New Marx Brothers book is definitive
By ALAN SMASON, Special to the CCJN
Robert Bader grew up in New York City, where there were constant reminders of the Marx Brothers of stage and screen fame. He often caught their features on the small TV screen inside his home. Their zany and over-the-top comedies for Paramount Pictures proved to be the ones he most enjoyed and he would often cajole his favorite uncle into taking him to local revival movie houses, where Groucho, Harpo, Chico and straight man Zeppo would turn the real into the surreal and make the fiction of film a hilarious reality. He would squeal with glee inside the darkened theaters as the four brothers romped from the ridiculous to the outlandish.
By the time he was 12 years old, Bader had seen all but one of the Marx Brothers films including the more formulaic ones released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer like “A Night at the Opera” and “A Day at the Races.”
His love for the Marx Brothers in all their permutations – from the Four Nightingales to the Six Mascots (featuring their famous stage mother and manager Minnie Marx) to the Four Marx Brothers and on to the final trio of the Marx Brothers – proved to be a lifelong obsession. The more he researched their history, the more questions were raised.
The more questions he raised, the more he felt the need to collect books, programs, circulars and newspapers of the day that helped catalog their careers.
Was he first a researcher or a collector? “It was a little bit of both because when I was collecting – when I first started – (I) was collecting information,” Bader explained in an telephone interview with the CCJN. “I didn’t just want to know what was in the books that were already out there. In the course of collecting information I ended up buying things like theater programs and various artifacts that are the core of what became a pretty fine Marx Brothers collection.”
Bader soon found himself taking up vacation times by traveling along the old vaudeville circuits in a rental car for several weeks at a time. “I started doing this research before there was anything on the Internet and I developed research methods that required me to go to whatever town had whatever newspapers I was looking for because that was the only place to get them,” he said.
As his reputation as an established authority and his Marx Brothers collection increased exponentially, more and more authors sought to use his collection as a basis for their own scholarly research and various screeds about the comedy team.
But none of them have come up to Bader’s expectations as being the most definitive history of the Marx Brothers.
“My goal was to know the stuff,” he continued. “I’d always hoped someone else would write it, so I could enjoy it and read it, but it never seemed to come.”
In the course of his research and collecting Marx Brothers memorabilia, he acquired a number of Groucho’s personal correspondence and lost writings. He published “Groucho Marx and Other Short Stories and Tall Tales” in 1993 and had a second edition printed with extra material in 2011.
He was thus acquainted with the process of writing and publishing and realized he could not count on anyone beside himself to tackle the job at hand, which was to publish the most accurate and detailed account of the history of the Marx Brothers.
“The research had been going on since I was a kid,” Bader related. “I would have to say I don’t think anyone is ever going to be insane enough to spend decades researching something before they put pen to paper to write the book.”
Bader retorted: “But it wasn’t like I was doing this to write the book. I just accumulated so much that I could write a book.”
His knowledge of all of the various acts that encompassed the Marx Brothers is encyclopedic. When asked about early appearances of the brothers in New Orleans, Bader recalled “The Six Mascots passed there. They had a significant event happen there in terms of early success. They got held over in New Orleans and were a big success there. That was in 1910.” Indeed, one of his appendices in the back of the heavily annotated book states that the act performed an entirely new act on the second week they were held over at the American Music Hall.
Other New Orleans appearances noted are by the Four Marx Brothers (initially featuring Gummo as the fourth brother) for a week in May of 1913 at the Greenwall Theater and two final appearances in January of 1916 and October of 1917 while working the Orpheum circuit at the historic Orpheum Theatre.
While only a few dedicated fans are aware of Gummo (real name Milton Marx), the youngest of the original Four Marx Brothers, Bader gives insight into the dynamic of the four older brothers, who were all equal partners.
“The thing is you have to understand is that Groucho (real name Julius Marx) enabled this family to become the Marx Brothers because he had the initial success and they piggy-backed onto him,” Bader explained. Bader went on to say Groucho was actually held back by having to take on the added weight of Gummo and Harpo (real name Adolph, later changed to Arthur Marx). In 1912 oldest brother Chico (real name Leonard Marx), already working in vaudeville, joined with his brothers, but Groucho was still at the focus of the group. “He was the fixture of the act,” Bader said about the quick-witted Groucho, whose storied career went on to TV shows like “You Bet Your Life” and who entertained thousands at a time in live concert appearances.
Bader dropped another unexpected bomb. “Harpo was completely hopeless when he started and he developed something rather amazing in a really short time, but he was absolutely the worst singer ever in vaudeville by everyone’s account. They just told him ‘Move your lips when Groucho moves his lips and don’t make a sound.’”
Minnie, who often toured with her sons as manager, encouraged everyone to get into the act. “Her theory was: ‘If we’re getting sixty-five bucks a week as a trio, we’ll make it a quartet and get a hundred.’ ” Bader posited. “She was not wrong.”
Unlike his three older brothers, Gummo hated show business. More than anything, he wanted out and after 11 years with the Four Marx Brothers, he left the act. At that point, their youngest brother Zeppo (real name Herbert Marx) was brought in, but not as an equal partner. He was put on salary.
Bader pointed out that the conditions the original Four Marx Brothers worked under at that time were quite dreadful. “They worked the worst circuits, they traveled terribly, they suffered really horrendous conditions on the road,” he said.
So, when Zeppo joined them in 1918, he was a young upstart coming into an established act. “They didn’t want to give him a full partnership because he probably didn’t deserve one. He was 17 years old and he was stepping into a very successful business,” Bader noted.
“The unfortunate thing for Zeppo is that they gave him the role that Gummo played with his limited abilities and his limited desire. Zeppo could have done much more,” he continued “He was a pretty talented guy and he had skill as a singer and an actor. They just didn’t need it.”
As a result, Zeppo became resentful of his older, more successful brothers and actively campaigned for an equal partnership, which they never gave him. When he finally left the group to become a very successful talent agent, he was 33 years old and had spent 16 years, or roughly half of his life, as the fourth Marx Brother.
What kept him in the Four Marx Brothers even longer than he had planned was the stock market crash and the Great Depression, Bader said. “When most of America was out of work, here’s a guy who gets to go onstage and sing and do some straight lines for $500 a week. Not a bad gig.”
While it is generally acknowledged that Groucho was the glue that kept the act together, the oldest brother, Chico, was probably the most self-destructive and regularly brought chaos and disorder into their lives. The reasons were his unchecked and inveterate gambling and his constant womanizing.
In fact the nickname he earned was an unflattering reference to his “chicken chasing,” a practice employed by vaudeville producers, who would book female acts with the expectation that they would enjoy sexual favors as a result. The nickname wasn’t intended to be cute. On the contrary, it was an indicator to others that he was a rake, a sexual predator, according to Bader. “Today these guys would have been indicted,” he admitted. “Unfortunately, everyone was doing it.”
One of the interview subjects Bader most admired was Harpo’s wife, whom he said was extremely critical of Chico and didn’t pull any punches when talking about him. “She called him out for the way in which he was inconsiderate to his brothers and his wife and his daughter,” Bader recalled. “She felt it was a horrible thing to do. He would gamble away all his money and she would just let him have it.”
In fact, it got so bad for Chico’s wife and daughter that they didn’t have food in the house to eat. The other brothers intervened, forcing their older brother to accept the terms to have a portion of his receipts paid directly to his wife and daughter under threat that the other brothers would no longer work under the name The Marx Brothers. In essence, he agreed to be paid an allowance, Bader revealed.
Bader knew Chico’s daughter for a quarter of a century and they were friends, he said. “She came away from that experience of being Chico’s daughter pretty well scarred. She had a lot of years of therapy and she had some real up and down moments with him because of the womanizing and the gambling,” Bader remembered. “It really affected her life and her mother’s life tremendously.” She passed away in 2009.
A video editor for 21 years, Bader had in more recent times become a producer who, because of his expertise with film and video preservation, was sought out to represent the estates of deceased performers for marketing and licensing potential and to secure intellectual properties. Most notably, he represents the estate of Bing Crosby. He also markets several DVD releases, including two sets of You Bet Your Life with Groucho Marx, a Marx Brothers TV Collection, The Honeymooners: Lost Episodes, 1951–1957; and The Best of the Danny Kaye Show.
Bader had to find time to devote to his writing what would become his tome. He was too busy during the day with his work and was expected to spend time with his wife at night.
He credited his wife for being a late sleeper in the acknowledgments of the book, because he literally rose early in the morning and wrote his manuscript during the hours between 6:00 and 9:00 a.m. He also added additional passages whenever he found some spare time. What he expected would take a year or two stretched beyond five years and, when he felt he had finally finished the story, eight years had elapsed.
The finished scholarly treatise, Four of the Three Musketeers: The Marx Brothers on Stage numbers over 540 pages and includes 150 pages of appendices with images dispersed throughout the work and 100 pages of well-researched footnotes.
Published by Northwestern University Press, the book went into publication in October and has been selling briskly. Understandably, Bader is proud of his achievement, but he believes the work is not just a story of the Marx Brothers, but a story of show business itself.
“If someone doesn’t know the Marx Brothers, it might be a very interesting experience to read the book first,” Bader suggested. “It sort of tracks the history of show business as they went through it because they were almost in a pioneering point in American show business. They started off in vaudeville when it was in its infancy and they traversed it in its total arc to the point where it collapsed. By the time that it collapsed, they were ready to move to the next step.”
That next step was Broadway and the legitimate theatre. “They were first forced to go into the legitimate theatre because, not surprisingly, the Marx Brothers had difficulty with authority and they did not play by the rules,” Bader explained. “Vaudeville was a very well-controlled monopoly and the performers were expected to stay lockstep with the rules, or they were out.”
The Marx Brothers made two huge errors in accepting jobs outside of the established circuits and on both occasions they were blacklisted, according to Bader.
It just so happened that the last time they got blacklisted, vaudeville was going through a downward spiral precipitated by the success of the motion picture business. Vaudeville never recovered, but the Marx Brothers moved straight onto Broadway and began to hone their comedic talents in front of large, erudite audiences.
With success on Broadway with shows like The Cocoanuts and Animal Crackers, the Four Marx Brothers jumped onto the silver screen, signing up with Paramount to produce the films Bader treasures the most.
“‘Duck Soup’ and ‘Monkey Business’ are, to me, the essence of the Marx Brothers,” he exclaimed almost giddily.
I have a bias towards the first five films that they made for Paramount because to me that’s the Marx Brothers as nature intended them. They are a quartet and they are totally crazy,” he sighs. “There are insane things that can only exist in the world of the Marx Brothers. There’s anarchy in those films. There’s absolutely no need for them to have a sub-plot.”
The latter films they made under personal contract to studio wunderkind Irving Thalberg at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) achieved a different level of success for the Marx Brothers, who by then were down to just three members.
“The difference between the Paramount and the MGM (films) is the difference between art and commerce,” Bader mused. “The Marx Brothers are at their best in the Paramount films, but a lot of people love ‘A Night at the Opera’ and ‘A Day at the Races’ because they are very good films and they made a lot more money than the Paramount films.”
There were also horrible financial returns for the film comedians at Paramount, where they had negotiated a deal for 50% of the net profit on “Monkey Business” and “Horsefeathers.” The studio’s creative bookkeepers never declared a profit. While the Marx Brothers had received “healthy advances” for their efforts, the entire affair wasn’t settled until 1962, when they received a settlement on their contract for a paltry $36,000.
When they went to MGM, the brothers insisted on accepting no less than 15% of the gross, which Bader said reaped them huge financial returns, because it was much harder for the studio to cheat them. “Those two pictures made them more than any others that they had in their career. They took that very seriously,” he continued.
Bader said that even Groucho said those were their best pictures because of their financial windfalls. “He didn’t necessarily think they were his best pictures,” Bader suggested. “Those were the ones he got a lot of money for, so, in his mind, ‘Those are our best pictures.'”
After Thalberg’s untimely demise, the Marx Brothers were relegated to work on a series of almost unforgivable B-movies like “Go West” and “The Big Store,” which was to have been their final film together. However, they did return with “A Night in Casablanca” and in individual scenes in “Love Happy” years later.
Even there, Bader remains their biggest fan, summing it up unashamedly: “The weakest Marx Brothers film is about the best comedy you’re going to find out there.”
Now that the book is finished, the question remains: what to do with all of the vast collection he has amassed? “My collection of Marx Brothers material – and it’s not just memorabilia – (it’s) original manuscripts, contracts, it’s a lot of business data and a lot of personal stuff,” he said. “It’s voluminous and I did want to hang on to every bit of it for the creation of this book. Now that the book is done I will put all of the material into a performing arts library where it can be accessed by scholars. That’s the whole point of putting it all in one place,” he conceded.
Future scholars will thus have access to all of his materials, once he decides which performing arts library will be the lucky recipient. But just as there will never be another comedy troupe like the Marx Brothers, it’s probably safe to say there will never be anyone who will tackle this material with the kind of backbreaking commitment and enthusiasm Bader has exhibited throughout his entire life.
One day when Bader’s earthly cares are almost over, it may not be a stretch to imagine him smiling bravely, looking skyward and singing softly these words from “Animal Crackers”: “Hello, I must be going. I came to say I cannot stay. I must be going…”
Four of the Three Musketeers: The Marx Brothers on Stage is available now from Northwestern University Press. 544 pages. $35.00.