BOOTLEG FILES 762: “The Hollywood Greats – Groucho Marx” (1979 episode of a British television series).
LAST SEEN: On YouTube.
AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: None.
REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: Fell through the proverbial cracks.
CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: Not likely.
Zeppo Marx is one of the most mysterious figures in film history. He appeared with his brothers Groucho, Harpo and Chico in their first five feature films at Paramount (and in a segment of a promotional film for the studio), but the union within his zany siblings’ antics was always tenuous. He was barely on screen in their first film, “The Cocoanuts,” and snagged a single memorable segment with Groucho in “Animal Crackers.” Zeppo got more screen time as the romantic interest in “Monkey Business” and “Horse Feathers,” but by their final film “Duck Soup” he was back to being an elusive on-screen presence.
When Paramount dropped the brothers from their roster, Zeppo quit the act and went behind the camera, staking out a successful career as an agent and the owner of a machinery company. Zeppo would only make two on-camera appearances after leaving the act. The first time came in a reunion with Groucho, Harpo and Chico plus their brother Gummo (who left the act in vaudeville before it gained fame) in a 1957 episode of the television show “Tonight! America After Dark.” Sadly, no copy of that episode is known to exist.
Zeppo made a final appearance in 1979 when the BBC series “The Hollywood Greats” asked for his input within an episode on Groucho, who died two years earlier. Zeppo was suffering from lung cancer at the time and died shortly after the episode was completed.
“The Hollywood Greats” was an hour-long documentary series with film critic Barry Norman offering a thumbnail consideration of American movie legends. In this episode, Norman shows up in front of several locations important to the Marx Brothers’ development, including the Manhattan apartment building where they grew up.
Zeppo shows up several times during the episode, initially recalling the family’s domestic environment.
“Five of us slept in one bed,” he says in his first appearance. “We didn’t sleep very well, but we were there.”
Norman recalls Minnie Marx, the brothers’ notorious mother who pushed them into show business. Zeppo recalls that Minnie had no performing talent of her own, but when Norman asks him if any of the brothers could have succeeded in the entertainment field, Zeppo solemnly declares, “I think Groucho would have because he liked it and he was ambitious.”
Zeppo talks about the siblings’ vaudeville days as “hectic,” then adds, “We’d always wind up in a whorehouse. Chico paid the piano, Harpo would do something and Groucho would sing. They loved us – these hookers just loved us. And it was for free.”
While Zeppo has more amiable memories of their first Broadway hit, the revue “I’ll Say She Is,” and the making of “The Cocoanuts” film, he is surprisingly harsh on Groucho’s first wife, the dancer Ruth Johnson whom Zeppo introduced to him.
“She was very stupid,” Zeppo says about his one-time sister-in-law. “And for Groucho, it was difficult for him to tolerate stupidity.”
But Zeppo also had some unkind words about his brother. In noting his clothing, Zeppo remarks Groucho’s wardrobe was expensive “but he had such bad taste that he’d look bad, no matter what he paid for them.”
Norman diplomatically refers to Zeppo’s role in the Marx Brothers as “sort of a D’Artagnan grafted onto the act as an afterthought,” and Zeppo himself claims he quit because “there wasn’t an opportunity for me at all to be a comic.”
Groucho’s son Arthur Marx, writer Norman Krasna, George Jessel and Dick Cavett were also included in the production, which cites some of Groucho’s wittiest comments and some of his least appealing behavior, including a level of severe cheapness and his habit for marrying younger women who did measure up to his intellectual level. Also included is Erin Fleming, the Canadian actress who was Groucho’s late-life companion. While Fleming would be the subject of allegations of elder abuse, Zeppo insists she “kept him alive the last seven or eight years.”
Surprisingly, there is relatively little in the way of classic Marx Brothers movie moments and even less from Groucho’s “You Bet Your Life” television series; any insight into Harpo, Chico or Gummo is completely absent from the production. A few brief clips of late-life Groucho in interviews comes in, but he is uncharacteristically somber in this presentations.
I don’t believe “The Hollywood Greats” episodes were ever shown on U.S. television, and the series in not available in the U.S. for home entertainment formats. The Groucho episode is on YouTube in an unauthorized posting, but only Marx Brothers completists would be interested in this offering. If the episode offered an unflattering and incomplete consideration, at least it gave the often-maligned Zeppo one last chance to have some time on camera.
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