A Tribute to The Marx Brothers
The Marx Brothers made a dozen films together from 1929 until 1946:
- The Cocoanuts (1929)
- Animal Crackers (1930)
- Monkey Business (1931)
- Horse Feathers (1932)
- Duck Soup (1933)
- A Night At The Opera (1935)
- A Day At The Races (1937)
- Room Service (1938)
- At The Circus (1939)
- Go West (1940)
- The Big Store (1941)
- A Night In Casablanca (1946)
The “essential” Marx Brothers consisted of Groucho (Julius), Chico (Leonard), and Harpo (Adolph), who appeared in all the films. Gummo (Milton) was the original straight man in the Vaudeville act (though never in films), followed by Zeppo (Herbert), who actually appeared as that character only in Monkey Business (though he appeared in other roles in four more films). Both of them eventually left the act to become agents. Zeppo was also a well-known inventor.
While modern audiences will still laugh at Marx Brothers movies, many of them may wonder what the fuss was about, just as young music fans today may hear the Beatles’ “She Loves You,” and wonder what was so earth-shaking about that. It is part of the very nature of innovation that, once time has passed and change has inevitably taken place in the public consciousness, that early achievement may not seem like anything special. However, the Marx Brothers were hugely shocking in the 1930s. As Roger Ebert put it, they “were the instrument that translated what was once essentially a Jewish style of humor into the dominant note of American comedy. Although they were not taken as seriously, they were as surrealist as Dali, as shocking as Stravinsky, as verbally outrageous as Gertrude Stein, as alienated as Kafka.”
Putting all that high-falutin’ stuff aside, they were also very funny, and so I’m seizing upon the occasion of what would have been Zeppo’s 100th birthday on February 25th, 2001 (when this article was originally written) to salute the comedy team that paved the way for generations of comedians and made the world safe for puns. It has been updated several times since then.
The Marx Brothers made their movie debut in 1929, with The Cocoanuts, but they didn’t spring full-blown from the imagination of some studio head, nor were their films close to being as unscripted as they appear. The Marx boys had been on stage since they were kids, and were already a very popular stage act in the 20s, with a couple of Broadway hits to their credit in the late 20s. Their best films were based on acts that were taken on the road for months beforehand. Everything was scripted and timed perfectly.
Their personal lives were another story, of course, especially in the case of Chico, who was a notorious gambler and womanizer. Their on-the-set practical jokes were legendary, and they were always “on,” particularly Groucho. They all had exceptional musical talent. (They actually began their stage careers as a musical act, which eventually turned into comedy as they began fooling around on stage.) Harpo could play any musical instrument, and was reknowned for his harp playing.
Here’s a drink created by Frank Bland, creator of”Why a Duck?”, a site that has since disappeared, in honor of Zeppo:
This is a mild-tasting drink that packs a tremendous wallop. It owes a debt of gratitude to the Manhattan, the Scofflaw, and the Sidecar for inspiration, and it’s intended to pay tribute to Zeppo’s roots and emphasize his easy-going nature while alluding to his volatile side. You may substitute Cointreau for the Grand Marnier, but to be a true “Zeppo,” this cocktail must feature Jameson’s Irish Whiskey, in honor of Zeppo’s characters of almost-the-same name in The Cocoanuts and Animal Crackers.
1 oz Jameson’s Irish Whiskey
1 oz dry vermouth
1 oz Grand Marnier
1/4 oz lemon juice (or more, to taste)
Stir the ingredients with cracked ice. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass (with sugared rim, if you like). Garnish with a lemon wedge.
So, with your “Zeppo” in hand (or a nice lemonade, if you’re a non-drinker), raise a glass to Groucho on what would have been his 114th birthday, and then please enjoy this tribute to all the Brothers (click on the links for Parts II through IV).
Part I: Introduction
Part IV: Books, Posters