Why Zeppo Was the Most Important Marx Brother

Oh, did I say, “important”? I meant impotent, but whatever gets you to click the link!

This marks my fifth Travalanche post on Zeppo Marx, over and above my numerous posts on the entire team which also include this seemingly inexplicable sinecure. For the obsessed, here are the previous ones:

Main Essay

On a Film Zeppo Made Without His Brothers

On the Death of Mrs. Zeppo (Barbara Sinatra)

And the Film On Which Zeppo Made His Greatest Impact

My usual impulse would be to incorporate these additional thoughts into the main essay, but my frankly overarching motivation in creating this blog at all is my own amusement, and it amuses me mightily to give an inordinate amount of attention to Zeppo. It appeals to my sense of camp. And that, after all, is the purpose of Zeppo within the Marx Brothers, is it not? To be a sort of parody of the leading man, a kind of “trailing man”, if you will? This was his inheritance from Gummo as described by his brothers and the scribes of their day, and that is pretty much what shows up on screen, even if latter day Marx Brothers newbies, lacking this contextual knowledge, miss what ought to be a much more obvious statement.

Today I want to make the case that Zeppo was an indispensable component of what die-hard Marx Brothers fans love about the team. Not that he was as funny or talented (as by universal testimony he was — OFF screen). It is not his performance that makes him important; it is the IDEA of his role that does. For his is an anti-performance, more “out there”, though in a subtler way, than the antics of his three brothers. To speak of Zeppo with a contemporary sensibility, he brings the Ed Wood or John Waters element. His performance is in the spirit of Bunny Breckenridge or Edith Massey. I’d love to see him in a Grade Z horror movie opposite Bela Lugosi. Other famous comedy relatives, like Charlie Chaplin Jr and Harold Lloyd Jr had done that kind of thing. The Marxes knew that he brought this vibe with him at the time, naturally without the post-modern comparisons. He was more in the spirit of Al Mardo’s Do-Nothing Dog or Fred Allen in his “World’s Worst Juggler” phase or Jack Benny’s violin playing and The Horn Blows at Midnight. To simplify, and put it meaner-sounding than I intend: the other Marxes MAKE jokes; Zeppo’s screen character IS a joke. You know that moment in Duck Soup when the military reception detail holds up their swords and Groucho sneaks in, looks around, and holds up his cigar? Zeppo IS that cigar. His purposelessness is his purpose. Yet he is not just non-functional like an appendix. His presence as one of the team elevates him, without any explanation. It’s as though you’d said “The four important organs of the body are the heart, the brain, the stomach – and the appendix.” Further, he is more like a hot appendix. It lays there doing nothing for a long stretch of time, and then, from out of nowhere, it suddenly makes you groan with pain.

Zeppo is invariably employed in one of two ways in the team’s films. Mode #1 is not to be used at all, where he is at best a bit player who somehow has his name above the title. These are the three films in which he is haltingly employed as the Marx Brothers’ bridge to normal society in the person of Groucho’s secretary, The Cocoanuts, Animal Crackers, and Duck Soup. Mode #2 is a more integrated parody of the male ingenue, as Gummo had reportedly been in some of the team’s earlier vaudeville sketches, which Zeppo gets to do in Monkey Business and Horse Feathers. Both of these modes could have, and should have, been explored much more, though it’s a tough needle to thread, because you never want to make Zeppo TOO good. The joke is that he is not.

And this is precisely why the presence of Zeppo strengthens the teams’ comic identity. The Marx Brothers are gate crashers. They intrude. They barge in. They are glorious in any setting for the very reason that they DON’T belong there. They startle you with things you didn’t ask for from a movie — instrumental interludes, fourth wall-breaking asides, comedy routines that don’t have anything to with the plot; defiance of natural laws and logic. The presence of Zeppo is an instance of this — perhaps the most major one, so prominent, that like the proverbial tree in the forest, people don’t see him for what he is. Zeppo’s presence is the Marx Brothers’ strongest statement that society and its values matter not a jot to them. They are perverse and defiant enough to value THIS man, randomly related to them, over any more conventionally groomed and talented performer. You’ll take the inclusion of Zeppo and choke on it, they seem to be saying.

I wish Zeppo had stayed with the act for that very reason. The Marx Brothers are magnificent when they display zero awe or respect for their surroundings or the form (as they would sadly do in their post-Paramount years). With Zeppo, the Marx Brothers are an invading army of outsiders; without him, they seem more conciliatory, weakly assimilating migrants. When they lose Zeppo they lose their clearest , most flagrant signal of their subversion. The satire suffers. Hence, he is a much more important member of the team than is commonly acknowledged. When he departs, the Marxes become a three-legged dog: lame, needy, creatures we feel sorry for. In other words, once Zeppo leaves, the rest of the team becomes Zeppo.

To learn more about vaudeville, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, and for more on classic comedy please read Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.