It was playing vaudeville where Groucho, born Julius Henry Marx, started. Born in 1890 in New York City’s Upper East Side, Julius was the third of five Marx brothers (yes, the Marx Brothers are all actually brothers, including Zeppo and Gummo). Mother Minnie got the boys started in show business early, getting oldest brother Leonardo (known as Chico because he loved women) piano lessons and Adolph (later to become wisely known as Arthur, and to eventually become legendary as Harpo) harpsichord lessons. Julius’ early talent was a beautiful singing voice and Minnie packaged him along with Arthur, younger brother Milton (Gummo) and another boy named Lou Levy as The Four Nightingales. They toured the country singing popular tunes, but found the life exhausting and difficult.
The brothers were natural mischief makers, but were discouraged from bringing any of their wit and playfulness on stage. They were just to be clean young Nightingales, crooning to the audience. But a runaway mule in Nacogdoches, Texas changed their lives forever. During a performance the audience began getting agitated, and then leaving, excited by the news of a mule run amok in the town. As the boys lost the crowd they couldn’t help but begin cracking wise at the punters in the seat. According to Stefan Kafner’s Groucho: The Life and Times of Julius Henry Marx, it was here that the Groucho we have come to know first appeared on stage.
Julius started with some extemporaneous poetry: “Nacogdoches/Is full of roaches” and “The jackass/Is the finest flower of Tex-ass.” At first the brothers thought the crowd would kill them, but the audience soon roared with laughter. Excited by what they had done the boys returned from tour and tried to get Minnie, who managed them and booked their shows, to change the act. They wanted to do comedy.
[caption id=“attachment_7356” align=“aligncenter” width=“568” caption=“Groucho, Gummo, Minnie, Zeppo, Frenchy, Chico and Harpo in 1915.”]
Minnie wouldn’t hear of it. She moved the whole family to a farm in Illinois, aiming to get closer to a number of vaudeville circuits that used Chicago as their central hub. She knew that the singing boys thing was over, and it was time to move the act forward. So the Four Nightingales became the Six Mascots; Groucho, Harpo and Gummo remained but Lou Levy was replaced and two female dancers were added. And off they went.
Touring the vaudeville circuit didn’t leave Julius much time for school, but he was a voracious reader. While Chico was all about gambling and womanizing, Groucho was happiest with a book in his lap (although he did his fair share of lady chasing as well, and ended up with an STD on the road).
But the Six Mascots didn’t last long, and eventually the act morphed into The Three Marx Bros & Co. And finally the humor began to enter the equation. They did a show called Fun in Hi Skool that saw Groucho as the teacher and Harpo as a goofy Irish student; here Arthur would first don a red wig (which would eventually read as blonde in their black and white movies). They did some original material (bought from comedy writers) and sang parodies of popular songs of the day. During this period Chico was perfecting the Italian immigrant persona he would keep forever; Groucho barely missed out on being forever saddled with a German accent. His teacher character was a German, but after the sinking of the Lusitania, anti-German sentiment convinced Julius to come up with a new style.
The Three Marx Brothers began experimenting with ad libs on stage; cracking each other up was as important as making the audience laugh. But while the act continued touring it felt incomplete. One night the final piece fell into place - Julius looked over the house lights to find Leonard (Chico) playing piano with the house band. Arthur began throwing fruit at his brother, who returned the missiles. Anarchy descended. The Four Marx Brothers were born.
And it was here that the Marx Brothers as we know them came into being. The personas they would make famous formed in those years. After the German school teacher Groucho began wearing a grease paint mustache (because he was sick of what the adhesive of a fake mustache was doing to his face) and walking with a stoop. His stage patter came fast and furious. Chico’s Italian schtick had been created to defend himself from street toughs looking to beat up Jews, but became his character. Harpo’s clowning took shape in silence punctuated only by the blast of a taxi horn. Zeppo, meanwhile, morphed into the straight man of the group despite being considered by the family the funniest Marx. He could also imitate the brother’s characters so perfectly that he would be their understudies when the Marx Brothers hit Broadway. And Gummo was out; World War I hit and he was drafted. Suffering stage fright, he famously said ‘It’s better than being an actor.’
On the road Groucho came to know many of the greatest talents of the early 20th century. He hung out with Chaplin, who was perfecting his Tramp persona. He became friends with the poet Carl Sanburg. He played softball with Will Rogers. But life on the road wore Julius down; he was particularly annoyed at how poorly traveling showfolk were treated. He was sick of the dingy conditions in which they lived on the road. He longed to settle down. So he got married at age 29 to Ruth, a chorus girl. The justice of the peace who married them said they were getting into ‘holy matrimony,’ to which Groucho cracked ‘It may be holy to you, judge, but we have other ideas.’ She was the first of Groucho’s three wives.
More importantly that same year, 1921, Groucho appeared in his first film, a silent called Humorisk (or perhaps Humor Risk). No one has ever seen the film; financed mostly by the Marx Brothers themselves it was apparently either a test reel or a disaster that was never released. It appears to have been a parody of melodramas (with the title directly taking aiming at the film hit Humoresque), with Harpo as the romantic lead. Groucho played the villain and was led off in chains at the end. Groucho himself has said the film didn’t make a lick of sense and was only an attempt to be funny. When that failed they burned the negatives.
The brothers recovered quickly and turned their attention back to the stage. Chico had taken over some of the managerial tasks from Minnie and got them working in New York City for a blockbuster 60 weeks, including a stint at the Palace Theater, then considered the top of the heap for show business. From there they set their sights on Broadway.
The first show the Marx Brothers did was a revue called I’ll Say She Is; it began life as a vaudeville show but moved to Broadway. It was the last time the brothers would be billed under their own names (they had continued to use their real names in credits until someone heard them calling each other by their nicknames back stage and convinced them Groucho, Harpo and Chico beat Julius, Adolph and Leonard). I’ll Say She Is was mostly musical numbers loosely connected by the barest of plots. As a result the Marx Brothers themselves weren’t on stage for large amounts of the show. And while the show’s non-narrative nature meant it never became a film (as their next two Broadway shows would), bits of it ended up elsewhere. Most notably a courtroom scene was adapted for the classic trial in Duck Soup, while a bit where Groucho plays Napoleon was turned into a cartoon for a 1970 Rankin Bass TV special called Those Mad, Mad Comedians (which I can’t find online - if you have a link, please share!).
Things were looking up. The Marx Brothers had money, and Groucho invested his in Far Rockaway bungalows, earning rent. He had two children with Ruth but the marriage was troubled; she liked to party and he’d prefer sitting at home reading a book. He also began writing, and his humor pieces were published in the local papers and the brand new New Yorker. In fact the New Yorker would see six pieces signed Julius H. Marx published in its first six weeks. Groucho was uneducated but brilliant, and he was beyond excited to find himself quoted in HL Mencken’s The American Language. But while Harpo hung with the legendary wits of the Algonquin Roundtable, Groucho never felt comfortable in that crowd. They called him ‘Harpo’s Bad Brother.’
He also started a feud with George Kaufman, who was the New York Times drama editor and an omnipresent force on Broadway for his entire life. The feud ended well, though, with Kaufman writing the next two Marx Brothers shows, The Cocoanuts and Animal Crackers - despite the fact that Kaufman found the idea of writing for the three baffling. “How can you write for Harpo?” he once said. “What do you put down on paper? All you can say is ‘Harpo enters’ and then he’s on his own.’
But Kaufman was perfect for the Marx Brothers, especially for Groucho, who worked closely with his writers molding material to his persona and style. The book was never solid in a Marx Brothers show, and the ad lib of one night might become the text of the next. “I may be wrong,” Kaufman once half-joked, “but I think I just heard one of the original lines.”
The Cocoanuts introduced the final, final piece of the Marx puzzle: Margaret Dumont. Groucho’s eternal comic foil, Dumont was hired for the Broadway show and came back for the next, Animal Crackers. And when the Marx Brothers picked up and moved to Hollywood, she came with them. She ended up in seven of (the best) Marx Brothers films, and is probably a candidate for the Badass Hall of Fame herself.
The Cocoanuts ran 377 performances and The Marx Brothers were the sensation of New York. They became especially famous for stopping the show to rag on famous members of the audience; one time film director King Vidor showed up in a disguise in an attempt to heckle the Brothers but they spotted him and tore him to pieces from the stage. Times were great, and the kids who had grown up in a New York City tenement moved to Great Neck, Long Island, real Great Gatsby country.
This was probably the most vibrant time in the Marx Brother’s professional careers. All we know of their work now is what was captured on film, but while on Broadway with The Cocoanuts and Animal Crackers they were anarchy personified, different every night and willfully trying to screw up the other actors. Margaret Irving, who played a high society dame in Animal Crackers, remembered the Brothers playing pranks on her like sewing shut all the openings on her costume, or having Harpo sneak under her huge hoop skirt without alerting her. A night at a Marx Brothers show was unpredictable, wild and insane. Anything would go, and anything did.
And while Animal Crackers was playing the brothers would work on turning The Cocoanuts into a film for Paramount. The advent of talkies meant that the show would be perfect for the new era, which Paramount was scrambling to catch up with. The film shot four days a week in Astoria, Queens, with Wednesdays off so the Brothers could do matinees of Animal Crackers. But it wasn’t the schedule that was most punishing for Groucho, it was the pushback he got from Hollywood types. There were two directors on the film, and one of them, Robert Florey, wanted Groucho to lose the obviously fake greasepaint mustache. A Paramount producer told Groucho to stop breaking the fourth wall. Groucho stood his ground.
The brothers were working the night the movie opened, and they ended up seeing a matinee. Groucho was mortified. He thought their film career was over, but it turned out that audiences and critics loved the film. While The Cocoanuts isn’t the best Marx Brothers film it has a certain charm. It’s incredibly stodgy, probably a byproduct of the new-fangled sound work, and it doesn’t have the energy that the Brothers would bring to the screen with Animal Crackers, but it was a start, and it cemented 1929 as a strong year for the brothers with a hit film and a hit Broadway show.
But 1929 would also be a tough year. When Animal Crackers finished on Broadway the Brothers prepared to take it on the road; just before they left Minnie suffered a stroke and died. A week after her funeral they were in Boston, playing the show. And then the stock market crash wiped Groucho out. “I was a wealthy man on the eighteenth hole of a golf course,” he later said. “By the time I got to the club house I was destitute.” It was especially bitter for Groucho that he, who had been so frugal, lost everything, leaving him in the same state as Chico, who had frittered away every dime he had ever made. At least the gambling, whoring brother had enjoyed his money.
The crash almost finished Groucho completely. The show was still touring, and he was adding all sorts of current events jabs into his dialog, but he was endlessly depressed. One night he refused to go on at all; Harry Ruby, who had co-written the show, threatened to play Captain Spaulding himself. That spurred Groucho into action. “You win,” he said. “No audience deserves to look at you for a whole evening.”
[caption id=“attachment_7360” align=“aligncenter” width=“500” caption=“Groucho and Margaret Dumont.”]
Next came the film of Animal Crackers. The Brothers had been nightmares on the set of The Cocoanuts, never coming to work on time and never rehearsing, so Paramount tried to crack down on them. There were exaggerated stories of a jail on set in which the Marx Brothers would be locked between takes (the reality, apparently, is that an unused jail cell set was put to work as a make-up room and lounge). The show was changed, with most of the musical numbers cut. Groucho at first protested, insisting that it was the back and forth between the music and comedy that made it work but when director Victor Heerman shot a reel of just comedy bits and played it to an audience - with great results - Groucho changed his mind.
Animal Crackers ended up being brilliant. This is the first movie where you get a true sense of what The Marx Brothers were and what they could do. Captain Spaulding is the first great Groucho film character, and many of his lines remain in the vernacular - ‘I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got in my pajamas I’ll never know’ - and the back and forth with Dumont is spectacular. What’s remarkable about Animal Crackers is what’s remarkable about the best Marx films - it’s mostly timeless. There are some gags of the moment that don’t quite translate (when Groucho steps aside and delivers hammily morose speeches he’s lampooning Eugene O’Neill’s Strange Interlude, a reference likely lost on modern audiences), but for the most part the comedy is very modern feeling.
By the time Animal Crackers came out the feeling was that the next step was Hollywood, and so Groucho and the rest of the brothers picked up and moved to California. Groucho’s first home in Los Angeles was at the famous Garden of Allah property, which stood down the block from what is today The Laugh Factory. As will happen in LA, it’s now a McDonald’s. Eventually he moved the family to a home without a pool; when daughter Miriam tried to swim at a health club that restricted Jews, Groucho famously wrote to them “But my daughter’s only half-Jewish. Can she go in up to her waist?”
The challenge for the newly California-ized Marx Brothers was that their first two films were adaptations of popular stage shows. What would be the third? Monkey Business was the answer, a new story (more or less a story) which found the brothers as stowaways on a ship who get tangled up with gangsters. Dumont was gone for this one, and the process of writing was long and painful (there’s a story about the writers, the legendary SJ Perelman and Will B. Johnstone asking about the ‘psychological motivations’ of Groucho, Chico and Harpo. Producer Herman J. Manciewicz replied ‘One of them is a guinea, another a mute who picks up spit and the third an old hebe with a cigar’). Groucho wasn’t happy with the picture as they filmed, especially when the ending changed from a big brewery set piece to a more cost-effective barn set piece.
Despite Groucho’s fears the film was a success, and they actually planned to sequelize it - until the Lindbergh baby kidnapping and murder changed the tone of Hollywood’s portrayal of gangsters. Instead they followed Monkey Business with Horse Feathers, a college comedy that leaned partially on gags from Fun in Hi Skool. While that film was being made Groucho and Chico went off to radio, but there they discovered the Marx Brothers weren’t indestructible. Flywheel, Shyster and Flywheel lasted only 26 episodes; Groucho played lawyer Waldorf T. Flywheel (originally Beagle, but a New York lawyer named Beagle sued) while Chico was his partner, Emmanuel Ravelli, the same character he had played in Animal Crackers.
Thought long lost the scripts for the show were discovered in the Library of Congress, while recordings of three episodes have turned up. The other 23 are probably gone. The BBC restaged the show in 1990, updating the scripts. The show ended up being successful enough for them to run three series.
Horse Feathers was a huge hit, being Paramount’s biggest film for the year, but Groucho, still reeling from the stock market crash, was nervous about coming back to the studio. He wanted to start their own company, Marx Bros, Inc. There was a lot of back and forth on the next picture - it had a number of different names, and at one point it was rumored that Ernst Lubitsch would direct - but eventually the Marx Bros came back to Paramount and made what would be their greatest film: Duck Soup.
At the time the greatness of the picture wasn’t obvious to everyone. There’s an urban legend that Duck Soup was a flop; it did well enough, coming in sixth for the year, but it was a disappointment compared to Horse Feathers. The film is probably the darkest the Brothers made, with much pointed political satire that still rings completely true to this day. Coming at the beginning of the Great Depression some of this may have been too much for audiences, who were looking for big fluffy spectacle.
Too bad for them. Working with Leo Carey, the man who had created Laurel and Hardy, the Marx Brothers hit their comic peak. Carey had a very visual style to his comedy, which was off-putting to the verbal Groucho, but when he came around to Carey’s ways it created some of his best moments on film. The movie’s scattershot aim at authority, patriotism, war and especially fascism put off some reviewers in the United States, but it really pissed off Mussolini, who banned it in Italy. In the 60s Duck Soup would reemerge as the highlight of the Marx Brothers’ career, just when Groucho himself became something of a counterculture icon.
But in 1934 things looked bad for everyone. Zeppo quit the Marx Brothers, sick of being the straight man. Groucho took his family off to Maine where he ended up doing some local theater and realizing that maybe he didn’t need his brothers at his side to get laughs. As Paramount considered dropping the team, it looked like the days of the Marx Brothers were over, and the Los Angeles Times was all but writing the act’s obituary.
Enter Irving Thalberg. MGM’s Boy Wonder turned his eyes to the Marx Brothers, telling them he wanted to work with them to make ‘real movies.’ The previous Marx films weren’t about anything, Thalberg said. “I’ll make a picture with you fellows with half as many laughs [as Duck Soup] - but I’ll put a legitimate story in it and I’ll bet it will gross twice as much.”
They took him up on it, but the marriage between MGM and the Marxes was uneasy. Thalberg was a busy man, and he would leave the Marx Brothers waiting on him as he conducted other business. One time he left them waiting too long in his office; when he returned he found them nude and roasting potatoes in his fireplace. He repeated that mistake another time and returned to find his office door barricaded from within.
Groucho hated the first script that came through and demanded George Kaufman back (along with co-writer Morrie Ryskind). They wrote the script, and joke writer Al Boasberg was hired to do a punch-up. His biggest contribution was the stateroom scene, which may be the most famous thing the Marx Brothers ever did. With the script in hand the Brothers decided that they needed to try it out, to see what audiences thought, so they took the show on the road, presenting ‘Select Scenes from A Night at the Opera.’
That tour didn’t make everything better; while the Marx Brothers had worked well with Leo Carey they clashed hard with director Sam Wood. “You can’t make actors out of clay!” Wood shouted, fed up with the Brothers’ shenanigans. “And you can’t make a director out of Wood,” Groucho retorted. Groucho hated the director, who not only had no comedy experience but whose hard right wing leanings chafed the liberal comedian. But Thalberg was right; changing the Marx formula brought success. The film sort of castrates the Marx Brothers, turning them from agents of nihilistic mayhem into guided missiles supporting the straight man, the incredibly bland Allen King, as he woos Kitty Carlisle. Still, the film contains some of the greatest Marx Brothers routines, and it remains referenced, homaged and stolen from with regularity.
Interestingly most of us have never seen the film as it was originally released. Apparently the opening sequence, with Italian citizens singing opera in the streets, was cut during World War II, when Italy was the enemy. Supposedly a longer cut of the film (still without the opening) was recently discovered in Hungary. Wikipedia claims that there’s an unedited cut floating around in Los Angeles, but that’s the first I’ve heard of it.
Next was A Day at the Races, which tried to ape the making of A Night at the Opera. As with that film the Marx Brothers took the material on the road before filming, honing it and testing it. But before production began Irving Thalberg died, and his brother-in-law took over as producer. Things weren’t the same, and the desire to replicate A Night at the Opera hurt the film. Still, Races has many great moments, including the Tootsie-Frootsie bit, and Groucho found such an affinity for Hugo Hackenbush (originally Quackenbush but changed when a real doctor of the same name was found) that he would often call himself by that name later in life. Still, this film is end of the essential Marx Brothers run, with everything else that follows only for completists.
Which meant, of course, that A Day at the Races was a massive hit. But as was usually the case with Groucho’s life, just as things got to be their best they also got very bad. His marriage was falling to pieces as Ruth started drinking too much; on a Hawaiian holiday intended to fix things up Groucho found her canoodling with a dance instructor. Groucho punched the guy out. Meanwhile, Chico and Groucho found themselves in court facing plagiarism charges about a skit they had done on the radio; the Marxes insisted that Al Boasberg had written the material and offered it to them, but Garret and Carroll Graham insisted they had written it. This is one of the problems with the system of the 30s - even on A Night at the Opera nobody knew who was coming in to write what material (supposedly Buster Keaton did some work on that film; he did work as a consultant at the studio and certainly gave advice on A Day at the Circus (which was ignored)), and it’s quite possible that Groucho and Chico thought the material was Boasberg’s. Rather than face a year in jail they paid their accusers.
Meanwhile, Zeppo had taken on managing the Brothers and he brought to them a new idea: they would adapt a play that had not been written for them. Room Service, a farce, was then offered to all the Hollywood studios in a bidding war. RKO won - but right afterwards Al Boasberg died, leaving Groucho unsure about the writing on the film.
At this time the Marxes were the toast of Hollywood, fresh off the success of A Day at the Races and the bidding war for Room Service. Groucho loved it, and he loved being the center of a group of writers, comedians and artists that he called The West Side Writing and Asthma Club. He continued to seek friendships with intellectuals and writers, but he always wanted to be the top dog in any situation. Famously he pissed off Charlie Chaplin playing tennis; while Chaplin took the game seriously Groucho hammed it up for photographers who had assembled. “I didn’t come here to be your straight man,” the Tramp hissed at him.
But that’s what everybody was to Groucho - a straight man. Later in life he observed that it was impossible for him to actually insult anyone because everyone took his insults as a joke. People would come up to Groucho literally asking him to insult them; at home he used the insults to nasty effect with Ruth, humiliating her in front of dinner guests.
Room Service was a weird one for the Marx Brothers. RKO had paid a lot of money for the rights to the play, so they didn’t want anyone messing with the script. The film is stale and stagey, probably most notable for an early appearance by Lucille Ball. But the movie doesn’t quite work, and while it wasn’t a disaster at the box office it was one of RKO’s lowest grossers. So the boys went back to MGM, where they owed two more movies.
Next was A Day at the Circus, a truly terrible idea for the Marx Brothers. As Kanfer notes the point of the comedy of the Marx Brothers was having them disrupt staid, respectful places - a university, the opera, a presidential palace. Putting them in a circus was completely redundant. The one highlight of the film ended up being Lydia, the Tattooed Lady, a song that Groucho would milk for years and years to come.
A Day at the Circus was hamstrung by many things, but chief among them was the fact that the material was done cold, without a road trial. The next film, Go West, had room to take the material on the circuit and try it out in front of real audiences. That could account for the slight uptick in the film, which still spends too much time trying to recapture A Night at the Opera‘s balance of love story and comedy (it always feels in these films like it’s too weighted to the love story). The most amusing thing about the film to me is learning years later that Groucho’s character name - S. Quentin Quale - is a play on San Quentin Quayle, a slang term of the time for an underage prostitute.
Things had cooled off quickly for the Marx Brothers. Groucho was making plans to retire; he spent time writing comedy pieces for magazines, and a book called Many Happy Returns, which poked fun at the IRS. Every day Groucho would walk his dog to Harpo’s house; the two brothers remained close. Chico less so; at one point Harpo and Groucho raced to Vegas after reading a headline that had their brother heart attack stricken in that city. It turned out Chico had faked the heart attack to get out of a contract.
Without enthusiasm the brothers came together for another film, The Big Store. Part of what drew them in may have been revealed in the marketing - The Big Store was sold as their final film. Groucho apparently had been getting sick of his persona and longed to leave it behind. The film itself turned out perfectly okay but not particularly amazing; there’s a great story about the making of it where the director, Charles Reisner, had cut a joke that kept showing up every time he screened the picture. He complained to MGM’s current honcho Louis B Mayer, who said the line had to stay because it was the best in the picture. When Reisner confronted the Marx Brothers to find out who had gone to Mayer Groucho didn’t say anything but Chico said it was the work of ‘The God of Comedy.’
Groucho’s marriage ended. He ended up with custody of his daughter Miriam, and together they would entertain guests. He had an office Beverly Hills to which he would bike, but instead of walking up the stairs his secretary would lower down a basket of bills and letters that he would work on from the street, while engaging with passerby. Zeppo got Groucho on the radio, on a show called Blue Ribbon Hour sponsored by PBR, but it didn’t last.
What did last was his relationship with Kay Gorcey. The wife of Blue Ribbon Hour co-star and former Dead End Kid Leo Gorcey, Kay took up with Groucho and became his second wife. But the middle of the 40s were otherwise tough times for Groucho, who seemed washed up in the movies and who couldn’t get a radio show going. Until You Bet Your Life.
Groucho was hesitant to do a quiz show, but producer John Guedel convinced him that the quiz thing was just an aspect of the show. The real meat of You Bet Your Life, Guedel said, would be Groucho interviewing the contestants and using them as foils for improv, something Groucho had never been able to do on radio before. He was right, and You Bet Your Life wasn’t just a hit, it was a sensation - one that crossed over from radio to television, and one that eternally cemented Groucho as his own man apart from the rest of the Marx Brothers.
You Bet Your Life premiered in 1947, a year after the penultimate Marx Brothers movie A Night in Casablanca (and the same year as Groucho’s solo film, Copacabana, which co-starred Carmen Miranda and which had Groucho wearing the greasepaint only in one musical number) , which is almost a return to form for the brothers (and which, like their final film Love Happy, they did to help Chico pay off gambling debts). The movie began life as a straight send up of Casablanca (with Groucho being called Humphrey Bogus), but after some legal saber-rattling by Warner Bros the film became a more general spoof. The material this time was workshopped for soldiers. The film itself is fairly good, although the Marx Brothers are looking more than a little ragged; Harpo seems too old to be be acting the way he is, and Chico looks bloated and ancient. The greasepaint helps hide the years on Groucho, though.
You Bet Your Life made a little bit of history in its first year; Guedel, finding out that the ABC network was going to program some old fashioned variety show in their slot when they went on summer hiatus, convinced the powers that be to repeat the program over the summer. Thus was born summer reruns. Later, when it aired on NBC TV, it would be the first game show to have its reruns syndicated.
The show’s theme song was Hooray for Captain Spaulding, and the format was simple - the best stuff would be the parts where Groucho would meet the contestants and find out about them. Less intriguing was the game show business, which saw people betting money on answering trivia questions. Groucho’s interviews were often incredible, and could be star-making. He had Phyllis Diller as a contestant when she was still a housewife, and when Pedro Gonzalez-Gonzalez sparred successfully with Groucho on air John Wayne started casting him in movies (Gonzalez is the grandfather of Clifton Collins, Jr). Also part of the You Bet Your Life formula that made a cultural impact was the ‘secret word’ - a common word that the audience knew in advance and, if uttered by a contestant, would bring a Groucho-glasses wearing duck from the ceiling, bearing a hundred dollar bill.
You Bet Your Life is famous also for being a source of one of the largest false memories in American history. Thousands of people would swear to you that they heard the broadcast when Groucho, talking to a Mrs. Story, a woman who had many (as many as 20, depending on who you hear it from) children.
Groucho: Why do you have so many children? That’s a big responsibility and a big burden.
Mrs. Story: Well, because I love my children, and I think that’s our purpose here on Earth, and I love my husband.
Groucho: I love my cigar, but I take it out of my mouth once in a while.
There’s no evidence that this ever happened; Groucho himself denied it (before later in life deciding he liked it and owning it). Producer Robert Dwan didn’t remember the event either, and he researched the available tapes and transcripts (including tapes of segments that had been cut for being too racy, as this exchange surely would have been - the show wasn’t live), but never found any proof. That didn’t stop him from later deciding he had heard it from enough people that it must be true. It was a Chico Marx line come to life: “Who you going to believe, me or your own eyes?”
Again, as had always been the case for Groucho, the sweet came with the bitter. While You Bet Your Life was a hit his attempt at a new Broadway show, Time For Elizabeth, was a failure. Groucho had been working on it with Norman Krasna for years, but the show was panned savagely. But in 1964 it would be broadcast on Bob Hope Presents The Chrysler Theater with Groucho in the lead, a role he hadn’t been able to take on Broadway. And his marriage to Kay was failing, ending in divorce in 1950.
As You Bet Your Life was gaining popularity the final official Marx Brothers movie was released with a thud. Love Happy was mostly a Harpo vehicle, and Groucho was only supposed to be in the beginning and the ending. The film, a disaster by any measure, is notable for only two things: Marilyn Monroe makes one of her earliest film appearances and the movie pioneered product placement. When the production ran out of money the decision was made to set a final reel chase on a rooftop filled with billboards, so most of the action happens in front of paid advertising.
The Marx Brothers often threatened to get back together. They each appeared in separate segments of The Story of Mankind, a mind-blowingly bad movie by Irwin Allen. Just a weird, baffling film, The Story of Mankind is a series of vignettes of human history as viewed by space aliens who are thinking about blowing up the Earth. Groucho fittingly plays Peter Minuit, who talks the Indians out of the island of Manhattan. It’s a rotten, rotten film but a fascinating one nonetheless, and it’s filled with great actors.
Two years later the brothers talked about a new TV show called Deputy Seraph, with Chico and Harpo as goofy angels. Groucho would appear every third episode as their boss, but Chico’s poor health rendered him uninsurable. In 1960 Billy Wilder played with reuniting the trio for one final film, to be called A Day at the UN, but it was canceled when Chico died in 1961.
You Bet Your Life moved easily from radio to TV, although Groucho refused the network’s demand that he put back on the greasepaint. He did grow a mustache, but that was as far as he would go. It ran on both radio and television throughout the 50s, making Groucho as much a regular visitor to the homes of young Baby Boomers as Davey Crockett or Ralph Kramden. When they grew up and started taking on the establishment at the end of the 60s it would be Groucho’s anti-establishment attitudes and fuck em all ways that resurrected the Marx Brothers for a new generation.
In 1960 Groucho got to indulge in one of his passions; always a huge fan of Gilbert and Sullivan, he appeared as Koko the High Executioner in a televised version of The Mikado. After that You Bet Your Life went on for one more year, on television only. Groucho tried his hand at another TV show in 1962, Tell It To Groucho, but that only lasted a few months.
It was no matter at that point. Groucho was an institution. He had written a hilarious and highly fictionalized autobiography, Groucho and Me, and he was creating his own legend. He guest hosted The Tonight Show after Jack Paar left and had the historic job of introducing new host Johnny Carson. But mostly he just was a living legend.
There were a couple more film roles for Groucho. He appeared as a gangster named God in Otto Preminger’s ridiculous acid movie Skidoo, with Jackie Gleason as an LSD-tripping mobster. The film would be little more than a truly bizarre historical footnote if it weren’t for the fact that Groucho researched the role by dropping acid with counterculture genius humorist Paul Krassner. Krassner has said that Groucho had a very nice exeperience; I just can’t even imagine how amazing it must have been to trip with Groucho.
Groucho and Kay divorced in 1951; he had another brief marriage that ended in 1969. In his final years his companion was Erin Fleming, a woman who pushed Groucho back into the spotlight - in the form of a Carnegie Hall show, An Evening With Groucho Marx, and an honorary Oscar in 1974. That was one of his last public appearances; he would show up on the George Burns TV special Joys in 1976.
[caption id=“attachment_7374” align=“alignright” width=“200” caption=“Groucho accepting his honorary Oscar. He dedicated it to his brothers and Margaret Dumont.”]
Erin was controversial and Groucho’s family became embroiled in suits with the young woman, claiming she was a Svengali who was worming her way into Groucho’s mind. The legal battles stretched on long past Groucho’s death, with the Marx family winning. Erin shot herself in 2003.
Julius Marx died in 1977, outliving all of his brothers but Zeppo, who made it to 1979 (Gummo died a few weeks before Groucho, but he was so unwell no one wanted to tell him about his baby brother dying). His died a few days after Elvis Presley; two of the most important figures of 20th century American culture died days apart. Unfortunately the more shocking death of Elvis overshadowed the passing of a very old comedian.
In his final years Groucho said that his got the most pleasure from having his writing selected for preservation in the Library of Congress. He has risen from nothing to be one of the most important figures in American culture. And he had done it without an education, using only his own wit and natural instincts for being an incorrigible wise ass.
Groucho Marx lives on. As other comedy acts from the vaudeville era fade in the cultural memory, the Marx Brothers continue to speak to new generations. Their timeless refusal to take anything or anyone seriously, their sense of immature play and their winking inability to accept a fourth wall keeps their best work fresh and immediate. And of the Marx Brothers it will be Groucho - the founding father of snark, the ultimate sarcastic bastard, the quickest wit on the Upper East Side - who will be the face of smart ass rebellion.
This article wouldn’t have been possible without Stefan Kanfer’sGroucho: The Life and Times of Julius Henry Marx
You should buy that book and get the full story of Groucho’s life from a real, learned author, not just the guy who cribbed from it.