The Surprisingly Serious Tale of Comedian Groucho Marx and His Lifelong Quest to Master Guitar
If Groucho Marx didn’t exactly invent rock and roll, he nonetheless embodied its irreverent, rebellious spirit in every medium he came to conquer. He and his brothers would make only 13 feature films, yet in 2000, five of them were honored by the American Film Institute as among the top 100 comedies of all time. Such was Groucho’s influence across the generations that he became an unlikely youth icon in his mid-80s, mobbed like a rock star at rare personal appearances, and inspiring thousands to pack what’s now Los Angeles’ Gibson Amphitheater to view a slate of Marx Brothers films made decades before most in the audience were even born.
Groucho’s brothers Harpo and Chico were long the musical axis of the act. The latter’s comic flair on the piano was an offshoot of a natural musical talent that initially found him some success as a local New York entertainer, then work as a song plugger for music publishers Shapiro-Bernstein before he joined his brothers’ struggling vaudeville act in 1912. An inveterate?and notoriously unsuccessful?gambler, Chico would reportedly lose virtually every nickel he made in Hollywood, inspiring him to make ends meet fronting the popular Chico Marx Orchestra, an outfit that featured not only a boyish Mel Torme on vocals, but became the first professional gig of legendary jazz guitarist Barney Kessel as well. Harpo also began on the piano, but lacking his older brother’s gifts, turned instead to the instrument his grandmother had played?and the one that would yield his nickname?becoming the most famed proponent of the harp since Nero.
Groucho had a musical side as well, singing as a choirboy before evolving into the manager and sharp-witted focal point of the Marx Brothers’ oft-floundering vaudeville act as it zig-zagged haphazardly from New York to Chicago to Kansas City. Somewhere along this long road to stardom Groucho bought a used guitar and learned to play it by ear, just as his more musically accomplished brothers had learned their respective instruments. As the team rose in fame to conquer Broadway in the ’20s and Hollywood soon after, Groucho’s guitar became a source of great personal solace but never a standard part of their act. While his brothers caroused until all hours, Groucho became the antithesis of his stage and screen persona, an introvert who preferred to stay home and read, socialize with intimates, and pick out tunes on his guitar. Indeed, sans his trademark greasepaint moustache, frock coat, and loping gait, Groucho Marx went virtually unrecognized in public during his Hollywood heyday.
The most public showcase of Groucho’s guitar playing is Paramount’s 1932 college-skewering romp Horse Feathers. In a rowboat, Groucho performs the film’s love theme “Everyone Says I Love You” for co-star Thelma Todd on a questionably tuned vintage Gibson L-5. In typical Marxian fashion, when finished he simply flips the instrument (actually a cheap prop stand-in) into the lake. While he’d take fleeting turns on the guitar elsewhere in his film career, Groucho’s performance of “Everyone Says I Love You” remains a favorite among Marx aficionados and has gone on to become variously a beloved staple of home pickers and the inspiration for Woody Allen’s 1996 film musical of the same name.
The instrument in the film is one of a pair of Gibsons Groucho owned?it also appears in a home photo from the era, with Marx, wife Ruth, daughter Miriam, and son Arthur posed around a piano in a family musical moment. And if Groucho’s proficiency on the instrument is deliberately poor for comic effect in Horse Feathers, it nonetheless became the target of good-natured jabs from family and friends alike. No less than Will Rogers once wrote: “Groucho can play as good on the guitar as Harpo can on the harp, or Chico on the piano. But he never does. So he is really what I call an ideal musician; he can play, but doesn’t.”
In later reminisces of his famous father, Groucho’s son Arthur recalls a musician of intense dedication, one whose chronic dissatisfaction with his abilities inspired the then 50ish star to professional tutelage and hours of dedicated home practice?much to the frequent aggravation of his wife and children. “If I have to listen to your father play one more piece on the guitar,” Arthur recalled his more outgoing mother once grousing, “I’ll go out of my mind.”
Arthur Marx remembers his father diligently practicing scales and classical pieces for as many as three hours a day, with an almost quixotic fixation on transposing Rachmaninoff’s “Prelude in C-Sharp Minor” to the instrument. After months practicing the difficult piece, the younger Marx recalls Groucho gathering the family around to “officially” debut it?as if they hadn’t already been driven to distraction by weeks of constant practice. When his rendition was met by silence, Marx gingerly inquired of his family, “Well, aren’t you going to say anything?” To which wife Ruth retorted dryly: “Why don’t you go back to playing by ear? You used to be so much better before you knew what you were doing.”
Arthur also recalls his father’s obsession with classical guitar giant Andrés Segovia. After one of Segovia’s performances with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Groucho went backstage to introduce himself and invite him home for dinner. The classical guitar star was reluctant to accept the invitation for fear he’d be asked to perform at the Marx home, but Groucho assured him, “I promise you won’t have to hear me play. Where could you get a better deal than that?” Segovia soon found himself supping at Marx’s home. At least partly true to his word, Marx never asked Segovia to play?just strolled nonchalantly into the living room with a Gibson under each arm. Segovia simply acted as if the instruments weren’t there for most of the evening, before a frustrated Groucho thrust one at him and implored, “Would you mind holding this for me for a while? I’m exhausted from holding both of them.” Groucho then launched into?what else??the “Rachmaninoff Prelude,” with Segovia strumming along grudgingly until finally demurring, complaining that the instrument’s steel strings were cutting his unaccustomed fingers (Segovia played exclusively on gut strings).
Groucho’s playing eventually inspired daughter Miriam to the guitar. In 1946 (and after his divorce from her mother), Miriam wrote to ask if she could have one of his two instruments. An uncharacteristically sentimental Groucho happily complied, sending along a trove of sheet music with it as well.
Groucho Marx likely took his deep-seated insecurity over his guitar abilities to his grave in 1977. Though his passing was almost completely overshadowed by the sudden death of another cultural icon barely 72 hours earlier, Elvis Presley, Groucho’s brief, now 75-year-old turn on the instrument in Horse Feathers continues to delight film fans and musicians alike, a warm reminder that memorable performances most often come from the heart, not the fingers.