The Marx Brothers


Asked about his favorite actor, George Bernard Shaw replied that it was  Groucho, Harpo, Chico and Zeppo Marx.  This shouldn’t come as a  surprise because Shaw was something of an anarchist, and especially, in the film that’s arguably their best, Duck Soup, anarchism reigns supreme.

Considered among the greatest comedy teams of all time, The Marx Brothers came from humble beginnings. Their parents, Sam and  Minnie, were immigrants who settled on the upper east side of  Yorkville section of Manhattan. Their father, Sam Marx was a tailor who never met a tape measure he liked. However, Minnie’s side of the family were performers. Her father was a ventriloquist, her mother, a yodeling  harpist. There were five boys: Leonard “Chico,” (1887-1961), Adolph  “Harpo” (1888-1964), Julius “Groucho” (1890-1977), Milton “Gummo”  (1892-1977) and Herbert “Zeppo” (1901-1979). 

Family Lessons

Minnie was a theatrical manager and her brother, Abraham became Al Shean, half of the comic pair known as Gallagher and Shean. The Brothers’ first act, “The Three Nightingales,” featured Groucho and Gummo singing with Mabel O’Donnell. When Harpo and Chico joined the company, it evolved into a comedy act. Their skit, Fun in Hi Skule, was revised by Shean and retitled Home Again. During this period, Groucho created his shyster character with greasepaint mustache and stooped walk, using Zeppo as his straight man; Harpo wore a red wig, used a taxi horn and played harp solos; Chico adapted an Italian accent and performed piano tricks as their improvisational style enriched their comedy. Fame ultimately followed, And so, to Broadway.

“Whatever it is, I’m against it!”

In 1924, I’ll Say She Is, opened at the Casino Theater, playing 313 performances. Minnie had broken her leg, but wasn’t going to miss opening night: a stretcher carried her proudly to a front row seat. A year later, with Irving Berlin’s score and a script by George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind, The Cocoanuts (Guthrie, 2015) opened. Margaret Dumont, whom Groucho referred to as “the fifth Marx Brother,” co-starred as his romantic foil. The plot was vaguely about the Florida land boom, but the Brothers improvised so much that, Kaufman, standing backstage, quipped: “I thought I heard one of the original lines.” The Cocoanuts later toured, and when the Brothers returned to New York, Kaufman and Ryskind had a new show for them, with a score by Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby. 

“Africa is God’s country, and he can have it!”

Animal Crackers is a more accomplished work than The Cocoanuts, and just as much fun. Groucho plays Captain Jeffrey T. Spaulding, his greatest character, and sings the opening patter song, “Hooray for Captain Spalding,” followed by his hilarious monologue about his adventures in Africa. (Groucho was a lifelong Gilbert and Sullivan fan, and in the 1950s, played Koko in a TV production of The Mikado).

“You’re heading for a breakdown, why don’t you pull yourself to pieces?”

While Animal Crackers delighted theater audiences, the brothers spent their days (except for matinees), in Astoria, Queens, where, under a five-picture deal with Paramount, they transferred The Cocoanuts to film. Lines and routines from Animal Crackers wound up in the film of Cocoanuts. Furthermorethe Brothers were prone to be otherwise engaged, so they were assigned jail cells on the set. That way they didn’t miss work. Director Robert Florey laughed so hard that the soundtrack was ruined. He had to be put in a soundproof booth. Because the brothers always played to the audience, Harpo comments in his delightful autobiography, Harpo Speaks, that this audience of one was by far the strangest. 

A year later, Animal Crackers was preserved by Paramount. It’s those five Paramount films (Cocoanuts, Animal Crackers, Monkey Business, Horse Feathers, Duck Soup) that feature routines from their Vaudeville years, preserving their stage antics. For those unfamiliar with The Marx Brothers, they may appear scratchy and dated, (not to mention sexist). Keep in mind they were never serious, so they’re always funny!

Even today, the Brothers’ children and grandchildren are asked how  their nicknames came about. Adolph, (who changed his name to Arthur when Hitler came to power), became Harpo because he played the harp and Leonard became Chico, because he chased girls, or “chicks.” Gummo wore shoes with rubber or gum soles; Zeppo’s came from a chimp who once played on the bill with them. Julius became Groucho due to his moodiness. (He often carried his money in a “grouch bag,” wary after the Crash of 1929). Gummo never appeared on film. Instead, like his mother, he became an agent. 

Their third film, Monkey Business is a shipboard comedy in which the brothers are stowaways. Horse Feathers (1932), is a college football picture. Fast and funny, it features sidesplitting antics between Harpo and Chico, sarcastic insults from Groucho and interrupted love scenes with Zeppo. There’s also a tragic cast, because their leading lady was Thelma Todd, whose tragic murder hasn’t ever been solved. 

“We’re fighting for this woman’s honor, which is more than she ever did!”

Duck Soup was filmed during the rise of the Nazis, and set in a country named Fredonia. It’s commentary on puppet rulers and a world in despair shows us exactly why G.B. Shaw loved the Marx Brothers. Their disregard for authority, complete with such production numbers as “Just Wait ‘til I Get Through with It,” and “The Country’s Going to War,” remains their master-piece. Demanding repeated viewings, not only do the routines endure, but, its mockery holds true to this day.

“The Fifth Marx Brother”

Margaret Dumont (1882-1965) described herself as “the best straight woman in Hollywood,” but before appearing opposite Groucho, she had quite a career on her own. Trained as an opera singer, in 1910, she wed sugar heir, John Moller, Jr. Their marriage only lasted 7 years. Moller succumbed to the 1917 Spanish Flu epidemic. She never remarried.

Dumont intrigued George S. Kaufman, who wrote roles for her both on stage and screen. Her quick reactions and straight face were ad-libbed as much as Groucho’s sly advances. Her dowager character worked with such other comedians as W.C. Fields (as Mrs. Hemoglobin in Never Give a Sucker an Even Break), Abbot and Costello, Laurel and Hardy, Red Skelton, Jack Benny and Danny Kaye. Her last role was as Shirley MacLaine’s mother in What a Way to Go. So respected was Dumont, she’s mentioned in Groucho’s Oscar speech (Link: They last worked together on The Hollywood Palace in 1965. She and Groucho recreated Hooray for Captain Spaulding. A week later, she had passed on from a heart attack. 

After Paramount                                             

When their Paramount contract ended, Zeppo become a wealthy business-man. Harpo, Groucho and Chico were signed to MGM, where their first few movies were developed by Irving Thalberg. A Night at the Opera, A Day at the Races, Room Service, At the Circus, The Big Store, Go West and A Night in Casablanca kept audiences laughing in theaters from 1935-1950. 

Groucho later became quizmaster on the game show, You Bet Your Life. Chico led The Chico Marx Orchestra, and Harpo became a concert performer. Harpo wrote the story for Love Happy, their last film together, and the Brothers each appeared onscreen in different sequences of The Story of Mankind. Harpo gives a beautiful performance as a deaf-mute in the TV drama, A Silent Panic. Harpo and Chico pulled off The Incredible Jewel Robbery without a word until Groucho’s cameo sequence. Harpo and Lucille Ball performing the mirror scene from Duck Soup on I Love Lucy is one of television’s all-time great moments.

Not Forgotten, Not Really Gone

The Marx Brothers have never really gone away. Their routines are still used today. They’re characters in A Day in Hollywood/A Night in the Ukraine; there are solo plays about Groucho, and of course, there are books. Groucho wrote a trio of autobiographies: Groucho and Me (1959), Memoirs of a Mangy Lover (1964) and The Groucho Letters (1967). Zimmerman and Goldblatt’s The Marx Brothers at the Movies is the best analysis of their film work.  

Harpo Speaks

However, it is Harpo’s book, Harpo Speaks, that offers the finest insights into these extraordinary performers, especially the early years before they moved to Hollywood.

Not everyone will be entertained by the Marx Brothers funny, but without them, a huge chunk of laughter would be missing from our lives. 


Headshot of Steven LaVigne
Steven LaVigne

Steven LaVigne is a director, playwright and reviewer. He’s worked with such local theaters as Classics Lost 'n' Found Theater Company, Twig Theater and Powderhorn Theater Arts, where his collection of Icelandic Folk Tales, Inside Snaefellsjokull Volcano was presented this summer. He loves to travel as well.