The Marx Brothers
were vaudeville comedians from the early 20th century. They later starred in their own Broadway shows, and subsequently movies. They were wild and outrageous, gutbustingly hilarious with the central three being masters of different kinds of humor: verbal (Groucho), ethnic and musical (Chico), and surreal pantomime slapstick (Harpo).
A family act, the Marx Brothers went through several incarnations under varying names (including "The Four Nightingales", "The Six Mascots", and others) before an appearance in Texas, where the audience left the theatre during a performance to go watch a mule
. This outraged the team, and they began breaking from their script to abuse the audience, which went over better than they expected
. Their act quickly incorporated a significant component of what would be referred to today as improv
comedy, frequently mocking theatrical clichés and tropes, and they began to move up the ranks of vaudeville performers, eventually reaching the pinnacle of vaudeville fame, performing at New York's Palace theatre. A disagreement with the executive running the biggest vaudeville circuit at the time exiled them from big-time vaudeville, and sent them into regional touring, which was difficult and draining. The troupe was about to disband when a backer willing to fund a legitimate theatre production was found. Success on the road with I'll Say She Is
, a revue based in part on their vaudeville routines, continued when the show was brought to Broadway. Their performance caught the attention of the theatrical critics as well as the audience, and their relatively haphazard, underfunded show ran for months. Their subsequent show was also a success, and was adapted to film, starting one of the greatest series of film comedies ever made.
The family had five brothers, although only four (and later three) performed together at a given time. According to interviews Groucho gave late in his life, their stage names reflected personal traits or important events in their lives, and were inspired by a comic strip called "Sherlocko the Monk", which triggered a brief rash of nicknames ending in "-o".
- Groucho (Julius Henry Marx), nicknamed for his abrasive wit. (Some sources say the name came from his "grouch bag", a bag worn around the neck, and used to keep money, as vaudeville performers were sometimes not above stealing from each other.) The patron saint of Deadpan Snarkers. Known for his cigar and mustache (which was actually a stripe of greasepaint, at least until he became the host of You Bet Your Life in 1947 and grew a real one). He's the singer of the group and, although it's not as showcased as Chico's and Harpo's instrumental talents, a gifted guitar player. A cross between a participant and a commentator, Groucho's on-screen persona would inspire comedians from Alan Alda to the MST3K team. Later in life, he became a fan and friend of Alice Cooper, oddly enough.
- Chico (Leo or Leonard Marx); pronounced "chicko", his nickname referred to his habit of "chicken chasing" (womanizing). His trademarks were an outrageously fake Italian accent, a conical black hat, and a distinctive style of piano playing where he appear to literally "tickle" the piano (a play on the phrase "tickling the ivories") and would "shoot" selected keys with his fingers held to form a gun. The most traditional comedian of the three major brothers, Chico would typically find himself providing the verbal component to Harpo's mime, or sparring with Groucho. Despite his Funny Foreigner persona, he was widely-beloved by Italian-Americans as a basically-flattering caricature, since most of his scenes have him outwitting his WASP antagonists.
- Harpo (Adolph Marx, later changed to "Arthur", though not for the reason you might assume note ), nicknamed for his virtuoso harp playing (which was completely self-taught). His trademarks were harp playing, a silent mime performance (using a horn instead of speaking), and a clown-like costume featuring a raincoat with apparently bottomless pockets, a curly red (later blond, as it looked better in black-and-white film) wig, and a top hat. He is a virtuoso kleptomaniac with a special knack for pickpocketing, ending up with such unlikely prizes as Groucho's boxers and a random man's birthmark. In the early stage shows, he did an Oirish accent, but it was eventually decided that having him be The Speechless was funnier. His mime routines (most notably the famous Mirror Scene from Duck Soup) have become a staple for comedy shows today, and even inspired all of Mr. Funny's entire character in the 2009 season of The Mr. Men Show.
- Zeppo (Herbert Marx); according to Groucho, his nickname was born from the arrival of a German zeppelin at Lakehurst, NJ, but the dates don't match. Harpo, in his book Harpo Speaks, claims that the name was derived from a chimpanzee appearing in a comic strip of the day, Mr. Zippo, but when Herbert objected, this was changed to Zeppo. (There are other stories concerning the name's origin, such as the time the brothers were pretending to be farmers in order to dodge serving in World War I and gave each other hayseed names like "Zeke" and "Zeb".) Zeppo was the youngest and most handsome of the brothers, and while still part of the act generally played the straight man and sometimes the romantic lead. His trademark is less developed than the above. (He was a talented comedian, however, once filling in for Groucho during a Vaudeville tour when the latter was ill.) After several movies, he followed brother Gummo in leaving the act and becoming a manager for his performing siblings. A talented mechanic and inventor, he also founded a manufacturing company.
- Gummo (Milton Marx), nicknamed for the sneaky, or "gumshoe", way he had of walking around backstage, or a pair of galoshes ("gumshoes") he had as a child. Gummo left the act when drafted during World War I, although he never reached Europe, about the time the Marxes were first becoming famous. According to That Other Wiki, the contemporary actor Gregg Marx is his grandson.
- There was actually a sixth Marx Brother, Manfred Marx, who was also the oldest; he died of enterocolitis while still a baby.
- They are in no way related to Karl Marx, author of The Communist Manifesto, despite humorist Richard Armour's assertion that Karl was the funniest of the brothers.
Also frequently joining them was the matronly figure of Margaret Dumont, typically cast as a wealthy widow
who was a perfect foil for Groucho; he would alternate between shamelessly flirting with her ("Ah, married. I can see you right now in the kitchen, bending over a hot stove...") and viciously insulting her ("But I can't see the stove.").
Their comedic style was chaotic and absurd, with lots of word play, pantomime and satire. In general, they would appear in stock stories, tired even by the standards of the day, and demolish them. The surrounding characters, trapped by their roles, would attempt to continue on through the story, mostly ignoring the literary deconstruction going on.
In particular, Chico, Harpo and Groucho had their own identifiers:
Pretty racy stuff, for the 1950s.
Groucho and Harpo went on to inspire the characters of Yakko and Wakko respectively in the hit 1990s Warner Bros.
. In fact, an episode of Animaniacs
entitled "King Yakko" is very similar to Duck Soup
, following a similar plot and with Yakko and Wakko falling into roles similar to those of Groucho and Harpo. The episode even ends with Wakko having a beautiful woman hold his leg, one of Harpo's Running Gags
Also, Bugs Bunny
: Bugs actually stole some of his mannerisms and lines from Groucho, including the famous line "Of course you know, This Means War!
" It is also argued that the way Bugs holds his carrot is meant to be reminiscent of Groucho and his cigar. There was even a Looney Tunes
short in which Bugs disguised himself as Groucho to evade the attentions of restaurant chef Elmer Fudd. It didn't work, because Fudd was already disguised as Harpo.
Groucho also has the distinctive pleasure of starring in a series of successful mystery novels by author Ron Goulart in which he and his writer Frank Denby
investigate various murders and crimes that popped up in Hollywood during the 1930s (in the novels, Groucho did the investigations in between his working in movies and his hosting a weekly radio program).
Not to be confused with Marx, a character from Kirby Super Star
. Or that other Marx
The Marx Brothers' films:
- Humor Risk (also called Humorisk; 1921) — Don't expect to ever see it, as the Marxes had all the copies destroyed soon after it debuted as they felt it was rubbish.
- The Cocoanuts (1929)
- Animal Crackers (1930)
- Monkey Business (1931)
- Horse Feathers (1932)
- Duck Soup (1933)
- A Night at the Opera (1935)
- A Day at the Races (1937)
- Room Service (1938)
- At The Circus (1939)
- Go West (1940)
- The Big Store (1941)
- A Night In Casablanca (1946)
- Love Happy (1949)
- Groucho, Chico, and Harpo also appeared (in separate, individual vignettes) in Irwin Allen's 1957 fantasy film The Story of Mankind.
- Groucho appeared solo in a number of films, including:
- Copacabana (1947), with Carmen Miranda
- Double Dynamite (1951), with Frank Sinatra
- A Girl in Every Port (1952), with William Bendix
- He also had a cameo in Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? (1957) and played God (literally) in Skidoo (1968).
The Marx Brothers' TV appearences:
They often employed such tropes as:
- Actually Pretty Funny: As stated above, Italin-Americans' reaction to Chico's character.
- Badass: The brothers. Special mention to Harpo in A Night At Casablanca where he gets simply openly bored parrying the dueling strokes of one of the Nazis. And of course Groucho, a Karmic Trickster who doesn't even tremble in front of a death threat.
- Book Worm: Groucho, who always regretted barely spending any time in school as a child, was an avid bookworm, attempting to read a new book every day and even writing several himself. One of his proudest moments was when several of his writings were preserved in the Library of Congress for historical significance. He often remarked that "Outside of a dog, a book is a man's best friend. Inside of a dog it's too dark to read."
- Breaking the Fourth Wall:
Groucho: (as Chico begins a piano solo) 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.
- In another instance, he deliberately tells a bad joke and then says to the audience "Well, all the jokes can't be good! You gotta expect that sometimes."
- Similarly, after one particularly bad stock joke he says "That's the first time I've used that joke in 20 years."
- It becomes a Running Gag in At The Circus since Groucho does it numerous times. One of the best is a scene where he's trying to get something Pauline has stuffed down her shirt, and when he realized she's done so he looks at the camera in fear and says "There has to be some way to get that money while staying out of the Hays Office!"
- This dress is bright red, but Technicolor is SOOO expensive!
- In Go West, after binding and gagging one of the villain's henchmen, Groucho turns toward the audience and remarks "Did you know this is the best gag in the picture?"
- "Pardon me while I have a strange interlude." This is a shout-out to Eugene O'Neill's Strange Interlude, in which the characters speak to each other while holding masks, then drop the masks to voice their true feelings in soliloquies.
- Butt Monkey: Margaret Dumont's characters were always insulted and embarrassed by Groucho.
- Call Back: During the musical number "Lydia the Tattooed Lady" in At the Circus, Groucho mentions that Lydia had a tattoo of "Captain Spaulding exploring the Amazon", referring back to the character he played in Animal Crackers.
- In A Night at the Opera, Groucho says "You know this means war!", referring to their previous film Duck Soup.
- The Casanova: Chico in real life. His nickname, not coincidentally, was pronounced "Chick-o".
- Cash Lure: In Go West, Harpo uses this on Groucho.
- The Cast Show Off: Each brother had a specific talent that was highlighted at least once per movie — Chico plays the piano, Harpo the harp, and Groucho would sing and dance.
- Cloud Cuckoo Lander: Harpo. Sometimes a harmless Reality Warper.
- Comedic Sociopathy: Part of their charm is the fact that the Marxes basically didn't care about the plot. Groucho was a comedic sociopath exactly as much as MST3K's Mike and Joel were — he doesn't buy into the significance of anything that you would normally expect a character in a movie to care about. All three of the primary Marxes knew they were in a movie, and were prepared to continue being in the movie as long as nobody expected them to pay attention to it. Harpo and Chico are sometimes theoretically allies with Groucho, sometimes antagonists...and it doesn't matter in the slightest.
- Comic Trio: After Zeppo left, and some would claim before.
- The Comically Serious: Zeppo, several times. Some would argue that this is his real talent.
- Commander Contrarian: Groucho.
- Cool Hat: Harpo's high hat.
- Cute Mute: Harpo.
- Deadpan Snarker: Groucho especially, but Chico had his moments.
- Department of Redundancy Department: A routine in A Night at the Opera which focuses on a contract whose clauses are all along the lines of "The party of the first part shall be known in this contract as the party of the first part."
- Distracted by the Sexy: Everybody, but especially Harpo.
- Everything Is Better With Animals: The titles of their early films all have an animal name in it: Animal Crackers, Monkey Business, Duck Soup, Horse Feathers,... One of their famous routines, "Why a duck?", also involves ducks. Then there's Harpo, who has a soft spot for animals.
- Excuse Plot: Any "plot" is there purely for form's sake. The real reason their movies were made and why people went to see them is purely For the Funnyz.
- Double Entendre: Groucho could turn anything into one with just a wag of his eyebrows and a smirk. Anything.
- Extreme Omnivore: Harpo, who eats everything, including buttons, telephones and thermometers.
- Forgotten Trope: Horse Feathers relies on several concepts, like "college widows", that no longer exist.
- For the Funnyz: The bros' main goal in basically any movie.
- Funny Character, Boring Actor: Inverted. Zeppo normally played the Closer to Earth Only Sane Man, yet in Real Life was said to be even funnier than Groucho (who was indeed as witty as the characters he played). Groucho reportedly felt bad about this and made sure that Zeppo's character always got the girl (being played by the most traditionally handsome Marx Brother helped).
- Funny Foreigner: Chico.
- Gadgeteer Genius: Zeppo was a Real Life example.
- Genius Ditz: Harpo played a bumbling fool who was nonetheless a brilliant harpist.
- Getting Crap Past the Radar: A core value of Groucho's comedic approach, to the point that legend attributes far more, and far more blatant, successes to him than he actually had. A few examples:
- In Horse Feathers Groucho, when renting a canoe, comments "I wanted a flat bottom, but the girl in the boathouse didn't have one."
- From Animal Crackers: "We took some pictures of the native girls, but they weren't developed. But we're going back again in a couple of weeks, and..." (here, hastily interrupted by Margaret Dumont)
- "Signor Ravelli's first selection will be 'Somewhere My Love Lies Sleeping' with a male chorus."
- "Now, I want to tell you, madam, that with this insurance policy you are provided for your little ones and for your old age, which will be here in a couple of weeks now, if I'm any judge of horseflesh."
- From Monkey Business: "You're a woman who's been getting nothing but dirty breaks. Well, we can clean and tighten your brakes, but you'll have to stay in the garage all night."
- From Duck Soup: "All I can offer you is a Rufus over your head."
- "Married. I can see you right now, bending over a hot stove... but I can't see the stove."
- Groucho says "Here's one I picked up in a dance hall!" and goes into a loopy dance move, then says "Here's another one I picked up in a dance hall!" and gestures toward Margaret Dumont.
- "Remember you're fighting for this woman's honor, which is probably more than she ever did!"
- From A Night at the Opera: "You're willing to pay him a thousand dollars a night just for singing? Why, you can get a phonograph record of 'Minnie the Moocher' for 75 cents. (pause) For a buck and a quarter, you can get Minnie."
- From A Day at the Races:
Chico: One dollar, and you'll remember me all your life.
Groucho: That's the most nauseating proposition I ever had.
Chico: (singing) Getta you tootsie-frootsie!
Groucho: I'm getting a fine tootsie-frootsieing right here!
- From At the Circus:
Groucho: You know, if you hadn't sent for me I'd probably be home now in a nice warm bedroom, in a comfortable bed, with a hot toddy.
Groucho: A hot toddy!...That's a drink!
Chico: At'sa too bad! note
- As mentioned above, there's a scene where Pauline stuffs some money down her shirt, and Groucho is worried he won't be able to get it out without breaking The Hays Code.
- From the very beginning of Go West:
Chico: Where's your $70?
[Harpo reaches his pockets, smiles, shakes his head and shows his empty hands]
Chico: You only got $10? What did you do with the other $60?
[Harpo describes feminine forms with his hands, then makes a wolf whistle
and a mischevious grin]
Chico: Ohhhh... You buy a snake, eh?
[Harpo looks at him, puzzled]
- Grande Dame: Margaret Dumont was the perpetual butt of the Marxian humor throughout a long series of films.
- Hammerspace: Harpo's pockets hold a lot of stuff.
- Harpo Does Something Funny: The Trope Namer, naturally. The scripts for their movies would often contain sections which consisted of a direction for one or more of them to do some comedic business, with the details left to them.
- He Who Must Not Be Heard: Harpo. He reportedly turned down $50,000 to speak one word in At The Circus.
- Later in life, Harpo had a second career as a dinner speaker. He would always open his speeches with a wry "unaccustomed as I am to public speaking," and get the audience rolling with laughter.
- Harpo named the memoirs he wrote in his old age Harpo Speaks. The two last words in it are "honk, honk!"
- Hurricane of Puns: Chico and Groucho are both prone.
- One well known example is this Groucho monologue from Duck Soup: "Well, that [statement] covers a lot of ground. Say, you cover a lot of ground yourself! You'd better beat it! I hear they're going to tear you down and put up an office building where you're standing. You can leave in a taxi. If you can't get a taxi you can leave in a huff. If that's too soon you can leave in a minute and a huff."
- Iconic Item: Harpo's high hat, magical coat, motor horn and harp. Chico's pseudo-Italian suit. Groucho's cigar.
- Idiosyncratic Episode Naming: All their features from Animal Crackers to Duck Soup are named after silly phrases with animals in them that have nothing to do with the plot. These were followed by two films with titles featuring variations of A _____ at the _____.
- I'll Take Two Beers Too: In A Night at the Opera:
Groucho: Two beers, bartender!
Chico: I'll take two beers too.
- Insult Comic: Groucho made this type of comedian universally famous and popular. He is more or less the godfather of this genre.
- I Take Offense to That Last One: In Duck Soup, Groucho does this to Trentino. Although he still likes "upstart".
- It Is Pronounced Tro PAY: "Chico" is pronounced "Chicko," rather than the normally-expected "Cheeko." He was an inveterate womanizer, and the nickname (and pronunciation) comes from his habit of "chasing the chicks."
- Jerk Ass: Groucho, although he's also most times a Jerk with a Heart of Gold.
- Groucho was known to be this in real life, too. He was notoriously incapable of reining in his caustic and deadpan wit, but was rarely malicious with his verbal barbs. He was also noted to be a bit of a sexist, but also had a soft spot for children.
- Karmic Protection: Don't be mean to Harpo.
- Karmic Trickster: Groucho and company spend much of their movies getting back at those who have wronged them. Groucho was an inspiration for the most famous Karmic Trickster of all.
- Large Ham: Groucho and Chico. Harpo is one of the mute examples.
- Lighter and Softer: When the Brothers went to MGM, Irving Thalberg made them lighten up their act a bit to play slightly nicer characters who saved their mischief for the villains while helping the romantic leads of the stories.
- Malaproper: Chico, a lot of the time.
- Mirror Routine: Not an Ur Example (the routine predates film), but one of the most memorable.
- Motor Mouth: Groucho.
- The Musical: Most (if not all) of their movies, of course, but also Minnie's Boys, a musical Very Loosely Based on a True Story, namely the Marx Brother's early life and careers, as well as their relationship with their mother, the titular Minnie (played by Shelley Winters in the original Broadway production). How loosely based? Well, for one thing, Gummo never even joins the act once (though he's in the early scenes and some later ones when his brothers get famous).
- Obfuscating Stupidity: Although the public image of Margaret Dumont was as a stuffy dowager who, according to legend, had no clue of how the brothers were funny, many people have observed that she had a long enough career in stage comedy to say that was an act. Groucho claimed she really didn't get the jokes, but who're you gonna believe, him or your own eyes?
- Odd Name Out: Groucho, Harpo, Chico, Zeppo, Gummo, and... Margaret.
- Only Sane Man: Zeppo's schtick. He often played an exaggerated parody of the straitlaced and handsome leading man prevalent in Hollywood at the time, but also acted as an amused observer to the madcap shenanigans that were going on; The Cocoanuts and Monkey Business are the best examples. In the latter, he even gleefully joins in with some of his brothers' antics and lets fly a few zingers of his own.
- On Second Thought: "I could dance with you until the cows come home. On Second Thought I'd rather dance with the cows until you came home."
- OOC Is Serious Business: Watch Harpo when he sits down to play the harp. All traces of his usual goofy clown suddenly disappear as he becomes intent on the music, and then reappear as soon as the music ends. Chico at the piano is sometimes this as well, but Chico mixed up the clowning and the serious music more than Harpo did.
- Overly Long Gag: A Day at the Races features Harpo beginning to play the piano... before attacking it, spending two to three minutes just tearing it apart. Out of the wreckage, he pulls the strings, which he then proceeds to play as a harp, at which point, the scene stops being a gag and just becomes a very nice harp performance.
- The Password Is Always Swordfish: Not an example in the strictest sense, but the Trope Maker for half of the ones that are. Anytime the password is "swordfish", it's a reference to Horse Feathers.
- Power Trio: Groucho, Chico, and Harpo.
- Premature Aggravation: A truly epic example in Duck Soup; see the trope page for the full quote.
- Pretext for War: Duck Soup.
- Rapid-Fire Comedy: Compared with many comedy films from their era they are not as slow-paced as their contemporaries.
- Red Oni, Blue Oni: Every Double Act followed this pattern. From reddest to bluest: Harpo's characters, Chico's characters, Groucho's characters, and Zeppo's characters.
- Secret Word: Groucho and Chico have a famous routine based on this concept in Horse Feathers. Hilarious in Hindsight is the fact that Groucho would later become the host of a game show called You Bet Your Life where a secret word was also an important part of the game.
- Shoo Out the Clowns: In most films, Harpo is the supremely silly clown, but he always performs the harp as a serious musician.
- Silent Partner: Chico frequently did the talking for Harpo.
- Sixth Ranger: Margaret Dumont. Groucho even lovingly called her "The fifth Marx brother."
- Slobs Versus Snobs: The basis for most of their stories, with the uncouth Marxes making fools out of high-society people.
- Spiritual Successor: Looney Tunes and Monty Python are probably the closest comparison.
- The State Room Sketch: Trope/Sketch Originators; most other instances are a Shout-Out.
- Stealing from the Hotel: In The Cocoanuts, Chico and Harpo check in with an empty suitcase. "That's all right, we fill it before we leave."
- Straight Man: Zeppo, Margaret Dumont, and really anyone else who spoke to one of the three.
- Stuck in Their Shadow: Groucho Marx and Harpo Marx have always been the most prominent names in the group. If you're lucky some people may remember Chico's name too. The one that everyone forgets is Zeppo (though, granted he only appeared in their movies until Duck Soup (1933) and was usually the straight member, thus less memorable.)
- Surreal Humor: Harpo has a coat that appears to contain everything he wants. Certain gags are physically impossible and/or break the fourth wall. Groucho and Chico frequently discussing absurd topics and Groucho himself also has absurd non-sequitors.
- Stylistic Suck: According to one interpretation, this was the point of Zeppo's character. He was meant as an exaggerated parody of the typical feckless leading man character that headlined contemporary musicals and comedies of the late 1920s. His presence in Horse Feathers and Monkey Business makes much more sense in this light.
- Also Groucho's dancing. By the time the brothers started making their movies, he was an accomplished dancer (starting out as a awkward teen in vaudeville), but his floppy and slightly off-beat moves were just funnier.
- Take That: Groucho sings and plays the guitar ("Everyone Says I Love You") in Horse Feathers reportedly because he felt stopping the films so his brothers could do their musical schticks was getting old. Notably, the next film (Duck Soup) has no harp and piano bits. (But only that one film!)
- Translator Buddy: Chico translated for Harpo.
- Unsympathetic Comedy Protagonist: See Comedic Sociopathy above.
- The Voice Less: Harpo, who is unable to speak, but communicates through mime and whistling.
- World of Pun: The brothers build a lot of their humor from puns. For instance, Chico combines this with "Fauxreigner":
"Taxes? My uncle's from Taxes."
"No, not Texas, taxes. Dollars, Taxes!"
"That's where he's from! Dollas, Taxes!"
- You Wouldn't Hit a Guy with Glasses?: Groucho says this in Go West. Yes, the guy would.
- Also referenced in Monkey Business:
Groucho: Say, why don't you guys fight over there, you wanna break my glasses?
"Don't point that gun at me. It might be loaded. You might be loaded. You might go off. In fact, I wish you would."