Monday, August 20, 2007

"Either he's dead or my watch has stopped."

With the hubbub surrounding the 30th anniversary of Elvis Presley's death last week, there has been little mention of the 30th anniversary of the death of another legendary entertainer--Julius Henry Marx.

Groucho Marx was one of the greatest--if not the greatest--comedians of all time and his influence continues to be seen in today's best comedic efforts. I dare say (and others dare say along with me) that there would be no Woody Allen, Jerry Seinfeld or Family Guy if not for the comedy of Groucho Marx and the Marx Brothers. I wrote a paper in college to that effect and, trust me, the similarities between Groucho and "modern" comedians are endless and obvious.

If you've never had the pleasure of viewing a Marx Brothers movie, you really need to fix that. Overall, the movies themselves are not Oscar-worthy. With paper-thin plots and a few annoyingly dated operatic musical numbers, these movies serve as complete vehicles for Groucho and his brothers' unique blend of sharp wit and outlandish physical comedy. The cream of the Marxist crop is the stretch of flicks from 1929's The Cocoanuts to 1937's A Day at the Races. Monkey Business, Duck Soup and A Night at the Opera are the standout gems.

I first saw these movies when I was 10 years old and I remember being overwhelmed by the cinematic mayhem. The films are a constant stream of one-liners and non-stop gags, so if you don't get one of the jokes, just wait three seconds for the next one. Groucho was my immediate favorite of the troupe and I admired his quick wit to no end. There's a big difference between being funny and being witty. Witty is much harder to do well.

A couple summers ago, I read a biography of Groucho that outlined his career and troubled personal life. It's a strange and recurring irony that the world's greatest artistic talents are often some of the world's most insecure and depressed individuals. They can bring laughter to so many others, but it's never enough to satisfy themselves.

The bio was also an interesting read because Hollywood was such a different place in Groucho's heyday. The Marx Brothers continued to make mediocre movies well past their prime, just because they needed to pay the bills. They were superstars, but that didn't have the same financial connotations that it does today. Fortunately for us, it doesn't really matter. Just pop in the DVD and laugh it up. Or just Google him and read some of his inspired quotes. This stuff is timeless.

"A child of five would understand this. Send someone to fetch a child of five."

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