Marx Brothers, The
THE MARX BROTHERS
Nationality: American. CHICO. Born: Leonard Marx in New York City, 22 March 1891 (some sources say earlier). Family: Married Betty Harp, 1912; one daughter. HARPO. Born: Adolph (later used the name Arthur) Marx in New York City, 23 November 1893 (some sources say earlier). Family: Married Susan Fleming, 1936, four adopted children. GROUCHO. Born: Julius Marx in New York City, 2 October 1890 (some sources say 1895). Family: Married 1) Ruth Johnson, 1920 (divorced 1942), one daughter and one son; 2) Kay Marvis Gorcey, 1945 (divorced 1951), one daughter; 3) Eden Hartford, 1954 (divorced 1969). ZEPPO. Born: Herbert Marx in New York City, 25 February 1901. Family: Married 1) Marion Benda, 1927 (divorced), one son; 2) Barbara Blakely, 1959 (divorced 1973). A fifth brother, Gummo , born Milton Marx, was involved in some of the early show business career.
Career: Chico, Harpo and Groucho all entered vaudeville as singers; Groucho toured with a "girls" singing group; 1910s—their mother formed the vaudeville act The Three Nightingales, later The Four Nightingales, incorporating the brothers; they left vaudeville for the music stage, 1920s; 1925—first big success with Broadway show The Cocoanuts (film version in 1929); 1933—Zeppo left the group to become a theatrical agent and a manufacturer of aircraft parts; 1934—Chico and Groucho appeared in radio show Flywheel, Shyster and Flywheel; 1940s—both Chico and Harpo appeared with their own bands; 1943–44—Groucho in radio show The Pabst Blue Ribbon Show; 1947–58—Groucho hosted radio quiz You Bet Your Life, also TV version, 1950–58; 1948—Groucho's play, Time for Elizabeth, written with Norman Krasna, produced on Broadway; 1950–51—Chico in TV series The College Bowl; 1962—Groucho in TV series Tell It to Groucho and toured in one-man show An Evening with Groucho, 1972. Awards: (Groucho): Cannes Festival Special Award, 1972; Honorary Oscar, "in recognition of his brilliant creativity and for the unequalled achievements of the Marx Brothers in the art of motion picture comedy," 1973. Died: Chico died 11 October 1961. Harpo died 28 September 1964. Groucho died 19 August 1977. Zeppo died 13 December 1979.
Films as Actors:
Too Many Kisses (Sloane) (Harpo only)
The Cocoanuts (Florey and Santley) (Groucho as Mr. Hammer, Harpo as Harpo, Chico as Chico, and Zeppo as Jamison)
Animal Crackers (Heerman) (Groucho as Capt. Jeffrey T. Spaulding, Harpo as the Professor, Chico as Signor Emanuel Ravelli, and Zeppo as Horatio Jamison)
Monkey Business (McLeod) (as stowaways)
Horse Feathers (McLeod) (Groucho as Prof. Quincey Adams Wagstaff, Harpo as Pinky, Chico as Barovelli, and Zeppo as Frank Wagstaff)
Duck Soup (McCarey) (Groucho as Rufus T. Firefly, Harpo as Pinkie, Chico as Chicolini, and Zeppo as Bob Rolland)
A Night at the Opera (Wood) (Groucho as Otis B. Driftwood, Harpo as Tomasso, and Chico as Fiorello)
A Day at the Races (Wood) (Groucho as Dr. Hugo Z. Hackenbush, Harpo as Stuffy, and Chico as Toni)
Room Service (Weiter) (Groucho as Gordon Miller, Harpo as Faker Englund, and Chico as Harry Binelli)
At the Circus (Buzzell) (Groucho as J. Cheever Loophole, Harpo as Punchy, and Chico as Antonio Pirelli)
Go West (Buzzell) (Groucho as S. Quentin Quale, Harpo as Rusty Panello, and Chico as Joseph Panello)
The Big Store (Reisner) (Groucho as Wolf J. Flywheel, Harpo as Wacky, and Chico as Ravelli)
A Night in Casablanca (Mayo) (Groucho as Ronald Kornblow, Harpo as Rusty, and Chico as Corbaccio)
Copacabana (Green) (Groucho as Lionel L. Devereaux)
Love Happy (Miller) (Groucho as Sam Grunion, Harpo as Harpo, and Chico as Faustino the Great)
Mr. Music (Haydn) (Groucho as himself)
Double Dynamite (Cummings) (Groucho as Emil J. Kech)
A Girl in Every Port (Erskine) (Groucho as Benny Linn)
Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? (Oh! For a Man!) (Tashlin) (Groucho as surprise guest); The Story of Mankind (Irwin Allen) (Groucho as Peter Minuit, Harpo as Isaac Newton, and Chico as Monk)
Skidoo (Preminger) (Groucho as "God")
By MARX BROTHERS: books—
Beds by Groucho Marx, New York, 1930.
Many Happy Returns by Groucho Marx, New York, 1942.
Groucho and Me by Groucho Marx, New York, 1959.
Harpo Speaks!, with Rowland Barber, New York, 1961.
Memoirs of a Mangy Lover by Groucho Marx, New York, 1963.
The Groucho Letters: Letters from and To by Groucho Marx, New York, 1967.
The Groucho Marx Scrapbook, with Richard J. Anobile, New York, 1973.
The Groucho File: An Illustrated Life, Indianapolis, 1976.
The Marx Brothers Scrapbook, New York, 1989.
By MARX BROTHERS: articles—
"Groucho Writes," in Take One (Montreal), no. 11, 1968.
Interview with Groucho Marx, in Take One (Montreal), January 1970.
"Alias Julius Henry Marx," interview with Groucho by J. Adamson in Take One (Montreal), December 1975.
On MARX BROTHERS: books—
Crichton, Kyle, The Marx Brothers, New York, 1951.
Marx, Arthur, Life with Groucho, New York, 1954.
Zimmerman, Paul, and Burt Goldblatt, The Marx Brothers and the Movies, New York, 1968.
Eyles, Allen, The Marx Brothers: Their World of Comedy, New York, 1969.
Anobile, Richard, Why a Duck?: Visual and Verbal Gems from the Marx Brothers Movies, New York, 1971.
Marx, Arthur, Son of Groucho, New York, 1972.
Adamson, Joseph, Groucho, Harpo, Chico, and Sometimes Zeppo: A History of the Marx Brothers and a Satire on the Rest of the World, New York, 1973.
Chandler, Charlotte, Hello, I Must Be Going: Groucho and His Friends, New York, 1978.
Mast, Gerald, The Comic Mind: Comedy and the Movies, Chicago, revised edition, 1979.
Arce, Hector, Groucho, New York, 1979.
Marx, Maxine, Growing Up with Chico, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, 1980.
Alion, Yves, Les Marx Brothers, Paris, 1985.
Gehring, Wes D., The Marx Brothers: A Bio-Bibliography, Westport, 1987.
Marx, Arthur, My Life with Groucho: A Son's Eye View, New York, 1988.
Stables, Kate, Marx Brothers, New York, 1992.
On MARX BROTHERS: articles—
"Horse Feathers," in Time (New York), 15 August 1932.
Rowland, R., "American Classic," in Hollywood Quarterly, April 1947 (reprinted in Penguin Film Review (London), September 1948).
Perelman, S. J., "The Winsome Foursome," in Show (Hollywood), November 1961.
Gili, J.-A., and others, "Sur les Marx Brothers," in Ecran (Paris), January 1972.
Stone, E., "Groucho and Adolf; or, The Summer of 1941," in Journal of Popular Film (Bowling Green, Ohio), Summer 1973.
Ghezzi, E., "I fratelli Marx nelle strutture del sogno," in Filmcritica (Rome), October-December 1973.
Schippers, K., "'We Were Brothers Long before Warner!' Groucho Marx," in Skoop (Amsterdam), September 1977.
Passek, J.-L., "Groucho Marx," in Cinéma (Paris), November 1977.
Thomson, D., "Groucho Marx: A Retrospective," in Take One (Montreal), November 1977.
Calman, M., "Perelman in Cloudsville," in Sight and Sound (London), Autumn 1978.
"Marx Brothers Issue" of Avant-Scène du Cinéma (Paris), April 1983.
Winokur, Mark, "'Smile, Stranger': Aspects of Immigrant Humor in the Marx Brothers' Humor," in Literature/Film Quarterly (Salisbury, Maryland), July 1985.
Mossis, C.D., "The Ithyphallus as Lacanian Signifier in the Marx Brothers Comedies," in Film Criticism (Meadville, Pennsylvania), Fall 1987.
Jenkins, H. III, "Fifi Was My Mother's Name!: Anarchistic Comedy, the Vaudeville Aesthetic, and Diplomaniacs," in Velvet Light Trap (Austin), Fall 1990.
Groch, J.R., "What is a Marx Brother?: Critical Practice, Industrial Practice, and the Notion of an Auteur," in Velvet Light Trap (Austin), Fall 1990.
Alion, Yves, "Les cinq premiers films des Marx Brothers," in Mensuel du Cinéma (Paris), February 1994.
Rossi, J.P., "A Night in Philadelphia," in Four Quarters, 8:3–8, no. 1 1994.
Lieberfeld, D., and Sanders, J., "Here Under False Pretenses: the Marx Brothers Crash the Gates," in American Scholar, vol. 64:103–108, no. 1 1995.
Artaud, A., "Artaud on the Marx Brothers," in Vertigo (Paris), 1:45 no. 6, 1996.
On MARX BROTHERS: musical—
Minnie's Boys by Arthur Marx and Robert Fisher, produced on Broadway, 1970.* * *
The Marx Brothers' irreverent brand of humor has been described as surrealistic, absurdist, and anarchic. Consistently anti-authoritarian, their films mock serious institutions and professions, figures of authority, and "high art," with special abuse reserved for anyone deemed pompous, rich, or respectable. For example, Horse Feathers ridicules American colleges, Duck Soup takes jabs at governmental officials and international relations, and A Night at the Opera lambastes opera and its rich patrons. At their best, the Brothers not only run circles around figures of authority, but also undermine Hollywood film conventions and the authority of language, from official institutional language with its specialized jargon to everyday language ordinarily taken for granted. They have influenced countless filmmakers, comedians, authors, and playwrights.
The Brothers' individual comic personae were established early in their careers and remained consistent: Groucho's sardonic punster, Chico's immigrant with a phony Italian accent who never comprehends social conventions but creates his own logical alternatives, and Harpo's devious mischief-maker who never speaks but communicates brilliantly with facial expressions and props. Two other brothers, Zeppo and Gummo, participated in their vaudeville acts, with Zeppo continuing as a straight man in their first five films before quitting to become a Hollywood agent. Margaret Dumont joined their vaudeville act and remained a regular cast member during their film careers, always playing the role of a rich dowager.
Vaudeville provided the Brothers with the opportunity to develop their personae and their unique way of relating to one another. First as solo performers and then together as a team, the Brothers perfected their vaudeville skits by improvising in response to the exigencies of each audience. Their first two films were actually vaudeville routines adapted for the screen. Even after relinquishing the vaudeville circuit for film careers, the Brothers continued to improvise around their scripts. For A Night at the Opera and A Day at the Races, they refined their film scenarios by testing them before live audiences. Vaudeville exerted the strongest influence on the Brothers' comedic styles; its quick pace and reliance on visual combined with verbal gags were integral to their development. Other important influences were silent films (especially Chaplin) and the scriptwriters who worked with them over the years.
Working in the film industry gradually altered the Marx Brothers' comedy, a process that some commentators have interpreted as one of restraining the more confrontational aspects of their humor. Their earlier films are generally considered to be their best. In Monkey Business, for example, the Brothers are stowaways on an ocean liner, which they terrorize with their pranks before trying to get through Customs with Maurice Chevalier imitations. Duck Soup is considered by many to be their finest, most irreverent film, but it also led to a split from Paramount, their first producer, due to the film's poor box-office performance and to changes in Paramount's administration. Set in the fictional country of Freedonia, Duck Soup casts Groucho as the country's intransigent president, Rufus T. Firefly, who insults everyone, whether friend or foe, and capriciously launches a war that he declines to end because "I've paid a month's rent on the battlefield."
After their switch to MGM, the Brothers' films began to soften their barbed wit. A Night at the Opera and A Day at the Races, their first two MGM releases, were their most financially successful films and displayed some memorable zaniness. In A Night at the Opera Harpo and Chico get the orchestra to play "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" during the overture to Il trovatore, Groucho sells popcorn in the aisles, Harpo and Chico join the action on stage while Groucho yells "boogie boogie," and they raise and lower inappropriate backdrops behind the confused singers. Nevertheless, under the guidance of Irving J. Thalberg, the Brothers were restrained by more rigid plots and by serious romantic subplots involving young lovers faced with obstacles to their happiness. Placed within the confines of having to help the romantic couples, who were spared from mockery, the Brothers' humor lost some of its all-inclusiveness. Musical interludes became standard elements as well, and while Groucho's singing, Chico's piano playing, and Harpo's harp playing exhibited talented horseplay, other musical performers tended to plod.
Their films following Thalberg's death in 1936 became increasingly formulaic while still displaying some outstanding comic moments. Hollywood of the 1930s, with its Production Code and Wall Street bosses, was not conductive to unleashed anti-authoritarian humor. Following Love Happy, their last film, the Brothers went their separate ways, but all three continued to perform: Groucho as host of a quiz show, You Bet Your Life, on radio and television, and Chico and Harpo as guests on televised variety shows.
A few elements in the Marx Brothers films are disturbing, such as the ethnic stereotypes and the limited roles for women characters who exist solely as the objects of the Brothers' jokes and lechery. Ultimately, the Marx Brothers' humor can be characterized as good satirical fun. Rather than construct a vision of a better society, the Brothers ridicule an immutable society before becoming integrated into the world of success by the happy endings. Their genius lies in casting fresh light on social mores by undermining conventional manifestations of seriousness.
The Marx Brothers
The Marx brothers
The Marx brothers were American stage and film comedians whose lunatic antics dominated comedy during the 1930s.
Samuel Marx, an immigrant tailor, and Minna Schoenberg, a German vaudevillian turned factory worker, met and married in New York and raised five sons: Leonard (Chico), born in 1891; Adolph (Harpo), 1893; Milton (Gummo), 1894; Julius (Groucho), 1895; and Herbert (Zeppo), 1901.
A true stage mother, Minnie Marx tirelessly arranged interviews and created skits and revues for her boys. In Chico's vaudeville debut he wrestled, clowned, and played piano. Harpo began his career performing in two nightclubs; since he used identical routines, he was fired for presenting "used" material. Unable to find a job, he discovered his grandmother's "broken-down harp" and by his own unorthodox methods became a virtuoso. Possessor of a delightful soprano voice, adolescent Groucho won a part in The Messenger Boys, a benefit revue for San Francisco earthquake victims. But his tour with a troupe impersonating female singers ended when his voice suddenly changed.
Although all were living in New York, the three experienced Marx brothers—Chico, Harpo, and Groucho—worked separately. Finally they teamed together, touring the vaudeville circuit. Harpo, extremely nervous onstage, could not be trusted to deliver his lines; he himself imposed muteness on his public image. Harpo and Gummo disbanded the group when they enlisted in World War I, and Chico and Groucho entertained soldiers in army camps.
After the war Gummo left show business for manufacturing, and Zeppo gained his initiation into comedy in revues. During the early 1920s the Marx brothers achieved their final stage identities: Groucho, the almost schizophrenic, mustached punster with the stooped glide, ever-arching eyebrows, and the fat cigar; Harpo, the mute but expressive curly-headed imp, with one hand on somebody's silver service and the other playing his harp; Chico, almost as voluble as Groucho, dressed in an organ-grinder's costume, speaking a number of tortured dialects while performing at the piano; and Zeppo, the straight man. Their "spontaneous idiocy" and frenzied burlesque of their own revues captivated audiences.
A successful New York musical, I'll Say She Is, was followed by Coconuts (1926), a spoof of the Florida land-development boom, and Animal Crackers (1928), perhaps the most representative of the Marx brothers' insane antics; the last two were effectively adapted as movies. Their first talkie, Monkey Business (1929), enabled Groucho to pour forth a cascade of puns and quick wit. Horsefeathers (1932) mocks cultural restrictions and is irreverent toward the "sacred" institution, the university. After Duck Soup (1933), a spoof on political intrigue, Zeppo left to operate his own talent agency, joined later by Gummo.
Chico, Harpo, and Groucho clowned through six more movies. A Night at the Opera (1935), considered by many critics to be their masterpiece, takes a playful swipe at "highbrow" musicians. Crammed full of familiar gags and hackneyed jokes, the slew of films that followed had one saving grace: the three talented brothers, whose very presence induced laughter. A Day at the Races (1939) and Go West (1940) exhibit the nonstop clowning but lack the refined twists. After their eleventh production, The Big Store (1941), with Groucho as a bungling department store detective, the brothers separated for 5 years. Harpo and Chico returned to the stage, and Groucho began a long tenure in radio. American entry into World War II brought the three brothers together again, tirelessly touring army camps and selling millions of war bonds.
The Marx brothers' A Night in Casablanca (1946) was only moderately successful, and the trio once again disbanded. Groucho became the witty, sarcastic host of an otherwise inane television quiz show; Harpo and Chico returned to nightclubs, playing the London Palladium in 1949. During the 1950s the brothers went into semiretirement, appearing only as television and stage guests. All five had married and desired to spend time with their families. Popular demand brought them back in The Incredible Jewel Robbery (1959), their last film, a testament to comic talents able to provoke laughter from Depression and Cold War audiences alike. In 1961 Chico died of a heart condition; Harpo died three years later; both Groucho and Gummo passed away in 1977; and the last living Marx brother, Zeppo, died in 1979. One reviewer remarked of their brand of comedy, "They were exactly like ordinary people and act just as we should act if social regulations did not prevent us from behaving in that way." A biographical musical about the brothers, Minnie's Boys, enjoyed moderate success on Broadway in 1969 but provided only a hint of their lifestyles; the brothers themselves, and the essence of their humor, are inimitable.
Two competent studies of the Marx brothers are Allen Eyles, The Marx Brothers: Their World of Comedy (1966; 2d ed. 1969), and Burt Goldblatt and Paul D. Zimmerman, The Marx Brothers at the Movies (1968). See also Kyle Crichton, The Marx Brothers (1950). □
MARX BROTHERS , U.S. theatrical comedy team. Zany and irreverent, their wild and impromptu humor appealed to lowbrows and intellectuals alike. Originally, there were five Marx Brothers. All were part of a vaudeville act called "Six Musical Mascots" (their mother, Minnie, a sister of the vaudeville actor Al *Shean, was the sixth). The brothers, all born in New York, were chico (leonard, 1891–1961), harpo (adolph, later arthur, 1893–1964), gummo (milton, 1894–1977), groucho (julius, 1895–1977), and zeppo (herbert, 1901–1979). When their mother left the act, they became "The Nightingales" and played in vaudeville as singers and comedians until they reached the Palace Theater in New York in 1918. They made their Broadway debut in 1924 in a revue called I'll Say She Is. By that time, the brothers had developed a distinct comic style. chico donned a pointed hat over a deadpan face and affected an Italian accent. He was also an accomplished piano player, and he frequently broke the comedy with a turn at the keyboard. harpo, with a battered hat over a frizzled wig of blond curls, never spoke during the act. He used two means to communicate – a bulb horn on stage and a romantic harp. He played the harp at concerts as well as in films. groucho, wearing a swallowtail coat, chewing a long cigar and wearing a large black moustache, was master of the insult. After the brothers' film career had ended, Groucho confirmed his reputation as a wit as the master of ceremonies on a tv weekly quiz show. zeppo, the straight man of the team in the movies, left the act in the early 1930s, and became a successful theatrical agent. gummo, who was in the act only briefly, also became a successful agent. Their succession of stage and film comedies – such as The Cocoanuts (1929); Animal Crackers (1930); Horse-feathers (1932); Duck Soup (1933); A Night at the Opera (1935); and A Night in Casablanca (1946) – were considered cinema classics which continued to attract audiences on their many replays. Harpo's autobiography, Harpo Speaks, appeared in 1961. Groucho wrote Groucho and Me (1959), an autobiography, and Memoirs of a Mangy Lover (1963). His prolific and unconventional correspondence was published as The Groucho Letters in 1967. The Library of Congress asked him for the letters and papers, which included the manuscripts of his books. In one celebrated letter, he wrote Gov. William Scranton of Pennsylvania in 1964 to tell him he had heard him mispronounce a Yiddish term. "If you are going to campaign in Jewish neighborhoods," Groucho counseled, "rhyme mish-mash with slosh."
The comedy world of Groucho, Chico, and Harpo was wildly chaotic, grounded in slapstick farce, lowbrow vaudeville corn, free-spirited anarchy, and assaults on the myths and virtues of middle-class America. Groucho was larger and more antic than life. His humor was based on the improbable, the unexpected, the outrageous. Animal Crackers gave Groucho his most celebrated character, Capt. Jeffrey T. Spaulding, a bumbling African explorer ("My name is Captain Spaulding, the African explorer," Groucho sang, "did someone call me schnorrer?"). Groucho was a master of the ad lib and refused to follow the scripts of his plays and movies, although some of them were turned out by such masters of comedy as George S. *Kaufman and S.J. *Perelman. Groucho supplemented his meager formal education by reading omnivorously. For some years he carried on a correspondence with the poet T.S. Eliot, and in 1965 he was invited to speak at a memorial for Eliot. Typically, he used the occasion to say something outrageous: "Apparently Mr. Eliot was a great admirer of mine – and I don't blame him."
A. Eyles, The Marx Brothers (1966); K.S. Crichton, The Marx Brothers (1951); O. Levant, A Smattering of Ignorance (1940, 19592), on Harpo Marx.
[Stewart Kampel (2nd ed.)]
A madcap comedy team, the Marx Brothers—Leo (Chico, 1887–1961); Adolph (Harpo, 1888–1964); Julius Henry (Groucho, 1890–1977); and Herbert (Zeppo, 1901–1979)—began their careers in vaudeville before becoming motion picture stars in the 1930s. Born in New York City, the sons of German-Jewish immigrants, the brothers received a boost in their career from their uncle, Al Shean of the comedy duo "Gallagher and Shean." Billed as "The Four Marx Brothers" they worked in vaudeville until 1925, when they starred in the Broadway production of The Cocoanuts, a musical comedy written expressly for them by George S. Kaufman and Irving Berlin. Another Broadway hit followed with Animal Crackers in 1928. Though their screwball, improvisational style of comedy had evolved in front of the live audiences of vaudeville and Broadway, the Marx brothers made a successful transition to motion pictures with the release of a film version of The Cocoanuts (1929), followed a year later by Animal Crackers (1930). Their first two films were shot at Paramount's Long Island studios so that the brothers could continue to work on the New York stage. But for their third film, Monkey Business (1931), they relocated to Hollywood, California, where they would spend the rest of their careers.
Throughout the 1930s the Marx Brothers produced a string of successful motion pictures that rank among the most celebrated of Depression-era comedies: Horse Feathers (1932), Duck Soup (1933), A Night at the Opera (1935), A Day at the Races (1937), Room Service (1938), At the Circus (1939), and Go West (1940). They also displayed distinct comic personas: Chico was a wisecracking clown with an Italian accent; Groucho, with grease-paint mustache and cigar, often impersonated authority figures, maintaining a constant stream of one-liners and comic asides; Harpo, garbed in fright wig, trench coat, and crushed top hat, renounced speech altogether, preferring a bicycle horn and an absurdist sense of visual humor; Zeppo, the youngest brother, was the good-looking foil and occasional love interest in their films. Chico and Harpo were also accomplished musicians, and each of their films included a scene in which they performed, often to audiences of adoring children. Such moments punctuate the fast-paced verbal and visual humor of their films with intervals of musical and emotional poignancy. But the popularity of the Marx Brothers was based primarily upon the team's ability to lampoon authority figures and skewer the pretensions of the wealthy and powerful.
Louvish, Simon. Monkey Business: The Lives and Legends of the Marx Brothers. 1999.
Marx, Groucho. Groucho and Me. 1959.
Marx, Groucho, and Richard J. Anobile. The Marx Brothers Scrapbook. 1973.
Marx, Harpo. Harpo Speaks! 1961.
John Parris Springer
Although three brothers formed the core of the Marx Brothers comedy team, there were originally five: Leonard (Chico, 1887–1961), Arthur (Harpo, 1888–1964), Julius (Groucho, 1890–1977), Milton (Gummo, 1893–1977), and Herbert (Zeppo, 1901–1979). The five began their comedy career in music hall and vaudeville (see entry under 1900s—Film and Theater in volume 1). After Gummo left the act around 1918, the remaining four began to develop the comic routines for which they became famous. The Marx Brothers are best known for the absurd films they made for Paramount in the 1930s. With their combination of slapstick, music, and Groucho's hilarious one-liners, features like Monkey Business (1931), Horse Feathers (1932), and Duck Soup (1933) are among the finest comic films ever made.
The first Marx Brothers film, based on their hit Broadway stage show, The Cocoanuts, appeared in 1930. All the films follow a similar pattern. Fast-talking, wisecracking, penniless Groucho pursues rich, older Margaret Dumont (1889–1965), who constantly has to fight off his flirtatious advances. Chico, the cynical Italian immigrant, and Harpo, the mischievous innocent who never speaks, undermine him with their wild antics. Zeppo, the often forgotten fourth brother, plays the dull romantic lead. Music is an important part of the films. Groucho first sang his trademark song "Hooray for Captain Spaulding" in Animal Crackers (1930). Later, the tune became the theme for his television quiz show, You Bet Your Life (1950–61). Harpo usually gets his chance for an unlikely harp solo at some point in each film.
After Duck Soup (1933) failed at the box office, the Marx Brothers were dropped by Paramount. Without Zeppo, they went to MGM (see entry under 1920s—Film and Theater in volume 2) where, with the exception of A Night at the Opera (1935), their work declined. By 1946, they had broken up for good, but their best comic films remained influential into the new millennium.
For More Information
Adamson, Jo. Groucho, Harpo, Chico, and Sometimes Zeppo: A History of the Marx Brothers and a Satire on the Rest of the World. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1973.
Louvish, Simon. Monkey Business: The Lives and Legends of the MarxBrothers. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2000.
Marx, Arthur. My Life with Groucho: A Son's Eye View. London: Robson Books, 1988.
Marx Brothers, team of American movie comedians. The members were Julius (1890?–1977), known as Groucho; Arthur (1888?–1964), originally Adolph and known as Harpo; Leonard (1887?–1961), known as Chico; and two other brothers, Milton (Gummo) and Herbert (Zeppo), who had both left the act by 1935; all were born in New York City. After starting in vaudeville they made a sensation on Broadway with The Cocoanuts and Animal Crackers, both of which they transferred to film (1929, 1930). Their anarchic, slapstick humor turned dignified settings into playhouses for Groucho's outrageous puns and wisecracks, Harpo's horn honking and girl chasing, and Chico's distorted logic. Zeppo appeared in their first five films as straight man. Their films include Monkey Business (1931), Horse Feathers (1932), Duck Soup (1933), and A Night at the Opera (1935). Groucho enjoyed a solo career as film actor, television game show emcee, and master raconteur in concert.
See autobiographies by Groucho (1959) and Harpo (1961); A. Marx, Life with Groucho (1954) and Son of Groucho (1972); biographies of Groucho by H. Arce (1979) and S. Kanfer (2001); Groucho Marx and R. J. Anobile, The Marx Bros. Scrapbook (1973); S. Kanfer: The Essential Groucho: Writings by, for, and about Groucho Marx (2000); S. Louvish, Monkey Business (2001); G. Mitchell, The Marx Brothers Encyclopedia (2003).