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Groucho Marx Biography


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Julius Henry Marx, known as Groucho Marx (October 2, 1890 – August 19, 1977), was an United States comedian, working both with his siblings, the Marx Brothers, and on his own. /b>

Childhood & Pre-Hollywood Successes

The Marx family grew up on the Upper East Side of New York City, in a small Jewish neighborhood sandwiched between Irish-German and Italian neighborhoods. Groucho had a showbusiness uncle: Al Shean of Gallagher and Shean, a noted vaudeville act of the early 20th century. According to Groucho, when Shean visited he would throw the local waifs a few coins so that when he knocked at the door he would be surrounded by children like adoring fans. Groucho and his brothers respected his opinions and asked him on several occasions to write some material for them. Shean's sister, Minnie Schoenberg Marx, was Groucho's mother. She didn't have an entertainment industry career, but she had intense ambition for her sons to go on the stage like their uncle. While pushing her eldest son Leonard (Chico Marx) in piano lessons, she found that Julius had a pleasant soprano voice and the ability to remain on key. Even though Julius' early career goal was to become a doctor, the family's need for income forced Julius out of school at the age of twelve. By that time, Julius had become a voracious reader, particularly fond of Horatio Alger. Throughout the rest of his life, Groucho would augment his lack of formal education by becoming very well-read. After a few comically unsuccessful stabs at entry-level office work and other jobs suitable for adolescents, Julius took to the stage as a boy singer in 1905. Though he reputedly claimed that in the world of vaudeville he enjoyed only "modest success" but was "hopelessly average," it was merely a wisecrack. By 1909, Minnie Marx successfully managed to assemble her sons into a low-quality vaudeville singing group. Billing themselves as 'The Four Nightingales', Julius, Milton (Gummo Marx), Adolph (Harpo Marx), and another boy singer, Lou Levy, traveled the U.S. vaudeville circuits to little fanfare. After exhausting their prospects in the East, the family moved to La Grange, Illinois to play the Midwest. After a particulary dispiriting performance in Nacogdoches, Texas, Julius, Milton, and Arthur began cracking jokes onstage for their own amusement. Much to their surprise, the audience liked them better as comedians than singers. They modified the then-popular Gus Edwards comedy skit, "School Days", and renamed it "Fun In Hi Skule". The Marx Brothers would perform variations on this routine for the next seven years. For a time in vaudeville, all the brothers performed in ethnic accents; Leonard Marx, the oldest Marx brother, developed the "Italian" accent he used as "Chico Marx" to convince some roving bullies that he was Italian, not Jewish. Groucho's character from "Fun In Hi Skule" was an ethnic German, so Groucho played him with a German language accent. However, after the sinking of the RMS Lusitania in 1915, public anti-German sentiment was widespread, and Groucho's "German" character was booed, so he quickly dropped the accent and developed the fast-talking wise guy character he would make famous. The Marx Brothers became the biggest comedic stars of the Palace Theatre, which billed itself as the "Valhalla of Vaudeville." Brother Chico Marx's deal-making skills resulted in three hit plays on Broadway theatre. No comedy routine had ever infected the hallowed Broadway circuit. But reports are unanimous that the Broadway audiences were just as convulsed with laughter as had been the vaudeville ones. The Marx Brothers were now more than a vaudeville sensation; they were a Broadway sensation. It's important to note, therefore, that all this predated their Hollywood career. By the time the Marxes made their first movie, they had already been stars with sharply honed skills; and when Groucho was relaunched to stardom on "You Bet Your Life," he had already been performing successfully for a half century.

Career highlights

Groucho developed a routine as a wise-cracking hustler with a distinctive chicken-walking lope and an exaggerated greasepaint mustache and eyebrows, improvising insults to stuffy dowagers (often played by Margaret Dumont) and anyone else who stood in his way. He and his brothers starred in a series of extraordinarily popular movies and stage shows, often ad lib. (See: Marx Brothers) The use of greasepaint originated spontaneously before a vaudeville performance when he did not have time to apply the pasted-on mustache he had been using (or, according to his autobiography, simply did not enjoy the removal of the mustache every night - imagine tearing a bandaid off the same skin every night). The absurdity of the greasepaint mustache was never discussed on-screen, but in a famous scene in Duck Soup, where both Chico and Harpo are disguising themselves as Groucho, they are briefly seen applying the greasepaint, implicitly answering any question a viewer might have had about where Groucho got his mustache and eyebrows. In the 1930s and 1940s Groucho also worked as a radio comedian and show host. One of his earliest stints was a short lived series in 1932 entitled Flywheel, Shyster and Flywheel, co-starring Chico, who was the only one of his brothers willing to appear on the show. Most of the scripts and discs were subsequently destroyed (except the last shows) only turning up in 1988 in the Library of Congress. In 1947, Groucho was chosen to host a radio quiz program entitled You Bet Your Life, which moved over to television in 1950. The show consisted of Groucho interviewing the contestants and "ad libbing" jokes. Then they would play a brief quiz. The show was responsible for the phrases "Say the secret woid word and divide $100" (that is, each contestant would get $50); and "Who's buried in Grant's Tomb?" or "What color is the White House?" (asked when Groucho felt sorry for a contestant who had not won anything). It would run 11 years on television. One quip from Groucho concerned his response to Sam Wood, the director of the classic film A Night at the Opera (film). Wood was furious with the Marx brothers ad-libs and antics on the set and yelled to all in disgust that he "cannot make actors out of clay." Without missing a beat, Groucho responded, "Nor can you make a director out of Wood." A widely reported, but likely apocryphal, ad-lib is reportedly a response to a female contestant who had almost a dozen children. Groucho asked why the contestant had so many children, to which the contestant replied "I love my husband." Groucho responded, "Lady, I love my cigar, too, but I take it out once in a while."http://www.snopes.com/radiotv/tv/groucho.htm Throughout his career he introduced a number of memorable songs in films, including "Captain Spaulding", "Horse Feathers#Musical numbers", "Hello, I Must Be Going (song)", "Horse Feathers#Musical numbers" and "Lydia the Tattooed Lady". Frank Sinatra, who once quipped that the only thing he could do better than Marx was sing, made a film with Marx and Jane Russell in 1951 entitled Double Dynamite.

Personal life

Groucho was married three times, and all of his marriages ended in divorce. His first wife was chorus girl Ruth Johnson, by whom he had two children, Arthur and Miriam. He had a daughter, Melinda, by his second wife, Kay Gorcey, former wife of Leo Gorcey. His third wife was actress Eden Hartford (married 17 July 1954, divorced 4 December 1969)http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0366692/bio. All three wives were alcoholics. Many of his detractors wondered if he was just attracted to future alcoholics or if he drove them to it. Unfortunately there is a shred of truth there; for if anyone was "always on," it was Groucho Marx. Other than the rarest of occasions, such as parts of his interview with Edward R. Murrow, Groucho played Groucho everywhere he went and in everything he did. Often was the case, for instance, when the Marxes would arrive at a restaurant and be greeted by an interminable wait. "Just tell the Maitre d' who we are," his wife would nag. (In his pre-moustache days, he was rarely recognized in public.) Groucho would say, "OK, OK. Good evening, sir. My name is Jones. This is Mrs. Jones, and here are all the little Joneses." Now his wife would be furious and insist that he tell the Maitre d' the truth. "Oh, all right," said Groucho. "My name is Smith. This is Mrs. Smith, and here are all the little Smiths." Similar anecdotes are corroborated by Groucho's friends, not one of which went without being publicly embarrassed by Groucho on at least one occasion. Once, at a restaurant (the most common location of Groucho's antics), a fan came up to him and said, "Excuse me, but aren't you Groucho Marx?" "Yes," Groucho answered annoyedly. "Oh, I'm your biggest fan! Could I ask you a favor?" the man asked. "Sure, what is it?" asked the even-more annoyed Groucho. "See my wife sitting over there? She's an even bigger fan of yours than I am! Would you be willing to insult her?" Groucho replied, "Sir, if my wife looked like that, I wouldn't need any help thinking of insults." Also, Groucho's son, Arthur, published a brief account of an incident when Arthur was a child. The family was going through airport customs, and while filling out a form, Groucho listed his name as "Julius Henry Marx" and his occupation as "smuggler." Needless to say, chaos ensued. Off-stage Groucho was a voracious reader. He unceasingly lamented the fact that he had only a grammar school education, and to overcompensate he read everything he got his hands on. His knowledge of literature from all eras was by any standards extraordinary. Typical of his achievements, this one was discussed only demurely by Groucho himself. "I think TV is very educational," he once said. "Every time someone turns on a TV, I go in the other room and read." Despite this lack of formal education, he wrote many extraordinarily funny books, including the autobiographical Groucho and Me (1959) (Da Capo Press, 1995, ISBN 0-306-80666-5) and Memoirs of a Mangy Lover (1964) (Da Capo Press, 2002, ISBN 0-306-81104-9). And he was personal friends with such literary giants as T. S. Eliot and Carl Sandburg. Much of his personal correspondence with those and other figures is featured in the book, 'The Groucho Letters."

"You Bet Your Life"

In the mid 1940s, during a depressing lull in his career, Groucho was scheduled to appear on a radio show with Bob Hope. Annoyed that he was made to wait in the waiting room for 40 minutes, Groucho went on the air in a foul mood. Hope started by saying, "Why, it's Groucho Marx, ladies and gentlemen. (applause) Groucho, what brings you here from the hot desert?" Groucho retorted, "Hot desert my foot, I've been standing in the cold waiting room for 40 minutes." Groucho continued to ignore the script, and although Hope was a formidable ad-libber in his own right, he couldn't begin to keep up with Groucho, who lengthened the scene well beyond its allotted time slot with a veritable onslaught of improvised wisecracks. Listening in on the show was producer John Guedel, who got a brainstorm. He approached Groucho about doing a quiz show. "A quiz show? Only actors who are completely washed up resort to a quiz show." Undeterred, Guedel explained that the quiz would be only a backdrop for Groucho's interviews of people, and the storm of ad-libbing that they would elicit. Groucho said, "Well, I've had no success in radio, and I can't hold on to a sponsor. At this point I'll try anything." "You Bet Your Life" aired for four years on radio (1947-1951) and an additional eleven on television (1951-1962). The show was an utter sensation, one of the most popular in the history of radio and television. With one of the best announcers and, as it turns out, straight men in the business, George Fenneman, as his faithful foil, Groucho slayed his audiences with extraordinary improvised conversation, usually with the most ordinary of guests. The more popular the game show the more likely it was that Lowell Toy Manufacturing Corporation of New York made the home game version. "You Bet Your Life" was no exception and each contestant took home a game as a memento of their appearance with Groucho.

Ad-Libbing Controversy: Was it Scripted or Not?

Groucho's competitors became so livid by the comedian's unexpected and colossal success that they circulated rumors that "You Bet Your Life" was completely scripted and Groucho wasn't ad-libbing at all. They felt vindicated when a photo surfaced, taken from backstage, showing Groucho looking at a transparent screen. The truth was the scripting was not only minimal, but it was more for the contestants' benefit. Groucho never once had a contestant (except for the famous ones) that he'd met previously. The staff fed Groucho the questions they thought he should ask, but Groucho himself never knew what the answer would be. Admittedly the staff did contain two writers, who would contribute a few jokes. Today, few critics, commentators, or authors disagree that the majority of Groucho's hilarity was indeed ad-libbed.

Later years

Around the time that "You Bet Your Life" transitioned to TV (1951), Groucho grew a real moustache, the lack of which had earlier been an effective means of hiding himself from fans. In the early 1970s, Groucho made a comeback of sorts doing a live one-man show, including one recorded at Carnegie Hall in 1972 and released as a double album, An Evening with Groucho, on A&M Records. He also made an appearance on a short-lived variety show hosted by Bill Cosby, who idolized Groucho, in 1973. He also developed friendships with rock star Alice Cooper (the two were photographed together for Rolling Stone Magazine), and television host Dick Cavett, becoming a frequent guest on Cavett's late-night talk show. His previous works once again became popular and were accompanied by new books of interviews and other transcribed conversations by Richard J. Anobile and Charlotte Chandler. He had become quite frail by this time and his last few years were accompanied by descent into senilityhttp://www.povonline.com/cols/COL238.htmhttp://www.povonline.com/cols/COL239.htm and a controversy over a companionship he had developed with Erin Fleming, which consequently raised disputes over his estate. He also accepted an honorary Oscar in 1974, in his final major public appearance. He then took a bow for all the Marx Brothers.

Senility and death

Groucho's children, particularly his son Arthur Marx (writer, tennis), felt strongly that Fleming was pushing his weak father beyond his physical and mental limits. Writer Mark Evanier concurs with this.http://www.povonline.com/cols/COL238.htmhttp://www.povonline.com/cols/COL239.htm Groucho Marx died of pneumonia on August 19, 1977. He was cremated, and the ashes were interred in the Eden Memorial Park Cemetery in Mission Hills, Los Angeles, California. (He had jokingly expressed desire to be buried above Marilyn Monroe.) Aged 86 at death, Groucho was the longest-lived of all the Marx brothers, though younger brother Zeppo Marx outlived him by two years. His death undoubtedly would have received more attention at the time had it not occurred three days after that of Elvis Presley. In an interview, he jokingly suggested his epitaph read "Excuse me, I can't stand up", but his mausoleum marker bears only his stage name and years of birth and death.
Groucho's legacy

Various Groucho-like characters and Groucho references have appeared in popular culture, some long after Marx's death, a testament to the character's lasting appeal.
  • Dave Sim, in his controversial comic book Cerebus the Aardvark, cast Groucho as the slippery, wisecracking but indomitable Lord Julius, Grandlord of the bureaucrat-ridden City-state of Palnu.
  • Bugs Bunny dresses as Groucho for the cartoon Slick Hare (1947), where he's trying to hide in plain sight in the Mocambo. (Meanwhile, Elmer Fudd dresses as Harpo Marx.)
  • Bugs again befuddles Elmer Fudd memorably in "Wideo Wabbit" (1956) by imitating the mustachioed comedian in a You Bet Your Life parody called You Beat Your Wife. Later he imitates Art Carney and slaps comical glasses on Elmer, admonishing "Gee, what a Groucho!"
  • In The Way We Were (1973), Barbra Streisand and Robert Redford attend a party where everyone dresses as one of the Marx Brothers.
  • Alan Alda often vamped as Groucho on M*A*S*H (TV series) and a minor semi-recurring character in the series (played by Loudon Wainwright III) was named Captain Calvin Spalding in a nod towards Groucho's character in Animal Crackers, Captain Geoffrey T. Spaulding.
  • On Pokémon, Dr. Quackenpoker (a parody of Dr. Hackenbush from A Day at the Races) meets up with Ash & Company. He sounds and acts like Groucho (sans the cigar). A joke includes, "One day, I shot a Magikarp in my pajamas. How it got into my pajamas, I'll never know."
  • In Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968), Grandpa Potts (Lionel Jeffries) tells a variation of the "elephant in my pajamas" joke.
  • Sir Isaiah Berlin also had a quatrain stating, "The world wouldn’t be /In such a snarl /If Marx had been Groucho /Instead of Karl".
  • In the Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers musical Swing Time (1936), Astaire sings "Never Gonna Dance" by Jerome Kern and Dorothy Fields, which includes the lines: "To Groucho Marx I give my cravat/To Harpo goes my shiny silk hat."
  • Gabe Kaplan portrayed Marx in the biographical Groucho (1982) which was originally produced on Broadway. Kaplan also impersonated Groucho, his hero, in his television series Welcome Back Kotter, and in WhatzUp Magazine recalled that he had even approached Groucho to make a cameo on the show but Groucho's care-giver, Erin Fleming, would not allow it. (According to Mark Evanier, Marx did visit the set with Fleming, but was not well enough to perform.)
  • In the Tiny Toon Adventures episode "A Night in Kokomo", Groucho and his brothers have been re-assembled. This is noteworthy because most of the target audience of this show most likely never watched their movies.
  • In Tiziano Sclavi's comic book series Dylan Dog, the hero's sidekick and assistant is called and looks like Groucho Marx. His moustache was removed in the US version of the series.
  • Rob Zombie uses several Groucho Marx character names (Captain Spaulding from Animal Crackers (film), Otis Driftwood from A Night at the Opera (film), Rufus T. Firefly from Duck Soup, Hugo Z. Hackenbush from A Day at the Races (film), S. Quentin Quale from Go West (film), and Wolf J. Flywheel from The Big Store) for his movies, House of 1000 Corpses & The Devil's Rejects.
  • At the end of the basketball episode of Clone High where Joan reveals that she dressed up as a man to play on the team, Principal Scudworth calls out for everyone else wearing a fake moustache to please leave. A man with a fake moustache walks by, followed by a goose wearing a similar moustache, followed by Groucho Marx (or the clone thereof).
  • In an episode of the Spain sitcom Aquí no hay quien viva, Paco (Guillermo Ortega) does an impression of Marx in costume, sporting the fake moustache and eyebrows, glasses and a cigar, imitating Marx's high-pitched fast-talking voice while speaking in Spanish language.
  • Two of Queen (band)'s albums, A Night at the Opera (Queen album) (1975) and A Day at the Races (album) (1976) are named after two of the Marx Brothers' films. Queen (band) were Marx Brothers fans and decided to use these titles for their fourth and fifth albums after watching the films. (From "The Making Of A Night At The Opera")
  • In character as Mike Stivic, Rob Reiner imitated Groucho Marx on a few occasions on the 1970s sitcom All in the Family, including a few scenes in a 1974 episode in which Mike Stivic and his wife Gloria Stivic (Sally Struthers) get ready to go to a Marx Brothers film festival; Mike, dressed as Groucho, does a number of imitations. Gloria is dressed as Harpo Marx.
  • Robin Williams's Genie in Aladdin briefly impersonates Groucho while enumerating the conditions of wishes at the beginning. He appears for a few seconds in black and white and is even followed by a duck dropping from the ceiling (a reference to You Bet Your Life). Doubtless, this in-joke was intended for the adult audience of the film. Also, in the second sequel of the film, Aladdin and the King of Thieves, the genie briefly morphes into three of the Marx brothers at once when trying to cheer up Princess Jasmine.
  • The Vlasic Pickles stork mascot is clearly a homage to Groucho, holding the pickle like a cigar and having a very similar voice. image:stork icon26.jpg
  • In the animated series Animaniacs, the character Yakko acts similarly to Groucho quite often.
  • MTV's Celebrity Deathmatch included an episode in which a deathmatch pitted Groucho against John Wayne, in which Harpo and Chico also make appearances during the fight. Roger Jackson provided the voice of Groucho, and Jimmy St. Cleve voiced Chico.
  • In a tribute to Groucho, the BBC remade the radio sitcom Flywheel, Shyster and Flywheel, with contemporary actors playing the parts of the original cast. The series is currently being repeated on digital radio station BBC7.
  • In the Cartoon Network series Foster's Home for Imaginary Friends, a character named Rubber Chicken wears Groucho glasses and talks like him and makes jokes like him. Also, in the episode "Imposter's Home for Make-em-ups", when Frankie dresses in a costume and calls herself "Goof-Goof", she talks to herself about her plan in a Groucho voice and does his eyebrow raising face.
  • In a Sesame Street movie promo for Lowe's Theaters, Elmo is seen dressed as Groucho, with Telly as Harpo and Herry Monster as Chico.
  • In the SpongeBob SquarePants episode "Scaredy Pants", Patrick Star disguises himself as Groucho when he goes trick-or-treating with SpongeBob.
  • Groucho is mentioned in the song "Fly on a Windshield" by progressive rock band Genesis (band) featured in their album The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway.
  • In Woody Allen's film Everyone Says I Love You there's a Groucho based musical number in French.
  • In the final The Adventures of Tintin album Tintin and the Picaros a giant mask representing Groucho is seen in the crowd celebrating carnival.
  • A puppet representing his image features on the cover art of Have You Fed the Fish? by singer song writer Badly Drawn Boy.
  • Cult TV series Mystery Science Theater 3000 often featured Crow T. Robot doing an impersonation of Groucho when mocking a movie. One particularly memorable quip featured Crow saying "Say the secret woid and Bill Cosby rips off your series" (or words to that effect); this was a direct reference to the Cosby-hosted, short-lived revival of You Bet Your Life.
  • In the Marx Brothers-inspired comedy Brain Donors (Paramount Pictures 1992), John Turturro plays a contemporary Groucho Marx as the character Roland T. Flakfizer.
  • In the 1977 Best Picture-winning Woody Allen film, Annie Hall, Woody opens the movie with a famous quotation, which he attributed to Groucho: "I refuse to belong to any club that will accept me as a member." The quotation was the end of an anecdote in Groucho's autobiography, "Groucho and Me." In a 2005 poll, The Comedian's Comedian, Groucho was voted the 5th greatest comedy act ever by fellow comedians and comedy insiders. His glasses, nose, and moustache have become icons of comedy — to this day, glasses with fake noses and moustaches (referred to as both "nose-glasses" and "Groucho-glasses") resembling Groucho are still sold by novelty and costume shops, and worn by young people, some of whom may not understand their origin.

    "Marx and Lennon"

    The liberal political views of Groucho Marx and singer John Lennon were not lost on satirists, who capitalized on the coincidence of their surnames' similarity to Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin:
  • A book called 'Marx & Lennon: The Parallel Sayings' was published in 2005. As the title implies, it recorded the parallel sayings between Groucho Marx and John Lennon.
  • In 1994 the Republic of Abkhazia (an unrecognized state that is officially part of Georgia (country)) issued two postage stamps featuring John Lennon and Groucho Marx, spoofing Abkhazia's communist state past.
  • The cover art for Firesign Theater's 1969 album How Can You Be in Two Places at Once When You're Not Anywhere at All featured a Communist icon banner with pictures of the two enjoining "All Hail Marx Lennon" printed in pseudo-Russian lettering.
  • In his book It All Started With Columbus, first printed in the mid-1950s, humorist Richard Armour discussed Karl Marx and referred to him as "the funniest of the Marx Brothers".
  • In the comedy role-playing game Paranoia, the Communist faction carries pictures of Groucho Marx and sing John Lennon songs due to a lack of knowledge of communism itself.
  • Fans of the Marx Brothers sometimes describe themselves as "Marxists of the Groucho kind".

    Quotations about Groucho Marx

  • "Groucho Marx was the best comedian this country ever produced. ... He is simply unique in the same way that Pablo Picasso or Igor Stravinsky are." —Woody Allen
  • A famous French witticism (often attributed to Jean-Luc Godard) was, " Je suis Marxiste, tendance Groucho," i.e. "I'm a Marxism of the Groucho variety". This line was notably heard in the 1972 comedy by Claude Lelouch "L'aventure c'est l'aventure", (starring Lino Ventura, Aldo Maccione, Jacques Brel, Johnny Hallyday and Charles Denner) where the would-be heroes get involved with a central-American guerilla; it spread to other nations as well in the 1960s and 1970s. The Youth International Party, a 1960's-1970's ad-hoc political group of Anarcho-Marxists known for street theatre and pranks, were denounced in a Communist newspaper editorial as "Groucho Marxists".

    Courtesy of: http://www.wikipedia.org/

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