I’ve been feeling nostalgic lately for just about everything from my youth. It’s funny the things that make us who we are. I bleed nitrate after most of a lifetime in classic film that began with a sudden and deep love of the Marx Bros. toward the end of 1973. I can’t remember how it started, but I jumped on the Marx bandwagon as a youngster during their college campus resurgence and enjoyed the hell out of many Marx double-bills with my dad at the Guild Theatre in Squirrel Hill, near the University of Pittsburgh.
My pal, Greenbriar’s John McElwee, asked not long ago if the Marxes could possibly play to college audiences today—I wonder the same thing. Imagine a 300-seat theater as the Guild was then, shoehorning in kids aged 18-21, and here I was, much younger than that. The double-bills paired The Cocoanuts and Monkey Business, Horsefeathers and Duck Soup, A Night at the Opera and A Day at the Races, At the Circus and The Big Store, and A Night in Casablanca and Love Happy. I know I’ve never laughed as hard as I did in the Guild in the dark, a lot of that the sharing of the experience with so many others so eager to laugh. I remember one particular Friday evening with a blue haze hanging in the air and the smell of pot so thick I choked on it. But son of a gun if the boys weren’t funniest of all on that occasion.
America needed a laugh back then, mired as the nation was in nightly reports of carpet bombing and dead soldiers, but that was life coming out of the turbulent ’60s. Now let’s do some math. In 1972, Horsefeathers—the story of Professor Wagstaff at Huxley College—was just entering middle age at a tender 40. Now let’s think of what was popular 40 years ago right now, way back in 1979, and that was the dead spot between Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back; the year of Alien and Apocalypse Now. Those pictures hold up well today, but can you believe that in 1972, college kids were happy to watch black-and-white prints full of splices and sprocket damage representing pictures that reached back not only to the depths of the Great Depression but to Prohibition as well?
Do you even know who I’m talking about with the Marx Bros.? I imagine some of my younger visitors have never seen a Marx picture. There was cynical, wise-cracking Groucho, ingenuous and silent Harpo, loyal and good-hearted Chico, and up through 1933, handsome young straight man Zeppo. They resonated in the late ’60s and early ’70s as iconoclasts, challengers of authority, afraid of nothing and contemptuous of strait-laced society. Maybe audiences understood that off-screen the brothers were just the same—what you saw was what you got out of this collection of Jewish boys from New York City’s mean streets. No airs or pretentiousness with these guys. Chico was “a restless Aries who lived so fast he could hardly keep up with himself” (said biographer Joe Adamson); Harpo an onscreen imp who was IRL an intellectual who loved children and with his wife Susan adopted several and retired to a grapefruit farm; Groucho a serious thinker by nature who could rustle up any number of reasons not to do what he was supposed to do; and Zeppo a shrewd businessman who became Hollywood’s top talent agent.
They started in the wild west of pre-Code Hollywood and landed at Paramount, where they ruled a roost that turned out to be crooked—their studio was cooking the books and not paying them. The ornery brothers then moved to MGM where production chief Irving Thalberg thought they needed a makeover and it killed them. They retired a mere four years later and made only one real Marx picture after that, in 1946 for UA. Now it’s 86 years since the end of their Paramount heyday and the boys have slipped into obscurity. They didn’t fit in 1933 and they don’t fit in 2019, except to a small and loyal legion that includes yours truly. I will always love these guys for the experiences they gave me with my dad, and for the way they introduced me to classic Hollywood.
The Marx Bros. and their admirers had it best in those crazy counterculture days, after Chico and Harpo had passed on and Groucho was in his dotage selling out one-man shows all over the place, including Carnegie Hall—and with that one, Groucho the contrarian had the last laugh: He got there without practicing.