Today I am using my powers of research to answer a question for my Grandmother, “Whatever happened to The Ritz Brothers?”
Good question. I am a Marx Brothers fan, my mom and aunt love The Three Stooges, but my grandmother swears The Ritz Brothers are funnier than all of them put together.
When she was a teenager, she worked as a waitress in the Victory Square Pharmacy in Los Angeles during the 1940s. Her clientele included lots of Hollywood stars, Shirley Temple, George Raft. My grandmother was there the day Frank Sinatra realized he was too famous to hang out at a soda shop– she and her co-workers chased him out screaming “Frankie!” while ripping his jacket to shreds!
But her favorite story is the time the Ritz brothers came into the pharmacy. The story goes like this: Harry Ritz walks in and orders a Cherry Phosphate. A Cherry Phosphate is a hand-mixed soda, except it has an acidic flavored phosphate powder, so it is sour. She makes the drink, he asks for more phosphate powder; she puts a little more, he asks for more, she says it won’t taste right, he insists, she puts more, he asks for even more, she puts it in, he keeps asking for more and more and more, so she mixes the drink (which at this point is looking like it was mixed by Dr. Jekyll), gives it to him, he takes a big gulp, and then he makes this crazy expression with rolling eyes. It must have been really funny because she still laughs like crazy when she tells the story! Actually, it is pretty funny.
I had never seen them growing up and assumed they were a local act based out of Los Angeles, that never hit the big time. How wrong I was. Then one day I bought a DVD of an old film called The Gorilla, it starred Bela Lugosi and there was a person in an ape suit on the cover! It was right up my alley! I popped in the DVD and to my surprise The Ritz Brothers were in the movie!
After watching the film, I was not impressed, their humor was obvious, and I could not tell which brother was which. I showed the film to my Grandmother, her response, “That wasn’t good, they were funnier than that!” While the movie was corny-cute, I would not call it Bela Lugosi’s best film either, so I cannot not pass judgment on The Ritz Brothers.
At this point, I thought I would do a little footwork, see what I could uncover. According to the Internet Movie Database they were fairly active in Hollywood, making films from 1936 to 1942 with Alice Faye, Don Ameche, Ethel Merman, Jane Withers, Gloria Stuart. They did one television special in the 1950s, and finally they had uncredited roles in a 70s film called Won Ton Ton: The Dog Who Saved Hollywood. Uncredited roles. This seemed incredibly strange.
So I began, where all good research begins, the library. The first article I found was an article about Harry Ritz published in a back issue of Esquire, entitled MEL BROOKS SAYS THIS IS THE FUNNIEST MAN IN THE WORLD by Harry Stein. In the article Sid Caesar is quoted, “Harry was the great innovator. His energy and his sensibility opened things up for all of us. He had to be the funniest man of his time”. Later in the article Jerry Lewis says, “Harry spawned us all. We all begged, borrowed and stole from him, every one of us. Without him, we wouldn’t be here”. According to the article, you can see The Ritz Brother’s influence in the performances of Jerry Lewis, Danny Kaye, Milton Berle, Jackie Gleason, Mel Brooks, Woody Allen (although his Marx Brothers influence is much stronger), Gene Wilder… Clearly, I was missing out on something pretty spectacular.
Another article surfaced, published in The New Yorker, the article’s author Richard Brody addresses my issues with their comedy, he writes, “their personalities take a back seat to the material.” Technically The Ritz Brothers are doing exactly what is often taught in drama schools, “trusting the material”. With this in mind, I will continue my viewing of their films, but in the meantime, I still have not answered my question!
I then located a New York Times article that suggests The Ritz Brothers terminated their studio contract due to the decline in the quality of their films (case point The Gorilla) and continued a successful career performing in live venues. In 1965, Al Ritz passed away, but brothers, Harry and Jimmy kept the act going and did not retire until the 1980s.
I love that The Ritz Brothers chose to terminate their contracts and go on the live circuit, it is smart to know where your material works the best. And the antics of The Ritz Brothers were more successful unscripted or lightly scripted. I found a video of a television special (performed live and taped) online, what was clear was that they were better when allowed a loose more improvisational style. I think this could be said of many comedians: Abbott & Costello, Martin & Lewis were infinitely funnier on The Colgate Comedy Hour (when you can clearly see them strict to well-rehearsed routines but also going off-book), than in tightly scripted performances, these comedians feed off of that third character, the audience. I believe one of the reasons The Marx Brothers and The Three Stooges resonate so strongly with movie audiences is that their comedy while the epitome of anarchy still required intense precision and impeccable timing, something a camera does not hinder.
New York Times Bio:
Ritz Brothers TV Special:
Excerpt from Esquire Article:
The Internet Movie Database:
The New Yorker Article: