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Groucho Marx

| deathplace = Los Angeles, California, U.S.A | restingplace = Eden Memorial Park Cemetery | othername = Julius Henry Marx | knownfor = "Duck Soup," "A Night at the Opera," "You Bet Your Life" |occupation = Comedian, Actor, Quiz Show host | spouse = Ruth Johnson (1920-1942)
Kay Marvis Gorcey (1945-1951)
Eden Hartford (1954-1969) | children = Arthur Marx (1921)
Miriam Marx (1927)
Melinda Marx (1946) | parents = Minnie Schoenberg
Sam "Frenchie" Marx | relatives = Al Shean, Chico Marx, Harpo Marx, Gummo Marx, Zeppo Marx | academyawards = Academy Honorary Award
1974 Lifetime Achievement | emmyawards = Most Outstanding Personality
1951 }}

Julius Henry "Groucho" Marx (October 2, 1890 – August 19, 1977), was an American comedian and film star. He is famed as a master of wit. He made 15 feature films with his siblings, the Marx Brothers, and also had a successful solo career, most notably as the host of the radio and television game show You Bet Your Life. He had a distinctive image, which included a heavy greasepaint moustache and eyebrows and glasses.

Biography

Childhood and pre-Hollywood career

The Marx family grew up in the Yorkville neighborhood of the Upper East Side (E 93rd Street) of New York City, in a small Jewish neighborhood sandwiched between Irish-German and Italian neighborhoods. Groucho's parents were Minnie Schoenberg Marx and Sam Marx (called "Frenchie" throughout his life).

Minnie's brother was Al Schoenberg, who shortened his name to Al Shean when he went into show business. He was half of Gallagher and Shean, a noted vaudeville act of the early 20th century. According to Groucho, when Shean visited he would throw the local waifs a few coins so that when he knocked at the door he would be surrounded by child-like adoring fans. Marx and his brothers respected his opinions and asked him on several occasions to write some material for them.

Minnie Marx did not have an entertainment industry career, but she had intense ambition for her sons to go on the stage like their uncle. While pushing her eldest son Leonard (Chico Marx) in piano lessons, she found that Julius had a pleasant soprano voice and the ability to remain on key. Even though Julius's early career goal was to become a doctor, the family's need for income forced Julius out of school at the age of twelve. By that time, Julius had become a voracious reader, particularly fond of Horatio Alger. Throughout the rest of his life, Marx would overcome his lack of formal education by becoming very well-read.

After a few comically unsuccessful stabs at entry-level office work and other jobs suitable for adolescents, Julius took to the stage as a boy singer in 1905. Though he reputedly claimed that in the world of vaudeville, he enjoyed only "modest success" but was "hopelessly average," it was merely a wisecrack. By 1909, Minnie Marx successfully managed to assemble her sons into a low-quality vaudeville singing group. They were billing themselves as 'The Four Nightingales', Julius, Milton (Gummo Marx), Adolph (Harpo Marx) (later changed to Arthur), and another boy singer, Lou Levy, traveled the U.S. vaudeville circuits to little fanfare. After exhausting their prospects in the East, the family moved to La Grange, Illinois to play the Midwest.

After a particularly dispiriting performance in Nacogdoches, Texas, Julius, Milton, and Arthur began cracking jokes onstage for their own amusement. Much to their surprise, the audience liked them better as comedians than singers. They modified the then-popular Gus Edwards comedy skit "School Days" and renamed it "Fun In Hi Skule". The Marx Brothers would perform variations on this routine for the next seven years.

For a time in vaudeville all the brothers performed using ethnic accents. Leonard Marx, the oldest Marx brother, developed the Italian accent he used as Chico to convince some roving bullies that he was Italian, not Jewish. Julius Marx's character from "Fun In Hi Skule" was an ethnic German, so Julius played him with a German accent. However, after the sinking of the RMS Lusitania in 1915, public anti-German sentiment was widespread, and Marx's German character was booed, so he quickly dropped the accent and developed the fast-talking wise-guy character he would make famous.

The Marx Brothers became the biggest comedic stars of the Palace Theatre, which billed itself as the "Valhalla of Vaudeville". Brother Chico's deal-making skills resulted in three hit plays on Broadway. No comedy routine had ever infected the hallowed Broadway circuit, but reports are unanimous that the Broadway audiences were just as convulsed with laughter as the vaudeville ones had been. The Marx Brothers were now more than a vaudeville sensation; they were a Broadway sensation.

All of this predated their Hollywood career. By the time the Marxes made their first movie, they were major stars with sharply honed skills, and when Groucho was relaunched to stardom on You Bet Your Life, he had already been performing successfully for half a century.

Hollywood

Groucho Marx made a total of 26 movies; of them, fifteen were with his brothers Chico and Harpo. Marx developed a routine as a wise-cracking hustler with a distinctive chicken-walking lope, an exaggerated greasepaint moustache and eyebrows, and an ever-present cigar, improvising insults to stuffy dowagers (often played by Margaret Dumont) and anyone else who stood in his way. As the Marx Brothers, his brothers and he starred in a series of extraordinarily popular stage shows and movies.

Their first movie was a silent film that was never released. As one of the world's most famous comedy teams, they were recognizable. The team made some of their Vaudeville hits into movies, including The Cocoanuts and Animal Crackers. Other successful films were Horse Feathers, Duck Soup, and A Night at the Opera.

Marx also worked as a radio comedian and show host. One of his earliest stints was in a short-lived series in 1932 entitled Flywheel, Shyster, and Flywheel, co-starring Chico, who was the only one of his brothers also willing to appear on the show. Most of the scripts and discs were thought to have been destroyed, but all but one of the scripts were found in 1988 in the Library of Congress.

In 1947, Marx was chosen to host a radio quiz program entitled You Bet Your Life broadcast by ABC and then CBS, before moving over to NBC television in 1950. Filmed before a live audience, the television show consisted of Marx interviewing the contestants and ad libbing jokes, before playing a brief quiz. The show was responsible for the phrases "Say the secret woid [word] and divide $100" (that is, each contestant would get $50); and "Who's buried in Grant's Tomb?" or "What color is the White House?" (asked when Marx felt sorry for a contestant who had not won anything). It ran for eleven years on television.

One quip from Marx concerned his response to Sam Wood, the director of the classic film A Night at the Opera. Wood was furious with the Marx Brothers' ad-libs and antics on the set and yelled to all in disgust that he "cannot make actors out of clay." Without missing a beat, Groucho responded, "Nor can you make a director out of Wood."

One hilarious response to a contestant who had over a dozen children brought down the house. In response to Marx asking in disbelief why she had so many children, the contestant replied "No, Groucho. You don't understand. I REALLY, REALLY love my husband.", to which Marx responded, "I love my cigar too, but I take it out of my mouth once in a while." Throughout his career he introduced a number of memorable songs in films, including "Hooray for Captain Spaulding", "Whatever It Is, I'm Against It", "Hello, I Must Be Going", "Everyone Says I Love You" and "Lydia the Tattooed Lady". Frank Sinatra, who once quipped that the only thing he could do better than Marx was sing, made a film with Marx and Jane Russell in 1951 entitled Double Dynamite.

Moustache, eyebrows and walk

As much as Harpo and Chico were difficult to recognize without their wigs and costumes, it was almost impossible to recognize Groucho without his trademark glasses, or fake eyebrows and moustache.

The greasepaint moustache and eyebrows originated spontaneously prior to a vaudeville performance when he did not have time to apply the pasted-on moustache he had been using (or, according to his autobiography, simply did not enjoy the removal of the moustache every night because of the effects of tearing an adhesive bandage off the same patch of skin every night). After applying the greasepaint moustache, a quick glance in the mirror revealed his natural hair eyebrows were too undertoned and did not match the rest of his face, so Marx added the greasepaint to his eyebrows and headed for the stage. The absurdity of the greasepaint was never discussed on-screen, but in a famous scene in Duck Soup, where both Chico and Harpo are disguising themselves as Groucho, they are briefly seen applying the greasepaint, implicitly answering any question a viewer might have had about where he got his moustache and eyebrows.

Marx was asked to do the greasepaint moustache once more for "You Bet Your Life," but refused, opting instead to grow a real one, which he wore for the rest of his life.

The exaggerated walk, with one hand on the small of his back and his torso bent almost 90 degrees at the waist was a spoof of a fad from the 1880s and 1890s. Then, fashionable young men of the upper classes would affect a walk with their right hand held fast to the base of their spines, and with a slight lean forward at the waist and a very slight twist toward the right with the left shoulder, allowing the left hand to swing free with the gait. Edmund Morris, in his biography of President Roosevelt entitled The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt describes a young TR, newly elected to the State Assembly, walking into the House Chamber for the first time in this trendy, affected gait, somewhat to the amusement of the older and more rural Members who were present. Groucho exaggerated this fad to a marked degree, and the comedy effect was enhanced by how out of date the fashion was by the 1920s and 30s.

He did paint the old character moustache over his real one on a few rare performing occasions, including a TV sketch with Jackie Gleason on the latter's variety show in the 1960s (in which they performed a variation on the song "Positively Mr. Gallagher, Absolutely Mr. Shean," written by Marx's uncle Al Shean) and the 1968 Otto Preminger film Skidoo. In his 70s at the time, Marx remarked on his appearance: "I looked like I was embalmed." He played a mob boss called "God" and, according to Marx, "both my performance and the film were God-awful!".

Personal life

Marx was married three times, all of which ended in divorce. His first wife was chorus girl Ruth Johnson (married February 4, 1920, divorced July 15, 1942). He was 29 and she 19 at the time of their wedding. The couple had two children, Arthur and Miriam. His second wife was Kay Marvis (married February 24, 1945, divorced May 12, 1951), former wife of Leo Gorcey. Groucho was 54 and Kay 24 at the time of their marriage. They had a daughter, Melinda. His third wife was actress Eden Hartford (married July 17, 1954, divorced December 4, 1969). She was 20 when she married the 63 year old Groucho.

Often was the case when the Marxes would arrive at a restaurant and be greeted by an interminable wait. "Just tell the maître d' who we are," his wife would nag. (In his pre-moustache days, he was rarely recognized in public.) Groucho would say, "OK, OK. Good evening, sir. My name is Jones. This is Mrs. Jones, and here are all the little Joneses." Now his wife would be furious and insist that he tell the maître d' the truth. "Oh, all right," said Groucho. "My name is Smith. This is Mrs. Smith, and here are all the little Smiths."

Similar anecdotes are corroborated by Groucho's friends, not one of whom went without being publicly embarrassed by Groucho on at least one occasion. Once, at a restaurant (the most common location of Groucho's antics), a fan came up to him and said, "Excuse me, but aren't you Groucho Marx?" "Yes," Groucho answered annoyedly. "Oh, I'm your biggest fan! Could I ask you a favor?" the man asked. "Sure, what is it?" asked the even-more annoyed Groucho. "See my wife sitting over there? She's an even bigger fan of yours than I am! Would you be willing to insult her?" Groucho replied, "Sir, if my wife looked like that, I wouldn't need any help thinking of insults." Also, Groucho's son, Arthur, published a brief account of an incident that occurred when Arthur was a child. The family was going through airport customs and, while filling out a form, Groucho listed his name as "Julius Henry Marx" and his occupation as "smuggler". Thereafter, chaos ensued.

Later in life, Groucho would sometimes note to talk-show hosts, not entirely jokingly, that he was unable to actually insult anyone, because the target of his comment assumed it was a Groucho-esque joke and would laugh.

Off-stage, Groucho was a voracious reader. He often pointed out that he had only a grammar school education, and he compensated for this by reading everything he got his hands on. His knowledge of literature from all eras was extraordinary. Typical of his achievements, this one was discussed only demurely by Groucho himself: "I think TV is very educational," he once said. "Every time someone turns on a TV, I go in the other room and read." His friend Dick Cavett, speaking of Groucho and referencing a certain philosopher's writing, said "I, with my college education, had merely heard of the book, but Groucho had actually read it." Cavett also remarked that Groucho could never end a letter; there was always at least one postscript. In one letter he recalls, Groucho wrote "P.S. Did you ever notice that Peter O'Toole has a double-phallic name?"

Despite this lack of formal education, he wrote many books, including his autobiography, Groucho and Me (1959) (Da Capo Press, 1995, ISBN 0-306-80666-5), and Memoirs of a Mangy Lover (1963) (Da Capo Press, 2002, ISBN 0-306-81104-9). He was personal friends with such literary figures as T. S. Eliot and Carl Sandburg. Much of his personal correspondence with those and other figures is featured in the book The Groucho Letters (1967) with an introduction and commentary on the letters written by Groucho, who donated his letters to the Library of Congress.

Groucho Marx's political views were more liberal. A book titled 'Marx & Lennon: The Parallel Sayings' was published in 2005; the book records similar sayings between Groucho Marx and John Lennon.

You Bet Your Life

Groucho's radio life hadn't been as successful as his life on stage and in film, though historians such as Gerald Nachman and Michael Barson suggest that, in the case of the single-season Flywheel, Shyster, and Flywheel (1932), the failure may have been a combination of a poor time slot and the Marx Brothers' returning to Hollywood to make another film.

In the mid-1940s, during a depressing lull in his career (his radio show Blue Ribbon Town had failed to hold on, and the Marx Brothers looked finished as film performers), Groucho was scheduled to appear on a radio show with Bob Hope. Annoyed that he was made to wait in the waiting room for 40 minutes, Groucho went on the air in a foul mood. Hope started by saying, "Why, it's Groucho Marx, ladies and gentlemen. (applause) Groucho, what brings you here from the hot desert?" Groucho retorted, "Hot desert my foot, I've been standing in the cold waiting room for 40 minutes." Groucho continued to ignore the script, and although Hope was a formidable ad-libber in his own right, he couldn't begin to keep up with Groucho, who lengthened the scene well beyond its allotted time slot with a veritable onslaught of improvised wisecracks.

Listening in on the show was producer John Guedel, who got a brainstorm. He approached Groucho about doing a quiz show. "A quiz show? Only actors who are completely washed up resort to a quiz show." Undeterred, Guedel explained that the quiz would be only a backdrop for Groucho's interviews of people, and the storm of ad-libbing that they would elicit. Groucho said, "Well, I've had no success in radio, and I can't hold on to a sponsor. At this point I'll try anything."

You Bet Your Life premiered in October 1947 on radio on ABC and then on CBS and finally NBC and ran until May 1961 -- on radio only 1947-1950, on both radio and television 1950-1956, and on television only 1956-1961. The show was an utter sensation, one of the most popular in the history of radio and television. With one of the best announcers and, as it turns out, straight men in the business, George Fenneman, as his faithful foil, Groucho slayed his audiences with extraordinary improvised conversation, usually with the most ordinary of guests.

Later years

By the time You Bet Your Life debuted on TV on October 5, 1950, Groucho had grown a real mustache (which he had already sported earlier, in the 1950 film Love Happy), the lack of which had earlier been an effective means of hiding himself from fans.

During a tour of Germany in 1958, Marx, accompanied by his then wife, Eden, his daughter, Judith and Robert Dwan, climbed a pile of rubble that marked the site of Adolf Hitler's bunker, the site of Hitler's death, and performed a two minute charleston.

Another TV show hosted by Groucho, Tell It To Groucho, premiered January 11, 1962 on CBS, but only lasted five months. On October 1, 1962, Groucho, after acting as occasional guest host of The Tonight Show during the six-month interval between Jack Paar and Johnny Carson, introduced Carson as the new host.

In 1965, Groucho did a weekly show for British TV titled Groucho which was poorly received and only lasted 11 weeks. He appeared as God in the movie Skidoo (1968), co-starring Jackie Gleason and Carol Channing and directed by Otto Preminger. The film got almost universally negative reviews. As a side note, writer Paul Krassner published a story in the February 1981 issue of High Times, relating how Groucho Marx prepared for his role in the LSD-related movie by taking a dose of the drug in Krassner's company, and had a moving, largely pleasant experience. Four years later came Groucho's last theatrical film appearance; a brief, uncredited cameo in Michael Ritchie's The Candidate (1972).

In the early 1970s, largely at the behest of his companion Erin Fleming, Groucho made a comeback of sorts doing a live one-man show, including one recorded at Carnegie Hall in 1972 and released as a double album, An Evening with Groucho, on A&M Records. He also made an appearance on a short-lived variety show hosted by Bill Cosby, who idolized Groucho, in 1973. He also developed friendships with rock star Alice Cooper (the two were photographed together for Rolling Stone Magazine), and television host Dick Cavett, becoming a frequent guest on Cavett's late-night talk show. He met and befriended Elton John when the British singer was staying in California in 1972, insisting on calling him "John Elton" because "Elton John" was the wrong way around. According to writer Philip Norman, Groucho jokingly pointed his index fingers at Elton John as if holding a pair of six-shooters. Elton John put up his hands and said, "Don't shoot me, I'm only the piano player," so naming the album he had just completed. Elton John accompanied Groucho and the family hosting him in California to a performance of Jesus Christ Superstar, where Groucho offered two witticisms. As the lights went down in the theater, Groucho called out, "Does it have a happy ending?" During the Crucifixion scene, he declared, "This is sure to offend the Jews."

Groucho's previous works once again became popular and were accompanied by new books of interviews and other transcribed conversations by Richard J. Anobile and Charlotte Chandler. In a BBC interview in 1975, Groucho explained that for him, his greatest achievement was having a book selected for cultural preservation in the American Library of Congress. As a man who never had formal schooling, and whose literacy was self-taught, to have his writings declared to be culturally important was a point of great emotional satisfaction. He had become quite frail by this period and his last few years were accompanied by descent into senility and a controversy over a companionship he had developed with Erin Fleming, which consequently raised disputes over his estate.

He also accepted an honorary Academy Award in 1974, his final major public appearance, at which he took a bow for all the Marx Brothers. While lucid, his frailty was evident.

Death

Marx's children, particularly his son Arthur, felt strongly that Fleming was pushing his weak father beyond his physical and mental limits. Writer Mark Evanier concurs with this. Marx was hospitalized for pneumonia on June 22, 1977 and died on August 19, 1977 at Cedar Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles.

He was cremated, and the ashes were interred in the Eden Memorial Park Cemetery in Mission Hills, Los Angeles, California. Aged 86 at death, Groucho had the longest lifespan of all the Marx Brothers and was survived only by younger brother Zeppo, who outlived him by two years, dying in 1979 at age 78. Groucho's death only received passing attention, due to the fact that it occurred three days after that of Elvis Presley. In an interview, he jokingly suggested his epitaph read "Excuse me, I can't stand up", but his mausoleum marker bears only his stage name, a Star of David, and the years of his birth and death.

Groucho's legacy

Many Groucho-like characters and Groucho references have appeared in popular culture, some long after his death and even aimed at audiences who would never have seen a Marx Brothers movie, providing a testament to the character's lasting appeal. Groucho's glasses, nose, moustache, and cigar have become icons of comedy—to this day, glasses with fake noses and moustaches (referred to as "Groucho glasses," "nose-glasses," and other names) resembling Groucho are still sold by novelty and costume shops.

Actor Frank Ferrante has performed as Groucho Marx for several years under rights granted by the Marx family in a one-man show entitled "An Evening With Groucho" done in live theater throughout the United States. With piano accompaniment, Ferrante takes the audience from Marx' early years in Vaudeville to his final days, incorporating songs from several Marx Brothers movies. Gabe Kaplan has appeared in a filmed version

Alan Alda often vamped as Groucho on M*A*S*H and a minor semi-recurring character in the series (played by Loudon Wainwright III) was named Captain Calvin Spalding in a nod towards Groucho's character in Animal Crackers, Captain Geoffrey T. Spaulding. Rob Zombie also uses several Groucho Marx character names for main characters in his movies, House of 1000 Corpses and The Devil's Rejects.

Two of Queen's albums, A Night at the Opera (1975) and A Day at the Races (1976) are named after two of the Marx Brothers' films.

Writer/artist Dave Sim revived Groucho as Lord Julius, the smooth-talking "Grandlord" of the fictional city-state of Palnu in Sim's epic 300-issue comic book Cerebus.

Groucho is referenced in the comic Dylan Dog by Tiziano Sclavi, via an impersonator who, suffering from memory loss, believes himself to be the real Groucho Marx. He is Dylan's sidekick on his supernatural-themed adventures.

On the famous Hollywood Sign in California, one of the "O"s is dedicated to Groucho Marx. Alice Cooper contributed over $27,000 to remodel the sign, in memory of his friend Groucho Marx.

In a tribute to Groucho, the BBC remade the radio sitcom Flywheel, Shyster and Flywheel, with contemporary actors playing the parts of the original cast. The series was repeated on digital radio station BBC7.

Scottish playwright Louise Oliver wrote a play named "Waiting For Groucho" about Chico and Harpo Marx waiting for Groucho to turn up to the filming of their last project together. This was performed by Glasgow theatre company Rhymes with Purple Productions at the Edinburgh Fringe and in Glasgow and Hamilton in 2007/8. The role of Groucho was played by Scottish actor, Frodo McDaniel.

Quotations about Groucho Marx

  • "Groucho Marx was the best comedian this country ever produced. [...] He is simply unique in the same way that Picasso or Stravinsky are." —Woody Allen
  • A famous French witticism (often attributed to Jean-Luc Godard) was, Je suis Marxiste, tendance Groucho, that is, "I'm a Marxist of the Groucho variety". This line was notably heard in the 1972 comedy by Claude Lelouch " L'aventure c'est l'aventure", (starring Lino Ventura, Aldo Maccione, Jacques Brel, Johnny Hallyday and Charles Denner) where the would-be heroes get involved with a Central American guerilla; it spread to other nations as well in the 1960s and 1970s. In the United States, the Youth International Party, a 1960s-1970s ad-hoc political group of Anarcho-Marxists known for street theatre and pranks, were denounced in a Communist newspaper editorial as "Groucho Marxists".

Solo filmography

Features

Short subjects

  • Hollywood on Parade No. 11 (1933)
  • Screen Snapshots Series 16, No. 3 (1936)
  • Sunday Night at the Trocadero (1937)
  • Screen Snapshots: The Great Al Jolson (1955)
  • Showdown at Ulcer Gulch (1956) (voice)
  • Screen Snapshots: Playtime in Hollywood (1956)

References

Further reading

  • Miriam Marx Allen, Love, Groucho: Letters From Groucho Marx to His Daughter Miriam (1992)
  • Charlotte Chandler, Hello, I Must Be Going (1979)
  • Stefan Kanfer, Groucho: The Life and Times of Julius Henry Marx (2000)
  • Simon Louvish, Monkey Business: The Lives and Legends of the Marx Brothers (2001)
  • Arthur Marx, Life With Groucho (1954, revised as My Life With Groucho, 1992)
  • Arthur Marx, Son of Groucho (1972)
  • Groucho Marx, Groucho and Me (1959)
  • Groucho Marx, Memoirs of a Mangy Lover (1963)
  • Groucho Marx, The Groucho Letters: Letters From and To Groucho Marx (1967)
  • Harpo Marx, Harpo Speaks (1961)
  • Glenn Mitchell, The Marx Brothers Encyclopedia (2003)
  • Steve Stoliar, Raised Eyebrows: My Years Inside Groucho's House (1996)

External links

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