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.
As you might expect, some of this is wonderful and some is less so, but for vintage-comedy buffs — and more specifically, for Marx Brothers fans — it’s like discovering a long-sealed box of indescribable treasure.
• Harpo and Chico star in a pantomime episode of “The General Electric Theater,” introduced by Ronald Reagan, with Groucho showing up at the end.
• Harpo appears on “Candid Camera,” Chico on “Championship Bridge” and Groucho in a British version of “You Bet Your Life.”
• Groucho clowns on different shows with Dinah Shore, Jackie Gleason and Dick Cavett, and plays “Celebrity Billiards” against Minneosta Fats.
• Chico stars in a live musical sitcom, “The College Bowl,” featuring 23-year-old Andy Williams among the singers. (This is the final show of that series and the only surviving episode.)
• On the live “Colgate Comedy Hour,” Harpo and Chico re-create their four-handed piano duet from their movie “The Big Store.”
• Harpo co-stars with Carol Burnett in “The Wonderful World of Toys,” a special featuring cameos by Eva Gabor and Milton Berle.
• Chico is interviewed on a British talk show and demonstrates his unique piano-playing talent with two numbers.
• Harpo appears in a variety of TV commercials, pitching everything from evaporated milk and ketchup to Pepsi and beer.
My personal favorites are a complete “Jack Benny Program” that has Benny disguising himself so he can be a contestant on Groucho’s quiz show; a segment of “I’ve Got a Secret,” in which Chico dresses as Harpo and fools the panel; and Harpo in sketches opposite Red Skelton on Skelton’s show.
Also fascinating are a pair of dramas that allow two of the Marxes to perform straight, non-comic roles outside their familiar personas — Harpo in an episode of June Allyson’s anthology program as a mechanized man in a department-store window who witnesses a murder, and Groucho in a “General Electric Theater” episode as a father who objects to his teenage daughter (Brooke Hayward) getting married (to a very young Dennis Hopper).
By the way, if you buy “The Marx Brothers TV Collection” through the Shout! Factory website (shoutfactory.com), it comes with a free bonus disc that has even more material, highlighted by Groucho’s two hosting stints on the 1960s variety show “The Hollywood Palace” (both featuring the Marx Brothers’ longtime foil Margaret Dumont).
There’s no getting around it. If you are a Marx Brothers fan — and how could you not be? — this is a treasure trove.