It’s been nearly 75 years since the group disbanded, yet the Marx Brothers remain a household name even among younger generations. Throughout the first half of the 20th century, the Marx Brothers introduced a brand of comedy that was integral to the artform’s evolution. What began as a vaudeville act became enshrined in over a dozen feature films and several Broadway productions. Much of the humor in modern American culture can be traced back to the Marx Brothers.
Known by their stage names, Brothers Chico, Harpo, Groucho, Gummo, and Zeppo, each crafted a unique stage persona. Together they delivered a distinct brand of chaotic humor that was built upon songs, dances and musical performances that put them in a class all their own in the world of entertainment.
Early life and childhood
All six of the Marx Brothers were born in New York City. Their parents, Miene “Minnie” Schoenberg and Samuel Marx (aka “Frenchy), were Jewish immigrants from Germany and France. Minnie’s parents were both performers, her mother a yodeling harpist and her father a ventriloquist. Minnie learned to play the harp and passed on her family’s musical inclination to her boys.
Soon after Minnie and Frenchy met in 1884, they started their family in Manhattan’s Upper East Side. In 1886, they sadly lost their firstborn son, Manny, to tuberculosis after only three months of life. Minnie gave birth to Leonard Joseph “Chico” Marx the following year, Adolph “Harpo” Marx in 1888, Julius Henry “Groucho” Marx in 1890, Milton “Gummo” Marx in 1892, and the Herbert Manfred “Zeppo” Marx in 1901.
Minnie Marx began preparing them for the stage from a young age while also helping her younger brother, Abraham Elieser Adolf Schönberg (famously known as Al Shean), break into show business. Al enjoyed a highly successful career in vaudeville and on Broadway as half of the musical comedy double act, Gallagher and Shean.
As she witnessed and benefitted from the success of her brother’s musical comedy act, Minnie recognized the opportunity before her sons. She helped form The Marx Brothers comedy troupe and dawned the alias Minnie Palmer so she could act as their manager while ensuring booking agents couldn’t identify her as the boys’ mother. With so much energy and personality, it required Minnie’s leadership to maintain order, negotiate with theater managers, and keep the group focused.
Life on Stage
Coming from a long line of performers and artists allowed the boys to develop as performers from a young age, particularly as musicians. Harpo, in particular, embraced music, learning to play several instruments, including a harpist like his mother and grandmother. This talent earned him his stage moniker and became a central part of his repertoire on stage and in film. Chico was a talented pianist; Groucho played guitar and sang, and Zeppo was a vocalist.
The emergence of the Marx Brothers as entertainers was gradual. Groucho was the first to debut when he was still a teenager, performing in vaudeville as a singer beginning in 1905. Within a couple of years, Groucho and Gummo were regularly performing under the moniker “The Three Nightingales” alongside Mabel O’Donnell. In 1908, Harpo became the fourth member of the group. Soon, the group expanded to include Minnie and their Aunt Hannah and was renamed “The Six Mascots.”
Over time, the group discovered crowds were highly receptive to jokes and they transformed into a comedy act, touring the country and honing their chops and comedic timing. Chico joined the group, and Zeppo periodically filled in when another brother was sick or couldn’t perform.
When the United States entered World War I, Minnie bought the family a 27-acre farm in Illinois because farmers were excluded from being drafted into the military. Gummo enlisted, nevertheless, and this period proved formative for the four remaining Marx Brothers. They continued developing their unique characters, drawing on their tendencies and quirks to flush out their on-stage personalities. For example, Harpo, the most soft-spoken of the group, ceased speaking during performances and relied heavily on props. It was also during this period that Groucho began wearing the mustache for which he became famous.
As the comedy act developed, the chemistry between Chico, Harpo, and Groucho – the three eldest – served as the cornerstone of the group. The 1920s rolled in, and the troupe rose to national prominence as the public relished their quirky humor, improvisational prowess, and biting satire. Chico was now managing their business affairs, and Groucho was the de facto creative director. Together they steered the act to Broadway, where they hit it big with their show I’ll Say She Is.
The show’s success earned them the support of generational songwriter and Freemason Irving Berlin and playwright George Kaufman. Together they wrote The Cocoanuts and Animal Crackers, musical comedies that later became feature films.
To the Silver Screen and Beyond
Soon, talkies were all the rage in the motion picture business. They struck at just the right time, with the Marx Brothers’ success on Broadway reaching its zenith. The brothers struck a deal with Paramount Pictures and released three films: Humor Risk, The Cocoanuts, and Animal Crackers. Paramount soon moved them to Hollywood, where they continued preparing film adaptations of their stage shows.
Ever the hard workers, the brothers prepared several more films with Paramount, including Monkey Business (1931), Horse Feathers (1932), and Duck Soup (1933). Duck Soup is generally considered their greatest triumph, and following its release, the Marx Brothers founded their own production company. It had a fittingly ridiculous name: the “International Amalgamated Consolidated Affiliated World Wide Film Productions Company Incorporated, of North Dakota.”
By this time, there was less room for all five brothers to shine within the act. The three elder brothers maintained much of the creative focus and influence and ultimately, Gummo and Zeppo departed, going on to build a major talent agency together.
After their contract with Paramount expired, the remaining three Marx Bros signed an agreement to join Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) at the behest of producer Irving Thalberg. The new films were a noticeable departure from their previous creations, emphasizing story structure and character development. Thalberg also used the new Marx Brothers films to pioneer the now common film practice of testing jokes for audiences before committing to them in the movie. Together they produced two films: A Night at the Opera (1935) and A Day at the Races (1937), both successful releases.
Later Films and Individual Successes
Following A Day at the Races, The Marx Brothers filmed Room Service with RKO before returning to MGM. They promptly released three more films in short order: At the Circus, Go West, and The Big Store. In 1941, the group announced they intended The Big Store to be their final film. However, Chico had outstanding gambling debts he struggled to pay. He convinced his brothers to return to the screen, putting out A Night in Casablanca (1946) and Love Happy (1949).
Despite retiring from making movies, the three brothers stayed busy in entertainment. Chico and Harpo performed live, often together, and Groucho spent nearly 15 years starring in You Bet Your Life, an NBC radio and television production. He also published several books and appeared alongside Chico in the short film, Showdown at Ulcer Gulch in 1957. That same year all five brothers made their only appearance together on Tonight! America After Dark, hosted by Jack Lescoulie.
In 1960, director Billy Wilder was in talks with the group to create a new Marx Brothers film. Unfortunately, the project stalled because of Harpo’s bad health, only to be canceled after Chico’s death in 1961. He passed away from arteriosclerosis at 74. Three years later, Harpo died at 75 following a heart attack.
In the decades following Harpo’s passing, there were several Marx Brothers projects, but none could reclaim the magic of the original group. In early 1977, they were inducted into the Motion Picture Hall of Fame. That same year, Gummo and Groucho passed away, and Zeppo followed in 1979.
Their influence on the world of arts and entertainment is hard to quantify. Countless comedians and filmmakers have cited them as significant creative influences. Artists such as Jack Kerouac, the Beatles, and Salvador Dali expressed their admiration for the group, illustrating how their impact went far beyond Hollywood.
Countless television shows and movies have referenced the Marx Brothers, including Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Twelve Monkeys, and Manhattan. They were depicted in Disney cartoons and films, such as Aladdin and the King of Thieves.
In Freemasonry, many members relish the fact that Harpo was a Freemason. Although the lodge he belonged to is unknown, Groucho claimed Harpo always longed to be a Freemason and considered his Masonic pin his most prized possession.