The Marx Brothers arrived with their bubbling blend of anarchic comedy just when America was struggling through its grimmest hour. As the Great Depression infused the world with sorrow, the Marx Brothers were zipping off one-liners in Hollywood, honking horns, twitching eyebrows, leering at pretty women (and some ugly women, too), wrestling, traveling, stealing, barking, and doing just about any other activity that ran opposite to the nation’s despair. They were wildly popular, of course; who wouldn’t rather watch the uninhibited antics of Groucho, Harpo, Chico, Zeppo, and sometimes Gummo than stand in a breadline? But their act was also oddly insular; they literally seemed to be in their own world, inviting audiences in for just a quick look. By sheer force of will and talent, they became comic icons. It is unlikely that another comedy troupe will ever have a similar impact on the cultural landscape.
The Marx Brothers really were brothers. Their mother pushed them into a vaudeville act from an early age, but soon the Marx boys were running on their own steam. The eldest, Leonard “Chico” Marx, was born in 1887. Hedeveloped his signature Italian accent to disguise his identity when hustling at craps and pool, and got his nickname from a mispronunciation of his original nickname, “Cheeko,” which he earned for chasing young “chicks.” Adolph “Harpo” Marx, born in 1888, was a talented self-taught harpist who got his nickname from the musical numbers he performed in the Marx movies. He changed his legal name from “Adolph” to “Arthur” in 1938, most likely in a response to Adolph Hitler’s rise to power in Nazi Germany. Julius Henry “Groucho” Marx was born in 1890. He became unquestionably the best known of the Marx brothers, with his bushy eyebrows, painted on mustache, big cigar, and laser wit. He deeply influenced a generation of comics, notably including Woody Allen. Herbert “Zeppo” Marx was born in 1901. He picked up the thankless task of “straight man” to his wacky brothers after another brother, Milton “Gummo” Marx, quit the act to become a businessman.
The Marx Brothers started out as a musical vaudeville act in the days before film. All of the brothers were musically talented; besides Harpo, Chico excelled on piano and Groucho was a fine vocalist. After Chico took over the management of the act from their mother, he pushed the brothers away from the stage and towards films. Their first film, “The Coconuts” (1929) was a huge hit. They followed up with movies that are still considered comedy classics, including “Animal Crackers” (1930), “Monkey Business” (1931), “Horse Feathers” (1932), “Duck Soup” (1933), “A Night at the Opera” (1935), and “Room Service” (1938). By the 1940’s, the brothers were getting older and their material was getting weaker. They worked less as a team and pretty much retired from each other’s company by the end of the decade.
After the act broke up, the Marx Brothers attempted solo projects. It was a mixed bag; only Groucho broke out on his own by hosting the popular 1950’s TV quiz show “You Bet Your Life.” In retirement, Chico continued to chase women and bet on horses, although he did leave a lasting mark on the business side of show business by negotiating the first percentage of a gross deal for the brothers. Harpo spent his final years as a devoted family man and golf player, while Zeppo went on to become an accomplished inventor, earning several patents on scientific and medical products. Their legacy will always be that of an incredibly original comic team, blazing the way for the performers that came after them.