The Marx Brothers
Created | Updated Dec 23, 2003
A Bit of Background
The Marx name was in fact originally Marrix. The Brothers' father (Simon Marrix, a tailor, born in 1860 in the Alsace region of France) changed the family name from Marrix to Marx because he hoped it would be easier to find a job in America if he made his surname sound more German1. Some readers might recognise Simon Marrix as the "Sam" in the Groucho song, "Sam, You Made The Pants Too Long". It's also believed that Chico often pawned off his dad's tailor's shears so he could gamble.
I never forget a face, but in your case I'll be glad to make an exception.
The Brothers' mother was Miene Schönberg (born in Dornum, Germany on Nov 9th 1864) who also changed her name – from Miene to Minnie. Her family moved to the USA when she was 15, in 1880, where they settled in New York. She met Simon and married him on 18th January 18852. Their first baby Manfred, was born in 1886. He died seven months later, probably from 'flu.
Their other children were:
- Leonard (Chico), 1887-1961
- Adolph, later Arthur (Harpo), 1888-1964
- Julius Henry (Groucho), 1890-1977
- Milton (Gummo), 1892-1977
- Herbert (Zeppo), 1901-1979
Mother Marx died on 13th September, 1929. and on 11th May, 1933 father Marx died. Out of respect for their mother all the Marx Bros named their daughters with a name beginning with "M".
The Marx Brothers
Remember men, we're fighting for this woman's honour - which is probably more than she ever did.
The first sign of the Marx Brothers as a performing group was on 24th June, 1907 when the Three Nightingales3 (Groucho, Gummo and Mabel O'Donnell) made their debut performance as Ned Weyburn's Nightingales in Atlantic Garden, Atlantic City, New Jersey and on 1st June, 1908 - Harpo became the fourth Nightingale at Henderson's Theater, Coney Island, New York. When the Marx family moved to Chicago in late 1909/early 1910 the Four Nightingales became known as the Six Mascots4. Chico joined the Mascots on 26th September, 1912 for the first performance of "Mr. Green's Reception," at the Family Theater, Lafayette, Indiana.
In 1918 Gummo left the act in order to join the army and Zeppo joined.
So... Who Was Who and Where Did the Names Come From?
Groucho Marx was the mustachioed, cigar-chomping leader of the foursome, alternately dispensing humorous invective and acting as exasperated straight man for his brothers' antics. Chico was the unbelievably stupid pun-happy Italian, Harpo the non-speaking whirling dervish and Gummo (then later Zeppo) was the proper straight man of the act.
The name "The Marx Brothers" was coined by comic Art Fisher on
May 15, 1914 and the inspiration for having all the brothers change their names so they had an "o" on the end came from Gus Mager a cartoonist who did the same thing with most of his characters. Groucho name came about from the "grouch bag" that he used to carry around his neck under his clothing5. Harpo got his from the harp that he played and legend has it that Chico got his from his love of "chicks"6. The reason Gummo was so called was that he had gum-soled shoes, which meant no-one could hear him enter a room. There are three reasons given by the brothers for Zeppo's nickname and here they are -
- Zeppo recieved his name after the other Brothers spotted him unintentionally mimicing the pull-ups of a very active chimp in the circus, Mr Zippo. This angered Herbert so they changed it to Zeppo. Explanation given by Harpo.
- Zeppo comes from the Zeppelins used against England by the Germans in World War I. Explanation given by Groucho.
- Zeppo is a variation of the rural nickname Zeb, which Herbert later acquired while working on the family's Illinois farm.Explanation given by Gummo and Chico.
And when did they "hit it big"?
After ten years playing the circuit and refining their skills, the Marx Brothers accepted work with a Broadway-bound "tab" show, I'll Say She Is. The play was a surprise hit when it opened in 1924, and the Marx Brothers became the toast of Broadway. They followed this success with 1925's The Cocoanuts, in which playwrights George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind refined the Groucho character into the combination con man/perpetual wisecracker that he would portray until the Marx team dissolved. Cocoanuts introduced Groucho to his perennial foil and straight woman, Margaret Dumont.
As a unit, the Marx Brothers made 14 films and here they are -
- Humorisk (1920): An improvisational piece of their stage show of the same name. This film hasn't been seen since it was shot. It was a silent and Groucho wasn't sure the film was ever processed, let alone ever shown.
- The Cocoanuts (23rd May, 1929): The earliest available Marx Brothers film premiered in New York City on and while a version of it was seen on stage, there was considerable fiddling with the script during the preproduction. Considering that the Bros. never quite did anything the same twice7 the movies at best could only be an approximation of one night out of a long run. Shot in New York, sound films were so new that soundproofing was not installed, so the film had to be shot in the early hours of the morning to reduce outside traffic noise. The plot, for want of a better word, is that during the Florida land boom the Bros run a hotel, auction off some land, thwart a jewel robbery, and generally act like themselves.
- Animal Crackers (25th August, 1930): In this film the Marx Bros help to retrieve a stolen painting... well, sort of. During rehearsals for the film a test was made for a colour movie process called Multicolor (a predecessor of Cinecolor) and the result was the only known footage of the Marx Brothers in colour. The clip is silent and lasts just 15 seconds. After making this film the Marx Brothers decided to move to California.
- Monkey Business (19th September, 1931): Directed by Norman Z McLeod, Monkey Business had the Bros on board a transatlantic crossing, managing to annoy nearly everyone on the ship. Believe it or not, the Marx Bros father8 has a cameo in this film. He is sitting on the crates behind them after they're carried off the ship.
- Horse Feathers (10th August, 1932): Once again directed by Norman Z McLeod, this time the Marx Bros experimented with an actual plot, placing themselves in Huxley College, with Groucho the newly installed president, Professor Quincy Adams Wagstaff. His cavalier attitude toward education is not reserved for his son Frank, who is seeing the college widow, Connie Bailey. Frank influences Wagstaff to recruit two football players who hang out in a speakeasy, in order to beat rival school Darwin. Unfortunately, Wagstaff mistakenly hires the misfits Baravelli (Chico) and Pinky (Harpo). Finding out that Darwin has beaten him to the "real" players, Wagstaff enlists Baravelli and Pinky to kidnap them, which leads to an anarchic football finale.
- Duck Soup (22nd November, 1933): Perhaps their most well known work. This was also the last film to feature Zeppo as, on 30th March, 1934, he quit the act. It's only 66 minutes long, but it crackles with jokes from beginning to end and in this film the Marx Bros had the good fortune to work with a great director, Leo McCarey9.
- A Night at the Opera (1st November, 1935): This was the first film the Brothers made after signing with MGM and the first one without Zeppo. In this a sly business manager (Groucho) and two wacky friends (Chico and Harpo) of two opera singers help them achieve success while humiliating their stuffy and snobbish enemies. The original storyline for the film was to have Groucho as the producer of the opera. The idea was dropped but appeared many times in Hollywood as a story idea - until Mel Brooks made The Producers of it and got an Academy Award!
- A Day at the Races (11th June, 1937): A vet posing as a doctor (Groucho), a race horse owner and his friends struggle to help keep a sanitarium open with the help of a misfit racehorse in a film directed by Sam Wood. The racetrack in question was Santa Anita Racetrack, Los Angeles, California.
- Room Service (21st September, 1938): The Marx Brothers try and put on a play before their landlord finds out that they have run out of money.
- At the Circus (20th October, 1939): Jeff Wilson10, the owner of a small circus, owes his partner Carter $10000. Before Jeff can pay, Carter lets his accomplices steal the money, so he can take over the circus. Antonio Pirelli (Chico) and Punchy (Harpo), who work at the circus, together with lawyer Loophole (Groucho) try to find the thief and get the money back.
- Go West (6th December, 1940): The Marx Bros search for gold, and skullduggery is abound. One of the more complex Marx Bros movies, everyone is tricking or stealing from everyone else. The name of Groucho's character, "S. Quentin Quayle," caused a stir when the film was first released due to the subtle but clear joke: the use of the term "San Quentin quayle," which means "jail bait."
- The Big Store (20th June, 1941): The Phelps Department Store is about to be sold by its new part owner, Tommy Rogers with the permission of Martha Phelps, the dowager co-owner. The current manager doesn't want this as the irregularities in the books will show up. When an attempt is made on Tommy's life, Martha enlists the worst private eye in the world to protect him, Wolf J. Flywheel (Groucho). This film has been criticised as many of the scenes appear to be re-works of previous great moments and MGM didn't allow the Bros to experiment with their jokes on a live audience.
- A Night in Casablanca (10th May, 1946): The first Marx Bros movie in five years, and in post-war Casablanca, Ronald Kornblow is hired to run a hotel whose previous managers have all wound up being murdered. French soldier Pierre suspects the involvement of ex-Nazis, specifically Count Pfefferman, in reality the notorious Heinrich Stubel. But Pierre himself is accused of collaborating with the enemy, and attempts to clear his name with the help of his girlfriend Annette and cagey buddy Corbaccio. They enlist the aid of Pfefferman's beleaguered mute valet, Rusty, and discover a hoard of war booty the Nazis have cached in the hotel.
- Love Happy (30th March, 1949): The final Marx Bros film, in which they help young Broadway hopefuls while thwarting diamond thieves. Groucho Marx informed Marilyn Monroe that he had a role which called for "a young lady who can walk by me in such a manner as to arouse my elderly libido and cause smoke to issue from my ears." Monroe obliged and was quickly cast.
Outside of a dog, a book is man's best friend. Inside of a dog, it's too dark to read.
In the 1930's Chico and Groucho had a radio show, "Flywheel, Shyster and Flywheel", originally "Beagle, Shyster and Beagle", but then a real lawyer called Beagle threatened legal action and so Groucho's character was changed to Flywheel11. Not only were a lot of the jokes recycled from previous films, but a lot of the jokes from FSF later turned up in subsequent films like Duck Soup. Sponsored by Esso, the reason why the show only lasted one 26-week season is now a subject of conjecture, with reasons including low ratings (they didn't have the best time-slot, though the ratings were pretty decent), and the fact that the Marx Brothers moved on to their next movie pretty soon after (Duck Soup).
After the Success of the Twenties and Thirties...
In the 50's three of the Brothers (Harpo, Chico and Groucho) made 'The Story Of Mankind' (released in 1957). Harpo played Isaac Newton, Chico played a monk and Groucho played Peter Minuit, who buys Manhatten from the Native Americans. Unfortunately they don't appear with each other.
I shot an elephant in my pyjamas. How he got into my pyjamas, I'll never know
In the sixties, their images were more popular than their movies, as the video revolution hadn't come yet, but posters, t-shirts and books were everywhere. Unlike the Three Stooges or Laurel and Hardy, they didn't have any shorts to go around the local TV stations and the 16mm rental clubs. You had to go to an art house to watch bad prints of their movies12. It is possible that a whole two generations had grown up without seeing a Marx Brothers movie. All they had seen were their wrinkled images on the TV guest appearances, the finest of which was Harpo's guest shot on "I Love Lucy", in which she and he redid the mirror sequence from "Duck Soup".
- On 16th January 1977, the Marx Bros were placed in The Motion Picture Hall of Fame.
- Minnie’s brother Abraham became known as the comedian Al Shean and Jack Benny's wife (Mary Livingston, previously Sadie Marks) was a distant cousin of the Marx Bros.
- There was a Broadway musical based on the early career of the brothers called 'Minnie's Boys'. It starred Shelley Winters as Minnie.
- The Marx brothers also get a mention in Ian Dury and the Blockheads song Reasons to Be Cheerful.
- It's claimed that the character of Hawkeye Pierce on M*A*S*H was strongly influenced by Groucho's screen persona, and the role of Banjo in The Man Who Came to Dinner (1951) was based on Harpo.