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Anti-Comedy:

The Art of Groucho Marx

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Groucho May Have Been The Leader And The Most Well Known Of The Marx Brothers, But Without Contributions From Chico, Harpo And Even Zeppo And Gummo, The Famously Funny Family May Have Never Had Such An Immense Cultural Impact

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By David Fantle and Tom Johnson
Reel to Real Special for Modern Times Magazine

Sept. 29, 2014 — More than 80 years since they first made film audiences laugh, some of the jokes the Marx Brothers are remembered for are gems that haven’t lost a bit of their lustre.
“I have a good mind to join a club and beat you over the head with it.”

“One morning I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got in my pajamas, I don't know.”

“I can see you standing over a hot stove, but I can't see the stove.”

“Why don't you bore a hole in yourself and let the sap run out?"

Admit it – as a classic film fan, it’s almost impossible not to be a Marxist. That’s a euphemism for being a fan of the Marx Brothers, the zany siblings (Groucho, Harpo, Chico and sometimes Zeppo) that revolutionized film comedy with their anti-establishment antics and remain canonized by film buffs throughout the world.

We officially became Marxists while attending the University of Minnesota in the late 1970s when we didn’t take Groucho’s advice (about never joining any club that would have him as a member) and joined an on-campus fan club called, appropriately, The Marx Brotherhood.

The unofficial leader of the comedy revolution was Groucho who was born Julius on Oct. 2, 1890. The round glasses, the greasepaint mustache and eyebrows, the frock coats, the exaggerated walk with his torso bent almost 90 degrees. If that wasn’t funny enough – what came out of his mouth (the deluge of puns, rapid-fire put-downs and insane palaver) definitely was!

Groucho will be celebrated on his birthday with a series of his movies, including two underachieving solo comedies, Double Dynamite and A Girl in Every Port on TCM on Oct. 2. The birthday screenings will also include the Marx Brothers Broadway adaptation of Room Service and their last two efforts at MGM, Go West and The Big Store.

While Groucho and his brothers are generally venerated for their comedic contributions, colleagues often had a different opinion of the brothers away from the camera.

Hermes Pan, famed choreographer mostly associated with Fred Astaire, appeared in the chorus of the Marx Brothers Broadway show, Animal Crackers. In an interview he gave us his assessment of the brothers: “Groucho was too sarcastic. Chico was all right, but he was always skirt chasing. Harpo was the nicest.”

The fourth brother, Zeppo, retired from the act after appearing in the first five Paramount films and became an agent. Pan was one of his clients. “He never did a damn thing for me,” Pan recalled. “Everything I ever did, I got on my own.”

Lucille Ball appeared with the Brothers in Room Service. Harpo, the silent one also guest-starred with Lucy in a classic episode of  I Love Lucy, in which the two did a send-up of the Groucho/Chico famous mirror scene in Duck Soup.

We asked Lucy if working with the Brothers was as chaotic behind the scenes as it appeared on the screen.

“Yes, it was crazy with the exception of one, who was an extraordinary, sensitive, intelligent and adorable man. That was Harpo,” Ball said.

While there is no clear consensus on what Groucho was like in real life, the verdict on his comedy is unanimous: timeless and classic.

David Fantle & Tom Johnson have been entertainment journalists for more than 30 years and co-authored the 2004 book, Reel to Real: 25 years of celebrity profiles from vaudeville to movies to TV. Fantle teaches film and television at Marquette University in Milwaukee and Johnson is a former senior editor for Netflix. They can be reached at www.reeltoreal.com
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