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 he just plain hated the name and had it legally changed in 1911, long before the world had heard of Adolf Hitler and even before World War I's anti-German hysteria was even an issue), 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:
Chico spoofed the ignorant Italian Immigrant, always looking to con, steal or otherwise make a quick buck. He was the only Marx Brother to keep using his vaudeville accent into the movies. It's notable that Chico's character worked on another level besides the obvious spoof; he often got the better of Groucho and other characters with a hint of Obfuscating Stupidity and more than a little gusto, particularly in A Day at the Races. One Marx historian proposed that this was a vicarious release for actual immigrants, seeing "one of their own" get one up on the establishment. Given that the brothers' parents were immigrants (Alsatian Jews rather than Italians), there might be something to that.
Harpo originally spoofed an Irish Bruiser in the early vaudeville days, but later developed his trademark pantomime, "speaking" only through whistling, charades, and honking a horn. (In Real Life, Harpo actually had a pleasant baritone voice, and was described as talkative and intelligent; among his friends were Alexander Wolcott and George Bernard Shaw. He, like Wolcott, was a member of the Algonquin Round Table.) He was the clown of the group — okay, they all were, to a point. He'd literally chase women, randomly snip people's ties off with scissors, eat random objects, and produce unlikely items from his pockets and tattoos.
In the team's vaudeville days, Groucho originally played a German-accented character; but he was often booed for it (there was a World War going on) and so became the fast-talking "authority figure", and possibly the king of wordplay. It was he who uttered those immortal lines, "Once I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got in my pajamas, I don't know." However, one of the absolute best-known of his lines is something he never actually said — a supposed comment to a woman with lots of children who appeared on You Bet Your Life:
Woman: I love my husband. Groucho: I love my cigar, too, but I take it out once in a while.
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. cartoon Animaniacs. 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:
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."
"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".
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.
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."
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 (Perhaps not coincidentally, two-time co-star Thelma Todd's nickname was "Hot Toddy".)
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.
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.
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 _____.
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."
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 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.
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, there's no Gummo AT ALL.
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?
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.
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.
Also, Chico's incredibly long piano scene in Animal Crackers. And the scene where Harpo pours a truly remarkable amount of cutlery out of his pocket.
A Night at the Opera:
Chico: And two hard-boiled eggs. Groucho: And two hard-boiled eggs. Harpo: (honk) Groucho: Make that three hard-boiled eggs.
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!)