Stars of Slapstick #5: Marx Brothers
Today is Groucho’s Birthday
With the possible exceptions of Ed Wynn and Fred Allen, no vaudeville comedy act ever attracted more highbrow approval than the Marx Brothers. Alexander Woolcott, Salvador Dali, and James Agee numbered among their enthusiasts.
In reality, they pretty much scored a hit with everybody regardless of brow height. Whether consciously or unconsciously, over the years they managed to cook up an act that encompassed all the comedy genres currently in vogue. They had a first rate pantomimist (Harpo), a top-notch dialect comedian (Chico), a “talker” (Groucho) and a romantic light comedian (successively Gummo and Zeppo). They were as good therefore as four acts in one, combining the appeal of Charlie Chaplin, Weber & Fields, Milton Berle and, well, Zeppo, all in one act. W.C. Fields called them “the one act I could never follow”.
As astoundingly talented as they were and as natural as they were together, the most perfect act in show business didn’t just happen overnight. The act evolved over 15 long years in vaudeville, through trial and error, almost like a scientific experiment — R & D. their beginnings were mundane enough. Behind the make-up, they were Leonard, or Leo (“Chico”, 1887-1961), Adolph, or Arthur (“Harpo” 1888-1964), Julius (“Groucho”, 1890-1977), Milton (“Gummo”, 1897-1977), and Herbert (“Zeppo”, 1901-1979). Both of their parents seem to have been creative types as well. Their father Sam (a.k.a. “Frenchie”) was a famously bad tailor who lost every customer he ever had. Their mother Minnie was also a crackpot—the kind of a woman who would show for a weekly card game wearing a wig, then take it off when her head got too hot. They seem to have been indulgent, almost negligent, parents, letting the kids run wild around the neighborhood getting into whatever trouble they pleased, with mild rebukes at best as punishment.
Leo, the oldest, was the biggest criminal, venturing just about as far into crime as it is possible for a child to go: running with gangs, hanging out in pool rooms, shooting craps, getting in fights, and – worst of all – hocking family belongings to underwrite his growing gambling habit. Adolph was the worst student, but both had dropped out by their teenage years. The salvation of the family was Julius. a studious boy, who spent all his time reading books. Instead of frittering away his time in hijinks, he devised a future for himself. He was still a Marx, of course; he was hardly thinking of enrolling in business school. Inspired by his uncle Al Shean, the successful vaudevillian, Julius thought he would like to go into show business.
Minnie was supportive. The role of stage mother and manager suited her. Julius found work immediately, singing in a group called the Leroy Trio. The experience was bad and unfortunately typical of vaudeville. His two partners abandoned him in Cripple Creek, Colorado, absconding with all the money. Julius had to take a job delivering groceries in a horse-drawn cart until his mother could wire him the train fare home. His second experience was equally bad. He traveled with a young Englishwoman in an act called “Lily Seville and master Marx – the Lady and the Tiger”. Lily ran off with Professor Renaldo, the animal trainer, stealing Julius’ share of the take and leaving him the lurch once again. Things looked brighter when he got a job with Gus Edwards’ “Postal Telegraph Boys, and then toured with a legit play “Man of her Choice” for several months.
In 1907, Julius and Milton attended vaudeville impresario Ned Wayburn’s College of Vaudeville. under Wayburn’s direction they formed a singing trio called “Wayburn’s Nightingales”, consisting of the two brothers and a classmate named Mabel O’Donnell.
Upon leaving Wayburn’s they became simply The Three Nightingales, with Minnie taking overt the management and replacing Mabel with a boy named Lou Levy. When she learned a certain booker needed a quartet she drafted Adolph, who could not sing and was then, like Leo, earning his living playing piano in nickelodeons and saloons (the only legal skill either of them possessed).
The Four Nightingales were then joined for a time by Minnie and her sister and they were called “the Six Mascots.” Minnie and her sister at that time were in their 50s—an exceedingly eccentric impulse on their parts. The act, in all its incarnations, was no doubt horrible. They spent several years as singers, yet listen to Groucho sing in any of their films—the man couldn’t sing on pitch or in key if his life depended on it. It’s hardly likely that he could do so when he was younger.
Gradually, their comic impulses began to take over. In one performance, the four Nightingales stopped singing in order to chase a bug around stage. At a gig in Nacogdoches, Texas, the boys were hopping mad at the audience when they vacated en mass to go look at a runaway mule. When the audience filtered back in, the Marx Brothers let them have it, with their full barrage of insulting insanity, paving the way for what was to become the whole gist of their act.
From 1908-1912 Leo was developing along a parallel track. Somewhere along the line he had become a dialect comedian, making him the first Marx Brother to discover his famous character. He did his “Italian” shtick with a chap named Arthur Gordon (who was later to marry Nora Bayes) when Gordon and Marx disbanded, Leo briefly went solo, then teamed with Lou Shean, Al’s brother.
Meanwhile, Al Shean wrote a sketch for the Marx Brothers called “Fun in Hi Skool” a sort of Gus Edwards ripoff, but, by all reports, better. Julius did Dutch dialect as the schoolteacher, and Adoph did his take on a vaudeville perennial “Patsy Brannagan”, a stock Irish stereotype. Elements of his subsequent persona—the curly red wig, and the impish pranks—were to evolve out of this character. Milton played a “Hebrew” at first, but was hampered by a stuttering problem. Apparently he was a good dancer, though, and this was made part of the act. The act’s closing song, which they would sing at family gatherings for the next fifty years, was called “Peasie Weasie”. From “Fun in Hi Skool””
Teacher: What is the shape of the world?
Patsy: I don’t know.
Teacher: Well, what shape are my cufflinks?
Teacher: Not my weekday cufflinks, the ones I wear on Sundays.
Patsy: Oh, Round.
Teacher: All right, what is the shape of the world?
Patsy: Square on weekdays, round on Sundays!
In 1912, Leo was in an act with a gentleman named George Lee. One day Leo showed up at a Marx Brothers performance unannounced and started playing the piano in character. The brothers started throwing fruit at each other and the rest is history. Both Leonard and Lee joined the Marx Brothers act, although Lee himself would soon be “history”. In addition to Leonard’s trick piano playing, the act also now had interludes on Adolph’s harp, which he had inherited from his grandmother. The piano and harp interludes were to remain a staple of their act for the rest of their careers in show business. Unlike later film critics, vaudeville reviewers all seemed to love these instrumental numbers, which gave variety, originality and a bit of class to their act.
In 1912, they added a second act to “Fun in Hi Skule” consisting of a tenth year reunion of the “Hi Skool” characters. The new act had a cast of 21 performers and toured the Pantages circuit for 46 weeks, garnering rave reviews along the way. Their next sketch was called “Home Again”. It was significant for being the first sketch in which Adoph’s Patsy Brannagan dialogue was replaced entirely by pantomime. Harpo’s famous bit of dropping an endless shower of stolen silverware from his overcoat dates from this sketch. The name “Harpo” also originates from this time, as do all of the brothers nicknames. During a backstage poker game, monologist Art Fisher whimsically renamed them as he dealt them their cards. The “O”s came from a popular comic strip called “Sherlocko the Monk”. Groucho, because of his everpresent concern for his grouch bag, the little pouch where vaudevillians always kept their money. (such concern on Groucho’s part would be understandable considering his first two experiences in show business.). Chico, was first named “Chicko” because of his success with the ladies. Gummo was so named fro his gum-souled dancing shoes. No one is quite sure how Zeppo got named, but it may have had something to do with the German zeppelins then menacing England.
The First World War had many great repercussions for the act. First, the 1915 sinking of the Lusitania brought anti-German sentiment in the U.S. to a fever pitch, so Groucho had to drop his Dutch character, gradually replacing him with the wise-cracking charlatan we all know today. In 1918, Gummo was drafted, and was replaced by Zeppo. Upon his discharge, they might well have been the five Marx Brothers (as they were on one historic occasion in Flint, Michigan,) but Gummo, who was self-conscious about his stuttering, decided to stay out, becoming an agent and later a manufacturer.
The four Marx Brothers were now Big time and were about to become bigger time, thanks largely to the influence of Chico (of all people) who gradually began to replace Minnie as the team’s manager. this only comes as a surprise because of their screen relationships, where Groucho would seem to be the leader. offstage, Chico was the oldest and most persuasive, with producers, backers and bookers. though he could not hold on to money himself, he was a good negotiator, who no doubt taught a trick or two to Gummo and Zeppo, who would later becomes successful Hollywood agents.
The group continued to expand. In 1917 they played the Palace. In 1918 they essayed a revue called “The Street Cinderella” but the influenza epidemic kept people away. In 1919 they were back in vaudeville doing an act called the Marx Brothers Revue (later renamed “N’Everything”) at the Palace Theatre, Chicago.
In 1920 they did a new sketch at Keith’s Alhambra and the Colonial in New York City. Called “The Mezzanine Floor” (later retitled “On the Balcony”) it is the earliest Marx Brothers sketch extant in its entirety. By now, Groucho’s voice is recognizable:
Hammer: (on telephone) Hello, Gumchewer, give me two wrong numbers, then give me the Musicians’ Union. “Union”, u-n-un. Hello, une. Say, have you got a couple of men who are out of work? Oh, it’s a union. Well, send me a couple of men that look like me. What do I look like? Did you ever see Lincoln without a beard? Well, I look like Washington with a mustache.
In 1922, they toured England, a move that was doubly disastrous. First, the Brits did not get the team’s humor at all, and so they had to return to the States with their tails between their legs. Upon their return they learned that, because hadn’t cleared the English tour with the Keith-Albee organization, they were now blacklisted from the big time. Next, inspired by the fortunes earned by their former contemporaries Chaplin and Keaton, they decided to try to break into films. Their self-financed result Humor Risk was an unmitigated catastrophe which was withdrawn after one showing.
But disaster has a way of creating opportunity. With vaudeville and cinema closed to them, the only way out was for them to attempt their own full-length stage show. The Shuberts (and a backer whose girlfriend was in the chorus) helped finance their first revue called I’ll Say She Is, which opened at the Walnut Street Theatre in Philadelphia to rave reviews. In 1924, it moved to Broadway, where it unleashed an unprecedented firestorm of critical Hosannahs. Alexander Woolcott of the New Yorker, in particular was a crucial booster, and largely through his influence the boys became the toast of the town. The show ran through 1925, enriching the four of them and making them stars. Two follow-up vehicles were written by George S. Kaufman and Morris Ryskind: The Cocoanuts (1925-28) with music by Irving Berlin, and Animal Crackers (1928-30) with songs by Kalmar and Ruby, including the classics “Hello, I Must Be Going” and “Hooray for Captain Spalding,” which was to become Groucho’s theme song.
A series of films for Paramount followed, including The Cocoanuts (1929), Animal Crackers (1930), Monkey Business (1931), Horse Feathers (1932) and Duck Soup (1933).As happened with the Beatles much later, without the glue of live performance to hold them together, the group began to drift apart. Now living in Hollywood with a lot of free time on their hands, they each began to follow their own pursuits and to socialize less with one another.
The first of the brothers to decide that life outside of the comedy team was possible was the one who’d been drafted against his will to begin with. Over the years, Zeppo had gotten tired of living in the shadows of his three brothers. What made the situation particularly nettlesome was that (believe it or not) he was as talented as any of them. Offstage, he was known as the funniest brother. Socially, he was the one who could kill everyone at a party with a joke. Once, when Groucho had been confined to the hospital for an emergency appendectomy, Zeppo had understudied for him, and the audience never noticed the difference.
But he was ten years the junior of three show business giants. No one gave him the slightest opportunity to prove himself on stage or screen, and he was too intimidated to make his own opportunity. His record on celluloid consequently is pretty embarrassing. In any given picture 3 or 4 supporting players have a better part than he has. Unable to take it any longer, he quit the group in 1934 to become their manager.
Despite the fact that in 1933 they were Paramount’s 5th largest grosser, and that the previous year they had made the cover of Time magazine, the studio did not renew their contract. (Paramount was uniquely myopic about its comedians. They later did the same thing to both W.C. Fields and Mae West). Fortunately, Chico was able to land them a much better deal at MGM. There, they started out strong with A Night at the Opera (1935), but the quality of each succeeding film worsened geometrically, with A Day at the Races (1937), At the Circus (1939), Go West (1940), The Big Store (1941). The MGM machine didn’t understand, and didn’t care to understand, their characters. Nor, it seemed, did the brothers themselves, based on their 1938 loan-out to RKO Room Service, a stage play largely unsuited to their special talents. The most intriguing offer that came their way in these years was called Giraffes on Horseback Salad, a surrealist screenplay sent to them by Salvador Dali. Groucho said the script “wouldn’t play”, but there’s little doubt that it would have been a better choice—as nonsensical as it was—than the schlock that characterized the remainder of their film careers. Their last film together Love Happy (1950) ranks with Laurel and Hardy’s Utopia as one of the saddest swan songs in cinema.
Fortunately, there were other outlets. The team’s first foray into broadcasting, the radio show Flywheel,Shyster and Flywheel had lasted only the 1932-33 season. Groucho tried and failed several different radio ventures before finally hitting one that was to make him a star yet again. His game show You Bet your Life was a hit on radio and then television all through the 1950s, making Groucho as indispensable a presence in American living rooms as Uncle Miltie.
His brothers did not fare as well on their own. Chico had his own swing band that played the night club circuit. He died broke, having gambled away all his money, in 1961. Harpo enjoyed a sort of pseudo-retirement, doing occasional solo turns on shows such as I Love Lucy. His last public appearance, at which he is reported to have spoken in public for the first (and last) time since he played Patsy Brannigan was in 1963. He died the following year.
Groucho lived long enough to enjoy resurgence of Marx bros popularity during the hippy era, and even starred in a psychedelic film (Skidoo, 1968). He toured college campuses where he was the darling of radical youth. In 1972, he caused a big stir when he stated publicly that Richard Nixon should be assassinated. That year he performed at Carnegie Hall to sell-out crowds. Both he and Gummo passed away in 1977; Zeppo followed in 1979.
To find out more about show business past and present, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.And 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