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June 17, 2013 10:47 am

The Marx Brothers and Jewish Identity

avatar by Robert Gluck / JNS.org

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The Marx Brothers, from left to right: Chico, Harpo, and Groucho (sitting). Photo: Yousuf Karsh via Wikimedia Commons.

JNS.org – The sons of Jewish immigrants from Germany and France, the Marx Brothers became zany masters of stage and screen who continue to captivate audiences. But in addition to providing comic relief, their films captured the drama of the entry of their marginalized religion into the U.S.

Wayne Koestenbaum, author of the 2012 book The Anatomy of Harpo Marx, explains that the Marx Brothers’ Jewishness as a family “was evident, marked, thoroughly legible.”

“Within a family already marked as Jewish within cinema culture of the ’20s and ’30s, Harpo, as the one who experiences shame most vividly in the films, became the scapegoat,” Koestenbaum tells JNS.org. “To the extent, then, that Jews have always been scapegoated–and certainly in the ’30s most tragically and demonstrably scapegoated–it seems to me no coincidence that the Marx Brothers made their films exactly during the time of the rise of Nazism.”

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Koestenbaum’s book is a detailed account of Harpo’s physical movements as captured on screen. He guides readers through the 13 Marx Brothers films, from “The Cocoanuts” in 1929 to “Love Happy” in 1950, focusing on Harpo’s body language—its kinks, sexual multiplicities, somnolence, pathos, and Jewishness.

In his appraisal of Harpo’s antics in “A Night in Casablanca,” Koestenbaum writes, “I will lean on the Nazi theme; Harpo leans on it, too. Harpo was a comic genius before the Third Reich came along, but the Third Reich gave Harpo’s anarchy extra pointedness.”

Born in New York City, the Marx Brothers’ mother, Minnie Schonberg, was from Dornum in East Frisia, Germany, and their father, Simon Marx, was a native of Alsace, France, and worked as a tailor. The Marx family lived in the then-poor Yorkville section of New York’s Upper East Side, between the Irish, German, and Italian quarters.

Often imitated, the Marx Brothers first mastered the stage but went on to conquer almost every medium, creating memorable sketches and classic movies. Many think of Groucho, with his familiar, now iconic mask—greasepaint mustache, eyebrows, glasses, cigar and hair—as a symbol of the Marx Brothers. But Koestenbaum makes the case for Harpo, who the author says belongs in the same conversation as Charlie Chaplin and Marcel Marceau, the world’s greatest mimes.

“Harpo is a vestige of an earlier moment in cinema, the silent era, so he’s sort of out of place. He is literally the one who gets shamed or shunted aside in a lot of the family dynamics on screen. To the extent that cinema became a sound art, he’s an exile,” Koestenbaum tells JNS.org.

Koestenbaum says the Marx Brothers’ films “are haunted by a sense of the Jews as outsiders and endangered.”

“Obviously the Marx Brothers always get the last laugh so that they triumph,” he says. “They win the war; they win the battle against the persecutors. The other people in their movies are always bigger, more upper-class bullies and fools. They are bigger than Groucho and Chico but you notice it more with Harpo.”

Frank Ferrante as Groucho Marx. Photo: Drew Altizer.

One of those reasons the Marx Brothers’ work lives on is Frank Ferrante, whose one-man show, “An Evening with Groucho,” is on a tour of the U.S. in 2013. An award-winning actor, director, and playwright, Ferrante recreates his New York and London-acclaimed portrayal of Groucho Marx in 90 minutes of fast-paced hilarity. The two-act comedy consists of the best Groucho one-liners, anecdotes, and songs, including “Hooray for Captain Spalding” and “Lydia, the Tattooed Lady.”

The Marx Brothers’ staying power stems from the “unspoken, spiritual connection and intimate rapport that comes with their brotherhood,” among other factors, Ferrante tells JNS.org.

The Marx Brothers continued popularity comes from “the fact that they represent the outsider and take perverse joy in tearing down the establishment and anyone who has power and authority—the wealthy, politicians, lawyers, doctors, professors. They are simply hysterical and can elicit belly laughs from all ages, classes, genders, race,” Ferrante says.

Ferrante says Groucho was intensely loyal to his friends, many of whom were writers.

“He maintained these friendships for decades,” Ferrante says. “He was also an avid proponent of young talent and made a public point of heralding newcomers, struggling artists and writers. Jack Lemmon, Woody Allen, Steve Allen, Dick Cavett, Neil Simon and countless others benefited from his influence.”

Why did Groucho become the verbal expert and Harpo the silent clown?

“Groucho was on the defensive early on and evolved masterfully into the king of the offensive—brash, fast-talking, pun-laden, with a musical delivery,” Ferrante explains. “He used his mind, and his tongue was often a weapon. I believe he was sensitive and easily hurt and felt marginalized early on. It was made quite clear to him that he was not his mother’s favorite. He used words and humor to fend off the slings and arrows of life while slinging his own.”

Groucho was introverted as a youth and did not make it past the 6th grade, which was a source of shame, Ferrante says. But Groucho went on to educate himself by reading voraciously from the great novelists of his time, turning his shame to pride.

“He read multiple news periodicals and was up on current events,” Ferrante says. “He kept a dictionary in his car. Later in life he became a regular correspondent with T.S. Elliot, a pride point for Groucho.”

With Koestenbaum’s book, the case has been made for Harpo’s physical comic genius to be mentioned in the same conversation as Groucho’s verbal virtuosity—and that is where the Marx Brothers’ Jewish identity comes into play.

“Harpo’s infantilism, babyishness and cuteness makes one feel the plight of the Jews more poignantly,” Koestenbaum says. “But he moves too quickly. He wiggles, nods, runs. I wanted to pin him down, hold him, and figure out why I loved him. After writing hundreds of pages, love remains impossible to explain but I will try. He seems to be able to find comfort anywhere.”

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  • AprilM

    “The drama of the entry of their marginalized religion into the U.S.”????? The author knows little of US history as Jews were around in Colonial days. Whether they were marginalized or not is another thing.
    See Haym Solomon-financier of the American Revolution
    or check out Longfellow’s “The Jewish Cemetery at Newport” 1858 poem on an ancient cemetery in New England:

    “How came they here? What burst of Christian hate,
    What persecution, merciless and blind,
    Drove o’er the sea—that desert desolate—
    These Ishmaels and Hagars of mankind?”

  • Dafna Yee

    The first time that I saw Harpo Marx perform wasn’t in one of their movies. There was an episode on I Love Lucy where Lucy dressed up like Harpo and when they confronted each other, they did a fantastic sketch where it appeared that Lucy was looking into a mirror. I have a big smile on my face as I’m writing this and, no matter how many times I’ve seen that routine, it still cracks me up.

  • P Kipnis

    One can only stare with disbelief as the Marx Brothers would take on every bully and linguistically destroy them. Harpo was the imp, hovering around the turmoil but never settling down. Gracho was the bull in the china shop character. The other brothers characters bounced between the two opposites. All hail the chutzpah and schmaltz with which they entertained us.

  • Fredric M. London

    I think that all, at least four, and possible all five, of the brothers were comedic geni. All their characters were formed by their personalities, but witnesses could attest to the fact, that all five could play each others’ parts with alacrity. They were so good, in their early years (pre-World War I), critics fell all over themselves trying to dream up superlatives. While none were educated, their un-honed genius shines through every frame of film they ever made. On February 18, 1957, all five appeared on a one-half hour short-lived late night show called, “Tonight: America After Dark.” I would sell my soul to see it!

  • Straightshooter

    The Marx Brothers are the inimitable masters, often imitated (the Johnson Brothers with Hellzapoppin’, etc.) but never equalled in their madcap zaniness. I grew up on their movies as a kid in the ’50s and still can’t get enough of them – they crack me up every time I watch them, and every time is as good as the first viewing!

  • mitch

    All hail Marx and Lennon.

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