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A decade ago, while shopping for a set of Marx Brothers movies that had just been released on DVD for the first time, I was approached by a young store clerk who asked if he could help.
I told him I was looking for the Marx Brothers. He paused for a moment, then asked, “Are they the Three Stooges?”
With due deference to Stooge-philes, no, they are definitely not the Three Stooges.
The Marx Brothers are Groucho, Chico and Harpo (and sometimes Zeppo, a straight man in their earliest movies).
Groucho is the guy with the greasepaint mustache, glasses and cigar who wiggles his eyebrows, walks with a hunching lope and offers up insulting wisecracks.
Chico is the little guy with the felt hat and Italian accent, a schemer who drops puns with aplomb and plays piano like a virtuoso, often shooting the keys with his index finger.
Harpo is the childlike mute with wide eyes who communicates by honking a horn and wears a lopsided top hat, a fright wig and an oversized overcoat with pockets that carry props for every occasion, from silverware to a blowtorch to a steaming hot cup of coffee. He also likes to chase the ladies, though he never seems to catch them. Oh, and he masterfully plays the harp.
They honed these zany vaudeville personas on theater stages across the country before taking Broadway by storm, followed by a movie career that began at the dawn of cinema’s sound era.
They were in their 40s when they began starring in films, and by the time they made their last picture together in 1949, the boys were getting older and their movies were getting weaker.
By this time, Groucho was having some success on radio, and as television came on the scene, he turned his radio quiz show “You Bet Your Life” into a hit TV show, as well showing up on other programs.
But Harpo and Chico also became TV staples in those early days, as can be seen in a new DVD set, “The Marx Brothers TV Collection” (Shout! Factory, 1951-76, b/w and color, three discs, 40-page booklet), which demonstrates that all three brothers still had talent and energy, even as they were aging into their 60s and 70s.
“The Marx Brothers TV Collection” contains several full-length programs, along with myriad excerpts and clips from a wide range of TV shows, the earliest being Chico’s 1951 one-season sitcom and the last being Groucho’s final appearance in a short book-promotion film in 1976.
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