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Is the Monkey Business Over at Last?

Robert W. Welkos is a Times staff writer

All that’s missing from this family feud are Groucho’s raised eyebrows, painted mustache and big cigar, Chico’s trademark cap and fractured English, and Harpo’s piercing horn, mute grin and childlike innocence. But now, the endearing legacy left behind by the Marx Brothers has embroiled their descendants in a legal dispute that they find anything but funny.

For years, people wondered why no one had ever made a feature film about the legendary madcap comedians, who gave the world such classic comedies as “Animal Crackers,” “Monkey Business,” “Horse Feathers” and “Duck Soup.” And, the answer always seemed to come back: Oh, it’s the family.

Then a young producer named David Michaels made news late last year when he achieved what few in Hollywood thought possible. He had pulled together the various descendants of Groucho, Chico and Harpo Marx and hammered out a deal with Universal Pictures and Danny DeVito’s Jersey Films to make a movie about the early lives of the Marx Brothers.

Carefully, he approached the estates of each comedian and the prickly personalities that jealously guard the images of Harpo, Chico and Groucho and, gradually, won them over.

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Still, the 36-year-old filmmaker recalled, it wasn’t easy.

“The fight among these estates all these years stemmed from a feeling that deals have been seemingly lopsided,” Michaels said. “I don’t know that for a fact, but it has been aired.

“I felt I was able to bring some warmth, camaraderie and some sense into all of their former entanglements or misunderstandings or judgments, because I came to discover there was a serious lack of communication,” he said. “But they are all great people. . . . It’s just that they don’t agree with how some of the business has been dealt with.”

Appearances can be deceiving, however. Even now, as the estates link arms with Universal and Jersey to produce the Marx Brothers movie, tempers are flaring over a business deal unrelated to the film project.

The Harpo and Chico estates have sued the Groucho estate in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles, claiming they were cheated in an “unauthorized” deal for the production of an animated Marx Brothers TV show. An attorney for the Groucho estate has denied any wrongdoing.

Ironically, the man at the center of the legal squabble isn’t even a Marx. His name is Robert A. Finkelstein, the longtime president of Groucho Marx Productions Inc., which overseas Groucho’s estate.

Meanwhile, Groucho’s 78-year-old son, Arthur, a well-known author who has written plays and books about his famous dad, has written his own screenplay about the Marx Brothers, which has piqued the interest of other producers in Hollywood, perhaps as a movie for television.

Bill Marx, 63, one of Harpo’s four adopted children and trustee of Harpo’s estate, said that while Arthur is certainly free to write his own screenplay, he will need permission from the Harpo and Chico estates if he wants to portray the Marx Brothers as they appeared on stage and in films.

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If he doesn’t do that, Bill vowed, “Not only will we sue him, I’m sure Universal will sue him.”

But Arthur sees it differently.

“I wrote ‘Minnie’s Boys’ on Broadway, ‘Groucho: A Life in Revue’ and also wrote two books about [Groucho],” Arthur said. “We don’t really need any of their cooperation. Look what they did with [Frank Sinatra and] ‘The Rat Pack.’ ”

Taking sides with Bill in all these matters are Maxine Marx of New York City, the 82-year-old daughter of Chico, and Arthur’s 72-year-old sister, Miriam Marx Allen of San Clemente, eldest daughter of Groucho. (Melinda, Arthur and Miriam’s half-sister who resides in Mendocino, has remained neutral.)

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“I feel sad that there is dissension in the family,” Maxine said, noting that growing up, she and Arthur, whom she still calls “Artie,” were very close. But as the years passed, she said, they have had a falling out.

“He doesn’t talk to me now,” Maxine said of her cousin, who lives in Bel-Air. “If I think about it, I get teary-eyed.”

Maxine pointed to Arthur’s remarriage as the source of their split.

“I loved his first wife and I refused to say anything nasty about her,” Maxine said. “So, go figure it out, kid. I give up. I wish Artie would get over it. Artie was my closest relative for many years, and it hurt me when he decided to hate me.”

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Arthur conceded that his relationship with Maxine had become strained. “I don’t like her,” he snapped. Asked to explain why, he replied: “She was mean to me when I was getting a divorce and getting remarried.” He is also irritated that his own sister, Miriam, is siding with Bill.

As for why his relatives are now upset with him, Arthur replied: “They are all very jealous of me. I don’t know why. I didn’t do anything to them. I just wrote a script.”

*

At this point, a little Marxian history is in order.

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In a phone call from her apartment in New York, Maxine described herself as the family historian. A onetime casting director with two sons and four grandchildren, she said that one of her earliest memories is of Uncle Harpo, whose real name was Arthur, carrying her piggyback across a vaudeville stage.

“He brought me out because I was cute and I was 2 and the audience would applaud,” she recalled. “My mother [Betty] tried to keep me away from the theater as much as she could. My mother was very puritanical, and she didn’t want her little angel involved in the theater.”

Maxine said her own father, Chico (Leonard), was an “adorable man with a lot of faults and a lot of weaknesses"--chief among them an addiction to gambling.

“When somebody asked Chico how much money he lost betting, he would say, '$2,640,239.27' or some figure he’d make up,” Maxine said. “He would always include the cents.” When they pressed him on how he remembered the exact amount down to penny, Chico shot back: “Because that’s what Harpo has in the bank!”

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Of her uncle Groucho (Julius), Maxine said: “When I was young, I loved him. It was only when I got older that he scared me.” She noted that Groucho’s children were accustomed to his biting humor, but she wasn’t. Chico’s humor, she explained, was much more gentle.

Maxine said the families were close in those early days. “They had sing-alongs at the house,” she remembered. “This is when I was a teenager. Everybody would sing and [Groucho] would look up at me and just mouth the words because I couldn’t carry a tune.”

But Groucho’s denigrating humor could hurt his children’s feelings. “Daddy used to say [Groucho] would insult a king to make a beggar laugh,” Maxine recalled.

“Want to know why [Groucho] was sour, honey?” Maxine asked. “It had nothing to do with the [1929 stock market] crash. My grandma, Minnie, didn’t like him very much. . . . Groucho was dark-haired and she loved blonds. I think poor Grouch was also trying to get her to approve of him, and she never did--and he was the stable one.”

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Miriam also carries vivid memories of growing up with the Marx Brothers.

Groucho, she said, was a “wonderful father.”

“Unfortunately, my mother [Ruth] was an alcoholic,” she said. "[Groucho] had no understanding of alcoholism. If she was late for dinner and drunk, he would bait her. He didn’t know how to handle it.” Miriam stressed that her parents would argue but never resort to physical violence and that Groucho was never cruel toward his wife.

Miriam recalled how her father would show up for school plays and once made a memorable visit to a PTA meeting that brought down the house.

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“I asked him, ‘Please, don’t go again,’ because he broke up the entire meeting,” she said.

She described Harpo as an “angelic character.”

Miriam said she was never close to Chico. “I don’t think Chico was made to be much of an uncle. He was an addictive gambler. Maxine and I once had a big fight on ‘Geraldo’ before she would admit that.”

Chico would come to his brothers, she said, imploring them for money. “They are going to kill me! They are going to kill me!” he told them. “Then they made some lousy movie to save his life,” she said.

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As for stories that the Marx Brothers were notorious skirt chasers, both Maxine and Miriam have no doubt the stories are true.

Maxine said her mother adored Chico, but she would hear his footsteps coming home early in the morning. “He caused her a lot of heartache because he chased women,” Maxine said. “But I’m sick of them talking about my father chasing women, because they all did! That was all vaudeville!

“My mother told me that when she first married my father, each brother made a pass at her,” Maxine added. “She came in tears to my father.” Chico went to his brothers and said, ‘This is my wife. This is different. So keep your hands off.’

“Those were the stories I heard,” Maxine said.

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“Harpo was a bachelor at the time, so he was a terrific woman chaser,” she added. “But look at the period they grew up in and remember, they went on stage at 9, 10, 11. Daddy had run away from home and was, God knows, doing what. He had a varied career before he joined up with his brothers.”

“They were all womanizers,” Miriam said. “Chico probably a little more than the others. I know damn well [Chico] fooled around during his marriage. I don’t think Harpo did. He married later in life and was devoted to his wife.

“My father shouldn’t have been a married man in the first place,” Miriam added. “He wasn’t cut out for marriage. The women he always married were, if you pardon the expression, stupid--including my mother. He picked those women, I think, so he could rule them.”

There were two other brothers--Gummo (Milton), who was a key part of the act on stage but never appeared in their movies, and Zeppo (Herbert), the straight man to his zanier brothers, who dropped out in 1933 and became a big-time talent agent.

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People loved Gummo, Maxine said, but “nobody liked Zeppo.”

“His humor was exactly like Groucho’s,” she said of Zeppo. “There was no room for two Grouchos. He was a very witty man and it drove him crazy what he had to do.

Maxine said the funniest night she ever spent was when the family gathered over dinner back in the 1930s.

“It was Grouch and Harp and Daddy--not Zep,” she said. “And, they started reminiscing. There was one hysterical story after another. I was crying, I was laughing so much. I wish I had a tape recorder. It’s gone forever. But their lives sounded like one of their own shows.”

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*

For about 15 years, Roger Richman served as licensing agent to the Groucho, Chico and Harpo estates. Richman, whose agency has handled Hollywood legends such as W.C. Fields, Mae West and Steve McQueen, believes a successful movie about the Marx Brothers could create a lucrative franchise that could only benefit the family members. But, he said, it has to be the right kind of movie.

“If it is a happy, upbeat movie that is zany and shows their character and not some melodramatic, depressing biography that shows drinking and philandering, it could be tremendous,” Richman said.

So, it makes sense, he believes, for the Marx estates to rally behind a Marx Brothers movie.

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Universal seemed like an obvious choice because it owns the rights to classic Marx Brothers comedies like “The Cocoanuts,” “Animal Crackers,” “Monkey Business,” “Horse Feathers” and “Duck Soup.”

Jersey Films, which produced “Man on the Moon” starring Jim Carrey as the late comedian Andy Kaufman, is solidly on board the Marx Brothers project and has tapped screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, who wrote the Carrey film, to write the script.

But even before the movie deal was signed on the dotted line with Universal, trouble was brewing in Marx Land.

Edward Ezor, the attorney for the Harpo and Chico estates, said he was contacted by an “industry leak” who told him that a Paris-based production company called Global Communications Systems had paid $130,000 to Groucho Marx Productions for the production of an animated TV show about the Marx Brothers. That was news to him, Ezor said, because the Harpo and Chico estates hadn’t seen their share of the money.

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When he contacted Finkelstein, Ezor recalled, he essentially got “stonewalled.”

The news so angered relatives of Harpo and Chico that the estates subsequently filed a lawsuit alleging that they were owed equal one-third shares of the money, totaling $86,666.

“Mr. Finkelstein sold Marx Brothers TV rights belonging to the estates of Harpo and Chico for 25 years,” said attorney Thomas A. Brackey II. “He also sold their merchandising rights for 25 years. He did this without even informing the estates, let alone obtaining their consent.”

Harpo’s widow, 92-year-old Susan Marx, was angry with Finkelstein and declared in a statement to the press: “I am the one who wanted to instigate this lawsuit, and I am as furious as Harpo and Chico would be at Robert Finkelstein’s behavior. Shame on him.”

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Finkelstein declined to be interviewed for this story, but in early February, he denied any wrongdoing in an interview with the entertainment industry trade publication the Hollywood Reporter.

“It’s an absurdity and will be dismissed from court,” he told the publication. “This whole thing is an internecine battle between the estates of Harpo and Chico and Groucho Marx Productions. The allegations they are making is that they are entitled to a percentage of money from an agreement that they would not agree to enter into. It’s absurd. The money is sitting in an escrow account.”

A federal judge recently denied a defense motion to dismiss the complaint, meaning the case is proceeding to trial. Meanwhile, the Chico and Harpo estates are pressing for a preliminary injunction to block the TV program.

“In this case, we are trying to prove that you have a property right and nobody can sell that property right without your permission,” Bill Marx said. “If we win this case, in the future it will help a lot of people who have similar property rights.”

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But Finkelstein’s attorney, Jonathan Panzer, argues that under a California statute called the (Fred) Astaire Celebrity Image Protection Act, anyone can use the name or likeness of a deceased personality in connection with an entertainment program.

“You couldn’t take a clip of Marilyn Monroe and use it in a commercial without some kind of permission,” Panzer said, “but you can use her name and likeness in a TV program or something that is strictly entertainment. If you are making an animated television show for entertainment value and want to use the likeness of Harpo and Chico Marx, you don’t need anybody’s permission to do that.”

But Brackey counters: “What we are saying is they are not just going out and making a TV show; they solicited money to sell the rights to the name and likeness of Harpo and Chico, which are retained by those estates. Finkelstein sold rights that didn’t belong to him. The defendants have been trafficking in our rights.”

Although he is not a party to the suit, Arthur Marx defends Finkelstein.

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“If it wasn’t for him, there would be nothing--no movie deal, no animation deal,” Arthur said. “These guys are sitting back doing nothing. Finkelstein is the only one who has done something.”

Meanwhile, Bill Marx discovered a letter that was sent to him years ago by Groucho in which the comedian seemed to have given Harpo’s son exclusive rights to promote the use of Groucho’s image.

But Arthur doesn’t put much weight in the letter.

"[Groucho] was mad at me at one time,” Arthur said. “That is why he did it [wrote the letter to Bill]. Then we made up and he changed his mind. There is no merit in it.”

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Frank Ferrante, an L.A.-based actor who has played Groucho on stage for the last 15 years and who is a recent addition to the board of Groucho Marx Productions, believes that the reasons for the family tensions all these years stem from the fact that each child cherishes his or her own dad’s legacy.

“Basically, it’s all about people who love their parents,” Ferrante said. “There is a Marxian feel to this whole thing,” he said. “I am sure it will all work out.”


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