This Halloween, whether you’re attending a costume party or staying home waiting for the neighborhood cheaters, you’re almost guaranteed to see a Groucho Marx mask. It might not be the most creative costume you’ll see, but it’s probably the most ubiquitous – and one of the most Jewish too. The one-piece nose and goggles, known as “Groucho goggles”, have been around since the 1930s and it would be fair to call them the most iconic mask of modern times.
Like the Marx Brothers themselves, they are timeless, unassuming and as instantly understood as a whoopie cushion. Forty-five years after Groucho’s death, the mask has transcended its namesake and cigar-biting Jewish creator. In 2020, it cemented its place in modern everyday life when it became an emoji, a status not even Frankenstein achieved.
A longtime gag gift and party favor for kids, the Groucho mask doesn’t have the subversive connotations of a Guy Fawkes mask, the glamor of a Venetian carnival mask, or the history of tragedy and comedy masks. of Greek theatre. On the contrary, the big nose and fake mustache have long been a symbol of slapstick comedy or a lazy disguise.
Yet ever since Groucho first took the stage with his signature slump strides, critics have discovered a deeper meaning in the antics of the Marx Brothers. Since The New Yorker began publishing in 1925, the magazine has repeatedly uncovered an overarching ethos within the comic anarchy of the Brethren. And for decades, scholars have considered Groucho the epitome of Jewish humor, full of irony and self-mockery.
The mask that defines Groucho has always been part of this discourse. However, Groucho no longer sets the mask. The younger generations who have never seen “A Night at the Opera” or “Animal Crackers” still wear the glasses, nose and mustache and see “Ask a Friend”. [?]to an embarrassing question on Twitter. The Groucho Mask took on a life of its own, without Groucho behind it.
The Origin Story of the Groucho Mask
The mask, of course, hails from Groucho. Born in 1890, Julius Henry Marx was the middle child of five sons of a German Jewish mother and an Alsatian Jewish father. Growing up on East 93rd Street in Manhattan, bookseller Julius dreamed of becoming a doctor, but his mother, Minnie, inspired by her brother’s success in vaudeville, pushed her sons into show business.
Young Julius was forced out of school at the age of 12 and found his first stage success as a singer in 1905. Within a few years the brothers developed a touring vaudeville act that caused ridicule a high school class. As was popular at the time, each brother played a different ethnic stereotype.
This first act gave Chico his affected Italian accent and Harpo his curly red wig, which began as part of his “Patsy Brannigan” costume. Harpo, however, quickly lost the Irish brogue and played the mute part.
Groucho played a cigar-smoking Teutonic school teacher, Mr. Green, using a German accent, possibly inspired by his own parents. When the United States entered World War I, audiences began to boo the German character. Groucho soon abandoned the foreign accent and adopted what came to be called a singsong Jewish cadence. His stage persona became that of a quick-witted hustler.
Groucho’s evolution mirrored the changing American perception of Jews, from accented foreigners to fast-talking New Yorkers.
In 1921, the Groucho look took on its full form. According to Gary Giddins, who wrote about the mask of Groucho for The New York Times in 2000, Brother Marx was late to the theater after the birth of his son. “Having no time to stick on mustaches, he painted a mustache with greasy paint,” Giddins recounted.
The sloppy make-up caused a laugh, but the theater manager insisted the audience deserved a “real fake mustache”. Groucho, however, stuck to it. For audiences accustomed to vaudeville performers who paint their faces black to put others down, Groucho used black paint to poke fun at himself.
When the brothers made their first film, “The Cocoanuts,” in 1929, director Robert Florey objected to Marx’s amateurish disguise.
“Florey demanded a real mustache, arguing that the public wouldn’t believe a painted mustache,” Giddins wrote.
“The public doesn’t believe us anyway,” Marx replied.
In “The Cocoanuts,” the Marx Brothers orchestrated a comedic assault on social convention and hierarchy, but the crude fake mustache pokes fun at cinema itself. Barely two years into the silent era, Paramount Studios’ big-budget production has been undermined by cheaply styled mustaches and eyebrows. This turned out to be part of the comedian’s success. By not believing Groucho’s mustache, the audience was in on the joke.
In the 1933 film “Duck Soup”, the power and simplicity of Groucho’s outfit becomes evident. In one scene, Harpo and Chico slip on goggles and apply black paint to their faces, instantly becoming Groucho clones. The resemblance is so convincing that Harpo plays Groucho’s reflection in a mirror.
Shortly after, anyone could perform the same trick at home. A New York wholesaler, Magnotrix Novelty Corp., first advertised “Groucho Marx Glasses” in Billboard magazine in 1936. They later shortened the name to “Groucho Glasses”. While anyone could transform into a Groucho with the set of glasses with nose and mustache, the movie star could do the opposite. By removing the greasy paint, a clean-shaven Julius Marx could walk the streets unrecognized at the height of his fame.
“We have never denied our Jewishness”
As the popularity of the Marx Brothers waned in the 1940s, Julius grew a real mustache. The bushy-browed middle-aged comedian became a caricature of himself, blurring the lines between his off-screen and on-screen personas as his face took on the Muppet-like Groucho appearance.
Marx found fame again as the host of the game show “You Bet Your Life.” First on the radio for three years and then on television in 1950 for 11 years, cigar in hand, he became a staple of post-war pop culture. This opened the door to merchandising opportunities. A 1954 board game based on the television program came with glasses, a mustache, and a cigar. Likewise, came the Marx-endorsed “Groucho Goggles.”
Groucho’s cartoonish features became a commodity. Fans could buy any number of knockoffs with names like “Schnozzola” and “Beagle Puss,” but the official “Groucho Goggles” came with googly eyes and a fake cigar. Whether branded with his name or not, the masks have made Groucho the face of comedy. That he was Jewish escaped no one.
Ruth R. Wisse, a professor of Yiddish literature at Harvard, chose a Groucho mask as the image for the cover of her 2013 book, “No Joke: Making Jewish Humor,” even though the star’s lines and double meanings contained rarely from the Jew. references.
“We, the Marx Brothers, have never denied our Jewishness,” Marx said. “We just didn’t use it. We could have fallen back safely on the Yiddish theatre, made secure careers for ourselves. But our act was designed from the start to have broad appeal.
Groucho mask lives without Groucho
Cultural critic Lee Siegel has suggested that the Marx Brothers’ decision not to trust their Jewishness was “in part the result of rampant anti-Semitism at the time, easily accommodated by the Jewish moguls who ruled Hollywood.” In his 2015 book, “Groucho Marx: The Comedy of Existence,” Siegel dissected the Marx Brothers films and argued that Groucho, as an eternal outsider and iconoclast, defined Jewish humor, citing his influence about Jewish comedians like Lenny Bruce, Woody Allen. and Sacha Baron Cohen.
Certainly, Groucho’s conversational style, timing, and jokes are found in many modern comedians, Jewish and non-Jewish alike. However, the mask is Groucho’s most obvious legacy, even if it broke away from Groucho.
The emoji is referred to as the “disguised face” without any reference to its creator. Glasses are almost never advertised with the Groucho name. Perhaps a reflection of copyright law, it also shows that the success of fun disguise is no longer tied to a star that peaked in the first half of the 20th century.
You don’t have to be a 1930s movie buff to appreciate the tortoiseshell-rimmed glasses and thick mustache. Try them on any 10-year-old and you’ll see the bit works without context, let alone the subtext the academics worked on. The comedic effect of the mask is so universal and instinctive that a 1999 Psychology Today article on humor and therapy was titled “The Effect of Groucho Marx Glasses on Depression.”
If Groucho’s mask transcended Groucho, does that mean it also transcends his Jewishness? In truth, Groucho Glasses can never escape Groucho. The mustache and eyebrows may have been fake and the eyeglass frames may have been store bought, but the nose was still his.
Recently, a copy of Julius Marx’s 1922 passport application has surfaced on Twitter. Always mocking authority, the comedian facetiously completed his description. For the mouth, he replied, “pretty good”. He called the chin “normal”. As for the nose that lives in plastic form on masks around the world, he described it as “Jewish.”