The Marx Brothers

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The Marx Brothers

The Marx Brothers comedy team was comprised of three brothers stage-named Groucho, Harpo, and Chico (though two other brothers, Gummo and Zeppo, were included in the act for brief periods) whose madcap antics and semi-slapstick routines earned them a reputation as some of the zaniest performers of their time, with frequent appearances in vaudeville, musical comedy, radio, and film. Two of the brothers, Groucho and Harpo, performed on television in later years: Harpo as a novelty entertainer and, most notably, Groucho as the host of his own game show, You Bet Your Life. Though never an enormous hit in their time, the Marx Brothers lived to see their reputation with critics and audiences grow to legendary proportions, and they are especially remembered for their appearances in much-revived films like Duck Soup (1933), A Night at the Opera (1935), and A Day at the Races (1936).

The five Marx Brothers were born in New York City to Samuel, a tailor, and Minna Palmer Schoenberg Marx (the "Minnie" of the musical Minnie's Boys), an ambitious stage-mother type—her brother was Al Shean of the vaudeville comedy team Gallagher & Shean—who thought show business would provide opportunities for her sons. Reference sources disagree about the brothers' dates of birth, but Groucho's son, Arthur Marx, declares the following order in his 1988 memoir My Life with Groucho: A Son's Eye View : "Leonard (Chico) 1887; Arthur (Harpo) 1888; Julius (Groucho) 1890; Milton (Gummo) 1897; Herbert (Zeppo) 1901." Chico died in 1961, Harpo in 1964, Groucho and Gummo in 1977, and Zeppo in 1979.

In musical revues and stage shows throughout the 1910s and 1920s, the Marx Brothers began developing the comic personae they would later immortalize on film. Groucho, often seen as the leader of the group, perfected the persona of a wisecracking finagler with his painted-on mustache, arched eyebrows, and ever-present cigar. Chico (he pronounced it "Chick-O") donned a silly pointed hat and affected an Italian immigrant's accent. Harpo Marx chased pretty girls, honked a toy horn, and erected a legend around the fact that he never spoke. Zeppo, the least known of the quintet, mostly stood around with nothing to do. Gummo performed with his brothers early in the group's career, but he left the act around 1918.

The trademark Marxian style, honed on stage and perfected on film, was marked by a fast pace, absurdist situations, and witty dialogue. Some of the greatest humorists of the period, including George S. Kaufman and S. J. Perelman, would eventually write one-liners for the team. In 1925, the Marx Brothers graduated from music hall obscurity when their Broadway stage production The Cocoanuts proved a huge hit. Four years later Paramount Studios signed them to a movie deal. They made the film adaptation of The Cocoanuts (1930) at the Kaufman Astoria studio during the day while their second Broadway production, Animal Crackers, was running at night. The big-screen Cocoanuts is stagy and crudely mounted, although it does contain a number of memorable comic scenes, including the classic "viaduct" (or "Why a duck?") routine that relies on fast-paced punning for its humor.

A hit with Marx Brothers fans and with the general public, The Cocoanuts established the prototype for all subsequent Marx Brothers films. In it, buxom Margaret Dumont played a wealthy dowager who must constantly fend off Groucho's advances. There is a sappy musical subplot, and the stolid Zeppo is given little to do. These stock elements were to be incorporated into every film the brothers made for the studio. Next up was Animal Crackers (1930), another stage adaptation; its threadbare plot simply let the siblings loose in a rich matron's estate, with predictably antic consequences. Groucho got to warble "Hooray for Captain Spaulding," a Harry Ruby composition that would become one of his trademark songs and the theme for his later television quiz show. The film also provided the pop cultural lexicon with some of its best-known one-liners, including the chestnut "This morning I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got into my pajamas I'll never know."

The success of their first two features prompted the Marx Brothers to leave New York for Hollywood. Here they made the three films that purists consider their finest. Monkey Business (1931), written by humorist S. J. Perelman, placed the foursome as stowa-ways on an ocean liner. The first Marx Brothers film to be written directly for the screen, Monkey Business' frenetic pace and relative lack of schmaltzy subplot made it one of the team's funniest examples of its formula. Notable scenes included one in which all four Marx Brothers impersonate French crooner Maurice Chevalier in a doomed attempt to buffalo their way past the authorities.

The 1932 follow-up, Horse Feathers, was every bit as good. A stroke of screenwriting genius put the brothers on a college campus this time, with Groucho perfectly (mis)cast as university president. More surreal than Monkey Business or any of the group's previous films, Horse Feathers milked much comic mileage out of an anarchic football game staged by the brothers. Songs included Groucho's defining gem "Whatever It Is, I'm Against It" and the Woody Allen-inspiring "Everyone Says I Love You." Duck Soup (1933), another absurdist tour de force, was set in the mythical country of Fredonia where Groucho got himself elected dictator (probably with the support of the same folks who made him a college president) and promptly declared war on a neighboring nation. Chico and Harpo, as a pair of unscrupulous spies, had some of their finest moments on screen. The climactic musical numbers alone were worth the price of admission, and its famous "mirror scene" would be re-enacted some twenty years later when Harpo appeared on a celebrated episode of TV's I Love Lucy.

In the years after its release, Duck Soup gained an unwarranted reputation as an antiwar comedy, as if the brothers could see the bellicose aspirations of Hitler and Mussolini as far back as 1933. The Marxes always denied this, and in fact an anti-authoritarian strain can be detected in all of their comedies of this period. Regardless of its politics, Duck Soup flopped at the box office, leading Paramount to jettison the siblings, who chose to carry on without Zeppo.

The three survivors, Groucho, Harpo, and Chico, landed at MGM, a studio known for its lavish, family-oriented spectaculars. It did not seem like a good fit, and in time would prove not to be, but the first picture the team made there was an undisputed classic. A Night at the Opera (1935) had all the trademark Marxian elements: rapid-fire comic patter, expert pantomime, and three or four set pieces that were to become landmark scenes in the annals of film comedy. Only the grating presence of a treacly romantic subplot, complete with one too many horrible songs, served as a sign of bad things to come. Nevertheless, the trio was in fine form, having been able to hone their material by road tryouts before the film was shot. With more structure and better production values than previous Marx Brothers films, it won back the mass audience and put the team back on solid commercial footing.

The perils of formula began to catch up with the Marxes in their next release, A Day at the Races (1937). While the film contained a number of funny scenes, it was undermined by an utterly haphazard script and a numbing plethora of excruciating musical numbers. Most disturbingly, MGM—as it would later do with the Our Gang kids—tried to recast the brothers as lovable lugs trying to do the right thing for their romantic co-leads. "She loves him. Everything's gonna be all right now !" the previously cynical Chico is made to say as insufferable lovers Alan Jones and Maureen O'Sullivan played kissy face in front of him. Harpo was even more shamefully abused, forced to front a racist production number with a crowd of dancing "pickaninnies" that is routinely cut from television airings of the film.

It was all downhill from there. With the death of MGM titan Irving Thalberg in 1937, the Marx Brothers were assigned to second-tier producers who allowed the quality of their vehicles to slip precipitously. At the Circus (1939), Go West (1940), and The Big Store (1941) all had their share of fine comic moments, but were dragged down by a kind of cookie-cutter approach normally reserved for lesser comedians. Eventually the team grew tired of the mediocrity and broke up, though they did reunite for the tiresome A Night in Casablanca (1946).

After going their separate ways, the "big three" Marx Brothers pursued their individual interests with varying degrees of success. Groucho enjoyed a long career on radio and television as host of the popular quiz show You Bet Your Life and cultivated a public persona in later years of a "dirty old man" who craved younger female companionship. Harpo appeared in the aforementioned I Love Lucy episode and wrote an autobiography cheekily titled Harpo Speaks and Chico gambled.

—Robert E. Schnakenberg

Further Reading:

Adamson, Joe. Groucho, Harpo, Chico, and Sometimes Zeppo. New York, Simon & Schuster, 1973.

Eyles, Allen. The Complete Films of the Marx Brothers. Secaucus, New Jersey, Citadel Press, 1992.

Marx, Arthur. My Life with Groucho: A Son's Eye View. London, Robson Books, 1988.

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The Marx Brothers

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