The Shout! Factory release of "The Marx Brothers TV Collection," an omnibus of the Brothers Marx's post-film career TV appearances, is occasion enough to celebrate once more the irrepressible talents of Groucho, Chico and Harpo Marx.
I suppose there may be some readers who have never heard of the Marx Brothers, but I doubt it. In short, at the beginning of the 20th century, hailing from a German-Jewish family, Minnie Marx set her sons on a show-business career hoping to garner some of the success (and steady employment) of her brother, Al Shean, who performed as part of the comedy team Gallagher and Shean. The core of the brothers' act was Groucho (born Julius), who sang and played guitar; Chico (Leonard), who was an accomplished pianist; and Harpo (Arthur), who couldn't sing and so played a man who could not speak but could play harp, clarinet, piano and harmonica. Brothers Zeppo (Herbert) and Gummo (Milton) also made appearances as singers. The brothers got their start touring a vaudeville act, based on their personalities and talents, under Groucho's creative direction, while Chico ran the business side. By the Roaring '20s, they were stars on Broadway, with their stage comedies The Cocoanuts in 1925 and Animal Crackers in 1928.
In Hollywood, they started making movies of their Broadway shows as well as original films, including their highest-grossing work, Horse Feathers (1932), and their most critically revered film, Duck Soup (1933). While under contract with Paramount, their movies were largely extended pieces of vaudeville and improvisational free-for-alls.
When their contract with Paramount expired, producer Irving Thalberg lured them to MGM and insisted they have more structured scripts with a beginning, a low point and a happy ending, including romance as prominently in the story line as comedy. Thalberg came up with the innovation of testing some of the brothers' film comedy bits before live audiences. The result led to the Marx Brothers classics A Night at the Opera and A Day at the Races, movies Groucho adjudged to be their best. After Thalberg died suddenly during the production of A Day at the Races, their remaining MGM films were lesser works. By 1949, after 40 years in show business, the brothers retired.
Then along came television, allowing each of the brothers a new medium to conquer -- Groucho, most notably as host of the game show You Bet Your Life, and, in Chico's case, a way to pay for his gambling debts. (When Chico was once asked how much he had lost gambling, he answered: "Just ask Harpo how much he's earned as an entertainer.")
The three-DVD set, to be released Aug. 12, features segments, programs, guest appearances, commercials and even home movies. There are nuggets throughout, including Chico imitating Harpo, Harpo imitating Groucho, Groucho late in life donning his greasepaint mustache again to sing of Dr. Quackenbush.
Throughout, Harpo and Chico never seem to age, or rather they come to look like the characters they pretended to be as young men. Groucho ages physically, but his force of personality is so strong that he maintained his quick-witted persona even to his last appearance in 1976, a year before his death, at 86.
The Marx Brothers hold a special place in my heart. When I was little, my grandmother first took me to see one of their films, and in high school I discovered them all over again. The Marx Brothers have nursed me when I've felt sick, or down, when my energy has flagged. One of the great pleasures of my life was introducing my daughter to their films.The Aero Theatre on Montana Avenue has had a tradition of beginning the New Year with a double feature of Marx Brothers films, and for several years my daughter and I attended, laughing together at the antics of Groucho, Harpo and Chico that never seemed to grow old.
Who is there today to compare them to? We can look to Saturday Night Live for producing talent quick-witted enough to host shows, be it Jimmy Fallon, Seth Myers or Conan O'Brien. Jon Stewart is clearly descended from Groucho. Perhaps only Steve Martin has combined the brothers' musicality and humor to find success in almost as many mediums, remaining relevant to successive generations. But really, when you watch the Marx Brothers, there is a special magic no one has yet come to equal.
If I try to put my finger on what made me, a child of immigrant Jewish refugees from Europe's nightmare, so relate to the Marx Brothers, it would be that I saw characters full of pride and self-confidence, fueled by humor, who didn't assimilate into the establishment so much as triumph over it. That was a life plan.
Groucho was a shyster, a conman, a flimflam artist, a fast-talking insult comic. He was always working an angle, and he said whatever he thought best worked for the situation -- which I believed was how many of my relatives and my parents' friends outwitted the Nazis to survive the Holocaust. Groucho was literate, in love with word play; his speech was littered with foreign words and expressions, sometimes of his own invention -- talmudically annotated and punctuated with asides, inside jokes and observations to his audience. This, too, was familiar: When you grow up in a household where nine languages are spoken, none of them grammatically or intelligibly, you get a lot of constant commentary. He was the wise son, a wisenheimer, if you will.
Chico was the wicked son. He was a criminal, crafty if not bright, and the leader of a gang of two (usually joined by Harpo). He was something of a shtarker, an accented foreigner -- in this way Chico reminded me of some of the "boys"-- actually tough guys -- who worked for my father in the Bricha -- the underground transport system that helped Jews escape World War II Europe. Although Chico seemed to be of Italian descent -- he wore a Tyrolean jacket and hat -- that, too, was familiar to me: In fact there are some who claim my mother used to dress me the same way.
As for Harpo: Who doesn't love Harpo? Harpo is the simple son. He plays the harp like an angel and acts like a mischievous child, even while chasing women (literally). He is all id and no ego. Finally, Gummo and Zeppo were the handsome good-hearted guys who got the girl. That, too, was an ambition of mine.
All of which is to say that the Marx Brothers were people we could imagine gathered around our seder table (or, more likely, at lunch at Los Angeles' Hillcrest Country Club, where they regularly commandeered a center table, playing cards with George Burns and Milton Berle and letting Rabbi Magnin kibitz or sit in).
"The Marx Brothers TV Collection" contains some rarities and oddities, such as Groucho's sole dramatic role as a father who disapproves of his daughter's marriage to a very young Dennis Hopper; and Harpo's sole dramatic non-Harpo role, as the silent witness to a murder. There are also some wonderful moments when each of the Marx Brothers reprise some of their vaudeville numbers. Groucho, who started out doing a German accent until the first world war made that un-commercial, sings a song about schnitzel and, in what is perhaps my favorite clip, he performs a version of Gallagher and Shean's theme song, with Jackie Gleason's brother in the Gallagher role.
What comes through from the home movies and the appearances is how utterly at ease the Marx Brothers were in the world of entertainment -- they performed for so long and were so deft at it that they shone in whatever medium on whatever stage or screen you put them on.
There is still so much pleasure in watching the Marx Brothers perform individually or together, so much intelligence in how they deploy their talent, even casually, even in silly commercials, that just the mere glimmer of any of them sets the endorphins rushing, bringing back the totality of pleasure they have offered up, a world in which, as Groucho once put it, "Humor is reason gone mad."