A tribute today to under-rated Herbert “Zeppo” Marx (1901-1979).
Zeppo’s long been a sort of joke amongst the mainstream public because of his thankless role in the Marx Brothers‘ films as an exceedingly stiff and uncomfortable juvenile. As I wrote here, though, his role was vital to the team. Serious buffs know that in real life Zeppo 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.
Zeppo’s two best Marx Brothers vehicles are Monkey Business and Horse Feathers. Each gave him a chance to shine and each pointed the way to directions he might have gone in with the team, allowing him to do a parody version of the romantic lead, to sing (in Horse Feathers) and to play the hero at the climax of Monkey Business. But in Duck Soup, they bumped him back down to the ignominious status he suffered in The Cocoanuts and Animal Crackers and he quit. He later became a top Hollywood agent. I often like to joke that the Marx Brothers film that most bears Zeppo’s creative stamp is Room Service, because he made the deal with RKO as the Brothers’ agent.
Offscreen, many (including Groucho) seemed to feel that Zeppo was the funniest of the brothers. The best book I have come across for accounts of this, and for facts on what Zep’s career was like after leaving the team, in Charlotte Chandler’s Hello, I Must Be Going. To date, that’s the best book I know about for the real skinny on Zeppo.
Some other Zeppo tidbits:
He was married to the lady who later became Barbara Sinatra.
In the attached trailer for Monkey Business, Zeppo shines as an equal far better than he had been allowed to in any of the five features in which he appeared. This sketch was originally from the Marx Brothers Broadway revue I’ll Say She Is, which we revived in three successive stages from a reading in Marxfest (May, 2014), a sold out workshop production in NY International Fringe Festival (August 2014), and a full Off-Broadway production in 2016. The story on that is here.
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To learn more about vaudeville, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous.