Wednesday, 25 September 2013

This Could Make a Good Book Some Day

Arthur Marx wrote several books about his father—the one, the only Groucho—starting with 1954’s Life With Groucho. But he had a bit of a practise run.

Marx put together some anecdotes and came up with a story for the February 1949 edition of Radio and Television Mirror. I haven’t read his books so I don’t know whether any of these little tales are included. But here are they for your enjoyment, along with the photos that accompanied the story.

My Father Groucho

MY father, Julius Marx, son of Minnie Marx—no relation of Walt Disney's, but forever Groucho—has always admitted readily that the first time he saw me was one of the great disappointments of his life. After brooding over this for nearly twenty years I finally got up courage one day recently to ask him: "Why?"
"Because, at the time, I had my heart set on a baby girl," Father confessed, "one about twenty-three, with blue eyes and a figure like Betty Grable's. As a matter of fact, I've still got my heart set on Betty Grable, and as soon as I get around to it, I'm going to start taking trumpet lessons."
One of Father's favorite devices for making time pass slowly is telling how the first time he saw me I yelled in a pretty unappealing fashion. I wonder if it's ever occurred to him to ask himself how I must have felt the first time I saw that cigar and mustache looming over my crib. Though my recollection of that first meeting has dimmed with the years, I'd say that under the circumstances my yelling was perfectly natural, and I still insist that the disparity in our ages made it highly improper for Father to yell back. Mother always said it was just because he couldn't stand for anyone else to have the last word.
Anyone who has ever listened to Groucho's radio show, You Bet Your Life, broadcast by long-suffering ABC, will probably agree with my mother that fondness for the last word is indeed one of Father's more noticeable characteristics. This tendency of his to throw a verbal hammerlock on any conversation he gets in range of makes his show a pretty expensive proposition for its sponsors. They have to give away many handsome gifts and offer large sums of prize money to induce people to submit themselves to Father's furious ad-libbing.
You Bet Your Life is a quiz show, but it differs from the usual thing in that line by putting the emphasis on laughs, not money. It is, of course, completely unrehearsed—though I doubt that lack of premeditation is any excuse for some of Father's puns. Anyway, despite the hazards of uncharted dialogue, the show usually manages to stay within reasonable bounds of propriety.
Occasionally, though, an outspoken contestant will explode one of those conversational grenades that make quiz shows an ulcerous undertaking for producers, censors, and vice-presidents; for nearly everyone, in fact, except Groucho. He seems to enjoy the unexpected as much as the audience does.
THERE was the time recently when a lady choir singer, telling about the interesting things that happened to her in the course of her singing engagements, quite innocently remarked that one of the most interesting was the time her pants fell down while she was singing with a group on the stage at Hollywood Bowl.
Groucho, obviously fascinated, didn't hesitate to ask the question anyone would have asked: "What did you do?"
"Why, I ran offstage," the lady replied. "But with those darn things dragging around my ankles I had to take such short steps that it seemed forever before I finally got out of sight of the audience."
"It must have been pretty harrowing," Groucho sympathized. "Didn't the choir try to help cover your retreat? Surely they could've made some little musical diversion, such as a rendering of 'Onward Christian Soldiers' or 'London Bridge is Falling Down.'"
Fortunately, Groucho's show is recorded on wax before it is put on the air, so this bit of flummery never got outside the studio.
There are times when Father gets depressed about his radio show. Only this morning, when I asked him how the recording of it had gone the night before, he said, in tones of deepest sorrow: "Terrible. None of the contestants won over fifteen dollars last night. It was one of the most frustrating things I ever experienced. There I sat with great golden gobs of dough to give away —how I enjoy giving away the sponsor's money!—and nobody was answering the questions correctly. I think I'll try to make a deal with the sponsors to let me have a crack at answering the questions. That new house I just bought is costing me plenty."
"What did you want to get such a big place for?" I asked him.
"Why, now that I'm married again and starting my second family—I hope Melinda is just a start—no telling how many nurseries we might need. And if the family doesn't come along as planned, I'll have ample space to put in a few pool tables and open a billiard academy."
"Fine atmosphere for Melinda to grow up in," I rebuked Father. "A billiard academy!"
But looking back on my own childhood, I can see the core of practical wisdom in Father's remark.
At the time of my arrival, 1921 or thereabouts. Father and three or four of his Brothers (they sometimes carried a spare in those days) were perpetrating a vaudeville act called "On The Mezzanine." Like most vaudeville babies, I was put to bed more than once in a bureau drawer. In fact, I slept in so many bureau drawers that even now when I go to the bureau and pull the drawer open to get a shirt, I feel an instinctive urge to crawl in and curl up.
At the time hearsay leaves off and my own memory begins, the Marx Brothers had graduated from vaudeville to Broadway, where they were doing their first full-length show, "I'll Say She Is." I never did find out who "She" was—Father always evaded the question, even when Mother asked him—but the show was a hit.
So were the Marx Brothers' next two —"Coconuts" and "Animal Crackers." I saw them all from backstage, and I don't imagine I was much more bewildered by some of the proceedings than the people out front who'd paid their way in.
Ultimately, as nearly everyone knows, Father and his Brothers became entangled in the movie industry. Ignoring the question of whether the movie industry has ever fully recovered from this entanglement, we will move on to Hollywood, where the Marx family moved after making their first two films in the celluloid jungles of Astoria, Long Island. It was about then my interest in sports began to displace my earlier fascination with backstage doings. Father encouraged this trend. He's always been a sports enthusiast. Baseball was, and is, his great love.
Our first house in Hollywood sat nearly atop one of those minor Alps that infest the region, making the surrounding terrain most unsuitable for baseball. But that didn't discourage Father, or me, either. Since the only level place in the neighborhood was a stretch of paved street in front of our house, that's where we had our games. A couple of writers who were working on the Marx Brothers' first Hollywood movie, "Monkey Business," used to come out and play with us. One of them was S. J. Perelman.
When we moved down to the lowlands of Beverly Hills and joined the Tennis Club, I discovered the main interest of my life for the next ten years or so—tennis. At that time Father used to venture on the courts once in awhile with a racket in his hands, which he used mostly for self defense, that is, when he wasn't using it to sit on between points.
I WON'T embarrass Father by telling how long it was before I was able to beat him, but I will tell you something that happened when I was fourteen. In those days the Beverly Hills Tennis Club was owned by two of the best players in the game, Ellsworth Vines and Fred Perry. Both had been world champions as amateurs. After brooding over certain defeats he'd suffered at my hands. Father actually sank so low as to enlist these two Titans of tennis on his side in an effort to humiliate me, his own son.
I had a friend my own age, who was a pretty fair Junior player, and Father challenged him and me to play a doubles match against himself and Vines.

I don't want to sound braggish about this, but we two fourteen-year-olds beat Vines and Father. We accomplished this mighty upset by being careful not to hit anything within reach of Vines—which made it a pretty warm afternoon for Father. Father insisted our win was a fluke, so the next day we had to play another match, this time against him and Fred Perry. The results were the same. Father's backhand, never very strong, cracked under constant bombardment, and my friend and I won.
Perry congratulated us, while Father stalked off to the clubhouse. I found him later in the locker-room, beating himself over the head with his tennis racket. He wasn't hurting himself much because he was using a backhand stroke and, as I've said, his backhand was weak. Nevertheless, I thought it better to remove the tennis racket from his trembling hands.
It was then he declared: "If I can't beat a couple of junior midgets with the best tennis players in the world as my partners, I'd better quit. There must be something basically wrong with my game." I thought his logic was irrefutable. After several years of tennis, I finally realized I was getting to an age when I had to consider how I was going to make my living.
FATHER had only one piece of advice "Don't be an actor," he said. On that, we saw eye to eye.
But, in the line of possible careers, there was another activity of Father's that had long intrigued me. This was the semi-secret exercise he used to perform on the typewriter at frequent intervals. He'd lock himself up in his room and, after a few hours of hacking away on his Remington, he would emerge with some pages of typewritten material which he'd stuff in an envelope and mail to a magazine. A few days or weeks later, back would come an envelope from the magazine with a check in it.
This struck me as one of the most ridiculously easy ways of making money that had ever been invented, so easy as to be almost dishonest. I decided I wanted to be a writer.
There hasn't been a day since that I haven't regretted it.
And now, if you don't mind, let us close this painful subject and get back to Groucho, who is presently working in a movie with Frank Sinatra and Jane Russell. Ever since the studio came out with a ruling that Jane wasn't going to be allowed to wear any low cut dresses in this one, I've been expecting to hear Father had resigned from the venture—but so far he hasn't. Possibly he's waiting around in hopes that Frank Sinatra will break a leg or something so that he can take over the romantic lead. If I were in Sinatra's shoes, I'd be on the alert for booby traps.
The other active Marx Brothers, Harpo and Chico, recently finished making a picture with Groucho, after which Chico set out on a European tour. Harpo's staying home, catching up on his sleeping and fishing. Groucho says a good time for the fish to catch up on their sleep would be while Harpo's fishing.
But he wouldn't have said that if he'd known it was going to hurt Harpo's feelings. Groucho is really very tender-hearted and would abandon a joke anytime rather than bruise someone's sensibilities.
Perhaps that's why, after all I've gone through with him, I have to admit that, if I had it all to do over again, I'd still choose Groucho for my father. That is, I would if I couldn't get Betty Grable.

Groucho moved with “You Bet Your Life” to television in 1950. For a number of years, the show was sponsored by the Chrysler Corporation as a showcase for its DeSoto cars. It opened with animation of a large-headed Groucho driving the newest DeSoto across a map, accompanied by animated male and female singers. I can’t remember which animation studio put it together, but here is a colour chart, although I’ve only seen the animation in black-and-white.


  1. Very entertaining article by Arthur!

    The animation for DeSoto and You Bet Your life was all done at Playhouse pictures. While I was working there I was amazed an delighted to see some of the artwork was still there, including some cels of the animated glasses, mustache and cigar.

  2. Sort of a side issue here, but watching Season 1 and 2 episodes of McHale's Navy a while ago, I noticed the trajectory of the show as it went on -- towards more slapstick focusing on Tim Conway and Joe Flynn and away from a more sedate, verbal tone -- was pretty much started in the episodes written by Arthur Marx and his partner, Bob Fisher. It probably would have gotten there anyway, but I just found it interesting that the son of the guy who defined verbal humor on-screen ended up being the writer doing the most visual, physical comedy scenes with the guy who came to define visual TV humor in the 1970s on ":The Carol Burnett Show".