ANIMATION ANECDOTES
January 7, 2022 posted by Jim Korkis

The Animated Marx Brothers That Never Were

Suspended Animation #353

The Marx Brothers (Groucho, Chico, Harpo and sometimes Zeppo or Gummo) are considered among the most influential and beloved comedy teams of all time.

Mickey’s Polo Team

Groucho Marx used to joke, “There are more books about (Marx Brothers) films than there are films that we made.” While that is certainly true, Groucho was not taking into account the many animated shorts that featured him and his brothers or variations of them.

Amazingly, at the age of 85 years old, Groucho had never seen any animated cartoon with the Marx Brothers caricatures.

On February 13, 1975, Disney Archivist Dave Smith invited the iconic comedian and his companion, Erin Fleming, to come to a screening room at the Burbank Disney Studio to view Mickey’s Polo Team (1936), Mother Goose Goes Hollywood (1938) and The Autograph Hound (1939).

Groucho apparently enjoyed the shorts so much that he borrowed copies of the films to show at his house to visitors. Groucho would pass away August 1977.

In 1961 during a period when college students were re-discovering the comedy team, Screen Gems announced they had plans for a Marx Brothers animated series to be produced by Hanna-Barbera. Like so many other projects, it never developed beyond the announcement.

On February 14, 1966, the trade publication Broadcasting Magazine carried an advertisement from Filmation for a proposed series titled The New Marx Brothers Show. The series was to consist of 156 seven-minute animated shorts

As Lou Scheimer of Filmation recalled in his biography, “Groucho had signed on as the technical advisor. Miles Films was going to distribute us.

Jay Burton, Mort Goode and Mike Maltese were the writers and Hal Sutherland directed the pilot short, A Day at the Horse Opera. I believe that I designed the characters and I did all the layout.”

The title was to reference the Marx Brothers’ film A Night at the Opera and the pilot was done as a Western that was sometimes referred to in early television as a “Horse Opera”.

Schiemer seems to have been at least partially inspired by the commercial success of Cambria Studios’ syndicated cartoon show The New Three Stooges (1965) as well as the animated shows co-produced by Hanna-Barbera The Abbott and Costello Show (1967 although episodes were made as early as 1965) and The Laurel and Hardy Show (1966 although Larry Harmon had been working on the series since 1961).

As Scheimer recalled, “One day I got a call from Groucho. ‘Lou? I’ve got a perfect voice for you to play me.’ And I said, ‘Well, who is it, Groucho?’ He said, ‘You’re talking to him’. It was Pat Harrington Jr., Groucho’s friend. He was the perfect Groucho.”

The voice of Chico was done by long time Filmation voice artist Ted Knight who also did the other male characters except for the role of the Indian Chief that was done by Joe Besser.

Although it was thought to be lost forever, Scheimer screened the short for an audience at the 2012 San Diego Comic-Con.

Groucho’s opening narration states that the story takes place “100 years ago BC – that’s before credit cards” while Harpo swings on a statue of Horace Greeley pointing westward. Greeley’s celebrated advice to “go west, young man” becomes physical when the giant statue kicks Harpo into the air towards the Wild West.

A hostile tribe of Indians has driven the U.S. Cavalry from their fort. This creates chaos in Washington, where a meeting of generals and senators decide to send an ambassador to appease the Indians. But the Indian chief refuses to consider a peace treaty until his daughter Minnie Ho-Ho marries a man that resembles a rock formation called The Great Stoneface that is the spitting image of Groucho.

Groucho is out West with his brothers running a shady medicine show out of a wagon when confronted by an irate customer and they all beat a hasty exit. They wind up at the Indians’ camp where Groucho’s resemblance to the rock formation is instantly recognized and Groucho quips, “I must have posed for that when I was stoned.”

Groucho and his brothers escape to the abandoned fort and must fight off the attacking Indian warriors. Harpo’s hat hides multiple devices on the end of an extending crane from a gun to a bugle to a match. At the end, Groucho forcibly disguises the ambassador as himself and throws him at an overjoyed Minnie Ho-Ho who carries him off.


As Bob Kane, co-creator of Batman, wrote in his autobiography Batman and Me, “In 1975, I was living with a friend, Russ Gerstein in Las Vegas. We were building a television center there and planned to produce graphics, films, and television shows.

“I have always been a great fan of the Marx Brothers and never missed one of their comedies. I particularly liked Groucho and watching reruns of his 1950s game show You Bet Your Life became a nocturnal habit. While watching the show one night I got the idea for doing an animated cartoon series starring the Marx Brothers.

“One day, I had the pleasure of being invited by Groucho to talk over the idea with him. I was very impressed with his sumptuous mansion. While Groucho excused himself to take a catnap, Erin (Fleming, his companion) and I chatted about the proposed animated series. She said that a couple of major animation studios had produced pilots for a Marx Brothers series but failed to catch their unique personalities, mannerisms and likenesses as well as their zany humor and satirical dialogue.

“When I showed (Groucho) the caricatures of him, Chico and Harpo, Groucho studied them silently and then smiled. I received his final approval as he shook my hand. Unfortunately, I never got to make the Marx Brothers series. Erin, who also doubled as Groucho’s business agent, wanted a hundred thousand dollars in advance before the series was produced and this would not have been feasible.”

In his book, Kane reproduced the presentation artwork he supposedly drew and showed to Groucho. Harpo is racing up a ladder honking his horn chasing a scantily clad showgirl who jumps off the top of the ladder into the waiting butterfly net held by Chico. Groucho swings on a swing with Margaret Dumont with a little French poodle underneath running away from a love-sick dog.

From “You Bet Your Life” by Playhouse Pictures

Groucho has a speech balloon: “Miss Dumont – I always wanted to swing with you! And another thing – I think that I’m in love with you and your French poodle…it’s a toss up who I love best…However after thinking it over – I’ll take the poodle! At least she is one female who can’t talk back!!!

In 1979 Filmation made an agreement with the estates of the Marx Brothers to sell a different animated series than their 1966 proposal. As Scheimer remembered, “The expectation was to sell it to prime time and we budgeted it at around $500,000 per episode.

“We were talking with S.J. Perelman who scripted the Marx Brothers films Monkey Business and Horse Feathers when he passed away (October 1979). We only secured the rights to Groucho, Harpo and Chico leaving out Gummo and Zeppo. The rights were granted for prime time only with an expiration date of June 1, 1980 to make a sale with a minimum of thirteen episodes.”

Apparently, over the decades there were other proposals including a Saturday morning cartoon called The Little Marx Brothers as well as concepts from Morey Amsterdam and Bill Melendez. Perhaps we should all be grateful they never got made and, after all, how many young people today are familiar with the Marx Brothers?


For more about The Animated Marx Bros. read Matthew Hahn’s book.

22 Comments

  • I’ve seen the Filmation Marx Brothers pilot before. I actually thought it was pretty good, with some funny jokes that would have gone right over the heads of the kiddies in the audience. But if the series had been picked up, no doubt subsequent episodes would have been done on much lower budgets and looked even cheaper.

    There’s also a stop-motion Marx Brothers short from the early ’60s that isn’t as funny; the pacing is slow, and the animation crude. The idea of showing Chico at the piano, or Harpo at the harp, either didn’t occur to the stop-motion technicians or was simply beyond their powers.

    Pat Harrington Jr. would later do the voice of Moe when the Three Stooges assisted Scooby-Doo and the gang in one of their mysteries in the ’70s.

    I strongly doubt that Groucho had never seen any of the cartoons that depicted him and his brothers — there were so many of them — but I’m not surprised that he didn’t remember them. By that point in his life he had suffered several strokes, and meanwhile his secretary/manager Erin Fleming, a diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic, was keeping him addled with tranquilisers and manipulating him for her personal gain. Groucho’s children eventually took legal action against her, and she was forced to pay back the hundreds of thousands of dollars she had embezzled from him. Her last years were spent in and out of mental institutions until she ultimately committed suicide.

    I suppose few young people today are familiar with the Marx Brothers, whose heyday after all was 80 to 90 years ago, but that’s nothing new. When I was sixteen, one of my friends in music school who came from a show business family was appalled that I had never seen a Marx Brothers movie and could only name two of them. At his insistence we went to a screening of “A Night at the Opera” and “A Day at the Races”, and it was one of the most enjoyable evenings I’ve ever spent at the cinema. (That was the summer when Groucho died.) Some time after that, I was watching a Marx Brothers movie on TV at home, and after staring at the screen for a minute my sister remarked: “You know, the one with the moustache sounds exactly like Alan Alda!”

    On the other hand, I was heartened when I met my niece’s fiancé a few years ago and found out he was a big Marx Brothers fan. There may be some hope for the world after all.

    • “…could only name two of them”: Could only name two of the brothers, that is. At sixteen I couldn’t have named the titles of any of their films.

  • Well, that’s one more animation “Holy Grail” I can cross off my list. Thanks, Korky.

    Honestly, this wasn’t as terrible as I’ve been led to believe all these years–I chuckled a few times, and that’s more than I can say for the A & C and 3 Stooges’ cartoons.

  • Should I feel guilty for enjoying this?

    • Nah. I thought it was okay. I recall, Jerry saying that he found this to be surprisingly good when it was shown at Lou Schiemer’s final public event at Comic-Con 10 years ago.

  • Trying to “animate” super-entities like Stooges, L&H, A&C, and…of all things…the Marxes….is about as preposterous as it can get. (And they are all alike….yukkie POO poo!!) Thank the good God for Animaniacs….now THAT does them justice!!!

    • Actually, I thought “Tiny Toons” were the ones that did the Marx Brothers tribute.

  • “I must’ve posed for that when I was stoned”.. is that the first use of the word in animation history?

    Hopefully a higher resolution version of this turns up so one can actually read the credits.

    • Nope. Two years earlier, one of the King Features-produced “Beetle Bailey” cartoons, Hoss Laffs, has a beatnik sculptor (voiced as a Groucho impression by Allan Melvin, coincidentally enough) who makes a similar quip.

  • There was a half-hour Rankin Bass special, “Mad Mad Mad Comedians”, that animated bits of comedy records and radio shows. The Marx Brothers were in a sketch featuring Groucho as Napoleon. Also present were Flip Wilson, the Smothers Brothers, and Jack Benny and George Burns together in a skit.

    In the ballpark, Bob Clampett attempted an animated pilot of Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy. DePatie-Freleng’s Baggy Pants was, I think, an authorized Chaplin caricature.

  • This is where revival cinemas and rep cinemas come into play as well as programs like the one I have been giving Toronto for over fifty years. By showing The Marx Brothers and everything else we value we introduce their work (which is timeless) to new generations. Seeing these films in public with an audience of strangers as opposed to by ourselves or with a few friends in our home is a horse of a different and extraordinary colour. Say what you will against Erin Fleming she brought Groucho back into the public eye at the end of his life. That much was good. Thanks for this.

  • “Crazy Claws,” featured in HB’s “Kwicky Koala” show, was another Groucho-inspired character, if only in voice.

    • …coincidentally voiced by the late great comedian Jim MacGeorge, best known as the greatest Stan Laurel impersonator to ever play the role after Laurel’s passing in1965, as he first did so in the aforementioned L&H TV cartoon series and in TV ads afterwards.

  • Thanks for the shoutout. I should add that since the book was written, it was revealed that the Screen Gems pilot was not only finished, it still exists. Steve Stanchfield of Thunderbean issued it on Blu-Ray. The first two printings seem to have sold out, and it doesn’t appear to be available now. More from Steve: “This is the pilot for ‘The Marx Brothers’ (1961). It was made in New York for Columbia (Screen Gems TV) using special ‘electronic puppets’. In reality, it’s Stop Motion Animation for the most part. One source said this is the last recording Chico did for a film project- and the project was cancelled because of his death- but the news story I found says they will be similar voices, so they are imitations. I don’t think anyone has seen this publicly, ever… but I may be wrong. This is the 35mm answer print, with color correction.”

  • I must say — almost reluctantly — that this was better than I thought it would be. Paul is right, though; I don’t think the company could have sustained this level of writing much beyond the pilot. It certainly helped that the character designs were mostly on target, and the talent and evident enthusiasm of Harrington and Ted Knight put across a surprising amount of the humor.

  • Here’s the best Marx Brothers cartoon I’ve ever seen! Ten times better than Filmation’s effort,

    “THE THREE MARX BROTHERS” was a hilarious 1962 Screen Gems short made with stop motion animation. Accurate voice work, risque humor, and slapstick gags punctuated this excellent tribute to Groucho, Chico & Harpo. Sounds like it might be Groucho doing his own voice…

    https://youtu.be/5mBh1FhOlJ0

    • That was AWESOME! Thanks for the link. It really captures their essence. Even had me laughing out loud once!

  • The Filmation Marx Brothers pilot isn’t terrible, but it’s a long way from great. A notch above those New 3 Stooges shorts, but those are some of the lamest cartoons ever made…although the live action intros weren’t too bad. Speaking of Stooges, what’s Joe Besser doing in a Marx Brothers pilot?

  • Is the Filmation Groucho any relation to Astro Boy?

  • Looks like that abominable Groovy Ghoulies/Looney Tunes crossover movie wasn’t the first time Porky Pig ever appeared in a Filmation cartoon, even though he’s only seen as a distant silhouette in a gag cameo here.

    And since Pat Harrington Jr. is mentioned as the starring voice, I was just reminded that Harrington used that same inflection for the animated stork he voiced in those Vlasic pickles TV spots from long ago. So that would count as yet another instance of a Groucho caricature brought to animation.

  • I’m 24 years old and I love them. I discovered them on my own, basically, thanks to cartoons always referencing them.

Leave a Reply to Al B. Darned Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published.