Let Us Now Praise Zeppo Marx

The Marx BrothersHe’s been called “Zero Marx,” “the Missing Marx Brother” and “the Rodney Dangerfield” of the foursome. He was part of the screen’s greatest comedy team, yet–ironically–is now a footnote in Hollywood history, and on those rare occasions his name is brought up it’s usually to denote something that isn’t all that funny or someone considered superfluous, as in the Cheers episode where Lilith says her favorite Marx brother is Zeppo (“The way he just stands there without expression or reaction. Boy! That cracks me up!”) or when Buffy the Vampire Slayer sidekick Zander is referred to as “the Zeppo” of the gang. In fact, one of the best books ever written about the Marxes was even entitled “Groucho, Harpo, Chico and Sometimes Zeppo.” If Groucho, Harpo and Chico are indeed revered as giants in the world of movie funnymen, where does that leave youngest brother Zeppo, who cavorted alongside his siblings on the vaudeville and Broadway stage and in their first five films, and just how important was his presence to the act’s success?

Herbert Manfred Marx was born in New York City in 1901, the fifth child of tailor Sam Marx and wife Minnie. By the time he was in high school, quintessential stage mother Minnie had already coaxed her older sons–Leonard (Chico), Arthur (Harpo), Julius (Groucho), and Milton (Gummo)–into vaudeville in musical/comedy revues, and when Gummo left the act during World War I, Herbert was called up for a different kind of service. The source of his stage nickname remains a bit of a mystery, as Groucho often said he was dubbed Zeppo because of the recent invention of the Zeppelin airship, while Harpo wrote in his autobiography that the moniker came derisively from Mr. Zippo, a performing chimp that the boys had seen.

However the name came about, the revamped Four Marx Brothers had by the late 1920s become the toast of Broadway with their hit shows I’ll Say She Is, The Cocoanuts and Animal Crackers. By this time, as well, the quartet’s comedic personae had  jelled: Groucho was the leering fast-talker; Harpo the silent silverware thief and girl-chaser; Chico the word-mangling Italian con man; and Zeppo, by virtue of his youth and singing voice, would play the romantic lead. His role would evolve into that of the straight man who served as a go-between for his siblings and the world at large. He was also the act’s “pinch-hitter,” imitating the other three and filling in for them on stage when needed (Groucho quipped that Zeppo did such as fine job as Captain Spaulding in Animal Crackers “that I would have let him play the part indefinitely, if they had allowed me to smoke in the audience.”).

While their screen debut came–out of character–in a lost 1921 silent short called Humor Risk, the Marxes eventually signed with Paramount to make movie versions of The Cocoanuts and Animal Crackers at the studio’s Astoria, Queens lot (thus letting them continue performing on Broadway during shooting). The story goes that it was Zeppo’s schmoozing of Paramount founder Adolph Zukor that got the mogul to agree to a $100,000-per-film deal…after Zukor had already turned down a $75,000 proposal! For all his negotiating skills (which would come in handy in the future), however, there was little for Zeppo to do in Cocoanuts as Florida hotel owner Mr. Hammer’s (Groucho) assistant, Jamison. He’s there in a few musical numbers with his brothers, but seems to be present just to hand Groucho telegrams and say “Yes, Sir.”  This was also his raison d’être in Animal Crackers, but here Zeppo’s secretary (again named Jamison) gets to be the first Marx featured on-screen and sings a song introducing his “African explorer”  employer. The film also contains the memorable “Hungerdunger, Hungerdunger, Hungerdunger, Hungerdunger and McCormack” letter-writing scene between Zeppo and Groucho (seen below), where he matches his sibling absurdity for absurdity, and even features a brief blackout sequence where Zeppo replaced an unavailable Groucho (you might notice if you listen closely).

The Marxes went west to Hollywood in 1931 for their first original screenplay, Monkey Business. The love interest part that had been played by crooning leading men in the first two films fell to Zeppo, a move which worked the obligatory romantic subplot more easily into the boys’ tomfoolery. It was also the first of the brothers’ movies which didn’t try to introduce their characters, but simply had the quartet stowing away on an ocean liner and apparently already knowing each other. Zeppo seems much more a part of the proceedings here, running around the ship with Groucho, Chico and Harpo to avoid capture and later starting up a romance with Ruth Hall, daughter of ex-gangster Rockliffe Fellowes (Their “boys meets girl” scenes get a nice ribbing when at one point Zeppo tells her, “I’ll never leave you,” and immediately runs off when pursuing officers spot him). He even gets to save Hall when rival mobsters hold her hostage in an old barn, while Groucho offers offer a comedic running commentary on the fight, in the film’s climax.

The following year would find Zeppo playing one of the world’s oldest college students–and the son of new university president Groucho (well, a greasepaint mustache does add a goodly number of years!) in Horse Feathers. Most of the scholastic hi-jinx were left to “freshmen” Harpo and Chico, but Zeppo does join in the wooing of “college widow” Thelma Todd, is the first brother to offer his rendition of the song “Everyone Says I Love You” in the film, and takes part in the riotous football game that caps the comedic action…although he’s strangely absent from the final shot (unless he’s the unseen groom pushed aside by Groucho, Harpo and Chico). 1933 saw Zeppo return to secretarial duty in what many consider the team’s best movie, the ahead-of-its-time political satire Duck Soup, with his Bob Roland character relegated to reacting to President Rufus T. Firefly’s (Groucho) comments in a few sequences. He does, of course, appear in the “The Country’s Going to War/All God’s Chillun Got Guns” musical sequence, and with his brothers defends Freedonia from the invading Sylvanian army in what what ultimately prove to be his final appearance on the screen.

The lackluster box office performance of Duck Soup led Paramount to drop the Marxes from its roster, and at the same time Zeppo–finally deciding he had had his fill of announcing Groucho at parties–officially left the act and became a talent agent. He eventually joined up with even more-forgotten sibling Gummo to represent a variety of clients, from a young Lana Turner to the newly streamlined trio of Groucho, Harpo and Chico. In a 1970s interview Zeppo said he negotiated the threesome’s one-picture deal with RKO to make 1938’s Room Service, but ultimately let Gummo handle them “because they were impossible to deal with.”  Once he was out of the show business spotlight, the mechanically-inclined Marx also set about developing and marketing a wide array of devices, from the popular Marman Twin motorized bicycle and a special clamp that was used on WWII fighter planes and the Mercury space program to a wristwatch that would monitor its wearer’s heart rate and warn them if they were going into cardiac arrest. He also had the distinction of being the last surviving Marx brother, passing away in November of 1979.     

As for the Three Marx Brothers, the boys would go on to make eight more movies as a team from 1935 to 1949 for MGM and other studios, with the results ranging from near-classic (A Night at the Opera and A Day at the Races) to mildly amusing at best (The Big Store and Love Happy, with more about the latter here). And in almost every one of these films, the obligatory romantic subplot required a Zeppo-like leading man, with the results again running the gamut from the adequate (Opera and Race’s Allan Jones) to the hopelessly bland (Kenny Baker of At the Circus, The Big Store’s Tony Martin). Author/critic James Agee once pointed out how Zeppo offered “a fourth dimension as the cliché of the (romantic) juvenile” by being “too schleppy, too nasal, and too wooden to be taken seriously.” Maybe it was the decline in script quality–or maybe it’s just a matter of genetics–but none of his successors had Zeppo’s knack for being so seemingly normal, yet at the same time being an active participant in his brothers’ chaos.