A tribute today to Chico Marx (1887-1961).
Your correspondent might be one of the few people who rates Chico as high as his two brothers as a comedian. He may not be as original as the two others, but his persona as a comedian is second to none as a vehicle for jokes. I found it so irresistible that I wrote an entire play for his character.
None of the Marx Brothers (see my full article on them here) were as original as they seem to modern audiences today. Groucho’s brand of verbal nonsense humor, Harpo’s pantomime, and Chico’s dialect humor were all commonplace in the early decades of the last century. What made them unique was that they packed it all into the same explosive, anarchistic act — and that they were so funny, of course. The Marx Brothers were just very good comedians. That said, Chico was perhaps less unique than Groucho or Harpo, though that distinction becomes increasingly lost as we move farther ahead in time, and farther away from the conventions of vaudeville.
Things that may interest you to know about Chico:
One is that he was actually the leader of the group in some important ways. Not artistically, but in terms of business. It is natural for us to assume the leader was Groucho, because he plays the boss characters onscreen. But Chico was actually the oldest brother, and he took over as the group’s manager when their mom Minnie retired. He made the movie deals, he negotiated the contracts, etc.
Secondly, Chico had a career before and after the years he spent performing with his brothers. Prior to joining Groucho, Harpo and Gummo onstage, Chico played piano in bars and brothels, and then was part of a vaudeville duo with a man named Arthur Gordon, an act in which he was already doing his Italian dialect schtick. After several years of this he finally joined his brothers onstage in 1912.
And then, decades later, after the brothers stopped doing movies together, Chico had his own swing band that performed in night clubs in the 40s and 50s.
He also had his own TV show The College Bowl (1950-51) which I wrote about here. Around the same time he appeared on such variety programs as The Milton Berle Show, Kraft Music Hall, and The Colgate Comedy Hour.
Go here for a think-piece (ha!) I wrote about how the second half of the Marx Brothers screen career benefited Chico, and bore his stamp.
You may or may not know that Chico was a problem gambler, as well as a philanderer, hence the conventional pronunciation of his name as “Chicko” after all the chicks he reputedly bedded. But the sort of person who corrects other people on the proper pronunciation of his name, that’s the very sort of person the Marx Brothers would make fun of.
Chico was married twice; I wrote about both his wives in this post. His daughter Maxine Marx wrote the book Growing Up with Chico, not an objective source perhaps, but one of the most up-close peeks at the comedian that it’s possible to get. Our friend Mari Lyn Henry was Maxine’s personal assistant!
And for much more on everybody’s third favorite Marx Brother, please listen to the Marx Brothers Council Podcast about him here. I’m the guest!
For over 100 more articles about the Marx Brothers go here.
For more on vaudeville, where Chico Marx got his start, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, and for more on classic comedy film read Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.