Groucho Marx

Frank Ferrante in “An Evening With Groucho”

Frank Ferrante An Evening With Groucho

One of the biggest downsides to being a classic film fan from the Millennial generation is that you often never have the chance to interact with or encounter many of your favorite stars. Most of my favorite stars either died before I was born or when I was really young and didn’t have a chance to appreciate them yet. So I never got to go to a Judy Garland concert, see Chaplin on the stage in his vaudeville days, see Bette Davis in one of her stage performances, see Garbo walking around New York City, or write a fan letter to Joan Crawford. And I definitely never had the chance to see the Marx Brothers perform live, whether it was in their vaudeville days, during their Broadway career, or when they were on the road testing out material for A Night at the Opera.

But recently, I had the chance to see the next best thing to seeing Groucho Marx perform live when Frank Ferrante brought his “An Evening With Groucho” show to the Macomb Center for the Performing Arts in Clinton Township, Michigan. Ferrante is a long-time Marx Brothers fan who has been performing as Groucho on stage in various shows for about 30 years. He was discovered by Groucho’s own son, Arthur Marx, while he was a drama student at the University of Southern California and was cast as Groucho in Arthur’s off-Broadway show “Groucho: A Life in Revue,” covering Groucho’s life from age 15 to 85. Ferrante’s performance drew lots of acclaim, including rave reviews from Groucho’s children and colleagues. He went on to play Groucho’s roles in productions of “The Cocoanuts” and “Animal Crackers.” Over the years, Ferrante has performed as Groucho over 2,500 times.

Ferrante’s act is no ordinary tribute act. Although his shows are, indeed, very loving tributes to Groucho, he does so much more than just put on the greasepaint mustache, pick up a cigar, and do his best rendition of “Hooray for Captain Spaulding.” Ferrante manages to bring Groucho’s stage persona to life again. He has Groucho’s voice, all the signature movements, and all his mannerisms down perfectly; it’s absolutely uncanny.

The “An Evening With Groucho” show is full of some of Groucho’s signature quips, stories, movie lines, and songs. But during the show, Ferrante gives himself plenty of chances to interact with the audience and ad-lib and he does so in pure Groucho style. If you’re going to ad lib while performing as Groucho, you have to be as quick witted as Groucho and Ferrante nails it. It’s all so incredibly dead on, when you watch Ferrante perform, it’s quite easy to forget that you aren’t actually watching Groucho Marx. Morrie Ryskind, who co-wrote The CocoanutsAnimal Crackers, and A Night at the Opera has said of Ferrante, “(he) is the only actor aside from Groucho who delivered my lines as they were intended to be.”

If you ever have the chance to see Ferrante perform as Groucho, I can’t recommend it highly enough. If you’ve ever found yourself wishing you had a time machine so you could go back and see the Marx Brothers perform live, this show lets you feel like you’ve had that experience. “An Evening With Groucho” was the funniest thing I’ve seen in a while. It’s been a few days since I saw this show and I’m still laughing about random parts of it that pop into my head. I’m still in awe of what a brilliant job Ferrante does in playing Groucho. It was an absolutely delightful show that I’d love to see again someday.

Monkey Business (1931)

Monkey Business 1931

When Groucho, Harpo, Chico, and Zeppo are found as stowaways on a ship, they have to avoid being captured by running all over the place and trying to hide as best they can, whether it’s blending in with a puppet show, posing as musicians, or trying to pose as the ship’s barber. When Groucho tries hiding in a stateroom, it turns out the room is occupied by Lucille (Thelma Todd) and her husband gangster Alky Briggs (Harry Woods). Lucille is attracted to him and when Zeppo ends up coming in, he and Groucho end up being hired to be Alky’s bodyguards.

Meanwhile, Zeppo has met Mary Helton (Ruth Hall), daughter of Joe Helton (Rockliffe Fellowes) and rival to Alky. When Chico and Harpo find themselves in Helton’s stateroom while on the run, they end up becoming bodyguards for him. A big confrontation is about to happen between the two gangsters and their feud continues after the boat docks, putting Mary in danger and leaving it up to Groucho, Harpo, Chico, and Zeppo to save her.

Monkey Business is pure anarchy. Although the plots to all Marx Brothers movies are pretty thin and basically only exist to serve as a catalyst to mayhem, Monkey Business seems to be the one where the plot matters the least — but that’s not a bad thing in this case. The main plot of the movie doesn’t really kick in until quite a ways into the movie and the everything leading up to that is just an excuse to have the Marxes running around the ship, wreaking havoc wherever they go. With lesser comedians, this movie would be a complete disaster, but the Marx Brothers were completely on top of their game and that’s what makes Monkey Business a true comedy classic. The physical comedy is absolutely brilliant and the jokes are pure gold. The Maurice Chevalier impersonation scene will never stop being hilarious to me. If you’ve never seen a Marx Brothers movie, Monkey Business is definitely not a bad place to start.

The King and the Chorus Girl (1937)

King and the Chorus Girl 1937Alfred Bruger VII (Fernand Gravet), a former king, is now living in Paris with his last two subjects, Count Humbert (Edward Everett Horton) and Duchess Anna (Mary Nash). His life has no direction, he never goes out, and the only enjoyment he gets out of life is by drinking himself into oblivion. Nothing interests him anymore, but one night, Humbert and Anna talk him into going out to the Folies Bergere in hopes he will find something that will bring him a little bit of happiness.

At first, Alfred is totally unimpressed by the show at the Folies Bergere, but then chorus girl Dorothy Ellis (Joan Blondell) takes the stage and Alfred is instantly smitten. He insists that Anna and Humbert invite her to join him for dinner at home after the show. But when Anna arrives, Alfred is already asleep. Anna isn’t about to spend her night waiting for him, so she leaves, much to the amazement of Humbert and Anna. Not many women have the gumption to do that to Alfred!

When Alfred wakes up the next morning, he’s disappointed to find that she left, but the fact that she doesn’t fall over herself to pursue a former king is very intriguing to him. In fact, getting ditched by Dorothy makes Alfred feel more alive than he’s felt in a long time, and he wants to see her again. Anna and Humbert are so impressed by the influence she’s had on him, they arrange for her to keep rejecting his advances and she agrees. But, of course, things get complicated when she actually does fall in love with him.

The King and the Chorus Girl is most noteworthy for being Groucho Marx’s only attempt at screenwriting. For being written by one of the Marx Brothers, the kings of completely anarchic comedy, I was pleasantly surprised by how grounded the style of comedy in The King and the Chorus Girl is. The script wasn’t perfect, but the movie is still funny and charming without being zany and off the wall. Actually, I appreciated getting to see a little bit of a different side to Groucho’s talents.

I kind of wish Groucho had written more films because I think he could have potentially come up with something really great with a little more experience at screenwriting and writing for other actors. Joan Blondell in particular is an actress I though would do well in a movie with dialogue written by Groucho Marx, and she was indeed the high point of the movie. It wasn’t one of the highlights of her career or anything, but she’s likable enough in it. I think the movie in general could have been greatly improved with a different leading man; Fernand Gravet didn’t really do much for me at all. I probably sound like I’m being rather harsh on The King and the Chorus Girl, but I really did enjoy it for the most part, it just needed a bit more polishing.

Animal Crackers (1930)

Animal Crackers PosterMrs. Rittenhouse (Margaret Dumont) is hosting one of the biggest society events of the year at her home in Long Island.  Not only will renowned African explorer Captain Spaulding (Groucho Marx) be the guest of honor, another guest will be displaying a very valuable painting he’s recently purchased.  After Spaulding and his secretary Horatio (Zeppo Marx) arrive, musicians Signor Ravelli (Chico Marx) and The Professor (Harpo Marx) join the party.

As the party goes on, people start scheming to replace the valuable painting with a copy.  First are a couple of socialites who want to replace the painting with a poor copy to make Mrs. Rittenhouse look bad.  Then there’s Mrs. Rittenhouse’s daughter Arabella (Lillian Roth), who has been dating aspiring artist John Parker (Hal Thompson).  John and Arabella want to get married, but he doesn’t have enough money to support them.  Arabella comes up with the idea of replacing the original painting with a very good copy he’s made so everyone at the party will see it and be impressed by his work.  She convinces Ravelli and The Professor to help her switch the paintings.  With all the plans to change the painting, mayhem ensues.

Animal Crackers is, without a doubt, an essential Marx Brothers movie.  If I were to try to introduce someone to the Marx Brothers, Animal Crackers is the movie I would pick because it is such a perfect representation of the Marxes doing what they did best.  Anarchy?  Oh yeah, there’s plenty of anarchy.  Margaret Dumont as the wealthy dowager?  Yep, she’s there.  Non-stop quips from Groucho?  Not only does Groucho get plenty of great lines, he gets some of the most famous lines of his career like, “One morning I shot an elephant in my pajamas.  How he got in my pajamas, I don’t know.”  Harpo and Chico are great in it too, of course; even Zeppo has some pretty choice moments in it.  As far as the songs go, “Hooray for Captain Spaulding” and “Hello, I Must be Going” are some of Groucho’s signature bits.

Unfortunately, Animal Crackers now only exists in a censored form.  When the movie was re-released later in the 1930s, some of Groucho’s more risqué lines were cut to comply with the Hayes Code.  If you watch carefully during “Hooray for Captain Spaulding,” there is a jump cut after the line, “He was the only white man to cover every acre,” where a line was omitted. No prints of the original version are known to exist.  However, lots of Groucho’s risqué lines were left intact and can still be seen today.

If you’re a fan of the Marx Brothers, you’re not going to want to miss this brief technicolor clip of a rehearsal for the scene where Harpo makes his entrance.  Not only is it a treat to see color footage of Marxes at work, it’s noteworthy for showing Harpo out of costume.