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Tag: harpo marx

Time Flies Like an Arrow. Fruit Flies Like a Banana


Great job by Longform reprinting Ned Stuckey-French’s 1999 story on the relationship between Alexander Woollcott and Harpo Marx:

Keeping Harpo out of trouble was a full­-time job, especially during the summer of 1928, when he and Harpo rented a villa on the French Riviera with their friends Alice Duer Miller, Beatrice Kaufman, and Ruth Gordon. Harpo set the tone when he had a tuxedo made of green pool­ table felt for the high-­society soirées. When Woollcott alone was invited to one affair at the Eden Roc, he lorded it over the others, so Harpo and Gordon decided to crash it and surprise their friend. They sneaked in through the kitchen and got a table next to Woollcott’s. When the waiter arrived with the main course—a whole poached salmon—Harpo grabbed the platter and tossed it over the patio railing into the Mediterranean. “Don’t think I care for the fish,” he said. “What’s on the Blue Plate tonight?” Everyone but Woollcott laughed; he pretended not to know who the rude clown was.

Part of the problem that summer was Woollcott’s melancholy. His sister Julie had just died and he was feeling his own mortality. He’d quit his job as a drama critic and begun free­lancing full­-time in hopes that he could produce something lasting. The trip to France was part of his plan. He wanted to make a splash there with the international literary set. Instead, it was Harpo who made the splash. One day, Woollcott took him to meet Somerset Maugham at Maugham’s villa, lecturing him all the way about good behavior. When they arrived, Harpo was surprised to find Maugham younger-­looking and less swishy and stuffy than he’d expected. He greeted them, Harpo recalled, looking “lean and brown” in “only shorts and sandals,” and “sizzl[ing] with energy and good cheer.” Maugham insisted on a tour of the house. Upstairs, he showed them the master bedroom, positioned so he could dive from its window straight into his pool. While Woollcott and Maugham were turned away discussing a painting, Harpo stripped down and made the dive. Woollcott acted appalled, assuming that Maugham also would be aghast, but the Englishman quickly shed his shorts and sandals, and followed Harpo through the window.

Another afternoon, Woollcott invited Mr. and Mrs. George Bernard Shaw for lunch. He fussed over arrangements all morning (“jittery as a girl on her first date,” said Harpo) and then had himself chauffeured into town to meet the Shaws, who were arriving by train. Harpo said “to hell with the whole affair” and went for a nude swim. As he dozed in the sun, the Shaws pulled up. They had missed Woollcott in town and hired their own driver out to the villa. Harpo just managed to get a towel around himself as the guests came up the walk, Shaw yelling “Where the devil’s Woollcott? Who the devil are you?” As Harpo introduced himself, Shaw reached down and yanked the towel away, laughed, and nonchalantly introduced himself. By the time Woollcott arrived, sweating and anxious, Harpo and the Shaws were fast friends. The three of them spent the next month palling around Antibes—much to Woollcott’s apparent chagrin. “Harpo Marx and Bernard Shaw!” he sniffed. “Corned beef and roses!”


Million Dollar Movie

Tomorrow at BAM check out one of the Marx Brothers’ classic Paramount comedies: Horse Feathers (1932).

New York Minute

I know I’ve brought the Gookie up before but it’s worth mentioning again.

From “Harpo Speaks!”:

The man who first inspired me to become an actor was a guy called Gookie. Gookie had nothing to do with the theatre. He rolled cigars in the window of a cigar store on Lexington Avenue.

This was the store with card games and bookmaking in the back room, the nearest thing to a social club in our neighborhood. It was Frenchie’s home away from home and, along with the poolroom, Chico’s too. Since gambling was never the obsession with me that it was with Chico, I didn’t spend much time in the back room. Where I had the most fun was on the street, in front of the store.

Gookie worked at a low table, facing the Avenue through the window. He was a lumpy little man with a complexion like the leaves he used for cigar wrappers, as if he’d turned that color from overexposure to tobacco. He always wore a dirty, striped shirt without a collar, and leather cuffs and elastic armbands. Whether he was at his table in the window or running errands for the cardplayers, Gookie was forever grunting and muttering to himself. He never smiled.

Gookie was funny enough to look at when he wasn’t working, but when he got up to full speed rolling cigars he was something to see. It was a marvel how fast his stubby fingers could move. And when he got going good he was completely lost in his work, so absorbed that he had no idea what a comic face he was making. His tongue lolled out in a fat roll, his cheeks puffed out, and his eyes popped out and crossed themselves.

I used to stand there and practice imitating Gookie’s look for fifteen, twenty minutes at a time, using the window glass as a mirror. He was too hypnotized by his own work to notice me. Then one day I decided I had him down perfect–tongue, cheeks, eyes, the whole bit.

I rapped on the window. When he looked up I yelled, “Gookie! Gookie!” and made the face. It must have been pretty good because he got sore as hell and began shaking his fist and cursing at me. I threw him the face again. I stuck my thumbs in my ears and waggled my fingers, and this really got him. Gookie barreled out of the store and chased me down the Avenue. It wasn’t hard to outrun such a pudgy little guy. But I’ll give Gookie credit. He never gave up on trying to catch me whenever I did the face through the window.

It got to be a regular show. Sometimes the guy behind the cigar store counter would tip off the cardplayers that I was giving Gookie the works out front. When they watched the performance from the back-room door and he heard them laughing, Gookie would get madder than ever.

For the first time, at the age of twelve, I had a reputation. Even Chico began to respect me. Chico liked to show me off when somebody new turned up in the poolroom. He would tell the stranger, “Shake hands with my brother here. He’s the smartest kid in the neighborhood.” When the guy put out his hand I’d throw him a Gookie. It always broke up the poolroom.

I didn’t know it, but I was becoming an actor. A character was being born in front of the cigar-store window, the character who was eventually to take me a long ways from the streets of the East side.

Over the years, in every comedy act or movie I ever worked in, I’ve “thrown a Gookie” at least once. It wasn’t always planned, especially in our early vaudeville days. If we felt the audience slipping away, fidgeting and scraping their feet through our jokes, Groucho or Chico would whisper in panic, “Ssssssssssst! Throw me a Gookie!” The fact that it seldom failed to get a laugh is quite a tribute to the original possessor of the face.

The little cigar roller was possibly the best straight man I ever had. He was certainly the straightest straight man. If Gookie had broken up or even smiled just once, my first act would have been a flop and the rest of my life might not have been much to write a book about.

Million Dollar Movie

Because it never gets old.

Million Dollar Movie

In “Hannah and her Sisters,” Woody Allen goes to the Metro movie theater on Broadway and watches “Duck Soup,” the Marx Brothers’ finest movie and it restores his faith in life. I wasn’t have any kind of life crisis last night, there was just nothing on TV that interested me, so I put on “Animal Crackers,” the Marx Brothers’ second movie. It was released in 1930 and based on the stage play of the same name.

I hadn’t watched it in a few years and I laughed a lot. Pressed pause and said to the wife, “Look at Harpo, watch this, watch this,” and then laughed some more.

Later, she looked up from her book and said, “Wait, so that’s where you got that line from?”


Watching the Marx Brothers makes life better.

…Two Bits!

Ah, bliss…

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"This ain't football. We do this every day."
--Earl Weaver