[To read prior entries in this essay, click 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7]
The MGM Years And Beyond
Their association with Paramount Pictures at an end, the Marx Brothers found themselves without a steady gig for the first time since vaudeville impresario E.F. Albee had blackballed them from the circuit over a decade before. Harpo traveled to the Soviet Union to commemorate the normalization of U.S.-Soviet relations, Groucho performed in a repertory production of Twentieth Century in Maine, and both Groucho and Chico starred briefly in a radio program called The Marx Of Time sponsored by American Oil.
In the meantime, the Brothers (minus Zeppo, who officially left the act in March 1934 to form a talent agency) approached Samuel Goldwyn seeking a new film deal. Goldwyn wasn't interested, but suggested the Brothers try Irving Thalberg, the boy wonder producer who had enjoyed such success at MGM. Tired of life under Louis B. Mayer's thumb, Thalberg was looking to sign talent to personal contracts with the idea of forming his own studio.
Chico made the initial approach to Thalberg over a game of bridge. Groucho described the subsequent meeting in his autobiography, Groucho and Me:
Thalberg said, "I would like to make some pictures with you fellows. I mean real pictures."
I flared up. "What's the matter with Cocoanuts, Animal Crackers and Duck Soup? Are you going to sit there and tell me those weren't funny?"
"Of course they were funny," he said, "but they weren't movies. They weren't about anything."
"People laughed, didn't they?" asked Harpo. "Duck Soup has as many laughs as any comedy ever made, including Chaplin's."
"That's true," he agreed, "it was a very funny picture, but you don't need that many laughs in a movie. I'll make a picture with you fellows with half as many laughs—but I'll put a legitimate story in it and I'll bet it will gross twice as much as Duck Soup."
The result was A Night At The Opera, and Thalberg was right, it and its follow-up, A Day At The Races were smash hits, reestablishing the Marx Brothers as Hollywood's top comedy act. The former is preserved in the National Film Registry and ranked twelfth on the American Film Institute's list of the best American comedies of the 20th century. The latter received the only Oscar nomination in Marx Brothers history, in the short-lived category of dance direction. (I'll write more about A Night At The Opera when we reach 1935.)
Depending on your take, Thalberg either polished the Marx Brothers or neutered them—perhaps both. What can't be argued is that he rescued them from an early retirement and pointed them in a direction that kept them in the public eye for another decade, long enough for Groucho to land a television show and assure his role as a beloved icon, a role he relished and used as a platform to promote the Marx Brothers' films to a new generation of film fans. Perhaps audiences in the 1960s would have rediscovered their Paramount movies anyway, but the success of A Night At The Opera and A Day At The Races certainly helped.
In any event, the Brothers adored Thalberg and showed it in their usual inimitable style—they barricaded themselves in his empty office, stripped naked and roasted potatoes in his fireplace. When Thalberg returned, he sent out for butter and joined the Brothers for a light repast.
After Thalberg's death in 1937, MGM lost interest in the act. A self-consciously glossy and high-toned studio, MGM's brass didn't know what to make of the Marx Brothers and put them in vehicles that didn't always suit their talents. First, the studio loaned the Brothers to RKO for Room Service, the first Marx Brothers movie based on a non-Marx Brothers stage play. Zeppo negotiated the deal, securing $250,000, a nice payday, but the movie was not a success and afterwards Groucho said only that Zeppo should have asked for more money.
Afterwards, the Brothers made three more pictures for MGM—At The Circus, Go West and The Big Store—with diminishing results, then retired from movies altogether. Five years later when gangsters threatened Chico's life over a gambling debt, the Brothers abruptly unretired and made A Night In Casablanca. Perhaps the best film the Brothers made after Thalberg's death, A Night In Casablanca is remembered now primarily for a series of letters between Groucho Marx and Warner Brothers, with the latter (as makers of the classic film Casablanca) objecting to the use of the word "Casablanca" in the title of the film.
"You claim you own Casablanca," Groucho wrote in response, "and that no one else can use that name without your permission. What about 'Warner Brothers'? Do you own that, too? You probably have the right to use the name Warner, but what about Brothers? Professionally, we were brothers long before you were."
Of the Brothers' last movie as a team, Love Happy, the less said the better. Remembered now for Marilyn Monroe's brief appearance, the film began as a vehicle for Harpo who wanted to film a Chaplinesque pantomime. Chico was added early in the process, again to fuel his gambling addiction, and Groucho was dragooned into filming a few scenes so that the studio could bill Love Happy as a Marx Brothers film. (The Brothers also appeared in the 1957 film The Story of Mankind, but had no scenes together.)
After their film careers ended, only Groucho found real success, hosting a popular game show, You Bet Your Life, from 1950 to 1961. Although there were contestants, games and prizes, the real point of the show was Groucho's banter and he was very good at it. The show was nominated for an Emmy six times, and Groucho himself won the award in 1951 as "Most Outstanding Personality." He also made half a dozen movies without his brothers, including Copacabana, Double Dynamite and Skidoo (playing God in the latter).
The Marx Brothers never won a competitive Oscar—indeed, were never even nominated—but in 1974, the Academy finally recognized Groucho with a honorary award "In recognition of his brilliant creativity and for the unequaled achievements of the Marx Brothers in the art of motion picture comedy."
"I wish Harpo and Chico could be here to share it with me," he said.
In 1999, the AFI listed the Marx Brothers as one of the fifty greatest stars in the history of American cinema, the only group so honored.
Postscript: And that's all I'm writing about the Marx Brothers—well, this week anyway. After 12,000 words, I need a little break. I'll return next week with a post entitled "Who Says A Movie Can't Change Your Life?" then follow it with the nominees for best actor of 1932-33 in the category of drama.