The great, irrepressible, unforgettable, and wonderfully unique witmaster comedian of possibly all time, one Groucho Marx, died 35 years ago today.
With his brothers, Groucho made up one of filmdom’s all-time great movie comedy squads. During the early first half of the 20th century, they blazed across the screens with an unbashed reckless radicalism, one part slapstick, one part dazzling wit, one part funny memorable set pieces, and all parts absolutely hysterical. While his brother Chico made up the lothario slick oil salesman, with his gift of musical gab via the piano and his way with his sneakiness by way of an Italian accent with the lid not on too tight, and his other brother Harpo, made up the character of the mute rubber limbed, gymnastically comedic genius, who spoke comedic volumes by NOT speaking, it was still Groucho’s amazing knack for rattling off some of the most memorable barbs, rhubarbs, silver-tongued comebacks and observations, only equaled arguably by another great comedian of all-time, Jack Benny.
He made classic after classic film with his brothers, The Cocoanuts, Animal Crackers, Horsefeathers, and some of the most revered and critically acclaimed comedy films of all time, Duck Soup and Night at the Opera. In all of the films, the classic Groucho look – parted hair with wild eyes, a greasepaint mustache sloppily affixed above his lip, and his voice, the New York staccato drowned in Brooklynese – became a symbol for comedy, and is still imitated to this day by scores of “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery” imitators.
Marx also had a successful solo career. He was the congenial and sly winked host of the game show You Bet Your Life, which netted him Emmy awards and new generations of fans. Groucho ran the table of that program for over a decade during the mid 20th century, and still had every ounce of his wit and charm in full force. Books penned by him were also successful, some of them even finding their way into The Library of Congress.
As the 60s rolled around and Marx became an elder statesman of comedy, he found himself a hero and a comic influence on the baby boomer generation, who started to come of age by the late 1960s. Duck Soup took on an irreverence suddenly during that Vietnam era, and The Marx Brothers, particularly Groucho who at that point was the only surviving member of the classic trio (4th brother Zeppo was still alive at the time as well) became big business all over again, as a nostalgic act and also one that flourished. Solo appearances at Carnegie Hall in New York City, in which Groucho did a one man act that delighted the new and old fans of the Marx Brothers, spawned a successful record album. An honorary Academy Award was bestowed upon him in 1974, for the incredible work he and his brothers had done and all the joy they gave to millions of fans. He was still very much a large public figure when he passed away on August 19, 1977, well into his eighties by that time.
Wonderful, amazing, hysterical, legendary, shining, funny, brilliant, influential, timeless, eternal. Superlatives that are usually so overplayed, and misdirected, misguided, and wrongly applied, but for Groucho Marx, those aforementioned superlatives fit like a T and in fact, aren’t even enough to describe one of the great comedians of all time. Here’s to the wonderful Groucho Marx, Hooray for Captain Spaulding!
If you’re interested in The Marx Brothers, check out these DVD collections: