The Marx Brothers and Me

Over my life there have been a lot of filmmakers, writers, artists, etc whose work I’ve been passionate about.  From Monty Python to Alan Moore, my bookshelves, DVD racks, CD cases, and these days, hard drive are packed with work that’s been vital to me.  None of them, though, has had the individual impact like the Marx Brothers.

Anyone who has known me from age 13 onward knows this.  I own every Marx Brother movie, have framed pictures on my wall, own autobiographies, and can recite you detailed facts about their lives and work.  I can even list them by their original names in order of birth (Leonard, Adolph, Julius, Milton, and Herbert).  It took me a bit into adulthood to figure out what it is exactly that makes them so singular in my mind.  The simple reason is they changed my life.

Let me take you back a bit.  Folks who knew me before high school knew a slightly different version of me.  I was quiet, studious, and deeply insecure.  I’ve talked to people who had a great time in junior high/middle school but high school was hell.  I’m just the opposite.  In seventh grade, I thought I was an ugly outsider and I lived in fear of people finding out more about me.  After all, I wasn’t into any of the things I was supposed to be, like sports.  I liked comic books, old movies, and girls scared the living hell out of me.  I had to laugh recently when someone I went to high school with mentioned that Ben is just like how I must’ve been at that age: sarcastic and confident.  It would be great if that were true.

I wasn’t alone in this.  I had Ian.  I had other friends, like my cousin Chris, but he did like the things you were supposed to and had no interest in our nerdy tastes.  Ian had an advantage over me in that he’d been exposed to more pop culture.  I was into superheroes, but he had all the really cool comics, like Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns.  I had some bands I liked, but he was already familiar with groups outside the norm.  I loved old comedies, especially Abbot and Costello, but he knew about the Marx Brothers.

One week, Ian told me that a channel, maybe AMC, was going to be playing Animal Crackers and he was going to tape it for us.  I was guaranteed it would be the funniest thing I’d ever seen.  We watched it together that Saturday afternoon.  By the time the movie was done, I was through the roof.  I have a hard time writing exactly what I felt at the time, but the closest I can come to it was that it was an epiphany.  It tapped into a deep part of me that I didn’t even know was there.

I mean, they said things you aren’t supposed to, even now.  They reveled in being outsiders.  Now I knew it was all fantasy.  You just can’t get away with these things in real life, but a seed was planted in my head:  the idea that being the outsider is not only okay, but better than being in the cool crowd.

Another seed was planted as well.  From that time forward, I wanted to create.  I had always loved movies and comics up until then, but something about these guys lit a fire in me to make them myself.  Not even the realities of adult life have dampened that for me since.

Anyway, I spent the next several years tracking down their movies, which wasn’t so easy to do then.  In time, I found other friends who saw the world in a similar spirit.  My teenage years were all the better for it.  We took pride in not being cool, even making fun of the kids that were.  Calling us cool was an insult and being uncool was a point of pride.  We probably obsessed on that point a little too much, but that’s what you do at that age.

I didn’t find out much about the brothers themselves until high school.  My girlfriend, Gayle, bought me my first book about them.  Since then, I’ve added many which occupy an exalted place in my book collection.  This is how I can now tell you their names in birth order and such.  Since they were all gone by the time I was five years old, I never got a chance to thank them.  While in college, though, I found out that Harpo’s widow was still alive and I wrote her a letter about how much her husband had meant to me.  In his case, he also had the family life I’ve always aimed for (including adopted children).  She sent me back a very nice letter thanking me for my note, which she was very moved by.  Included were a couple of pictures she copied out of her photo album for me.  It’s the closest I’ll ever get to them and I’m still very appreciative that I was able to have that much, especially since she passed on shortly afterwards.

I don’t know of anyone else who took Minnie’s Boys as close to heart as I have, though I have met many other die-hard fans.  Like I said, their movies may not have taken place in the real world, but the idea of taking joy in being the outsider couldn’t have come at a better time.  I think I was able to handle the years following much better living by this idea.  The only thing it didn’t help me with was girls, who still scared the hell out of me.

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2 thoughts on “The Marx Brothers and Me

  1. Oh, I like this post.

    I was out googling to see if ‘Jamison, Take a Letter!’ was already a blog title…I guess it is. 😉

    I love the Marx Brothers, too.

    Thanks for sharing your story.

    I’m glad Harpo’s wife sent you a return letter. That was sweet of her.

    — All the best to you!

    1. Thanks for stopping by, Ginger. I checked out your blog as well and it’s nice to see someone else as enamored as I am with early 20th Century culture. I read your re-post of watching A Night in Casablanca. I remember feeling the same way after seeing Love Happy and therefore running out of “new” Marx Brothers movies to see. At least your last one was a better movie. I’m going through the same thing right now as I got Buster Keaton’s Short Films Collection for Christmas. After I finish it, I’ll have seen all of his silent films, so I’ve been going through them very slow.

      Looking back on it, I feel very fortunate I was able to communicate with Susan Marx while she was still here. I’m still really touched she wrote back to me. By the way, feel free to use the blog title, as mine is a misquote.

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