The Marx Brothers on Religion


An except from The Marx Brothers Encyclopedia by Glenn Mitchell, a vast repository of detailed information on things Marxian. I've quoted at length here to show the detail and care of the author. I have added paragraph breaks for clarity. Some unusual spelling variants like "centred" are in the original.

This book is still available although sometimes it takes awhile to find. Run right over and buy your very own copy at The "Why A Duck?" Bookstore or Stefan Timphus' Bibliography. Both pages have direct links to Amazon Books.

"Beyond the Alps lies more Alps, and the Lord helps those that Alp themselves"; a line from I'LL Say She Is! and Horse Feathers (both qv). The Hays Office probably would have queried this had Horse Feathers been made after the 1934 Production Code and it's a wonder that, despite its pre-Code vintage, Animal Crackers was allowed to retain Groucho's possibly blasphemous "Africa is God's Country and He can have it" (the same might be said of a Duck Soup song, All God's Chillon Got Guns).

None of the Brothers was religious in a strict sense. Although from a Jewish family, there is no evidence of them observing a kosher diet or, some of their weddings apart, observing any festivals after their own bar mitzvahs; and even that was attended by Groucho solely to collect the gift of a fountain pen. They celebrated Christmas in the same secular way as do many non-Christians, contradicting one account of an elderly Groucho rejecting (jokingly, if at all) a Christmas tree that had been brought in.

The Marxes were proud of their heritage but refused to play on it, though Gummo portrayed a stereotyped "Hebrew Boy" in vaudeville (qv) and Groucho switched from a German to a Jewish character when the Lusitania was sunk.

Such broadly-painted aspects were quietly abandoned as time progressed, and detailed under the stage productions of Cocoanuts and Animal Crackers are examples of Jewish references that would be dropped prior to filming. Retained in the screen version of Cocoanuts are mild, interpolated Jewish references (during the "why a duck" routine) but the opening night script of Cocoanuts includes an unfilmed and rather startling moment in which Groucho introduces a group of Spanish musicians, or at least supposedly: "They are Spaniards like the Marx brothers. They're Spaniards but the accent is on the last syllable. They're Span-yids." This is the type of remark presumably intended to ward off prejudice by getting there first, but it is a wonder the team - or playwright George S. Kaufman (qv) - felt compelled to use it. Later on Groucho would become annoyed at certain Jewish comics whose exaggerated ethnic routines he considered belittling; he was conscious of religious and racial prejudice and exerted none himself, in common with his brothers.

The published letters to his daughter, Miriam, include his counselling of a boyfriend of his daughter's, who had experienced anti-Semitism in the services. A famous story - which, like any Marx anecdotes, varies enormously in the telling - concerns Groucho with either his son or one of his daughters at a "restricted" hotel, club or some such. When told he couldn't use the pool, Groucho asked if the child, being only half-Jewish, could go in up to the knees.

Many years earlier, in or around 1927, Harpo and a friend arranged bookings at a hotel, to receive in return a wire saying "Trust you are Gentile"; the enraged Harpo entered the building, in quasi-Scottish apparel, signed in as "Harpo MacMarx" and asked for directions to the nearest synagogue. He departed with a contemptuous Gookie (qv).

Chico's daughter Maxine has described a similar incident, during the summer of 1929. Chico, his wife Betty and Maxine were staying in Lake George, New York and looked in at a nearby hotel. The assistant manager, embarrassed, explained that the hotel did not admit Jews. Maxine, who had never before experienced such attitudes, was doubly confused owing to her father's otherwise sought-after status. Chico summed up the matter briefly: "There are some stupid people who don't like Jews. We don't need that hotel."

Harpo seems to have been the most theologically inclined of the brothers, recording in his memoirs disgust at an anti-religious play he had seen in Russia, non-specific belief in a greater power and, on his death, leaving his harp to Israel. The usual whispering game metamorphosed this story into a quite untrue variant, to the effect that Gummo had been buried there.

Later in life, Groucho started to attend a synagogue, probably to please Erin Fleming (qv), who had converted to Judaism. Groucho seems to have had no religious belief throughout his life: his son, Arthur, was at one time sent to Sunday school to please the boy's maternal grandmother, and after enquiring as to the day's lesson, Groucho systematically explained why he didn't believe any of it. Arthur was married in a Jewish ceremony, where his father asked the officiating clergyman "Is it true you fellows breed like rabbis?" When taken to a mystic by, as he put it, "an early wife", Groucho expressed total disbelief in the concept of the hereafter. The meeting was centred around a woman who, once in a trance, welcomed questions of any sort. "What's the capital of North Dakota?" asked Groucho, before being thrown out.

For Groucho, his lack of faith in life after death was confirmed by an understanding he had made with Chico and Harpo, in that whoever died first would, in the event of an afterlife, make every effort to contact those remaining on earth. "So far I have not heard from them" he said later.

Groucho's consciousness of his Jewish identity, though presumably a matter of heritage alone, was extremely strong: on hearing of the Israeli massacre at the 1972 Olympics, Groucho was so shocked that he actually suffered a stroke, forcing the postponement of his Los Angeles stage show from September to December.

On a brighter note, Groucho claimed a large stock of anecdotes regarding "cops and priests"; a favorite in the later category concerns a trip to Rome, where Groucho dropped a cigar. He blasphemed and found himself confronted by a priest. Groucho's embarrassment evaporated on finding the priest to be a fellow-American, who offered a replacement cigar with a cheery "Groucho, you just said the Secret Word!"

Quoted from The Marx Brothers Encyclopedia © Glenn Mitchell, 1996
B.T. Batsford Ltd, London ISBN 0 7134 7838 1

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