This beautiful photograph (which comes to us by way of the great George Bettinger, and can be seen full-size at the Facebook Marx Bros. Archive) shows us three giants of comedy -- and three of my very greatest heroes -- sharing a laugh and a smile in the spring of 1972. Charlie Chaplin had returned to the United States from his exile in Switzerland in order to accept an honorary Academy Award. (Video of that is here.) He was received as the conquering hero of Hollywood, and in this photo he gazes into the eyes of Groucho as Danny Kaye looks on. The photo credit for this one goes to none other than Candice Bergen. (See also this picture of Groucho, Chaplin, and Oona O'Neill, daughter of Eugene and wife of Chaplin.)
It was on this occasion that Chaplin said to Groucho, "Keep warm" -- a tender moment between two crusty legends, and one which Groucho fondly recounted many times thereafter. These two men were the greatest popular artists of the twentieth century. Their stars shine so brightly that even the magnificent Danny Kaye looks like an also-ran.
Here are three favorite clips of these three comic geniuses. In reverse chronological order, we begin with Danny Kaye's "Melody in 4-F." Like most of his best material, this was written by his wife Sylvia Fine (of whom Kaye often said, "Sylvia has a fine head on my shoulders"). "Melody in 4-F" is the most virtuousic of the Kaye/Fine "git-gat-giddle" doubletalk numbers. It was the most noted item from Kaye's career-making 1940-1941 engagement at Manhattan's La Martinique nightclub, which led directly to Broadway (Lady in the Dark and Let's Face It). "Melody in 4-F" was so popular that the number was incorporated into Let's Face It, even though the rest of the score was by Cole Porter. It was also incorporated into Kaye's first feature film, Up in Arms (1944), and it's in this context (or, rather, out of this context) that we enjoy it today. The number begins at around 5:50 in the following clip (uploaded by Huilifoj, whose YouTube channel is something every Danny Kaye fan on the web can be grateful for).
Next we have Groucho Marx, whom I have accepted as my personal savior, in one of his greatest confrontations. In this scene from Animal Crackers (1930), Groucho (as Captain Jeffrey T. Spaulding) confounds the wealthy art patron Roscoe W. Chandler (intended by the writers, George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind, as a satirical jab at Otto Kahn, and perfectly embodied by Louis Sorin). In addition to featuring some of the most elliptical comic writing humans have ever had to wrap their heads around, this scene has always struck me as an important clue to what the Marx Brothers' shows must have been like in front of a live audience. At one point, Groucho even turns to the camera and asks if he can look at a program.
And finally, here are the beautiful final moments of The Circus, Charlie Chaplin's underrated masterpiece of 1928. The Circus is one of Chaplin's saddest and funniest films, and perhaps the most effective use of his signature final shot, in which the dejected Little Tramp heads off toward the horizon, his spirits slowly improving as he walks away from us. Chaplin first used this device in The Tramp (1915); not until Modern Times (1936) did the Tramp finally get to walk off into the sunset in the company of the woman he loved.
NOTE: In an earlier version of this article, I incorrectly referred to Let's Face It as Danny Kaye's Broadway debut. In fact, Lady in the Dark preceded Let's Face It by six months. I can't tell you how deeply I regret this tragic error. I did it and I have to live with it.