Five of the Marx Brothers’ thirteen feature films were selected by the American Film Institute (AFI) as among the top 100 comedy films, with two of them (Duck Soup and A Night at the Opera) in the top twelve. The brothers were included in AFI’s 100 Years…100 Stars list of the most significant screen legends, the only performers to be inducted collectively.
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The core of the act was the three elder brothers, Chico, Harpo, and Groucho; each developed a highly distinctive stage persona. The two younger brothers, Gummo andZeppo, did not develop their stage characters to the same extent, and eventually left the act to pursue other careers. Gummo was not in any of the movies; Zeppo appeared in the first five films in relatively straight (non-comedic) roles.
Born on 239 East 114th Street, in Harlem, New York, the Marx Brothers were the sons of Jewish immigrants from Germany and France. Their mother, Minnie Schönberg, was from Dornum in East Frisia; and their father, Simon Marx (whose name was changed to Samuel Marx, and who was nicknamed “Frenchy”) was a native of Alsace and worked as a tailor.The family lived in the then-poor Yorkville section of New York City’s Upper East Side, between the Irish, German and Italian quarters.
A sixth brother, Manfred (“Mannie”), was actually the first child of Samuel and Minnie, born in 1886, though an online family tree states that he was born in 1885: “Family lore told privately of the firstborn son, Manny, born in 1886 but surviving for only three months, and carried off by tuberculosis. Even some members of the Marx family wondered if he was pure myth. But Manfred can be verified. A death certificate of the Borough of Manhattan reveals that he died, aged seven months, on 17 July 1886, of enterocolitis, with ‘asthenia’ contributing, i.e., probably a victim of influenza. He is buried at New York’s Washington Cemetery, beside his grandmother, Fanny Sophie Schönberg (née Salomons), who died on 10 April 1901.”
The brothers were from a family of artists, and their musical talent was encouraged from an early age. Harpo was particularly talented, learning to play an estimated six different instruments throughout his career. He became a dedicated harpist, which gave him his nickname. Chico was an excellent pianist, Groucho a guitarist and singer, and Zeppo a vocalist. They got their start in vaudeville, where their uncle Albert Schönberg performed as Al Shean of Gallagher and Shean. Groucho’s debut was in 1905, mainly as a singer. By 1907, he and Gummo were singing together as “The Three Nightingales” with Mabel O’Donnell. The next year, Harpo became the fourth Nightingale and by 1910, the group briefly expanded to include their mother Minnie and their Aunt Hannah. The troupe was renamed “The Six Mascots”.
One evening in 1912, a performance at the Opera House in Nacogdoches, Texas, was interrupted by shouts from outside about a runaway mule. The audience hurried out to see what was happening. When the audience returned, Groucho, angered by the interruption, made snide comments about its members, including “Nacogdoches is full of roaches” and “The jackass is the flower of Tex-ass”. Instead of becoming angry, the audience laughed. The family then realized it had potential as a comic troupe. (However, in his autobiography, Harpo Speaks, Harpo Marx states that the runaway mule incident occurred in Ada, Oklahoma. A 1930 article in the San Antonio Express newspaper states that the incident took place in Marshall, Texas.)
The act slowly evolved from singing with comedy to comedy with music. The brothers’ sketch “Fun in Hi Skule” featured Groucho as a German-accented teacher presiding over a classroom that included students Harpo, Gummo and Chico. The last version of the school act, titled Home Again, was written by their uncle, Al Shean. When the Home Again tour reached Flint, Michigan, in 1915, 14-year-old Zeppo joined his four brothers for what is believed to be the only time that all five Marx Brothers appeared together on stage. Then Gummo left to serve in World War I, reasoning that “anything is better than being an actor!” Zeppo replaced him in their final vaudeville years and in the jump to Broadway, and then to Paramount films.
During World War I, anti-German sentiments were common, and the family tried to conceal its German origin. After learning that farmers were excluded from the draft rolls, mother Minnie purchased a 27-acre poultry farm near Countryside, Illinois, but the brothers soon found that chicken ranching was not in their blood. During this time, Groucho discontinued his “German” stage personality.
By this time, “The Four Marx Brothers” had begun to incorporate their unique style of comedy into their act and to develop their characters. Both Groucho’s and Harpo’s memoirs say that their now-famous on-stage personae were created by Al Shean. Groucho began to wear his trademark greasepaint mustache and to use a stooped walk. Harpo stopped speaking onstage and began to wear a red fright wig and carry a taxi-cab horn. Chico spoke with a fake Italian accent, developed off-stage to deal with neighborhood toughs, while Zeppo adopted the role of the romantic (and “peerlessly cheesy”, according to James Agee).
The on-stage personalities of Groucho, Chico and Harpo were said to have been based on their actual traits. Zeppo, on the other hand, was considered the funniest brother offstage, despite his straight stage roles. As the youngest, and having grown up watching his brothers, he could fill in for and imitate any of the others when illness kept them from performing. “He was so good as Captain Spaulding [in Animal Crackers] that I would have let him play the part indefinitely, if they had allowed me to smoke in the audience”, Groucho recalled. (Zeppo did impersonate Groucho in the film version of Animal Crackers. Groucho was unavailable to film the scene in which the Beaugard painting is stolen, so the script was contrived to include a power failure, which allowed Zeppo to play the Spaulding part in near-darkness.)
By the 1920s, the Marx Brothers had become one of America’s favorite theatrical acts. With their sharp and bizarre sense of humor, they satirized high society and human hypocrisy. They became famous for their improvisational comedy in free-form scenarios. A famous early instance was when Harpo arranged to chase a fleeing chorus girl across the stage during the middle of a Groucho monologue to see if Groucho would be thrown off. However, to the audience’s delight, Groucho merely reacted by commenting, “First time I ever saw a taxi hail a passenger”. When Harpo chased the girl back the other direction, Groucho, calmly checking his watch, ad-libbed, “The 9:20’s right on time. You can set your watch by the Lehigh Valley.”
Under Chico’s management, and with Groucho’s creative direction, the brothers’ vaudeville act had led to them becoming stars on Broadway, first with a musical revue, I’ll Say She Is(1924–1925) and then with two musical comedies, The Cocoanuts (1925–1926) and Animal Crackers (1928–1929). Playwright George S. Kaufman worked on the last two and helped sharpen the brothers’ characterizations.
Out of their distinctive costumes the brothers looked alike, even down to their receding hairlines. Zeppo could pass for a younger Groucho, and played the role of his son in Horse Feathers. A scene in Duck Soup finds Groucho, Harpo and Chico all appearing in the famous greasepaint eyebrows, mustache and round glasses, while wearing nightcaps. The three are indistinguishable, enabling them to carry off the “mirror scene” perfectly.
Zeppo apart, the stage names of the brothers were coined by monologist Art Fisher during a poker game in Galesburg, Illinois, based both on the brothers’ personalities and Gus Mager’s Sherlocko the Monk, a popular comic strip of the day which included a supporting character named “Groucho”. As Fisher dealt each brother a card, he addressed them, for the very first time, by the names they would keep for the rest of their lives.
The reasons behind Chico’s and Harpo’s stage names are undisputed, and Gummo’s is fairly well established. Groucho’s and Zeppo’s are far less clear. Arthur was named Harpo because he played the harp, and Leonard became Chico (pronounced “Chick-o”) because he was, in the slang of the period, a “chicken chaser”. (“Chickens”—later “chicks”—was period slang for women. “In England now,” said Groucho, “they were called ‘birds’.”).
In his autobiography, Harpo explains that Milton became Gummo because he crept about the theater like a gumshoe detective. Other sources report that Gummo was the family’s hypochondriac, having been the sickliest of the brothers in childhood, and therefore wore rubber overshoes, called gumshoes, in all kinds of weather. Still others report that Milton was the troupe’s best dancer, and dance shoes tended to have rubber soles. Groucho stated that the source of the name was Gummo wearing galoshes. Whatever the details, the name relates to rubber-soled shoes.
The reason Julius was named Groucho is perhaps the most disputed. There are three explanations:
- Julius’ temperament: Maxine, Chico’s daughter and Groucho’s niece, said in the documentary The Unknown Marx Brothers that Julius was named “Groucho” simply because he was grouchy most or all of the time. Robert B. Weide, a director known for his knowledge of Marx Brothers history, said in Remarks On Marx, a documentary short included with the DVD of A Night at the Opera, that among the competing explanations he found this one the most believable. Steve Allen, in Funny People, said that the name made no sense; Groucho might have been impudent and impertinent, but not grouchy—at least not around Allen. However, at the very end of his life, Groucho finally admitted that Fisher had named him Groucho because he was the “moody one”.
- The grouch bag: This explanation appears in Harpo’s biography, was voiced by Chico in a TV appearance included on The Unknown Marx Brothers, and was offered by George Fenneman, Groucho’s sidekick on his TV game show, You Bet Your Life. A grouch bag was a small drawstring bag worn around the neck in which a traveler could keep money and other valuables so that it would be very difficult for anyone to steal them. Most of Groucho’s friends and associates stated that Groucho was extremely stingy, especially after losing all his money in the 1929 stock market crash, so naming him for the grouch bag may have been a comment on this trait. Groucho, in chapter six of his first autobiography, insisted that this was not the case:
I kept my money in a ‘grouch bag’. This was a small chamois bag that actors used to wear around their neck to keep other hungry actors from pinching their dough. Naturally, you’re going to think that’s where I got my name from. But that’s not so. Grouch bags were worn on manly chests long before there was a Groucho.
- Groucho’s explanation: Groucho himself insisted that he was named for a character in the comic strip, Knocko the Monk, which inspired the craze for nicknames ending in “o”; in fact, there was a character in that strip named “Groucho”. However, he is the only Marx or Marx associate who defended this theory, and as he is not an unbiased witness, few biographers take the claim seriously.
- Groucho himself was no help on this point; during his Carnegie Hall concert, when he was discussing the Brothers’ names and when it came to his own, he said, “My name, of course, I never did understand.” He goes on to mention the possibility that he was named after his unemployed uncle, Julius, who lived with his family. The family believed he was actually a rich uncle hiding a fortune. Groucho claims that he may have been named after him (perhaps by the family trying to get into the will). “And he finally died, and he left us his will, and in that will he left three razor blades, an 8-ball, a celluloid dicky, and he owed my father $85 beside.”
Herbert was not nicknamed by Art Fisher, since he did not join the act until Gummo had departed. As with Groucho, three explanations exist for Herbert’s name, “Zeppo”:
- Harpo’s explanation: Harpo said in Harpo Speaks! the brothers had named Herbert for Mr. Zippo, a chimpanzee that was part of another performer’s act. Herbert found the nickname very unflattering, and when it came time for him to join the act, he put his foot down and refused to be called “Zippo”. The brothers compromised on “Zeppo”.
- Chico’s explanation: Chico never wrote an autobiography, and gave fewer interviews than his brothers, but his daughter, Maxine, in The Unknown Marx Brothers said that when the brothers lived in Chicago, a popular style of humor was the “Zeke and Zeb” joke, which made fun of slow-witted Midwesterners in much the same way Boudreaux and Thibodeaux jokes mock Cajuns and Ole and Lena jokes mockMinnesotans. One day, as Chico returned home, he found Herbert sitting on the fence. Herbert greeted him by saying “Hi, Zeke!” Chico responded with “Hi, Zeb!” and the name stuck. The brothers thereafter called him “Zeb” and when he joined the act, they floated the idea of “Zebbo”, eventually preferring “Zeppo”.
- Groucho’s explanation: In a tape-recorded interview excerpted on The Unknown Marx Brothers, Groucho said Zeppo was so named because he was born when the first zeppelins started crossing the ocean. He stated this in his Carnegie Hall concert, around 1972. The first zeppelin flew in July 1900, and Herbert was born seven months later in February 1901. However, the first transatlantic zeppelin flight was not until 1924, long after Herbert’s birth.
Maxine Marx reported in The Unknown Marx Brothers that the brothers listed their real names (Julius, Leonard, Adolph, Milton and Herbert) on playbills and in programs, and only used the nicknames behind the scenes, until Alexander Woollcott overheard them calling one another by the nicknames; he asked them why they used their real names publicly when they had such wonderful nicknames. They replied, “That wouldn’t be dignified.” Woollcott answered with a belly laugh. Since Woollcott did not meet the Marx Brothers until the premiere of I’ll Say She Is, which was their first Broadway show, this would mean they used their real names throughout their vaudeville days, and that the name “Gummo” never appeared in print during his time in the act. Other sources report that the Marx Brothers did go by their nicknames during their vaudeville era, but briefly listed themselves by their given names when I’ll Say She Is opened because they were worried that a Broadway audience would reject a vaudeville act if they were perceived as low class.
The Marx Brothers’ stage shows became popular just as motion pictures were evolving to “talkies”. They signed a contract with Paramount Pictures and embarked on their film career at Paramount’s Astoria, New York, studios. Their first two released films (after an unreleased short silent film titled Humor Risk) were adaptations of the Broadway shows The Cocoanuts (1929) and Animal Crackers (1930). Both were written byGeorge S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind. Production then shifted to Hollywood, beginning with 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 movie not based on a stage production, and the only one in which Harpo’s voice is heard (singing tenor from inside a barrel in the opening scene). Horse Feathers (1932), in which the brothers satirized the American college system and Prohibition, was their most popular film yet, and won them the cover of Time. It included a running gag from their stage work, in which Harpo produces a ludicrous array of props from his coat, including a wooden mallet, a fish, a coiled rope, a tie, a poster of a woman in her underwear, a cup of hot coffee, a sword; and, just after Groucho warns him that he “can’t burn the candle at both ends,” a candle burning at both ends.
During this period Chico and Groucho starred in a radio comedy series, Flywheel, Shyster and Flywheel. Though the series was short lived, much of the material developed for it was used in subsequent films. The show’s scripts and recordings were believed lost until copies of the scripts were found in the Library of Congress in the 1980s. After publication in a book they were performed with Marx Brothers impersonators for BBC Radio.
Their last Paramount film, Duck Soup (1933), directed by the highly regarded Leo McCarey, is the highest rated of the five Marx Brothers films on the American Film Institute’s “100 years … 100 Movies” list. It did not do as well financially as Horse Feathers, but was the sixth-highest grosser of 1933. The film sparked a dispute between the Marxes and the village of Fredonia, New York. “Freedonia” was the name of a fictional country in the script, and the city fathers wrote to Paramount and asked the studio to remove all references to Freedonia because “it is hurting our town’s image”. Groucho fired back a sarcastic retort asking them to change the name of their town, because “it’s hurting our picture.”
After expiration of the Paramount contract Zeppo left the act to become an agent. He and brother Gummo went on to build one of the biggest talent agencies in Hollywood, helping the likes of Jack Benny and Lana Turner get their starts. Groucho and Chico did radio, and there was talk of returning to Broadway. At a bridge game with Chico, Irving Thalberg began discussing the possibility of the Marxes joining Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. They signed, now billed as “Groucho, Chico, Harpo, Marx Bros.”
Unlike the free-for-all scripts at Paramount, Thalberg insisted on a strong story structure that made the brothers more sympathetic characters, interweaving their comedy with romantic plots and non-comic musical numbers, and targeting their mischief-making at obvious villains. Thalberg was adamant that scripts include a “low point”, where all seems lost for both the Marxes and the romantic leads. He instituted the innovation of testing the film’s script before live audiences before filming began, to perfect the comic timing, and to retain jokes that earned laughs and replace those that did not. Thalberg restored Harpo’s harp solos and Chico’s piano solos, which had been omitted from Duck Soup.
The first Marx Brothers/Thalberg film was A Night at the Opera (1935), a satire on the world of opera, where the brothers help two young singers in love by throwing a production of Il Trovatore into chaos. The film—including its famous scene where an absurd number of people crowd into a tiny stateroom on a ship—was a great success, and was followed two years later by an even bigger hit, A Day at the Races (1937), in which the brothers cause mayhem in a sanitarium and at a horse race. The film features Groucho and Chico’s famous “Tootsie Frootsie Ice Cream” sketch. In a 1969 interview with Dick Cavett, Groucho said that the two movies made with Thalberg were the best that they ever produced. Despite the Thalberg films’ success, MGM terminated the brothers’ contract in 1937; Thalberg had died suddenly during filming of A Day at the Races, leaving the Marxes without an advocate at the studio.
After a short experience at RKO (Room Service, 1938), the Marx Brothers returned to MGM and made three more films: At the Circus (1939), Go West (1940) and The Big Store(1941). Prior to the release of The Big Store the team announced its retirement from the screen. Four years later, however, Chico persuaded his brothers to make two additional films,A Night in Casablanca (1946) and Love Happy (1949), to alleviate his severe gambling debts. Both pictures were released by United Artists.
From the 1940s onward Chico and Harpo appeared separately and together in nightclubs and casinos. Chico fronted a big band, the Chico Marx Orchestra (with 17-year-old Mel Tormé as a vocalist). Groucho made several radio appearances during the 1940s and starred in You Bet Your Life, which ran from 1947 to 1961 on NBC radio and television. He authored several books, including Groucho and Me (1959), Memoirs of a Mangy Lover (1964) and The Groucho Letters (1967).
Groucho and Chico briefly appeared together in a 1957 short film promoting the Saturday Evening Post entitled “Showdown at Ulcer Gulch,” directed by animator Shamus Culhane, Chico’s son-in-law. Groucho, Chico, and Harpo worked together (in separate scenes) in The Story of Mankind (1957). In 1959, the three began production of Deputy Seraph, a TV series starring Harpo and Chico as blundering angels, and Groucho (in every third episode) as their boss, the “Deputy Seraph.” The project was abandoned when Chico was found to be uninsurable (and incapable of memorizing his lines) due to severe arteriosclerosis. On March 8 of that year, Chico and Harpo starred as bumbling thieves in The Incredible Jewel Robbery, a half-hour pantomimed episode of the General Electric Theater on CBS. Groucho made a cameo appearance—uncredited, because of constraints in his NBC contract—in the last scene, and delivered the only line of dialogue (“We won’t talk until we see our lawyer!”).
According to a September 1947 article in Newsweek, Groucho, Harpo, Chico and Zeppo all signed to appear as themselves in a biopic entitled The Life and Times of the Marx Brothers. In addition to being a non-fiction biography of the Marxes, the film would have featured the brothers reenacting much of their previously unfilmed material from both their vaudeville and Broadway eras. The film, had it been made, would have been the first performance by the Brothers as a quartet since 1933.
The five brothers made only one television appearance together, in 1957, on an early incarnation of The Tonight Show called Tonight! America After Dark, hosted by Jack Lescoulie. Five years later (October 1, 1962) after Jack Paar’s tenure, Groucho made a guest appearance to introduce the Tonight Show’s new host,Johnny Carson.
Around 1960, the acclaimed director Billy Wilder considered writing and directing a new Marx Brothers film. Tentatively titled A Day at the U.N., it was to be a comedy of international intrigue set around the United Nations building in New York. Wilder had discussions with Groucho and Gummo, but the project was put on hold because of Harpo’s ill-health and abandoned when Chico died in 1961.
In 1966 Filmation produced a pilot for a Marx Brothers cartoon. Groucho was Pat Harrington Jr. and other voices were Ted Knight and Joe Besser.
In 1970, the four Marx Brothers had a brief reunion of sorts in the animated ABC television special The Mad, Mad, Mad Comedians, produced by Rankin-Bassanimation (of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer fame). The special featured animated reworkings of various famous comedians’ acts, including W. C. Fields, Jack Benny, George Burns, Henny Youngman, the Smothers Brothers, Flip Wilson, Phyllis Diller, Jack E. Leonard, George Jessel and the Marx Brothers. Most of the comedians provided their own voices for their animated counterparts, except for Fields and Chico Marx (both had died), and Zeppo Marx (who had left show business in 1933). Voice actor Paul Frees filled in for all three (no voice was needed for Harpo, who had also died). The Marx Brothers’ segment was a reworking of a scene from their Broadway play I’ll Say She Is, a parody of Napoleon which Groucho considered among the brothers’ funniest routines. The sketch featured animated representations, if not the voices, of all four brothers. Romeo Muller is credited as having written special material for the show, but the script for the classic “Napoleon Scene” was probably supplied by Groucho.
On January 16, 1977, the Marx Brothers were inducted into the Motion Picture Hall of Fame.
Many television shows and movies have used Marx Brothers references. Animaniacs and Tiny Toons, for example, have featured Marx Brothers jokes and skits. Hawkeye Pierce (Alan Alda) on M*A*S*H occasionally put on a fake nose and glasses, and, holding a cigar, did a Groucho impersonation to amuse patients recovering from surgery. Early episodes also featured a singing and off-scene character named Captain Spaulding as a tribute. Bugs Bunny impersonated Groucho Marx in the 1947 cartoon Slick Hare and in a later cartoon he again impersonated Groucho hosting a TV show called “You Beat Your Wife,” asking Elmer Fudd if he had stopped beating his wife. Tex Avery’s cartoon Hollywood Steps Out (1941) featured appearances by Harpo and Groucho. They appeared, sometimes with Chico and Zeppo caricatured, in cartoons starring Mickey Mouse, Flip the Frog and others. In the Airwolf episode ‘Condemned’, four anti-virus formulae for a deadly plague were named after the four Marx Brothers. In All In The Family, Rob Reiner often did imitations of Groucho, and Sally Struthers dressed as Harpo in one episode in which she (as Gloria Stivic) and Rob (as Mike Stivic) were going to a Marx Brothers film festival, with Reiner dressing as Groucho. Gabe Kaplan did many Groucho imitations on his sit-com Welcome Back, Kotter and Robert Hegyes sometimes imitated both Chico and Harpo on the show. In Woody Allen’s film Hannah and Her Sisters (1986), Woody’s character, after an unsuccessful suicide attempt, is inspired to go on living after seeing a revival showing of Duck Soup. In Manhattan (1979), he names the Marx Brothers as something that makes life worth living. InEveryone Says I Love You (1996), he and Goldie Hawn dress as Groucho for a Marx Brothers celebration in France, and the song “Hooray for Captain Spaulding”, from Animal Crackers, is performed, with various actors dressed as the brothers, striking poses famous to Marx fans. (The film itself is named after a song from Horse Feathers, a version of which plays over the opening credits.)
Harpo Marx appeared as himself in a sketch on I Love Lucy in which he and Lucille Ball reprised the mirror routine from Duck Soup, with Lucy dressed up as Harpo. Lucy had worked with the Marxes when she appeared in a supporting role in an earlier Marx Brothers film, Room Service. Chico once appeared on I’ve Got a Secret dressed up as Harpo; his secret was shown in a caption reading, “I’m pretending to be Harpo Marx (I’m Chico)”. The Marx Brothers were spoofed in the second act of the Broadway Review A Day in Hollywood/A Night in the Ukraine.
Photo credit: An early photo of the Marx brothers with their parents in New York City, 1915. From left to right: Groucho, Gummo, Minnie (mother), Zeppo, Frenchie (father), Chico, and Harpo (source).