Mention the Marx Brothers and I instantaneously break out into that stooped walk, with a cigar in hand, made famous by Groucho Marx. I also can’t help but smile when I see that silly grease paint moustache that Groucho proudly sports. Though I break out in laughter when I think of his brother Harpo with his mischievous antics of blowing horns and slapstick, teamed together with the dozens of items he constantly keeps pulling out from within his coat. Last but not least, Chico rounds out the trio of brothers I fondly remember, always seemingly up to no good with Harpo, playing a crafty con artist with a bad Italian accent. But wait what about Zeppo and Gummo Marx, I hear you say. True, there were five Marx brothers, however Gummo, the youngest brother, never appeared in any of his brothers movies. While Zeppo, who played the straight man and romantic only appeared in the brothers’ first five movies. (At one point they were known as the Four Marx Brothers, later simply as the Marx brothers.) Nonetheless, I hope you will agree with me that Groucho, Chico and Harpo are the quintessential Marx brothers we all adore and remember.
The Marx brothers, all five of them, were born in New York City and raised in a poor neighbourhood on the Upper East Side at the turn of twentieth century. Their parents, in particular their domineering stage mother Minnie Marx, were determined to see them succeed and encouraged the boys from a very early age to sing and explore their artistic talents. To the boys’ credit they were willing to try anything in an attempt to escape a life of poverty. Harpo, of course, as we know was an amazing harpists, Chico an excellent pianist and Groucho a guitarist and singer.
The Marx family, c. 1915. From left: Groucho, Gummo, Minnie (mother), Zeppo, Sam (father), Chico and Harpo.
The first stirring of modest success came in the early 1910’s in shabby horrible venues in small towns. When the Marx Brothers act was one day hijacked by a runaway mule, outside a Vaudeville theatre in Texas, the incident was a blessing in disguise. Legend states that the theatres audience apparently raced out the door to see this runaway mule, leaving the Marx brothers utterly astonished, as they looked at the empty theatre in front of them. Finally, when the audience returned to their seats, Groucho angrily burst into a tirade of abuse at the audience. The audience apparently burst into laughter and so legend states that Groucho saw the potential for a new act. From then on end the brothers became more and more adventurous, developing witty humour and impromptu gags for their act.
In 1914, a very positive review in Variety magazine helped catapult them to stardom. Suddenly the Marx Brothers found themselves booked solid on all the top vaudeville circuits. As the act began to come to the fore, Groucho began to invent more new material that brought even greater laughs. It was around this time that the brothers acquired the nicknames by which they would become famous for around the world. They also adopted a stage persona, which they then stuck with for the rest of their careers. Harpo, in particular, stopped talking on stage, choosing to get laughs out of an old car horn to ‘honk’ out his retorts.
This photo was reputedly taken in 1921 during the brothers successful stage stint in On the Mezzanine.
By the early 1920s, the Marx brothers began to realize that vaudeville was dying a slow death. People had grown tired of it as a form of entertainment. So in 1924 they moved their successful act to Broadway. It wasn’t long before they became the toast of New York. All that remained was now to conquer Hollywood and they did to some extent with their first outing, The Cocoanuts (1929), a successful transfer of the Broadway stage act to the big screen. It fair to say, it may not have been their greatest foray into motion pictures; however it had all the chaotic madness we come to except from the Marx Brothers.
Of all the Marx Brothers movies, it is the period before America’s involvement in World War II, that audience straight out of the Depression era first fell in love with the zany brothers. It is rare in my opinion that they made a bad movie in the pre-war years. The Marx Brothers in the 1930s were at the zenith as a comedy act. Chaos ruled both on scene and behind the camera. They were sometimes described as ‘unhinged maniacs’ and complete show-offs. Industry insiders have commented that their confidence as performers was often interpreted as arrogance. They walked with a swagger because they knew that they were funny.
Not all the Marx Brothers films in their heyday were well received, including their mapcap classic Duck Soup (1933). But over time with a better understanding of what the Marx Brothers were all about Duck Soup would grow to become one of the greatest comedies of all time. Right from the opening credits with four ducks swimming in a huge pot of water, you know something special is cooking! Importantly, it is all the non-stop gags and puns that really drive this quintessence Marx Brothers picture. Make no mistake about it, with Groucho in charge of proceedings, you can’t escape, the pun after pun that flows from his mouth like verbal diarrhoea.
Publicity photo of the Marx Brothers in A Night in Casablanca (1946).
However, after a short retirement during the war years, the Marx Brothers movies that followed the end of WWII never really lived up to audience expectation. (In my opinion I believe they should have stayed retired at the end of 1941, but purportedly reunited because of Chico’s financial troubles.) It seemed that audiences had grown tired of the anarchical mayhem they were famous for. To add insult to injury, the American public had fallen in love with someone new, in particular Abbott and Costello. Furthermore, in the postwar world, New York and the rest of America would be swept up by the slapstick hysteria that was Martin and Lewis.
Are the Marx brothers still relevant? Honestly I hope so. Their work is often held in high regard among critics and physical comedians still today, though I don’t know if the audiences of today would appreciate their antics like the audiences of yesteryear. I was exposed to them as a kid; and even I have to admit they are an acquired taste. Nevertheless, the Marx Brothers still hold a special place in cinema history having left us with a wonderful legacy of laughs.