Marx circa 1950
|Birth name||Julius Henry Marx|
|Born||October 2, 1890
New York City, New York, U.S.
|Died||August 19, 1977 (aged 86)
Cedars-Sinai Medical Center
Los Angeles, California
|Medium||Film, television, stage, radio, music|
|Influenced||Johnny Carson, Woody Allen,Brendon Small, Milton Berle, Bill Cosby, Ricky Gervais|
(m. 1920; div. 1942)
Kay Marvis Gorcey
(m. 1945; div. 1951)
(m. 1954; div. 1969)
Sam “Frenchie” Marx
|Relative(s)||Al Shean (maternal uncle)
Chico Marx (brother)
Harpo Marx (brother)
Gummo Marx (brother)
Zeppo Marx (brother)
Julius Henry Marx (October 2, 1890 – August 19, 1977), known professionally as Groucho Marx, was an American comedian and film and television star. He was known as a master of quick wit and is widely considered one of the best comedians of the modern era. His rapid-fire, often impromptu delivery of innuendo-laden patter earned him many admirers and imitators.
He made 13 feature films with his siblings the Marx Brothers, of whom he was the third-born. He also had a successful solo career, most notably as the host of the radio and television game show You Bet Your Life.
His distinctive appearance, carried over from his days in vaudeville, included quirks such as an exaggerated stooped posture, glasses, cigar, and a thick greasepaint mustache and eyebrows. These exaggerated features resulted in the creation of one of the world’s most ubiquitous and recognizable novelty disguises, known as “Groucho glasses“: a one-piece mask consisting of horn-rimmed glasses, large plastic nose, bushy eyebrows and mustache.
Marx stated that he was born in a room above a butcher’s shop on East 78th Street in New York City, “Between Lexington & 3rd”, as told to Dick Cavett in a 1969 television interview. The Marx children grew up on East 93rd Street off Lexington Avenue in a neighborhood now known as Carnegie Hill on the Upper East Side of the borough of Manhattan, in New York City. The turn-of-the-century building that his brother Harpo called “the first real home they ever knew” (in his memoir Harpo Speaks) was populated with European immigrants, mostly artisans. Just across the street were the oldest brownstones in the area, owned by people such as the well-connected Loew Brothers and William Orth. The Marx family lived at this location “for about 14 years”, Groucho also told Cavett.
Marx’s family was Jewish. Groucho’s mother was Miene “Minnie” Schoenberg, whose family came from Dornum in northern Germany when she was 16 years old. His father wasSimon “Sam” Marx, who changed his name from Marrix, and was called “Frenchie” by his sons throughout his life because he and his family came from Alsace in France. Minnie’s brother was Al Schoenberg, who shortened his name to Al Shean when he went into show business as half of Gallagher and Shean, a notedvaudeville 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 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 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. Julius’s early career goal was to become a doctor, but the family’s need for income forced him out of school at the age of twelve. By that time young Julius had become a voracious reader, particularly fond of Horatio Alger. Marx would continue to overcome his lack of formal education by becoming very well-read.
After a few stabs at entry-level office work and jobs suitable for adolescents, Julius took to the stage as a boy singer in 1905. Marx reputedly claimed that he was “hopelessly average” as a vaudevillian, but this was typically Marx, wisecracking in his true form. By 1909 Minnie Marx had assembled her sons into a forgettable-quality vaudeville singing group billed as “The Four Nightingales”. The brothers Julius, Milton (Gummo Marx) and Arthur (originally Adolph, from 1911 Harpo Marx) 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 as 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, the oldest, developed the Italian accent he used as Chico Marx to convince some roving bullies that he was Italian, not Jewish. Arthur, the next oldest, donned a curly red wig and became “Patsy Brannigan”, a stereotypical Irish character. His discomfort speaking on stage led to his uncle Al Shean’s suggestion that he stop speaking altogether and play the role in mime. Julius Marx’s character from “Fun In Hi Skule” was an ethnic German, so Julius played him with a German accent. 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 that became his trademark.
The Marx Brothers became the biggest comedic stars of the Palace Theatre in New York City, 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 so infected the Broadway circuit.
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.
Groucho Marx made 26 movies, 13 of them with his brothers Chico and Harpo. Marx developed a routine as a wisecracking hustler with a distinctive chicken-walking lope, an exaggerated greasepaint mustache 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, he and his brothers starred in a series of popular stage shows and movies.
Their first movie was a silent film made in 1921 that was never released, and is believed to have been destroyed at the time. A decade later, the team made some of their Broadway hits into movies, including The Cocoanuts andAnimal Crackers. Other successful films were Monkey Business, Horse Feathers, Duck Soup, and A Night at the Opera. One quip from Marx concerned his response to Sam Wood, the director of A Night at the Opera. Furious with the Marx Brothers’ ad-libs and antics on the set, Wood yelled in disgust: “You can’t make an actor out of clay.” Groucho responded, “Nor a director out of Wood.”
Marx also worked as a radio comedian and show host. One of his earliest stints was a short-lived series in 1932,Flywheel, Shyster, and Flywheel, costarring Chico. Though most of the scripts and discs were thought to have been destroyed, all but one of the scripts were found in 1988 in the Library of Congress. In 1947 Marx was asked to host a radio quiz program You Bet Your Life. It was broadcast by ABC and then CBS before moving to NBC. It moved from radio to television on October 5, 1950 and ran for eleven years. Filmed before a live audience, the show consisted of Marx bantering with the contestants and ad-libbing jokes before briefly quizzing them. The show was responsible for popularizing the phrases “Say the secret woid [word] and the duck will come down and give you fifty dollars,” “Who’s buried in Grant’s Tomb?” and “What color is the White House?” (asked to reward a losing contestant a consolation prize).
Throughout his career he introduced a number of memorable songs in films, including “Hooray for Captain Spaulding” and “Hello, I Must Be Going“, in Animal Crackers, “Whatever It Is, I’m Against It“, “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.
Mustache, eyebrows, and walk
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In public and off-camera, Harpo and Chico were hard to recognize, without their wigs and costumes, but it was almost impossible for fans to recognize Groucho without his trademark eyeglasses, fake eyebrows, and mustache.
The greasepaint mustache and eyebrows originated spontaneously prior to a vaudeville performance in the early 1920s when he did not have time to apply the pasted-on mustache he had been using (or, according to his autobiography, simply did not enjoy the removal of the mustache every night because of the effects of tearing an adhesive bandage off the same patch of skin every night). After applying the greasepaint mustache, 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 Chicolini (Chico) and Pinky (Harpo) disguise themselves as Groucho, they are briefly seen applying the greasepaint, implicitly answering any question a viewer might have had about where he got his mustache and eyebrows.
Marx was asked to apply the greasepaint mustache once more for You Bet Your Life when it came to television, but he refused, opting instead to grow a real one, which he wore for the rest of his life. By this time, his eyesight had weakened enough for him actually to need corrective lenses; before then, his eyeglasses had merely been a stage prop. He debuted this new, and now much-older, appearance in Love Happy, the Marx Brothers’s last film as a comedy team.
He did paint the old character mustache 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 “Mister Gallagher and Mister Shean,” co-written by Marx’s uncle Al Shean) and the 1968 Otto Preminger film Skidoo. In his late 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!”
The exaggerated walk, with one hand on the small of his back and his torso bent almost 90 degrees at the waist was a parody of a fad from the 1880s and 1890s. 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 The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, describes a young Roosevelt, 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.) Groucho exaggerated this fad to a marked degree, and the comedy effect was enhanced by how out of date the fashion was by the 1940s and 1950s.
Groucho’s three marriages all ended in divorce. His first wife was chorus girl Ruth Johnson. He was 29 and she 19 at the time of their wedding. The couple had two children, Arthur Marx and Miriam Marx. His second wife was Kay Marvis (m. 1945–51), née Catherine Dittig, former wife of Leo Gorcey. Groucho was 54 and Kay 21 at the time of their marriage. They had a daughter, Melinda Marx. His third wife was actress Eden Hartford.She was 24 when she married the 63-year-old Groucho.
Groucho was denied membership in an informal symphonietta of friends (including Harpo) organized by Ben Hecht, because he could play only the mandolin. When the group began its first rehearsal at Hecht’s home, Groucho rushed in and demanded silence from the “lousy amateurs”. The musicians discovered him conducting a recorded performance ofTannhäuser in Hecht’s living room. Groucho was allowed to join the symphonietta.
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 would assume that it was a Groucho-esque joke, and would laugh.
Despite his lack of formal education, he wrote many books, including his autobiography, Groucho and Me (1959) and Memoirs of a Mangy Lover (1963). He was a friend of 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 made serious efforts to learn to play the guitar. In the 1932 film Horse Feathers, Groucho performs the film’s love theme “Everyone Says I Love You” for costar Thelma Todd on a Gibson L-5.
Irving Berlin quipped, “The world would not be in such a snarl, had Marx been Groucho instead of Karl”. In his book The Groucho Phile, Marx says “I’ve been a liberal Democrat all my life”, and “I frankly find Democrats a better, more sympathetic crowd…. I’ll continue to believe that Democrats have a greater regard for the common man than Republicans do”. Marx & Lennon: The Parallel Sayings was published in 2005; the book records similar sayings between Groucho Marx andJohn Lennon.
You Bet Your Life
Groucho’s radio life was not 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, he failed to sell his proposed sitcom The Flotsam Family only to see it become a huge hit as The Life of Riley with William Bendix in the title role, and the Marx Brothe