lot of fun learning and using circus jargon.  For example, the entrance to the circus grounds is the "front door."  The staff's quarters are in the "back yard," which is protected from prying eyes by "sucker netting."  I learned a lot. I hope my research doesn't show!

I look forward to reading the book which includes a killer line-up including SleuthSayers Barb Goffman and Terence Faherty, as well as Donna Andrews, Frankie Y. Bailey, Jeff Cohen, Leslie A. Diehl, Brendan DuBois, Joseph Goodrich,  Sandra Murphy, Josh Pachter, Robert J. Randisi, Marilyn Todd, and Joseph S. Walker.