The Marx Brothers arrived with their bubbling blend of anarchic comedy just when America was struggling through its grimmest hour. As the Great Depression infused the world with sorrow, the Marx Brothers were zipping off one-liners in Hollywood, honking horns, twitching eyebrows, leering at pretty women (and some ugly women, too), wrestling, traveling, stealing, barking, and doing just about any other activity that ran opposite to the nation’s despair. They were wildly popular, of course; who wouldn’t rather watch the uninhibited antics of Groucho, Harpo, Chico, Zeppo, and sometimes Gummo than stand in a breadline? But their act was also oddly insular; they literally seemed to be in their own world, inviting audiences in for just a quick look. By sheer force of will and talent, they became comic icons. It is unlikely that another comedy troupe will ever have a similar impact on the cultural landscape.
The Marx Brothers really were brothers. Their mother pushed them into a vaudeville act from an early age, but soon the Marx boys were running on their own steam. The eldest, Leonard “Chico” Marx, was born in 1887. Hedeveloped his signature Italian accent to disguise his identity when hustling at craps and pool, and got his nickname from a mispronunciation of his original nickname, “Cheeko,” which he earned for chasing young “chicks.” Adolph “Harpo” Marx, born in 1888, was a talented self-taught harpist who got his nickname from the musical numbers he performed in the Marx movies. He changed his legal name from “Adolph” to “Arthur” in 1938, most likely in a response to Adolph Hitler’s rise to power in Nazi Germany. Julius Henry “Groucho” Marx was born in 1890. He became unquestionably the best known of the Marx brothers, with his bushy eyebrows, painted on mustache, big cigar, and laser wit. He deeply influenced a generation of comics, notably including Woody Allen. Herbert “Zeppo” Marx was born in 1901. He picked up the thankless task of “straight man” to his wacky brothers after another brother, Milton “Gummo” Marx, quit the act to become a businessman.
The Marx Brothers started out as a musical vaudeville act in the days before film. All of the brothers were musically talented; besides Harpo, Chico excelled on piano and Groucho was a fine vocalist. After Chico took over the management of the act from their mother, he pushed the brothers away from the stage and towards films. Their first film, “The Coconuts” (1929) was a huge hit. They followed up with movies that are still considered comedy classics, including “Animal Crackers” (1930), “Monkey Business” (1931), “Horse Feathers” (1932), “Duck Soup” (1933), “A Night at the Opera” (1935), and “Room Service” (1938). By the 1940’s, the brothers were getting older and their material was getting weaker. They worked less as a team and pretty much retired from each other’s company by the end of the decade.
After the act broke up, the Marx Brothers attempted solo projects. It was a mixed bag; only Groucho broke out on his own by hosting the popular 1950’s TV quiz show “You Bet Your Life.” In retirement, Chico continued to chase women and bet on horses, although he did leave a lasting mark on the business side of show business by negotiating the first percentage of a gross deal for the brothers. Harpo spent his final years as a devoted family man and golf player, while Zeppo went on to become an accomplished inventor, earning several patents on scientific and medical products. Their legacy will always be that of an incredibly original comic team, blazing the way for the performers that came after them.
He may be best known to younger generations as Clayton Farlow on Dallas, but Howard Keel had a vast and impressive film career before settling down on Southfork. In more than thirty film roles throughout the 50s and 60s, Howard starred opposite some of Hollywood’s most notable legends.
Born Harry Clifford Leek in Gillespie, Illinois, Howard was working as a representative for Douglas Aircraft Corporation in Southern California when he was selected for a role in the Los Angeles Theatre Guild. He worked on Broadway in Carousel and Oklahoma before landing the role of Boke in the 1948 British thriller The Small Voice. He was 29. A role in 1950’s Pagan Love Song followed, but it was his role in the Oscar-winning Annie Get Your Gun that gained Howard real notice.
Obviously deciding film adaptations of popular musicals were a good idea, Howard chose as his next film 1951’s Show Boat. Playing Ava Gardner’s leading man, Howard helped the film become the second highest-grossing film of that year.
Thanks to a string of not-so-memorable films, Howard’s career treaded water for the next couple of years. In 1953 he redeemed himself, however, by starring in the Doris Day rendition of Calamity Jane. Equally successful was that year’s Kiss Me Kate, starring Howard and Kathryn Grayson. And in 1954, he co-starred with Jane Powell in the Academy Award-nominated Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.
After 1959’s The Big Fisherman, the quality of film roles Howard was accepting began to decline. He chose more commercial films, mostly westerns and science fiction films, and as a result, his audience began to narrow. In 1968 he seemed to disappear altogether, possibly never to be resurrected, if it weren’t for a certain TV show that was looking for an opposing father figure.
By the time Howard joined Dallas as Clayton Farlow, it was already in its fourth season. Viewers were watching in droves and Howard’s role — to stand up to the vicious Ewings — would require an authority and confidence only a veteran actor could deliver. After a brief flirtation with Sue Ellen, Clayton became involved with the matriarch of the Ewing family, Miss Ellie. By the end of the series, the characters would marry.
After Dallas’ end in 1991, Howard appeared in the TV movie Hart to Hart: Home is Where the Heart Is and hosted both That’s Entertainment! III and The Making of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.
Keel died in 2004.
Robert Wagner proved to be more than just a pretty face. An enduring and versatile entertainer, he had many successful Hollywood incarnations: from awkward juvenile lead to bobby-sox idol to assured leading man to television star and finally back to captivating character actor. The Brylcreem Kid, as he was known in the early days, turned out to be a major talent.
Born February 10, 1930, in Detroit, Michigan, Robert Wagner was not supposed to become an actor. The son of a wealthy steel executive, Robert was supposed to follow in his father’s footsteps and achieve great things in the world of business. But Robert caught the acting bug instead, and moved to Los Angeles before he was twenty to pursue his dreams.
His good looks and easy going manner got him into films and soon he became a contract player for 20th Century Fox. One of his first notable roles was in a unique John Ford war comedy called “What Price Glory?” (1952) which put him on screen with the likes of James Cagney. The film was originally intended to be a musical, though the final cut only contained two songs. The Ford film got Wagner noticed and he quickly appeared in a slew of smaller roles in films like “With a Song in My Heart” (1952) and “Stars and Stripes Forever” (1952).
Wagner soon progressed to leading man status in films like “Prince Valiant” (1953). But while the roles were getting bigger, they weren’t very challenging, and Wagner still wasn’t taken very seriously as an actor. Woman-kind swooned over Wagner’s all-American looks and every bobby-soxer wished they could take him to their prom. In 1954, however, Wagner got the chance to cut his teeth on a more serious role and display his talent in Edward Dmytryk’s riveting western “Broken Lance.”
Wagner seemed well on his way to establishing himself as a serious actor with another lead role in the western “White Feather” (1955) and the crime drama “A Kiss Before Dying” (1956), when suddenly his personal life completely eclipsed his professional life. In 1956, he met the love of his life, Natalie Wood. In 1957, they married in Scottsdale, Arizona. Hollywood trumpeted their marriage as the most “glittering union of the 20th century.” The public could not hear enough about the two love-birds and were ecstatic when they made their first film together, “All the Fine Young Cannibals” (1960). The moroseness of the film, however, turned out to be prescient: While the two appeared to be the perfect couple, living the perfect life, they were actually living on the edge and running out of money.
The two were deeply in love, but professional and financial stress began to take its toll on their marriage. Wagner was being overshadowed by new male leads like Marlon Brando and Paul Newman, while Wood was placed on a fourteen month suspension by Warner Bros. for refusing to shoot a film in England. They couldn’t afford to upkeep their $150,000 mansion on Beverly Drive in Beverly Hills, they couldn’t live up to the shimmering facade the tabloids had created, they couldn’t get the work they wanted in Hollywood. They wound up divorcing in 1962.
Wagner was a wreck after the divorce and went to Europe to film “The Longest Day” (1962), in part to assuage his grief. On the rebound, he married his old friend Marion Marshall in 1963. Still unable to regain his leading man status, Wagner tried his hand at comedy in “The Pink Panther” (1963) and at mystery in “Harper” (1966) — in which he played a supporting role to the man who had contributed to edging him out of the spotlight: Paul Newman. Reluctantly, Wagner went into television to star in “It Takes a Thief” (1968). The new medium resurrected his career, and he went on to star in many TV movies and several TV series, including the one he is most known for, “Hart to Hart” (1979).
While Wagner’s professional life was once again thriving by the late sixties, his personal life was not. He was still desperately in love with Natalie Wood, though he was still married to his second wife and Wood was newly married to British producer Richard Gregson. Each had a daughter. Wagner was divorced again in 1970, and one fated day, in 1971, Natalie and Robert ran into one another in a restaurant. The years of hardship and strife disappeared; the old magic was back. Wood divorced Gregson and the two love birds re-married in 1972 on their yacht, The Splendour.
Their second marriage really was picture perfect. The two were overjoyed to be reunited, and raised their children together happily. They made three television movies together during this time: “The Affair” (1973), “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” (1976), and “Hart to Hart” (1979). Then, in 1981, tragedy struck and Wagner’s life was shattered again. Under mysterious circumstances, Wood slipped from the deck of The Splendour and drowned. Wagner was inconsolable and spent the next ten years trying to lose himself in his work, and raising Natalie’s and his daughters alone.
Wagner eventually remarried to Jill St. John, though to this day he finds it difficult to talk about his wife Natalie Wood’s death.
Shirley Jones burst onto the screen in Oklahoma, with a voice and a fresh-faced beauty that inspired a generation of men to daydream about taking her out in a surrey with a fringe on top.
Her role in “Carousel” and her Oscar®-winning turn in “Elmer Gantry” cemented Jones’s status as a star. On June 5, 1962, a parade featuring Shirley Jones and Robert Preston in “The Music Man” composer Meredith Wilson’s hometown of Mason City, Iowa, attracted a crowd of 125,000 people!
After having made so many classic films, it’s ironic that Shirley Jones is so well-known as a mother in a TV sitcom. Real movie fans know better.
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