- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 3, 2004

LOS ANGELES - During the dreary Depression days, moviegoers were startled, then amused and finally convulsed by a kind of comedy they had never seen before.

Schooled in vaudeville and Broadway shows, the four Marx brothers brought to the screen their own chaotic — and subversive — view of the world and all its follies.

Groucho was the leader of the unruly gang, insulting the authorities with throwaway quips. Chico was his willing confederate; he also played the piano with a comic flair. Harpo, a chaser of blondes, never spoke, yet expressed himself through wild gestures and his expert playing of the harp. Zeppo was the straight man.

“In that [Depression] period, there was a huge, huge need for escapism, as evidenced by the surreal Busby Berkeley musicals,” observes Richard Schickel, Time magazine movie critic and an author of books on film. “The Marx brothers were unique, I think. They were so absurdist and almost surreal.

“I’m not sure they would have been successful in later times. They were right for that period. People wanted to see crazy, insane stuff that made no real sense.”

The five films the Marxes made for Paramount from 1929 to 1933 — “The Cocoanuts,” “Animal Crackers,” “Monkey Business,” “Horse Feathers” and “Duck Soup” — are being released on DVD on Tuesday by Universal Studios Home Video in a handsome package (suggested price: $59.98).

The brothers were born in New York, sons of a Jewish tailor from Alsace and a mother whose family was involved in show business. Minnie Marx became the ultimate stage mother, schooling her sons as entertainers and finding them jobs.

Early in their careers, the brothers acquired nicknames relating to their personalities that lasted a lifetime. Herbert Marx, for instance, became Zeppo because he was constantly moving like the zeppelins of World War I.

The Marx brothers’ success on Broadway made them ideal movie prospects with the advent of talkies. Their first two films, “The Cocoanuts” and “Animal Crackers,” shot at Paramount’s New York studio, closely followed their two stage hits. Then they moved to Hollywood, where they would spend the rest of their lives.

In his autobiography, Groucho recalled that Paramount executives argued that his trademark painted mustache wouldn’t be accepted in movies, nor would his habit of muttering asides directly to the audience. Groucho insisted the audience wouldn’t mind, and he was proved right.

“Groucho was usually the one who read the scripts and said they were no good,” says his son, Arthur Marx. “S.J. Perelman, Arthur Sheekman and other comedy writers were brought out from New York, and they would sit around our living room and talk. But my father was never happy with the scripts.

“Chico wasn’t interested in scripts; he was more interested in girls,” Arthur Marx continued. “Harpo claimed he never wrote anything, not even letters. He sent a famous telegram on my father’s birthday. It read: ‘No message. Harpo.’”

Harpo’s son, Bill Marx, comments that his dad had a more rounded life than his brothers. A bachelor for 48 years, his life changed when he met his wife, Susan. “They adopted four children, and Susan returned him full circle to the feeling of family that he had when he was a child. He was a good father.”

The Marx brothers were dropped by Paramount when their fifth film, “Duck Soup,” tanked. They feared their film careers were over, and Zeppo deserted the team to become an agent.

“That’s all right,” Groucho said. “We’ll be funnier without Zeppo.”

Then Irving Thalberg invited them to MGM. He argued that romance had to be added to their films to entice women, who tended not to be Marx fans. Mr. Thalberg also insisted that the comedy skits be tested before live audiences.

Kitty Carlisle and Allan Jones were added for romance, and the three Marxes tried out the comedy scenes in out-of-town theaters. The result was “A Night at the Opera,” their biggest hit.

After four more MGM comedies of diminishing quality and two independent films, the Marxes broke up. Chico hung out with his card-playing cronies. Harpo guested on TV, notably with “I Love Lucy,” and also played concerts and benefits.

Lead man Groucho, of course, remained in the limelight with his popular TV game show “You Bet Your Life,” which ran from 1950 to 1961.

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