Friday, February 25, 2011

The Zeppo Chronicles

Born on February 25, 1901, Herbert Manfred Marx—better known as "Zeppo"—was the youngest of six brothers and along with Leonard, Adolph and Julius Henry—Chico, Harpo and Groucho to the rest of us—made up the greatest comedy team in movie history, the Marx Brothers.

Zeppo's father Sam was a tailor, but his mother Minnie had show business in her blood and she pushed her sons onto the stage at an early age. More than a decade junior to his older brothers, the Marx Brothers were already an established vaudeville act before Zeppo joined the group, and he might not have entered show business at all but for the fact that his brother Milton (a.k.a. "Gummo") joined the army during World War I.

Perhaps because he joined the act so late, Zeppo never really established a strong stage presence and mostly wound up playing the straight man to his brothers. He also sang and when the occasion demanded played the male half of a romantic subplot, but mostly writers didn't know what to do with him and he was shunted the far corners of the action. Nevertheless, Zeppo was around for the Marx Brothers' Broadway successes and their first five movies, made at Paramount Studios.

Zeppo's best roles were in the movies Monkey Business and Horse Feathers. For the former, the Brothers finally hit on the rather obvious idea of letting Zeppo handle the chores of wooing the obligatory girl in their musical comedy routines. I can't say he's great as he chases the girl (Ruth Hall), but he's better than either Oscar Shaw or Hal Thompson who performed the same thankless chores in The Cocoanuts and Animal Crackers, respectively.

In Horse Feathers, he played Groucho's son, a college student for twelve years and running, "a disgrace to our family name of Wagstaff," Groucho complains, "if such a thing is possible." Zeppo involves his dad in a plot to hire ringers for the big game against rival Darwin. He also sings and woos the "college widow," played by Thelma Todd.

I have heard tell that Zeppo was actually a very funny guy and that from time to time he successfully understudied for Groucho, but the fact that the Brothers let writers such as George S. Kaufman (The Cocoanuts and Animal Crackers) stand Zeppo in the corner without protest leads me to believe that either he was never that integral to the act or that he was already tired of performing and was looking forward to the day when he could work behind the scenes.

Once again relegated to a nearly non- existent role in Duck Soup, Zeppo left the act in 1933 to become a theatrical agent. A mechanical whiz, Zeppo also invented a watch to monitor the pulse rate of cardiac patients and founded Marman Products Co., which designed and manufactured, among other things, the Marman Twin motorcycle, and the Marman clamp which held the atomic bomb inside the B-29 used on the U.S. raid on Nagasaki.

Zeppo played one last role with the Marx Brothers in 1938, this time behind the scenes when he negotiated a deal with RKO Pictures for his brothers' services in a movie version of the hit Broadway play Room Service. Zeppo secured $250,000 for the act, a nice payday, but the movie was not a success and afterwards Groucho said only that Zeppo should have asked for more money.

The last surviving Marx Brother, Zeppo died in 1979.

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