The Marx Brothers: A Comedy Team Far Ahead of their Time
The Marx Brothers story
Of the great comedy teams of Hollywood’s Golden Age, the most unique, irreverent and innovative was by far the Marx Brothers. They were far ahead of their time and their comic genius would influence popular culture for decades after their heyday.
The Marx clan was a very poor Jewish family living in the Upper East Side of Manhattan in the late 19th/early 20th century. The eldest son was Leonard (Born 1887) later to be known as Chico. Next came Arthur (Born 1887) who would become known as Harpo. After that came Julius (Born 1889) who’d become better known as Groucho. Then came the little known Milton (1893) who would be the forgotten brother Gummo. Finally came baby brother Herbert (Born 1901) who would be nicknamed Zeppo.
The brothers came from a show business family. Their maternal grandparents were performers (Grandpa was a magician and Grandma was a harpist. Both of these skills would later be incorporated into Harpo’s act.) Their mother Minnie Schoenberg was a failed stage actress. Minnie’s Brother Al would buck the trend and achieve a considerable level of fame on Vaudeville. Changing his name to Shean, he became half of the popular stage comedy team Gallagher and Shean. It seemed inevitable that the brothers would go into show business, especially since mother Minnie pushed them in that direction. Having failed in show business herself and missing the footlights that her brother was enjoying, Minnie lived vicariously through her offspring. They basically had no choice but to go on stage at a young age. Mom wouldn’t have it any other way. (Their father Sam “Frenchie” Marx, a native of Alsace-Lorraine, was not in show business. He was a tailor but he was a meek fellow and Minnie always got her way. If she wanted the kids to perform, he just agreed.)
Leonard and Arthur had quit school at a young age. They were educated on the streets. Leonard became a gambler and street hustler, which helped him develop his conniving, trickster Chico character. Arthur wandered from job to job, living in the moment without focus, which is a characteristic that would be evident in his Harpo persona. They both showed musical talent. Leonard took piano lessons at his mother’s insistence and Arthur learned to play his Grandmother’s harp.
Groucho was the most studious of the group and loved to read. However, he was forced by his mother to leave high school and join the act. Milton was also recruited for the act, as was a cousin named Lou Levi. Minnie made them into a singing act The 3 Nightingales. She soon recruited Arthur and turned the act into The 4 Nightingales. They toured the Vaudeville circuit. Their act was terrible. Arthur was so nervous the first time he stepped on stage that he urinated in his pants in front of the audience.
Minnie joined the act, as did her sister Hannah and the name was changed to The 6 Mascots. It was no improvement. Leonard was added as a piano player but it looked like the musical act was doomed to failure. However, one day in Texas, fate intervened.
While performing in Nacogdoches, Texas in 1912 (to a rather bored audience) the crowd suddenly fled the theater when they heard someone yelling that there was a runaway mule outside. Apparently, the mule was more entertaining than the singing act. When the audience finally filed back in, Julius (The most sarcastic and temperamental of the brood) began berating the audiences with a stinging series of put-downs. The audience laughed and the others brothers joined in, throwing things at the audience and generally acting like clowns. The audience laughed and applauded. (The biggest applause they’d ever gotten.) Minnie had an epiphany. Her kids were natural comedians. They shouldn’t be singing; they should be doing a comedy act.
The four brothers, along with Minnie, Lou and Hannah did a variation of an old act called “school Daze” and asked Al Shean to help re-write it into an new version which they called “Fun in Hy Skule”. Julius played the teacher and the others were the unruly students. The act was the turning point in the boy’s careers. They were getting good laughs from the audience.
Their next show was Mr. Green’s Reception (also written by Uncle Al Shean) which is where the brothers finally honed their famous screen personas. Julius dropped the German accent he was using (Because WW 1 had started and there was a lot of anti-German sentiment) and the dialogue allowed him to flex his sarcasm muscles. Leonard’s character became more of a scam artist and Harpo realized that his verbal delivery was weak and so decided to play the role purely through pantomime and sleight-of-hand he’d learned from his grandfather. Leonard’s and Arthur’s musical talents on the piano and harp were incorporated into the act to add a touch of class and variety. Only Milton never found his comic center and was the most dispensable to the act. When Milton was drafted into the army, youngest brother Herbert was absconded from school by Minnie to replace him.
Plot wasn’t always important to the bohemian brothers because they frequently went off-script and started on improvised tangents. They loved to ad-lib. They even had a habit of wandering off the stage and into the audience.
It was a comedian named Art Fisher (who was sharing a double-bill with the Brothers) who gave them their famous aliases. Leonard was a notorious ladies man or “chick chaser” and so was named Chicko. (Later “Chico”) Arthur obviously played the harp so he became Harpo. Groucho had the most testy, temperamental attitude and so was named Groucho. Milton was named for the thick Gumshoes he always wore. It’s not clear why Herbert got the nickname Zeppo. The famous writer Alexander Wolcott advised them to officially adopt those stage names, which they did.
Home Again (A reworking of Mr. Green’s Reception) was the first glimpse of the Marx Brothers as we know them. They had finally come into their own as comedians and became immensely popular on the Vaudeville circuit. Chico was the felonious hustler; Harpo was the ever-silent and free-spirited imp who did sleight of hand; Groucho was the verbose and sarcastic master of insults who would barrage people with volleys of verbal dexterity and wit; Zeppo was the straight man, sometimes used as the juvenile lead for a romantic subplot. (When Gummo returned from the war, he refused to rejoin the act and instead became their booking agent.)
By the 1920s, the Brothers had become one of the most popular stage acts in the country. They appeared off-Broadway in a show called On the Mezzanine in New York, where a mistake on the marquee listed Chicko as Chico and he would retain the name. Groucho added his grease-paint moustache after arriving too late on day to do his make-up. The fake moustache would become one of his trademarks until years later when he grew a real one.
In 1924, Chico got one of his rich poker buddies to invest in a play and so the brothers appeared on Broadway for the first time in a sketch-comedy revue called I’ll Say She Is, which was basically a random series of satiric historical sketches revolving around the main plot of a woman’s hypnotic regression at hypnotist’s office, flashing back to her past lives. I’ll Say She Is became a hit on Broadway.
The Marx Brothers had two more big hits on Broadway; The Coconuts (1925) which ran for three years and Animals Crackers (1928). As they had in small time theaters, the brothers continued to improvise and ad-lib on stage. People who saw the show more than once found it very different each performance. Their spontaneity enhanced their performances.
They got their chance to move to a newer, even more lucrative medium when Paramount Studios bought the rights to their two plays in order to adapt them into film. The Brothers reprised their roles. They halted the stage version of Animal Crackers after only a year to start filming the adaptations. Things were very chaotic behind the scenes during filming because the directors had a hard time controlling the unruly foursome. They were as rebellious off-screen as they were on-screen.
The Coconuts film came out in 1929 and Animal Crackers in 1930. Both films were very successful. The four brothers moved to Hollywood and filmed a three picture deal with Paramount. Monkey Business (1931) and Horse Feather (1932) were both immensely successful. The Brothers vied with Laurel and Hardy as the top comedy act of the day.
However their fifth film Duck Soup (1933) flopped. Even though the film is considered one of the great comedy classics today, it was too abstract and off-the-wall for viewers of the time. Seeing as it was the height of the depression and Paramount was doing some belt tightening, they dropped the Marx Brothers from their roster, fearing that the team was running out of steam.
The brothers were devastated by the setback. Groucho and Chico next did a radio show called Flywheel, Shyster and Flywheel, while Harpo became the first ever America performer to tour behind the iron curtain in soviet Russia. Zeppo quit acting and explored different business ventures, ultimately becoming very rich.
The three elder Marx Brothers were hired by MGM. Legendary producer Irving Thalberg (Who was later honored by having an award named after him…the Irving Thalberg Award) personally oversaw their career, balancing their irreverent wackiness with a more traditional comedy style. Behind the scenes, he encouraged Chico, Harpo and Groucho to vent their undisciplined tendencies to get the wildness out of their system, so they’d be more focused when it was time to report to the set.
Under Thalberg’s guidance, their first two MGM films, A Night at the Opera (1935) and A Day at the Races (1936) were the two biggest financial hits that the team ever had. (Groucho later indicated that A Night at the Opera was the favorite of all his films.) The team was back on top.
Sadly, Irving Thalberg died of pneumonia at a young age. No one else at MGM seemed to have a vision for what to do with the Marx Brothers next. Studio head Louis B. Mayer hated the brothers (They were disrespectful to Mayer. He liked his actors to be reverential to him but the brothers would never suck-up to anyone) and so he proceeded to stick them in low budget, mediocre films with directors who didn’t seem to understand their humor. The rest of their films were of diminishing quality. The trio would make five more films for the studio, none of which were worthy of the team’s talents. The Brothers traditional personas had been so neutered by Mayer that Groucho wrote to a friend “The character I’ve been playing is completely repugnant to me.”
Groucho and Harpo wanted to quit making movies and explore other options. Mayer would have gladly released them from their contract. The problem was that Chico always needed money. He was an inveterate gambler (and not a good one) and was always in financial peril. At one point, he owed the mob money. Therefore, he had to keep imploring his two brothers to make more films. They always reluctantly agreed and returned to make another mediocre movie. Eventually, they made Chico sign an agreement wherein they would be the executors of his finances. They kept him on an allowance. This allowed Harpo and Groucho to finally quit making movies for Mayer. A Night in Casablanca (1946) was announced as their final film.
The team explored different ventures. Chico started his own band. Groucho did some writing (A long time love of his) and did some radio work, hosting The Pabst Blue Ribbon Hour and also a show called The Circle, which was a 1940’s version of Politically Incorrect, where Groucho gathered a weekly band of celebrities to comically discuss events of the day. Chico was a frequent guest on the Circle. Harpo did a series of bizarre commercials for Labatt’s Beer that used surreal backgrounds, strange props and a puppet. Mostly though, Harpo used this period to spend more time with his large family. (He and his wife Susan had four adopted children.)
In 1949, Groucho made a huge career comeback when he became the host of the radio game show You Bet Your Life. The show became so popular that the following year it was made into a television series. You Bet Your Life became one of the most popular shows on television and it ran for 14 years.
Harpo was offered the chance to star in a solo film called Love Happy (1950) but Chico, always in need of gambling money, talked his way onto the project. When funding for the film ran out, the money men wouldn’t open their wallets further unless Groucho agreed to appear in the film. They felt that if they could advertise it as a Marx Brothers film, they would make back their investment. Groucho agreed and the film was completed. Love Happy was not very good and its best remembered as the screen debut of Marylyn Monroe.
All three brothers appeared in the star-studded dud The Story of Mankind (1957) but the producers didn’t even have the good sense to put them in the same scene. After Chico and Harpo appeared in a TV special The Incredible Jewel Robbery (1958), a proposed Marx Brothers TV series was planned called Deputy Seraph (1959.) It would star Harpo and Chico, with Groucho having a recurring role. The story was a comical predecessor to Highway to Heaven or Touched by an Angel with Harpo and Chico playing earthbound angles righting wrongs, and Groucho occasionally showing up as God. Sadly, Chico’s failing health doomed the series. He had developed arterial sclerosis and died in 1961.
Harpo mostly retired after that, only doing occasional personal appearances where he played his harp. He had a series of minor heart attacks. He went in for heart surgery and died on the operating table in 1965.
Groucho wrote several books and continued appearing in films, the last of which was Skidoo (1968). After that, he went into retirement. He came back for one grand final appearance at Carnegie Hall in 1972. He was 83 years old. The show sold out and was later released as a vinyl album, which received an award for Best Comedy Album. After a stroke, his health began to decline. He died of pneumonia in 1977. (Gummo had died of a heart attack only a few months before but that fact was hidden from the ailing Groucho.) Zeppo succumbed to cancer in 1971.
The legacy of the Marx Brothers inspired many generations of performers. The Beatles used the Marx Brothers irreverent style as a basis for their own films A Hard Days Night and Help. Woody Allen sites Groucho Marx as one of his inspirations. The Monty Python troupe has been compared to The Marx Brothers and John Cleese admits that Groucho was a hero of his.
The Marx Brothers reputations were revitalized and reintroduced to a new generation in the late 60s, early 70s, during the turbulent period of Vietnam, Civil rights and Watergate. The Marx’s anti-establishment nature appealed to the youth of the 70s and the films played in and around college campuses all through the 70s.
The Marx Brothers were far ahead of their time. Maybe we haven’t caught up with them yet.