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

Arts and Entertainment

Will Poulter will play the shape-shifting monsterfilm
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Hollywood

'Whether he left is almost immaterial'TV
Arts and Entertainment

game of thrones reviewWarning: spoilers

Arts and Entertainment
The original Star Wars trio of Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill

George Osborne confirms Star Wars 8 will film at Pinewood Studios in time for 4 May

film

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
  • 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.

    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

    Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
    China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

    China's influence on fashion

    At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
    Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

    The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

    Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
    Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

    Rainbow shades

    It's all bright on the night
    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
    Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

    The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

    A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
    'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

    Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

    Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

    The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
    Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

    Vince Cable exclusive interview

    Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
    Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

    Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

    Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
    Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

    It's time for my close-up

    Meet the man who films great whites for a living
    Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

    Homeless people keep mobile phones

    A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before