By Robert Horvat
Mention the Marx Brothers and I instantaneously break out into that stooped walk, with a cigar in hand, made famous by Groucho Marx. I also can’t help but smile when I see that silly grease paint moustache that Groucho proudly sports. Though I break out in laughter when I think of his brother Harpo Marx with his mischievous antics of blowing horns and slapstick, teamed together with the dozens of items he constantly keeps pulling out from within his coat. Last but not least, Chico Marx rounds out the trio of brothers I fondly remember, always seemingly up to no good with Harpo, playing a crafty con artist with a bad Italian accent. But wait what about Zeppo and Gummo Marx, I hear you say. True, there were five Marx brothers, however Gummo, the youngest brother, never appeared in any of his brothers movies. While Zeppo, who played the straight man and romantic only appeared in the brothers’ first five movies. (At one point they were known as the Four Marx Brothers, later simply as the Marx brothers.) Nonetheless, I hope you will agree with me that Groucho, Harpo and Chico are the quintessential Marx brothers we all adore and remember.
Eighty-five years ago, Marx brothers made their screen debut with their kid brother Zeppo in The Cocoanuts (1929). It wasn’t their greatest foray into motion pictures; however it had all the chaotic madness we come to except from the Marx Brothers. Though, their story wasn’t simply an overnight triumph, it was some twenty years in the making of hard work with only distant thoughts of success.
The Marx brothers, all five of them, were born in New York City and raised in a poor neighbourhood on the Upper East Side at the turn of twentieth century. Their parents, in particular their domineering stage mother Minnie Marx, were determined to see them succeed and encouraged them from a very early age to sing and explore their artistic talents. To the boys’ credit they were willing to try anything in an attempt to escape a life of poverty. Harpo, of course, as we know was an amazing harpists, Chico an excellent pianist and Groucho a guitarist and singer.
Groucho and Harpo Marx as children, 1906.
The first stirring of modest success came in the early 1910’s in shabby horrible venues. When the Marx Brothers act was hijacked by a runaway mule outside a Vaudeville theatre in Texas, the incident became the catalyst for change in their act. The audience apparently raced out the door to see this runaway mule, leaving the Marx brothers utterly astonished and angry. Finally, as the audience returned to their seats, Groucho angrily responded with a mouthful of insults directed at the town and audience. The audience apparently burst into laughter and so legend states that Groucho became more and more adventurous with their act, developing witty humour and impromptu gags.
In 1914, a very positive review in Variety magazine helped catapult them to stardom. Suddenly the Marx Brothers found themselves booked solid on all the top vaudeville circuits. As the act began to come to the fore, Groucho began to invent more new material that brought greater laughs. It was around this time that the brothers acquired the nicknames by which they would become famous for around the world. They also adopted a stage persona, which they then stuck with for the rest of their careers. Harpo, in particular, stopped talking on stage, choosing to get laughs out of an old car horn to ‘honk’ out his retorts.
By the early 1920s, the Marx brothers began to realize that vaudeville was dying a slow death. People had grown tired of it as a form of entertainment. So in 1924 they moved their successful act to Broadway. It wasn’t long before they became the toast of New York. All that remained was now to conquer Hollywood and they did!
A clip from Duck Soup (1933), one of the Marx Brothers’ most famous movies.
The Marx Brothers in the 1930s were at the zenith as a comedy act. Chaos ruled both on scene and behind the camera. They were sometimes described as ‘unhinged maniacs’ and complete show-offs. Industry insiders have commented that their confidence as performers was often interpreted as arrogance. They walked with a swagger because they knew that they were funny.
Not all their films were well received including Duck Soup (1933), which over time has become regarded as one of the greatest comedies of all time. This madcap feature is one of my favorite Marx Brothers films. Right from the opening scene, with four ducks swimming in a huge pot of water, you know something special is cooking. No pun intended! The film successfully sends up the foolishness of dictatorship and of war. I believe Benito Mussolini even banned the movie in Italy. Nevertheless, Duck Soup was a film well ahead of its time with its witty dialogue and physical gags.
All the Marx Brothers movies from that period, before America’s involvement in World War II, were the right elixir an audience straight out of the Depression era was looking for. It is rare in my opinion that they made a bad movie in the early years. However, after a short retirement during the war years, the Marx Brothers movies that followed the end of WWII never really lived up to expectation. In my opinion I believe they should have stayed retired at the end of 1941. I believe that their audience had grown tired of the anarchical mayhem they were famous for. To add insult to injury, the American public had fallen in love with someone new, in particular Abbott and Costello. Furthermore, in the postwar world, New York and the rest of America would be swept up by the slapstick hysteria that was Martin and Lewis.
The “bridge scene” from Animal Crackers (1930).
Are the Marx brothers still relevant? Honestly I hope so. Their work is often held in high regard among critics and physical comedians still today, though I don’t know if the audiences of today would appreciate their antics like the audiences of yesteryear. I was exposed to them as a kid; therefore I suppose if you expose today’s generation earlier enough to the Marx Brothers, you just may win over new fans. For new Marx Brothers fans I would definitely recommend their movies from the pre-war years. If you a want to see them at their ‘Vaudeville’ best you should watch The Cocoanuts (1929) and Animal Crackers (1930). It is the closest thing to their successful stage acts and Broadway shows of the 1920’s. For a more Hollywood scripted experience I would recommend the two movies I believe are brilliant Monkey Business (1931) and A Night at the Opera (1935). Holding a special place in cinema history the Marx Brothers have definitely left us with a legacy of laughs. There’s enough hi-jinks to last a lifetime!