The Marx brothers
grew up in New York
towards the end of the 19th century
. Their mother, Minnie, was a German
immigrant. Their father
, Sam, was from Alsace
. It was Minnie who suggested the brothers form their act. Initially the group comprised of Groucho, Gummo and a young girl. The threesome formed The Three Nightingales. Harpo later replaced the girl and a forth member, Lou Levy, joined. When Minnie and her sister
, Hannah also joined, the band performed as The Six Mascots. By 1918 the group had become known as The Marx Brothers
. It consisted of Harpo, Groucho, Zeppo and Chico.
Groucho (real name Julius) was born on October 2nd 1890. Having dropped out of school at the age of 16 he pursued a career in show business but had little success until he was joined by his brothers several years later. He became famous for his wise cracks and one-liners and is thought of as the leader of the group. He earned his nickname because he always carried money around in a grouch-bag.
Harpo (real name Adolph) was born in November 23rd 1888. Harpo became famous for his pantomime style and, of course, his never speaking. In fact, Harpo’s role in some of the groups early sketches involved some talking. This all changed when he read a newspaper review. The critic praised his pantomime style and comic timing but claimed the effect was ruined whenever he opened his mouth. Harpo never spoke another word on stage. Harpo plays a harp in many of his films, hence the nickname.
Real name: Herbert. Zeppo was born in 1901. He was the second last brother to join the group, replacing Gummo who had joined the army. He joined the band at his mother’s insistance and played the straight man as Gummo had done previously. Zeppo grew unsatisfied by the roles he was given and quit after Duck soup was released and became the group’s manager. Zeppo was given the nickname Zippo, after Mr Zippo, a chimpanzee. He didn’t like the name and insisted upon be called Zeppo.
Chico was born Leonard in March 1887. Chico was the last to join the group and was a fine musician. He was the oldest brother and thrashed out the deals that made them so rich and famous. I’m not sure how he got his nickname but I think it was after a spelling mistake from a typist.
The Marx Brothers’ first Broadway show opened in 1924 to critical acclaim, its improvised style attracted repeat viewings as no two shows were ever the same. The show ran for almost a year. In December 1925 Their second show: The Cocoanuts opened in the Lyric Theatre, New York. Animal Crackers followed three years later and it was at this point that the brothers signed with Paramount, agreeing to make a film adaptation of Cocoanuts. The picture opened in 1929 and the brothers’ film career was born.
The Cocoanuts (1929)
Groucho runs a failing hotel in Florida with his partner (Zeppo.) He plans to make money in real estate to save his business. Chico and Harpo turn up as guests who plan to rob the residents of the hotel. Margaret Dumont wants her daughter to marry a man of high social standing (he is actually a jewel thief). The plot doesn’t really matter it is just an excuse for the brothers to run rampant.
Animal Crackers (1930)
Animal crackers was the brothers’ first truly great movie. In it, a famous explorer (Groucho) returns from Africa and attends a party. When a valuable painting is stolen the brother’s help to retrieve it.
Monkey Business (1931)
The brothers’ stow away on a liner and get involved with the Mob. At the same time they must avoid the ship’s crew. Full of great one liners from Groucho:
“Oh, I know it’s a penny here and a penny there, but look at me. I worked my way up from nothing to a state of extreme poverty.”
“Oh, why can’t we break away from all this, just you and I, and lodge with my flees in the hills?…I mean flee to my lodge in the hills.”
Horse feathers (1932)
Groucho is professor Wagstaff, the head of Huxley College. He plans to raise the profile of the school by staging a football tournament and is forced to kidnap the players of a rival school. The film takes pot shots at the institution of higher education.
Duck Soup (1933)
Perhaps the brothers’ most celebrated picture, it was the fifth and final film of their contract with Paramount and was a failure, both critically and commercially on its release. Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho) is appointed the president of Freedonia. Firefly tries to win the hand of Mrs Teasdale but has a rival: the leader of neighbouring country Sylvania. War between the two countries is the result.
The film is a satire of the absurdities of war and was banned in Italy by Mussolini who found it to be insulting. The film is essential viewing for any film fan due to it razor-sharp wit and excellent satire.
Groucho quote: “I’ll see you at the opera tonight. I’ll hold your seat ‘til you get there, after that you’re on your own”
A Night At The Opera (1935)
The brother’s first film with new studio MGM is almost as highly acclaimed as duck soup.
From Rod Nixon’s review in The Inimitable Marx Brothers’: Con man and "promoter" Otis B. Driftwood is trying to woo the wealthy Mrs. Claypool into investing in an opera company by promising to secure her entry into high society. The stars of the Milan-based company are the vain, mean-spirited Rodolfo and the sweet, talented Rosa. Rosa is in love with the tenor Riccardo, who has been consigned to the chorus by his rival, Rodolfo. Riccardo's agent, Fiorello, and Rodolfo's put-upon dresser, Tomasso, also become involved in Driftwood's scheme, which brings everyone together on an ocean liner bound for New York. Once in the States, Rodolfo has both Driftwood and Rosa fired from the company. They get their revenge, however, by totally devastating the company's production of Il Trovatore, kidnapping Rodolfo, and triumphantly substituting Rosa and Riccardo in the leads.
A Day At The Races (1937)
The script for A Day At The Races took several years to complete. The story concerns the brothers’ attempts to rescue the Standish Sanitarium from bankruptcy. Unless the owner pays the mortgage it will be sold to Mr Morgan who plans to turn it into a casino.
The production ran into legal problems early on. The original name of Groucho’s character was Dr Quackenbush: an odd name indeed. However, it had to be changed to Hackenbush when it was discovered that there were 37 Practicing Dr Quackenbush’s in The U.S. Some of which were prepared to sue.
Room Service (1938)
Zeppo had departed by the time this film was made. It was the only picture the brothers’ made for RKO and also the first that had not been written especially for them. In the film Chico and Harpo are stuck in a hotel room awaiting financing for their next Broadway show. The pair have no money so, in an effort to avoid eviction, they pretend the play’s author is ill and cannot be moved.
Slightly disappointing after their previous triumphs.
At The Circus (1939)
Chico’s substantial gambling debts were the reason this film was made. By this point the brothers were in their fifties and didn’t really need the work anymore. In a simple plot the Marx’s have to retrieve stolen money in order to save a circus from takeover. As usual, though, the plot is incidental, merely a vehicle for the brothers’ antics.
Go West (1940)
Go west was released by MGM in 1940 in an effort to cash in on the popularity of westerns (Way Out West had been a success for Laurel and Hardy three years earlier). The story sees S. Quentin Quale head to the mid west to capitalize on the gold rush. On route he meets two brothers, (Chico and Harpo) who steal his money. When the brothers arrive they befriend an old man who sells them his land for ten dollars. When the deed for the land is stolen the brothers and Quale must save the day.
The Big Store (1941)
By the time this, the final film the brother did for MGM, was released, the Marx’s had grown tired of movie making. Groucho: “When I say we’re getting sick of the movies I mean people are getting sick of us…our stuff is simply going stale.”
The plot: Tommy is about to become the new owner of a department store, if this happens irregularities in the book keeping will be exposed, so the current manager tries to have Tommy killed. Enter private eye Wolf J. Flywheel.
After the film’s release the brothers’ retired from film making. But….
A Night In Casablanca (1946)
…five years later they returned in A Night In Casablanca. Once again, Chico was heavily in debt and needed the money. His brothers agreed to help.
The film sees Ronald Kornblow take over the running of a hotel after its previous owners have been murdered by a Nazi war criminal. In an effort to prevent Kornblow being the next victim, Chico and Harpo team up to protect him.
Love Happy (1949)
The last Marx brothers’ feature sees a group of writers trying to stage a broadway show. As they have so little money, they are provided with food by an expert shoplifter (Harpo.) When they are given a sardine can containing valuable jewels they must avoid Madame Egelichi and her henchmen.
Unlike Duck Soup the film got favourable reviews at the time but is now considered one of the Marx’s weaker offerings.
After Love Happy:
After Love happy the Brothers went their separate ways.
Groucho had a successful solo career, turning his radio show into the TV show: You Bet Your Life
. He received an honorary Oscar
in1974. Groucho died on August 19, 1977.
Chico did little of note, just a few guest appearances in the likes of ‘Showdown at Ulcer Gulch’. He died on October 11, 1961.
Harpo had hoped to have a solo film career but he couldn’t draw in the audience’s without his brothers. He made a few TV appearances but did little else. Harpo died on September 28, 1964 after heart surgery
Zeppo went into management, his first clients being the Marx Brothers. He died on November 30, 1979.
References: www.imdb.com, www.Members.tripod.com, www.users.Pandora.be/mx/reviews1.htm