The Marx Brothers TV Collection follows the legendary comedy team into the 1950s, '60s, and '70s | Bleader

Monday, September 22, 2014

The Marx Brothers TV Collection follows the legendary comedy team into the 1950s, '60s, and '70s

Posted By on 09.22.14 at 01:00 PM

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Interviewed in the early 1970s, Groucho Marx explained why he had stopped working with his brothers two decades earlier, bringing down the curtain on the greatest comedy team in movie history. "By the time we got around to making those last films I was close to 60," he said. "I found myself hanging upside down and doing all sorts of crazy things a man that age shouldn't be doing. I had saved my money and I was bored. I knew the films we were making weren't any good, so why bother? So I told the boys that I was going to quit and I did.”

Yet as documented on The Marx Brothers TV Collection, a new three-DVD set from Shout! Factory, the individual brothers were far from finished. When Chico—a gambling addict in constant need of money—appeared on Celebrity Bridge With Charles Goren in 1960, he was 73. Harpo retired to Palm Springs but soon grew bored with playing golf every day; by the time he guest-starred on the sitcom Mr. Smith Goes to Washington in 1962, he was 74. Groucho outlived them both but proved even more reluctant to fade away; even after his long-running quiz show You Bet Your Life, he refused to surrender the spotlight. When he appeared in a 1976 promo film for his reissued book Beds, he was 85; the film shows him tucked under the covers, partly in keeping with the book but also because he had grown so feeble.

Needless to say, TV Collection isn't the place for beginners to start; they should get hold of The Marx Brothers Silver Screen Collection, which collects the team's first five movies (The Cocoanuts, Animal Crackers, Monkey Business, Horse Feathers, and Duck Soup). But hardcore fans will find the new box to be a fascinating collection of oddball rarities, from Harpo's surreal commercials for Labatt's Beer to an episode from Chico's short-lived sitcom The College Bowl to Groucho's straight dramatic performance on General Electric Theater, alongside Dennis Hopper(!). In some cases the brothers revive songs and routines that stretch back to their vaudeville days, completing a show business circle that began in 1905. In the end, though, the three discs are most significant as a record of two brilliant performers (Groucho and Harpo) trying to grow old gracefully, with varying degrees of success.

Chico Marx on Celebrity Bridge With Charles Goren
  • Chico Marx on Celebrity Bridge With Charles Goren
The less said about Chico Marx's solo career, the better. An inveterate hustler and skirt-chaser, he was the eldest brother and the de facto manager, steering their career behind the scenes and serving as an able, affable straight man onscreen. His piano specialty was a lot more digestible than his brother's somber harp solos. But left to his own devices after the act split up, he was an aging bizarro in his corduroy coat and Tyrolean hat, an ethnic stereotype that no one recognized anymore. His funniest moment in the TV Collection is completely unintentional: on the game show I've Got a Secret, he comes on masquerading as Harpo and, misunderstanding the host's instructions, continually misdirects the show contestants as they try to guess his secret.

Chico fares much better when he pairs up with one of his siblings. On The Colgate Comedy Hour in 1952, he and Harpo revive their piano duet from The Big Store and the surefire routine—dating back to their 1914 vaudeville show Home Again—in which a cop, suspecting them of theft, pumps Harpo's hand and he stares stupidly into space as an endless stream of cutlery drops out of his other sleeve. "Inside Beverly Hills," an episode of the series The Sunday Spectacular, features a brief encounter between Chico and Groucho, who remarks, "I'm sure I used to know him. If I'm not mistaken, we used to have the same mother." And the set includes the entire broadcast of "The Incredible Jewel Robbery," a 1959 episode of General Electric Theater (introduced by Ronald Reagan) with Chico and Harpo acting out the title caper in pantomime; Groucho shows up at the very end to deliver the only line of dialogue: "We won't talk until we see our lawyer!" The three brothers would never appear onscreen together again.

Harpo Marx
  • Harpo Marx
Age posed a greater problem for Harpo than for either of his brothers; as with so many screen clowns—Stan Laurel, Jerry Lewis, all the way up to Adam Sandler—his persona was inherently youthful, and once the lines started creeping into his face, antics that once felt liberating began to seem infantile. Added to that was the difficulty of performing wordlessly in off-the-cuff shows with live audiences; Harpo needed a good straight man to set up his wild visual humor, and without Chico at his side, his performances often degenerated into endless games of charades with baffled hosts. Occasionally he even cheated by holding up lettered signs. His most successful TV appearances—like his memorable guest spot on I Love Lucy, not included in the set—tended to be carefully rehearsed and staged.

For that reason, some of his best items here are commercials, which were short, sharply focused, and recorded on film. In a spot for Labatt's Beer he sits in a rowboat studying the waves through a telescope, and when a beautiful woman rows by, the telescope bends around 180 degrees to follow her. Another commercial for All-Pure Evaporated Milk shows him feigning deafness and putting a sound horn in his ear; at his request a salesman pours evaporated milk into the horn, whose lip is attached to a hose that snakes down into Harpo's coat and feeds a puppy stashed in an interior pocket. The set also includes Harpo's only dramatic performance, and a highly effective one at that; in "Silent Panic," a half-hour episode of the anthology series The Dupont Show With June Allyson, he plays a speech-and-hearing-impaired loner who becomes the only witness to a gangland murder.

Groucho Marx
  • Groucho Marx
The only brother who really took off in the TV era was Groucho, who was impervious to age—he was playing a grumpy old man by the time he was 25—and who wisely shed his stage and screen costume of frock coat and greasepaint moustache and eyebrows for a more accessible image. TV was a verbal medium, and he was incredibly quick on his feet, much more literate than his brothers and perfectly capable of minting his own wisecracks on the spot. Shout! Factory has already issued two DVD sets of You Bet Your Life, and Groucho's contributions to TV Collection are the undeniable highlights. On a funny episode of The Jack Benny Show he plays himself, smelling a rat when Benny comes on the quiz show in disguise. There's a super-rare episode of Groucho, the 1965 show produced for ITV Television in England after You Bet Your Life had run its course in the U.S. And Groucho gets to try his hand at drama too in "The Hold Out," a 1962 episode of General Electric Theater; he plays a concerned father who doesn't want his headstrong daughter rushing into marriage with her college sweetheart (25-year-old Dennis Hopper).

Groucho lived long enough to enjoy the Marx Brothers mania that accompanied the Vietnam years, as rebellious college students embraced the unchecked anarchy of the team's earliest films. From this era come two priceless items that revisit the brothers' showbiz origins. On a 1967 broadcast of The Jackie Gleason Show, Groucho revives his old movie costume to duet with Gleason on an updated version of "Mr. Gallagher and Mr. Shean," the vaudeville theme song of the Marxes' famous uncle, Al Shean. And on a 1970 broadcast of The Dick Cavett Show, Groucho appears with cast members from the Broadway musical biography Minnie's Boys to reminisce about his mother, who pushed her children onto the stage, and to watch an uncanny impersonation of himself by Lewis J. Stadlen, who played young Julius Marx in the show. The set also includes a 1959 broadcast of The Dinah Shore Chevy Show on which Groucho and Shore sing "Peasie Weasie," a comic number the brothers began performing in 1912. These three items may be the most affecting clips in The Marx Brothers TV Collection, moments from the group's dawning days glimpsed again at twilight.

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