Saturday, October 2, 2010

Happy Birthday, Groucho Marx

I've been writing about him for six weeks. Might as well wish him a happy 120th birthday while I'm at it.

For those of you who didn't want to wade through the eight-part, 12,000 word essay about Groucho and his brothers, here's the nutshell version (the rest of you can safely skip it—but you might like the pictures):

Born in New York to Jewish immigrants Sam "Frenchy" Marx and Minnie nee Minna Schönberg, Leonard, Adolph, Julius Henry, Milton and Herbert Manfred—better known to the world as Chico, Harpo, Groucho, Gummo and Zeppo—the Marx Brothers first hit the vaudeville circuit as singer/musicians but quickly found their niche as masters of a unique brand of quick-witted improvisational comedy that bordered on anarchy.

On stage and in the movies, Chico played an Italian immigrant (he copied the accent from his barber) whose fractured English was the source of many jokes. He also played the con man on stage, alternately sharp or dim depending on whether he was conning brother Groucho or someone else. In real life, he was also a compulsive gambler and womanizer who stuck with the act mostly to make enough money to gamble and chase women.

Chico's on-stage accomplice in crime, Harpo was the pure id of the act, a hyperactive puppy, as innocent as a child, as easily distracted and just as destructive. Although Harpo was a scene-stealing machine who would wreak havoc whenever he was on stage, off stage he was a gentle man with a serious passion for the harp, an instrument he worked hard to master and he admitted later that those moments playing the harp are when you see the real man.

"Harpo was the solid man in the family," Groucho said. "He inherited all my mother's good qualities—kindness, understanding, and friendliness. I inherited what was left."

Groucho served to bridge the gap between the audience and his brothers. Where Chico and Harpo were usually off in their own worlds, motivated by impulses clear only to themselves (and often not even then), Groucho played recognizable members of society—teachers, lawyers, hotel owners, even petty dictators—who wanted the sorts of things the audience wanted, in Groucho's case, sex and money. Yet paradoxically, while acknowledging the world around him in ways his brothers rarely did, Groucho was the most hostile to the existing order, and he used his lacerating wit to keep the world—and the audience—at arm's length.

"I do not care to belong to a club," he famously wrote to the Friar's of Los Angeles, "that accepts people like me as members."

As for Gummo and Zeppo, neither developed stage characters as well defined as their brothers. Gummo was a quiet man with a childhood stammer and was never much interested in performing; he left the act in 1917 to join the army and never appeared in a movie with his brothers. Zeppo replaced him, but being so much younger than his brothers and coming so late to such a well-established act, wound up as something of an afterthought, usually singing and sometimes playing the lead in a romantic subplot. In 1934, he also left the act.

After nearly twenty years of honing their act in vaudeville venues all over the country, the Brothers finally broke into "legitimate" Broadway theater in May 1924 with the musical comedy I'll Say She Is! A blend of standard song-and-dance numbers and the Marx Brothers biting comedy, the play was an immediate sensation. The Brothers followed up a year later with an even more successful musical, The Cocoanuts. inspired by a speculative land boom then underway in Florida, The Cocoanuts was written by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright George S. Kaufman and featured a song score by Irving Berlin, but primarily it proved to be another winning vehicle for some of the Brothers' best improvisational gags.

Such success quickly came to the attention of Paramount Pictures producer Adolph Zukor of who initially balked at the Brothers' asking price of $75,000, then wound up offering $100,000 after dinner with the always eloquent Chico Marx. The Brothers filmed a movie version of The Cocoanuts in New York even while performing their next play, Animal Crackers, on Broadway in the evening. Premiering just two years after Al Jolson had first spoken in a motion picture, The Cocoanuts was a smash hit at the box office.

The follow-up movie, Animal Crackers, was an even bigger hit and features the most quoted routines of Groucho's career.

"One morning I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got in my pajamas, I don't know."

In 1931, with no Broadway commitment to keep them in New York, the Marx Brothers moved to Hollywood where they filmed their third movie, Monkey Business. Even for a Marx Brothers' movie, the story is tissue thin—four stowaways wreak havoc on an ocean liner, meet a couple of gangsters, go to work for them and wind up thwarting a kidnapping plot—but the first forty-five minutes of Monkey Business are as good as anything the Brothers ever did, sagging only once the Brothers leave their shipboard setting.

The idea of placing the Brothers in an academic setting for their fourth film, Horse Feathers, was an old one—twenty years before, Groucho had played a teacher to Gummo's and Harpo's students in the vaudeville show Fun In Hi Skule—and a team of writers led by ex-collegian S.J. Perelman set to work a script before Monkey Business was even in theaters.

Here, Groucho plays Professor Wagstaff, the newly-appointed president of Huxley College. The school's in trouble—it's been neglecting football for education, or possibly the other way around—and at the urging of his son (Zeppo), Wagstaff sets out to get better football players, starting with the two who hang around a local speakeasy. Of course, he confuses Harpo and Chico for the star players, who proceed to turn Huxley College into chaos. Along the way, the Brothers butt heads with a gambler who's put his money on the opposing team, Harpo and Chico try to kidnap Darwin's star players only to get themselves kidnapped instead and everybody serenades the college widow with variations on "Everyone Says I Love You," but the real point of the movie is to serenade the audience with hilariously shameless wordplay and anti-social anarchy.

Randy Williams, writing for ESPN in 2008, ranked the film's finale as "the greatest scene in football movie history."

Their fifth film, delayed for nine months by a contract dispute with Paramount, proved to be the best of the Marx Brothers' career.

Duck Soup is the story of a nation in crisis: its economy in a shambles and on the verge of war, Freedonia is desperate for a savior and riding to the rescue is that fearless man of the people, Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho). The film features some of the funniest and most famous scenes in the Marx Brothers canon. Many factors are responsible for Duck Soup's greatness, but primary among them are the performances of Groucho, Chico and Harpo themselves. Groucho, of course, was already without peer in terms of comic timing, and Harpo, though not quite as anarchic as in previous movies, is tighter here, with his antics leading directly to two of the movie's best moments—the mirror scene and Chico's trial for treason. And Chico, whose role had been limited largely to malapropisms, piano solos and translating for the silent Harpo, led entire sequences—the meeting with Louis Calhern, the peanut vendor scenes with Edgar Kennedy, the scene in Margaret Dumont's bedroom, and the trial for treason—showcasing a comic talent the equal of his brothers.

In terms of box office, Duck Soup wasn't quite the flop of legend, turning a profit, but nevertheless grossing less than any of its predecessors. Of course, Duck Soup's reputation as a masterpiece is now secure, consistently ranking as one of the greatest comedies ever made.

Soon after Duck Soup's premiere, the Marx Brothers and Paramount parted company. The Brothers signed with Irving Thalberg at MGM and made two of their best movies, A Night At The Opera and A Day At The Races, but after Thalberg's death in 1937, never again hit those heights. Groucho went on to success on television and the Marx Brothers experienced a revival of interest in their films in the 1960s.

In 1974, the Academy finally acknow- ledged Groucho with a honorary award "In recog- nition 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.

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