The youngest of the Marx Brothers trio, Julius “Groucho” Marx, was also the most popular and versatile of the siblings. Groucho Marx’s place in the American comedy canon is undisputed and he is regarded second only to Charlie Chaplin in terms of his status in the comedian fraternity. While most comedians of his generation were stuck to one particular medium, Groucho was most remarkable for his adaptability and mastery of any new medium of entertainment that would appear at the time. For example, long after his brothers faded into retirement, Groucho was still holding stage in radio and Television. By studying the career of Groucho Marx in detail, much about the history of popular culture could be learned. Marx, having lived and performed in the first half of the twentieth century, bore witness to the advances in the way entertainment will be produced and delivered. Hence, Marx’s progress as a performer is interlinked with the revolutionary technological advancements of the day. (The Best of Groucho, 37)
Vaudeville was a highly innovative form of entertainment that was very popular during the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century. It comprised a series of short but action-packed “acts” that could range from comedy skits to dance and music to mimicry. The acts were performed for a direct audience similar to the contemporary theatre and hence required the actors to possess qualities of spontaneity and talents for ad-libbing. Groucho Marx was a prominent exponent of this form of entertainment. The comedy team of the Marx Brothers is best remembered for how they induced convulsions of laughter in the audience. Groucho’s quick wit and funny insults during the Vaudeville days are still remembered fondly by his fans. (The Best of Groucho, 37)
The Marx Brothers’ made a move into a more conventional form of performance art when they worked for the Broadway show “I’ll Say She Is”. The success of this show led to the more popular shows like The Cocoanuts (1925) and Animal Crackers (1928). This was about the time when silent movies were taking centre stage. It led to both Cocoanuts and Animal Crackers being made into “talkies”. Its success led to further silent movie offers from Paramount Studios – Monkey Business (1931), Horse Feathers (1932) and Duck Soup (1933). Although these movies were regarded as classics by the critics, their box-office returns were uninspiring, leading to speculation that the Marx Brothers’ days in Hollywood were at an end. (Rosten 104).
But contrary to expectations, the Marx Brothers, led by Groucho, revived their Hollywood fortunes through their masterpiece film A Night at the Opera (1935). Some of the more memorable songs from this period include “Hooray for Captain Spaulding” and “Lydia the Tattooed Lady”; the trend culminating in 1951 hit Double Dynamite starring Jane Russell. This prolonged Groucho Marx’s career in Hollywood till 1941, by which time he retired from film-making. This was a crucial juncture in Groucho Marx’s career as an important decision awaited him. He would have to choose between a flagging career in the films and a less glamorous foray into radio, which was at its peak popularity in the 1940’s. In the end, Marx’s dedication to the art and his creative versatility led him to choose the latter. This embarked his stint with the radio.
During the first few years Groucho Marx saw very little success. His early forays in radio met with only moderate success. The best series produced by the brothers during this period was the 1932 production Flywheel, Shyster and Flywheel. Marx’s faith in his own talent and the potential of the radio as a medium was to reap him rewards eventually. His 1947 quiz show You Bet Your Life was a roaring success and remains one of the highlights of this talented performer. A notable feature of the show was the generous splattering of impromptu comments and wisecracks from the master comedian, which had been a defining hallmark of Groucho Marx right through his career. The success of this show, which ran till 1956, would lead Marx into the next stage in his evolution as an artist and performer. (Rogers 110)
The phenomenal success of the radio show prompted to its equivalent being made for television. The television version of the show found equally good acclaim and popularity – it secured several Emmy awards. Television also transformed Groucho from a group performer (as part of the Marx Brothers) to an individual act; although he still occasionally performed with his brothers. Another TV show hosted by Groucho at this time was Tell It To Groucho (1962) that was broadcast on CBS; although it was not nearly as popular as the former. In 1965, Groucho Marx moved across the Atlantic to do a show for the British audience. This show, titled Groucho, met only with lukewarm success. But it goes to show the versatility of the artist in Groucho to play to varied sets of audiences. (Rogers 110)
Marx remained dedicated to Television for the rest of his illustrious career. This could be taken as an evidence for the grip the medium held on the public consciousness. He partnered Bill Cosby in an improvised variety show which exhibited Groucho Marx’s ability to make complete use of the potential offered by Television as a medium. Years later, much weak due to ill health, Marx still managed to find success in television; but this time in the more subdued form of guest appearances. This is not to say that Marx completely detached himself from other art forms; he was always giving occasional performances in the theatre and in the films right till his death in 1977. A most fitting tribute for his life-time dedication to comedy and entertainment came in the form of an honorary Oscar award in 1974, which was also his last public appearance (Oder 148).
Groucho Marx’ legacy could be observed from the number references made to him in the history of popular culture. Bugs Bunny’s dressing as Groucho in the 1947 production Slick Hare is one such reference. The Way We Were party of 1973 thrown by Barbra Streisand saw the guest dressing up as one of the three Marx Brothers. The most witty of the references come in the form of the following comment by Sir Isaiah Berlin – “The world wouldn’t be /In such a snarl /If Marx had been Groucho /Instead of Karl” (Rosten 104).
Thus, a study of the life and career of Groucho Marx is also a study of the development and evolution of popular culture.
Oder, Norman. “Love, Groucho: Letters from Groucho Marx to his Daughter Miriam.(Review).” Library Journal 124.9 (May 15, 1999): 148
“The Essential Groucho.(Book Review).” The New York Review of Books 47.12 (July 20, 2000): 8.
Rosten, Leo. “I remember Groucho.” Reader’s Digest 121 (Nov 1982): 103(5).
Rogers, Michael. “The Marx Bros. Scrapbook.” Library Journal 114.n19 (Nov 15, 1989): 110(1)
“The best of Groucho.” Publishers Weekly 232.n23 (Dec 4, 1987): 37(1).
“Love, Groucho.(Book Review)(Brief Review).” Contemporary Review 272.n1589 (June 1998): 332.