The Marx Brothers and Jewish Identity
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.”
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.”