The Late Show Blogathon: Exit The Kid Brother

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Our current post is part of The Late Show Blogathon, hosted by the scintillating Shadowplay Blog, from December 1-7, 2012. Blogathon posts examine the last, or very late, films of directors, actors, and others in the film universe. Please click here for more details.


The interest in the ‘last’ production of an artist is that it’s seen as a final statement, a summing up of an illustrious career (see Shakespeare, William//The Tempest). This isn’t often the case in movies. Last movies may be more an accident of fate than anything else. Directors and actors tend to keep going until they become old or ill, die, or, worse, lose their touch at the box office (see Capra, Frank//A Pocketful of Miracles). In our typically contrarian way at Grand Old Movies, however, we’re taking a different bent. We’re not looking at a major career running out of steam, but at a minor one: Zeppo Marx. His last film did just happen to be a masterpiece, Duck Soup; the case of a whimper going out with a bang. Duck Soup was the last time the original four Marx Brothers appeared together, and it was the team’s last film at Paramount, which devout Marxians such as ourselves consider their best period. So Zeppo, we feel, deserves some attention, if only to delve into the inevitable Zeppo Marx question: What was Zeppo for?

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Where’s Zeppo?

As the youngest of the Marxes, Zeppo was stuck with the role of straight man. There seems some weird family dynamics playing out in that. In childhood theatrics, older siblings tend to stick the younger ones with the lousy parts (Lynn Redgrave recalled as a child being cast as a dog in family skits while Vanessa and Corin got to play heroes). That isn’t always the case in family comedy teams. In two examples we can think of, the team’s youngest child is its most talented. There’s Harry Ritz of The Ritz Brothers, large, robust, and utterly manic. We can’t ever tell Al and Jimmy apart, but Harry is unmistakable—he’s the big, pop-eyed dervish in the middle, the whirling eye of the storm, his brothers flanking him like epaulettes on a rhinestone-studded jacket decked out with Christmas lights. Then there’s Curly Howard, the in-and-out brother of The Three Stooges. Curly was brilliant; no other word will suffice. He’s uninhibited quicksilver; he could, and would, do anything (click here to see him do a fan dance, à la Sally Rand). Curly was the helium that made the Stooge act float (even his high-pitched voice sounds helium-injected). When brother Shemp returned to the Stooges (Curly had originally replaced him), the act continued, but it no longer flew. It chugged on like a steady Model-T, after it had once crazily soared like the Wizard’s balloon at the end of The Wizard of Oz.

Somehow the comic genes didn’t configure in Zeppo in the same way. Legend has it that Zeppo was the funniest brother, offstage. But since when did offstage count? No one is ever enshrined for cocktail witticisms. We don’t know what Zeppo was like in the team’s original vaudeville and stage act, but onscreen he stands out for being utterly bland. He doesn’t have a funny ‘shtick,’ such as Chico’s accent or Harpo’s bicycle horn, nor does he have Groucho’s timing. In Marxian commedia dell’arte, he’s the Normal one—terribly so. He’s so average he seems to disappear while you watch; there’s a dead-air quality to him. He may be the original Man in the Gray Flannel Suit. In the first two Marx films, The Cocoanuts (1929) and Animal Crackers (1930), if you don’t know who Zeppo is, you can easily overlook him. He’s that nice, nondescript fellow with the pleasant smile, who enters from screen left and announces that Groucho will soon be here. Then he trots offscreen to be forgotten for the next forty-five minutes or so, until he pops up again in the big comic finalé. While we’re all trying to remember who he is, he’s trying to join in the fun. Trying is death in comedy. If it doesn’t look as light and as giddy as bubbles in a breeze, it’s a dud.

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Waiting for Groucho: Zeppo does his thing in ‘Duck Soup.’ With him are Raquel Torres (back to camera), Margaret Dumont, and Louis Calhern.

Like Curly, Zeppo began as a fraternal substitute. When fourth brother Gummo departed the stage act to enter the military, Zeppo replaced him as the straight man. He then stayed with the act through the five Paramount films. Seeing Zeppo on film with his brothers, you get an idea why Gummo didn’t return. Groucho, Chico, and Harpo are funnymen right out of Darwin. They’re their own separate, savage comic species; if you can’t match them, they’ll eat you alive, family ties be damned. A telling example is the famous letter-dictation scene in Animal Crackers, addressed to four Hungerdungers and a MacCormick. Zeppo does straight duties and you feel for him. Groucho aggressively slings the zingers, but Zeppo can’t catch them and zing them around and back, like a good straight man should; they smack against him and drop like deadweights. If Chico were here, he’d have changed the pace (as he always did in his own routines with Groucho); he’d have brushed Groucho off and held his own. Perhaps family dynamics are again at work. As the eldest brother, Chico wouldn’t have taken any lip from a younger one. But Zeppo seems cowed, even angry; Groucho looks like he’s bullying him. In real life Groucho was a bully (as all who’ve read The Marx Brothers Scrapbook know); but poor Zeppo seems dragged down by that psychological baggage in his performance; the strain shows.

Groucho dictates a letter to Zeppo in Animal Crackers. Margaret Dumont adds backup: 

A bit of business did come down Zeppo’s way in the next two films, Monkey Business (1931) and Horse Feathers (1932). Zeppo has real, honest-to-goodness roles in these two movies. Perhaps it was due to one of the new screenwriters, the great and wonderful S.J. Perelman, who had seen the Marxes onstage and maybe saw something in Zeppo that wasn’t apparent in his earlier screen roles. Or maybe it was screen economy; why not combine the Normal brother with the standard love interest, and save money on hiring another actor? (As it is, the romantic juveniles of the two earlier films were just ghastly, so  Zeppo could only have been an improvement.)

For those of us who adore the bizarre antics of early-thirties pre-Code screen comedy, the romantic leads (who usually are not the comics; there are some exceptions, such as Jack Oakie in Million Dollar Legs) are to be patiently endured. (Even smart, sassy Lillian Roth in Animal Crackers comes across as a little too archly conventional for our tastes.) The romantic couples are the nice, dull Normal types; when they come onscreen, the audience zones out. Some critics (including James Agee) have read the Zeppo persona as being a “peerlessly cheesy” comment on the romantic leading man, in an intertextual sense. We don’t sense that reflexive awareness onscreen, but we do think it’s a natural to have Zeppo as the juvenile; he was good looking, he could sing, and he projected an amiable charm. Having him for romance duties was the best solution to two problems: How to sustain moderate (don’t ask for miracles) interest in the lovers and what to give Zeppo to do. And Zeppo finally gets to do something, other than pave the way for the guy with the painted mustache. He gets a girlfriend in Monkey Business, whom he gets to rescue in a big fight scene, and he gets to imitate Maurice Chevalier. Horse Feathers is even better; he gets to romance Thelma Todd. Many comics would no doubt have sold their souls for a crack at schmoozing the delectable Thelma; Zeppo’s chance must have seemed like a gift from the gods. For once he seems to be having fun.

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But what the gods capriciously give, they also take away. In the Brothers’ final Paramount film, Duck Soup (1933), Zeppo once again serves as a bloodlessly tame Baptist preceding Groucho’s snarky Savior. One of the reasons Duck Soup is the greatest of the Marx Brothers’ films is that it’s the purest. That also makes it the most ruthless; it pares away all the non-essentials. Chico and Harpo don’t even have their usual piano and harp solos. (Are we in a minority when we say we don’t miss them?) There are still the big musical numbers, but the Marxes were fortunately directed by a Master, Leo McCarey, who gives these numbers the snappy pacing they lacked in the earlier films. The songs, for once, are good (just sing out “Hail, Hail, Freedonia,” and everyone knows right away what you mean), the satire is dead-on, and the dances are genuinely funny (the bit with the girls on pointe solemnly strewing flowers always floors us). The supporting cast also seems on the ball, with baleful Louis Calhern swollen with pomposity, curvaceous Raquel Torres swelling out of her costumes, and blessed Maragret Dumont back for some swell double-meaning double takes. AND there’s no romantic billing-and-cooing to detract from the fun. This film is for Marxian addicts, who want our Boys as a sustained shot in the arm, uncut and unmixed with filler.

Unfortunately for Zeppo, he’s one of the non-essentials. It’s survival of the fittest in Duck Soup, and Zeppo is left to fossilize in a Jurassic swamp. Maybe ossifying in a masterpiece is its own consolation; there are classic-era actors remembered simply because they appeared in Gone With The Wind, no matter how small a bit (type Zeppo’s name in the IMDB search line, and up comes “Actor, Duck Soup“). But do you really want to be remembered as a what-did-you-do extra? Zeppo’s not part of the great routines, such as the mirror scene and the lemonade stand. And with no romantic juvenile role, and with Groucho, Chico, and Harpo zinging gags like a six-four-three double play, there’s not much left for Zeppo. Boy, do we feel for him here. There’s Groucho as Rufus T. Firefly, there’s Chico as Chicolini, there’s Harpo as Pinky And then there’s Zeppo as—Bob. Ye gods, why Bob? You can’t get a name more dully, boringly, averagingly normal than—Bob. Maybe it’s a comment on Normalcy, but why rub it in? It’s so Normal, it shrieks Suburbia. It’s as flavorless as Wonder Bread. Couldn’t the script have at least called him Hungerdunger? Couldn’t he have ogled Torres? Couldn’t he have shaved his head or pitched his voice high or popped his eyes? Couldn’t he have done something?

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Zeppo keeps up with Groucho’s wisecracks.

Ironically, Zeppo has another letter-dictation scene here with Groucho, and he does about his best work onscreen. He’s relaxed, his timing is good, he’s finally in the spirit of the thing (McCarey’s direction may also have helped). But when it comes to the film’s straight men, we don’t remember Zeppo, we remember Louis Calhern, who, although not a Marx brother, creates a real comic character, which gives the Big Three something to work against. We still find ourselves wondering what Zeppo is doing here. In the comic finalé, while Groucho, Chico, and Harpo fight hilariously for Freedonia’s freedom and pelt Margaret Dumont with fruit, Zeppo seems an afterthought. It’s the fifth brother as fifth wheel. Zeppo’s scenes with his brothers weirdly play out like another familiar family dynamic: The big siblings who have to look after the smallest one whenever they head out to the playground. We can almost hear Mother Minnie scolding Leonard, Adolph, and Julius to make sure they take little Herbert along and play with him, too. It’s never fun to have to baby-sit the baby brother.

The “Freedonia’s Going to War” musical number from Duck Soup, with Groucho, Chico, Harpo, and sometimes Zeppo: 

Zeppo, however, must have been the one no longer having fun. He left the act the next year for a business career and success as an inventor. Whereas, after Duck Soup flopped in a big way, the three remaining Marxes were in a bit of a career jam. Then Irving Thalberg descended, like the god from the machine, to offer the Brothers an MGM movie. MGM was the biggest and the best, and an offer from that studio must have seemed like an invitation to walk straight into Heaven. Heaven, however, is an awfully proper place, and Thalberg’s stipulation was that the Brothers would have to moderate their Marxism. The reason their last film failed, Irving explained, was that it was too, too solid Marx. So the songs, the musical solos, and the juvenile romances were built up. What had once been an excuse to head out to the lobby for a quick smoke became the centerpiece. In A Night at the Opera, Groucho, Chico, and Harpo are the nice guys who help the lovers. In Animal Crackers Chico had scorned to help Lillian Roth unless he could be a thief; now he’s in it for Altruism, whether advancing a singing career, saving a hospital, or supporting a circus. After Thalberg’s death, and as the series went on, the Boys became progressively warmer and cuddlier, the musical routines became longer and more elaborate, and the romantic leads became the stars. The Brothers were no longer triumphing over the Normal people; they were their props.

That’s where Zeppo should have come in. If somebody in the plot has to be the Normal one, the one who needs the help and gets the girl, then at least keep it in the family. But just when the Brothers needed him, he was gone.

Call it Zeppo’s Joke. Somewhere out there, the kid brother must be laughing.

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BONUS CLIP:  A montage of Zeppo, in which he sings and performs with his brothers and with Thelma Todd. Clips are from Monkey Business, Animal Crackers, Duck Soup, Horse Feathers, and a 1931 Paramount publicity sound short:  

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