Groucho's Threat Against Nixon & 9 More Marx Brothers Stories

by David Holzel

They were the bad boys of Broadway and, as the film record shows, of Hollywood as well. Chico, Harpo, Groucho, Gummo and Zeppo Marx, with their now iconic names and personas left a mark on the culture much greater than the sum of their work. As The Four Marx Brothers (Gummo left the team early on, replaced by baby brother Zeppo), they made five major films between The Cocoanuts in 1929 and Duck Soup in 1933. Sans Zeppo, they appeared together in another eight pictures through 1950.

They grew up poor in New York City, sons of an immigrant family that already had made inroads in show business. Oddly for showbiz Jews of that era, the Marx Brother kept their last names, but changed their first names. Here are 10 lesser known lessons about their lives.

1. There would have been six.

There was a sixth Marx brother, although he actually was the first. Manfred Marx was born in 1885 and died in infancy, probably of tuberculosis, according to The Marx Brothers Encyclopedia, by Glenn Mitchell. The oldest surviving brother, Leo aka Leonard aka Chico, was born in 1887.

harpo-marx.jpg2. Harpo knew a bad name when he was given one.

While all the brothers became known by their more famous show business names, only Harpo changed his given name. His German-Jewish immigrant parents originally named him Adolph, which, long before the rise of that other Adolf, Harpo Americanized to Arthur.

3. Here's your dialect, what's your hurry?

As was common on the vaudeville circuit, the early Marxes portrayed ethnic stereotypes. Chico was the Italian, a persona he never dropped. Harpo was an "Irish boob," reports Simon Louvish in his Marx biography, Monkey Business. Groucho's character was sometimes Dutch, sometimes German.

That changed on May 7, 1915, according to Stefan Kanfer's biography Groucho. That was the day German submarines torpedoed and sank the passenger ship Lusitania. Between the afternoon and evening shows, when news of the attack reached the theater, Groucho's accent metamorphosed from German to Yiddish. Eventually Groucho dropped the accent entirely.

4. A Day at the Farm

Raised in the Upper East Side German ghetto of Yorkville, the Marxes were as urban as they came. That helps to explain why they made such lousy farmers. When conscription was instituted during World War I, materfamilias Minnie Marx learned that farmers were exempt from the draft. She promptly purchased a 27-acre homestead in La Grange, Illinois, and moved the family there.

In a farce equal to their best work, the Marxes started a poultry farm. Each night, rats made off with the day's eggs, Kanfer writes. The Selective Service finally caught up with the Marxes in 1917. One by one the brothers were rejected. Only Gummo, who had been part of the act, was drafted -- but spent the war serving in Illinois. Zeppo, the youngest brother, then joined the team.

5. Filler up?

An unknown Marilyn Monroe made one of her first screen appearances, a walk-on, in the Marxes' final film together, Love Happy (1950). The production was so short of funds that the filmmakers had to resort to the little-used tactic of product placement to pay the bills. Kool cigarettes and Mobil Oil bought advertising space, according to Mitchell. In one gag, Harpo is seen riding a series of Mobil flying horses across a neon billboard.

6. "Take a letter."

Although Groucho was forced by his mother to quit school at age 13 and go to work, he was the most intellectually inclined of the brothers. In 1964, the Library of Congress sought to obtain Groucho's extensive correspondence with show-business pals, friends and family. Groucho even exchanged letters with President Harry S Truman, Mitchell writes, "with whom [he] seems to have enjoyed a surprising rapport."

7. Speaking of presidents

Calvin Coolidge was in the audience one night to see the Marxes' Broadway show Animal Crackers, according to historian David Greenberg, author of Calvin Coolidge. Noticing the president, who enjoyed sleep as liberally as his politics were conservative, Groucho cracked from the stage, "Isn't it past your bedtime, Calvin?"

8. Arthur Marx and the Round Table

Although Groucho possessed literary aspirations, it was the semi-literate Harpo who found a welcome seat at the Algonquin Round Table of Dorothy Parker and Robert Benchley. Invited by drama critic Alexander Woollcott, Harpo, "who sat, listened, played cards, and who was at ease anywhere," writes Louvish, survived "unscathed" what brother Groucho described as "sort of an intellectual slaughterhouse."

9. Getting Thalberg's Attention, 101

The Marxes praised MGM's Irving Thalberg as the greatest studio exec they ever worked with "“ the man who brought A Night at the Opera and A Day at the Races to the screen before his untimely death in 1936 at age 37.

In the beginning, their attempts just to meet with the notoriously unavailable wunderkind resembled a Marx Brothers film. They arrived punctually for appointments, only to find Thalberg's office shut. Once, they tried to signal their presence by blowing cigar smoke under his door and yelling "Fire!" After they finally made it into his office, Thalberg excused himself to consult with Louis B. Mayer. When he returned after an interminable delay, he found the brothers "squatting nude, roasting potatoes in his display fireplace," Kanfer writes. Several weeks later, Thalberg kept the Marxes waiting again. "On this occasion they barricaded his door with heavy filing cabinets," according to Kanfer. "These took an hour to remove. Never again did the Marx Brothers cool their heels in his waiting room."

10. Nixon's the One

Groucho spent his career deflating the rich, the pompous and the clueless "“ and got away with it. But in 1971, a thoughtless comment put him in duck soup with America's most humorless president.

Lunching with reporters from Take One, a San Francisco Bay-area underground newspaper, Groucho was asked, "Do you think there's any hope for Nixon?" Kanfer writes. Groucho, his judgment dimmed perhaps by cocktails and his own advancing age, shot back, "No, I think the only hope for this country is Nixon's assassination."

By the next day the wire services had the quote, and so did the FBI, which promptly investigated him. Kanfer writes, "The octogenarian was officially listed in File No. CO 1297009207 as a potential threat to the life of the chief executive."

Writer David Holzel keeps a 17-inch-tall plaster statue of Groucho in his office at all times. Groucho unwittingly also helped inspire David's ezine, The Jewish Angle. His last mental_floss story was a celebration of Franklin Pierce.

Hate Red M&M's? You Need a Candy Color-Sorting Machine

You don’t have to be a demanding rock star to live a life without brown M&M's or purple Skittles—all you need is some engineering know-how and a little bit of free time.

Mechanical engineering student Willem Pennings created a machine that can take small pieces of candy—like M&M's, Skittles, Reese’s Pieces, etc.—and sort them by color into individual piles. All Pennings needs to do is pour the candy into the top funnel; from there, the machine separates the candy—around two pieces per second—and dispenses all of it into smaller bowls at the bottom designated for each variety.

The color identification is performed with an RGB sensor that takes “optical measurements” of candy pieces of equal dimensions. There are limitations, though, as Pennings revealed in a Reddit Q&A: “I wouldn't be able to use this machine for peanut M&M's, since the sizes vary so much.”

The entire building process lasted from May through December 2016, and included the actual conceptualization, 3D printing (which was outsourced), and construction. The entire project was detailed on Pennings’s website and Reddit's DIY page.

With all of the motors, circuitry, and hardware that went into it, Pennings’s machine is likely too ambitious of a task for the average candy aficionado. So until a machine like this hits the open market, you're probably stuck buying bags of single-colored M&M’s in bulk online or sorting all of the candy out yourself the old fashioned way.

To see Pennings’s machine in action, check out the video below:

[h/t Refinery 29]

Universal Pictures
Pop Culture
The Strange Hidden Link Between Silent Hill and Kindergarten Cop
Universal Pictures
Universal Pictures

by Ryan Lambie

At first glance, Kindergarten Cop and Silent Hill don't seem to have much in common—aside from both being products of the 1990s. At the beginning of the decade came Kindergarten Cop, the hit comedy directed by Ivan Reitman and starring larger-than-life action star Arnold Schwarzenegger. At the decade’s end came Silent Hill, Konami’s best-selling survival horror game that sent shivers down PlayStation owners’ spines.

As pop culture artifacts go, they’re as different as oil and water. Yet eagle-eyed players may have noticed a strange hidden link between the video game and the goofy family comedy.

In Silent Hill, you control Harry Mason, a father hunting for his daughter Cheryl in the eerily deserted town of the title. Needless to say, the things Mason uncovers are strange and very, very gruesome. Early on in the game, Harry stumbles on a school—Midwich Elementary School, to be precise—which might spark a hint of déjà vu as soon as you approach its stone steps. The building’s double doors and distinctive archway appear to have been taken directly from Kindergarten Cop’s Astoria Elementary School.

Could it be a coincidence?

Well, further clues can be found as you venture inside. As well as encountering creepy gray children and other horrors, you’ll notice that its walls are decorated with numerous posters. Some of those posters—including a particularly distinctive one with a dog on it—also decorated the halls of the school in Kindergarten Cop.

Do a bit more hunting, and you’ll eventually find a medicine cabinet clearly modeled on one glimpsed in the movie. Most creepily of all, you’ll even encounter a yellow school bus that looks remarkably similar to the one in the film (though this one has clearly seen better days).

Silent Hill's references to the movie are subtle—certainly subtle enough for them to pass the majority of players by—but far too numerous to be a coincidence. When word of the link between game and film began to emerge in 2012, some even joked that Konami’s Silent Hill was a sequel to Kindergarten Cop. So what’s really going on?

When Silent Hill was in early development back in 1996, director Keiichiro Toyama set out to make a game that was infused with influences from some of his favorite American films and TV shows. “What I am a fan of is occult stuff and UFO stories and so on; that and I had watched a lot of David Lynch films," he told Polygon in 2013. "So it was really a matter of me taking what was on my shelves and taking the more horror-oriented aspects of what I found.”

A scene from 'Silent Hill'
Divine Tokyoska, Flickr

In an interview with IGN much further back, in 2001, a member of Silent Hill’s staff also stated, “We draw our influences from all over—fiction, movies, manga, new and old.”

So while Kindergarten Cop is perhaps the most outlandish movie reference in Silent Hill, it’s by no means the only one. Cafe5to2, another prominent location in the game, is taken straight from Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers.

Elsewhere, you might spot a newspaper headline which references The Silence Of The Lambs (“Bill Skins Fifth”). Look carefully, and you'll also find nods to such films as The Shining, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Psycho, and 12 Monkeys.

Similarly, the town’s streets are all named after respected sci-fi and horror novelists, with Robert Bloch, Dean Koontz, Ray Bradbury, and Richard Matheson among the most obvious. Oh, and Midwich, the name of the school? That’s taken from the classic 1957 novel The Midwich Cuckoos by John Wyndham, twice adapted for the screen as The Village Of The Damned in 1960 and 1995.

Arnold Schwarzenegger in 'Kindergarten Cop'
Universal Pictures

The reference to Kindergarten Cop could, therefore, have been a sly joke on the part of Silent Hill’s creators—because what could be stranger than modeling something in a horror game on a family-friendly comedy? But there could be an even more innocent explanation: that Kindergarten Cop spends so long inside an ordinary American school simply gave Toyama and his team plenty of material to reference when building their game.

Whatever the reasons, the Kindergarten Cop reference ranks highly among the most strange and unexpected film connections in the history of the video game medium. Incidentally, the original movie's exteriors used a real school, John Jacob Astor Elementary in Astoria, Oregon. According to a 1991 article in People Magazine, the school's 400 fourth grade students were paid $35 per day to appear in Kindergarten Cop as extras.

It’s worth pointing out that the school is far less scary a place than the video game location it unwittingly inspired, and to the best of our knowledge, doesn't have an undercover cop named John Kimble serving as a teacher there, either.


More from mental floss studios