Here are 10 things you should know about the legendary Groucho Marx, born 128 years ago today. He is, for our money, perhaps the funniest man who ever lived. We loved him while he was still with us, and we miss him dearly today.
One of the joys of being an old-movie buff is when an actor in a bit part sparks your interest and you start to do a little research on him or her, which causes you to tumble down a rabbit hole of odd facts and coincidences. Sometimes one finds unlikely connections between that unfamiliar performer and some much bigger names—such as when, say, Groucho Marx, Lee Tracy, Walter Winchell have a connection to…Milton Wallace?
We recently attended a screening of Blessed Event (1932), a classic precode comedy in which Lee Tracy plays a character that is obviously inspired by gossip columnist Walter Winchell, who was all the rage back then.
We were especially excited to attend the screening, as we had been informed that some footage that had long since been excised from the picture was back in. Reportedly, it had been there all along, but only in the print that belonged to the Library of Congress. Virtually no one knew about it till Bruce Goldstein, director of repertory programming at NYC’s Film Forum, screened the print at the TCM film festival and realized what a find he’d uncovered.
For those not familiar with Winchell, we’ll catch you up just a bit: A former vaudevillian, he turned to a scandal-mongering form of journalism when his performing career wound down. His popular newspaper column was syndicated and he had a huge following on national radio, too. He was known for coining any number of phrases still used today, including the above-cited “blessed event” used to signal the pending birth of a baby (the guardians of broadcasting decency in those days were convinced that American ears were too tender for that oh-so-coarse term “pregnant”).
Winchell’s broadcasts included remotely broadcast performances by bands and singers around the country, and right before switching to those remote locations, he would blow a siren whistle and say, “Okay, America!”
In the film, as the title suggests, Tracy’s Winchell-esque character relies on the same “blessed event” catchphrase that Winchell used. But in the restored scene, a short, middle-aged, somewhat stereotypical (though not, in our opinion, disparagingly so) Jewish man, played by one Milton Wallace, shows up at the newspaper office to give Tracy a “blessed event” tip: He, Mr. Moskowitz, and his wife are soon going to have their seventh child and he thinks maybe Tracy would want to put that into his column.
In 1974, big news was made when prolonged legal wrangling over the rights to the Marx Brothers‘ second movie, Animal Crackers (1930), was finally resolved and the movie was released for public screenings for the first time for the first time in many years.
Imagine that: A “new” Marx Brothers movie (new in the fact that no one had been able to view it, in a theatre or on television, for so long—and of course, there were no VHS tapes yet, much less DVDs or Blu-Rays).
It was our junior year in high school, and we were working part-time evenings and weekends at the Northpark Cinema 4 in Oklahoma City. Already very devoted to all things Marx Brothers, we were thrilled when Animal Crackers was booked there. The movie settled in for an inexplicably long run (our memory might be playing tricks on us, but we recall it being there for a month or more), and we spent many an hour on those slow weekend afternoons soaking up the Marxian magic when we should have been out front taking tickets and sweeping up spilled popcorn. (To this day, we have the dialogue from that picture all but memorized.)
But it wasn’t just Groucho, Harpo, Chico, and Zeppo who held our attention. The winsome Ms. Lillian Roth, who played the ingénue in Animal Crackers and whose 107th birthday it is today, hooked us but good with her flirtatious ways and deep-dish dimples.
We’ve had a crush on her ever since, and we trust that, after watching the following clips, you will, too. Happy birthday, lovely Lillian Roth, wherever you may be.
This post first saw the light of day on 12/13/2012.