Zeppo Marx as Horatio Jamison in the 1930 Marx Brothers Film Animal Crackers. As usual, Zeppo plays straight man to his brother Groucho.
Growing up in the pre-cable TV era, our choices of programming were quite limited and local television stations had to rely on old movies and reruns due to the high cost of producing original broadcasting. Even though our selection was limited it was a blessing in disguise. Other than TCM buffs (like myself) and the annual Christmas showings of It’s a Wonderful Life and A Christmas Carol (the one starring Alistair Sim is the best, by the way), how often are the kids of today seeing the old black and white classics?
Some of my fondest memories growing up were thanks to these old Hollywood productions. I grew up watching Our Gang/Little Rascals on Saturday mornings which would play after the new cartoons of the time. On weekend evenings, my father and I would laugh hysterically at Laurel and Hardy and especially The Three Stooges. These shows would be repeated endlessly, and you’d learn them word for word, and slap by poke. They would take you back to a time that seemed so much simpler, so much more trusting and maybe naive. Whether it was real or not was beside the point.
Early Sunday afternoons, one of the stations broadcasting from Buffalo would play movies starring The Marx Brothers. At that age, Harpo Marx was by far the funniest because of his physical comedy. Whether mugging for the camera or revealing the inventory of his cloak, it was an easy segue from the physical comedy of Laurel and Hardy/The Three Stooges to Harpo. Yet I wasn’t completely sold on the Marx Brothers since so much of their humour went over my head. Nevertheless, I knew what I was watching was special and that there would be a time when I’d be better able to understand it and appreciate it.
I rediscovered the Marx Brothers during my university days and before you can say “Why a Duck?” I became a devoted fan. I recall watching A Night at the Opera and laughing throughout the entire film. The mix of anarchy with Harpo’s physical comedy plus the wordplay between Groucho and Chico along with the incredible singing and music of Il Trovatore won me over with ease. Shortly thereafter, I watched Animal Crackers (which I consider their best film) and was once again blown away by the multi-layered entertainment that was packaged so tight and neatly. Shortly thereafter, I bought every movie of theirs that was for sale and since then have watched them over and over again.
My favourite Marx brother for a long time was their lead, Groucho for obvious reasons. Since then, it has shifted to Chico due to his punning, scheming, and attempts at carousing. Chico would play the bridge between Harpo and Groucho.
The Marx Brothers sing a tune in Duck Soup
But what about Zeppo? He seems to be the Rodney Dangerfield of The Marx Brothers since he gets “no respect”. Only appearing in the Brothers’ first four films, Zeppo was relegated to playing the straight man as opposed to the anarchic humour of the other three brothers. Was this because he was untalented? According to the brothers themselves, as well as family members and friends, Zeppo was not only the funniest of the brothers, but was also able to seamlessly ape each of the brothers’ characters (and sometimes stand in for them). Some suggest that Zeppo wasn’t allowed to display his humourous side since he’d either overshadow the other three, or more likely because he would make Groucho’s act redundant. Being the kid brother (a whole 11 years younger than Groucho and 13 and 14 years younger than Harpo and Chico, respectively) Zeppo had to give way as the older three had already well established characters that were easily to translate to the screen.
Did this make Zeppo superfluous to the Marx Brothers? Not at all. Not only did Zeppo have the best singing voice, but more importantly Zeppo provided the bridge between the chaos of his three brothers with the high society that they would crash and upend. Chico, Harpo, and Groucho were obvious outsiders with Groucho representing a faux bourgeois character and harpo and Chico little more than con men. Zeppo was the presentable face yet still an outsider. Nevertheless, his character would realize the sheer lunacy that his brothers would unleash upon their upper society targets yet not lose his composure. In fact, he would be in on the joke the entire time, more often than not setting his brothers up for the knock down gag.
Nor was Zeppo’s straight man act necessarily a traditional one. It had its own symbolism and method as James Agee explained:
[Zeppo] added a fourth dimension as the cliché of the [romantic] juvenile, the bland wooden espouser of sentiments that seem to exist only in the world of the sound stage. [… He is] too schleppy, too nasal, and too wooden to be taken seriously.
Zeppo acted as the link between the Brothers and the real world, having one foot in each at the same time. Of all the Brothers, Zeppo was the one we could identify with most since he was an everyman in attitude and appearance, unlike the zany trio. It’s this link that makes Zeppo all the more significant and necessary and is why the later films under Irving Thalberg at MGM, and at RKO, and United Artists lacked that certain something. Zeppo’s successors as straight man/love interest seemed like cardboard cutouts who lacked that connection to the remaining Marx Brothers. It’s little wonder why most critics consider their work with Zeppo at Paramount to be their best.
The Marx Brothers in a publicity shot
Zeppo in His Own Words
In 1979, BBC Television conducted a series of interviews with stars from Hollywood’s Golden Age. Zeppo Marx was one of those stars and his interview turned out to be his last since he died only a few months later that same year. Here are some excerpts from this interview in which Zeppo is brutally honest about the past yet funny without being malicious. On growing up poor:
As far as I can remember we had a two-bedroom apartment and there were five boys and my uncle and aunt and my grandfather and mother and father, of course. Now all of those people were in a two-bedroom apartment. Five of us slept in one bed. We didn’t sleep well, but we were there. Those were very difficult times because we had no income; my father was a very bad tailor but he found some people who were so stupid that they would buy his clothes, and so he’d make a few dollars that way for food. Chico would get a job occasionally and Groucho of course would be singing in the choir some place and he’d get paid for it. And that was the way we got along. It was very difficult, we always owed the rent.
On their mother Minnie and her drive to have them succeed at an early age:
My mother was always trying to get the boys — Gummo, Groucho and Chico and Harpo — jobs, playing vaudeville. Cheap vaudeville really, four or five shows a day and maybe three days work and then get laid off for a week or two or something. She was always downtown where the theatrical district was, where the agents and the managers were hanging out, so she would always try to get us bookings. If some act was cancelled some place, she’d try to shove us in there. That was the early part in Chicago, not in New York because there was nothing like that going on in New York. We moved to Chicago because that was the center of the cheapie vaudeville circuits. That’s where my brother Gummo joined the army.
On the Brothers’ skirt-chasing and Groucho’s akwardness with the ladies:
Groucho couldn’t run as fast as Chico and the rest of us (LAUGHS) with that peculiar walk of his. It was a little more difficult for Groucho but he had his share of course. I never considered Groucho a very great lover. Chico was alright and Harpo and Gummo were fine.
He [Groucho] would get a girl and she would be very stupid and he’d sit and talk to her, oh, about Shakespeare or Gilbert and Sullivan. He’d discuss this with this girl who had never heard of these things and he would try to impress ’em that way where the rest of us would just get right to it. (LAUGHS) We didn’t waste time with Shakespeare or Gilbert and Sullivan.
On Chico’s unreliability:
Well because he wouldn’t be very punctual at rehearsals or at shows. When the overture started he’d come running in and get right on the stage, no make-up or nothing. And then he was teh one who was the most lax of all of us in reference to the act, the show, the movie or whatever we were doing. And as a matter of fact we were all sort of straight away when there was a few minutes off. One would be over there and one would be over there and then Paramount — I remember in one picture, I think it was COCOANUTS, the director was going crazy because Chico would be in the dressing room with a girl or something and Groucho would be over somewhere and all of us were scattered.
The director says ‘alright boys we’re ready to shoot’ and no one is around. They’d have to have two or three fellows chasing us so they devised a nice plan, they built four cells on the set with locks on them and they put cots in them in case we wanted to rest or something and the minute the scene was over, whoever’s scene that it was would have to go in that cell so they knew where we were. And it worked out pretty good, but Chico got out of his cell quite often. (LAUGHS) But it worked fairly well.
On Groucho’s natural penchant for humour:
One story I love about Groucho is this: When we were in plays we would go to different towns with the plays and we didn’t have daily matinees, like in vaudeville, only Wednesday and Saturday, that was it. Now the rest of hte time we’d all play golf. We’d get in a certain town and we’d have the manager make arrangements for us to play at the best country club — 18 holes of golf. That’s how we got interested in golf.
Years later Groucho heard about a club that he wanted to go to and so he and his wife, Eden, went out there with their clubs, and went to the desk and he said, ‘I’m Groucho Marx, this is Mrs. Marx and we’d like to play 18 holes of golf.’ And he said, ‘Well, I’m sorry Mr. Marx, you’re of the Jewish faith, aren’t you, and this club is very very strict about certain religions and people and I can’t let you play 18 holes of golf, because you’re Jewish aren’t you?’ Groucho said, ‘Well, can I play nine holes, my wife is a Gentile.’ (LAUGHS) That is one of the wonderful stories about him. That’s the typical Groucho. The other time they wanted to go swimming, and the same thing again about the restrictions and he said, ‘well can we go in up to our knees, she’s (LAUGHS) Gentile.’ He used that pretty good.
The Friars club in this country is a theatrical club, and almost all performers belong to it, but Groucho. They used to play cards there and have things like that, and Groucho never spent much time there when he was a member — he didn’t have much use for it. So he wrote them a letter, to resign, saying ‘Dear Friars, please accept this letter of resignation as I don’t have any use for the club and I don’t get enough use out of it, and furthermore, any club that will have me as a member, I don’t want to belong to.’ (LAUGHS) Now that is still up on the bulletin board at the Friars, and this was years ago. It’s still printed in quite a lot of papers.
And a quick description of each of the Brothers:
Chico was, he was wild. He was the one to play cards. He’d chase women, he did everything he wanted to do; he’d gamble everything. If he had $100 he’d gamble the hundred. It was, I guess, a sickness with him, but that was Chico. I don’t think there was a day in his life that he didn’t gamble at something, a ball game, a football game, or race horses… anything you could gamble on, he would gamble. If he couldn’t find anything, he’d invent something. He was in a poker game once and it was a crooked game and Harpo saw two fellows cheating him, so Harpo went to the phone and called him. He said, ‘Chico, you’re being cheated.’ Chico said, ‘I don’t care, that’s the only game I could get. It’s the only game in town.’
Harpo was a love. He was very kind and wonderful. He married once and it was one of the greatest marriages that I’ve ever seen, he and Susan. They adopted four kids and they were always spending time with these kids, each of the two. If one wanted to do something the other didn’t want to, they wouldn’t do it, they had such a rapport and such love for each other. I don’t think they had an argument and it was just a perfect marriage, and that’s the way Harpo was. It was wonderful.
Groucho had three wives. I told you about those. Groucho was Groucho. He would insult important politicians and Chiefs of Police who came up in stage to do that ‘You Bet your Life’ thing, He would put people down like that. I would say he was cold. He was very good to me, later on when everything was over with show business, but he was cold. Generous up to a point where he would be generous to charity, things like that. I’d say fairly generous, yes. He’d buy good clothes, but he had such bad taste he’d look bad in them no matter what he paid for them. He wasn’t what we call a Beau Brummel.
Gummo was a love. The hero. He was with the boys ahead of me, and as I say, he went into the Army and I had to take his place.
He was in the dress business when he came out of the Army. He didn’t like show business but I think he felt, same as I did, that he was inadequate, that he wasn’t doing his share and he went into the dress business. He had a lot o friends in that business and he thought it would be a good business for him so he started the dress business and it didn’t take him long before he was bankrupt. He didn’t know a thing about the business. . It was typical because my father went into all kinds of business and was out three or four days after he started.
Then he wanted to come to the coast where I had a very big agency business. So I said ‘alright, you come to the coast and you join me, but first of all open an office in New York so you have a start there and then you’ll come out here.’ So he opened an office in New York and he did very well. He got Glenn Ford as a client, and he got quite a few other clients, so I said, ‘well come on out’ and he got himself a little house and I put him in my business and he did very well.
On missing his brothers:
I miss Gummo very much because he lived down here [Palm Springs] and we were together every day. We had lunch together every day and I miss him very much. Of course you miss your family and when you get older you have some people that you’re bound to miss. So (CHUCKLES) you have to do the best you can. But it’s hard to think about the kind of feeling that you had with these brothers and your friends.