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Groucho Marx

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Groucho Marx poses for an NBC promotional photograph
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Groucho Marx poses for an NBC promotional photograph

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

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. 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" to convince some roving bullies that he was Italian, not Jewish. Groucho did a German 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.

Contents

Career highlights

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An early photo of the brothers with their parents. Groucho is the first on the left.

Groucho developed a routine as a wise-cracking hustler with a distinctive chicken-walking lope and an exaggerated greasepaint mustache, 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 departing from the scripts they were using. (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.

In the 1930s and 1940s Groucho also worked as a radio comedian and show host. In the late 1940s, he hosted the popular radio program 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 hadn't won anything). It would run 11 years on television.

Throughout his career he introduced a number of memorable songs in films, including "Hooray for Captain Spaulding", "I'm Against It", "Hello I Must be Going", "Everyone Says I Love You" and "Lydia the Tattooed Lady". Crooner Frank Sinatra once quipped that the only thing he could do better than Marx was sing.

Later years

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Groucho Marx appears on America Salutes Richard Rodgers

Off-stage he was bookish and stated late in life that he lamented the fact he had never finished school or gone to college. Despite his lack of formal education he wrote several books, including the autobiographical Groucho and Me (1959) (Da Capo Press, 1995, ISBN 0306806665).

In later years he grew a real mustache, the lack of which had earlier been an effective means of hiding himself from fans.

His stage name was said to have been bestowed on him because while in vaudeville he kept his money in a bag around his neck known as a "grouch" bag. An alternate story is that he was grouchy. The comedian himself wrote that he did not know the nickname's origin. In any case, he was a master at improvising clever insults and became well known for this. One of his frustrations in later years was that when he insulted people who annoyed him they tended to laugh, thinking it was just part of the famous comedian's act.

In the early 1970s, Groucho made a comeback of sorts doing a live one-man show, including one recorded at Carnegie Hall and released as a double album, An Evening with Groucho, on A&M Records. 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 controversy over a companionship he had developed with Erin Fleming and consequent disputes over his estate.

Groucho Marx died on August 19, 1977. He was cremated, and the ashes were interred in the Eden Memorial Park Cemetery in Mission Hills, California. Aged 86 at death, Groucho was the longest-lived of all the Marx brothers, though younger brother Zeppo survived 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.

Groucho's legacy

Various Groucho-like characters have appeared in popular culture, some long after Marx's death, a testament to the character's lasting appeal.

  • Bugs Bunny 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 "don't be such a Groucho".
  • Alan Alda often vamped as Groucho on M*A*S*H 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 Jeffrey T. Spaulding.
  • Gabe Kaplan portrayed Marx in the biographical Groucho (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0084031/) (1982) which was originally produced on Broadway. Kaplan also impersonated Groucho, his hero, in his television series Welcome Back Kotter, and in WhatzUp (http://www.whatzup.com/Archives/cover082400.html) Magazine recalled that he had even approached Groucho to make a cameo on the show but Groucho's care-giver, Erin Fleming, wouldn't allow it.
  • 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.
  • 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.

In a 2005 poll, The Comedian's Comedian, Groucho was voted the 5th greatest comedy act ever by fellow comedians and comedy insiders.

Quotations about Groucho Marx

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  • "Groucho Marx was the best comedian this country ever produced. [...] He is simply unique in the same way that Picasso or Stravinsky are." —Woody Allen
  • A famous French witticism was "Je suis Marxiste, tendance Groucho."; "I'm a Marxist of the Groucho variety". This line spread to other nations as well in the 1960s and 1970s.

External links

ca:Groucho Marx de:Groucho Marx es:Groucho Marx Raised Eyebrows BY Steve Stoliar Publisher: Los Angeles : General Pub. Group, 1996. ISBN 1881649733 Indroduction by Dick Cavett. nl:Groucho Marx sv:Groucho Marx

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