The Marx Brothers were a family comedy act that was successful in vaudeville, on Broadway, and in motion pictures from 1905 to 1949.
The group are almost universally known today by their stage names: Chico, Harpo, Groucho, Gummo, and Zeppo Marx. The core of the act was the three elder brothers: Chico, Harpo, and Groucho. Each developed a highly distinctive stage persona.
The only known photo of the entire Marx family, c. 1915. From left: Groucho, Gummo, Minnie (mother), Zeppo, Sam (father), Chico, and Harpo.
Harpo and Chico "more or less retired" after 1949, while Groucho went on to begin a second career in television. The two younger brothers Gummo and Zeppo did not develop their stage characters to the same extent. The two eventually left the act to pursue business careers at which they were successful, as well as a large theatrical agency for a time, through which they represented their brothers and others. Gummo was not in any of the movies; Zeppo appeared in the first five films in relatively straight (non-comedic) roles. The performing lives of the brothers was brought about by their mother Minnie Marx, who also acted as their manager.
The Marx Brothers were born in New York City, the sons of Jewish immigrants from Germany and France. Their mother Minnie Schönberg was from Dornum in East Frisia, and their father Simon 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 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 states that the runaway mule incident occurred in Ada, Oklahoma. A 1930 article in the San Antonio Express newspaper states 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.
Then Gummo 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 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 did impersonate 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.)
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."
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 which 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 would keep 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 explains that Milton became Gummo because he crept about the theater like a gumshoe detective. Other sources report 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 report 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:
Julius' temperament: Maxine, Chico's daughter and Groucho's niece, said in the documentary The Unknown Marx Brothers that Julius was named "Groucho" simply because he was grouchy most or all of the time. Robert B. Weide, a director known for his knowledge of Marx Brothers history, said in Remarks On Marx (a documentary short included with the DVD of A Night at the Opera) that, among the competing explanations, he found this one the most believable. Steve Allen said in Funny People that the name made no sense; Groucho might have been impudent and impertinent, but not grouchy—at least not around Allen. However, at the very end of his life, Groucho finally admitted that Fisher had named him Groucho because he was the "moody one".
The grouch bag: This explanation appears in Harpo's biography; it was voiced by Chico in a TV appearance included on The Unknown Marx Brothers; and it was offered by George Fenneman, Groucho's sidekick on his TV game show You Bet Your Life.
A grouch bag was a small drawstring bag worn around the neck in which a traveler could keep money and other valuables so that it would be very difficult for anyone to steal them. Most of Groucho's friends and associates stated that Groucho was extremely stingy, especially after losing all his money in the 1929 stock market crash, so naming him for the grouch bag may have been a comment on this trait. Groucho insisted that this was not the case in chapter six of his first autobiography:
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.
Groucho's explanation; Groucho himself insisted that he was named for a character in the comic strip Knocko the Monk, which inspired the craze for nicknames ending in "o"; in fact, there was a character in that strip named "Groucho". However, he is the only Marx or Marx associate who defended this theory, and as he is not an unbiased witness, few biographers take the claim seriously.
Groucho himself was no help on this point; he was discussing the Brothers' names during his Carnegie Hall concert, and he said of his own, "My name, of course, I never did understand." He goes on to mention the possibility that he was named after his unemployed uncle Julius, who lived with his family. The family believed that he was actually a rich uncle hiding a fortune, and Groucho claimed that he may have been named after him by the family trying to get into the will. "And he finally died, and he left us his will, and in that will he left three razor blades, an 8-ball, a celluloid dicky, and he owed my father $85 beside."
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":
Harpo's explanation; Harpo said in Harpo Speaks! that the brothers had named Herbert for Mr. Zippo, a chimpanzee that was part of another performer's act. Herbert found the nickname very unflattering, and when it came time for him to join the act, he put his foot down and refused to be called "Zippo". The brothers compromised on "Zeppo".
Chico's explanation; Chico never wrote an autobiography and gave fewer interviews than his brothers, but his daughter Maxine said in The Unknown Marx Brothers that, when the brothers lived in Chicago, a popular style of humor was the "Zeke and Zeb" joke, which made fun of slow-witted Midwesterners in much the same way that Boudreaux and Thibodeaux jokes mock Cajuns and Ole and Lena jokes mock Minnesotans. One day, Chico returned home to find Herbert sitting on the fence. Herbert greeted him by saying "Hi, Zeke!" Chico responded with "Hi, Zeb!" and the name stuck. The brothers thereafter called him "Zeb" and, when he joined the act, they floated the idea of "Zebbo", eventually preferring "Zeppo".
Groucho's explanation: In a tape-recorded interview excerpted on The Unknown Marx Brothers, Groucho said that Zeppo was so named because he was born when the first zeppelins started crossing the ocean. He stated this in his Carnegie Hall concert, around 1972. The first zeppelin flew in July 1900, and Herbert was born seven months later in February 1901. However, the first transatlantic zeppelin flight was not until 1924, long after Herbert's birth.
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 report that the Marx Brothers did go 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.
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."
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.
On January 16, 1977, the Marx Brothers were inducted into the Motion Picture Hall of Fame.
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 Everyone Says I Love You (1996), he 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.
The Marx Brothers were collectively named #20 on AFI's list of the Top 25 American male screen legends of Classic Hollywood. They are the only group to be so honored.
The "Sweathogs" of the ABC-TV series "Welcome Back Kotter" (John Travolta, Robert Hegyes, Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs, and Ron Palillo) patterned much of their on-camera banter in that series after the Marx Brothers. Series star Gabe Kaplan was reputedly a big Marx Brothers fan.
Books by the Marx Brothers:
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.
A few elements in the Marx Brothers films may be 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.