The Marx Brothers were a team of sibling comedians that played in vaudeville, stage plays, film and television. The brothers were Chico (Leonard, 1887-1961), Harpo (Adolph Arthur, 1888-1964), Groucho (Julius Henry, 1890-1977), Gummo (Milton, 1892-1977), and Zeppo, (Herbert, 1901-1979). Another brother, Manfred, was born in 1885 but died in infancy.
After getting their start in vaudeville, the brothers became a successful Broadway act and broke into the movie business at the beginning of the "talkie" era. Their movies Animal Crackers (1930), Monkey Business (1931), Horse Feathers (1932), and Duck Soup (1933) are considered classics. They made their last movies together in the late 1950s, although Groucho had a successful run as a television personality, by hosting comedy quiz show You Bet Your Life.
The Marx Brothers' act was based on taking something that is seemingly sane or ordinary—-such as an opera or a horse race—-and turning it into a zany and surreal absurdity. Their films occupy one of the highest peaks of American movie comedy.
The Marx Brothers were all born in New York City, the sons of Jewish immigrants. Their mother, Minnie Schoenberg, originally came from Germany, while their father, Samuel "Frenchie" Marx (born Simon Marrix), had come from French-speaking Alsace. The brothers were talented musically from an early age. Harpo, especially, could play nearly any instrument, including the harp, which he often played on film. Chico was an excellent and histrionic pianist, and Groucho played the guitar.
The brothers got their start in vaudeville where their uncle Al Shean was already performing, as half of Gallagher and Shean. Groucho's debut was in 1905, mostly as a singer. By 1907 he and Gummo were singing together as two-thirds of The Three Nightingales, with Mabel O'Donnell. The next year Harpo became the fourth Nightingale. By 1910 the group was expanded to include their mother and their Aunt Hannah, and renamed The Six Mascots. One evening, a performance at the Opera House in Nacogdoches, Texas was interrupted by shouts from outside about a runaway mule. The audience hurried outside to see what was happening, and when they returned, Groucho, infuriated by the interruption, announced "Nacogdoches is full of roaches," and "The jackass is the flower of Tex-ass." Instead of becoming angry in return, the audience laughed, and afterward the family began to consider the possibility that they had potential as a comic troupe.
Slowly, the act evolved from singing with some incidental comedy to a comedy sketch set in a schoolroom, featuring Groucho as the teacher presiding over a classroom which included students Harpo, Gummo and, by 1912, Chico. The last version of the school act, entitled Home Again, was written by Al Shean. Around this time, Gummo left the group to fight in World War I ("Anything is better than being an actor!"). Zeppo would replace him for their final vaudeville years, through their leap to Broadway, and the subsequent Paramount pictures.
By this time the brothers, now The Four Marx Brothers, had begun to incorporate their unique brand of comedy into their act and to develop their characters. Groucho wore his trademark greasepaint moustache and began to use a stooped walk. Harpo wore a red fright wig, carried a small bicycle horn and never spoke. Chico started to talk in a fake Italian accent, which he had developed off-stage to deal with neighborhood toughs.
Although in real life Harpo could talk, the on-stage personalities of Groucho, Chico and Harpo were reportedly based on their actual traits. Their stage names were coined by monologist Art Fisher during a poker game on the road, based both on the brothers' personalities and inspired by Knocko the Monk, a popular comic strip of the day which included a supporting character named "Groucho." Julius, according to various accounts, was named Groucho either for his saturnine disposition, for the fact that he carried his money in a "grouch bag"—a bag hung around the neck—and/or after the comic strip's character, depending on which Marx Brother or associate one asks. Arthur was named Harpo because he played the harp, and Leonard named Chico (pronounced "Chick-o") after his affinity for the ladies ("chicks"). In his autobiography Harpo Speaks!, Harpo explains that Milton became Gummo because he crept about the theater like a gumshoe detective, and Herbert was dubbed Zeppo for his athletic prowess and ability to do chin-ups like "Zippo the Chimpanzee." However, in the 1993 documentary, The Unknown Marx Brothers, Groucho remarks in a taped interview that Zeppo was named after the first zeppelins, while Chico's daughter, Maxine, insists that Zeppo was named after "Zeke and Zeb" jokes, which were popular in the midwest when the Marx Brothers lived in Chicago.
In the 1920s the Marx Brothers became one of America's favorite theatrical acts. With their sharp and bizarre sense of humor, they satirized high society and human hypocrisy. In addition, they became famous for their improvisational comedy in their free form scenarios. A well known early example occurred when Harpo instructed a chorus girl to run across the stage in front of Groucho during his act with Harpo chasing her, to see if Groucho would be caught off guard. However, to the audience's delight, Groucho merely reacted with an improvised joke of calmly checking his watch and commenting: "First time I ever saw a taxi hail a passenger." Then, when Harpo chased the girl back the other direction, Groucho quipped: "You can always set your watch by the 9:20."
Under Chico's management and with Groucho's creative direction, the brothers' vaudeville act had become successful enough to make them stars on Broadway, first with a musical revue, "I'll Say She Is" (1924-1925), and then two musical comedies, "The Cocoanuts" (1925-1926) and "Animal Crackers" (1928-1929). Playwright George S. Kaufman worked on the latter two shows and helped to sharpen the Brothers' characterizations.
The Marx brothers' stage shows became popular just as Hollywood was making the change to "talkies." The brothers struck a contract with Paramount and embarked on their career in movies. Their first two released films were adaptations of their Broadway shows: The Cocoanuts (1929) and Animal Crackers (1930). Both were written by George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind. Following these two feature-length films, they made a short film that was included in Paramount's twentieth anniversary documentary, The House that Shadows Built (1931), in which they adapted a scene from "I'll Say She Is." Their third feature-length film, Monkey Business (1931), was their first that was not based on a stage production. Horse Feathers (1932), in which the brothers satirized the American college system, was their most popular film yet, and won them the cover of Time Magazine. It included a running gag where Harpo reveals having nearly everything "but the kitchen sink" in his coat. At various points in Horse Feathers Harpo pulls out of his coat a wooden mallet, a coiled rope, a tie, a poster of a woman in her underwear, a cup of hot coffee, and a candle burning at both ends.
The brothers' last Paramount film, Duck Soup (1933), directed by Leo McCarey, is now considered by many to be their finest. It is the only Marx Brothers film on the American Film Institute's "100 years...100 Movies" list. In 1933, however, the public was not receptive to a satire of dictators and war, and it did not do well at the box office. In fact, its controversial themes led to the brothers being fired by the studio. Additionally, Zeppo, tired of having to play the straight romantic lead, announced he would do no more films after Duck Soup.
The three remaining brothers moved to Metro Goldwyn Mayer, and, following the suggestion of producer Irving Thalberg, decided to alter the formula of subsequent films. In the rest of their movies, their comedy would be interwoven with romantic plots and non-comic musical numbers, while the targets of their mischief were largely confined to clear villains. Only the earlier five feature films represent what is considered their genius in its pure form.
The first movie that the brothers shot with Thalberg was A Night at the Opera (1935), a witty satire of the world of opera music, where the brothers helped two young singers in love by throwing a production of Il Trovatore into silly chaos. The film was a great success, followed two years later by A Day at the Races (1937), where the brothers caused mayhem at a racecourse.
However, during shooting in 1936, Thalberg died suddenly, and without him, the brothers didn't have an advocate at MGM . After a short experience at RKO (Room Service, 1938), the Marx Brothers made three fairly good pictures before leaving MGM, At the Circus (1939), Go West (1940) and The Big Store (1941). To deal with Chico's gambling debts, the brothers shot another two pictures together, A Night in Casablanca (1946) and Love Happy (1949), both of which were produced by United Artists. Then they worked together, but in some different scenes, in The Story of Mankind (1957). This was followed by a television special, The Incredible Jewel Robbery in 1959.
Chico and Harpo went on to make, sometimes together, some theatrical appearances, and Groucho began a career as a radio and television entertainer. From 1947 to the mid-1960s, he was the host of the funny quiz show You Bet Your Life. He was also an author, his writings include the autobiographical Groucho and Me (1959) (Da Capo Press, 1995) and Memoirs of a Mangy Lover (1964) (Da Capo Press, 2002).
The Marx Brothers were inducted into the Motion Picture Hall of Fame on January 16, 1977.
The Marx brothers movies occupy one of the highest peaks of American film comedy, and representation of zany and highly inventive absurdity was at the center of it. They were doing an American comic version of surrealism (as, for example, when a racehorse runs through a surgical operating room in A Day at the Races, or there is a outburst of song and dance "We're going to war" in Duck Soup), albeit without a fancy name or theory or art movement to go with it, as the Europeans had with André Breton and his theories.
The Mars brothers were sui generis; no one else made comedy quite like theirs. One of its characteristics was that the three principals—Groucho, Harpo, and Chico—each had a unique character and comic persona. Groucho's comedy was often word-based, relying on puns and other word-play ("One morning I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got into my pajamas I'll never know," from Animal Crackers), although he sometimes did physical comedy, as in the famous scene from Duck Soup in which he pretends to be doing a reflection in a mirror. Groucho often impersonated a person of supposedly elevated status—his characters often had pretentious-nonsensical names—but then proceeded to subvert this in some way.
Harpo's act was entirely physical, since he never spoke, but his physical comedy was zany, absurdist, and highly inventive, as when he pulled more and more different and disconnected things from inside his coat; he also often "spoke" by blowing his bicycle horn. He was also a great harpist, and sometimes played a harp in their movies. In Duck Soup, during the "We're going to war" song and dance routine, using scissors he snips the plumes off the helmets of a series of soldiers as they march by. Also during that scene, all four of the brothers use sticks to bang out a musical number on the helmets of soldiers, as if the soldiers' helmets were xylophones.
Chico's comedy often had him representing an unlearned commoner—often an immigrant of undetermined status, using a fake Italian accent—who, through gumption and savvy and sometimes brute strength overcomes some adversity or situation. Groucho and Chico sometimes did word-play acts together, as in the scene in which they simplify a contract in A Night at the Opera. (Among other things, they rip the sanity clause from that contract because, Chico says, "Ha ha ha ha ha! You can't fool me! There ain't no Sanity Clause!")
All of the Marx brothers chased girls in their movies, but especially Harpo and Chico. Zeppo, in those movies in which he appeared, was usually something of an anomaly and never quite fit in especially well with the other three; he was frequently given romantic singing roles, but these tended to interrupt the film while they are occurring.
One of the things that fed into the success of the Marx brothers' film comedy was their experience with live vaudeville shows. They would often try things on stage, and if they worked there, then go on to incorporate them into their films; an example is the famous stateroom scene in A Night at the Opera in which more and more people crowd into a tiny stateroom on a boat until all the people fall out the door. This scene was first done on stage and they learned from this that it worked well only when carried on and on into complete absurdity.
One factor that has diminished the appeal and comprehensibility of the Marx brothers films to many non-English speaking people is that a large part of these films depends heavily on complex puns and word play, often occurring very rapidly. Much of this defies translation into another language, and, when such translation is attempted, if it is done in subtitles they take up a large part of the screen.
Someone once remarked that the task the Marx brothers faced was how to be crazy in a sane world, while the task of the Beatles (the British music group) was to be sane in a crazy world.
Films with at least four of the brothers:
- Humor Risk (probably 1921), previewed once and never released; possibly lost
- The Cocoanuts (1929), released by Paramount
- Animal Crackers (1930), released by Paramount
- The House that Shadows Built (1931), released by Paramount (short subject)
- Monkey Business (1931), released by Paramount
- Horse Feathers (1932), released by Paramount
- Duck Soup (1933), released by Paramount
Films with only Harpo, Chico, Groucho:
- A Night at the Opera (1935), released by MGM
- A Day at the Races (1937), released by MGM
- Room Service (1938), released by RKO
- At the Circus (1939), released by MGM
- Go West (1940), released by MGM
- The Big Store (1941), released by MGM
- A Night in Casablanca (1946), released by United Artists
- Love Happy (1949), released by United Artists
- The Story of Mankind (1957)
|The Italian (?)
|Watson, Detective (?)
|The Love Interest (?)
|Captain Geoffrey T. Spaulding
|The House that Shadows Built
|The Merchant of Weiners
|Professor Quincy Adams Wagstaff
|Rufus T. Firefly
|Lt. Bob Roland
|A Night at the Opera
|Otis B. Driftwood
|A Day at the Races
|Dr. Hugo Z. Hackenbush
|At the Circus
|J. Cheever Loophole
|S. Quentin Quale
|The Big Store
|Wolf J. Flywheel
|A Night in Casablanca
|Faustino the Great
|The Story of Mankind
|Sir Isaac Newton
ReferencesISBN links support NWE through referral fees
- Adamson, Joe, Groucho, Harpo, Chico, and Sometimes Zeppo; A History of the Marx Brothers and a Satire on the Rest of the World, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1973. ISBN 0671214586
- Anobile, Richard J. Ed., Introd. by Groucho Marx, Pref. by Richard F. Shepard, Why a Duck? Visual and Verbal Gems from the Marx Brothers Movies, New York: Darien House 1973. ISBN 0821203738
- Charney, Maurice, The Comic World of the Marx Brothers' Movies: "Anything Further Father?", Madison NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press; Cranbury, NJ: Associated University Presses, 2007. ISBN 9780838641248 ISBN 0838641245
- Gehring, Wes D., The Marx Brothers: A Bio-bibliography, New York: Greenwood Press, 1987. ISBN 0313245479
- Kanfer, Stefan, Groucho: The Life and Times of Julius Henry Marx, New York: Knopf; Distributed by Random House, 2000. ISBN 0375402187
- Louvish, Simon, Monkey Business: The Lives and Legends of the Marx Brothers: Groucho, Chico, Harpo, Zeppo, with added Gummo, New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000. ISBN 0312252927
- Marx, Groucho, and Richard J. Anobile, The Marx Bros. Scrapbook, New York: Darien House; distributed by Norton, 1973. ISBN 0393083713
- Marx, Harpo, Harpo Speaks!, With Rowland Barber, New York: Limelight Editions, 1st Limelight edition 2004. ISBN 0879100362 ISBN 9780879100360
All links retrieved November 7, 2022.
- The Marx Brothers www.marx-brothers.org
- The Marx Brothers Museum www.marxbrothers.nu
- Marx Brothers Night at the Opera Treasury www.nightattheopera.net
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