the compulsive gambling of chico marx -- 7/27/18
Today's selection -- from Hollywood Stories by Stephen Schochet. Leonard "Chico" Marx was an extraordinarily talented member of the legendary Marx Brothers comedy team. He was also a compulsive gambler:
"Chico Marx's lifelong gambling addiction kept getting him in and out of trouble. After the Marx Brother's 1933 comedy Duck Soup crashed and burned at the box office, Chico, along with younger brothers Harpo and Groucho, were fired by Paramount Studios and spent two years lost in the Hollywood wilderness. Chico scored a bridge game with MGM bigwig Irving Thalberg and charmed the producer into giving the famous comedy team a new contract. The savvy Thalberg cast the Marxes in the 1935 classic A Night at the Opera; it became the biggest hit of their careers. Two years later, the piano-playing comic once again got into financial hot water on the set of the newest Marx offering, A Day at the Races. Right before shooting the movie's climactic steeplechase scene, Chico made a large bet on a horse that lost in the script. When asked for an explanation, the once-again broke fifty-year-old shrugged, 'The crew gave me twenty-to-one odds.'
"Chico was a compulsive gambler from the age of nine. His father, who was a tailor, learned never to trust his son with a delivery. Leo hocked the clothes and blew the money in pool halls. No amount of beatings or admonishments from his old man could deter the boy from his risky hobbies. As he reached adulthood, Chico became a skilled card player but often took needless chances, which caused him to lose. Friends recalled him giving them expensive presents, then asking for them back within hours to use as bets. As his fellow movie-star brothers became rich, the old piano man performed in seedy dives to get by. Even after his frustrated siblings put him on an allowance, Chico continued to blow his meager funds till the end of his life. But once, the skirt-chasing comic scored big on an unlikely life-and-death long shot. After losing to mobster Benjamin 'Bugsy' Siegel (1901-1947) in a highstakes poker game, Chico paid him off with a bad check. The hot-tempered thug was gunned down in a probable gangland hit before he tried to cash it. ...
"In 1929, Paramount Studios head Adolph Zukor (1873-1976) reneged on a deal one of his underlings made to pay the Marx Brothers seventy-five thousand dollars. Sure, the comedy team's play The Coconuts was a hit on Broadway, but they were unproven in pictures. The mogul scheduled a meeting with Chico Marx, and ordered his wayward executive to attend so he could learn how a talent negotiation should be done. The oldest Marx Brother praised Zukor to high heaven. It was such an honor for Chico to meet the man who practically invented the motion-picture industry. It would be the thrill of a lifetime for the brothers to make a film at Paramount for a mere one hundred thousand dollars. Smiling, Zukor turned to his assistant and said, 'Well, that sounds reasonable.' ...
"In 1934, the Marx Brothers felt insulted by MGM bigwig Irving Thalberg (1899-1936). How dare he say that their movies needed fewer laughs and more romance? And why did this young man keep them waiting when they scheduled meetings? The Marxes were from vaudeville where promptness was demanded. The comics plotted their revenge. One day they barricaded Irving's office door with filing cabinets, and then escaped through the window. Another time, the once again tardy producer entered his workplace to find the comics completely naked and roasting potatoes in his fireplace. The good-humored Thalberg told the brothers to wait; he then called the MGM commissary and asked them to send up some butter."