Today we’ll cover four of the most well known and successful movies, and look at two of the most notable male leads to appear in the Marx Brothers pictures. The only two who ever made a repeat performance, in fact!
Monkey Business (1931) Zeppo played by Zeppo Marx
Horse Feathers (1932) Frank Wagstaff played by Zeppo Marx
Zeppo Marx appeared in all the Paramount movies, including the previously mentioned Cocoanuts and Animal Crackers, but did not play the male lead, instead taking up minor supporting roles. There is a kind of myth around Zeppo that he always played the heartthrob to the other brother’s comedians, but in fact he only played the male lead twice on film (a minority, even among the films he appeared in) and both times his versions of that role were different to what anyone else played.
In Monkey Business, he does fulfil one convention of the leading Marx men, in that he has a totally random occupation. He’s initially completely unemployed, a flat-broke stowaway on a luxury liner who briefly becomes a mob foot soldier by romancing a gangster‘s daughter! Actually all the Marx brothers in the film are stowaways (“Remember, the stockholder of yesterday is the stowaway of today!“ Groucho says) and all of them end up as mob bodyguards. In every film that Zeppo appears, he is always closely connected to the other brothers, even when he is playing the male lead. In Cocoanuts, Animal Crackers and Duck Soup, he works for Groucho. In Horse Feathers he plays Groucho’s college student son and in Monkey Business a friend of Groucho’s and fellow stowaway.
I need hardly say that Zeppo Marx is the best male lead to appear in a Marx picture. One of the poorest held secrets about the brothers is that Zeppo was really very funny, perhaps the funniest of all, in private. He frequently used to stand in for Groucho on the vaudeville stage because he could do the act just as well, although ironically he’s the only brother not to disguise himself as Groucho in Duck Soup. His sense of humour makes his turn as the male lead especially unique. He takes part in several comedy routines, which the other second bananas never did. Even in his minor roles in early films, he had a number of dry exchanges with Groucho. One of the more famous routines in Marx movies, when the brothers all try to pass themselves off as Maurice Chevalier, is instigated by Zeppo.
Hey, you know who’s on this boat? Maurice Chevalier, the movie actor! I just ran into him!
How do you know it was Chevalier?
I got his passport, right there!
Zeppo sang a little in both films, as was expected, but uniquely he only sings tunes that all the brothers have a crack at. In Monkey Business, he is the first to sing the Chevalier song You Brought A New Kind of Love To Me, fake French accent included, and the other brothers follow suit. In Horse Feathers he starts off Everyone Says I Love You, and later in the movie the others will all perform a version each (and much later, the cast of Woody Allen’s picture of the same name will have a go too). Though not the male lead in the picture, because there isn’t one, Zeppo also takes part in the big We’re Going To War number at the end of Duck Soup and has an excellent singing voice.
Zeppo is unique in that he feels the most like a family member. There’s something you can’t fake about that. He frequently touches the others to turn them around and get their attention. He slaps them on the arm when he’s doing his lines, and he crawls under a table if they do. Unlike the other leads who pretend they can’t hear what the brothers are saying, or Margaret Dumont who pretends she doesn’t understand what they are saying, Zeppo usually just acts like he doesn’t think his older brothers are all that funny.
Zeppo Marx himself was an interesting man. He never acted again after Duck Soup, he’d had enough of the routine. The rumour was that he was put in the act in the first place to keep him out of trouble, the kind a young handsome man could find for himself in those days. Zeppo left the act and went into the agent business for a while with Gummo, a brother from vaudeville who never saw the screen. Zeppo was also a mechanical genius from an early age, and eventually started his own company based around his inventions, such as the wrist heart-rate monitor. My favourite story about Zeppo Marx, which is absolutely true, is that his company designed and built the brackets which held the atomic bomb that dropped on Hiroshima. In later life he married a Las Vegas showgirl, Barbara Marx, who is probably better known as Barbara Sinatra, the Chairman’s final wife.
A Night At The Opera (1935) – Ricardo Baroni played by Allan Jones
A Day At The Races (1937) – Gil Stuart played by Allan Jones
Allan Jones is the other most notable second banana because he is a repeat offender, and because the movies he starred in are arguably the Marx Brothers most famous. In A Night At The Opera, the first MGM Marx film, he does not have a crazy job, he’s merely an opera singer. Perhaps the strangest thing about it is that we’re asked to believe that Jones is an Italian, but if we can accept that Chico is an Italian, then why not. Jones probably owes his repeat performance in A Day At The Races to Thalberg, trying to recreate the success of A Night At The Opera, and it leads to one of my favourite mix up jobs in the Marx movies. In Races, Jones plays Gil Stuart, a race-horse owner who is also a cabaret singer, and his girlfriend owns the local asylum. I love these kinds of things in films, where someone is talking about their job and another character says “But what about your singing career?” to let you know that there’ll be a big number somewhere later on.
Due to the fact that Allan Jones has a great classic singing voice, and presumably because of what Thalberg thought made up the Marx appeal, there are more musical numbers in Opera and Races than almost anywhere else. Great swathes of ANATO are taken up with classic opera singing, which is funny because Groucho makes it quite clear from the beginning that he doesn’t like this style of music at all (“You can get a phonograph of Minnie the Moocher for 75 cents!” he says). Many people will skip these segments these days, although they shouldn’t skip his number Cosi Cosa from ANATO which is quite catchy.
Blandly handsome and a tremendous singer, Allan Jones was lucky to be on two of the most renowned Marx films and work with a producer like Thalberg who certainly crafted singing scenes toward his talents. Jones never took part in a comedy sequence with the boys, but had a constant smirk on his face as though someone had just told a joke before the camera rolled. We might imagine that, had Thalberg not suddenly died during the production of A Day At The Races, we would have seen all the MGM films starring Allan Jones and this may not have been such a bad move. Jones must be in the top three of second bananas to appear alongside the brothers. By A Day At Races he was much more comfortable working with them, and we can only imagine the relationship would have improved over time had the great Irving not passed away.
Unfortunately Thalberg did die, and the other 3 contracted Marx Brothers films did not work out as they might have otherwise done. Jones’ film career also stuttered a little after the Marx. His other most famous appearance was as the lead in Show Boat but unfortunately, while a hit at the time, this is not the most famous version produced. Most people today remember the Howard Keel / Ava Gardener 1951 version as the definitive Show Boat, where as Jones played the Keel part in a (slightly edgier) version from 1936. Quite wisely, Allan eventually returned to touring stage productions. His son, jazz singer Jack Jones, sang the theme to the American series The Love Boat, and Jack and Allan appeared on stage together on the show.
The final part will be up tomorrow, after which I promise I won’t write about the Marx Brothers for a while, don’t worry!