Among the classic silver screen comedy teams there are many greats. Laurel and Hardy, Abbott and Costello, Hope and Crosby, the Three Stooges, and so on all have very special places in my heart, however, there is one team who has, for me, always stood out. I speak of the Marx Brothers. With their quick wit, innovative style, musical talent, and anarchic irreverence, the Marx Brothers have more than earned their places in cinema history. They were a unique blend ripped straight from vaudeville and their powers were only sharpened on the big screen.
One of the things that always separated the Marx Brothers from other comedy teams was their number. Most of the great comedy teams were comprised of only two. One would play more of the straight man (Bud Abbott, Bing Crosby) or bear the brunt of most of the physical pain (Oliver Hardy) while the other would be more infantile and always be getting into trouble (Lou Costello, Stanley Laurel) or sometimes they would just bounce lines off every straight performer in the film (Bob Hope). The Three Stooges (the greatest incarnation of which being comprised of Moe Howard, Larry Fine, and Curly Howard) changed things up a bit because there were now three and they were all pretty goofy. Moe would try to keep the boys in line, but his ignorance, belligerence, and propensity to get injured would always knock him down to the levels of the slower Larry and the manically infantile Curly. Cartoonish violence would quickly ensue.
The Marx Brothers had a completely different schtick. Originally there were four of them in the films (a fifth, Gummo, left the group before Hollywood and his namesake was seemingly arbitrarily used as the title to the 1997 Harmony Korine film).
Zeppo (Herbert originally) Marx (1901-1979) was the underused straight man of the brothers, but he only made it into their first five features. Zeppo’s screen time is short and sporadic throughout their movies. He usually played Groucho’s secretary or son or some other minor character who might court the girl or take a letter. It has been said that Zeppo was actually very funny off-screen, but since he did not have a specific comic persona like the other three he got lost in the shuffle. The best Zeppo moments, I think, come in Animal Crackers (1930) when he tries to take a letter that is being dictated by Groucho. My other personal favorite Zeppo scene is the big musical number about going to war in Duck Soup (1933). This number features all of the Marxes at once being equally silly as they sing, dance, strum banjo, beat helmeted guards’ heads like xylophones, and puppeteer an entire room of serious politicos. Duck Soup would be Zeppo’s last movie appearance. Zeppo left as their contract with Universal came to a close.
Chico (Leonard) Marx (1887-1961), renowned for being a bit of a womanizer and gambling addict, was the Italian guy of the group. The Marx Brothers were all Jewish, but in the days of vaudevillian comedy it was very normal to play stereotypical ethnic characters on stage. Chico was the only one of the Marxes who kept the ethnic schtick throughout their film career. His clothing (like Groucho and Harpo) would also stay rather consistent. The same cheap hat and coat would follow him from film to film. His performances consisted of saying dim malapropistic things with a heavy Italian accent, and being a springboard for many of Harpo’s antics. A very fine musician, Chico played the piano in most of their films. His characters were also the most prone to Donald Duck-like exasperation (usually brought on by Harpo). Chico and Harpo were often paired together as lower class vagabonds, thieves, or spies. Some of Chico’s best scenes come when he is with Groucho and his double-talk and mispronunciation carry them down awry verbal tributaries. I think some of Chico’s best scenes can be found in Animal Crackers where he and Harpo play bridge with some unsuspecting ladies (one of which being Marx Brother mainstay, Maragaret Dumont), or when he and Harpo attempt to steal a famous painting during a blackout, or when he and Groucho discuss where the painting might be and after much silly talk Chico asserts that it was stolen by left-handed moths. His best and funniest piano playing scene may also be found in Animal Crackers.
Harpo (Adolph) Marx (1888-1964) was the harp-playing, silent type. Harpo never spoke a word on camera (although he often whistled and honked horns that protruded from his overlarge, tattered trench coats). Always with a shabby top-hat and curly, red wig, Harpo was easily the most clownish of the group. His characters were all happy-go-lucky pantomiming miscreants—often times abused by bad guys or Chico—but he always got the last word (so to speak). Goofy faces (or “gookie” faces for the purists), a far away look in his eye, illiteracy, a voracious appetite, sloppy clothing—containing everything from live animals, perpetually lit candles and blowtorches, coffee, weapons, appliances, etc.—and a strange running gag of loving a horse and the harp were all part of Harpo’s bag of tricks. Some of his best scenes come with Chico in Animal Crackers, and his job interview with Groucho in Duck Soup where after many screwball antics, Harpo reveals his home is a tattoo of a doghouse on his own chest. Groucho leans in to “meow” at the doghouse, when suddenly a real dog’s head pops out and barks at him. Groucho leaps back as Harpo quietly closes his coat and grins whimsically. The most surreal of the brothers, it’s no wonder Salvador Dali was so fascinated by him (Dali actually wrote a script for the Marx Brothers, Giraffes on Horseback Salad, but it was never filmed). One of Harpo’s other great scenes comes in A Night at the Opera (1935) where he disrupts the opera performance at the grand finale of the film. For all his zany antics, his touch at the harp was always smooth and you could see the significance this instrument had on him.
Groucho (Julius) Marx (1890-1977) was the ring leader of the bunch. Unlike Chico or Harpo who were gifted at the piano and harp respectively, Groucho was a guitar player but he seldom displayed his musical talent on screen (he plays the guitar in Go West and briefly in Horse Feathers and promptly tosses it into a lake at the song’s conclusion). He was the wiliest and sharpest of the group. Groucho always wore baggy suits and round glasses and smoked a cigar beneath a thick greasepaint mustache while his painted eyebrows bounced up and down insinuating some sort of sneaky double-entendre. His hunched comic gait was actually a parody of a walking fad from the late 1800s. This absurd walk was another trademark of the Groucho persona. He was usually cast as a shady man of some note who has been brought in to provide temporary guidance to a sinking ship. He was Quincy Adams Wagstaff, president of the financially struggling Huxley College, in Horse Feathers (1932), and he was Rufus T. Firefly, the leader of the bankrupt country of Freedonia, in Duck Soup, and Detective Wolf J. Flywheel in The Big Store (1941). Groucho was very well-read and his intelligence shines through in his improvised dialogue opposite other characters. His wit was so sharp and so quick that actors like Margaret Dumont (his usual foil/counterpart and butt of many jokes) would frequently not understand them. His rapid-fire delivery is reflected best when the other characters can barely keep up with his humorous train of logic. Virtually every time Groucho opened his mouth on camera it was hilarious and it might be difficult to pinpoint his best scenes, although Animal Crackers and Duck Soup features some of his best and sharpest conversations. Duck Soup also features the classic mirror sequence where Harpo, dressed as Groucho, copies his movements to hide his presence and the fact that the mirror is broken.
The Marx Brothers had many classic motifs and running gags, but their brilliant comic timing and talent moved beyond that. They were unique. They were able to be edgier than most other comedians of their day and Groucho made comedy a lot smarter than most. Chico took ethnic caricature to a new level, occasionally mocking his well-known non-Italian heritage in their films. Harpo kept silent comedy alive years after the silent era. Groucho reminded everyone that comedy could be more intelligent than drama if done properly. All having markedly different comedy styles (although all birthed from their vaudevillian New York City roots) they brought comic crassness to new heights when they were together. Whether they’re playing the final football game in Horse Feathers or taking on the gangsters in Monkey Business (1931) they were always innovative and hilarious.
Like most creative minds, they did lose some creative control when they switched studios. Sadly their later films did not have the same spark and fire as their first forays into moviedom. Of their thirteen or so consecutive movies their first six are easily their best and funniest. Their first, The Cocoanuts (1929), is a bit uneven (too much Irving Berlin) but it has some great bits. Animal Crackers, Duck Soup, and A Night at the Opera rank among my all time favorite comedies. Their later films were lacking because they were in want of the real Marx Brothers. A Day at the Races (1937) and At the Circus (1939) were better than Room Service (1938), The Big Store, A Night in Casablanca (1946) and Love Happy (1949) but nothing could measure up to their earlier efforts. Their one period piece, Go West (1940), was probably their last decent one and it’s worth a look.
The studios were trying to control them too much because they failed to realize that what worked in the Marx Brothers was anarchy. They brought anarchy to respectable people and self-important situations when they were at their best. The Marx Brothers attacked aristocracy, art patrons, opera, investors, gangsters, academia, politics, war, etc. Anything that took itself too seriously was deemed a suitable Marx target. I’m still rather fond of that rule. Do yourself an enormous favor and check out some of the greatest comedies of all time; the films of the Marx Brothers.
Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” May 4, 2010