Wednesday, June 19, 2013


Father's Day passed a few days ago. My father passed a few years ago. Time marches on. Sometimes it slouches. So we salute Groucho Marx, who spent much of his entertainment career in a permanent crouch, sneaking forward armed with only a cigar and wisecracks. Sometimes, he favored us with a song. It had to be fairly ridiculous and anti-social and the track below is a bit of both."Father's Day" acknowledges the genial apathy that dear old Dads get after the kids spent so much on Mother's Day.

Julius Marx and his four siblings didn't have that much respect for their father. Julie's brothers were Arthur (Harpo), Leonard (Chico), Herbert (Zeppo), Milton (Gummo). A fifth brother would've had little respect for the father too, but that one, Manfred, died young. "Frenchie" as they called Dad, was a fairly inept breadwinner. His one movie appearance as an extra in a Marx movie was a failure too: he could be seen both on board a ship and waving to it from the pier. It was mama Minnie who pushed the boys into show biz and whose brother Al Shean was a famous vaudevillian. It would seem the Marx Brothers' talents were mainly inherited from her side of the family. She even took to the stage with them in embryonic versions of their comedy-and-music act. And it was under the title "Minnie's Boys" that a Broadway musical told the story of the brothers' rise to fame.

Groucho was not much of a father, as every bio of him admits. He went through long periods estranged from his writer son Arthur and his alcoholic daughter Miriam. As for his much younger daughter Melinda (the one he kept pushing into duets on "You Bet Your Life" and who briefly recorded a few teen 45 rpm singles), she retreated from show business and pointedly refused any interviews about her famous Dad. She too would often be out of contact with Groucho for years.

"They didn't call him Groucho for nothing," is how Chico's daughter Maxene put it. I met her once, corresponded with Arthur briefly…that's as close to the Marx family as I've ever gotten, which is probably just as well. Some people are best admired from a distance, and Groucho in that way, is among the most admirable. While bios of him from Arthur Marx and Maxene are bittersweet in offering frustrating anecdotes about his cantankerous and often gloomy nature, these don't have the power to detract from even the lousiest gag he quipped in the least interesting Marx movie.

Not even a crappy middle-aged choir can detract from "Father's Day," which Decca released in 1951. It was one of six songs on "Hooray for Captain Spaulding," a 10 inch album of Bert Kalmer and Harry Ruby tunes that Groucho especially liked. Some of these appeared in or were intended for Marx Brothers movies. (A decade or so later, Zero Mostel recorded an album also compiling the obscure works of Harry Ruby, who wrote both the lyrics and the music after the early death of his partner Bert. Harry even appeared on a "You Bet Your Life" with Groucho). For a long time, Groucho's Decca disc was "Holy Grail" vinyl. When the Internet began to force record store owners to be a little more reasonable, the $100 price shrank to the more eBay-average $50. Then $25. Now, most every collector who remembers Groucho or collects vinyl has it, and only a mint copy fetches more than the price of a dinner at Applebees. Which is often the same amount spent on dad for a Father's Day gift.

Groucho's lively on the vocals, but there's a lot more humor in the old man's version sung nearly 20 years later on "The Dick Cavett Show." It's nice to hear a live audience actually laughing at some of the lyric-writer Harry Ruby's ironies, and the extra treat is Groucho offering what might be an ad-libbed bit of monology in the middle. It's possible, ala "You Bet Your Life," that there was some hint beforehand that Groucho was either armed with some extra comic ammunition, or to be prepared for some kind of detour and detonation if he had a certain look in his eye. The bit of bass harmony at the very end is host Dick Cavett, who wasn't often moved so deeply by a vocalist that he had to join in.

Groucho's FATHER'S DAY recording 1951 You say that it was nice of us to bother….

Now a grandfather…. Father's Day sung on the Cavett show

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