Karl Marx Is Not My Brother! (The Marx Brothers)
It didn’t matter if it was a “Day at the Races” or a “Night at the Opera,” in any case, we go coconuts over the silver screen antics of the madcap Brothers Marx. It was the Golden Age of screen comedy that burst forth from the vortex of vaudeville, and from that slapstick tsunami the world was witness to a revolution of entertainment. The revolt took place in the movie theatre seats, bringing laughter to the streets by such early pioneers as Laurel and Hardy, The Three Stooges, The Little Rascals and most notably five innovative brothers from New York who went from the vaudeville stage to Hollywood and into pop culture history. The Comedic Bolsheviks were at the palace gates and the walls of “predictable comedy” came tumbling down.
The Marx Mom was born in Germany in 1864, and by 1880 had sailed to the United States. It’s interesting to note that the brother of Mother Marx worked in early vaudeville as a comedian named Al Sheen. Her grandfather worked as a ventriloquist, and Grandma Fanny played the harp..a portend of a protege to come with curly hair and a horn
Mother Marx (before Marx) met Sam Marx in a dance hall, and love swirled in the air as they twirled on the floor. What I found of interest is that Sam’s last name was Marrix, but, as was the custom in those days, had it changed. He chose “Marx” to sound more German in an effort to ease the process of finding employment. Why you would choose to pick the name of the founder of Marxist/Communist philosophy to get a job is a mystery to me, but in reality, Karl was not Groucho’s brother!
The first little Marx, Manfred died before the age of three, but, in quick succession came Leonard/Chico (1887), Arthur/Harpo (1888) Julius/Groucho (1890), Milton/Gummo (1892) and Herbert/Zeppo (1901) A quick aside and I promise we’ll return to our show. Harpo was born and named Adolph, but changed to Arthur as WWI was looming on the world stage and now being German wasn’t so fashionable,.even though Adolph Hitler was not yet a concentration camp household word playing to sold out captive crowds. Harpo was now..Arthur.
As the boys grew older, Mother Marx, the perennial stage mom with theatre running in her veins like a hot heroin fix in a junkie, used her family contacts to get the boys gigs. Chico, a highly accomplished pianist got gigs playing to drinking crowds in pubs, while Groucho was a boy soprano with the voice of a songbird.
The Brothers soon formed a family act and the first known performance in classic Marx style was called “Fun in Hi Skule” that was performed on stage in 1912, the year the Titanic sank, but, in the case of the good ship Marx the course was set for success as the low road of showbiz led to the high road of Broadway with a show called “Coconuts” which also became their first film. By the early Twenties, brother Gummo left the stage act and was replaced by Zeppo. (I promised myself at this point to not make any Led Zeppo jokes here!)
Their film career was meteoric, and films such as The Cocoanuts, Animal Crackers and A Night at the Opera were all stage shows that they were appearing in prior to filming, so they had an advantage over other actors/comedians on screen, in that they could field test before a live audience on a nightly basis the jokes, puns and in the process perfect the comedic timing before the camera’s rolled. The vaudeville stage was soon left behind, and starting in 1929 it was Hooray for Hollywood. Zeppo, who had replaced Gummo in 1917 (Gummo was drafted into military service during WWI) left the film biz after Duck Soup in 1933, leaving the remaining Marx Trio, Groucho, Harpo and Chico on their own to garner fame, fortune and worldwide acclaim.
The years 1929 to 1949 were just ducky for the Marx Brothers. They made thirteen films, all comedy classics in that period that turned out to be lucky 13 for the viewing public. The films were ripe with typical Marx schtick and ad lib’s, but, one aspect that became a highlight of some of them, were the exchanges and Groucho leers when he was in a scene with Margaret Dumont. She was a catalyst and perfect “goil foil” for Groucho, and played her role to the hilt as the haughty socialite with such comedic style that in later years, Groucho would refer to her as the Fifth Marx Brother.
Dumont was born Daisy Juliette Baker in Brooklyn (1882) and trained as an operatic singer and actress. Her voice graced stages in the United States and the United Kingdom, bu it was her comedy work in Marx films that have carved her name on the pop culture pedestal. She first appeared with them on Broadway in the stage production of Cocoanuts in 1925, and in Animal Crackers on stage in 1928. By 1929 she debuted with the Mad Marxmen in the filmed version of Cocoanuts and it, and she were an instant hit.
Dumont worked the room and wowed the crowds in Cocoanuts, Animal Crackers, Duck Soup, A Night at the Opera, A Day At The Circus and the Big Store (My favorite) but, it was her work in A Day at the Races that garnered her the Best Supporting Actress Award. One film critic wrote that there should be a monument erected to honor her for her courage in dealing with and handling all the Marx Brothers could throw at her in the films. She died of a heart attack in 1965 at the age of 82.
Is there a lawyer in the house? “A Night in Casablanca” created a litigation war between Warner Brothers Studios and the Marx Brothers. Warners accused the Marx Brothers of infringing on Warner’s rights to the title of “Casablanca” that starred Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman. The Marx version was a parody of that classic film and nothing like the original. Groucho threatened a countersuit accusing Warner Brothers of infringing on the word “Brothers” in their studio name, claiming the Marx Brothers were legally Marx Brothers long before there was a Warner Brothers. He also threatened to sue over Warners film title, “Night and Day” claiming they stole the title from two Marx films, NIGHT at the Opera and DAY at the Races. Groucho used this litigation and threat to drum up free publicity for the Marx version of “Casablanca” and public sentiment was with the Marx Brothers and not with the studio giant. The Warners suit was soon dropped proving that…you don’t fuck with Groucho!
By 1949, Chico and Harpo retired, but, Groucho’s career was still in high gear. He was asked to host a radio game show, which he was reluctant to do at first thinking that “game shows” were a passing fad. The producers secured advertising for it and offered a pretty hefty salary so Groucho said in Groucho style, “what the hell” Once the show hit the radio airwaves, it was scoring in the ratings range that radio had never seen even in it’s heyday. The show eventually made it to television with the radio version still on the air. At it’s rating height it was listened to and viewed by over 28,000,000 Americans each and every week, making the shows sponsor, DeSota a happy advertising camper indeed. The show would have two guests at a time and Groucho would ask them a series a questions to build their winnings bank, and whichever couple had the most cash in the bank by the end of the show came back to play for the jackpot.
The best part of the show was the preliminary segment prior to the actual game. Groucho would interview the couple, ad libbing with double entendre and sexual innuendo, especially if one of the contestants were in her 20’s and buxom. The his facial expressions with fluttering eyebrows and cigar in mouth going up and down like a sexual teeter totter brought gales of laughter and it was classic Groucho. One other aspect of the show was the “secret word” that if uttered by one of the contestants, a “duck” with Groucho glasses and moustache would drop from the ceiling and each contestant would receive $50. One critic wrote regarding Groucho as a game show host, “That’s like hauling coal in a Cadillac!”
The Marx Brothers had always been in the vanguard of civil rights. Being Jewish, they had experienced racism in the form of anti-Semitism many times in their lives. Groucho, as an ardent and outspoken champion of civil rights had fought, and won over network objections, to have African American and Hispanic guests on his show, a first for the late 1940’s and early 1950’s. Private country clubs in those days banned Jews and Negro’s from joining so when one country club offered Groucho, due to his fame a membership, he declined, stating, “I would never join a club that would have ME as a member!”
America in the Cold War Fifties would have you believe that there was a Communist in every studio and a Red under every bed, and many in Hollywood were accused of having Communist sympathies and ties to Red organizations, (Even Eleanor Roosevelt, our first and only Female President was accused!)
It wasn’t long before Groucho was in their sights, and was brought into the House Un-American Activities Committee to testify, which he refused. His stance on civil rights and his Jewish background, not to mention he was “Hollywood” probably had much to do with this investigation. Now, the US government not being the brightest bulb in the marquee probably thought Karl Marx WAS a Marx brother! He was also critical of American politics and leaders. Groucho had plenty of Hollywood friends such as Lucille Ball and many others that the FBI also targeted as Reds, so it was inevitable that Captain Spaulding would eventually come under fire.
Of all the Marx Brothers, Zeppo was the fighter and in his youth ran with a tough crowd and if there was a honorary member of the Dead End Kids it would have to be Zeppo. As a part of the act he was the romantic lead, but not having a comedic “hook” he always felt he was in the shadows of the stage curtain while the spotlight was shining brightly on the brothers. He was also a tinkerer with mechanical devices and worked after showbusiness growing grapefruits, a commercial fisherman and for awhile ran a theatrical agency with his brother
Gummo. Zeppo married Barbara Blakeley in the 1950’s. A Missourian raised in Kansas, she was beautiful and that beauty led to showbiz and a career as a showgirl and model. She was one of Mr. Blackwell’s famous models and it wasn’t long before she met Zeppo in Vegas and they eventually got married. They divorced in 1973, and started dating Frank Sinatra who eventually proposed, popped the question and she became Mrs. Blue Eyes. in 1976. Zeppo died of lung cancer in 1979 at the age of 78 and was the last Marx man standing at the time.
After the Marx Brothers act broke up Chico continued with his gambling habit and the amounts he owed were adding up. To help pay off his debts as he had spent all his past earnings gambling, he continued as an old man playing the small venues on the old circuit. He died in 1961 from heart disease. At his funeral one gent got up and gave a eulogy appropriate for a God or an Egyptian pharaoh many considered way over the top. In his memoirs Harpo said he leaned over to his wife and said, “When I die, hire a mime!”
Harpo never spoke in any Marx Brothers film, but it was the vaudeville act that developed his silent persona. He was going for the laughs one night on stage and doing his exaggerated hand gestures. The jokes bombed and one critic wrote “a beautiful pantomime was only ruined when he opened his mouth to speak” so Harpo took the cue and decided there were more laughs in silence than speaking. In retirement he wrote and was also made a member of the famed Algonquin Club. Harpo died in 1964.
Gummo, had quit the act before Broadway fame and fortune. He was also the one who first appeared on stage in his uncles ventriloquist act. He had joined the army and after the war went into business selling dresses and then ran a talent agency. He managed the other brothers as a client and in the process, made a small fortune, and not in coconuts either. Gummo passed away in 1977 in Palm Springs from a cerebral hemorrhage after suffering two strokes. Groucho who was also dying a the same time was not told of his brothers passing as it would have caused even greater stress to his illness. Groucho died four months later.
There will never be another act like the Marx Brothers as a group or as individuals. Groucho has been imitated and idolized my many, including the character Hawkeye Pierce on M.A.S.H. His comedic genius, rapid fire wit and balls in the face of persecution by the American government for his stance on civil and human rights only makes him larger in my eyes. And somewhere in Cocoanuts Heaven I can imagine Groucho sitting have an FBI agent as a guest on You Bet Your Afterlife, and saying, “I could never join the communist party. I would never join a political party that would have me as a member and besides, Karl Marx was not my brother!