The history of popular culture 3 Groucho Marx

On the Fifties TV quiz show You Bet Your Life, which Groucho Marx hosted after the brothers stopped making films, a contestant proudly announced he is the father of 10 children. As the applause faded, a clearly unimpressed Groucho asks if that isn't rather excessive. "Well, Groucho, I love my children and I love my wife," beams the contestant. "Sure," replies Groucho, "I love my cigar but I take it out occasionally."

I've never actually seen the exchange but I am sure it was accompanied by the knowing look to camera invented by Groucho, and subsequently adopted - consciously or unconsciously by any number of TV hosts. Barrymore, Chris Evans, Jonathan Ross, David Letterman. Pick who you like. They're all doing Groucho. Bill Cosby, the highest-paid entertainer in America, re- runs Groucho's act down to the last mock-weary shrug in a quiz show that daytime Channel 4 viewers may have recently enjoyed called ... Er

So why is this hero of subversion - "You're the most beautiful woman I've ever seen, which doesn't say much for you" - rarely given the credit he deserves? Why is he subject to the swings of fashion as though he were some black and white figure from movie history like Chaplin or Keaton?

The clue may lie in the films Groucho (Julius) made with his brothers Chico (Leonard), Harpo (Adolph) and Zeppo (Herbert). The four Marx Brothers - five briefly when another brother Gummo (Milton) joined the act for a short time - were a hardworking and highly successful vaudeville act in America in the Twenties. By the time they broke into movies, in their forties, audiences expected and were given a film version of the boys' well-established stage revues.

If the Marx Brothers had done only that, their very best routines - the mirror sequence from Duck Soup, the ship's cabin in A Night at the Opera - would have placed them not far behind Laurel and Hardy, say, or the best of Fatty Arbuckle.

What lifted the Marx Brothers' movies on to another plane was Groucho's language of nudges, winks, and wisecracks - "Gentlemen, we're fighting for this woman's honour. Which is more than she ever did" - seized on by later generations of movie comics including Bob Hope, the Carry On team in Britain, and Woody Allen, who was gracious enough to acknowledge the influence.

It was Groucho who stopped the Marx Brothers' movies from being more awful than they were. His lines - "One morning I shot an elephant in my pyjamas. How he got in my pyjamas I don't know" or "Excuse me while I brush the crumbs out of my bed. I'm expecting company" - almost make up for Chico's tiresome mugging, the laughable love interest, and even the harp solos.

But if the Marx Brothers' movies were patchy at best - and that is being kind - Groucho's life established a template for others of his profession. As well as his quiz show work, he was a reliable and occasionally hilarious chat show guest in the Peter Cook mould, and he minted aphorisms still being quoted to this day - "I've been around so long I remember Doris Day before she was a virgin," and "From the moment I picked the book up to the moment I put it down I was convulsed with laughter. Some day I intend reading it."

Groucho died in 1977 - a three-times married curmudgeon who was generous with his talents, if little else - too soon to see himself established as not just the father of modern movie comedy but of post-modern TV comedy as well.

MARTIN KELNER

News

literature

News
Dermot O'Leary attends the X Factor Wembley Arena auditions at Wembley on August 1, 2014 in London, England.

television

News
news
Arts and Entertainment
At this year's SXSW festival in Austin, Texas

Music Why this music festival is still the place to spot the next big thing

Arts and Entertainment
Russell Tovey, Myanna Buring and Julian Rhind Tutt star in Banished
tvReview: The latest episode was a smidgen less depressing... but it’s hardly a bonza beach party
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
News
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
people
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

music
Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Game of Thrones will run for ten years if HBO gets its way but showrunners have mentioned ending it after seven

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
Mans Zelmerlow will perform 'Heroes' for Sweden at the Eurovision Song Contest 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Elizabeth (Heida Reed) and Ross Poldark (Aiden Turner) in the BBC's remake of their 1975 original Poldark

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Daniel Craig as James Bond in Skyfall

Mexican government reportedly paying Bond producers for positive portrayal in new filmfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Disney’s flying baby elephant is set to return in live-action format
filmWith sequels, prequels and spin-offs, Disney plays it safe... and makes a pachyderm
Arts and Entertainment
Nazrin with Syf, Camden
photography
News
The QI Elves photographed at the Soho Theatre. They are part of a team of researchers who find facts for the television programme 'QI'.
people
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv0-star review: Sean O'Grady gives it his best shot anyway
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The saffron censorship that governs India: Why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression

    The saffron censorship that governs India

    Zareer Masani reveals why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression
    Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

    Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

    Supreme Court rules Dominic Grieve's ministerial veto was invalid
    Distressed Zayn Malik fans are cutting themselves - how did fandom get so dark?

    How did fandom get so dark?

    Grief over Zayn Malik's exit from One Direction seemed amusing until stories of mass 'cutting' emerged. Experts tell Gillian Orr the distress is real, and the girls need support
    The galaxy collisions that shed light on unseen parallel Universe

    The cosmic collisions that have shed light on unseen parallel Universe

    Dark matter study gives scientists insight into mystery of space
    The Swedes are adding a gender-neutral pronoun to their dictionary

    Swedes introduce gender-neutral pronoun

    Why, asks Simon Usborne, must English still struggle awkwardly with the likes of 's/he' and 'they'?
    Disney's mega money-making formula: 'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan

    Disney's mega money-making formula

    'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan
    Lobster has gone mainstream with supermarket bargains for £10 or less - but is it any good?

    Lobster has gone mainstream

    Anthea Gerrie, raised on meaty specimens from the waters around Maine, reveals how to cook up an affordable feast
    Easter 2015: 14 best decorations

    14 best Easter decorations

    Get into the Easter spirit with our pick of accessories, ornaments and tableware
    Paul Scholes column: Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season

    Paul Scholes column

    Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season
    Inside the Kansas greenhouses where Monsanto is 'playing God' with the future of the planet

    The future of GM

    The greenhouses where Monsanto 'plays God' with the future of the planet
    Britain's mild winters could be numbered: why global warming is leaving UK chillier

    Britain's mild winters could be numbered

    Gulf Stream is slowing down faster than ever, scientists say
    Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

    Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

    Donation brings total raised by Homeless Veterans campaign to at least £1.25m
    Oh dear, the most borrowed book at Bank of England library doesn't inspire confidence

    The most borrowed book at Bank of England library? Oh dear

    The book's fifth edition is used for Edexcel exams
    Cowslips vs honeysuckle: The hunt for the UK’s favourite wildflower

    Cowslips vs honeysuckle

    It's the hunt for UK’s favourite wildflower
    Child abuse scandal: Did a botched blackmail attempt by South African intelligence help Cyril Smith escape justice?

    Did a botched blackmail attempt help Cyril Smith escape justice?

    A fresh twist reveals the Liberal MP was targeted by the notorious South African intelligence agency Boss