Sunday, August 19, 2012

Hello, I Must Be Going

Thirty-five years ago today Groucho Marx took his last breath.  He was a month and an half shy of his eighty-seventh birthday.  It was the only known time Groucho was shy about anything.

In the 1940's when "You Bet Your Life" was hosted by Groucho on the radio a contestant stated he was the father of 15 children.  To which Groucho replied, "Well, I like my cigar, but I take it out of my mouth every once in a while."

Groucho, along with his brothers Chico, Harpo and Gummo started the Marx Brothers comedy act in 1912. They played the vaudeville circuit across America.  They were on a less popular circuit than the headliners of the day.  Today you could compare this to a rock band playing bars instead of stadiums.  They played all the small towns throughout the U.S.A., leaving the big cities to acts such as W.C.Fields and Harry Houdini.  When they completed one tour and would be ready to start another, they would write fresh material.  Sometimes this was a rush job.  That happened in 1914 when they forgot to write dialogue for Harpo.  Harpo went on stage and did pantomime and Groucho ad-libbed jokes along with Chico.  The performance was hilarious lunacy and the Marx Brothers never looked back.  Their on the spot pandemonium was the hit of the day and their careers skyrocketed. They got top billing and played all the major cities to sold-out crowds.

In 1917, when we entered the Great War (It was not known as World War I until World War II) Gummo enlisted in the armed forces, and the youngest brother, Zeppo, replaced him in the act.  Zeppo had a great singing voice and added the final dimension to what we see in the early Marx Brothers movies.  With Zeppo the Marxes were now ready for Broadway.  So a Broadway play was written for them.  This was quite a big deal.  Broadway plays were seldom wrote for individual performers.  Generally the parts were written and then auditions were used to find suitable actors.  The roles of their first Broadway appearance were written for each brother individually.  And the brothers re-wrote their roles to give it that classic rehearsed spontaneity that made the Marx Brothers such a unique act.

Groucho was called Groucho because he carried a grouch bag around his neck.  A grouch bag was what people used to keep their money.  He was extremely frugal and had saved hundreds of thousands of dollars. In the mid-1920s, Groucho invested all his savings in the stock market.  Needless to say, the stock market crash of  29 bankrupted Groucho and the boys.  In order to make some quick money, they signed a deal with Hollywood and began filming their stage hits.  If you have ever seen a Marx Brother movie that had Zeppo, then you saw a repeat performance of one of their Broadway plays.  Zeppo felt he was not up to the talent his brothers demonstrated so he left the comedy team to become  their manager.  He remained Groucho's manager until Groucho's death thirty-five years ago today.

Zeppo set up a meeting for his brothers with Irving Thalberg, the wiz kid producer.  Thalberg arranged scripting an A list movie for the boys.  He considered the Marx Brothers the best comedians of the day and pulled no stops in producing "A Night At The Opera."  Originally the studio heads were upset with Thalberg spending so much money on lavish sets and production, they thought the Marxes had peaked years earlier, and could not understand starring them in an "A" feature.  But when the movie was released and it brought in the most money out of any movie MGM put out in 1935, they never bickered again about Thalberg's Marx Brother projects.  Thalberg only lived to see one more Marx Brother movie; "A Day At The Races."  He died of a heart attack while his "A Night In Casablanca" was being turned into a script.  Those three films are considered the best of all Marx Brother movies.

During the 30s and 40s, Groucho was a frequent guest on radio programs.  On a Bob Hope radio show in the mid 1940s, Bob and Groucho were performing from an open script.  Hope accidently dropped his script, so Groucho threw his away.  The two began ad-libbing for the next 15 minutes.  The verbal joust was so funny, that a listener named John Guedel got an idea for a game show featuring Groucho.  It was called "You Bet Your Life."  It took quite a bit of coaxing to get Groucho to agree to do the show.  He couldn't see  the public wanting to listen to him interviewing contestants.  But he was finally talked into it and "You Bet Your Life" played a few years on radio before converting over to TV in 1950.  It stayed on TV for twelve years.  The public loved Groucho as host.

Groucho was a familiar guest on television throughout the 60's.  If the TV guide listed Groucho as a guest on Johnny Carson or Mike Douglas or Merv Griffin or Dinah Shore or Dick Cavett or anywhere else, I would make it a point to be in front of the set when it aired.

I shall leave you now with one last Groucho quote.

"Outside of a dog, a book is a man's best friend.  Inside of a dog, it's too dark to read."

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