Actor Spotlight: The Marx Brothers

The four Marx Brothers (Groucho, Harpo, Chico and Zeppo) really were brothers, but they had boring regular first names as kids. They grew up poor on New York’s East Side. In Harpo’s excellent autobiography, Harpo Speaks, he writes about learning about Santa Claus from neighborhood kids, and hanging a stocking on Christmas Eve. He was crushed when he woke up the next morning and found that Santa didn’t deliver to Jewish kids.

Their mother, Minnie, had a brother who was in show business and she decided her sons should go into vaudeville as well. Unfortunately, she thought they should tour as a singing act. They achieved the heights of mediocrity until one fateful matinee in Nacogdoches, Texas when their act was interrupted by cries of “Runaway mule” from the street. Most of the audience rushed out to see the excitement and when they returned the brothers were pissed. They started yelling insults at the audience, including such gems as “Nacogdoches is full of roaches!” Instead of stringing the Easterners up, the crowd thought they were hilarious and cheered for more. A comedy team was born.

With the help of their uncle, they got some material and started to perform sketches. The writers kind of forgot about poor Harpo and he hardly had any lines. Not one to be left out of the spotlight, he made outrageous faces and inserted as many sight gags as he could think of. This worked so well that his reward was to have zero lines in the future. Zeppo, being the youngest, got stuck being the straight man, altho reportedly he was hilarious in real life and was Groucho’s understudy. On the few occasions he got to fill in on stage he got as many laughs as Groucho did.

Eventually the brothers developed their comedic personas. Groucho was the fast talking con man, who manages to screw up his schemes by his inability to resist acerbic one liners and by getting sucked into the zaniness of Chico and Harpo. Chico (pronounced Chick-o) was the amoral mangler of English, whose criminal plans get thwarted by the fact that he’s not nearly as smart as he thinks he is, and because he gets sucked into Harpo’s
shenanigans. Harpo is completely fvcking nuts. A childlike hedonist, he is continually chasing a cute blonde, attempting to sit on people’s laps while they’re standing or pulling ridiculous objects his coat pockets, all while making one crazy face after another.

Their vaudeville act became so successful that the Marx Brothers transitioned to doing shows on Broadway. These were also huge successes, and when talkies came along, Hollywood beckoned. Their first film, Coconuts, was a hit, and a string of other hits followed.

Here’s a couple of clips from the Marx Brothers most famous move, Duck Soup. If you haven’t seen their stuff I recommend you start here.

If you like this one check out A Night at the Opera. Then try their earlier movies, which are all pretty solid, but occasionally get bogged down by the musical numbers the studio insisted they include. In 1932’s Horse Feathers, an exasperated Groucho turns to the camera at the beginning of one musical scene and says “I’ve got to stay here, but there’s no reason why you folks shouldn’t go out into the lobby until this thing blows over.” Their later movies (anything after 1937’s A Day At the Races) have their moments but are generally pretty weak.

I love the Marx Brothers. They have made me laugh ever since I was a kid. I hope you enjoy them as well.