Unassailable clowns of the early talkie cinema, the Marx Brothers are renowned (and beloved) for many signature features: the core trio’s preposterous characters (Groucho’s bathetic authority figure, boot-polish moustache et al; Chico’s pork pie-hatted cod Italian; Harpo’s dextrously expressive mute), their winsome puns, Groucho’s quickfire and merciless barbs, Chico’s wheeling and dealing, Harpo’s plastic-limbed infantilism, the parody-ad-absurdum storylines and ability to reduce any social setting to chaos…
The Best of the Marx Brothers screens 16-31 January 2015 at the BFI Southbank.
Sometimes overlooked amidst all this untrammelled anarchy are the regular accompanying actors who served as sympathetic support, straight men and women or comedic targets. Here’s a brief introduction to the extended family.
Inventor, performer and engineering multimillionaire, ‘Zeppo’ is too often overlooked or reduced to the ‘unfunny one’ adjunct to his elder brothers, whose first five films he appeared in. Yet the youngest Marx had a whole second career away from the limelight and made an impressive and influential contribution to society.
Born Herbert Manfred Marx, he was rumoured to have joined the family’s stage act at the request of their mother Minnie, who believed it would keep the young man out of trouble. Years spent watching his brothers perform gave Zeppo an advantage over the others: he could imitate his siblings perfectly and was often a last-minute replacement on stage, something that was needed when Gummo joined the army and he effortlessly took his place.
Although Groucho may have once joked “we’re twice as funny without Zeppo”, the older brothers couldn’t deny that Zeppo was an exceptional comedian and naturally the funniest. Despite his teasing, Groucho was often threatened by the youngest Marx’s talents, once stating: “When I had my appendix out, Zeppo took over for me. He was so good that it made me get better quicker.”
Zeppo shines in Animal Crackers (1930), particularly in the scene when his character, secretary Horatio Jamison, transcribes a letter from Groucho’s Captain Spaulding, perfectly matching his older brother’s pace and timing in a two-handed exchange that’s one of the highlights of the film. He also replaced Groucho for one scene (shot in the dark, when the painting is stolen during a blackout) when Groucho was ill. The elder brother was impressed: “He was so good as Captain Spaulding that I would have let him play the part indefinitely, if they’d allowed me to smoke in the audience.”
Yet being sidelined as the ‘little brother’ meant that Zeppo was never completely comfortable on the stage. Frequently cast in supporting roles of the romantic lead (Monkey Business, 1931, and Horse Feathers, 1932) or secretary (Duck Soup, 1933) meant he always remained at a sight distance from the older trio.
In 1979 he gave the BBC’s Barry Norman what was to be his final interview, where he had the opportunity to give his version of the family business: “Yes, I wanted to be a comedian and there wasn’t an opportunity for me to be a comic. It was a very difficult time at the finish getting funny stuff for three boys, Groucho, Chico and Harpo… I felt frustrated because I couldn’t do the things that I was thinking up for them to do, and rightly so. I didn’t resent it at all, but every time I walked out on the stage I felt I was cheating, because I wasn’t doing a good job. So I just got up and quit… I wanted to be on my own so I went out.”
In 1934 he stopped performing to become a theatrical agent, and in 1937 became a partner in the agency Marx, Miller and Marx with brother Gummo and Allan Miller. The agency was highly successful, managing the careers of stage- and screen writers and actors including Lucille Ball, Fred MacMurray, Jean Harlow, Lana Turner, Barbara Stanwyck (with whom he also owned a thoroughbred horse ranch) and of course the Marx Brothers.
Yet he grew disillusioned with the entertainment industry and in 1949 began to utilise his other talents. Having always been practical from a young age – he was often fixing the family car – he found his way into industrial engineering, forming Marman Industries to manufacture parts for aircrafts. The business would fashion the ‘Marman Clamp’ or ‘Marman Ring’, a small apparatus that would secure cargo during transportation and was even used to hold the first atomic bomb in place.
During the 1950s and 1960s he owned citrus orchards in Palm Springs and a commercial seafood trawler off the coast of California. He also patented as inventor or co-inventor three products – a ‘Vapor Delivery Pad for Distributing Moist Heat’ and two cardiac pulse monitors, not unlike those used to this day.
The legend surrounding Dumont is that, as Groucho would later testify, she understood the Marx Brothers’ jokes no more than did her character. Always the butt of their innuendos, quips and pranks – which included hiding her wigs off set – she was their perfect straight woman both on and off screen; her constantly bemused expression was no show.
The opera-trained stage and screen star appeared in seven Marx Brothers films (two more than Zeppo; Groucho called her “practically the fifth Marx Brother”. Typically playing the wealthy female socialite or regal high-society heiress, she would somehow maintain her professionalism and poise in the face of both the Brothers’ general anarchy and Groucho’s specific faux flirtations, smutty suggestions and less-than-flattering marriage proposals. (“You take me, and I’ll take a vacation. I’ll need a vacation if we’re going to get married. Married! I can see you right now in the kitchen, bending over a hot stove. But I can’t see the stove…”).
Her vocal chords were also deployed by the Marxes, either as part of the films’ frequent musical numbers or as part of the joke, as when the Brothers pelt her victory song with fruit at the end of Duck Soup.
Dumont’s career, however, was merely punctuated by her involvement with the Marx Brothers, not made by them.
Born Daisy Juliette Baker in New York 1882, she trained as an opera singer, performing both in the US and Europe under the stage name Daisy Dumont; the ‘Daisy’ later changed sometimes to Marguerite as well as Margaret. She made her theatre debut just before turning 20 in a Philadelphia production of Beauty and the Beast, then performed in an Atlantic City vaudeville act.
Her tenure with the Marxes began in 1925 when she was cast by George S. Kaufman in his original Broadway version of The Coconauts. By the time of its 1928 followup Animal Crackers Hollywood was calling, and she joined the brothers at Paramount for their first three films The Coconuts, Animal Crackers and Duck Soup, missing out on Horse Feathers and Duck Soup but moving with them to MGM for the bigger-budget A Night at the Opera (1935) and A Day at the Races (1937) – still playing wealthy widows with an unaccountable fondness for Groucho’s scamps – and two of their lesser later efforts, At the Circus (1939) and The Big Store (1941).
Eight days before she died from a heart attack in 1965 Dumont made her final acting appearance on The Hollywood Palace, a television show that Groucho was guest-hosting that week, where the two performed scenes from Animal Crackers. The programme was aired a number of weeks after her death.
Known to her friends as ‘the ice-cream blonde’ or ‘Hot Toddy’, the beautiful and vivacious Todd, who died aged 29 in shocking and scandalous circumstances, provided a very different female foil to the Brothers in Monkey Business and Horse Feathers, their two Paramount films without Dumont (both co-scripted by noted satirist S.J. Perelman).
Alongside her model-like grace and elegance, Todd had a spark of mischievous energy that made her (arguably) the Marxes’ only co-star capable of matching their madcap enthusiasm. Where Dumont remained regally blithe to Groucho’s jokes, Todd would match them, telling jokes to make the brothers laugh, breaking into song, dance and effusive smiles. Flirted with, she flirts back – even with Harpo! – and she was also unafraid to look the fool on camera. When she falls into the lake in Horse Feathers she barely flinches. Her playful vitality brings a rare hint of sex into the Marxes’ world; it also accords her a rare degree of respect.
Todd played a number of supporting roles during the silent era, but like the Marxes got her break with the advent of the talkies. In 1931 producer Hal Roach, looking to create a female version of Laurel and Hardy, cast Todd in her own slapstick comedy series – one that sounds like the template for most female-led comedy shows since – as the charming, working, single girl with a slightly zany best friend.
She would appear in 119 films in total (many of these shorts), including the 1931 version of The Maltese Falcon opposite Ricardo Cortez, and Roland West’s Corsair, which lead to a relationship with the director). When Roach loaned Todd out to other studios she found herself acting alongside such celebrated comedic talent as Buster Keaton and Jimmy Durante in Speak Easily (1932), Laurel and Hardy and the Marxes. Very popular within the comedy circuit, she was soon celebrated as the favourite co-star of many Hollywood comedians.
Although accounts of how she died vary and make up considerable (disproven) conspiracy theories – suicide, a Mob hit, the fault of jealous lover/business partner West – what’s clear that on 16 December 1935 Todd was found dead inside her car with the garage door closed behind her. The engine had been running all night and she had died from carbon monoxide poisoning. It was an eerie occurrence, echoing a line of dialogue in Monkey Business: “You’re a woman who’s been getting nothing but dirty breaks. Well, we can clean up and tighten your breaks, but you’ll have to stay in the garage all night.”
Todd’s final film role was in Laurel and Hardy’s The Bohemian Girl (1936), an Austria-set film and her fourth with the duo, in the prime role of the Gypsy Queen. When she died her character was renamed the Gypsy Queen’s Daughter and Zeffie Tilbury recast in the role of the Queen. However, Todd’s musical number was left unaltered in the finished film as a tribute.
A musical veteran of the 1930s and 40s, Jones is best remembered as the opera-singing romantic lead in A Night at the Opera and A Day at the Races. Both gave him the opportunity to showcase his vocal ability, first as the opera chorister attempting to woo Kitty Carlisle’s character, then as the singer boyfriend of Maureen O’Sullivan.
In between the two parts he won the much sought-after role of Gaylord Ravenal opposite Irene Dunne in Show Boat. That 1936 production, directed by James Whale, was the perfect opportunity for Jones to combine both his acting and musical talent and proved the defining role of his career.
If Jones was the stereotype of the fresh-faced, earnest romantic lead in A Night at the Opera and A Day at the Races, Ruman provided their mock villains – the OTT (and very bearded) figure of the social climber or blowhard dignitary, ripe for a fall. And unlike Dumont, his specialism was in growing very far from unflappable in the face of the Brothers’ assaults on his dignity.
Born Sigfried Albon Rumann in Hamburg, Ruman came to the US in 1924 with some music-hall experience, which he quickly parlayed into success on Broadway. Friendship with George S. Kaufman led him to the Marx Brothers: his roles as the bullying New York Opera Company impresario Herman Gottleib in A Night at the Opera, and the po-faced Dr. Leopold X. Steinberg in A Day at the Races, were some of the first of a film career that spanned four decades.
His imposing physique and pronounced German accent meant he was often cast as malevolent Nazis or officious Prussian-officer types: Dr Emil Eggelhoffer in William Wellman’s Nothing Sacred (1937), Dr Julius Gustav Krogmann in Anatole Litvak’s Confessions of a Prussian Spy (1939) and of course Colonel ‘Concentration Camp’ Erhardt in his fellow countryman Ernst Lubitsch’s To Be or Not to Be (1942). (Lubitsch also cast him as one of the three Soviet Commissioners guarding Garbo’s Ninotchka (1939), while for Howard Hawks he was John ‘Dutchy’ Van Ruyter in Only Angels Have Wings (1939).) He reteamed with – or against – the Marxes for their late-career highlight A Night in Casablanca (1946) as the serial hotelier-murderer Count Pfeffermann, née escaped war criminal Heinrich Stubel.
Although better known as one of Preston Sturges’ stock company of character actors – appearing in The Lady Eve, Sullivan’s Travels, The Palm Beach Story, The Great Moment, The Sin of Harold Diddlebock and Unfaithfully Yours – Australian-American Greig made his film debut as butler ‘Hives’ in Animal Crackers, singing his instructions to the rest of the serving staff in his first scene. (He can also be heard amongst the chorus of singers in the film’s song Hooray for Captain Spaulding.)
While the part set a precedent for other butler roles, Greig managed to break with type two years later in Horse Feathers, where he appears as a lecturing biology professor, somewhat disguised by a beard.
Correction (18 September 2015): This article originally claimed Margaret Dumont had won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for A Day at the Races. Not so, and the claim has been removed.