Zeppo: A Charitable Reappraisal

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Today is the birthday of under-rated Herbert “Zeppo” Marx (1901-1979). For more on him and his famous funny brothers go here.

Zeppo’s long been a sort of joke amongst the mainstream public because of his thankless role in their films as an exceedingly stiff and uncomfortable juvenile. Serious buffs know that in real life he was just as funny as his (much) older brothers; he was merely in awe of them, respected their seniority, and allowed them to rather unjustly hog all the juicy action. In reality, he was occasionally Groucho’s understudy in emergencies, for example. And one can glean here and there the possibilities from the historical record. The remaining paper trail on the team’s first Broadway show I’ll Say She Is seems to indicate a lot more funny business for Zeppo than he got in the movies. Being a revue, however, they hadn’t had to worry much about a plot. Similarly, in the attached trailer for Monkey Business, Zeppo shines far better than he had in any of the five pictures in which he appeared. This sketch was originally from the Marx Brothers Broadway revue I’ll Say She Is, which we are reviving the first time ever in a reading and production later this year! Stay tuned for details!

To find out more about the variety arts past and present, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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And don’t miss my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc

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6 comments

  1. I’ve been to an Orpheum theater in Minneapolis (I live about 20 minutes away) where the Marx Bros. performed in 1921. They may have done that very sketch on the same stage where I saw Phantom of the Opera.

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  2. I never knew it, but Zeppo and his wife were close, supportive (both personally and professionally) friends of Barbara Stanwyck (they both play prominent roles in the new brick of a Stanwyck bio I’m currently reading).

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  3. It was written by Herman Timberg, probably in collaboration with a Marx Brother or two, as the opening scene of “On the Mezzanine” in 1921. In “Mezzanine,” Scene Two was the playlet described by Zeppo at the end of this sketch.

    The Joe Frisco imitations became Chaplin imitations when the show went to England (as “On the Balcony”), and in “I’ll Say She Is” the imitations were of Gallagher and Shean.

    Whenever they changed the imitations, they had to rename Chico’s character, for the sake of rhyme: Tomalia/Chevalier, Zybisco/Frisco, Chicoline/Shean. I’ve never been able to find a record of what Chico’s name was when they imitated Chaplin, but Mikael Uhlin suggests “Tony Napolin!”

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  4. Yup, the sketch is from I’LL SAY SHE IS, and I think recycled from even earlier in their act. I know that originally they weren’t imitating Chevalier, but Joe Frisco, and they all did Frisco-parody dances (would kill to see that).

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