Today is the birthday of Chico Marx (1887-1961). I 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 kind of pantomime, and Chico’s dialect humor were all utterly 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.
Things that may interest you to know about Chico:
One is that he was actually the leader of the group in some important ways. It is natural for us to assume that it 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 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 schtick. After several years of this he finally joined his brothers onstage in 1912. And after the brothers stopped doing movies together regularly, Chico had his own swing band that performed in night clubs in the 40s and 50s. And here they are now swinging the “Five by Five” in this radio clip:
For much more on everybody’s third favorite Marx Brothers, please listen to the Marx Brothers Council Podcast about him here. I’m the guest!
For more on the history of silent and slapstick fiilms don’t miss my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc. And to learn more history about the history of vaudeville, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.