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|Also Known As:||Julius Henry Marx,Groucho [Marx]||Died:||August 19, 1977|
|Born:||October 2, 1890||Cause of Death:||pneumonia|
|Birth Place:||New York City, New York, USA||Profession:||Cast ... comedian actor TV host radio host writer|
With his signature glasses, cigar and grease-painted mustache, Groucho Marx led the manic madness of The Marx Brothers in more than a dozen films, highlighted by his rapid-fire, sardonic wit and mastery of the double entendre. Encouraged by their ambitious mother, Groucho and his brothers crafted their individual personas while toiling on the vaudeville circuit for more than 15 years before taking their act to Broadway in 1924. Working with writers like George S. Kaufman and ensemble players like Margaret Dumont, Groucho and the Marx Brothers eventually brought their comedic chaos to the cinema with such early hits as "The Cocoanuts" (1929), "Animal Crackers" (1930) and "Monkey Business" (1931). Underappreciated in its day, "Duck Soup" (1933) found the group at their unbridled creative peak, while the more structured "A Night at the Opera" (1935) and "A Day at the Races" (1937) were undeniably crowd pleasers. Although The Marx Brothers’ film career began to wane in the years leading up to World War II, Groucho enjoyed a lengthy second career as the beloved host of the long-running game show "You Bet Your Life" (NBC, 1950-1961), which began on radio in 1947. Outliving his brothers Chico and Harpo and outlasting nearly all his contemporaries, the 82-year-old comedian had the crowd in stitches one last time with a sold-out performance at Carnegie Hall in 1972. Long before his passing, Groucho had become more than a movie star and comic legend – he was an indelible part of American iconography.
Born Julius Henry Marx on Oct. 2, 1890 in New York City, he was one of five sons born to Jewish-German immigrants Minnie and Samuel "Frenchie" Marx. Although a firstborn son had died mere months after birth, Julius (later, Groucho) had two older brothers, Leonard (Chico) and Arthur (Harpo), in addition to two younger siblings, Milton (Gummo) and Herbert (Zeppo). Marx's maternal family was an artistic one and included famed vaudeville star Al Shean from the popular team of Gallagher and Shean. Minnie, the Marx family’s ambitious matriarch, was a defining force in the lives of all her young children and from an early age, she groomed them to follow in Uncle Shean’s footsteps. While Chico and Harpo proved themselves to be virtuosos on the piano and harp, respectively, Groucho developed into a respectable vocalist, in addition to exhibiting impressive skill on the guitar.
The need to help support the financially struggling Marx family led to Groucho dropping out of school early on. After a number of low-paying menial jobs, the 15-year-old Marx boy broke into show business in 1905 as part of a musical vaudeville act called The Leroy Trio. More acts followed, until Minnie – acting as manager – cobbled another group together, initially comprised of Groucho, Gummo and Mabel O’Donnell, billed as The Three Nightingales – redubbed The Four Nightingales with the later addition of Harpo. When Minnie herself eventually joined the boys on stage, along with their Aunt Hannah Schikler, the expanded troupe were billed as The Six Mascots for a short time. After having toured most of the eastern vaudeville circuit with limited success, Minnie and Frenchie moved the Marx clan to Chicago, IL in 1909. Operating from their new home base the family traveled extensively throughout the Midwest, working the region’s lucrative vaudeville circuit.
During one particularly rough performance, Groucho, Harpo and Gummo began to lighten the proceedings – if only for their own amusement – by cracking several impromptu jokes. When the witticisms yielded unexpectedly favorable results, the Marx Brothers decided to make comedy a more prominent fixture in their act. Following a popular trend of the day, the troupe toured with a classroom musical-comedy called "Fun in Hi Skule" throughout 1910. Groucho led the proceedings as the German-accented Herr Teacher, a character that laid the foundation for much of his future onscreen persona. Two years later, Chico joined the family for the "Hi Skule" spin-off "Mr. Green’s Reception," which had begun as the second act of its popular predecessor.
Groucho and his brothers continued to enjoy stage success with productions like the long-running "Home Again" (1914), written by their uncle, Al Shean. It was Shean who accommodated Harpo’s dislike of public speaking by reducing his dialogue to the point of making his performance a pantomime. After the sinking of the RMS Lusitania in 1915 and the onset of World War I, anti-German sentiment ran high enough to prompt Groucho to drop his previous trademark accent and quickly craft a new persona. He opted for the guise of a wise-cracking con man, and by 1920, the Marx Brothers returned to New York with their iconic personalities in place. In addition to Groucho’s cigar-wagging huckster, there was Chico, the fast-talking Italian, and Harpo, the mute, childlike trickster. Zeppo, who had replaced older brother Gummo a few years prior, played the straight-man, solely by virtue of being the tallest and best-looking of the bunch.
At this point, The Marx Brothers were one of the most popular vaudeville acts in America. Largely under Groucho’s creative direction and aided by Chico’s impressive business savvy, they made the unprecedented leap of taking a vaudeville act to the hallowed halls of Broadway. In 1924, they opened the musical revue, "I’ll Say She Is," which was in large part an amalgam of previous skits strung together. Culminating with a hilarious bit featuring Groucho as a love-struck Napoleon, the show became a breakout hit and ran for nearly a year. It was during this time that Groucho – either in a hurry or simply tired of applying the adhesive gum – substituted his fake mustache for an exaggerated one done entirely in black greasepaint, complete with matching eyebrows. The look – combined with the ever-present cigar, eyeglasses and stooped swagger –was one he maintained for 20 years, becoming one of the most recognizable caricatures in history.
Encouraged by renowned theater critic Alexander Woolcott to do so, the brothers permanently adopted the stage names of Groucho, Chico, Harpo and Zeppo for their next Broadway endeavor, 1925’s "The Cocoanuts." With music and lyrics provided by Irving Berlin, the story – set at a seaside hotel during the ill-fated Florida Land Boom – was written specifically for the Marx Brothers by George S. Kaufman. Kaufman was instrumental in helping to further shape the brothers’ trademark characterizations in the wildly successful production and he continued the evolution with their next musical-comedy, "Animal Crackers," which premiered on Broadway in 1928. The even more anarchic "Animal Crackers" solidified the Marx Brothers’ status as one of the biggest acts in America, which soon attracted film studios looking to exploit the new novelty of talking pictures.
Signed to a five-year contract with Paramount Pictures, the Marx Brothers began work on the movie adaptation of "The Cocoanuts" (1929) during the day at New York’s Astoria Studios then returned to Broadway to perform in the still-running "Animal Crackers" each night. Although the primitive sound techniques of the time presented several challenges during the shoot, the finished product – which Groucho and his brothers were reportedly initially appalled by – captured enough of their manic energy and snappy dialogue to make movie audiences howl. Sadly, this professional triumph was marred by the death of the indomitable Minnie Marx in September of 1929.
With their feature film debut bringing in impressive big box office, Groucho and the boys returned to Astoria Studios to film their sophomore effort, "Animal Crackers" (1930). As famed explorer Captain Geoffrey T. Spaulding, Groucho wreaked havoc at a dinner party thrown in his honor by the wealthy dowager, Mrs. Rittenhouse (frequent Marx Brothers collaborator, Margaret Dumont). The character of the irrepressible braggart, Spaulding, remained the one most closely associated with Marx throughout the remainder of his career and the film endured as one of the most beloved in the Marx Brothers’ extensive catalogue. Flush with the success of their first two motion pictures, Groucho, his brothers and their families all move to Hollywood in 1931.
Their third release for Paramount, "Monkey Business" (1931), was also the first Marx Brothers movie written specifically for the screen and not based on an existing stage play. Containing little in the way of plot to get in the way of Groucho, Chico and Harpo’s shenanigans, the action took place largely on an ocean liner on which the boys had stowed away. Borrowing liberally from previous stage material and given an added comedic boost thanks to additional bits written by Uncle Shean, "Monkey Business" was an even bigger hit than their two previous films. The Marx Brothers were now officially big time Hollywood movie stars.
"Horse Feathers" (1932) was a similarly free-form romp through college life, featuring Professor Wagstaff (Groucho) cueing the mayhem with his anti-establishment anthem "I'm Against It" and adding to the chaos by recruiting Chico and Harpo to play on his unconventional collegiate football team. At the pinnacle of their popularity, the Marx Brothers were all featured on the cover of TIME magazine that year, in an image from the film’s indelible climax, often described as one of the greatest football-related moments in movie history. That same year, Groucho teamed with Chico on radio for the NBC comedy, "Flywheel, Shyster and Flywheel" (1932-33), on which he played the hilariously incompetent attorney Waldorf T. Flywheel, assisted by his bumbling employee, Ravelli (Chico). For obvious reasons, Harpo did not contribute to the audio program.
An absurdist satire on the politics of war, "Duck Soup" (1933) featured Groucho as Rufus T. Firefly, leader of the small bankrupt country of Freedonia, aided and abetted by a pair of loyalty-challenged spies (Chico & Harpo). Although it would eventually be considered the comedy troupe’s cinematic masterpiece, "Duck Soup" proved a bit too much for some audiences and critics at the time and failed to meet the troubled Paramount’s lofty box-office expectations. With relations strained to the breaking point and their five-picture deal with the studio satisfied, the Marx Brothers and Paramount Pictures parted ways that year. Brother Zeppo, who had long labored in the thankless role of straight man despite his impressive comedic abilities, also chose to end his professional relationship with his brothers after the release of "Duck Soup."
Now a three-man team, the Marx Brothers were picked up by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer at the behest of its production chief Irving Thalberg, who recast the madcap trio in the studio's well-established mold. A firm believer in narrative structure and relatable characters, Thalberg set the brothers up as more sympathetic, helpful figures and infused love stories into the proceedings in order to appeal to audiences less enamored of the team's usual manic, destructive humor. With these adjustments, plus classier production values and the return of "Cocoanuts" writers Kaufman and Ryskind, along with the new addition of director Sam Wood, MGM released "A Night at the Opera" (1935). Despite some fans' opinion that the bloated production values and saccharine romantic elements blunted the comedy’s anarchic edge and slowed the pace of the film, "A Night at the Opera" nonetheless became a mammoth hit for Groucho and his brothers, their biggest since "Horse Feathers."
After testing material extensively on stage prior to production – another tactic insisted upon by Thalberg – Groucho, Chico and Harpo returned with "A Day at the Races" (1937). With a plot involving an attempt to save a struggling sanitarium, thoroughbred horses and the usual hijinks, it delivered yet another hit for The Marx Brothers and MGM. Unfortunately, Thalberg’s sudden death during production ultimately robbed Groucho and his siblings of their greatest champion at the studio and the quality of their subsequent films with MGM suffered as a result. After taking some time to co-write the screenplay for Warner Brothers' "The King and the Chorus Girl" (1937), Groucho rejoined Chico and Harpo on loan to RKO for "Room Service" (1938), the only Marx Brothers feature not written expressly for them. It did, however, feature a little-known starlet who would go on to comedic greatness herself, Lucille Ball.
Returning to MGM, the Marx Brothers quickly turned out the formulaic and relatively listless "At the Circus" (1939) and "Go West" (1940). Groucho and his brothers closed out their commitment to the studio with "The Big Store" (1941), a movie the aging and increasingly disillusioned Marx Brothers were then billing as their final film. With his movie career apparently at an end, Groucho served as host for the musical-variety radio program, "Pabst Blue Ribbon Town," from 1943-44 and later co-wrote the play "A Time for Elizabeth" with his "King and the Chorus Girl" collaborator, Norman Krasna, in 1946. Contrary to their earlier assertions – and purportedly necessitated by Chico’s mounting gambling debts – the Marx Brothers reunited on screen once again for United Artists’ "A Night in Casablanca" (1946), produced by UA co-founder and silent era star, Mary Pickford. A bit of a return to form, if not former glory, it placed the boys at a hotel in the exotic titular city, and added intrigue and murder with a dastardly escaped Nazi. In a pair of firsts, Groucho appeared onscreen the following year with his real mustache and without either of his siblings in the Carmen Miranda musical-comedy, "Copacabana" (1947).
His biggest post-film success, however, came with the quiz show "You Bet Your Life," which began on radio in 1947 and eventually transferred to television. Essentially an excuse to showcase Groucho’s legendary quick wit while he familiarized himself with his guests, "You Bet Your Life" (NBC, 1950-1961) earned the performer an Emmy for Outstanding Personality in its first season and made Groucho one of the most beloved television staples throughout the 1950s. Considered by many to be a Marx Brothers film in name only, "Love Happy" (1950) – featuring an early walk on by a young Marilyn Monroe – was essentially a vehicle for Harpo, with Chico lending support and Groucho serving primarily as narrator. While the film featured several enjoyable moments – most of them, thanks to Harpo – for Marx Brothers fans, it was the end of an era.
Groucho carried on as a solo performer in such films as the Frank Sinatra flop, "Double Dynamite" (1951) and "A Girl in Every Port" (1952), a naval comedy co-starring William Bendix. He picked up an uncredited cameo in the lightweight Rock Hudson romp, "Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?" (1957) then appeared in Irwin Allen's campy all-star retrospective of humanity, "The Story of Mankind" (1957) – the very last movie to feature all three Marx Brothers, though never in the same scene. That bittersweet milestone would come to pass on television with the 30-minuted pantomime, "The Incredible Jewel Robbery" (CBS, 1959). The following year, Groucho delivered a gleeful performance as Ko-Ko the Lord High Executioner in a televised production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s "The Mikado" (NBC, 1960).
Much to the dismay of longtime fans, any chance of a Marx Brothers reunion was extinguished with the death of Chico in 1961, followed three years later by Harpo’s passing. And although he continued to make quest appearances on various television talk and variety shows for years to come, Groucho turned in one last big screen performance as "God" in the bizarre Otto Preminger counter-culture comedy "Skidoo" (1968). Shortly after divorcing from his third wife, Eden Hartford, in 1969, Groucho became involved with Canadian actress Erin Fleming. Younger than the venerated comedian by half a century, Fleming’s attachment to Groucho was a topic of interest for the press and a cause for concern for several close friends and family members who felt she was only out to further her own career. Groucho’s son, Arthur, was particularly concerned that Fleming was pushing the octogenarian too hard when she encouraged Groucho to embark on a comedy concert tour that culminated with a sold out performance at Carnegie Hall in 1972. It would be Groucho’s last hurrah as an entertainer.
After being presented with an honorary Oscar at the 1974 Academy Awards ceremony, Groucho essentially withdrew from public life. Leveling charges of physical abuse and citing Fleming’s Svengali-like influence over the increasingly addled Groucho, the Marx family entered into a battle for legal custody of the patriarch during the final years of his life. Even in his diminished state, the comedian retained his wit, as illustrated by his retort to a nurse who told the frail Groucho she needed to see if he had a temperature. "Don’t be silly," he scoffed, "Everybody has a temperature." Months after The Marx Brothers were inducted in to the Motion Picture Hall of Fame, Groucho Marx died from complications due to pneumonia on Aug. 19, 1977 at the age of 86. In a bit of ironic bad timing that surely would have prompted a sardonic retort of his own, Groucho’s passing was somewhat overshadowed by the world’s continued mourning for Elvis Presley, who had died suddenly just three days prior.
By Bryce Coleman
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