To some Americans, the name Marx summons up a bearded prophet of social doom, but to most it means a zany tumble of brothers. Groucho is the zaniest and most durable of the lot. In his long career as a comedian, he has met and mastered three mediums: movies, radio and now television.
Professionally, the other Marx Brothers haven't worn nearly so well. Harpo, once the rage of several continents, has just finished a series of television commercials for a milk company; Chico does his hoary piano routine and Eyetalian dialect around nightclubs; Gummo, who quit the act for good to become a World War I doughboy, is his brothers' agent Zeppo, now out of show business altogether, manufactures airplane parts.
The middle Marx brother in age, Groucho (whose real front names are Julius Henry), now 61, is at the height of his powers in both radio and television, with an annual income of $400,000 before taxes. Fairly dignified; bodies of medal pinners have voted him Best Comedian of the Year (1949), Outstanding Television Personality master, etc.
His quiz program (NBC, Wed. 9 p.m., 8 p.m.), You Bet Your Life, is now well into its fifth season. When one of the contestants, a pretty and shapely high-school math teacher, explained that geometry is -the study of lines, curves and surfaces, Groucho gave his celebrated leer and panted, "Kiss me, fool!" The audience reaction threatened to blow the back out of the broadcasting theater. Groucho's jokes sound far funnier than they read afterwards. But there are exceptions, such as the one when he asked a tree surgeon on his program, Tell me, Doctor, did you ever fall out of a patient?"
With Groucho, delivery is almost everything.; An old line of his, "The air is like wine tonight," used to make audiences choke with laughter a couple of decades ago. When he would simply say, "I think I'll go out and get a cold towel," then start for the wings with the queer, buzzardy shuffle he used for a walk, it would leave the audience strangling. Because nowadays he seldom moves from the high stool he sits on during broadcasts, the buzzardy shuffle is gone. But the rest of the delivery is still there, as good or better than ever: the perfectly timed twitch of the brows; the play of the luminous brown eyes—now rolling with naughty thoughts, now staring through the spectacles with only half-amused contempt; the acidulous, faint smile; the touch of fuming disgust in the voice ("That's as shifty an answer as I ever heard") ; above all, the effrontery.
UNSQUELCHABLE effrontery has always been Groucho's chief stock in trade. During his stage & screen career, he played a succession of brazen rascals: fraudulent attorney, flimflamming explorer, dissolute college president, amoral private eye, cozening operatic entrepreneur, horse doctor posing as a fashionable neurologist ("Either this man is dead or my watch has stopped"), bogus Emperor of France—using such aliases as J. Cheever Loophole, Captain Spaulding, Professor Wagstaff, Detective Sam Grunion, Otis. B. Driftwood, Wolf J. Flywheel and Napoleon. Whatever the alias or whatever the rascality, he was always the same rascal, the con man who made no bones about the disdain he felt for the suckers he was trimming.