Sign up now to receive our regular news briefs.

The Marx Brothers and Jewish Identity

June 17, 2013 10:47 am 6 comments

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.”

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.”

6 Comments

  • “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?”

  • 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.

  • 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!

  • All hail Marx and Lennon.

Leave a Reply

Please note: comments may be published in the Algemeiner print edition. Comments written in all caps will be deleted.


Current day month ye@r *

More...

  • Arts and Culture Playboy Columnist Calls Israel’s ‘Burning Man’ Festival ‘Ultimate Revenge on Hitler’

    Playboy Columnist Calls Israel’s ‘Burning Man’ Festival ‘Ultimate Revenge on Hitler’

    The Israeli version of the famed American Burning Man music festival is the “ultimate revenge on Hitler,” according to a column in Playboy magazine on Thursday. In his column, Jeff Weiss also took note of the fact that Midburn — a five-day bacchanal in the Negev Desert, self-described as an event celebrating “a communal life style, creativity, art and radical self-expression” — began on June 8, the day of the Sarona Market terrorist attack in Tel Aviv, which left four people dead. Weiss asked rhetorically, “What could needle the mustached […]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Author of New Book on Connection Between Jews, Punk Rock Describes Bands Flinging Gefilte Fish, Bagels at Audience (INTERVIEW)

    Author of New Book on Connection Between Jews, Punk Rock Describes Bands Flinging Gefilte Fish, Bagels at Audience (INTERVIEW)

    Some punk rockers integrate their Jewish identity into their music through food, the author of a new book on the topic told The Algemeiner on Wednesday. Michael Croland, author of Oy Oy Oy Gevalt! Jews and Punk, described the way different musicians express this connection. “One band is known for throwing gefilte fish in the mosh pit, and people at its concert slide around on it while dancing,” he recounted. “Another used to drink Manischewitz [sweet kosher] wine out of a shofar [the ram […]

    Read more →
  • Sports Scottish Soccer Club Manager Hails ‘Fantastic’ Jewish-State Visit After Victory Over Israeli Team (VIDEO)

    Scottish Soccer Club Manager Hails ‘Fantastic’ Jewish-State Visit After Victory Over Israeli Team (VIDEO)

    The manager of Scotland’s Celtic soccer club lauded Israel, after his team won a match against the Jewish state’s Hapoel Be’er Sheva on Tuesday night. Brendan Rodgers said at a post-match press conference: On behalf of the players, the people of Celtic and Scotland, Israel’s been fantastic for us. We came out here on Sunday, [and from] the hotel, the staff, we’ve been very, very warmly received. The atmosphere at the game was amazing and, obviously, one team has to lose, but you have a wonderful team here, […]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Second Jaffa Jazz Festival to Reunite International, Israeli Musicians

    Second Jaffa Jazz Festival to Reunite International, Israeli Musicians

    For the second time, Israel will host the Jaffa Jazz Festival, according to Broadwayworld.com. The festival will unite 43 Israeli musicians and eight international artists for a three-day event. The program will include a special performance by an ensemble of top jazz students studying at Belgium’s Royal Conservatoire of Antwerp, the Belgrade Music Academy in Serbia, Israel’s Rimon School of Music and the jazz program of the Israel Conservatory of Music in Tel Aviv. There will also be a jazz show for children led by Israeli saxophonist […]

    Read more →
  • Sports Israel’s First NASCAR Driver Revved Up to Win

    Israel’s First NASCAR Driver Revved Up to Win

    JNS.org – As a young boy growing up in Ashdod, Israel, Alon Day got his first go-kart at age 9. By 15, he was racing them. Less than a decade later, Day has become the first Israeli professional race car driver on the NASCAR circuit. He made history by competing in NASCAR’s Xfinity Series race at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course on August 13. “Driving a race car is not like any other sport,” Day told JNS.org. “You are actually almost flying […]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Writer of Popular Kids Series to Premiere Autobiographical Solo Show ‘Not That Jewish’

    Writer of Popular Kids Series to Premiere Autobiographical Solo Show ‘Not That Jewish’

    The writer of a popular children’s television series will premiere an off-Broadway solo show called “Not That Jewish,” according to The Hollywood Reporter. Written and performed by Monica Piper — the Emmy Award-winning showrunner of Nickelodeon’s “Rugrats” — the show is described as “the autobiographical telling of a Jew…’ish’ girl’s life.” “Not That Jewish” explores Piper’s Bronx upbringing in a show-business family, her comedy-club debut and her “almost” night with former Yankees legend Mickey Mantle. “Audiences can expect to leave laughed-out, a little teary-eyed and […]

    Read more →
  • Sports Scottish Soccer Team Will Fly to Israel on Private Jet Used by Madonna

    Scottish Soccer Team Will Fly to Israel on Private Jet Used by Madonna

    Scotland’s Celtic soccer club will fly to Israel with the same private jet Madonna used while on tour, The Scotsman reported on Monday. According to the report, the team is heading for the Jewish state to compete against Israel’s Hapoel Be’er Sheva on Tuesday night, and will be transported in the customized, luxurious Boeing 757-200 that the pop icon used in New Zealand for her six-month Rebel Heart tour, which wrapped up in March. The plane is on loan from Greece-based GainJet Aviation and can accommodate 62 passengers. The […]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Revealed: Actor Jonah Hill Officiated at Wedding of Fellow Jewish Star, Singer Adam Levine

    Revealed: Actor Jonah Hill Officiated at Wedding of Fellow Jewish Star, Singer Adam Levine

    Jewish actor Jonah Hill revealed on Wednesday morning that he had officiated the wedding of good friend and Maroon 5 frontman Adam Levine. The “War Dogs” actor, 32, was a guest on Sirius XM’s The Howard Stern Show when the conversation turned to Levine’s July 2014 wedding to Victoria’s Secret model Behati Prinsloo. Hill said that after he was asked to officiate the nuptials, he started getting worried about the type of speech he was going to deliver. “I’m writing all these things, and then I […]

    Read more →