How Groucho Marx lost his voice and found his funny bone
The 100 year ‘artistic anniversary’ of the man who made stand-up stand up
Things didn’t go that well initially though, Humour Risk (1921) was the first of their 13 films together, and was so hit-and-miss that the studio eventually decided it was too much of a risk to release. They actually considered it so bad that they eventually destroyed the print, and the negative, the same year.
At the end of the 1920s, however, it was suggested that rather than work to Hollywood scripts, the Marx Brothers should turn some of their successful comic plays into movies – which worked beautifully. The Cocoanuts (1929), Animal Crackers (1930), Monkey Business (1931), Horse Feathers (1932) and Duck Soup (1933) swiftly followed, each one funnier than the one before, and each one a box office hit (1933’s Duck Soup being a bona fide gem, with its surreal mirror scene wherein both Chico and Harpo pretend to be Groucho).
By now, Groucho had refined his onstage persona – a loveable conman who came complete with a permanent cigar, clear glasses, a wide, painted-on moustache (and eyebrows) all underwritten by a looping chicken-style walk that was half-run, half-crouch. His demeanour was topped-off, of course, with his machine-gun patter of vaguely insulting jokes, often directly at society ladies – usually played by the strait-laced Margaret Dumont.
A Night at the Opera – produced at MGM by Irving Thalberg – followed next and is generally considered one of the team’s three finest. It was also famous among Hollywood insiders, both for the ridiculous crowded cabin scene and for the furious row between the film’s director, Sam Wood, and a wise-cracking Groucho.
At one point – sick of the brothers’ gags and ad-libs between takes – an angry Wood yelled, "You can’t make an actor out of clay!" To which Groucho had instantly replied, "No, nor a director out of Wood!"
A Day at the Races, the second of the Marx Brothers golden trio and the last to be produced by Thalberg, featured one of the best fake seduction scenes (mandatory in most Marx Bros movies) wherein a cheeky floozy, working for the bad guys, tries to con the ever-willing Groucho.
Coincidentally, the movie also featured dance troupe Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers performing one of the first ever filmed examples of the Lindy Hop. This was the pre-jive, pre-rock’n’roll dance that came out of Harlem and, in various forms, eventually went round the world.
The final truly great Groucho Marx film was unquestionably The Big Store, made despite the indifference of its production studio. After Thalberg’s tragic death in 1937 MGM had taken far less interest in the Marx Brothers’ work.