Marx Brothers

See Marx brothers (fencing) for the 16th century German brotherhood.
The brothers in Hollywood: (left to right) Chico, Zeppo, Groucho, Harpo
The brothers in Hollywood: (left to right) Chico, Zeppo, Groucho, Harpo

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.)


Stage beginnings

All born in New York City, the Marx Brothers were the sons of Jewish immigrants. Their mother, Minnie Schoenberg, originally hailed from Germany, while their father Samuel "Frenchie" Marx (born Simon Marrix), had come from French-speaking Alsace. 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. They 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. 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.

Missing image
An early photo of all five Marx Brothers with their parents Minnie and Frenchie.

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 began to wear his trademark greasepaint moustache and to use a stooped walk, 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, developed off-stage to deal with neighbourhood toughs. The on-stage personalities of Groucho, Chico and Harpo were said to have been based on their actual traits, although in real life Harpo could talk. 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! (Limelight Editions, 1985, ISBN 0879100362), 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."

In the 1920s the Marx Brothers became one of America's favourite theatrical acts. With their sharp and bizarre sense of humour, they satirized institutions like high society, and human hypocrisy. 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), followed by 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 (they had previously made - but not released - one short silent film titled Humor Risk) were adaptations of 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 from their films where Harpo revealed having nearly everything 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 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 a satire of dictators and war, and it did not do well at the box office. Its controversial themes also 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 was largely confined to clear villains. 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 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 .

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Marx Brothers by Yousuf Karsh, 1948

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 face up Chico's gambling debts, the Marx Brothers shot another two pictures together, A Night in Casablanca (1946) and Love Happy (1949), both of them produced by United Artists. Then they worked together, but in some different scenes, in a bad picture, 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 begun a career as a radio and tv 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, ISBN 0306806665) and Memoirs of a Mangy Lover (1964) (Da Capo Press, 2002, ISBN 0306811049).

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:

Films with only Harpo, Chico, Groucho:


MovieYearGroucho ChicoHarpoZeppo
Humor Risk1921 (?)The Villain The Italian (?)Watson, Detective (?)The Love Interest (?)
The Cocoanuts1929Mr. Hammer Chico Harpo Jamison
Animal Crackers1930Captain Geoffrey T. Spaulding RavelliThe ProfessorHoratio Jamison
The House that Shadows Built1931Caesar's Ghost TomalioThe Merchant of WeinersSammy Brown
Monkey Business1931Groucho ChicoHarpoZeppo
Horse Feathers1932Professor Quincy Adams Wagstaff BaravelliPinkyFrank Wagstaff
Duck Soup1933Rufus T. Firefly ChicoliniPinkyLt. Bob Roland
A Night at the Opera1935Otis B. Driftwood FiorelloTomasso 
A Day at the Races1937Dr. Hugo Z. Hackenbush ToniStuffy 
Room Service1938Gordon Miller Harry BinelliFaker Englund 
At the Circus1939J. Cheever Loophole Antonio PirelliPunchy 
Go West1940S. Quentin Quale Joe PanelloRusty Panello 
The Big Store1941Wolf J. Flywheel RavelliWacky 
A Night in Casablanca1946Ronald Kornblow CorbaccioRusty 
Love Happy1949Sam Grunion Faustino the GreatHarpo 

See also

External links and references

fr:Marx Brothers it:Fratelli Marx nl:The Marx Brothers ja:マルクス兄弟 pl:Bracia Marx ru:Братья Маркс fi:Marxin veljekset sv:Brderna Marx


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