On Oct. 16, 1921, thousands of Twin Citians poured into the opulent Orpheum Theater in Minneapolis to witness its grand opening — and to see the Marx Brothers inaugurate the Hennepin Avenue vaudeville palace. (Since then, the theater has had its ups and downs, finally receiving a much-needed $9 million makeover in the early 1990s. Now, the Orpheum — the largest of the metro area’s surviving historic theaters with 2,650 seats — is part of the three-venue Hennepin Theatre Trust.)
Today, it turns out, happens to be the 119th anniversary of the birth of the Marx Brothers ringleader, a perfect chance to celebrate the over-the-top humor of the inimitable Groucho.
Julius Henry “Groucho” Marx (1890-1977), the third-oldest of the five performing Marx Brothers, was part comedian and part philosopher, and you could spend a lot of time arguing over when he was being funny and when profound.
Most of his zingers — almost all of them politically or socially incorrect, in keeping with the times — drip with sarcasm, often making it hard to distinguish when he was being a wise man and when a wise guy.
My personal favorite (a thought best left unsaid) fits too many social occasions we’ve all encountered:
“I have had a perfectly wonderful evening, but this wasn’t it.”
And you can find a lot more of Groucho’s trademark quips here, here and here. (I’ve purposely left out his most famous line — the oft-quoted remark about him not wanting to be a member of any club that would allow him in. Well, I guess I didn’t really leave it out …)
Here’s a Marxist sampler by topic, followed by several scenes of Groucho and his brothers at their very best:
All people are born alike — except Republicans and Democrats.
Politics is the art of looking for trouble, finding it everywhere, diagnosing it incorrectly and applying the wrong remedies.
Only one man in a thousand is a leader of men; the other 999 follow women.
She got her looks from her father. He’s a plastic surgeon.
Wives are people who feel they don’t dance enough.
Women should be obscene and not heard.
I was married by a judge. I should have asked for a jury.
Politics doesn’t make strange bedfellows — marriage does.
Marriage is a wonderful institution, but who wants to live in an institution?
Marriage is the chief cause of divorce.
The secret of life is honesty and fair dealing. If you can fake that, you’ve got it made.
Who are you going to believe, me or your own eyes?
No man goes before his time — unless the boss leaves early.
I have nothing but confidence in you, and very little of that.
I was going to thrash them within an inch of their lives, but I didn’t have a tape measure.
Why, I’d horse-whip you if I had a horse.
Whoever named it necking was a poor judge of anatomy.
I never forget a face, but in your case I’ll be glad to make an exception.
From the moment I picked your book up until I laid it down, I was convulsed with laughter. Someday I intend reading it.
I didn’t like the play, but then I saw it under adverse conditions — the curtain was up.
My favorite poem is the one that starts ‘Thirty days hath September’ because it actually tells you something.
I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book.
Practically everybody in New York has half a mind to write a book, and does.
Philosophy of life
I intend to live forever, or die trying.
It isn’t necessary to have relatives in Kansas City in order to be unhappy.
Military justice is to justice what military music is to music.
I worked my way up from nothing to a state of extreme poverty.
Insults and inanities
Time flies like an arrow. Fruit flies like a banana.
Before I speak, I have something important to say.
I have a mind to join a club and beat you over the head with it.
Why a 4-year-old child could understand this report. Run out and find me a 4-year-old child. I can’t make head nor tail out of it.
Q: What do you get when you cross an insomniac, an agnostic and a dyslexic?
A: Someone who stays up all night wondering if there is a Dog.
Quote me as saying I was misquoted.
One morning I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got into my pajamas I’ll never know.
Outside of a dog, a book is a man’s best friend. Inside of a dog, it’s too dark to read.
The classic scenes
Despite all the one-liners, it was Groucho and his brothers’ antics in their 14 movies that are the most memorable. Just about everybody considers this their funniest bit: the classic “crowded cabin” scene from their 1935 film “A Night at the Opera.”
That movie also features the wonderful “contract” scene, complete with Chico and Groucho arguing over the “sanity clause.”
I always thought that, beyond his one-liners, Groucho was at his best when he broke into his unique brand of “song” — everything from his combo “I Must Be Going”/“Hooray for Captain Spaulding,” from 1930’s “Animal Crackers” to my favorite, the clever “Lydia the Tattooed Lady,” from 1939’s “At the Circus.” View “Lydia” below and then check out the intricate lyrics here.
Got another Groucho favorite? Tell me below.