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.

Further Reading on The Marx Brothers

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).