Disclaimer: Frank Denby, his wife, and this portrayal of Groucho Marx as a mystery solver are the creations of Ron Goulart. The Buffy character was created by Joss Whedon. The concept of One Night in Transylvania
and the plot are mine.
Any other non-original characters will be disclaimed at the appropriate time.
X X X X X
So Groucho and I were on the set of his latest movie late one evening -- they needed some outside nighttime shots in the studio graveyard -- One Night in Transylvania, a broad spoof of the horror genre, where he and his brothers play a group of con artist vampire hunters who run across the real thing -- when it happened again.
You know what "it" I'm referring to. So far in the last few years we've solved a half dozen murders, and fate just keeps throwing them our way.
Sorry. You might not know who I am, in which case, count yourself lucky. Frank Denby, former newspaperman and current scriptwriter, johannes-factotum
, and occasional friend to one Groucho Marx. He'd gotten me a job doing a rewrite of One Night in Transylvania
, though truth be told, the script didn't need rewriting; it needed to be tossed into the nearest fireplace. I told Groucho as much one day on the set. Chico and Harpo weren’t necessary for the scenes to be shot over the next few days, so they were, wisely, elsewhere.
"What, you want to get ashes all over it?"
"I want the fireplace to be lit, Groucho," I said.
"I want to be lit, too. Anyone got a martini I can borrow? Excuse me, miss," he asked a harried makeup girl walking by. "Would you know where I can borrow a martini?"
"Why would you want to borrow a martini, Mr. Marx?"
"Well, I tried to borrow all the gold in Fort Knox, but the US government wouldn't hear of it. So I've had to lower my expectations. Speaking of lowering, how about the necklines around here?"
The long-suffering makeup girl said, "Sorry sir. No to the martinis, no to the necklines. Now, if you'll excuse me, I need to make sure Mr. Williams has his makeup on." Victor Williams was a stuntman and bit actor who could do a passable Bela Lugosi accent; that was the sum total of his acting ability, and he'd been chosen for the vampire role -- Count Bellissimo -- in One Night in Transylvania
over the Marx Brothers' strenuous objections.
"I tell you, Rollo," Groucho said after a minute or so of silence. "You're right about the script. Find a nice roaring fire and throw it in. And then we should toss the scriptwriter in after it," Groucho commented. "Not you. I don't think you'd roast very well. The nitwit originally responsible. You're doing your best, but really all you're doing is taking garbage and trying to make it smell nice."
"As good a definition of 'screenwriter' as I've ever heard," I said.
"When did you become cynical? That's my job. I might sue you for trademark infringement. I tried suing someone for dress infringement once, but the judge wouldn't cotton to it." Then, in a somewhat more serious tone, "Honestly, ever since Irving died no one's been putting in any effort on my films. Which is a change from the usual circumstances of it being only me not putting in any effort. And speaking of putting in effort, how's the lovely Mrs. Denby?"
"Jane's doing fine. She's on a tour right now promoting Hollywood Molly." That was the comic strip my wife had created. It was in nearly 200 newspapers already.
"Couldn't get away from you fast enough, huh? She's finally come to her senses. I tried to come to my senses once, but I took a wrong turn somewhere around Dubuque. Ended up in my liver instead."
Whatever I was going to say in response was broken up by the sound of a scream coming from the dressing rooms. Groucho and I ran to see what was going on.
We were the first ones there, except for the makeup girl and Victor Williams. She was the one who'd screamed.
He was lying on the floor, with a wooden stick embedded in his chest.
And he was quite dead.
While I stood there gaping -- I've seen a few dead bodies before, but never like this -- Groucho took the shaking makeup girl by the shoulders and said, "Go get studio security."
"Okay," she said, and ran out of the room. I gave points to her for not fainting. I gave points to myself for not fainting. As for Groucho, despite his manic persona I got the impression he was the type of person who would remain calm no matter what he saw.
I was right. He said, "I've heard of trying to get into a part before, but I think getting yourself staked to play a vampire is carrying things too far." Then, more seriously, "Where's the blood?"
"Blood," he said. "They say it's necessary for life. Me, I prefer a good pastrami on rye, but to each their own. I'm not an expert on the scientific side of criminalism, Rollo, but it seems to me that if someone has had their heart -- staked -- the way Mr. Williams has, that the rug we're standing on should be soaked with the stuff. Instead, there are a few drops, but nothing else. And despite my low opinion of Mr. Williams' acting abilities, I doubt that the man was actually made of wood. Though none of his last three pictures would do anything to disprove that."
I looked around. The dressing room was decent, but not spectacular. Apart from the body and some blood spatters on the wall and rug, it seemed normal.
Other people were starting to drift over by this point. One of them -- a cameraman, Joe something I think -- said, "Mr. Dressler's not going to like this."
Alfred Dressler was the studio hack who'd been hired to direct One Night in Transylvania
. He showed no signs of talent in that field -- unfortunately -- but he was a fairly nice guy who seemed at least vaguely aware of his limitations. He might not like it, but he wouldn’t be throwing any temper tantrums.
Joe ran off, presumably to find Dressler. The crowd behind us was growing bigger, as though we were about to reenact A Night at the Opera's stateroom scene.
Groucho decided to seize control of the situation. "Welcome," he said, turning around. "Welcome one and all to Groucho's all-night Pastrami and Dead Body Emporium. Admission only fifty dollars. You--" he said to the nearest person, one of the vampire extras for the graveyard scene. "Can I see the color of your money, please?"
"I'm not paying," the man said.
"Well, then, you can't be here. As for the rest of you deadbeats, clear off. If off objects, clear out. If that doesn't work, clear on. But these are new shoes and I have no desire to use them trampling all over a crime scene."
"In case Groucho's meaning wasn't clear," I said, "Everyone take a few steps back."
"What about the two of you?"
"We got here first," Groucho said. "Now, come, Rollo. Let's take a look at the scene before the police show up and ruin everything in their inimitable way."
As the crowd grumbling moved away from the door, I looked over the room again. The room, in fact, looked too normal. "Look at the rest of the room," I said.
"Yes, I saw that too," he said. "Nothing much else out of place. Certainly it doesn't look like someone was fighting for his life here. Also notice the two glasses on the table and the bottle of champagne." He bent over to take a closer look, not wanting to disturb the rest of the room. "Not a bad vintage, either."
"I don't think the police would be too happy if you stole it," I said.
"Steal it? Heaven forfend, I would never think of doing a thing like that. Okay, I'd think of it, but I wouldn't do it. Okay, I'd do it, but I wouldn't tell anyone."
I looked at him. "Are you thinking of investigating this?"
"We've proven successful in the past, haven't we?"
"Yes, but I promised Jane I wouldn't get hit in the head while she was away on tour. Trying to solve a crime with you always ends up with me getting hit in the head."
"Just think how much it would bother you if they hit a vital organ," he said. "Come, the game is afoot! The game's car broke down and it can't afford a bus pass."
Right then, a man in a security uniform showed up. I didn't recognize him, but I hadn't been around long enough to recognize every guard on the lot.
Groucho didn't seem to recognize him either. "And who might you be, my good man?"
"You called for security --" the man said, looking into the room. "And I can see why." He looked down at Mr. Williams' throat. "Oh, shit," he said. There was something in the way he said it that made me sure he wasn't just cursing his bad luck or sympathizing with Victor Williams' gruesome demise.
"What were you expecting?" Groucho said.
"I'm not sure," the man said tentatively. "Marian wasn't too clear."
"Hmmf. And I thought she was he kind of girl men could see right through."
"That's right," the guard said. "You're Groucho Marx."
"That's what my publicist keeps telling people. I may sue him for slander," Groucho said.
“It was hard to recognize you without your mustache.”
“What?’ Groucho said. “Rollo, why didn’t you tell me my mustache was gone? I knew I should have matched that offer from Clark Gable. Still, I can’t blame it for wanting to move up in the world Anyway, I suppose the local constabulary will need to be notified about Mr. Williams’ death.”
"I‘ll go do that in a minute," the guard said. "You didn't touch anything, did you?"
"Sadly," I said, "We have been at crime scenes before. We know not to do anything to mess it up until the cops take a look."
"Or at least to make sure there aren't any witnesses while we ransack the joint," Groucho said. "Say, I don't think I've seen you around these parts before."
"Yeah; I'm kind of new," the guard said. "Also, I only work nights."
"So did King Arthur and look where that got him."
The man chuckled. "Nice to meet the both of you. My name's Angel."