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People need comedy during tough times. But during the great stock market crash of 1929, there was a problem. Large numbers of entertainers lost everything too. Well, this week is the 80th anniversary of the market crash, and NPR's Robert Smith went in search of what happened to humor.
(Soundbite of music)
ROBERT SMITH: In 1929, everything was booming - the stock market, radio, movies. And riding that wave were four brothers named Marx: Groucho, Chico, Harpo and Zeppo were even making their first talking movie about a speculative bubble, "The Florida Land Rush."
(Soundbite of movie, "The Florida Land Rush")
Mr. GROUCHO MARX (Comedian): Do you know that property values have increased 1929 to 1,000 percent?
Unidentified Woman: You told me about this yesterday.
Mr. MARX: I know, but I left out a comma.
SMITH: But the Marx brothers were obsessed with a different kind of investment. After Groucho finished filming each scene, he'd call his broker. Groucho had stuffed all of his money into stocks.
Professor MAURY KLEIN (History, University of Rhode Island): He became just your classic innocent investor. He didn't have a clue what was happening. He didn't know why the prices went up when they did.
SMITH: Maury Klein is a professor of history and the author of "Rainbow's End: The Crash of 1929."
Prof. KLEIN: Every day he'd go in and he'd look on the big board and he'd see that his stock had climbed X number of prices, and he had made several thousand dollars without lifting a finger. And he thought, well, this is easy.
(Soundbite of song, "I'm In the Market for You")
Mr. GEORGE OLSEN (Singer): (Singing) I'll have to see my broker, find out what he can do, 'cause I'm in the market for you.
SMITH: Show business and Wall Street hadn't always mixed. But by 1929, everyone was in the market. The Marx Brothers were getting hot tips from Joe Kennedy. They even left an audience waiting one afternoon because they were trying to buy up shares of Anaconda Copper. You'd think they would have known better, since the entire plot of their movie "Cocoanuts" was about bad investments.
(Soundbite of movie, "The Cocoanuts")
Mr. MARX: You can have any kind of a home you want. You can even get stucco. Oh, how you can get stucco. Now is the time to buy while the new boom is on. Remember that old saying: A new boom sweeps clean. And don't forget the guarantee. If these lots don't double in value in a year, I don't know what you can do about it.
Prof. KLEIN: Groucho was very conservative. But there's this increasing belief that almost becomes a fantasy that all you have to do is put your money in the market and the story will have a happy ending, which, of course, in Hollywood is supposed to happen.
SMITH: But not on Wall Street. Their script called for a tragedy. Over six days at the end of October 1929, the stock market plunged by a third. Groucho Marx later recalled the exact words from his financial adviser. Marx, he said, the jig is up. Groucho lost a quarter of a million dollars. He later joked that he would've lost more, but that was all the money he had. Harpo was also wiped out. Their friend and fellow vaudevillian Eddie Cantor was no longer a millionaire.
Mr. EDDIE CANTOR (Performer): Well, folks, they got me in the market just as they got everybody else. I know thousands and thousands of married men who will have to leave their sweethearts and go back to their wives.
SMITH: Canter was left with $60 in his pocket and a debt of $300,000.
Mr. CANTOR: Personally, I shouldn't worry about my stocks. I know my broker is going to carry me. Yes, sir - he and three other pallbearers.
SMITH: Sure, it was dark, but at least they were still making jokes. You have to remember, stocks had crashed before and then gone right back up. The Great Depression was a year off and there was still a hope that everyone could laugh this whole thing off. Singer Arthur Fields.
(Soundbite of music)
Mr. ARTHUR FIELDS (Singer): (Singing) I'm the chump you heard about, there's more like me without a doubt, when stock reports are given out, oh, what a sucker. My stocks come tumbling down, my stock come tumbling down when I listen to the ticker tick, I figured I could get rich quick, but the bunch of bears were too darn slick. My stock come tumbling down.
SMITH: Groucho Marx still didn't think it was funny. The Marx Brothers were scheduled to do a show in Baltimore right after the crash and Groucho couldn't go on. He was sick, depressed. The crash of '29 gave him insomnia that he never recovered from. Groucho's next movie was "Animal Crackers," and you could tell the whole thing still haunted him.
(Soundbite of movie, "Animal Crackers")
Mr. MARX: (As Captain Jeffrey T. Spaulding) Hideous, stumbling footsteps creaking along the misty corridors of time and in those corridors I see figures, strange figures, weird figures: Steel 186, Anaconda 74, American Can 138.
SMITH: The audience would've recognized those stocks. But by the time the movie was released, Anaconda Copper had dropped even lower. It would go down to $3 a share. That's why in the movie "Horse Feathers," Groucho was using the stock name as a swear word.
(Soundbite of movie, "Horse Feathers")
Mr. MARX: (As Professor Quincy Adams Wagstaff) Jumping Anaconda.
SMITH: They couldn't know it at the time, but the Marx Brothers and Eddie Cantor and the rest of the comedians would have the last laugh. The movie business was one of the few industries not devastated by the Great Depression. And the Marx Brothers' cynical brand of humor was perfect for the mood of the public. They were soon rich again. But they didn't forget. In 1937's "A Day at the Races," Groucho buys into a horse-picking scam that seems awfully familiar.
(Soundbite of movie, "A Day at the Races")
Unidentified Man: Come on, do you want to win?
Mr. MARX: (As Dr. Hugo Z. Hackenbush) Want to win, but I don't want the savings of a lifetime wiped out in the twinkling of an eye.
SMITH: It's the one line in the movie where Groucho seems dead serious.
Robert Smith, NPR News, New York.
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