Rich, strange and intermittently fascinating, Shout! Factory’s three-DVD set “The Marx Brothers TV Collection” follows Groucho, Chico and Harpo, or rather their well-known personae, through the decades that postscripted the brothers’ 1949 Hollywood swan song, “Love Happy.”
The earliest of the set’s offerings (which include complete TV shows as well as clips, commercials, guest spots, excerpted skits, home movies and blooper reels) was telecast live in March 1951 — the last and sole surviving episode of “The College Bowl” (a.k.a. “Ravelli’s Sugar Bowl”), a half-hour sitcom in which Chico, looking and sounding as he did in the movies, played the proprietor of a student hangout. The most recent item, taped 19 years later, is excerpted from Groucho’s appearance on “The Dick Cavett Show” together with the cast of “Minnie’s Boys,” the short-lived Broadway musical based on the brothers’ youth. It’s an appropriate closer: Shout!’s collection not only shows the Marxes coping with a new medium but also illuminates their pre-Hollywood, pre-Broadway roots in early-20th-century vaudeville.
Groucho, of course, created a second career with his insult-the-contestant quiz show, “You Bet Your Life,” a program that began on radio in 1947, transitioned to TV three years later and ran through the spring of 1961, enjoying a long afterlife in syndication. As the subject of two previous Shout! collections, the show is not included, although there is a kinescoped episode of “The Jack Benny Program” wherein Benny (who toured with the Marx Brothers in 1920) conceives a dubious get-rich-quick scheme that involves competing on “You Bet Your Life” in disguise.
“The Marx Brothers TV Collection” is not complete. Harpo’s most celebrated guest spot, clowning with Lucille Ball on a 1955 episode of “I Love Lucy,” is represented only by a photograph in the helpful accompanying booklet (although it is on YouTube); Groucho’s less felicitous appearance as the Lord High Executioner in a 1960 telecast of “The Mikado” doesn’t even get that. But the collection is comprehensive: sprinkled throughout with Harpo’s commercials for All-Pure Evaporated Milk, Foster’s Freeze, Pepsi-Cola and Labatt’s beer — and, more than providing an anthology of comedy routines, prompts a meditation on image-making and performance.
Relocated to TV, the brothers are simultaneously familiar and bizarre. A fully developed autonomous character, Harpo never speaks and only once appears without his battered top hat and trademark wig, playing a deaf-mute witness to a murder in “A Silent Panic,” a noirish thriller broadcast by “The DuPont Show With June Allyson.” This 1960 playlet and the following year’s “The Wonderful World of Toys,” a more cheerful if equally creepy “DuPont” presentation in which, egged on by Carol Burnett, Harpo wanders through Central Park encountering various human “dolls,” share an unanticipated relationship to German Expressionism, as well as silent cinema.
“The Incredible Jewel Robbery,” is an elaborate slapstick film directed by the Hollywood veteran Mitchell Leisen that, broadcast on “General Electric Theater” in March 1959, was the lone TV presentation to feature all three Marx brothers as well as their only extant “silent” picture. (“Humor Risk,” the team’s 1921 two-reeler, has long since disappeared.) More impressive, however, are the instances of vaudeville rowdiness facilitated by the spontaneity of primitive TV. Harpo’s turn as a wildly destructive waiter in a February 1952 broadcast of “The RCA Victor Show” or his appearance, in cahoots with Chico, a month later on “The Colgate Comedy Hour” as a rambunctious pair of western bounty hunters, gives more than a taste of their anarchic stage antics.
Groucho’s capacity for off-the-cuff verbal disruption is showcased on the perverse celebrity quiz show “Who Said That?” — a precursor of NPR’s “Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me!,” in which panelists who fail to identify quotations from the week’s news make cash contributions to benefit the National Society for Mental Health. Routinely using the collection pail as an ashtray, much to the displeasure of his fellow contestant June Lockhart, Groucho donates his suspenders to the cause while blandly inquiring, “Can’t you ask me something that Harpo said?”
Guest shots bring out a distinctively invasive Marxian energy. Groucho goes one on one with Jackie Gleason (as Reggie van Gleason) on a 1967 Gleason variety show, treats the overly gracious TV dance instructor Kathryn Murray as a foil (à la Margaret Dumont), and insults an impassive Minnesota Fats on “Celebrity Billiards,” at one point crowing, “I was delighted to see you blow that shot.”
Harpo (in character) similarly clowns his way around Sam Snead in “Celebrity Golf.” An unhappy-looking Chico (not exactly in character) appears stymied on “Championship Bridge With Charles Goren,” before getting the last word: “It was a close match until the first hand.” His best solo turn is a 1954 episode of “I’ve Got a Secret” in which he confounds the panel by passing himself off as Harpo.
Television, unlike vaudeville or the movies, placed the brothers in a continuous parallel universe. This naturally cross-referenced flow of entertainment affords all manner of surreal juxtapositions: For a “General Electric Theater” broadcast, Groucho (in perhaps his sole dramatic performance) plays strict father to Brooke Hayward, a mildly wayward student seeking to marry a stammering classmate, Dennis Hopper (her real-life husband at the time). In the sitcom “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” Harpo uses Fess Parker, Disney’s Davy Crockett, as his straight man and, playing a mischievous guardian angel, conjures up a dishy young Dyan Cannon as Red Skelton’s substitute wife on Skelton’s show.
Most impressive, Ronald Reagan, then the host of “General Electric Theater,” sonorously introduces “The Incredible Jewel Robbery.” It is moments like these when the so-called wasteland of network TV begins to resemble the one conceived by Groucho’s pen pal T. S. Eliot.