With regards to Zeppo Marx, movie buffs have been asking for many years…is it attainable to be a 3rd wheel on a crew of 4? The youngest of the Marx Brothers seems of their first 5 photos and had been a presence of their vaudeville and Broadway performs earlier than. Whereas Groucho cracked clever and defied propriety, Chico labored cons and mangled the English language, and Harpo mimed, harped, and confounded actuality, Zeppo…effectively, simply what did Zeppo do? For some, he’s a vestigial member of the household, missing a comic book persona of his personal or any nice goal throughout the movies. For others, together with some right here at Collider, Zeppo performed an indispensable function because the group’s straight man, the very best they ever had. Some even recommend he did have a personality to match his brothers, an understated parody of the hapless romantic juveniles rife in Hollywood movies of the period.
So, what was the reality of it? Was Zeppo a ineffective hanger-on, a top-notch straight man, or a refined comedian in his personal proper? The reply is sure.
Zeppo Marx Got here into the Household Act Late
Zeppo Marx, actual title Herbert, was the newborn of the household. Whereas Chico, Harpo, Groucho, and Gummo (in beginning order) had been pushed onto the vaudeville circuit by their mom, Zeppo was a younger powerful by his personal admission, brawling within the streets and stealing automobiles. This reputed imply streak by no means appeared to go away him; in the direction of the top of his life, he was accused of assaulting a girlfriend who would later marry a mafioso. Household lore, handed round by followers, holds that his mom put Zeppo into the act after Gummo entered the service in World Battle I to verify he didn’t get into hassle.
By the point Zeppo Marx joined his brothers on stage, their comedic personas had been effectively on their means. Groucho was already the irascible, mustachioed, sharp-tongued wit, although he needed to abandon a German accent for his pure New York dialect when public sentiment turned on all issues Teutonic in the course of the battle. Harpo, initially a clumsy and slow-witted Irishman, morphed into the lascivious however playful mute clown who all the time turned severe when he sat down on the harp. Chico was the nominally Italian schemer and ivory tickler who by no means needed to abandon his ethnic shtick. Earlier than leaving the act, Gummo performed an exaggerated Yiddish caricature.
Such stereotypes had been all the trend on vaudeville earlier than World Battle I, however as tastes modified and the three older brothers discovered their very own personas, Gummo was left on the sidelines. He was by no means obsessed with performing and left behind the a part of the fourth brother as a clean slate. That was what Zeppo had ready for him when his mom pushed him onto the stage.
Zeppo Might Be a Romantic Lead, However Marx Brothers Motion pictures Did not Actually Want One
The case put ahead by some followers that Zeppo did make a personality out of the fourth half within the act, a sly dig on the sappy stiffs of Hollywood, isn’t with out proof. In two of the Marx Brothers’ 5 movies for Paramount, Monkey Enterprise and Horse Feathers, that was precisely what he performed. Within the former, he and his brothers are stowaways on an ocean liner. Working from the officers, Zeppo takes up with Ruth Corridor, the daughter of a mobster, the identical mobster who later provides work to Groucho, Chico, and Harpo. In Horse Feathers, Zeppo performs Frank Wagstaff, son of Groucho’s Professor Wagstaff, and the hopelessly infatuated lover of Thelma Todd’s scheming school widow (an older girl who romances school boys).
In these movies, Zeppo will get to pitch woo to Corridor and Todd with the identical cornball strains that many a juvenile lead was saddled with in these days. In Horse Feathers, his singing is patterned after the favored model of romantic crooners. And, on paper a minimum of, his relationship with Corridor appears to be like pivotal to Monkey Enterprise; they arrive collectively at a celebration within the finale, and Zeppo and the brothers race to Corridor’s rescue when she’s kidnapped by rival gangsters. There are three moments aboard ship the place he does recommend that he’s having enjoyable with the conference behind his function. When Corridor drops a handkerchief as a means of flirting, Zeppo pockets it as a substitute of returning it. His claims that he’ll by no means depart her facet aren’t so ironclad that he gained’t bolt on the first signal of a ship’s officer. Later, when the brothers are confronted with the customs line, Zeppo steals Maurice Chevalier’s passport and somewhat brashly tries to move himself off as Hollywood’s favourite Frenchman, by no means thoughts the dearth of bodily or vocal resemblance.
However these are three scenes in a 78-minute film. For more often than not Zeppo has to play a romantic lead, he performs it utterly straight. He does a superbly acceptable job, however there’s no sustained effort to make some form of caricature or satire out of the half. And there isn’t all that a lot time for him to play something. Monkey Enterprise represents Zeppo’s most important function in any Marx Brothers film, and he spends most of it off-screen. His romance invariably takes a again seat to the antics of the opposite brothers, and even within the finale, he has the least featured function in rescuing his supposed sweetheart. It’s not exhausting to guess why; the Marx Brothers had been a comedy act, and a very anarchic one at this stage of their profession. Why spend time on a corny, cliché couple when there are gangsters to swindle, officers to elude, and shipmates to insult?
As for Horse Feathers, after a powerful set-up – arguably a simpler one than Monkey Enterprise – Zeppo all however vanishes. Harpo, Chico, and Groucho (who, keep in mind, is enjoying Zeppo’s father) all attempt to romance Todd and actually push their child brother out of the image. He’s round for the climactic soccer sport, however within the wedding ceremony dénouement, he’s once more shoved to the facet. And it’s not even Zeppo in that scene; have a look, and it’s clearly a physique double.
The ultimate verdict: there was some promise in Zeppo because the group smoothie, however there was no actual urge for food for love within the movies at this level, and solely traces to point Zeppo’s function was meant to be a send-up.
The Marx Brothers Did not Want Zeppo Marx as Their Straight Man
The opposite function Zeppo followers credit score him for is the resident straight man of the Marx Brothers. It’s an often-unappreciated artwork, being a straight man; that you must set your comedian up excellent, exhibit good comedian timing your self with out pulling focus, and depart some mark on the viewers your self whereas maintaining each ft on the bottom. Double acts like Abbott and Costello thrive in giant measure due to the straight arrow of the crew.
However the Marx Brothers’ comedy isn’t two contrasting personalities butting heads with one another. It’s the zaniness of Groucho, Chico, and Harpo butting heads with the entire world. Everybody and every little thing round them is at their mercy. Actuality is their straight man. And when the world wanted personifying, there was by no means a scarcity of characters. Whoever Chico and Harpo had been working for really feel sufferer to their pranks and scams, and whoever was unfortunate sufficient to enter a dialog with Groucho set him up for cracks and barbs. Margaret Dumont was probably the most well-known of his straight “males,” however there have been a lot others. At occasions, Groucho and Chico acted as straight males for one another, and Groucho even referred to as Chico his straight man in interviews.
All that is to say that Zeppo wasn’t wanted as a straight man. That’s to not say he by no means performed that half. Whereas Chico and Harpo had been all the time paired collectively within the Marx Brothers’ movies, Zeppo was nominally paired with Groucho in 4 of their 5 Paramount photos. Apart from enjoying his son in Horse Feathers, Zeppo was the secretary for Groucho’s numerous frauds in The Cocoanuts, Animal Crackers, and Duck Soup. In that function, he did typically feed Groucho the set-up for a punchline. As his brother, he might be written to take extra abuse than the younger main males who featured within the post-Zeppo movies. Without delay – simply as soon as – he received into a correct back-and-forth. Within the well-known letter-writing scene of Animal Crackers, Zeppo provides pretty much as good as he will get from Groucho and even will get the higher hand on him just a few occasions.
As along with his romantic roles, Zeppo exhibits some promise, however he has the identical downside – the letter-writing scene is one flash of potential from one film. In his secretary roles, Zeppo received even much less display screen time than as a romantic juvenile (and it’s telling that Cocoanuts and Animal Crackers had romantic juveniles aside from him). Margaret Dumont did all of the heavy lifting as Groucho’s foil and the gags had been too frequent and too tied to the opposite three brothers for Zeppo to have a lot of something to do.
Zeppo Marx Ultimately Left the Group
The Marx Brothers’ personal phrases put to relaxation any concept that there was any planning behind Zeppo’s presence past being the fourth brother. Groucho stated that, whereas Zeppo was the funniest of them in personal life, he was a picket performer whose presence typically felt like an intrusion. Zeppo complained in his resignation letter to his brothers that he was bored with being a “stooge.” In later interviews, he claimed that he by no means preferred performing and was glad to get out, however the Marx Brothers Council podcast famous a touch of resentment in his phrases. Additionally they famous that surviving documentation of the Paramount movies factors towards Zeppo being the brother whose stuff most frequently hit the reducing room ground, when it hadn’t already been bled out throughout scripting.
So Zeppo left the act after Duck Soup, happening to a profitable profession as an agent and the inventor of the clamps used to carry nukes onto bombers. Mockingly, the Council podcast noticed, had he caught it out a short time longer, he was virtually assured to get extra to do. His brothers fell in with Irving Thalberg at MGM, who swapped their beforehand free-for-all antics for a powerful story construction and a sympathetic, prominently featured pair of lovers who the Marx Brothers would save within the third act. Although construction devolved into rote system after Thalberg’s loss of life, it gave the brothers their greatest movie, A Night time on the Opera. In that movie, the kind of romantic juvenile that was performed by Zeppo and so simply discarded in Monkey Enterprise and Horse Feathers has a presence and a reasonably first rate arc from starting to finish. Zeppo, some argue, might have taken that half and been made a real element of the act ultimately in Thalberg’s palms, if solely he’d waited.
I have to admit, I’m skeptical. In his greatest moments, Zeppo is okay, however he by no means appears to be like wholly comfy being on digicam. His vocal vary probably couldn’t have dealt with the heavy calls for placed on the likes of Allan Jones (there’s some query as as to if it’s even Zeppo singing in Horse Feathers and Duck Soup). If Zeppo was ever going to be a completely realized character, the out there proof – his few good moments within the movies, and this excerpt from The Home That Shadows Constructed – doesn’t level to a romantic lead or a standard straight man. He might have been to his brothers what Porky Pig was to Daffy Duck within the Chuck Jones Looney Tunes – too odd to be straight-laced, however inexplicably accepting and aiding of his maniac accomplice’s delusions whereas sometimes making dry asides to the viewers. However that highway, and every other that might have made Zeppo akin to the others, was solely ever fleetingly explored.