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Zeppo Marx (Herbert)

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Zeppo Marx

Born: February 25, 1901
Died: November 30, 1979

Zeppo was the youngest of the five brothers. As a boy he was constantly involved in fights, which unlike Harpo or Groucho, he would win. He had a reputation for being quite the hooligan. It's always been Marx legend that Zeppo was placed into the act so that Minnie could keep him out of trouble.

He took over the straight man and romantic lead roles from older brother Gummo. He always seemed to be in the background, acting as a foil for Chico or Groucho.
According to a 1925 newspaper article, he also made a solo appearance in the Adolphe Menjou comedy A Kiss in the Dark, but no known copy of the film exists, and it is not clear if he actually appeared in the finished film.

It always seemed to Zeppo that he stood in everyone else's shadow. He hated not being allowed to be a comedian on stage. According to his brothers he was the funniest of them all. Groucho is quoted as saying "When I had my appendix out, Zeppo took over for me. He was so good that it made me get better quicker". After Zeppo left the act, each film would have a Zeppo-like actor in it and none of them were as good at it as he was.

Offstage Zeppo was reputed to be a mechanical wizard and would go through many careers in his lifetime. He got his start with machines early. When Gummo and Groucho bought a car (back in the early vaudeville days) it was Zeppo who kept it running. He also worked machining parts for the war effort during WWII, grew grapefruits, ran a theatrical agency with Gummo and he was a commercial fisherman.
Click here to read more about Zeppo's inventions.

On 12 April 1927, Zeppo married Marion Benda. The couple would adopt two children, Timothy, in 1944 and Thomas. They divorced on 12 May 1954. On 18 September 1959, Zeppo married Barbara Blakeley, whose son, Bobby Oliver, he adopted and gave his surname. Zeppo and Blakely divorced in 1972 or 1973. Blakely later married singer Frank Sinatra.

At the end of his life Zeppo found himself in the middle of the disputes around Groucho's estate. As the last surviving Marx Brother he was very involved in the court case.

Zeppo died of lung cancer in 1979 at the age of 78.

In recent years, a surge of adamant Zeppo supporters have risen to challenge the notion that he did not develop a comic persona in his films. James Agee considered Zeppo "a peerlessly cheesy improvement on the traditional straight man." Along similar lines, Gerald Mast, in his book The Comic Mind: Comedy and Movies, notes that Zeppo's comedic persona, while certainly more subtle than his brothers', is undeniably present:

"[He] added a fourth dimension as the cliché of the [romantic] juvenile, the bland wooden espouser of sentiments that seem to exist only in the world of the sound stage. [... He is] too schleppy, too nasal, and too wooden to be taken seriously" (282, 285).

Danél Griffin, film critic for the University of Alaska Southeast, elaborates on Mast's theory:

"Zeppo’s parts were always intended to be a parody of the juvenile role often found in sappy musicals of the 1920s-30s era. Sometimes, he would just have a few lines, and he would otherwise be reduced to standing in the background with a big smile on his face. In these roles, he was a lampoon of the infamous extra, always grinning widely as a needless decoration, and always stiff and wooden. In other films, Zeppo would have a more significant role as the romantic lead, but he would still always be stiff, wooden, and, yes, with a big smile on his face. Either way, he could never be considered a real straight man. He was a sappy distortion of the real thing, and sort of the gateway through which we connected with the other Brothers. We perceived him as the normal, good-looking” one of the bunch, but was he really? Wasn’t there something about that line from The Cocoanuts, 'You can depend upon me, Mr. Hammer,' that was a little too ... happy? Roger Ebert called Zeppo 'superfluous,' and that is the point of his character in the six Paramount films. He was the straight man only in pure Marxian sense while his Brothers spat on movie clichés, he imitated them, proving in his own way to be quite a brilliant comedian." (Link)

In her book Hello, I Must be Going: Groucho & His Friends, Charlotte Chandler defends Zeppo as being "the Marx Brothers' interpreter in the worlds they invade. He is neither totally a straight man nor totally a comedian, but combines elements of both, as did Margaret Dumont. Zeppo's importance to the Marx Brothers' initial success was as a Marx Brother who could 'pass' as a normal person. None of Zeppo's replacements (Allan Jones, Kenny Baker, and others) could assume this character as convincingly as Zeppo, because they were actors, and Zeppo was the real thing, cast to type" (562).

In his book Groucho, Harpo, Chico, and Sometimes Zeppo, Joe Adamson analyzes a scene in Animal Crackers that reveals Zeppo's uncanny ability to one-up Groucho with simple, plain-English rebuttals - something no one else has ever done before or since in a Marx Brother movie. In the said scene, Zeppo is told to take a letter to Groucho's lawyer. Adamson notes,

"There is a common assumption that Zeppo = Zero, which this scene does its best to contradict. Groucho dictating a letter to anybody else would hardly be cause for rejoicing. We have to believe that someone will be there to accept all his absurdities and even respond somewhat in kind before things can progress free from conflict into this genial mishmash. Groucho clears his throat in the midst of his dictation, and Zeppo asks him if he wants that in the letter. Groucho says, 'No, put it in the envelope.' Zeppo nods. And only Zeppo could even try such a thing as taking down the heading and the salutation and leaving out the letter because it didn't sound important to him. It takes a Marx Brother to pull something like that on a Marx Brother and get away with it." (114)

Allen W. Ellis writes in his article Yes, Sir: The Legacy of Zeppo Marx (The Journal of Popular Culture, Vol. 37, No. 1, 2003):

"Indeed, Zeppo is a link between the audience and Groucho, Harpo and Chico. In a sense, he is us on the screen. He knows who those guys are and what they are capable of. As he ambles out of a scene, perhaps it is to watch them do their business, to come back in as necessary to move the film along, and again to join in the celebration of the finish. Further, Zeppo is crucial to the absurdity of the Paramount films. The humor is in his incongruity. Typically he dresses like a normal person, in stark contrast to Groucho's greasepaint and 'formal' attire, Harpo's rags, and Chico's immigrant hand-me-downs. By most accounts, he is the handsomest of the brothers, yet that handsomeness is distorted by his familial resemblance to the others — sure, he's handsome, but it is a decidedly peculiar, Marxian handsomeness. By making the group four, Zeppo adds symmetry, and in the surrealistic worlds of the Paramount films, this symmetry upsets rather than confirms balance: it is chaos born of symmetry. That he is a plank in a maelstrom, along with the very concept of 'this guy' who is there for no real reason, who joins in and is accepted by these other three wildmen while the narrative offers no explanation, are wonderful in their pure absurdity. 'To string things together in a seemingly purposeless way,' said Mark Twain, 'and to be seemingly unaware that they are absurd, is the mark of American humor.' The 'sense' injected into the nonsense only compounds the nonsense" (21-22).

(some information in this biography taken from Wikipedia)

Zeppo Marx appeared in the following movies:

Film TitleCharacter name
Humor Risk - 1921Love interest(?)  
A Kiss in the Dark - 1925 (Guest)  
The Cocoanuts - 1929Jamison  
Animal Crackers - 1930Horatio Jamison  
Monkey Business - 1931A Stowaway  
The House That Shadows Built - 1931  
Horse Feathers - 1932Frank Wagstaff  
Duck Soup - 1933Bob Roland  

Important dates in the life of Zeppo Marx:

25 Feb 1901Herbert "Zeppo" Marx is born
1918In The Cinderella Girl Zeppo replaces Gummo. This musical comedy is written by Jo Swerling with music by Gus Kahn
1921On the Mezzanine Floor (in England: On the Balcony) a musical revue written by Herman Timberg, produced by Benny Leonard
1921The silent movie Humorisk is made with money raised by a friend. Director is Jo Swerling. It was made in two weeks at Fort Lee, NJ. studios and in a studio at 49th St. and 10th Ave. in New York. No copy exists of this (unfinished?) film.
19 May 1924Stage show I'll say she is, scripted by Will B. Johnstone, opens at the Casino Theater in New York
8 Dec 1925Stage show The Cocoanuts opens at the Lyric and runs for 275 performances, a full season on Broadway, as well as two years on the road.
12 Apr 1927Zeppo marries Marion Benda
23 Oct 1928Stage show Animal Crackers opens at the 44th Street Theater and runs for 191 performances. It was laid off the following summer, went on tour in mid-October.
3 Aug 1929Film The Cocoanuts released
6 Sep 1930Film Animal Crackers released
5 Jan 1931The Marxes appear at the London Palace Theatre
19 Sep 1931Film Monkey Business released
31 Aug 1932Film Horse Feathers released
24 Nov 1933Film Duck Soup released
22 Nov 1933New York Premiere of "Duck Soup"
1944Zeppo and Marion adopt Timothy
12 May 1954Zeppo and Marion get divorced
12 Apr 1956Zeppo Marx purchases the Safeway Stores Inc. building in Redding, CA for $541,000 as an investment.
18 Sep 1959Zeppo marries Barbara Blakely
1973Zeppo and Barbara get divorced. Barbara later marries Frank Sinatra
16 Jan 1977The Marxes are inducted to the Motion Picture Hall of Fame
30 Nov 1979Zeppo dies of lungs cancer
This site uses material originally created by Frank Bland for his website Why A Duck?. Frank did kindly give me permission to use this material.

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