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The Marx Brothers were born in New York City, the sons of Jewish immigrants from Germany and France. Their mother Miene "Minnie" Schoenberg (professionally known as Minnie Palmer, later the brothers' manager) was from Dornum in East Frisia, and their father Samuel ("Sam"; born "Simon", nicknamed "Frenchy") Marx was a native of Alsace and worked as a tailor. (His name was changed to Samuel Marx, and he was nicknamed "Frenchy".) The family lived in the poor Yorkville section of New York City's Upper East Side, centered in the Irish, German and Italian quarters. The brothers are best known by their stage names:
|Stage name||Birth name||Born||Died||Age||Death|
|Chico||Leonard||March 22, 1887||October 11, 1961||74||Arteriosclerosis|
|Harpo||Adolph (after 1911: Arthur)||November 23, 1888||September 28, 1964||75||Heart failure|
|Groucho||Julius Henry||October 2, 1890||August 19, 1977||86||Pneumonia|
|Gummo||Milton||October 23, 1892||April 21, 1977||84||Cerebral hemorrhage|
|Zeppo||Herbert Manfred||February 25, 1901||November 30, 1979||78||Lung cancer|
The Marx Brothers also had an older sister, actually a cousin, born in January 1885 who had been adopted by Minnie and Frenchie. Her name was Pauline, or "Polly". Groucho talked about her in his 1972 Carnegie Hall concert.
Minnie Marx came from a family of performers. Her mother was a yodeling harpist and her father a ventriloquist; both were funfair entertainers. Around 1880, the family emigrated to New York City, where Minnie married Sam in 1884. During the early 20th century, Minnie helped her younger brother Abraham Elieser Adolf Schönberg (stage name Al Shean) to enter show business; he became highly successful on vaudeville and Broadway as half of themusical comedy double act Gallagher and Shean, and this gave the brothers an entree to musical comedy, vaudeville and Broadway at Minnie's instigation. Minnie also acted as the brothers' manager, using the name Minnie Palmer so that agents did not realize that she was also their mother. All the brothers confirmed that Minnie Marx had been the head of the family and the driving force in getting the troupe launched, the only person who could keep them in order; she was said to be a hard bargainer with theatre management.
Gummo and Zeppo both became successful businessmen: Gummo gained success through his agency activities and a raincoat business, and Zeppo became a multi-millionaire through his engineering business.
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. Groucho was angered by the interruption and, when the audience returned, he made snide comments at their expense, 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 that it had potential as a comic troupe. (However, in his autobiography Harpo Speaks, Harpo Marx stated that the runaway mule incident occurred in Ada, Oklahoma. A 1930 article in the San Antonio Expressnewspaper stated 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 was titled Home Again and was written by their uncle Al Shean. The Home Again tour reached Flint, Michigan in 1915, where 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. Gummo then 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. Mother Minnie learned that farmers were excluded from the draft rolls, so she purchased a 27-acre (110,000 m2) 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) straight man.
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. He was the youngest and had grown up watching his brothers, so 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 stood in for 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.) In December 1917 the Marx brothers were noted in an advertisement playing in a musical comedy act "Home Again".
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, and 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 in the other direction, Groucho calmly checked his watch and ad-libbed, "The 9:20's right on time. You can set your watch by the Lehigh Valley."
The brothers' vaudeville act had made them stars on Broadway under Chico's management and with Groucho's creative direction—first with the 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.
The stage names of the brothers (except Zeppo) 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 that included a supporting character named "Groucho". As Fisher dealt each brother a card, he addressed him, for the very first time, by the names they kept 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 explained that Milton became Gummo because he crept about the theater like a gumshoe detective. Other sources reported 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 reported 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 that Julius was named Groucho is perhaps the most disputed. There are three explanations:
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.
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":
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, and they replied, "That wouldn't be dignified." Woollcott answered with a belly laugh. Woollcott did not meet the Marx Brothers until the premiere of I'll Say She Is, which was their first Broadway show, so this would mean that 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 reported that the Marx Brothers went 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 studios in New York City's Astoria section. 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 by George 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.
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 magazine. It included a running gag from their stage work, in which Harpo produces a ludicrous array of props from inside 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 Trovatoreinto 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, the brothers left MGM in 1937; Thalberg had died suddenly on September 14, 1936, two weeks after filming began on 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 they were retiring 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. He was 74. Three years later, on September 28, 1964, Harpo died at the age of 75 of a heart attack one day after heart surgery.
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-Bass animation (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). The Marx Brothers' segment was a reworking of a scene from their Broadway play I'll Say She Is, a parody ofNapoleon that 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. With the deaths of Gummo in April 1977, Groucho in August 1977, and Zeppo in November 1979, the brothers were gone. But their impact on the entertainment community continues well into the 21st century.
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. In an episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show Murray calls the new station owner at home late at night to complain when the song "Hooray for Captain Spaulding" is cut from a showing of Animal Crackers because of the new owners' policy to cut more and more from shows to sell more ad time, putting his job on the line.
In Everyone Says I Love You (1996), Woody Allen 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.
In the 1989 film Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Sean Connery tells Harrison Ford he should have sent his diary "to the Marx Brothers" rather than entrusting it to Harrison's Indiana Jones character.
Films with the four Marx Brothers:
Films with the three Marx Brothers (post-Zeppo):