"I know what you are
thinking, but I don't look anything like him."
- W.J. Flywheel, Webporium
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".
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.
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.
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"
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 (19241925),
followed by two musical comedies, The Cocoanuts (19251926) and
Animal Crackers (19281929). Playwright George S. Kaufman worked
on the latter two shows and helped to sharpen the Brothers' characterizations.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.