Friday, January 12, 2007

Groucho Marx Birthday Bash

The great thing about our Birthday Bash is that it takes little effort on the part of the reader to properly celebrate. Unlike traditional methods such as scanning the mall for that elusive perfect gift, our Birthday Bashes work the other way around. Here it’s the honoree who has done the hard work. You just sit back and enjoy all the presents.

On his own and as de facto leader of the Marx Bros. comedy team, Groucho Marx left an indelible stamp on the face of comedy. Forming the Marx Bros. as a vaudeville act in 1910, Groucho immediately began to develop his persona: the cigar-chomping, mustachioed, sharp-tongued straight man who could also play foil. From Broadway to the big screen to the page and, ultimately, to television, Groucho Marx re-invented comedy. Every comic who has worked in the last fifty years owes him an enormous debt of gratitude. So, raise your glasses and let the celebration begin.

The party begins with A Day At The Races. Summoned by rich hypochondriac Emily Upjohn (Margaret Dumont), Hugo Z. Hackenbush (Groucho), a veterinarian, disguises himself as a physician in an attempt to keep the insolvent Standish Sanitarium from falling into the hands of the nefarious Morgan (Douglass Dumbrille). The future ownership of the sanitarium hangs in the balance, determined by the outcome of a big race involving schlemiel jockey Stuffy, the horse Hi-Hat and its owner, the film’s ostensible hero, Gil Stewart (Allen Jones). The quintessential Groucho bit: the insane physical exam of beautiful Emily Upjohn by Groucho, Chico and Harpo.

From the track, the party continues into the evening with A Night At The Opera. Conman Otis B. Driftwood (Groucho) promises the wealthy Mrs. Claypool (Margaret Dumont) that he will introduce her into high society. He convinces her to invest in Gottlieb’s (Sig Rumann) opera company, contingent on signing “the world’s greatest tenor,” Rudolfo Lassparri. Driftwood meets Fiorello, a talent manager, who sells Driftwood “the world’s greatest tenor,” who turns out to be Fiorello’s buddy Ricardo Baroni (Allan Jones). After the most ingeniously farcical shipboard voyage back to New York -- bits involving a trunk full of stowaways, an elaborate dinner and three Russian aviators, to name but a few -- Driftwood and company wreak comic havoc on the opening of La Traviata. The quintessential Groucho bit: Groucho and Chico’s contract negotiations.

After the opera, dinner, of course, starting off with the Duck Soup. The country of Freedonia has exhausted its coffers and faces imminent revolution. Mrs. Teasdale (Margaret Dumont) offers to loan Freedonia $20 million if they oust the president and place the leadership of the nation in the hands of Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho). Trentino (Louis Calhern), the ambassador of neighboring Sylvania, has devices for the rule of Freedonia, himself and sets forth his two most trusted spies, Chicolini (Chico) and Pinky (Harpo). Within minutes, they are posted to Firefly’s cabinet and the wackiness, and a war on Sylvania, ensues. The quintessential Groucho bit: Firefly’s song praising his abuse of power.

Partygoers will retire after dinner to the Long Island manse of Mrs. Rittenhouse (Margaret Dumont) for Animal Crackers. Rittenhouse throws a fete at her home in honor of African explorer, Geoffrey T. Spaulding (Groucho) and invites musician, Signor Emmanuel Ravelli (Chico), the skirtchasing Professor (Harpo) and Spaulding's faithful attaché, Horatio Jamison (Zeppo). When a painting is stolen, things get from awry to mayhem in hilarious slapstick fashion. The quintessential Groucho bit: Groucho dictates a letter to the firm of Hungerdunger, Hungerdunger, Hungerdunger and McCormick, filled with non-sequiturs.

Groucho, of course, starred in dozens of films and eventually hosted the television game show, You Bet Your Life. But Animal Crackers, Duck Soup, A Day At The Races, and A Night At The Opera capture Groucho’s manic energy at its best, when he was at the height of his skill, playing off his brothers and working with the George S. Kaufmans and Sam Woods of the time. Salut.

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