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

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Despite the critical and commercial success of their previous two films, it took almost four whole years before the company finally sanctioned another movie. The Big Store (1941) was stuffed with the usual madness as Groucho and gang attempt to expose a corrupt boss who’s trying to cheat a youngster out of his rightful inheritance – the big store of the title.  

Flywheel hired as floor walker in The Big Store (1941)

After a career lull during World War Two – and with his brothers now well past their comic best – Groucho moved his wit and wisdom into solo radio work. Despite a couple of false starts, he struck paydirt when he was selected to become host of You Bet Your Life, a pre-recorded interview-cum-quiz radio show – which allegedly led to this notorious remark to a woman with 19 children:

Groucho: Why have you so many kids?

Woman: Well, I love my husband.

Groucho: Lady, I love this cigar... but I take it out occasionally.

Although this was later said to be an off-air remark that never made it into the final edit – and Marx himself always claimed he’d “never say anything so vulgar” on a family show. Vulgar or not, after a dozen successful years the show made it on to American television for a successful two-year run. The sixties became a much quieter time for the thrice-married Groucho, he was after all in his 70s now, though a 1965 British TV series – the imaginatively named Groucho – started brightly enough, before fading. It eventually folded after less than a dozen weeks and was not re-commissioned.

But even as he neared his eightieth birthday, Groucho could still turn on the charm – and the humour – when he really wanted to, as in his light-hearted attack-tribute to American TV host Johnny Carson...

Groucho Marx's tribute to Johnny Carson

Groucho’s last appearance on-screen came in 1976 during Joys, a feel-good TV special. He did a turn in a brief sketch with Bob Hope and the similarly aged George Burns: “Three Wise Men? No, three wizened men!” as Groucho is reported to have said during rehearsals. By now he was noticeably frail and weak – and so it was no huge surprise when he died of pneumonia the next year, on August 19, 1977. A passing mourned by friends as diverse as Elliott Gould, Alice Cooper and Elton John.

Groucho Marx’s lasting influence reaches into surrealist comedy, via the Goons and Monty Python, and his death came just before the first groundswell of aggressive British stand-ups – firing non-stop and increasingly risqué gags – were to take up the torch and remake the solo comic performer.

Groucho always said, “I don't want to belong to any club that would have me as a member”, but his fan club remains pretty huge to this day… ®

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