Groucho Marx: 10 things you might not know

Groucho Marx in 1933
Groucho MArx in 1933 Credit: AP

Groucho Marx, who died on August 19 1977, will be the subject of a biopic by Rob Zombie. Here, Martin Chilton picks 10 of the most intriguing facts about the great comedian. 

GROUCHO TURNED DOWN BEING IN A FELLINI FILM
The Italian director Federico Fellini (La Dolce Vita, 8½) twice tried to get Groucho Marx to appear in his films, in Juliet of the Spirits in 1965 and four years later in Satyricon. Fellini went so far as to announce Marx in the cast alongside Mae West, but the comedian turned him down after releasing it would mean spending a whole year in Rome. Fellini had been a fan of the Marx Brothers films but wanted to hear Groucho's real speaking voice on film rather than the dubbed Italian version. The director remained a Groucho fan; he owned a T-shirt printed with Marx's famous quip Hello, I Must be Going (with "hello" on the front and "I must be going" on the back) and told one of the comedian's biographers: "I'll wear it only with nothing else on – not even my under-shorts". 

HE WAS NOT A CRICKET FAN
Groucho was a big baseball fan (The Dodgers rather than the New York Yankees, whom he loathed), so on a trip to England in June 1954 he was taken to see MCC play Cambridge University at Lord's. There was a small crowd and only sporadic applause. When he was approached by a spectator, he joked: "Are you the fella making all the noise?" He later said of cricket: "What a wonderful cure for insomnia. If you can't sleep here, you really need an analyst."

HIS SON WAS A TOP TENNIS JUNIOR
There is some wonderful footage of Groucho playing Charlie Chaplin at tennis in 1937: which was also the year he suffered his most humiliating defeat. In August 1937, he was beaten 6-0, 6-0 by his 14-year-old son Arthur and spent the next three weeks having extensive lessons and practising at the Beverly Hills Tennis Club in Hollywood. He demanded a rematch and invited friends to watch. He lost the second contest 6-0, 6-0 again. Arthur, who died at the age of 89 in 2011, made his debut as a novelist in 1950 with The Ordeal of Willie Brown, drawn from his experiences as a top-ranked junior tennis player in the Thirties, when he had been coached by Fred Perry. Groucho "recommended that I tear it up," he later recalled. His father hated his next book, Life With Groucho, even more. Father and son stopped talking for many years and only communicated through lawyers. 

Chico Marx and Groucho Marx in the 1937 film A Day at the Races Credit: Rex Features/Everett Collection / Rex Feature

GROUCHO ADORED WC FIELDS
Groucho, who was named Julius Henry Marx when he was born in 1891, went into vaudeville with his brothers as a child. It was there that he met lifelong friend WC Fields. He recalled: "WC Fields used to sit in the bushes in front of his house with a BB gun and shoot at people. One day he allowed me in his house, and he had a ladder there, and it led up to an attic, and in this attic he had $50,000 worth of whisky. Un-opened cases of whisky. And I said to him "Bill, what have you got that booze there for? We haven't had prohibition in 25 years.' He said: 'It may come back'."

. . .  AND THOUGHT WOODY ALLEN WAS THE BEST
In 1972, Groucho told the late film critic Roger Ebert: "They say Allen got something from the Marx Brothers. He got nothing. Maybe 20 years ago, he might have been inspired. Today he's an original. The best, the funniest."

Groucho Marx and Lisette Verea in A Night in Casablanca Credit: BFI

GROUCHO DANCED ON HITLER'S BUNKER
In 1964, Groucho went to East Berlin with a group that included his radio show director Robert Dwan and his 16-year-old daughter Judith Dwan Hallet. They visited the village of Dornum, where his mother Minnie had been born. and discovered that all the Jewish graves there had been obliterated by the Nazis. Groucho hired a car with a chauffeur, and told the driver to take the group to the bunker where Adolf Hitler was said to have committed suicide. Wearing his trademark beret he climbed the debris and then launched himself, unsmiling, into a frenetic Charleston dance routine. The dance on Hitler's supposed grave lasted a couple of minutes. "Nobody applauded," Hallet recalled. "Nobody laughed."

HE WAS A GOOD GUITAR PLAYER
Chico was known for his piano playing (he led the Chico Marx Orchestra, which gave jazz guitarist Barney Kessel his start) and Harpo became the the most famous harp player since Nero. But Groucho loved the guitar. He would spend hours practising Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in C-Sharp Minor, and became friends with classical guitar star Andrés Segovia. He played guitar in one film, Horse Feathers (1932). In a rowboat, Groucho performs the film’s love theme Everyone Says I Love You for co-star Thelma Todd on a questionably tuned vintage Gibson L-5. Was he any good? Well, Thirties superstar Will Rogers said: "Groucho can play as good on the guitar as Harpo can on the harp, or Chico on the piano. But he never does. So he is really what I call an ideal musician; he can play, but doesn’t.” 

Groucho Marx in 1965 Credit: Getty Images/Silver Screen Collection

. . . AND BEFRIENDED QUEEN AND THE BEATLES
Groucho met the Beatles when they were in Los Angeles in 1964 and attended their celebrated Hollywood Bowl Concert. He also performed a song for Freddie Mercury and Queen in the Seventies. Groucho, who died on August 19 1977, at the age of 86, sang the band one of his songs, and they responded with 39, their skiffle-sci-fi song. Queen's albums A Night at the Opera and A Day at the Races are named after Marx Brothers films. 

HIS QUICK WIT WAS FOR REAL
Groucho's one-liners ("I refuse to join any club that would have me as a member"; "I've had a perfectly wonderful evening. But this wasn't it"; "The secret of life is honesty and fair dealing. If you can fake that, you've got it made.") would fill a book, but he was sometimes given the credit for quips he hadn't uttered. "I got $25 from Reader’s Digest for something I never said. I get credit all the time for things I never said," he remarked in 1974. But his off-the-cuff remarks to strangers were celebrated. Once in Montreal, a priest put out his hand and said: "I want to thank you for all the joy you've put into this world." Groucho shook his hand and shot back: "And I wanna thank you, for all the joy you've taken out of this world."

AND HE ACCIDENTALLY ATE MARJUANA ALL SUMMER
Groucho Marx was asked to write a morale-boosting letter to US troops stationed in Suriname in 1943, and in his missive to Corporal Jerone G Darrow, he said: "I don't want you to worry much about the 4-Fs back home – true, we have been deprived of a few things but nothing of any importance. We don't get much meat any more – the butcher shops have nothing in them but customers. Fortunately, I don't rely on the stores for my vegetables. Last spring I was smart enough to plant a Victory garden. So far, I have raised a family of moles, enough snails to keep a pre-French restaurant running for a century and a curious looking plant that I have been eating all summer under the impression that it was a vegetable. However, for the past few weeks, I've had difficulty in remaining awake and this morning I discovered that I had been munching on marijuana the whole month of July."

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