Considered to be among the greatest comedy geniuses of the 20th Century, the Marx Brothers utilised wit, satire and slapstick to make them notorious the world over, both as individuals and as a family.
The Marx name was in fact originally 'Marrix'. The brothers' father (Simon Marrix, a tailor, born in 1860 in the Alsace region of France) changed the family name from Marrix to Marx because he hoped it would be easier to find a job in America if he made his surname sound more German1. Some readers might recognise Simon Marrix as the 'Sam' in the Groucho song, 'Sam, You Made the Pants Too Long'. It's also believed that Chico often pawned off his dad's tailor's shears so he could gamble.
I never forget a face, but in your case I'll be glad to make an exception.
The brothers' mother was Miene Schönberg (born in Dornum, Germany on 9 November, 1864) who also changed her name - from Miene to Minnie. Her family moved to the USA when she was 15, in 1880, where they settled in New York. She met Simon and married him on 18 January, 18852. Their first baby, Manfred, was born in 1886, though he died seven months later, most probably from influenza.
Their other children were:
Leonard, who took the name Chico (1887 - 1961)
Adolph, aka Arthur, who became Harpo (1888 - 1964)
Julius Henry - the infamous Groucho (1890 - 1977)
Milton, who became Gummo (1892 - 1977)
Herbert, better known as Zeppo (1901 - 1979)
Mother Marx died on 13 September, 1929, and out of respect for their mother all the Marx Brothers named their daughters with a name beginning with 'M'. Their father died less than four years later, on 11 May, 1933.
Formation of the Marx Brothers
Remember men, we're fighting for this woman's honour - which is probably more than she ever did.
The first sign of the Marx Brothers as a performing group came on 24 June, 1907, when Groucho and Gummo, with Mabel O'Donnell, made their debut performance as 'Ned Weyburn's Nightingales' in Atlantic Garden, Atlantic City, New Jersey. On 1 June, 1908, Harpo became the fourth Nightingale at an appearance in Henderson's Theater, Coney Island, New York. When the Marx family moved to Chicago in late 1909/early 1910, the Four Nightingales became known as the Six Mascots3. Chico joined the Mascots on 26 September, 1912, for the first performance of 'Mr Green's Reception', at the Family Theater, Lafayette, Indiana.
In 1918, Gummo left the act in order to join the army, and his place in the team was taken by Zeppo.
So, Who Was Who and Where Did the Names Come From?
Groucho Marx was the moustachioed, cigar-chomping leader of the foursome, alternately dispensing humorous invective and acting as exasperated straight man for his brothers' antics. Chico was the unbelievably stupid pun-happy Italian, Harpo the non-speaking whirling dervish and Gummo (and later Zeppo) was the proper 'straight man' of the act.
The name 'The Marx Brothers' was coined by comic Art Fisher on May 15, 1914, and the inspiration for having all the brothers change their names so they had an 'o' on the end came from Gus Mager, a cartoonist who did the same thing with most of his characters. Groucho name came about from the 'grouch bag' that he used to carry around his neck under his clothing4. Harpo got his from the harp that he played and legend has it that Chico got his from his love of 'chicks'5. The reason Gummo was so called was that he had gum-soled shoes, which meant no-one could hear him enter a room, while there are three accepted reasons given by the brothers for Zeppo's nickname, which are:
Harpo claimed that Zeppo received his name after the other brothers spotted him unintentionally mimicking the pull-ups of a very active circus chimp called Mr Zippo. This angered Herbert so they changed it to Zeppo.
Groucho's suggestion was that it came from the Zeppelins used against England by the Germans in World War I.
... while Gummo and Chico agreed that 'Zeppo' was a variation of the rural nickname Zeb, which Herbert later acquired while working on the family's Illinois farm.
When They 'Hit it Big'?
After ten years playing the circuit and refining their skills, the Marx Brothers accepted work with a Broadway-bound 'tab' show called I'll Say She Is. The play was a surprise hit when it eventually opened in 1924, and the Marx Brothers became the toast of Broadway. They followed this success with 1925's The Cocoanuts, in which playwrights George S Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind helped to refine the Groucho character into the combination of con man and perpetual wisecracker that he would continue to portray until the Marx team dissolved. Cocoanuts also introduced Groucho to his perennial foil and straight woman, actress Margaret Dumont.
Films of the Brothers
As a unit, the Marx Brothers made 14 films:
Humor Risk (directed by Dick Smith, 1920/1) - An improvisational piece, based on their stage show of the same name. This silent film is sadly missing from the archives - indeed it's likely it hasn't been seen since it was shot. Groucho later claimed he wasn't sure the film was ever processed, let alone ever shown.
The Cocoanuts (Directed by Robert Florey and Joseph Santley, 1929) - The earliest available Marx Brothers film premiered in New York City on 23 May, 1929, and while a version of it had been seen on stage, there was considerable fiddling with the script during the pre-production of the film version. Considering that the brothers never quite did anything the same twice6, their movies at best could only be an approximation of one night out of a long stage run. Shot in New York, sound films were so new that soundproofing was not installed, so the film had to be shot in the early hours of the morning to reduce outside traffic noise. The plot, for want of a better word, is that during the Florida land boom the brothers run a hotel, auction off some land, thwart a jewel robbery and generally act in character.
Animal Crackers (director Victor Heerman, 25 August, 1930) - In this film the Marx Bros help to retrieve a stolen painting... well, sort of. Incidentally, during rehearsals for the film, a test was made for a colour movie process called 'Multicolor' (a predecessor of Cinecolor). Though the result is silent and lasting just 15 seconds, it's the only known colour footage of the Marx Brothers in action. After making this film the Marx Brothers decided to move to California.
Monkey Business (directed by Norman Z McLeod, released on 19 September, 1931): Monkey Business had the Bros on board a transatlantic crossing, managing to annoy nearly everyone on the ship. The Marx Bros' father, Sam, makes a rare cameo in this film, seen sitting on the crates behind the Brothers in a scene where they're carried off the ship.
Horse Feathers (directed by Norman Z McLeod, released 10 August, 1932) - This time the Marx Bros experimented with an actual plot, placing themselves in Huxley College, with Groucho acting as the newly-installed president, Professor Quincy Adams Wagstaff. His cavalier attitude toward education is not reserved for his son Frank, who is courting the college widow, Connie Bailey. Frank influences Wagstaff to recruit two football players who hang out in a speakeasy7, in order to beat rival school Darwin. Unfortunately, Wagstaff mistakenly hires the misfits Baravelli (Chico) and Pinky (Harpo). Finding out that Darwin has beaten him to the 'real' players, Wagstaff enlists Baravelli and Pinky to kidnap them, which leads to an anarchic football finale.
Duck Soup (directed by Leo McCarey, released 22 November, 1933) - Perhaps the brothers' most well known work, this was also the last film to feature Zeppo, as, on 30 March, 1934, he quit the act. It's only 66 minutes long, but it crackles with jokes from beginning to end, and in this film the Marx Bros had the good fortune to work with a great director, Leo McCarey (who went on to win two Oscars, for The Awful Truth and Going My Way).
A Night at the Opera (directed by Sam Wood, released 1 November, 1935) - This was the first film the brothers made after signing with MGM and the first one without Zeppo. Here, a sly business manager of two opera singers (Groucho) are helped by two wacky friends (Chico and Harpo) to achieve success while humiliating their stuffy and snobbish enemies. The original storyline for the film was to have Groucho as the producer of the opera. The idea was dropped but it subsequently appeared many times as a story idea for later Hollywood movies, most notably in Mel Brooks's The Producers, which won an Academy Award for its script.
A Day at the Races (directed by Sam Wood, released 11 June, 1937) - A vet posing as a doctor (Groucho), a race horse owner and his friends struggle to help keep a sanatorium open with the help of a misfit racehorse. The racetrack in question was Santa Anita Racetrack, Los Angeles, California.
Room Service (directed by William A Seiter, released 21 September, 1938) - The Marx Brothers try and put on a play before their landlord finds out that they have run out of money.
At the Circus (directed by Edward Buzzell, released 20 October, 1939) - Jeff Wilson8, the owner of a small circus, owes his partner Carter $10,000. Before Jeff can pay, Carter lets his accomplices steal the money, so he can take over the circus. Antonio Pirelli (Chico) and Punchy (Harpo), who work at the circus, together with lawyer Loophole (Groucho) try to find the thief and get the money back.
Go West (directed by Edward Buzzell, released 6 December, 1940) - The Marx Bros search for gold and skulduggery abounds. One of the more complex Marx Bros movies, everyone is tricking or stealing from everyone else. The name of Groucho's character, 'S Quentin Quayle', caused a stir when the film was first released due to the subtle but clear joke: the use of the term 'San Quentin quayle', which means 'jail bait.'
The Big Store (directed by Charles Reisner, released 20 June, 1941) - The Phelps Department Store is about to be sold by its new part owner, Tommy Rogers, with the permission of Martha Phelps, the dowager co-owner. The current manager doesn't want this as irregularities in the books will be exposed. When an attempt is made on Tommy's life, Martha enlists the worst private eye in the world, Wolf J Flywheel (Groucho) to protect him. This film has been criticised as many of the scenes appear to be re-works of previous great moments and MGM didn't allow the brothers to experiment with their jokes on a live audience.
A Night in Casablanca (directed by Archie Mayo, released 10 May, 1946) - The first Marx Brothers movie in five years, and set in post-war Casablanca9, Ronald Kornblow is hired to run a hotel whose previous managers have all wound up being murdered. French soldier Pierre suspects the involvement of ex-Nazis, specifically Count Pfefferman, in reality the notorious Heinrich Stubel. But Pierre himself is accused of collaborating with the enemy, and attempts to clear his name with the help of his girlfriend Annette and cagey buddy Corbaccio. They enlist the aid of Pfefferman's beleaguered mute valet, Rusty, and discover a hoard of war booty the Nazis have cached in the hotel.
Love Happy (directed by David Miller and Leo McCarey, released 30 March, 1949) - The final Marx Brothers film, in which they help young Broadway hopefuls while thwarting diamond thieves. Groucho Marx informed Marilyn Monroe that he had a role which called for 'a young lady who can walk by me in such a manner as to arouse my elderly libido and cause smoke to issue from my ears.' Monroe obliged and was quickly cast.
The Radio Series
Outside of a dog, a book is man's best friend. Inside of a dog, it's too dark to read.
In the 1930s Chico and Groucho had a radio show, Flywheel, Shyster and Flywheel10. Not only were a lot of the jokes recycled from previous films, but a lot of the jokes from the series also turned up in subsequent films like Duck Soup. Sponsored by Esso, the reason why the show only lasted one 26-week season is now a subject of conjecture, with reasons including low ratings (they didn't have the best time-slot, so the ratings were comparatively pretty decent), and the fact that the Marx Brothers moved on to their next movie pretty soon after Duck Soup.
After the Success of the '20s and '30s...
In the 1950s, three of the brothers (Harpo, Chico and Groucho) made The Story Of Mankind (directed by Irwin Allen, released in 1957). Harpo played Sir Isaac Newton, Chico played a monk and Groucho played Peter Minuit, who buys Manhattan from the Native Americans. Unfortunately they don't appear with each other.
I shot an elephant in my pyjamas. How he got into my pyjamas, I'll never know.
In the 1960s, their images had become more popular than their movies; the video revolution was still 20 years away, but posters, t-shirts and books were everywhere. Unlike the Three Stooges or Laurel and Hardy, they didn't have any shorts to go around the local TV stations and the 16mm rental clubs. You had to go to an art house to watch bad prints of their movies11. It is possible that two whole generations had grown up without seeing a Marx Brothers movie. All they had seen were their wrinkled images on the TV guest appearances, the finest of which was Harpo's guest shot on Lucille Ball's TV show I Love Lucy, in which she and he redid the mirror sequence from Duck Soup.
On 16 January, 1977, the Marx Bros were placed in 'The Motion Picture Hall of Fame'.
Minnie's brother, Abraham, became known as the comedian Al Shean and Jack Benny's wife (Mary Livingston, previously Sadie Marks) was a distant cousin of the Marx Bros.
There was a Broadway musical based on the early career of the brothers called Minnie's Boys. It starred Shelley Winters as Minnie.
The Marx brothers also get a mention in Ian Dury and the Blockheads song 'Reasons to Be Cheerful'.
It's claimed that the character of Hawkeye Pierce on the TV show M*A*S*H was strongly influenced by Groucho's screen persona, and the role of Banjo in The Man Who Came to Dinner (1951) was apparently based on Harpo.