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Marx Brothers

The Marx Brothers were sibling comedians of vaudeville, stage plays, and film. The brothers were Groucho (Julius Henry Marx, 1890-1977), Chico (Leonard Marx, 1887-1961), Harpo (Adolph Arthur Marx, 1888-1964), Zeppo (Herbert Marx, 1901-1979) and Gummo (Milton Marx, 1892-1977).

(left to right) Chico, Zeppo, Groucho, Harpo
(left to right) Chico, Zeppo, Groucho, Harpo

They got their start in vaudeville. Their uncle Al Shean was half of the vaudeville act Gallagher and Shean, and his success no doubt inspired their mother Minnie Marx to put her boys on the stage. Groucho started in vaudeville in 1905, mostly as a singer. By 1907 he and Gummo were singing together as two-thirds of The Three Nightingales. 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. 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.

By this time the brothers had begun to incorporate their unique brand of comedy into their act and to develop their characters. Groucho began to wear his trademark greasepaint moustache and walk stooped over, Harpo began to wear a red fright wig, carried a small bicycle horn and never spoke, Chico started to talk in a fake Italian accent. Their stage names were coined by [monologist] Art Fisher during a poker game on the road, based both on the brothers' personalities and Knocko the Monk, a popular comic strip of the day. Groucho was so named for his saturnine disposition and the fact that he carried his money in a "grouch-bag" for safe keeping; Harpo because he played the harp, and Chico (pronounced "Chick-o") after his affinity for the ladies ("chicks"). In his autobiography Harpo Speaks! Harpo explains that Gummo was named because he crept about the theater like a gumshoe detective, and Zeppo for his athletic prowess and ability to do chin-ups like "Zippo the Chimpanzee."

The on-stage personalities of Groucho, Chico and Harpo were said to have been based on their actual traits, though in real life Harpo could talk.

The brothers had been 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.

By 1924, the brothers' vaudeville act had become successful enough to take them to England and Broadway, where they made it big with I'll Say She Is and The Cocoanuts. In the '20 the Marx brothers become the favourite theatrical comedians of America. With their sharp and bizarre sense of humour, they satirized about the institutions, the high society and human hypocrisy.

The Marx stage shows became popular just as Hollywood was making the change to sound films. The brothers struck a contract with Paramount and embarked on their career in movies. Gummo left the group before their jump to film; Zeppo would replace him for the Paramount pictures. Their first two films were adaptations of Broadway shows: The Cocoanuts (1929) and Animal Crackers (1930). Both were written by George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind .

Their third film, Monkey Business (1931), was their first that was not based on a stage production. Horse Feathers (1932), in which the brothers attack the respectability of the American school, was their most popular film yet and won them the cover of Time Magazine.

One running gag in their films involves Harpo having nearly anything in his coat. For instance; 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 last Paramount film, Duck Soup (1933), directed by Leo McCarey, is now considered by many the finest: it's 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 satire of dictators and war. 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. Only the first five 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 the opera music, where the brothers had to take care of two young singers who love each other. The film had a great success, and two years later they released another masterpiece, A Day at the Races (1937), where the brothers made confusion in a race-course. During the shooting of this picture Thalberg died, and his absence influenced the quality of the team in the next pictures.

After a modest movie produced by RKO, Room Service (1938), the Marx Brothers played three fairly good pictures before leaving MGM, At the Circus (1939), Go West (1940) and The Big Store (1941). Then Chico and Harpo made, sometimes together, some theatrical appearances, and Groucho begun a fortunate career as radio and tv entertainer (from 1947 to the middle '60, he was the host of a funny quiz, named You Bet Your Life). He wrote also some books, including the autobiographical Groucho and Me (1959) and Memoirs of a Mangy Lover (1964).

To face up Chico's gambling debts, the Marx Brothers shot another two pictures together, A Night in Casablanca (1946) and Love Happy (1949). Then they worked together, but in some different scenes, in a bad picture, The Story of Mankind (1957), and in a tv special, The Incredible Jewel Robbery (1959).

The 1957 TV talk show Tonight! America After Dark, hosted by Jack Lescoulie , may supply the only public footage in which all five brothers appeared.

On January 16, 1977, The Marx Brothers were inducted into the Motion Picture Hall of Fame .

Films with at least four of the brothers (Paramount releases):

Films with only Harpo, Chico, Groucho (MGM, RKO and UNITED ARTISTS releases):

Also see Margaret Dumont.

See Marx brothers (fencing) for the 16th century German brotherhood.

Name Table

Movie Year Groucho Chico Harpo Zeppo
The Cocoanuts 1929 Mr. Hammer Chico Harpo Jamison
Animal Crackers 1930 Captain Geoffrey T. Spaulding Ravelli The Professor Horatio Jamison
Monkey Business 1931 Groucho Chico Harpo Zeppo
Horse Feathers 1932 Professor Quincey Adams Wagstaff Baravelli Pinky Frank Wagstaff
Duck Soup 1933 Rufus T. Firefly Chicolini Pinky Lt. Bob Roland
A Night at the Opera 1935 Otis B. Driftwood Fiorello Tomasso
A Day at the Races 1937 Dr. Hugo Z. Hackenbush Toni Stuffy
Room Service 1938 Gordon Miller Harry Binelli Faker Englund
At the Circus 1939 J. Cheever Loophole Antonio Pirelli Punchy
Go West 1940 S. Quentin Quale Joe Panello Rusty Panello
The Big Store 1941 Wolf J. Flywheel Ravelli Wacky
A Night in Casablanca 1946 Ronald Kornblow Corbaccio Rusty
Love Happy 1949 Sam Grunion Foustino the Great Harpo

External links

  • The Marx Brothers Museum
  • Marx Brothers .net
  • Marx Brothers Night at the Opera Treasury
  • Marx Brothers Movies

Last updated: 02-03-2005 14:52:02
Last updated: 02-26-2005 13:12:49