The Marx Brothers took ownership of the comedy world and, it could be argued, have not relinquished control. Four brothers from New York, five if you include Gummo, the youngest, were born to immigrant parents in New York City. Growing up, the boys alternated speaking German and English. Chico was the oldest, born Leonard Marx March 22, 1887. Harpo followed. He was born Adolph Marx November 23, 1888. Groucho, born Julius Marx, October 25, 1890 followed, then Gummo, born Milton Marx October 23, 1892, and finally Zeppo, born Herbert Marx February 25, 1901. They boys were from a family of entertainers. Their maternal grandparents toured Europe and did an act. Their uncle Albert, Minnie’s brother, was also in Vaudeville so the brothers’ way was almost predetermined.
Groucho was the first one to venture out onto the stage, somewhat to get away from his mother with whom he had a very ambivalent relationship. Gummo joined him in 1907 and they formed a singing trio called The Three Nightingales, along with Mabel O’Donnell. Harpo joined the group, enhancing them further with his ability to play various instruments. Harpo not only played the harp, but also could play piano. It was estimated that he could play six instruments when it was all said and done. Of course, Chico played the piano peerlessly.
As time went on, the brothers’ stage personas began to define thems. According to both Harpo and Groucho’s memoirs, it was their Uncle Albert who helped develop their personas even further. Minnie took control of the management side and the Marxes’ career started to sky rocket. The brothers also picked up their famous monikers. The genesis of some of the names has been clouded by time. Chico, actually correctly pronounced Chick-o, was known as a ladies man, and Harpo because he played the harp. The exact reason for Gummo’s is in dispute but, whatever the reason, it related to the type of rubber-soled shoes he wore. Groucho’s name doesn’t have a clear derivation, either. There are several stated reasons for the name. The first is that he was a grouch. The more likely was that he carried what was called a grouch bag. According to Wikipedia:
“A grouch bag was a small drawstring bag worn around the neck in which a traveler could keep money and other valuables so that it would be very difficult for anyone to steal them.”
Groucho was extremely stingy, especially after losing all his money in the 1929 stock market crash. One can picture an image of Groucho wearing such a bag. Although, Groucho vehemently denied this. He stated that he was named for a character in the comic strip, Knocko the Monk, which inspired the craze for nicknames ending in “o”. There was a character in that strip named “Groucho” but none of the other brothers back up this claim. Zeppo is the other one where there is no concise answer to how he got his moniker. Harpo stated that he was named after a chimpanzee in another act. According to Wikipedia, Chico took credit for coining Zeppo’s.
“Maxine Marx, his daughter said, “that when the Marx Brothers lived in Chicago, a popular style of humor was the “Zeke and Zeb” joke, which made fun of slow-witted Midwesterners in much the same way Boudreaux and Thibodeaux jokes mock Cajuns and Ole and Lena jokes mock Minnesotans. One day, as Chico returned home, he found Herbert sitting on the fence. Herbert greeted him by saying “Hi, Zeke!” Chico responded with “Hi, Zeb!” and the name stuck.”
The brothers thereafter called him “Zeb” and when he joined the act, they floated the idea of “Zebbo”, eventually preferring “Zeppo”. An interesting fact about Zeppo was he was a master of mimicry and could imitate his brothers. Zeppo actually did impersonate Groucho in the film version of Animal Crackers. Groucho was unavailable to film the scene in which the Beaugard painting is stolen, so the script was contrived to include a power failure, which allowed Zeppo to fill in.
The brothers made their first film for Paramount in 1929. Their first two films would be based off of the Broadway shows they starred in, both written by George S. Kauffman. All told, the brothers made five films for Paramount, Cocoanuts, Animal Crackers, Monkey Business, Horse Feathers and Duck Soup. For most fans, these are the best of the bunch because they didn’t have the frilly accoutrements that came to mark their MGM years.
After the expiration of their contract with Paramount, Zeppo gave up acting and became an agent with brother Gummo. Harpo, Groucho and Chico signed on with MGM, the premiere studio at the time. A bridge game with Metro’s top executive, Irving Thalberg, convinced the brothers to sign with the studio. The Marxes and Thalberg were both German Jews and connected through their heritage, as well as Thalberg’s innate business sense. Chico, a perpetual gambler, was always in debt and the signing was a welcomed addition for him. The problem was Thalberg wanted more of a structure in place and, while the MGM movies did not suffer, one had to wade through the extra bits to get back to the real reason you wanted to see the movie in the first place, the Marx Brothers. A Night at the Opera and A Day at the Races where the only two films produced under Thalberg’s guidance. He died suddenly during the filming of A Day at the Races. The head of MGM, Louis B. Mayer, hated the brothers and began to clear the studio of Thalberg’s influence. The Marxes contract was canceled.
They landed on their feet at RKO with Room Service and then the Marx Brothers returned to MGM and made three more films: At the Circus, Go West and The Big Store. Chico was again in need of money because of gambling debts and he convinced Harpo and Groucho to do A Night in Casablanca and Love Happy, notable for having a young Marilyn Monroe.
In the end, they made only thirteen films together but cemented a legacy that will live forever. Harpo never spoke, but communicated more with less. His coat had everything in it, including the kitchen sink, but he ranks as one of the top comedians ever. Chico had an acerbic wit and a knack for vocabulary on par with the master, Groucho. Chico was a master pianist and an underrated part of the brothers. Later, even though he could not handle his own business matters, he guided the brothers and built on their success. Groucho was the master wit and wordsmith despite a not very lengthy school career. They will forever remain a part of The Kings of Comedy.