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Creator / Marx Brothers
aka: The Marx Brothers

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Clockwise from top left: Zeppo, Groucho, Harpo, and Chico. (Not shown: Gummo.)

The Marx Brothers were vaudeville comedians from the early 20th century. They later starred in their own Broadway shows, and subsequently in movies. They were wild, outrageous, and gut-bustingly hilarious, with the act's three central figures each being a master of a different brand of humor: verbal (Groucho), ethnic and musical (Chico), and surrealistic, slapstick pantomime (Harpo).

A family act, the Marx Brothers went through several incarnations under various names—including "The Four Nightingales", "The Six Mascots", and others—until an appearance in Nacogdoches, Texas, where the audience left the theatre in the middle of a performance to go watch a mule. This outraged the team, who promptly started breaking from their script to abuse the audience, which went over far better than they intended as the audience found it hilarious. Recognizing a great gimmick when they saw one, the Marxes soon incorporated into the act a significant element of what would be referred to today as improv comedy, frequently mocking theatrical clichés and tropes, and quickly began to move up through the ranks of vaudeville performers, eventually reaching the very 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 on the verge of disbanding when a backer willing to fund a legitimate theatre production was found. Success on the road with I'll Say She Is, a stage revue based in part on their vaudeville routines, continued when the show was brought to Broadway. Their performance caught the positive attention of the theatrical critics as well as the audience, and their relatively haphazard, underfunded show ran for months. Their subsequent show, The Cocoanuts, was also a success, and was adapted to film, launching one of the greatest series of screen 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; October 2, 1890 – August 19, 1977), nicknamed for his abrasive moods and his cutting wit expressing it.note  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), and his signature Eyebrow Waggle. 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. He was definitely not the best golfer among his brothers, but he notably once had a stroke of luck and for exactly 24 hours was thought to be as good as Bobby Jones and Walter Hagen as a result. A cross between a participant and a commentator, Groucho's on-screen persona would inspire performers from Alan Alda to the MST3K team and arguably up into the present day with groups like CinemaSins, his most famous imitator being a certain animated rabbit. Later in life, he became a fan and friend of Alice Cooper, oddly enough. Even to this day, devotees are known to leave Groucho glasses on his niche at the Jewish columbarium in Eden Memorial Park Cemetery.
  • Chico (Leo or Leonard Marx; March 22, 1887 – October 11, 1961), whose nickname (pronounced "chicko") 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. Chico is buried in the Freedom Mausoleum at Forest Lawn Memorial Park.
  • Harpo (Adolph Marx, later changed to Arthurnote ; November 23, 1888 – September 28, 1964), 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 wig (later blond, as it looked better in black-and-white film), 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. His ashes were reportedly scattered in the sand trap at the seventh hole of the Rancho Mirage golf course.
  • Zeppo (Herbert Marx; February 25, 1901 – November 30, 1979), after Groucho, the one whose nickname is the subject to most speculation.note  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. According to his brothers, in real life he was the wittiest, and could flawlessly imitate all of his siblings.) 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. His final movie appearance was Duck Soup. Zeppo's ashes were scattered in the Pacific Ocean.
  • Gummo (Milton Marx; October 23, 1893 – April 21, 1977), nicknamed for the sneaky, or "gumshoe", way he had of walking around backstage, or a pair of galoshes ("gumshoes") he had as a child. Having a lifelong dislike of being onstage, Gummo left the act right before it became famous to join the army during World War I, although he was never sent to Europe due to the war ending shortly afterwards. Zeppo, who until then was considered too young to be in the act, took his place. Like Zeppo, he later became a manager for his siblings and other talent, but he kept at it longer than his younger sibling. He died four months before Groucho, with the latter not being informed of his death in fear of making his already frail health worse; as such, only Zeppo attended his funeral at the Freedom Mausoleum in Forest Lawn Memorial Park (Gummo is buried just across the hall from his brother Chico). 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 on 17 July 1886, aged seven months (his youngest brother Zeppo was given "Manfred" as a middle name in his memory). He is buried in New York Washington Cemetery near Minnie's mother Fanny.
  • The Marx "sister" Polly was actually a cousin whom Minnie and Frenchie adopted.
  • They are in no way related to Communist writer Karl Marx, despite humorist Richard Armour's assertion that Karl was the funniest of the brothers, nor are they related to musician Richard Marx.note  Also, Gonzo was never the name of one of the brothers. Nor was Drano. They're also not related to Sadie Marksnote , the wife of Jack Benny who would later become famous as Mary Livingstone of The Jack Benny Program (although Zeppo was instrumental in introducing her to Benny, being a mutual friend who'd brought Benny along to a Passover seder hosted by Marks's parents).

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."). A common misconception is that Dumont was not a comedy actress, didn't understand the Marxes' jokes, or was exasperated by their antics on set (not helping this was a one man show Groucho did at Carnegie Hall where he falsely spread, if not directly originated, said misconception). The truth is that Dumont (a vaudeville veteran herself) was extremely canny as an actress, and not only understood everything around her, but was consummately committed to her role as the Straight Woman to the brothers, knowing how important her role was to their humor.

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,note  and was described as talkative and intelligent; among his friends were Alexander Woolcott and George Bernard Shaw. He, like Woolcott, was a member of the Algonquin Round Table, and his autobiography Harpo Speaks is one of the funniest and warmest showbiz autobiographies ever written, as well as being sharply perceptive about his poor upbringing and his relationship with his brothers.) He was the clown of the group — okay, they all were, to a point, but he was the kind of clown you’d find in a circus (albeit without the face paint). He'd literally chase women, randomly snip off people's ties and other things 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, "One morning I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got in my pajamas, I don't know."

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).

The Marx Brothers' films:
  • Humor Risk (also called Humorisk; 1921) — Their only silent film. 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) — Their first sound film, and their first of five films for Paramount. Adapted from their popular Broadway play. Their first film to feature Margaret Dumont (who had appeared with them on stage)
  • Animal Crackers (1930) — Adapted from their popular Broadway play. Introduced Groucho's Theme Song, "Hooray for Captain Spaulding".
  • Monkey Business (1931) — The Marx Brothers' first film written expressly for the screen rather than adapted from a stage play.
  • Horse Feathers (1932) — A satire on Prohibition and the then-rampant corruption in college football.
  • Duck Soup (1933) — The last of their films for Paramount, and the last to feature Zeppo. A flop on release, it is today generally regarded as their finest film.
  • A Night at the Opera (1935) — The first of their five films for MGM. A Lighter and Softer take on the Marxes, and a Marx Brothers movie with an actual plot.
  • A Day at the Races (1937) — Their second film for MGM, with Chico leading the others to save a Sanitorium from being converted into a casino.
  • Room Service (1938) — Their only film for RKO, and their only film not written especially for them (it was adapted from a popular Broadway play in which they did not star). The film features an obscure B-movie actress named Lucille Ball, who would go on to appear in the 1950s sitcom I Love Lucy.
  • At The Circus (1939)
  • Go West (1940)
  • The Big Store (1941) — The last of their five films for MGM, and the last to feature Margaret Dumont. The brothers announced their 10-Minute Retirement from film after this (with Groucho moving into radio and, later, television).
  • A Night In Casablanca (1946) — Made for United Artists, a direct spoof of Casablanca, with the brothers even concocting an elaborate publicity stunt wherein Warner Bros. had threatened to sue them but backed down only after they threatened to counter-sue for stealing the use of the word "Bros." from them first. No, "Play it again, Sam" does not appear in this film, either.
  • Love Happy (1949) — The final film to feature the three main brothers onscreen together.
  • Groucho, Chico, and Harpo also appeared (in separate, individual vignettes) in Irwin Allen's 1957 fantasy film The Story of Mankind.
  • Giraffes On Horseback Salad - A screenplay by Salvador Dalí (yes, really) which the Brothers loved but was deemed unfilmable. Was later fleshed out by Josh Frank and Tim Heidecker and turned into a graphic novel.
  • Groucho appeared solo in a number of films, including:
  • Harpo appeared solo in exactly two films:

The Marx Brothers' Radio Shows:
  • Flywheel, Shyster, and Flywheel (1932-1933) — a radio show about Ambulance Chaser Waldorf T. Flywheel (Groucho) and his Bumbling Sidekick Emmanuel Ravelli (Chico). Ran for 26 episodes; some of the routines were later reused in Duck Soup.
  • Groucho's comeback Game Show You Bet Your Life (1947-1960) — started on radio, but eventually moved to television.

The Marx Brothers' Television Appearances:
  • As mentioned above, You Bet Your Life started off as a radio show but eventually migrated to television (it was simulcast on TV and radio from October 4, 1950 to June 10, 1960). Harpo once appeared on the show to promote his autobiography, Harpo Speaks.
  • Groucho performed the part of Ko-Ko in a production of The Mikado on The Bell Telephone Hour.
  • Harpo appears in one of the Hollywood arc episodes of I Love Lucy (complete with harp and mirror routine) with Ricky and Fred dressed as Groucho and Chico.
  • Both Harpo and Groucho appeared on separate episodes of the Game Show I've Got a Secret.
  • Groucho appeared as both panelist and Mystery Guest in episodes of What's My Line?.
  • "The Incredible Jewel Robbery", a 1959 episode of the General Electric Theater anthology series, starred Harpo and Chico as a pair of inept would-be robbers; Groucho joined them in an end-of-episode cameo, marking the final shared onscreen appearance for the trio.
  • The Mad, Mad, Mad Comedians, a 1970 animated vaudeville-style TV special by Rankin/Bass Productions, featuring the voices of Groucho, as himself and Napoleon; Paul Frees, as the voices of Zeppo (who had retired from the movies in 1933), W.C. Fields (who'd died in 1946), and Chico (who'd died in 1961); Jack Benny; George Burns; Phyllis Diller; the Smothers Brothers; Flip Wilson; and Henny Youngman.

For another comic trio that was famous around the same time, see The Three Stooges

They often employed such tropes as:

  • Ambiguous Syntax: Forms the basis of one of Groucho's most iconic jokes: "One morning I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got in my pajamas I don't know."
  • Bag of Holding: Harpo's baggy old overcoat has been known to produce lit candles, hot cups of tea, fresh fish, and roughly eight drawers' worth of stolen silverware.
  • Beam Me Up, Scotty!: The punchline of Groucho's famous "elephant in my pajamas" joke is, "How he got in my pajamas I don't know." However, the line is more commonly remembered and quoted as, "How he got in my pajamas I'll never know", the way it was quoted in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.
  • Big Applesauce: They were all born and raised in New York City.
  • Big Little Brother: Of the four performing brothers, Zeppo was the youngest, but also the tallest and most traditionally handsome.
  • 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: In Horse Feathers:
    • 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.
    • In A Day At The Races the barn dance has the lyric "All God's children got swing." which is a call back to Duck Soup where the line was "All God's children got guns."
  • Captain Obvious: During the 1970s, when Groucho attended a performance of Jesus Christ Superstar with Elton John, he remarked "This is sure to offend the Jews" in regards to the crucifixion scene, which may be considered a bit of self-deprecating humor, since Groucho and his brothers were Jewish.
  • Captive Audience: Lampshaded in Horse Feathers:
    Wagstaff: 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.
  • The Casanova: Chico in real life. His nickname, not coincidentally, was pronounced "Chick-o".
  • Cash Lure: In Go West, Harpo uses this on Groucho.
  • 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 willing to continue being in the movie as long as nobody expected them to give a damn. 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. It was definitely Margaret Dumont's talent. Not many people can act like this around Groucho without Corpsing.
  • Commander Contrarian: Groucho.
    Wagstaff: Whatever it is / I'm against it! / No matter what it is or who presents it / I'm against it!
  • The Con: The Quick Change. In Go West, Chico and Harpo (playing Joseph and Rusty Panello) approach Groucho (as S. Quentin Quale), and when Groucho sells Harpo a beaverskin hat for $1, Harpo gives him a $10 bill, and gets $9 back in change, with Harpo fishing his original $10 bill out of Groucho's pocket and buying an animal skin for $1 by giving him the same $10 bill with $9 change due from Groucho. By the time Groucho gets wise, Chico and Harpo offer him $1 back, only to give him the $10 with $9 change back, and again when offering to pay the $1 sales tax with $9 change coming back, pretending they didn't receive their change, when Harpo put his hand in front of Chico's to pocket the bills. By the time Groucho goes about his way, they've gained about $45 change due to Harpo's nimble hands and his original $10 bill.
  • Cute Mute: Harpo.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Groucho especially, but Chico had his moments. By all accounts, this was Groucho's real life personality and even his kids would complain that he was "always on".
    • In the letter dictation scene from Duck Soup, the underappreciated Zeppo deadpans circles around Groucho.
    • Silent Snarker: Harpo.
  • 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.
  • Do Wrong, Right: Being entirely self-taught, Harpo inadvertently learned the harp backwards. (he put it on the wrong shoulder — then saw a greeting card with an angel holding it the right way.) After he became successful, he tried to take lessons to learn how to do it the right way, but his teachers were all too enraptured by his playing to ever instruct him. The one exception was Mildred Dilling, who broke him of a lot of bad habits and coached him in certain songs he wanted to learn. When he got stuck he would call her up and she'd pull her harp over next to the phone and they'd play back and forth until he could correct the problem. In other cases, he was asked to share his technique with formally-trained harpists, which he found entirely impossible.
  • Double Entendre: Groucho could turn anything into one with just a wag of his eyebrows and a smirk. Anything. He would later lampshade his reputation for this on You Bet Your Life, because the audience would go off when a guest would say something they knew Groucho would turn into this.
    Groucho: I must have some reputation if they keep laughing before I even say anything.
  • Early-Installment Weirdness: In The Cocoanuts Harpo wore his red wig from their stage show, which appears dark grey on the black and white film. He quickly decided that it would look better bleached to a light pink. That's why he's called Pinky in some of the films. Many fans do think of Harpo as blond.
  • 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.
    • In his autobiography, Harpo describes how, during an acting tour in Russia, a director insisted on inserting dramatic scenes between Harpo's comedic routines because he didn't think the audience would enjoy the show if it was just nonstop, nonsensical comedy. As Harpo couldn't understand the scenes (which were in Russian), he would just stand there waiting for his cue to do his next trick. In relating this, he recalled that although he was convinced it would be a disaster, it turned out that the director was right; the combination of dramatic scenes and slapstick comedy ended up being a massive hit.
  • Extreme Omnivore: Harpo, who eats everything, including buttons, telephones and thermometers.
  • Five-Man Band:
  • Friend to All Children: Harpo, because he practically was a child himself. Reportedly, he was fond of kids in real life, too, having adopted four with his wife. He even said he wished he could adopt more, but knew it would be difficult to give them all enough attention.
  • Foil: The Marxes had several throughout their films: Margaret Dumont, Sig Ruman (A Night at the Opera, A Day at the Races, and Thelma Todd (Monkey Business, Horse Feathers).
  • 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.
  • Four-Temperament Ensemble: Groucho is Sanguine, Harpo is Melancholic, Chico is Choleric and Zeppo is Phlegmatic.
  • Freudian Trio: Groucho = superego. Chico = ego. Harpo = id.
  • Funny Foreigner: Chico is a holdover of the classic "dialect comedian" from vaudeville, specifically a comical Italian.
  • Funny Character, Boring Actor: Groucho and Harpo. Both, in real life, were quiet and introverted. Harpo was a soft-spoken family man who, though a member of the Algonquin Round Table, was more of an audience for their zingers. In Real Life he preferred painting, playing his harp, and spending time with his children to wild nightlife. Groucho, too, disliked raucous nightlife. According to his son, he preferred to spend his leisure time reading and writing. And in an inversion, according to his brothers, in everyday life Zeppo was the funniest and most quick-witted of the family, but he usually played the Straight Man in their pictures.
  • Gadgeteer Genius: Zeppo was a Real Life example. He eventually left the act to start an engineering firm, and invented the clamps used to secure the first atom bombs in their bays.
  • The Gambling Addict: In Real Life Chico was a degenerate gambler. Gambling led him to meet MGM mogul Irving Thalberg (another gambler) and in consequence, a chance to resurrect the brothers' career after Zeppo quit the team. But in the long run it also led to Chico constantly being on the brink of going bankrupt, which forced the Marx Brothers to stay together for ten years longer than planned to earn income to help with Chico's debts. Eventually all of his four brothers forced him to go into an allowance scheme, where they would manage Chico's earnings and give him a monthly stipend so that he wouldn't gamble it all away.
  • The Generic Guy: Zeppo, to the extent that this type of character is sometimes just called "The Zeppo."
  • Genius Ditz: Harpo played a bumbling fool who was nonetheless a brilliant harpist.
    • In real life, he was quite intelligent, but not very well-educated as he had quit school early on, which could lead to this. In one incident recalled in his autobiography, he came up with a brilliant plan to outwit Alexander Wolcott in a murder mystery game, but gave himself away by misspelling the word "dead" in a note (since everyone else there was highly educated, Wolcott knew that only Harpo would make such a mistake).
  • Grande Dame: Margaret Dumont was the perpetual butt of the Marxian humor throughout a long series of films.
  • Happily Adopted: Harpo and his wife Susan had four adopted children, and made the decision early on to be open with them about this fact so that there wouldn't be any question of them being blindsided by a revelation later in life and potentially questioning if they were less valued than a biological child would have been. The children grew up knowing they came from "somewhere else" (in fact, their favorite bedtime story was a fictionalized account of how they came to live with Harpo and Susan), but that this didn't make them any less a family.
  • 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.
    • Except (apparently) singing "Sweet Adeline" in Monkey Business, since the first officer could hear them all singing in four-part harmony.
    • 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!"
  • The Heart: In real life, Harpo was this. Some time in the early 1920s, the Marx Brothers' career had stalled: they had failed to be a success on the Shubert circuit and were reduced to asking their successful uncle Al Shean for a loan to get them from Indianapolis, where they were on tour, back home to Chicago. They were discussing what they could do if they broke up: Groucho could be a single performer, Zeppo would have no difficulty finding a non-showbiz job, and Chico could earn a living playing the piano. Only Harpo had no marketable skills. He wandered through Indianapolis feeling depressed, and finally found himself watching an auction sale. He had only seven cents to his name, so didn't bid for anything until he saw an elderly Italian couple who weren't bidding either and were looking sad. The auctioneer put up a cleaning brush and asked for a bid, and the Italian couple looked like they wanted it, but made no move to bid. Harpo bid one cent, won the scrub brush and immediately gave it to the Italian couple, who thanked him fulsomely. Thus heartened, Harpo returned to the hotel and found the others deciding on their separate careers. To each decision, Harpo said "Nuts." They started discussing their situation and resolved not to break up, but to put on a new show. That show, I'll Say She Is, opened in 1924 and made them stars. When Harpo died in 1964, Groucho's son said that his uncle's funeral was the only time he ever saw his father cry.
  • Herr Doktor: Dr. Leopold X. Steinberg in A Day at the Races, played by German-born actor Sig Ruman.
  • 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."
    • Even though he doesn't speak, Harpo occasionally gets in on the gag Visual Pun style. The most memorable is probably in Horse Feathers, when he drops a live seal on Groucho's desk because Groucho and Chico were looking for "the seal".
  • I Am Not Leonard Nimoy: While they play characters with names—over-the-top comical ones in Groucho's case—people tend to remember their jokes and scenes as belonging to Groucho, Chico, etc.
  • Iconic Item: Harpo's top hat, magical trenchcoat, squeeze horn and harp. Chico's pseudo-Italian suit and pointed alpine hat. Groucho's cigar and wire-rim glasses.
  • 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 _____. (At the Circus was initially supposed to continue this theme, but the first half of the title was ultimately dropped.)
  • 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.
  • Insult to Rocks: In Duck Soup:
    Firefly [to Mrs. Teasdale]: Married. I can see you right now in the kitchen, bending over a hot stove. But I can't see the stove.
    • Later, when Firefly meets Trentino:
    Firefly: Maybe you can suggest something. As a matter of fact, you do suggest something. To me you suggest a baboon.
    Trentino: What?
    Firefly: I, uh, I'm sorry I said that; it isn't fair to the rest of the baboons.
  • I Take Offense to That Last One: In Duck Soup, Groucho does this to Trentino. Although he still likes "upstart".
  • Jerkass: 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. In fact, the PBS special The One and Only Groucho noted that "he married for love but drove all his wives away with his caustic wit," though all his marriages lasted for years and sometimes decades.
  • 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.
  • Kavorka Man: In Real Life, Chico (who got his nickname from his womanizing) was this. He wasn't conventionally handsome, but his intelligence, wit, and charm made him very popular with the ladies.
  • 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.
  • Magnum Opus Dissonance: While the general consensus is that Duck Soup was their best film, Groucho felt A Night at the Opera (1935) was better. This is a minor example, though, as both movies are highly regardednote .
  • Malaproper: Chico, a lot of the time.
  • Manchild: Harpo has all the mannerisms of your average 5-year-old (harp-playing not withstanding). Luckily, he’s more cute than annoying.
  • Mirror Routine: Not an Ur-Example (the routine predates film), but one of the most memorable.
  • Momma's Boy: All of them were devoted to their mother, Minnie, and Groucho, Chico, and Harpo named their daughters in honor of her.
  • 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).
  • Nazi Gold: A Night in Casablanca features a cache of looted treasures concealed in the Hotel Casablanca. A Nazi agent killed several successive managers in his efforts to acquire it, forcing the government to bring in Groucho as a manager of last resort.
  • Ninja Pirate Zombie Robot: Harpo was a prop comic mime harpist.
  • Obfuscating Stupidity: Although the public image of Margaret Dumont was as a stuffy dowager who, according to legend, had no clue 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.
  • One-Book Author: Groucho never wrote a script for any of the films that he made with his brothers—but he did co-write a screenplay for 1937 comedy The King and the Chorus Girl. It was Groucho's only screen credit.
  • 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."
  • O.O.C. 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.
    • Animal Crackers features Chico's incredibly long piano scene 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.
  • The Piano Player: Chico is a talented piano player and will often get his own obligatory piano-playing scene in every movie. Whether or not it's just a scene in the movie or a comedy sketch tends to differ between examples.
  • Parental Favoritism: Historical documents suggest that mother Minnie played favorites between her sons. Chico was the favorite during their childhoods, and Harpo became such later on. Gummo got extra attention because he was sickly as a child, and Zeppo, the baby of the bunch, was the cute one. Groucho (who suffered from Middle Child Syndrome) was The Unfavorite, which contributed to his moodiness and caustic wit.
  • 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.
  • Premature Aggravation: A truly epic example in Duck Soup:
    President Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho Marx): I'd be unworthy of the high trust that's been placed in me if I didn't do everything in my power to keep our beloved Fredonia in peace with the world. I'd be only too happy to meet with Ambassador Trentino, and offer him on behalf of my country the right hand of good fellowship. And I feel sure he will accept this gesture in the spirit of which it is offered. But suppose he doesn't. A fine thing that'll be. I hold out my hand and he refuses to accept. That'll add a lot to my prestige, won't it? Me, the head of a country, snubbed by a foreign ambassador. Who does he think he is, that he can come here, and make a sap of me in front of all my people? Think of it— I hold out my hand and that hyena refuses to accept. Why, the cheap four-flushing swine, he'll never get away with it I tell you, he'll never get away with it! [Trentino (Louis Calhern) enters] So, you refuse to shake hands with me, eh? [Firefly glove slaps Trentino for the second time in two days and the war begins]
  • Pretext for War: Duck Soup is about the fictional country Freedonia declaring war essentially just because of bankruptcy and personal slights. Some of which were hypothetical slights that didn't actually happen, at that.note 
  • Rapid-Fire Comedy: Even for their time, they were considerable masters of this craft, especially Groucho, who spat out so many one-liners that it can take multiple viewings of any film just to hear all of his jokes (presumably because you'll be laughing too hard), let alone find them funny. Even if you don't laugh at each individual joke, the absurdly fast delivery can be funny in itself.
  • Really Gets Around: According to Gummo, Chico's favourite people were actors who gambled, producers who gambled and women who fooled around. Averted with Harpo, who married late, but was a devoted family man.
  • 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.
  • Sexy Figure Gesture: A recurring joke of theirs. For example, in Go West, Chico asks Harpo what he did with the money that would get him a ticket to the West, with Harpo making the gesture and whistling suggestively. Chico then answers that he spent the money on a snake, to Harpo's shock.
  • Shoo Out the Clowns: In most films, Harpo is the supremely silly clown, but he always performs the harp as a serious musician.
  • Shout-Out: In the famous stateroom sketch in A Night at the Opera, one of the unexpected arrivals is a girl looking for her Aunt Minnie. Minnie was the name of the Marx Brothers' mother.
  • Silent Partner: Chico frequently did the talking for Harpo, and even lampshaded this on occasion.
  • 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.
  • Smart Jerk and Nice Moron: In the movies Chico and Harpo are usually paired up together, with Chico as the scheming leader, while the mute Manchild Harpo just tags along. Nevertheless, Chico often scolds Harpo for being stupid and not understanding him.
  • The Speechless: It's not entirely clear whether Harpo's character is meant to be this or just The Voiceless. In any case, he communicates just fine through mime and whistling.
  • 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 and Margaret Dumont.
    • Despite getting a reputation in later years as the one who wasn't funny, these days Zeppo's reputation has recovered significantly — critics note that he brought a certain winking irony to playing the role, where his romantic, overly-earnest Straight Man routine is clearly just as much an act as the other brothers' Wiseguy, Funny Foreigner and Clown schticks. He also had an excellent sense of comic timing with his brothers, something which his various replacements in their later movies never quite replicated.
    • In his later years Groucho (never one to avoid self-mythologizing) liked to circulate tales about how Margaret Dumont never understood the jokes, or even genuinely believed that she was playing a serious role. On the contrary, Dumont was herself a veteran of vaudeville comedy and accomplished actress who, with her old-fashioned theatrical speaking manner and classical singing voice, was adept at playing society matrons keyed up to the point of parody. As Dumont put it in a 1942 interview:
      "Scriptwriters build up to a laugh but they don't allow any pause for it. That's where I come in. I ad-lib — it doesn't matter what I say — just to kill a few seconds so you can enjoy the gag. I have to sense when the big laughs will come and fill in, or the audience will drown out the next gag with its own laughter... I'm not a stooge, I'm a straight lady. There's an art to playing straight. You must build up your man, but never top him, never steal the laughs from him."
  • 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.
    • Groucho's dancing. By the time the brothers started making their movies, he was an accomplished dancer (starting out as an awkward teen in vaudeville), but his floppy and slightly off-beat moves were just funnier.
  • 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 discuss absurd topics, and Groucho himself also has absurd non-sequiturs. It is any surprise that Salvador Dalí was a big fan?
  • Suspiciously Similar Substitute: After Zeppo left the act, several men filled his spot in the later films, including Allan Jones (A Night at the Opera, A Day at the Races), Frank Albertson (Room Service), Kenny Baker (At the Circus), John Carroll, (Go West), Tony Martin (The Big Store) and Charlie Drake (A Night in Casablanca).
  • 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!)
  • Tempting Fate: A popular rumor as to why Harpo never spoke goes back to one of their earliest Vaudeville performances, where the theater manager paid the Brothers in sacks of pennies, which they had to lug onto a train they were late for. An angry Harpo shouted "I hope your theater burns to the ground!" at the manager as they left. The next morning, they read that it had. Groucho later likened his brother's voice to "the axe hanging on the backstage wall of every theater: To be used only in case of emergencies."note 
  • Theme Naming: Several of their early films have an animal name in the title: Animal Crackers, Monkey Business, Horse Feathers, Duck Soup. One of their famous routines, "Why a duck?", also involves ducks. Then there's Harpo, who has a soft spot for animals.
  • Those Wacky Nazis: Heinrich Stubel (Sig Ruman), a fugitive war criminal who disguises himself as Count Pfefferman in A Night in Casablanca to reclaim the stolen art treasures he's stashed in the hotel, while murdering the hotel's managers.
  • Throw It In!: Harpo's horn started off as this. He just happened to have one on him during one of their stage shows, and it went off in the middle of a gag when another actor grabbed him. The audience loved it, so Harpo made it a part of his persona.
    • Many of the brothers' films started off as stage shows, with the brothers improvising large parts of the act and then deciding later what to keep. Particularly memorable gags of this type include Harpo chasing blondes in The Cocoanuts and the "hard-boiled eggs" gag in A Night at The Opera.
  • Translator Buddy/ Voice for the Voiceless: Chico translated for Harpo.
  • Unsympathetic Comedy Protagonist: See Comedic Sociopathy above.
  • Word-O Name: All four brothers have a name that follows this convention: Groucho, Harpo, Chico, and Zeppo.
  • 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! Money! Dollars!"
    "That's where he's from! Dollars, 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."


Video Example(s):

Alternative Title(s): The Marx Brothers, Groucho Marx


Marx Brothers: Fortune hunters

Groucho and his boss Gottlieb are both interested in Mrs. Claypool...and the money her husband left her!

How well does it match the trope?

4.6 (5 votes)

Example of:

Main / GoldDigger

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