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Entertainment Earth


Entertainment Earth


"I know what you are thinking, but I don't look anything like him."

- W.J. Flywheel, Webporium Curator

In 1971, the Mariner 9 spacecraft arrived in orbit around Mars - to find it entirely engulfed in a planet-wide dust storm. The only features clearly visible were four dark spots. Carl Sagan was so fascinated by these that his colleagues at Cornell University jokingly called them "Carl's Marks"; Sagan nicknamed the four spots Harpo, Groucho, Chico, and Zeppo.

The Marx Brothers had been working the vaudeville stages of America for years before graduating to Broadway stardom in 1924. When Hollywood discovered sound, they were perfect for the new medium, and their first movie in 1929 was a filmed version of their New York hit, "The Cocoanuts".

Born to a family of artists, the musical talent of the brothers was encouraged from an early age. Harpo was especially talented, and could play nearly any instrument; however, his focus was the harp, from which he derived his nickname, and which he often played on film. Chico was an excellent and histrionic pianist, and Groucho played the guitar.

They got their start in vaudeville, where their uncle Albert Schönberg was performing as Al Shean of Gallagher and Shean. Groucho's debut was in 1905, predominately as a singer. By 1907 he and Gummo were singing together as two-thirds of The Three Nightingales with Mabel O'Donnell. The next year, Harpo became the fourth Nightingale. By 1910, the group was expanded to include their mother and their Aunt Hannah, and the troupe was renamed The Six Mascots.

One evening, a performance at the Opera House in Nacogdoches, Texas was interrupted by shouts from outside about a runaway mule. The audience hurried outside to see what was happening, and when they returned, Groucho, infuriated by the interruption, announced "Nacogdoches is full of roaches," and "The jackass is the flower of Tex-ass." Instead of becoming angry in return, the audience laughed, and afterward the family began to consider the possibility that they had potential as a comic troupe.

Slowly, the act evolved from singing with some incidental comedy to a comedy with some music, like their sketch set in a schoolroom ("Fun in Hi Skule"), featuring Groucho as a German-accented teacher presiding over a classroom which included students Harpo, Gummo and, by 1912, Chico. The last version of the school act, entitled Home Again, was written by Al Shean. Around this time, Gummo left the group to fight in World War I ("Anything is better than being an actor!"); Zeppo would replace him for their final vaudeville years, through their leap to Broadway, and the subsequent Paramount pictures.

During World War I, anti-German sentiments grew, and the family tried to hide their German origin. Harpo changed his real first name from Adolph to Arthur, and Groucho discontinued his "German" stage personality.

By this time the brothers, now "The Four Marx Brothers", had begun to incorporate their unique brand of comedy into their act and to develop their characters. It has been noted in a few of both Groucho and Harpo's memoirs that their now famous on-stage personas were originally created by Al Shean. Groucho began to wear his trademark greasepaint moustache and to use a stooped walk, Harpo began to wear a red fright wig, carried a taxi-cab horn and never spoke, Chico started to talk in a fake Italian accent, developed off-stage to deal with neighbourhood toughs, and Zeppo adopted the schleppy, juvenile role of the straight man. The on-stage personalities of Groucho, Chico, and Harpo were said to have been based on their actual traits (although, in real life, Harpo could talk). Zeppo, on the other hand, was considered the funniest offstage brother, despite his limited, straight stage roles. Being the youngest and having grown up watching his brothers, he was also the one who could fill in for, and nearly perfectly imitate, the others when illness kept them from a performance. "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.

In the 1920s the Marx Brothers became one of America's favourite theatrical acts. With their sharp and bizarre sense of humour, they satirized institutions like high society, and human hypocrisy. In addition, they became famous for their improvisational comedy in their free form scenarios. A famous early example was when Harpo instructed a chorus girl to run across the stage in front of Groucho during his act with him chasing to see if Groucho would be thrown off. However to the audience's delight, Groucho merely reacted with an improvised joke of calmly checking his watch and commenting: "First time I ever saw a taxi hail a passenger", and, when Harpo chased the girl back the other direction, "You can always set your watch by the 9:20".

The brothers' vaudeville act had become successful enough to make them stars on Broadway, first with a musical revue, I'll Say She Is (1924–1925), followed by two musical comedies, The Cocoanuts (1925–1926) and Animal Crackers (1928–1929). Playwright George S. Kaufman worked on the latter two shows and helped to sharpen the Brothers' characterizations.

The Marx brothers' stage shows became popular just as Hollywood was making the change to "talkies". The brothers struck a contract with Paramount and embarked on their career in films. Their first two released films (they had previously made – but not released – one short silent film titled Humor Risk) were adaptations of Broadway shows: The Cocoanuts (1929) and Animal Crackers (1930). Both were written by George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind.

Their third feature-length film, Monkey Business (1931), was their first that was 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 films where Harpo revealed having nearly everything in his coat. At various points in Horse Feathers Harpo pulls out of his coat: 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 a candle burning at both ends.

Their last Paramount film, Duck Soup (1933) – directed by the most highly regarded director they ever worked with, Leo McCarey – is now considered by many their finest: it is the only Marx Brothers film on the American Film Institute's "100 years ... 100 Movies" list. Common wisdom holds that the film failed, but this was actually incorrect. It did not do as well as Horse Feathers, but was the sixth highest-grosser of 1933. The Marx Brothers left Paramount mostly due to disagreements over creative decisions and financial issues.

After Zeppo left the act to become an agent (he remained his brothers' agent for the remainder of their career as the Marx Bros), the three remaining brothers moved to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, and, following the suggestion of producer Irving Thalberg, decided to alter their formula. In the rest of their films, their comedy would be interwoven with romantic plots and non-comic musical numbers while the targets of their mischief was largely confined to clear villains. Only their Paramount films represent what is considered their genius in its pure form.

The first film that the brothers shot with Thalberg was A Night at the Opera (1935), a satire on the world of opera music, where the brothers help two young singers in love by throwing a production of Il Trovatore into silly chaos. The film was a great success, and for decades (until critics and fans took a second look at their Paramount films) was generally considered their best work. The film was a huge success, followed two years later by the even bigger hit A Day at the Races (1937), where the brothers caused mayhem at a horse race. However, during shooting in 1936, Thalberg died suddenly, and without him, the brothers didn't have an advocate at MGM.

After a short experience at RKO (Room Service, 1938), the Marx Brothers made three more films before leaving MGM, At the Circus (1939), Go West (1940), and The Big Store (1941). Prior to the release of "The Big Store" the team announced their retirement from the screen, but Chico was in dire financial straits and to help settle his gambling debts, the Marx Brothers made another two films together, A Night in Casablanca (1946) and Love Happy (1949), both of them released by United Artists. Then they worked together, but in different scenes, in The Story of Mankind (1957). This was followed by a television special, The Incredible Jewel Robbery in 1959.

Love Happy was initially planned as a solo vehicle for Harpo, then as a two-hander with Chico, the financiers weren't persuaded about the film until Groucho agreed to appear. His role was little more than an extended cameo, but it gave him the chance to don deerstalker and magnifying glass as a private eye, and also to share a short scene with film newcomer, Marilyn Monroe. It wasn't actually her first film, but when it was re-released, her image appeared on the poster, above the line, "The Picture That Discovered Marilyn Monroe".

Chico and Harpo went on to make nightclub and casino appearances, sometimes together. Groucho began a career as a radio and television entertainer. From 1947 to the early-1960s he was the host of the humorous quiz show You Bet Your Life. He was also an author; his writings include the autobiographical Groucho and Me (1959) and Memoirs of a Mangy Lover (1964).

The 1957 television talk show Tonight! America After Dark, hosted by Jack Lescoulie, may supply the only public footage in which all five brothers appeared.

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 W.C. Fields, Chico Marx (who had died), and Zeppo Marx (who left show business in 1933). Voice actor Paul Frees filled in for all three. The Marx Brothers' segment was a reworking of a scene from their Broadway play I'll Say She Is, a parody of Napoleon which 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.



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