Tuesday, June 25, 2013

The Comedy of Groucho Marx: Characterization

The Comedy of Groucho Marx: Characterization

Eyeglasses, cigar, big mustache and ever-twitching eyebrows: who am I talking about? If you didn’t say Groucho Marx [Julius Henry “Groucho” Marx (1890 – 1977), the most famous of the four Marx Brothers], you are too young to know better. That is your unfortunate loss. However, to this day, you can go into a gag store to buy a glasses-and-mustache disguise and become Groucho. His distinctive look was carried over from Vaudeville, where he and his brothers actually started out as a singing group called The Four Nightingales. The Nightingales weren’t that big a hit (who likes a bird with twitching eyebrows?), but when they quit singing and started cracking jokes instead, stars were born.

The fast-talking, funny-walking, cigar-chewing wag with painted-on eyebrows and mustache came about as a substitute for his usual ethnic German accent, which started getting boos from patriotic audiences after the 1915 sinking of the Lusitania. He made a quick switch to his classic character and the rest is history.

Although Groucho started out wanting to be a doctor, those dreams were thrown out when the family needed money. The brothers went into show business, but Groucho made up for his lack of formal education by reading voraciously. One of his famous lines is “I think TV is very educational. Every time someone turns on a TV, I go in the other room and read.”

Groucho and his brothers, Harpo, Chico and Gummo, were a hit on Vaudeville, then Broadway, and finally on the big screen in a series of comedy spoofs, including The Cocoanuts, Animal Crackers, Monkey Business, Horse Feathers, Duck Soup and A Night at the Opera. Their movies were chock full of fast-paced, sarcastically silly, wickedly witty dialogue (especially from Groucho) and lots of physical humor.

In addition, Groucho, the one brother who could best carry a note, introduced several clever songs in these films, including Hooray for Captain Spaulding; Hello, I Must Be Going; Whatever It Is, I'm Against It; Everyone Says I Love You; and, probably his most famous, Lydia the Tattooed Lady. Groucho went on to host a popular radio and television show, both called You Bet Your Life, which ran from 1946 through 1961.

A master of the one-liner, Groucho Marx was well-known for his plays on words and groan-worthy puns that are quoted often to this day. Be sure to twitch your eyebrows when you use one of these lines:

  • I wish you'd keep my hands to yourself.
  • Marriage is the chief cause of divorce.
  • Women should be obscene and not heard.
  • Time flies like an arrow. Fruit flies like a banana.
  • Outside of a dog, a book is a man's best friend. Inside of a dog, it's too dark to read.
  • While shooting elephants in Africa, I found the tusks very difficult to remove. But in Alabama, the Tuscaloosa...
  • I never forget a face, but in your case I'll be glad to make an exception.
  • You're only as young as the woman you feel.
  • Last night I shot an elephant in my pajamas and how he got in my pajamas I'll never know.
  • Behind every successful man stands a woman. And behind her stands his wife.

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