The Marx Brothers created the kind of universally appealing comedy that transcends time and trend. Chico, Groucho and Harpo (and occasionally Zeppo) had worked on stage, screen and radio for nearly 50 years when their last film, “Love Happy,” premiered in 1949. They left behind a treasure trove of comedic classics, including “Cocoanuts” (1929), “Animal Crackers” (1930), “Horse Feathers” (1932) and “Duck Soup” (1933).
By the time television burst on the cultural scene in the 1950’s, the vaudeville-era stars were middle-aged and the transition to the new medium gave them the largest audience they ever had. The kinescope technology available then created poor quality recordings, but the development of film allowed preservation of such later classics as Harpo’s famous 1955 recreation of the “Duck Soup” mirror scene on the “I Love Lucy” show. This episode has rerun in syndication for decades and has been seen by millions.
Most of the Marx Brothers’ television performances were as guests on TV variety shows such as The Jack Benny Program, The Colgate Comedy Hour, and The Red Skelton Hour. Although they all forged careers as individuals on the smaller screen, only Groucho was successful with his long-running “You Bet Your Life.”
Thanks to the teamwork of Harpo’s curator son, Bill Marx, and Marxophile producer Robert S. Bader, a new three-disc DVD set, “The Marx Brothers TV Collection,” is now available from Shout! Factory with ten hours of shows, home movies, outtakes, commercials and interviews from their golden television years.
The Journal spoke by phone with Bill Marx about this project and about his memories of growing up as a member of such a famous family.
“The Marx Brothers embraced every facet of the industry,” Marx began. “Although you can see all their movies on the internet, this DVD set is kind of special because it’s all TV. In a way, it’s good they haven’t been overexposed. This compilation of their life’s work is a positive thing for Marx Brothers fans, especially the youth who can see these for the first time.”
He and Bader wanted to highlight segments not available anywhere else, which is why they did not include the famous Lucy episode in their collection.
Marx enthusiastically talked about his religious upbringing. His father Harpo (born Arthur) always felt Jewish growing up, although Harpo’s parents never had much time for embracing the outward traditions of being a Jew. “They were too busy trying to survive in turn of the century New York City. The only time they experienced being Jewish was when they had to defend it.”
Harpo, whose will donated two harps to the state of Israel, was heavily involved in United Jewish Appeal and other Jewish causes. His first trip to Israel was in 1961. When he came home, he shared his experience with his son.
“Dad was probably 72 or 73 at the time,” said Marx, who is 77. “He told me it was the first time he ever really felt his Jewishness without having to defend it. He was very moved by being in a place where Jews were not a minority. It was a real epiphany for him.”
The brothers rarely got together socially with their families. “They would see each other every day at a country club they belonged to for lunch. They were sick of each other,” he chuckled. He remains close to his cousins Bob (Gummo Marx’s son) and Miriam (Groucho’s eldest daughter).
Like his two brothers and sister, Bill Marx was adopted. His desire to pay tribute to his dad inspired him to create the website, harposplace.com, and to undertake this latest project. “I am the luckiest guy in the world to have ended up accidentally in the orbit of the Marx Brothers,” he said. “I don’t know how to repay anybody except by producing this kind of homage to them and to my dad, who was such a unique and special person.”
Although he never embraced a traditional Jewish journey, Marx observes Yizkor, lighting yahrzeit candles for his parents. “I don’t appear in temple all that much,” he said, “but Yizkor is the one Jewish observance I set aside.”
On a closing note, Marx revealed his thoughts about Israel. “I am one of those incurably optimistic kind of guys when it comes to Israel. I think they will somehow or another weather this. They certainly know how to take care of themselves.”