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Groucho Marx: Behind The Mustache

People | November 2, 2019

Comedian Grouch Marx with his trademark mustache. (Photo by Ralph Crane/The LIFE Images Collection via Getty Images/Getty Images)

Of the five Marx brothers, Groucho Marx may be the most iconic, and for good reason. Groucho was one of the greatest comedians of the modern era and one of the most recognizable. The prolific entertainer appeared on stage, in vaudeville, in films, on television, and on the radio. Behind that greasepaint mustache and exaggerated eyebrows, however, was a complex person. Here's what you didn’t know about Groucho Marx. 

Funny ran in the Marx family. (newyorker.com)

He Got His Nickname Because He Was Grumpy

According to stories, the five Marx brothers all got their nicknames during a 1914 card game with stand-up comedian Art Fisher. Despite his reputation as a funnyman, Julius Marx was the grouchy and grumpy brother who was easy to anger and often in a foul mood. In another story, it was claimed that Groucho Marx often wore a "grouch bag" around his neck in which he kept candy. Either way, Art Fisher suggested the name Groucho for Julius Marx, and his brothers---Harpo, Chico, Gummo, and Zeppo---all agreed to it. 

Groucho Marx and his third wife, Eden. Don't they look happy? (stuffnobodycaresabout.com)

Groucho Was Grouchy---Just Ask His Ex-Wives

While Groucho Marx was amiable on stage, it was rumored that he was vindictive, pessimistic, and mean-spirited, and his wives seemed to bear the brunt of his wrath. At 29, he married 19-year old Ruth Johnson, who later claimed that Groucho was verbally abusive, controlling, and drove her to alcoholism. Kay Marvis, Groucho's second wife who was just 21 when she wed the 54-year-old comedian, also claimed after their divorce that Groucho was mentally cruel and forced her to drink. He married his third wife, Eden Hartford, when he was 63 and she was 24. Hartford later filed for divorce on the grounds of extreme cruelty and controlling behavior. 

Not one of the Marx Brothers had a good singing voice. (sundaypost.com)

Groucho Couldn't Sing

The Marx Brothers' parents were not involved in show business, but they had an uncle, Al Shean, who found success on vaudeville. Their mother, Minnie, hoped that her five sons would also be big vaudeville stars, so she taught them some songs and promoted them as a singing group. There was a small problem with her plan, however: None of the boys could sing. The brothers later explained that they had once given a mediocre musical performance to the disappointment of the audience, so in an effort to cut the tension, they cracked jokes with each other. The audience loved it. It was then that Groucho and the rest of the Marx Brothers abandoned their musical aspirations and switched to comedy.

If you look closely, you can see that Groucho's mustache was painted on with greasepaint. (auralcrave.com)

Groucho's Mustache Was Fake, And It Looked It

Early in his career, Groucho performed wearing a fake mustache that he carefully glued on in his dressing room before each performance. According to legend, Groucho was running late one day and arrived at the theatre for a performance of the Marx Brothers show I’ll Say She Is with little time to prepare. He quickly drew a mustache on his face using greasepaint, which he decided he liked better than his prop mustache. Not only was it faster to apply, it was also easier to remove. His oversize, exaggerated mustache and accompanying eyebrows eventually became Groucho Marx's signature look, but later, as the host of popular quiz show You Bet Your Life, Groucho actually grew a real mustache

The Marx Brothers during their vaudeville years. (denofgeek.com)

Vaudeville's Biggest Act

Groucho and the Marx Brothers quickly became one of vaudeville's biggest comedy acts, and they enjoyed unprecedented success when they took their routine to Broadway in the 1920s. They were so popular, in fact, that they didn't even need to tell jokes to get the audience laughing. As soon as they walked out on stage, the audience burst into laughter. 

The Marx Brothers in a scene from "The Cocoanuts." (IMDb.com)

The Silver Screen

When motion pictures began to overtake live performances, Groucho and his brothers saw an opportunity to move to the big screen. In 1929, they starred in the musical comedy The Cocoanuts, which became one of the most popular and successful "talkies" of the era. More comedy flicks followed---Monkey Business in 1931, Horse Feathers in 1932, and A Night at the Opera in 1935---but it was the 1933 film Duck Soup that cemented their star power.

"Duck Soup" ranks as one of the greatest comedy films of all time. (goldderby.com)

Duck Soup

At the time, Duck Soup was not as successful as some of the other Marx Brothers films, but it is now considered to be the best movie that the brothers ever did and one of the best comic films of all times. Not everyone agreed, however. One seemingly unlikely but prominent critic was Benito Mussolini. Certain that the leader of the fictional opposing nation in the movie was, in fact, a veiled reference to him, the dictator banned Duck Soup from being screened in Italy. Adolf Hitler, then chancellor of Germany, did it one better: He banned all of the Marx Brothers films in his country because the brothers were Jewish. 

Groucho danced on Hitler's grave. (idrawonmywalls.com)

Groucho Marx Gets Revenge On Hitler

Groucho and his brothers seemed unfazed that Hitler banned their films, but the vindictive Groucho seems to have held a grudge. Much later, in 1958, when Groucho Marx was visiting Germany with his young daughter, Melinda, he insisted that they go see the bunker where Hitler committed suicide as his country was collapsing. According to reports, Groucho used the opportunity to leap onto the rubble of the ruined bunker and dance the Charleston for a few frantic minutes. Groucho Marx quite literally danced on Hitler's grave

Groucho hosted a game show for several years. (youtube.com)

Groucho Goes Solo ... As A Game Show Host

The Marx Brothers often did work independent from each other, but Groucho was the only one who remained in show business his whole life. He had once tried his hand at radio, but his show was a dismal flop. In the late 1940s, however, he was given a second opportunity when he was asked to host the game show You Bet Your Life, which would be simultaneously broadcast on radio and television. The series, which debuted on October 27, 1947, was an instant hit and helped to keep Groucho's celebrity status afloat. The show stayed on the air for several years. 

Peter Blatty wrote "The Exorcist" thanks in part to Groucho Marx. (vanityfair.com)

Groucho Marx Had A Hand In The Exorcist?

One of the contestants on You Bet Your Life was a young writer named Peter Blatty. When he was asked how he would spend the $10,000 he won on the show, Blatty said that he wanted to take time off work so he could write a novel. That novel became The Exorcist

Groucho declined the offer to host "The Tonight Show," making way for Johnny Carson. (snopes.com)

The Tonight Show With ... Groucho Marx?

Believe it or not, Groucho Marx was tapped to host The Tonight Show after Jack Paar stepped down from the gig. Marx had proven himself to be personable and quick-thinking on You Bet Your Life, so NBC producers thought he would be an ideal candidate for its late-night talk show. Groucho declined the offer, but he did agree to be the temporary host, filling in for two weeks in 1962 between the time that Paar left and Johnny Carson took the reins. In fact, it was Groucho who first introduced Johnny to The Tonight Show fans.  

Groucho Marx and Alice Cooper: Unlikely friends. (flickr.com)

Groucho Marx And Alice Cooper, Best Friends Forever?

When they were both living in Beverly Hills, Groucho Marx and Alice Cooper formed an unlikely friendship. They bonded over their shared love of late nights, and Groucho often called Alice Cooper at 1:00 A.M. to invite him over to hang out. According to Cooper, the two drank beer, smoked cigars, and watched old movies. Cooper said that usually, by the time the second movie ended, Groucho would be snoozing. The rocker would extinguish Groucho's cigar and go home, only to repeat the process the next night. 

Tags: 1900s | movie stars

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Karen Harris

Writer

Karen left the world of academic, quitting her job as a college professor to write full-time. She spends her days with her firefighter husband and four daughters on a hobby farm with an assortment of animals, including a goat named Atticus, a turkey named Gravy, and a chicken named Chickaletta.