The Marx Brothers

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The Marx Brothers Julius & Adolph & Leonard & Herbert 2.

How did four nice little boys called Julius, Adolph, Leonard and Herbert grow up into the Marx Brothers? Perhaps because they never really were nice little boys.

Groucho Marx seldom ventured any comment on his own comic style. He felt that humour, like romance and sex, loses its magic if examined too closely: 'If you talk about those things, they go away.' When asked why he thought he was funny, he would answer simply, 'I'm a funny-looking jerk'. He did believe, however, that all great comedy is based on character.

People who had known the Marx Brothers before they became famous (when they were still Julius, Adolph, Leonard, Milton and Herbert), even before they entered show business, all agreed that the five brothers never had to create the characters they played so convincingly on stage, screen, and television - they already were those characters. A neighbour of the Marx family in New York City during the early 1900s remarked:

'They were wild youngsters with a talent for having fun. The place would be a shambles, especially if Mrs Marx left them alone. They would tear down the draperies. There was a woman across the way. a doctor's wife, who used to send over notes saying that she was going to call the police, which probably made them do it even more.'

the poor marx brothers

The Marx family was poor but, as Groucho said of his childhood:

'We didn't know it, so we were happy. At Christmas we didn't have a tree, just a branch, and we each hung up one of our black socks and got a half an orange each for Christmas. All our neighbours even had better garbage than we did. Harpo used to skate in Central Park with one ice skate he tied on. When my Aunt Hannah cooked the clam chowder, she used the same pot she used for the laundry, and there was plenty of starch in both.'

Although the Marx Brothers' theatrical characters were based on real people and actual experiences, their mannerisms and costumes were developed through trial and error during their years in vaudeville. For Groucho this all began in 1905 when he joined a ' travelling troupe as a boy soprano. He got the job out of economic necessity: (scroll down)


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'I became an actor because I had an uncle in show business who was making $200 a week, and I wasn't making anything, not even an occasional girl.'

Although the job didn't last long, and three times he found himself stranded on the road without money, Groucho persisted. Eventually he landed work with the Gus Edwards school act - his first professional encounter with stage comedy.

groucho marx

donkey business

Three years later Minnie Marx gathered her sons (Groucho, Gummo, and later Harpo) together into a singing act called first The Three Nightingales, then The Six Mascots. She was their agent, and sometimes joined the act with her sister, Hannah. Sam Marx (known as Frenchie), the father of the Marx Brothers, stayed at home with the cooking and housework, as well as a threadbare tailoring business. Apparently this pioneering role- sharing worked out perfectly: Sam was a superb cook while, in Groucho's words:

'Minnie couldn't make anything except my father.'

But as an agent she was unsurpassed. Groucho often said:

'Without her, we wouldn't have been anything. She was the most important woman in my life.'

As a singing act the Marx Brothers were condemned to second-rate or even third-rate, vaudeville, and it was only by accident that they discovered how funny they could be. Groucho described the moment:

'We were playing a small town in Texas, a farming town. The farmers came in and tied up their horses beside the Pantages Theatre. We were doing a singing act. a mule runs away, and the whole audience left to catch the mule. Then they came back. By this time we were so angry we started making sarcastic remarks. Like, "Nacogdoches is full of roaches" and "The jackass is the finest flower of Texass." Instead of getting mad, the audience laughs. This is the first time we ever did comedy like that.'

This incident happened in 1912 during a tour through Louisiana. Texas and Oklahoma.

marx bros

school marx

After their unexpected triumph they attempted comedy whenever it seemed appropriate, and in Denison, Texas, The Six Mascots were received so enthusiastically that they were invited to stay over, this time with a guarantee. Wishing to please an audience of teachers who were there for a conference, Groucho wrote a comedy sketch based on the Gus Edwards school act. Groucho became Herr Teacher, Harpo played the stupid boy, and the other members of the troupe, who included Gummo, became the standard school act characters of that day. This act was called Fun in Hi Skule, and much of what the Marx Brothers did afterwards was influenced by it. Most notable of all, Harpo donned his famous red wig (later to become blond for the films) and became himself; Groucho assumed a stern countenance and an air of unqualified authority: and Gummo played the juvenile straight-man role that Zeppo later inherited. Then Chico joined the act as the confidently ignorant 'Eye-talian'.

All of the Marx Brothers shows that followed Fun in Hi Skule, including the films and even Groucho's TV programme, owed a great deal to it. You Bet Your Life was the same routine but in modern dress, with Groucho still playing Herr Teacher. Horse Feathers is Fun in Hi Skule graduated to college and Hollywood. As the great white hunter in Animal Crackers, the prime minister in Duck Soup, or the bogus doctor in A Day at the Races, Groucho is still in many respects Herr Teacher, and his brothers play almost exactly the same roles as in Fun in Hi Skule.

marx bros MARX BROS, © UNKNOWN

harpo loses his voice

It was their uncle (Minnie's brother), Al Shean - himself a big star in American vaudeviille - who had helped to crystallize further each brother's stage personality. Groucho was allowed to talk incessantly, while Harpo became mute, and Chico played comic straight-man to both. According to Groucho, AI Shean felt that Harpo's voice did not match his whimsical appearance. Harpo was disappointed, but accepted Uncle Al's dictum. Thereafter Harpo talked professionally only once again during his entire career. A quarter of a century later, he spoke at the end of the stage tryouts for Go West. The brothers decided that this speech, whilst comically effective, departed from the innocent Harpo character, and it was omitted from the movie. In later life, after his retirement from films, Harpo would not accept any speaking engagements, and requested that his family never allow a recording of his voice to be played. He felt that to allow his voice to be heard by the public would be unfaithful and destructive to the character he had created. Groucho said the question he was most often asked was, 'Can Harpo talk?' His answer was always, 'Of course not.'

By 1914, Mr Green's Reception, as Fun in Hi Skule was now called, had established the Marx Brothers as rising vaudeville stars. They were not yet, however, known by their famous 'O' names. This happened while they were touring Illinois in 1914. Another performer on the bill with them had a penchant for giving nicknames to his friends. Julius became Groucho because of his serious demeanour. Adolph became Harpo for the obvious reason. Leonard became Chico because of his passion for the chicks, as girls were then called. (Thus the correct pronunciation of his name is 'Chicko') Milton became Gummo because, as he later explained:

'I always had holes in my shoes, so I'd wear rubbers, or gumshoes, over them even when it wasn't raining, and I got called Gummo.'

Herbert was only 13 and at home in Chicago when his brothers were being renamed, but he became Zeppo later. No one, especially Zeppo, is certain why. They continued to use their real names until 1924, but the 'new' names eventually took over.

marx bros

he stoops to conquer

Harpo's devotion to the harp was not accidental. His grandmother had played, in the family's travelling magic show in Germany, on a wondrous instrument without strings. As a child Harpo would also 'play' on this harp which was stored in a closet in their New York apartment, and when he finally got a harp with real strings he taught himself to play, but in an unorthodox style that in later years amazed professional harpists.

Before they were established as stars, however, the Marx Brothers ran through a number of what were then called musical tabloids: several thinly plotted scenes, as sumptuously mounted as a tight budget and difficult physical conditions would allow, were held together by song, dance and comedy. In each of these shows the brothers enriched their comic characters and developed routines that would serve them - with variations - for decades. The sloping, stooping Groucho walk, for instance, happened by accident:

'I was just kidding around one day, and I started to walk funny. The audience liked it so I kept it in.'

After one failure, the Marx Brothers appeared in the successful On the Mezzanine Floor, which, along with Home Again, toured Great Britain in 1922. They opened at the Coliseum in London. At first, the audience did not understand the Marx Brothers' humour and responded by throwing pennies onto the stage. In those days, Groucho recalled:

'it was the custom when the audiences didn't like an act - a pretty dangerous custom, too, since the English penny was as large as a silver dollar.'

Groucho waded into the shower of coins and addressed the audience: Groucho recalled:

'We came all the way from America to entertain you, so you might at least throw some shillings.'

His ad lib won over the audience, and their entire British tour was enormously successful.

marx bros

a night in new york

Back in the United States in 1923 they had serious difficulties with the United Booking Office, which controlled virtually all of vaudeville. Unable to get work they were forced to put on their own show. They were helped by a Pennsylvanian industrialist who owned a theatre in Philadelphia and the sets and props from several theatrical flops, and were thus able to put together I'll Say She Is, their most ambitious musical tabloid to date. Although Groucho always referred to this show as 'a real turkey,' it was a huge success in Philadelphia. After a tepid road trip, they came to Broadway. Fortunately, on the night they opened in 1924 a more important show postponed its premiere, and the most influential New York drama critics went to I'll Say She Is instead. Their rave reviews established the Marx Brothers as permanent superstars.

Two even bigger Broadway hits followed: The Cocoanuts in 1925 and Animal Crackers in 1928: both were later filmed in New York - in 1929 and 1930 respectively - almost exactly as they were presented on the stage.

After filming Animal Crackers, the Marx Brothers left for California, where they remained. Their first three Hollywood pictures were produced for Paramount by Herman J. Mankiewicz. writer of Citizen Kane (1940) and one of Hollywood's great non-conformists. (Assigned to write a Rin-Tin-Tin picture, he had the courageous police dog carry the baby into a burning building instead of out of it. He was never assigned to a Rin-Tin-Tin film again.) The Marx Brothers' pictures of this period - Monkey Business (1931), Horse Feathers (1932), and Duck Soup (1933) - all bear the imprint of their iconoclastic producer.

marx bros

under thalberg's wing

The next two films, A Night at the Opera (1935) and A Day at the Races (1937), were produced by Irving Thalberg at MGM. Groucho credited Thalberg with saving their careers after Duck Soup had done poorly at the box office. Thalberg felt that the Marx Brothers were appealing only to a minority, and that they were missing especially the female audience that so often decided which film the family attended. He found the Marx Brothers characters of the Paramount films 'unsympathetic' because they were not helping anyone.

To remedy this, he reinforced the plots so that they could stand alone as romantic comedies, recast the Marx Brothers as helpful avuncular types rather than totally uninhibited anarchists, and added the kind of lavish production numbers that a major studio like MGM could afford. He also allowed the Marx Brothers to try out material for their next picture in front of audiences on a road tour; this was especially helpful, as the Marx Brothers had always depended heavily on the reaction of live audiences to their ad libs.

Thalberg returned to the original successful formula of George S. Kaufman who, with Morrie Ryskind, had conceived and written The Cocoanuts and Animal Crackers, and at Groucho's behest, Kaufman and Ryskind were imported from the East Coast to write A Night at the Opera.

After Duck Soup Zeppo had quit the act and started a talent agency. Zeppo had never been happy with his role as a straight-man:

'I always wanted to be a comedian, but I came along too late, and three comedians in the act was already enough.'

Gummo, who had been out of show business since his discharge from the army in 1919 and never appeared in the films, joined Zeppo, and the two built their agency into one of the biggest in Hollywood. One of Zeppo's first deals for the Marx Brothers was buying the rights to the Broadway hit Room Service for their next picture in 1938.

Thalberg's premature death during the filming of A Day at the Races marked a crucial point in the Marx Brothers' career as a team. No longer did they have their champion at the biggest studio in Hollywood. Their next three pictures, At the Circus (1939), Go West (1940), and The Big Store (1941), were made for MGM on a production-line basis, and by 1942 they were ready to retire as a team, each brother going his own way professionally.

marx bros

the laughter maker

Groucho, who had published Beds in 1930, continued to write, eventually writing five books. He had always aspired to being a writer, even before wanting to become an actor, and he was as proud of his literary output as of anything else he ever did. He was also proud of being able to make people laugh. He said:

'It's a lot easier to make people cry than it is to make them laugh.'

Groucho also tried radio but was unsuccessful until You Bet Your Life in 1948. Although he was known as one of the screen's great talkers, the visual aspects of his comic style were important, too. Lee Strasberg noted:

'The way he moved greatly enhanced his character'.

Studying the famous dialogues between Groucho and Chico, one immediately becomes aware of Groucho's sense of movement, even in a static scene. He is always in motion, yet what he does is so appropriate to what is being said that it heightens it while not being obtrusive. Director King Vidor noted that Groucho's reactions were always perfect, and that reacting is the most difficult aspect of film acting.

grouch marx

final marx

During their first 'retirement' Harpo and Chico continued to make personal appearances on stage, in concert, or at nightclubs, sometimes alone, sometimes together. Occasionally Chico would join Groucho on a radio broadcast, but by 1945 Chico, who was an inveterate gambler, was broke. To help Chico, the other brothers agreed to come out of retirement and made A Night in Casablanca in 1946. This film. which satirized Casablanca (1942), was successful but the team disbanded again immediately afterwards.

However, a later re-union, Love Happy (1949), was not successful, and the team made only one more professional appearance, in a television special called The Incredible Jewel Robbery (1960). In neither of these last two productions does Groucho make more than a cameo appearance. At the time his own career was soaring with starring roles in major motion pictures and with his own successful TV quiz show, You Bet Your Life.

Chico died in 1961 (aged 74), Harpo in 1964 (aged 75), and Gummo in 1977 (aged 80). Groucho died in 1977 just before his 87th birthday. He had survived his brother Gummo by a few months but wasn't told by his family of his brother's death because of the distress it would have caused him. Zeppo, who was born in 1901, lived in Palm Springs and had not been associated with show business for years before he, too, passed away in 1979. He was survived by his ex-wife, Barbara, nearly 30 years his junior, who went on to marry Frank Sinatra.

Others have tried this same kind of irreverent comedy, but none with the elan or style of the Marx Brothers. Groucho, Harpo, Chico, and Zeppo really were those zany characters they played on stage and screen.

As children, the Marx Brothers slept four in a bed, two at each end, and early developed the respect for each other's privacy and the close friendship that lasted throughout their lives. Groucho once said:

'We played every town in America and I think we were the only group that never fought. No act in vaudeville got along better than we did. There never was anyone like my brothers and me.'

He was right.


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Groucho, Harpo. Chico and Zeppo:

  1. 1926 Humorisk (unreleased and no cast list)
  2. 1929 The Cocoanuts
  3. 1930 Animal Crackers
  4. 1931 Monkey Business
  5. 1932 Horse Feathers
  6. 1933 Duck Soup

    Groucho, Harpo and Chico:

  7. 1935 A Night at the Opera
  8. 1937 A Day at the Races
  9. 1938 Room Service
  10. 1939 At the Circus
  11. 1940 Go West
  12. 1941 The Big Store
  13. 1946 A Night in Casablanca
  14. 1949 Love Happy
  15. 1957 The Story of Mankind (separate appearances).

    Harpo only:

  16. 1925 Too Many Kisses
  17. 1936 La Fiesta de Santa Barbara (short)
  18. 1943 Stage Door Canteen
  19. 1944 Hollywood Canteen.
  20. 1945 All-Star Bond Rally

    Groucho only:

  21. 1937 The King and the Chorus Girl (co-sc. only)
  22. 1947 Copacabana
  23. 1950 Mr Music
  24. 1951 Double Dynamite
  25. 1952 A Girl in Every Port

Key Dates
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Groucho Marx

Chico Marx

Harpo Marx

Zeppo Marx

Birth names:

Julius Henry Marx (Groucho Marx)
Leonard Marx (Chico Marx)
Adolph Marx (Harpo Marx)
Herbert Marx (Zeppo Marx)


Groucho Marx: 2 October 1890, New York, New York, USA
Chico Marx: 22 March 1887, New York, New York, USA
Harpo Marx: 23 November 1888, New York, New York, USA
Zeppo Marx: 25 February 1901, New York, New York, USA


Groucho Marx: 5' 8" (1.73 m)
Harpo Marx: 5' 5" (1.65 m)



Groucho Marx:
Eden Hartford (17 July 1954 - 4 December 1969) (divorced)
Kay Marvis (21 July 1945 - 12 May 1951) (divorced) 1 child
Ruth Johnstone (4 February 1920 - 15 July 1942) (divorced) 2 children

Chico Marx:
Mary De Vithas (1958 - 11 October 1961) (his death)
Betty Carp (? - ?) (divorced) 1 daughter

Harpo Marx:
Susan Fleming (28 September 1936 - 28 September 1964) (his death) 4 adopted children

Zeppo Marx:
Barbara Marx (1962 - 1972) (divorced)
Marion Benda (1927 - 1954) (divorced) 1 son


Groucho Marx:
19 August 1977, Los Angeles, California, USA

Chico Marx:
11 October 1961 Hollywood, California, USA

Harpo Marx:
28 September 1964, Los Angeles, California, USA

Zeppo Marx:
30 November 1979, Palm Springs, California, USA

Causes of death:

Groucho Marx: pneumonia
Chico Marx: heart ailment
Harpo Marx: following heart surgery
Zeppo Marx: cancer

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"Alimony is like buying hay for a dead horse." ~ Groucho Marx


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