BY The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica
Marx Brothers, American comedy team that was popular on stage, screen, and radio for 30 years. They were celebrated for their inventive attacks on the socially respectable and upon ordered society in general. Five Marx brothers became entertainers: Chico Marx (original name Leonard Marx; b. March 22, 1887, New York, New York, U.S.—d. October 11, 1961, Hollywood, California), Harpo (original name Adolph Marx, later Arthur Marx; b. November 23, 1888, New York City—d. September 28, 1964, Hollywood), Groucho (original name Julius Henry Marx; b. October 2, 1890, New York City—d. August 19, 1977, Los Angeles, California), Gummo (original name Milton Marx; b. October 23, 1892, New York City—d. April 21, 1977, Palm Springs, California), and Zeppo (original name Herbert Marx; b. February 25, 1901, New York City—d. November 30, 1979, Palm Springs).
The Marx Brothers were the sons of a tailor and a domineering stage mother, as well as the nephews of vaudeville headliner Al Shean of the popular team Gallagher and Shean. In 1904 Groucho became the first of the brothers to appear onstage, when he joined a singing trio. He was eventually joined by Gummo, Harpo, and Chico in what, after a long series of incarnations, evolved into a comedy act. For several mostly successful years in burlesque and vaudeville, the brothers’ stage act consisted of songs, dances, musical specialities by Harpo (on harp) and Chico (on piano), and the Marx’s own brand of chaotic humour. They scored a major triumph on Broadway with their musical-comedy revue I’ll Say She Is (1924), by which time Zeppo had replaced Gummo. In what proved to be a turning point in their careers, the show endeared them to Alexander Woollcott, the most prominent and influential drama critic of the time. His close friendship with Harpo led to the brothers’ association with members of the Algonquin Round Table and other members of New York’s cultural elite. Although they had little formal education, the Marxes were feted by scholars and intellectuals throughout their lives, and they counted among their personal friends luminaries such as Woollcott, George S. Kaufman, S.J. Perelman, T.S. Eliot, George Gershwin, and several other noted writers and composers.
By 1924 the brothers’ act had evolved into its familiar incarnation. Groucho was the master of wit and verbal timing, and he delivered wisecracks and non sequiturs at a dizzying, relentless pace; his visual trademarks included greasepainted eyebrows and mustache, glasses, tailcoat, and ever-present cigar. Harpo played a mute, clad in rags and battered top hat, who communicated through gestures, whistles, horn-honking, and wild facial expressions; his character is that of pure, unbridled emotion and impulse, devilish and angelic in equal measure. Although he had no formal musical training, Harpo was a proficient harpist, and virtually all Marx Brothers films feature one of his impressive solos. Although Groucho and Harpo are regarded as the comic geniuses of the act, audiences found Chico the most immediately ingratiating. In the manner of dialect comedians of the time, Chico adopted a bogus Italian accent for his character of a somewhat thick-headed shyster with a heart of gold. He was not in Harpo’s league as a musician, but his dexterous “trick” piano playing was an audience favourite. Zeppo, who dropped out of the act after the team’s first five films, played a straight character and was usually given little to do, although certain film scenes (such as the letter-writing routine in Animal Crackers) indicate that he too had a sound sense of comic timing.
The success of I’ll Say She Is enabled the brothers to secure Broadway’s most prestigious talents for their next show. As produced by Sam Harris, and with a book by George S. Kaufman and songs by Irving Berlin, The Cocoanuts (1925) ran for more than two years on Broadway and on tour. After the hit Animal Crackers (1928), the brothers turned their attentions to the new medium of sound motion pictures. Their first film was a screen adaptation of The Cocoanuts (1929), filmed at New York’s Astoria Studios during the day while the brothers performed Animal Crackers onstage at night. Although the film suffers from the technical shortcomings typical of early sound films, the team’s comedy shines through. By 1930, when they filmed Animal Crackers, most of the problems with sound had been solved, and the film is now recognized as their first classic. The stage and screen incarnations of both shows also featured Margaret Dumont, a stately, dowager-type actress who proved a most effective and eternally flustered foil for Groucho in seven of the team’s films.
Pleased with the success of their first two films, Paramount Pictures extended the Marx Brothers’ contract, which they fulfilled with three of their greatest comedies: Monkey Business (1931), Horse Feathers (1932), and Duck Soup (1933). Among their wildest, most anarchic efforts, the three films mercilessly lampoon moneyed society, higher education, and warring governments. They are again filled with Groucho’s verbal effrontery (in lines such as “Remember, men, we’re fighting for this woman’s honor, which is probably more than she ever did!”) and surreal sight gags such as a live, barking dog that emerges from a doghouse tattooed on Harpo’s chest. Monkey Business and Horse Feathers were enormously popular with Depression-era audiences, but the political satire Duck Soup (directed by the renowned Leo McCarey) was a box-office disappointment. It is today, however, regarded as one of the great film comedies of the 1930s. After their Paramount films, Zeppo quit the act and subsequently became a successful talent agent.
Following the failure of Duck Soup, Paramount did not renew the team’s contract. Irving Thalberg, one of the most powerful producers in film history, took an interest in the brothers and signed them to a two-picture deal for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. The resulting films, A Night at the Opera (1935) and A Day at the Races (1937), proved the team’s most financially successful and are regarded among their best efforts. Thalberg introduced elements into their comedy designed to increase their commercial appeal: the Marx Brothers’ characters were still recognizable, but Thalberg set them firmly in the real world and minimized surreal elements, while turning Groucho, Harpo, and Chico into semi-sympathetic, somewhat heroic characters. This approach worked quite well for these two films—largely because Thalberg supplied the team with top-calibre writing talent—but became clichéd and formulaic in later Marx vehicles. Sadly, Thalberg died a few days after shooting on A Day at the Races had begun, and the Marxes never again worked with a producer as sympathetic to their needs or as attuned to their style of comedy.
The team next starred for RKO Radio Pictures in an adaptation of the stage hit Room Service (1938). This was the only film in which they worked with a script not written specifically for them, and the results were mixed. Back at MGM the following year, the brothers found themselves under the guidance of Louis B. Mayer, who reputedly never cared for their style of comedy and refused to provide them with the calibre of writers, composers, and directors they had enjoyed under Thalberg. Their final three MGM films—At the Circus (1939), Go West (1940), and The Big Store (1941)—lacked the quality of their earlier work and were much less successful, and in 1941 the brothers announced their retirement as a team. For the next few years, Groucho performed frequently on radio, Harpo appeared on the stage, Chico led his own big band, and all three toured individually and entertained troops during the war years. They reteamed for two more films, the enjoyable A Night in Casablanca (1946) and the embarrassing Love Happy (1949), the latter being most notable for a cameo appearance by the young Marilyn Monroe.
In later years Harpo and Chico were semiretired, but they made occasional appearances, together and separately, on television and in nightclubs. The most enduringly successful of the brothers was Groucho, who in 1947 debuted his comedy quiz show You Bet Your Life on network radio. The show transferred to television in 1950 and ended its long run in 1961. The quiz itself had little to do with the show’s success; its main attraction was the banter between Groucho and the contestants. Groucho also wrote several books (including the autobiographies Groucho and Me, 1959, and Memoirs of a Mangy Lover, 1963) and continued performing into his eighties, including a sold-out, one-man show at Carnegie Hall in 1972.