Back in the 20s and 30s when someone used the word “madcap” to describe certain comedians it actually made some sense. this was the period when anarchistic comedy was in vogue. it was just as important for the comedian to be “insane” then as it is for a stand up comedian to be topical and observational today. Thus, the Marx Bros, Olsen and Johnson, Ed Wynn, Joe Cook, Clark & McCullough and the Ritz Bros.
Conceptually the Ritz Bros are a sort of cross between the Marx bros and the 3 Stooges. Like the former, they were “crazy”. They brought pandemonium with them when they enter a room. You wondered “where’s the straight jacket?” And of course, they were brothers. Like the Three Stooges (two of whom at any given time were also brothers), there was a sameness to them. They were roughly the same size and build, and there was very little individuality in their characterizations. In the case of the Ritz Bros, there was precisely NO individual characterization.
Al started out first as a song and dance man, but was quickly joined by his brothers Jim and Harry. They debuted at the Albee Theatre in Brooklyn in 1925, dressed as college kids, dancing, kidding around and playing the ukulele. Over time, the kidding around began to make up the bulk of the act. By the end of the decade, they were headliners at the Palace. In the middle 30s they were familiar fixtures in such pictures as One in a Million (1937), On the Avenue (1937), The Goldwyn Follies (1938), The Gorilla (1939), and The Three Musketeers (1939). They generally weren’t the stars of their pictures, usually but got 3rd billing, woven in and out of their musical plots.
The boys’ actual patronymic was Joachim. They took the name “Ritz” from the crackers, and it was appropriate, for they were frequently covered in cheese. Audiences either loved or hated the Ritz. Bros. your author confesses to the latter stance, though no less a personage than Sid Caesar considered them his idols. To this viewer, in their films at least, they seem to be really exerting themselves, making a lot of random, aimless contortions to little effect. Rarely have so many faces been pulled in the production of so little laughter. It’s true you can see their influence on Caesar—he makes the same kind of faces—eyes crossed or bugging out, strands of hair that flop onto the forehead . The difference is, in a Caesar sketch, his eyes are crossed because (for example) he has just been hit in the stomach, his eyes are bulging in anger or terror, the hair is flopping because he is freaking out over something. The Ritz Brothers just throw out those faces just for the heck of it. John Bubbles reported seeing them at Loew’s State in 1931: “When they finished, they had to steal a bow! And they were the headliners!”.
To find out about the history of vaudeville, including the Ritz Brothers, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold; for more on silent and slapstick comedy please check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube