Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
Groucho once said that the stage name Zeppo was derived from the Zeppelin, a new invention at the time of his birth. However, it is more commonly suggested that the name derived from that of another vaudeville performer named Mr. Zippo. It is possible that both are true and that some punning was involved.
Zeppo appeared in the first five Marx Brothers movies, as a straight man and romantic lead, before leaving the team. He had sufficient comic abilities to have stood in for Groucho when the brothers performed on stage, and he was reputed to be very funny offstage; but he never invented a comic persona of his own that could stand up against those of Groucho, Harpo and Chico Marx, even though the role he used to fill would continue to exist in the brothers' remaining films.
Offstage, Zeppo had great mechanical skills and was largely responsible for keeping the Marx family car running. Zeppo later owned a company which machined parts for the war effort during World War II. He also founded a large theatrical agency with his brother Gummo Marx.
On April 12, 1927, Zeppo married Marion Benda . The couple would adopt one child, Timothy, in 1944. They would later divorce on May 12, 1954. On September 18, 1959, Zeppo married Barbara Blakely . Zeppo and Blakely would divorce in 1973. (Blakely would later marry singer Frank Sinatra).
He died of lung cancer.
In recent years, a surge of adamant Zeppo supporters have risen to challenge the notion that he did not develop a comic persona in his films. Gerald Mast, in his book The Comic Mind: Comedy and Movies (University of Chicago Press: 1979), notes that Zeppo's comedic persona, while certainly more subtle than his brothers', is certainly present: "[He] added a fourth dimension as the cliché of the [romantic] juvenile, the bland wooden espouser of sentiments that seem to exist only in the world of the sound stage. [... He is] too schleppy, too nasal, and too wooden to be taken seriously" (282, 285).
Danél Griffin, film critic for the University of Alaska Southeast, elaborates on Mast's theory: "Zeppo’s parts were always intended to be a parody of the juvenile role often found in sappy musicals of the 1920s-30s era. Sometimes, he would just have a few lines, and he would otherwise be reduced to standing in the background with a big smile on his face. In these roles, he was a lampoon of the infamous extra, always grinning widely as a needless decoration, and always stiff and wooden. In other films, Zeppo would have a more significant role as the romantic lead, but he would still always be stiff, wooden, and, yes, with a big smile on his face. Either way, he could never be considered a real straight man. He was a sappy distortion of the real thing, and sort of the gateway through which we connected with the other Brothers. We perceived him as the “normal, good-looking” one of the bunch, but was he really? Wasn’t there something about that line from The Cocoanuts, 'You can depend upon me, Mr. Hammer,' that was a little too…happy? Roger Ebert called Zeppo 'superfluous,' and that is the point of his character in the six Paramount films. He was the straight man only in pure Marxian sense—while his Brothers spat on movie clichés, he imitated them, proving in his own way to be quite a brilliant comedian." (Link)
In her book Hello, I Must be Going: Groucho & His Friends, Charlotte Chandler defends Zeppo as being "the Marx Brothers' interpreter in the worlds they invade. He is neither totally a straight man nor totally a comedian, but combines elements of both, as did Margaret Dumont. Zeppo's importance to the Marx Brothers' initial success was as a Marx Brother who could 'pass' as a normal person. None of Zeppo's replacements (Allan Jones, Kenny Baker, and others) could assume this character as convincingly as Zeppo, because they were actors, and Zeppo was the real thing, cast to type" (562).
Allen W. Ellis writes in his article Yes, Sir: The Legacy of Zeppo Marx (The Journal of Popular Culture, Vol. 37, No. 1, 2003), "Indeed, Zeppo is a link between the audience and Groucho, Harpo and Chico. In a sense, he is us on the screen. He knows who those guys are and what they are capable of. As he ambles out of a scene, perhaps it is to watch them do their business, to come back in as necessary to move the film along, and again to join in the celebration of the finish. Further, Zeppo is crucial to the absurdity of the Paramount films. The humor is in his incongruity. Typically he dresses like a normal person, in stark contrast to Groucho's greasepaint and 'formal' attire, Harpo's rags, and Chico's immigrant hand-me-downs. By most accounts, he is the handsomest of the brothers, yet that handsomeness is distorted by his familial resemblance to the others - sure, he's handsome, but it is a decidedly peculiar, Marxian handsomeness. By making the group four, Zeppo adds symmentry, and in the surrealistic worlds of the Paramount films, this symmetry upsets rather than confirms balance: it is chaos born of symmetry. That he is a plank in a maelstrom, along with the very concept of 'this guy' who is there for no real reason, who joins in and is accepted by these other three wildmen while the narrative offers no explanation, are wonderful in their pure absurdity. 'To string things together in a seemingly purposeless way,' said Mark Twain, 'and to be seemingly unaware that they are absurd, is the mark of American humor.' The 'sense' injected into the nonsense only compounds the nonsense" (21-22).
An online forum also exists titled Society for the Prevention of Abuse Against Zeppo (SPAZ). It's official mission statement reads, "We are a grass-roots group of Marx Brothers fans, from casual viewers to bona fide scholars, who feel that that multi-talented unsung hero Herbert Marx should be promoted as vigorously as were his brothers."
According to the website, to join SPAZ, one must:
- 1. Possess a conversationally fluent biographical knowledge of Herbert Marx;
- 2. Believe sincerely that he was a valuable member of the team;
- 3. Be able to support the cause with facts, writings or citations;
- 4. Be willing to speak out or write whenever evidence of unnecessary criticism or overlooking is discovered that goes above and beyond legitimate, objective film criticism (such as, "Zeppo was not a key player in The Cocoanuts.")
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