Zeppo Marx: A Charitable Reappraisal

Zeppo Marx, 1933

A tribute today to under-rated Herbert “Zeppo” Marx (1901-1979).

Zeppo’s long been a sort of joke amongst the mainstream public because of his thankless role in the Marx Brothers‘ films as an exceedingly stiff and uncomfortable juvenile. As I wrote here, though, his role was vital to the team. Serious buffs know that in real life Zeppo was just as funny as his (much) older brothers; he was merely in awe of them, respected their seniority, and allowed them to rather unjustly hog all the juicy action. In reality, he was occasionally Groucho’s understudy in emergencies, for example. And one can glean here and there the possibilities from the historical record. The remaining paper trail on the team’s first Broadway show I’ll Say She Is seems to indicate a lot more funny business for Zeppo than he got in the movies. Being a revue, however, they hadn’t had to worry much about a plot.

Zeppo’s two best Marx Brothers vehicles are Monkey Business and Horse Feathers. Each gave him a chance to shine and each pointed the way to directions he might have gone in with the team, allowing him to do a parody version of the romantic lead, to sing (in Horse Feathers) and to play the hero at the climax of Monkey Business. But in Duck Soup, they bumped him back down to the ignominious status he suffered in The Cocoanuts and Animal Crackers and he quit. He later became a top Hollywood agent. I often like to joke that the Marx Brothers film that most bears Zeppo’s creative stamp is Room Service, because he made the deal with RKO as the Brothers’ agent.

Offscreen, many (including Groucho) seemed to feel that Zeppo was the funniest of the brothers. The best book I have come across for accounts of this, and for facts on what Zep’s career was like after leaving the team, in Charlotte Chandler’s Hello, I Must Be Going. To date, that’s the best book I know about for the real skinny on Zeppo.

Some other Zeppo tidbits:

He was once in a movie without his brothers. 

He was married to the lady who later became Barbara Sinatra. 

In the attached trailer for Monkey Business, Zeppo shines as an equal far better than he had been allowed to in any of the five features in which he appeared. This sketch was originally from the Marx Brothers Broadway revue I’ll Say She Is, which we revived in three successive stages from a reading in Marxfest (May, 2014), a sold out workshop production in NY International Fringe Festival (August 2014), and a full Off-Broadway production in 2016. The story on that is here.

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To learn more about vaudeville, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous.


  1. Thank you for giving Zeppo a nice write-up. I’ve read that Zeppo was Cary Grant’s favorite Marx, considering him the glue who kept the team together. When Grant signed with Paramount, he even dressed and combed his hair like Zeppo.


  2. I’ve been to an Orpheum theater in Minneapolis (I live about 20 minutes away) where the Marx Bros. performed in 1921. They may have done that very sketch on the same stage where I saw Phantom of the Opera.


  3. I never knew it, but Zeppo and his wife were close, supportive (both personally and professionally) friends of Barbara Stanwyck (they both play prominent roles in the new brick of a Stanwyck bio I’m currently reading).


  4. It was written by Herman Timberg, probably in collaboration with a Marx Brother or two, as the opening scene of “On the Mezzanine” in 1921. In “Mezzanine,” Scene Two was the playlet described by Zeppo at the end of this sketch.

    The Joe Frisco imitations became Chaplin imitations when the show went to England (as “On the Balcony”), and in “I’ll Say She Is” the imitations were of Gallagher and Shean.

    Whenever they changed the imitations, they had to rename Chico’s character, for the sake of rhyme: Tomalia/Chevalier, Zybisco/Frisco, Chicoline/Shean. I’ve never been able to find a record of what Chico’s name was when they imitated Chaplin, but Mikael Uhlin suggests “Tony Napolin!”


  5. Yup, the sketch is from I’LL SAY SHE IS, and I think recycled from even earlier in their act. I know that originally they weren’t imitating Chevalier, but Joe Frisco, and they all did Frisco-parody dances (would kill to see that).


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