Born in New York City, the Marx Brothers were the sons of Jewish immigrants from Germany. Their mother, Minnie Schönberg, was from Dornum in East Frisia; and their father, Simon Marrix (whose name was changed to Sam Marx, and who was nicknamed "Frenchy") was a native of Alsace, now part of France, and worked as a tailor. The family lived in the then-poor Yorkville section of New York City's Upper East Side, between the Irish, German and Italian quarters.
The brothers were:
|Stage name||Actual name||Born||Died||Age|
|-||Manfred||January 1886||July 17, 1886 (died in infancy)||-|
|Chico||Leonard||March 22, 1887||October 11, 1961||74|
|Harpo||Adolph (after 1911: Arthur)||November 23, 1888||September 28, 1964||75|
|Groucho||Julius Henry||October 2, 1890||August 19, 1977||86|
|Gummo||Milton||October 23, 1892||April 21, 1977||84|
|Zeppo||Herbert||February 25, 1901||November 30, 1979||78|
They got their start in vaudeville, where their uncle Albert Schönberg performed as Al Shean of Gallagher and Shean. Groucho's debut was in 1905, mainly as a singer. By 1907, he and Gummo were singing together as "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 Minnie and their Aunt Hannah, and the troupe was renamed "The Six Mascots".
The act slowly evolved from singing with comedy to comedy with music. Their sketch ("Fun in Hi Skule"), featured Groucho as a German-accented teacher presiding over a classroom that included students Harpo, Gummo and Chico. The last version of the school act, titled Home Again, was written by Al Shean. At about this time, Gummo left to serve in World War I, reasoning that "anything is better than being an actor! Zeppo replaced him in their final vaudeville years and in the jump to Broadway, and then to Paramount films.
During World War I anti-German sentiments were common, and the family tried to conceal their German origin. To avoid the draft the brothers started a farm near Countryside, Illinois, but soon found it not to their liking. During this time Groucho discontinued his "German" stage personality.
By this time "The Four Marx Brothers" had begun to incorporate their unique style of comedy into their act and to develop their characters. Both Groucho and Harpo's memoirs say their now famous on-stage personas were created by Al Shean. Groucho began to wear his trademark greasepaint moustache and to use a stooped walk. Harpo stopped speaking onstage and began to wear a red fright wig and carry a taxi-cab horn. Chico spoke with a fake Italian accent, developed off-stage to deal with neighborhood toughs, while Zeppo adopted the role of the romantic (and "peerlessly cheesy", according to James Agee) straight man.
The on-stage personalities of Groucho, Chico and Harpo were said to have been based on their actual traits. Zeppo, on the other hand, was considered the funniest brother offstage, despite his straight stage roles. As the youngest, and having grown up watching his brothers, he could fill in for and imitate any of the others when illness kept them from performing. "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. (Zeppo did impersonate Groucho in the film version of Animal Crackers. Groucho was unavailable to film the scene in which the Beaugard painting is stolen, so the script was contrived to include a power failure which allowed Zeppo to play the Spaulding part in near-darkness.)
By the 1920s the Marx Brothers had become one of America's favorite theatrical acts. With their sharp and bizarre sense of humor, they satirized institutions such as high society, and human hypocrisy. They also became famous for their improvisational comedy in free-form scenarios. A famous early instance was when Harpo told 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 by calmly checking his watch and commenting, "First time I ever saw a taxi hail a passenger". When Harpo chased the girl back the other direction, Groucho adlibbed, "You can always set your watch by the 9:20".
Under Chico's management, and with Groucho's creative direction, the brothers' vaudeville act had led to them becoming stars on Broadway, first with a musical revue, I'll Say She Is (1924–1925) and then with two musical comedies, The Cocoanuts (1925–1926) and Animal Crackers (1928–1929). Playwright George S. Kaufman worked on the last two and helped sharpen the Brothers' characterizations.
Without makeup, wigs or glasses, the brothers looked similar, even down to their receding hairlines. Zeppo could pass for a younger Groucho, and played the role of his son in Horse Feathers. In Duck Soup, with Groucho, Harpo and Chico all made up in Groucho's greasepaint eyebrows and mustache, and his style of glasses, and with their heads covered by nightcaps, the three looked virtually identical, enabling them to carry off the "mirror scene" effectively.
In his autobiography, Harpo explains that Milton became Gummo because he crept about the theater like a gumshoe detective. Other sources report that Gummo was the family's hypochondriac, having been the sickliest of the brothers in childhood, and therefore wore rubber overshoes, also called gumshoes, in all kinds of weather. Groucho stated that the source of the name was Gummo wearing galoshes. Either way, the name relates to rubber-soled shoes.
The reason Julius was named Groucho is perhaps the most disputed. There are three explanations:
Herbert was not nicknamed by Art Fisher, since he did not join the act until Gummo had departed. As with Groucho, three explanations exist for Herbert's name, "Zeppo":
Maxine Marx reported in The Unknown Marx Brothers that the brothers listed their real names (Julius, Leonard, Adolph, Milton and Herbert) on playbills and in programs, and only used the nicknames behind the scenes, until Alexander Woollcott overheard them calling one another by the nicknames, he asked them why they used their own rather real names publicly when they had such wonderful nicknames. They replied, "That wouldn't be dignified." Woollcott answered with a belly laugh. Since Woollcott did not meet the Marx Brothers until the premiere of I'll Say She Is, which was their first Broadway show, this would mean they used their real names throughout their vaudeville days, and that the name "Gummo" never appeared in print during his time in the act. Other sources report that the Marx Brothers did go by their nicknames during their vaudeville era, but briefly listed themselves by their given names when I'll Say She Is opened because they were worried that a Broadway audience would reject a vaudeville act if they were perceived as low class.
During this time, Chico and Groucho Marx starred in a radio comedy series, Flywheel, Shyster and Flywheel. Although the series was short lived, much of the story material developed for it was used for subsequent films starring the Brothers. Furthermore, the scripts and recordings were believed lost for decades until copies of the scripts were found in the 1980s in the Library of Congress and both published in a book and performed with Marx Brother impersonators for BBC Radio.
Their last Paramount film, Duck Soup (1933) — directed by the most highly regarded director they ever worked with, Leo McCarey — is the higher rated of two Marx Brothers films to make the American Film Institute's "100 years ... 100 Movies" list (the other film being A Night at the Opera). It did not do as well as Horse Feathers, but was the sixth-highest grosser of 1933. The film also led to a feud between the Marxes and the village of Fredonia, New York. Freedonia, of course, was the name of the fictional country in Duck Soup, and the city fathers wrote to Paramount and asked the studio to remove all references in the film to Freedonia because "it is hurting our town's image". Groucho fired back a sarcastic reply asking them to change the name of their town because "it's hurting our picture".
The Marx Brothers left Paramount because of disagreements over creative decisions and financial issues.
Unlike the free-for-all scripts at Paramount, Thalberg insisted on a strong story structure, making them into more sympathetic characters, interweaving their comedy with romantic plots and non-comic musical numbers, while the targets of their mischief were largely confined to clear villains. Thalberg was adamant that these scripts had to include a "low point" where all seems lost for both the Marxes and the romantic leads. In a June 13, 1969, interview with Dick Cavett, Groucho said that the two movies made with Thalberg (A Night at the Opera and A Day at the Races) were the best that they ever produced.
Another idea of Thalberg's was that before filming would commence on an upcoming picture, the Marx Brothers would try out its material on the vaudeville stage, working on comic timing and learning what earned a laugh and what didn't.
The first film that the brothers shot with Thalberg was A Night at the Opera (1935), a satire on the world of opera, where the brothers help two young singers in love by throwing a production of Il Trovatore into chaos. The film (which includes a scene where they cram an amazing number of people into a tiny stateroom on a ship) was a great success, and was followed two years later by the even bigger hit A Day at the Races (1937), where the brothers cause mayhem in a sanitarium and at a horse race (this sequence includes Groucho and Chico's famous "Tootsie Frootsie Ice Cream" sketch). However, during shooting in 1936, Thalberg died suddenly, and without him, the brothers didn't have an advocate at MGM.
After 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; 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.
From the 1940s onward, Chico and Harpo made nightclub and casino appearances, sometimes together. Chico also fronted a big band, the Chico Marx Orchestra. Groucho began a career as a radio and television entertainer. From 1947 to 1961, he was the host of the quiz show You Bet Your Life (along with a money-bearing artificial duck) on NBC. He was also an author -- his writings include the autobiographical Groucho and Me (1959), Memoirs of a Mangy Lover (1964), and The Groucho Letters (1967).
According to a September 1947 article in Newsweek, Groucho, Harpo, Chico, and Zeppo all signed to appear as themselves in a biopic entitled The Life and Times of the Marx Brothers. In addition to being a non-fiction biography of the Marxes, the film would have also featured the brothers reenacting much of their previously unfilmed material from both their vaudeville and Broadway eras. Had the film come into fruition, it would have been the first time the Brothers had appeared as a quartet since 1933.
The 1957 talk show Tonight! America After Dark, hosted by Jack Lescoulie, may supply the only public footage in which all five brothers appeared. On October 1, 1962, Groucho introduced Johnny Carson to the audience of The Tonight Show as the new host.
In 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 Fields and Chico Marx (both had died), and Zeppo Marx (who left show business in 1933). Voice actor Paul Frees filled in for all three (no voice was needed for Harpo, who was also deceased). 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.
Many TV shows and movies have used Marx Brothers references. Animaniacs and Tiny Toons, for example, have featured Marx Brothers jokes and skits. Hawkeye Pierce (Alan Alda) on M*A*S*H occasionally put on a fake nose and glasses, and, holding a cigar, did a Groucho impersonation to amuse patients recovering from surgery.
Also noteworthy is the fact that Harpo Marx appeared as himself in a sketch on I Love Lucy in which he and Lucille Ball reprised the mirror routine from Duck Soup, with Lucy dressed up as Harpo. Chico once appeared on "I've Got a Secret" dressed up as Harpo; his secret was shown in a caption reading "I'm actually Chico Marx."
Films with the three Marx Brothers (post-Zeppo):
|Humor Risk||1926||The Villain||The Italian||Watson, Detective||The Love Interest|
|The Cocoanuts||1929||Mr. Hammer||Chico||Harpo||Jamison|
|Animal Crackers||1930||Captain Geoffrey T. Spaulding||Signor Immanuel Ravelli||The Professor||Horatio Jamison|
|The House That Shadows Built||1931||Caesar's Ghost||Tomalio||The Merchant of Weiners||Sammy Brown|
|Horse Feathers||1932||Professor Quincy Adams Wagstaff||Baravelli||Pinky||Frank Wagstaff|
|Duck Soup||1933||Rufus T. Firefly||Chicolini||Pinky||Lt. Bob Roland|
|A Night at the Opera||1935||Otis B. Driftwood||Fiorello||Tomasso|
|A Day at the Races||1937||Dr. Hugo Z. Hackenbush*||Tony||Stuffy|
|Room Service||1938||Gordon Miller||Harry Binelli||Faker Englund|
|At the Circus||1939||J. Cheever Loophole||Antonio Pirelli||Punchy|
|Go West||1940||S. Quentin Quale||Joe Panello||Rusty Panello|
|The Big Store||1941||Wolf J. Flywheel||Ravelli||Wacky|
|A Night in Casablanca||1946||Ronald Kornblow||Corbaccio||Rusty|
|Love Happy||1949||Sam Grunion||Faustino the Great||Harpo|
|The Story of Mankind||1957||Peter Minuit||Monk||Sir Isaac Newton|
* (To avoid a possible lawsuit, this name was chosen instead of the intended "Quackenbush" after it was discovered that there was a real doctor by this name.)
On the other hand, distribution rights in the rest of the world have been sold on a country-by-country basis. For example, PolyGram Filmed Entertainment purchased the underlying UK rights in later years, and passed on to Universal following the sale of PolyGram to Universal.
In the mid-1990s, Republic licensed US video rights to Artisan Entertainment. Artisan was sold to Lions Gate Entertainment in 2003. Then, in 2006, US video rights to certain Republic properties - including Love Happy - reverted to Paramount, who also owns video rights in Region 4 and in France.
Television distribution is now in the hands of CBS Television Distribution (formerly known as CBS Paramount Domestic Television), having inherited them from Republic, Worldvision Enterprises, and Paramount Domestic Television. Video rights in much of the world are also divided by country, with Universal owning the UK video rights.