DirectorRichard Smith ScreenplayJo Swerling WriterJo Swerling
English intertitles Release date1921 (1921) ProducersJo Swerling, Al Posen, Max Lippman CastGroucho Marx (Villain), Harpo Marx, Zeppo Marx, Leonard Marx, Jobyna Ralston Similar moviesGroucho Marx and Harpo Marx appear in Humor Risk and The Cocoanuts
Humor Risk (1921) was the first Marx Brothers film. The short was never released and is now considered a lost film. The print may have been accidentally thrown away when left in the screening box overnight. Another version of the story says Groucho, unhappy with the film's quality, intentionally burned the negative after a particularly bad premiere screening.
Four of the five Marx Brothers are known to have been in this short film. It was directed by comedy film director Dick Smith (1886-1937), and was the first film written by Jo Swerling, who later co-wrote It's a Wonderful Life, Gone with the Wind and many other films. Jobyna Ralston is most often mentioned as the female lead. However, some sources say that Mildred Davis—star and later wife of Harold Lloyd—was also in the film. The Marxology entry for Humor Risk and the SilentEra entry state that the leading lady could have been one of two other actresses, Esther Ralston or Helen Kane.
Information about the plot of the film is sparse. Filmed in Fort Lee, New Jersey, its title was a spoof of the then-popular Fannie Hurst drama Humoresque, one of the biggest film hits of 1920. In addition, the brothers were working separately, rather than as a team, and did not incorporate their trademark comic personalities for which they later become known.
Harpo played the hero, a detective named Watson who "made his entrance in a high hat, sliding down a coal chute into the basement". Groucho played an "old movie" villain, who "sported a long moustache and was clad in black", while Chico was probably his "chuckling [Italian] henchman". Zeppo portrayed a playboy who was the owner of a nightclub in which most of the action took place, including "a cabaret, [which allowed] the inclusion of a dance number". The final shot showed Groucho "in ball and chain, trudging slowly off into the gloaming". Harpo, in a rare moment of romantic glory, gets the girl in the end.
Humor Risk is also known as Humorisk, as can be seen in both biographies and autobiographies of the Marx Brothers. The Marx Brothers finally broke into success with motion pictures through The Cocoanuts (1929).