For those few of you who aren’t already rabid fans, a primer today on the Brothers Marx. For still more on each brother, just follow the links!
Yes, there really was a sixth Marx Brother. Manfred, the first to come along, died at age seven months of complications arising from influenza. Biographers think his early death was what resulted in the Marx parents massively over-indulging the second son, who was named…
Despite being the oldest Marx Brother to survive infancy, ironically, Chico was also the wildest and most irresponsible. It is Chico who sets the moral tone for the rest of his siblings: criminality. His nickname came from his insatiable appetite for chicks, and for his talent at seducing them. The only time this is seen to emerge on camera is when he plays the piano; you can actually watch him win over the people who are watching him. It’s exactly like that moment at a party when some dude gets all the attention by singing and playing some instrument and then hooks up with whomever he pleases. Chico had a brassy personality and dealt cheerfully with rejection. If you keep knocking on doors, someone will answer. Chico was also tough; he was the brother best (and most) able to use his fists in their childhood, until Zeppo came along. In addition to being street smart, he was also smart-smart. Extremely gifted at math, he misused this talent by becoming a problem gambler from childhood, hustling pool and cards, and betting on anything on which it is possible for a person to bet. Most of the dubious projects the Marx Brothers became involved in, such as their later movies were done because “Chico needed the money”. Their willingness to do that for him must also stem from a certain amount of gratitude. At key points in their career he stepped in as manager and negotiated lucrative deals for them. It was only in regard to his personal life that he dropped the ball.
Being the oldest, Chico was the first to perform professionally, though as a solo. He’d benefited from piano lessons in childhood, and began playing in saloons, movie theatres and cathouses when quite young, much as had fellow vaudevillians Irving Berlin and Jimmy Durante. Chico’s piano-playing turns in the Marx Brothers’ films are today valuable records of a style that was popular at the beginning of the 20th century, smashing together ragtime, barrelhouse, tin pan alley, and even classical techniques, enhanced with his crowd-pleasing visual flourishes such as “shooting the keys”. Chico was the Marx Brother who joined the others in the family team last of all (1912), not including Zeppo. Prior to that, for a few years he performed in a number of comic two-acts, perfecting his Italian dialect character. His screen character usually placed a distant third after Groucho’s and Harpo’s in popularity but here again, his film appearances are valuable. Of those in the team, Chico with his joke book malapropisms comes closest to your average, workaday vaudeville comic. Which is undoubtedly what he would have remained if not for his partnership with his brothers.
Harpo was the most original artist in the Marx family, which I find fascinating because in his early life he was so much of a follower, and the person he followed was unfortunately, his older brother. Only a little younger than Chico, and bearing a strong physical resemblance to him, Harpo possessed a pliant, easy-going nature that made him easy to lead astray. Terrible at school (and bullied) he dropped out early and ran wild in the streets with his brother. Like Chico, he was musical, and not only picked up the piano, but several other instruments, including eventually the harp. He started out playing the same kind of piano gigs as Chico, often filling in for him, although with much less facility on the instrument. Drafted into the family act in 1908 when they were still a singing group, he eventually developed a character based on the stock vaudeville “Irishman”, called the Patsy Brannigan, and this is why wore a curly red wig.
Eventually he became a mute clown, and this is the aspect that proves the most interesting in the long run. What artists influenced him? It’s so much harder to figure out with the non-verbal Harpo than with the other brothers. My belief is that the artists who influenced him the most were his maternal grandparents, both of whom were performers. His grandmother played the harp, so that one is obvious. But his grandfather had been a magician, and I see strong echoes of this in Harpo’s comedy. Harpo isn’t just a clown, he is magical. He pulls whatever he needs right out of his coat, even if it defies logic or the laws of physics. If he is blowing bubbles and Groucho says “Ya haven’t got chocolate, have ya?” he produces a chocolate colored bubble. He even wears a top hat, like his grandfather had.
Harpo was the most universally beloved member of the team, and the one who initially won them their first critical plaudits, driving them into the stratosphere of success. In later years, when the scripts to their films are dreadful, Harpo is often the only watchable element. And of course he is the member of the team most accessible to children, who continue to love him to this day.
As children, Chico and Harpo were often in cahoots together. Groucho, a little younger, was always apart. Wall-eyed and bookish, he spent a lot of time by himself, reading. Nevertheless the genesis of the world’s most famous comedy team begins with him. Inspired by his uncle Al Shean, a headlining vaudevillian with a succession of teams, Groucho began seeking (and getting) work in vaudeville as a singer (which fact I find amusing. His vocal performances in films don’t display a strong singing voice). Shean was Groucho’s biggest influence; the uncle also had started out as a singer and increasingly injected comedy into his act. Also like Shean, Groucho originally did a German character in the mold of Weber and Fields for something like ten years, until World War One made such a thing impossible. Gummo, then Harpo, then Chico all joined the act, which evolved from a singing group to an anarchistic comedy act, and Groucho became the archetypal vaudeville talking comedian, a master of one-liners, wise cracks and ad libs, delivered between jets of cigar smoke, as he stalked around the stage in his patented stooped posture, wiggling his eyebrows, wearing a swallowtail coat, glasses and a greasepaint mustache. While his comic style at first blush may seem poles apart from Harpo’s, there are ways in which I think the older brother may have influenced the younger. These guys have no boundaries. Anything can happen.
Groucho’s verbal acuity gave his career the greatest flexibility. In later years he was to star in several films without his brothers, and to host the popular game show You Bet Your Life. He also authored many humorous short stories and books. Groucho remains, for many, the comedian’s comedian to this very day.
Gummo was the second Marx Brother to join the family act with his brother Groucho. Chico and Harpo were playing piano professionally in saloons and cathouses by that time, but on their own. Gummo was a member of the act from 1907 through 1918 — 11 years.
But the subject of Gummo is endlessly fascinating to me as a “what if?” I imagine him much more in a class, status-wise, with his brothers than was Zeppo, the brother who later replaced him. A member of the act from its founding he, like Groucho, had studied at Ned Wayburn’s vaudeville school, and had a top notch vaudeville skill — he could dance at a professional level, hence his nickname (he was named after the gum soled dance shoes he preferred). His character sounds like it was a mish-mash of three elements, 1) the “Hebrew” stereotype (at the same time his brothers were doing Italian, Irish and German), 2) a “nance”, or a sissy, and 3) the juvenile, i.e. the romantic lead, who would sing and dance romantic duets with girls. Sounds to me like he was an estimable Marx Brother. There was only one problem — he didn’t think so.
It is said that the family dynamic was such that the two older, wilder brothers Chico and Harpo (who more resembled their mother Minnie) tended to pair off together. And Groucho tended to pair off with Gummo, who, like him was a bit younger, more sedate, and more like their father “Frenchie”. But if Groucho was more sensitive than his older brothers, Gummo was even more sensitive than Groucho. He had a stuttering problem. He got stage fright and went up on his lines. He found the experience harrowing. When he got drafted into World War One, he opted not to return to the act when he got his discharge. I wish I had a time machine. I would bet money it was the wrong decision, from the public’s point of view. There is such a thing as being too sensitive! Think of it this way. As far as the audience is concerned, he is one of the Marx Brothers. To be the least of the Marx Brothers is still to be a Marx Brother. The audience no doubt loved him much more than he dreamt. And furthermore, one of those other brothers was Chico. Surely it is not so much of a challenge to measure up to the histrionic bar set by Chico? And Chico was totally okay with who he was. But the last thing that Chico could be accused of is sensitivity. Gummo was reportedly much happier behind the scenes in show business and other fields than he had been before the footlights. I don’t care! I want Gummo! We wuz robbed!
Likewise, the career of the youngest brother Zeppo, drafted into the act to replace Gummo, was another wasted opportunity.
Ten to fifteen years younger than his brothers, Zeppo was essentially part of another generation. In temperament, he most resembled Chico. He was the most macho of all the brothers, he liked to fix cars, get in fist fights, run around with girls and gamble. It seems like all the brothers were indulged by their parents, and he was the baby of the family (thus even more indulged). His first times on stage were when Gummo was still part of the act, so for a very brief time there were five performing Marx brothers at once. Zeppo was said to be the funniest of the Marx Brothers socially, and he could understudy any of his brothers, or do impressions of them. But being so much younger than them, and so new in the act, he had far less status, far less even than Gummo. He was a performing Marx Brother for 15 years, encompassing eight years in vaudeville, three Broadway shows, and five motion pictures for Paramount. And in all that time he never graduated beyond the status of a rather awkward apprentice. Ostensibly the juvenile, he isn’t even that in The Cocoanuts or Animal Crackers, he’s just hanging around like a vestigial tail, while some other boring shlubs woo and get the girl. Zeppo isn’t even a proper straight man — Groucho plays that role in exchanges with Chico, for example.
Only in Monkey Business and Horse Feathers is Zeppo given any sort of a chance to shine, and he acquits himself admirably, which is why I say he was wasted. In Monkey Business he gets in a bit of heroism, with a good old fashioned fist fight at the end of the picture. There’s lots of room for this kind of thing at the climax of every comedy, and none of the other brothers was even remotely equipped to do it. He also gets more funny lines in both films, has romantic scenes with girls, and in Horsefeathers gets to show off his singing voice more than usual. There was real potential in the context of their movies to employ Zeppo as a parody of the leading men in musical comedies. It was almost there. Unfortunately in Duck Soup his role was once again reduced to what it had been in the first two films, and he quit the team in consternation.
Like Chico and Gummo, Zeppo was a charming salesman though , and he became a big time Hollywood agent. I often like to joke that the Marx Brothers film which bears Zeppo’s artistic stamp the strongest is Room Service — it was Zeppo who cut the deal with RKO.
For more on comedy film history please check out my book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube; ; to find out about the history of vaudeville, and the greatest comedy team ever The Marx Brothers, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous,