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The Marx Brothers

From left: Harpo, Zeppo, Chico, Groucho, and Gummo

The Marx Brothers were a team of sibling comedians, who performed in vaudeville, stage plays, film and television. The Marx Brothers, born in New York City, were the sons of Jewish German immigrants.

The brothers' real names were:

• Manfred, born in 1885 and died in infancy
• Chico- Leonard, 1887-1961
• Harpo- Adolph (later Arthur), 1888-1964
• Groucho- Julius Henry, October 2, 1890-1977
• Gummo- Milton, 1892-1977
• Zeppo- Herbert, 1901-1979

All of the boys were encouraged from an early age to play musical instruments. Harpo’s main musical focus was the harp (from which he derived his nickname), Chico was an excellent pianist, and Groucho played the guitar. In 1905, Groucho made his debut as a singer in vaudeville. By 1907 he and Gummo were singing together as part of The Three Nighingales with Mabel O’Donnell. The next year, Harpo became the fourth Nightingale. By 1910, the group expanded to include their mother, Minnie, and their Aunt Hannah; the troupe was renamed The Six Mascots.

Slowly, the group’s act evolved from singing to a comedy with some music. By 1912, Chico had joined the group. Nevertheless, around this time, Gummo left the group to fight in World War I; Zeppo would replace him for their final vaudeville years.

During World War I, the brothers changed their stage name to “The Four Marx Brothers” (including Chico, Harpo, Groucho, and Zeppo). By 1919, they were playing the most famous venue in vaudeville, the Palace Theatre in New York City. They also began to develop their famous on-stage personas. Groucho began to wear his trademark greasepaint moustache and to use a stooped walk, Harpo began to wear a red fright wig, carried a taxi-cab horn and never spoke, Chico started to talk in a fake Italian accent, and Zeppo adopted the schleppy, juvenile role of the straight man.

From left to right: standing: Chico, Harpo. sitting: Groucho

The Marx Brothers made their next claim to fame, by becoming successful stars on Broadway. Their first musical revue, I’ll Say She Is, debuted in 1924. A year later they followed up with the musical comedy, The Cocoanuts and then in 1928 with Animal Crackers.

The brothers next struck a contract with Paramount Pictures and embarked on their career in films. Their first two films were adaptation of their former Broadway shows: The Cocoanuts (1929) and Animal Crackers (1930). In 1931, they made a short film, The House That Shadows Built, which was included in Paramount’s twentieth anniversary documentary. In 1932, the brothers filmed Horse Feathers, their most popular film to date, and the film which won them the cover of Time magazine. Their last Paramount film, Duck Soup (1933), is the only Marx Brothers film on the American Film Institute’s “100 years… 100 Movies” list. The team left Paramount due to creative disagreements and financial issues.

After Zeppo left the act to become an agent, the three remaining brothers moved to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM). Under the leadership of Irving Thalberg, the team changed their formula; stronger plots, more musical numbers, and using the brothers' characters as comic foils to serious romance. The first film that the Marx Brothers shot with MGM was A Night at the Opera (1935); the film was a great success, and for many years considered their best work. It was followed two years later by the even bigger hit A Day at the Races (1937). The Marx Brothers made three more films before leaving MGM, At the Circus (1939), Go West (1940), and The Big Store (1941).

Although the brothers seemed ready to retire, Chico was in dire financial straits and to help settle his gambling debts, the group made another two films, A Night in Casablanca (1946) and Love Happy (1949), both of them released by United Artists. In 1959, they did a television special, The Incredible Jewel Robbery.

Chico and Harpo went on to make nightclub and casino appearances, sometimes together. Groucho began a career as a radio and television entertainer. From 1947 to the early 1960s, he was the host of the humorous quiz show You Bet Your Life. In 1970, the Four Marx Brothers had a brief reunion in the ABC animated television special The Mad Mad Mad Comedians; the Marx Brothers’ segment was a reworking of a scene from their Broadway play I’ll Say She Is.

On January 16, 1977, The Marx Brothers were inducted into the Motion Picture Hall of Fame.

Sources: “The Marx Brothers." American Jewish Historical Society,” American Jewish Desk Reference, (NY: Random House, 1999), pg. 467-8.

Photos: Family - NBC Television-photo by Ethel Kirsner, NBC Press, Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Chico, Harpo, Groucho - Yousuf Karsh, Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.