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Friday, August 15th, 2014

Examining the Marx Brothers' Television Appearances

120 - Marx BrothersWhen people describe the Marx Brothers as they walked, honked, quipped, and played on the silver screen, one word seems to come up over and over again: anarchic. Well, after a while, the Marx Brothers disappeared from the silver screen, but before long a new medium showed up for Groucho, Chico, and Harpo to jump on, and as you might imagine, they brought that same sense of anarchy to television. Today we look at a wide selection of the Marx Brothers appearances on television, sometimes in pairs, but usually solo, as seen in the new DVD set The Marx Brothers TV Collection.

Here's the thing about early television of the 50s and 60s: it's all over the place. There were sports shows, panel talk shows, sitcoms, hundreds of variety shows, and the Marx Brothers appeared on whatever they would throw at them. I don't know the best way to do dive into this because there's a lot of stuff in this set, and I have to imagine the majority of it has never been released, unless there's a box set of the TV show Championship Bridge with Charles Goren that I don't know about. (In 1960 there was an actual TV show that was just watching people play the card game bridge and Chico Marx lost badly on it. Now that I've typed that sentence, I realize that this show isn't all that different from the billion poker shows that were on TV a few years back.) Let's go brother by brother through the set and pick out the highlights, starting with the one, the only Groucho Marx.

Groucho had the steadiest gig out of any of the Marx Brothers with You Bet Your Life airing 1947-1962 on radio and television, and since a lot of that material has already been released on DVD, he's sprinkled throughout the disks, but still appears quite frequently. Earlier in this column I covered the "stag reels" from You Bet Your Life which were the scenes that were deemed too racy for television. One of those from the last season of You Bet Your Life is included in the set, and while they would be considered pretty tame today, it is fun to watch contestants get all flustered at the mere implication of pre-marital sex. A program that I had no idea existed from England known simply as Groucho, is included which is basically just his quiz show done with British contestants. It's fun, but true to form, the Brits seem a bit more unflappable and less flummoxed by Groucho's wit.

For me the craziest thing to be found on the set was an episode of The General Electric Theater from 1962, entitled "The Hold Out." It's a simple little melodrama about a young couple, still in college, that wants to get married, and the parents that support this decision, save one. The titular hold out is Groucho, playing the young lady's father, in his only dramatic role. He plays what is a pretty boring role perfectly capably, but even though I knew he wasn't going to, I kept expecting him to start making jokes and chewing the scenery. The other male lead, the potential groom, is played by a young Dennis Hopper, who also does a good job of not being funny in this otherwise forgettable drama.

Chico is probably the least represented Marx Brother on the set, though he still manages to crop up quite a bit. My favorite Chico appearances on the set both come from the panel game show I've Got a Secret. The show was basically a televised version of 20 Questions, in which the panel of celebrities asked questions of the guest in order to guess their secret. The longer they took to guess it, the more money the guest could win. On one appearance, the panel is blindfolded and Chico invents a game that the panel must guess the rules of. Basically, whenever the answer to a question is "no" the host must hold a giant block of ice. When the answer to a question is "yes," Chico holds it, and so on. The panel never quite figures out that there's a block of ice involved, they do realize that if they phrase all their questions so the answer is no, they get to torture the host. In a second appearance on the game show, Chico appears dressed as, and is introduced as, Harpo. This trick was used in the films a few times as well to great effect, since he very much resembles his silent brother. So these poor, mislead contestants now have to guess that the person that was introduced to them as Harpo, and communicates only with Harpo's signature horn, is in fact Chico.

Harpo, in comparison to his brothers, was on TV constantly, and just as it was in the movies, he never spoke a word. Throughout his appearances we see him do his Harpo shtick of chasing after pretty girls, cutting people's ties with scissors, pulling all sorts of objects out of pockets, forcing people to hold his leg, and playing the harp with significant talent. This later skill comes into play in an appearance on a sitcom based on the film Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. The show lasted just one season (and thus, one season too long) and is terrible. It's a classic sitcom mistaken identity plot, where Mr. Smith thinks that Harpo is a famous French pianist, brings him to the White House, and Harpo performs for the president, first as a total clown, but then brings the house down once he sits behind the harp. I particularly enjoyed the series of commercials he did for Labatt's beer and a brand of evaporated milk that are included, mostly because I was happy to see that they didn't "sell out" the character. His primary function in these spots is to chase after girls, even if it means ignoring the product he's selling.

Though they didn't appear together, each of the brothers appears in their own sport show in the set. Chico plays on that aforementioned bridge show that I have nothing more to say about because it was really boring. Groucho plays billiards against Minnesota Fats on Celebrity Billiards, and doesn't fare to well, but is pleased to receive a free table for his appearance on the show. Harpo appears on a celebrity golf program and, I'm just as shocked as you will be, he manages to make televised golf interesting. Apparently he was a pretty serious golfer and at the age of 73 he managed to hold his own against his opponent, while still doing a bunch of weird putting styles to stay in character. I particularly enjoyed hearing the host of the show genuinely react to Harpo's antics as he gave color commentary with such banal phrases as, "Boy, Sam's going to have a lot to contend with, ah, psychologically."

Through all of this material, there is only one instance on the set in which the brothers appeared together. On another episode of CBS's General Electric Theater, Chico and Harpo plan and execute an elaborate jewel heist that takes up the bulk of the half hour. The episode is completely silent, with no dialogue until the very end when the pair is at a police line-up being identified by the jewelry store manager. Suddenly, Groucho enters, stands between his two brothers and announces, "We won't talk until we see our lawyer!" It's a fantastic cameo, particularly since it would have been a complete surprise to the viewing audience since, because of Groucho's contract with NBC, his appearance could not be used to promote the show.

Also included is a half hours worth of private home movies featuring all three of the brothers, mostly shot by Harpo's family, narrated by his oldest son. In this footage is some insanely early stuff from 1928, the first known footage of Groucho Marx; way back when they lived on the East Coast they were born on. It's a rare opportunity to see the Brothers as actual brothers, husbands, and fathers, and to see them without the red curly wigs, the greasepaint mustaches, and in Harpo's case, any clothes at all. Turns out he was a bit of a nudist, and was often kicked out of country clubs, etc. for practicing. I was not prepared for this.

I'm leaving out a ton of other stuff on these discs, but there's too much stuff to cover. The amount of time it must have taken just to research and locate this stuff is mind-boggling (there was a show about bridge, remember?) so clearly a lot of effort and love went it. If you're looking for a way to introduce yourself or someone else to those three, you still can't beat Duck Soup or your favorite film. But if you've seen all the movies, read all the books, and listen all the radio shows, well then, you're going to love this DVD set. The only bad news is you're going to be all out of Marx Brothers once you've gone through it all.

Ramsey Ess is a freelance writer for television, podcaster and a guy on Twitter. His webseries "Ramsey Has a Time Machine" has a very self-explanatory title.

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