Four men stand in stacked single line with a variety of facial expressions and mannerisms. Photo Credit: Public Domain

Photo Credit: Public Domain

Marx Brothers

Comedy Troupe

Excerpts from

Chico, Harpo, Groucho, Gummo and Zeppo Marx made up one of the most prolific comedy acts of all time, with a career spanning over four decades from 1905 to 1949. In 1880, the Marx family came to the United States from Germany led by Grandfather Levy, an umbrella maker who had worked as a ventriloquist and Grandmother Fanny who played the harp—the brothers were not the first family members on a stage—and with them came some of their eight surviving children.

The family lived in New York. When their mother Minnie was eighteen, she met Simon “Sam” Marx in a dance hall. He came from Alsace, France. He had changed his family name from Marrix to Marx to make it sound more German because he hoped it would be easier to find a job this way. In 1884 when Sam was twenty-three and Minnie was twenty, they got married. They moved in together with Minnie’s parents and other members of the family. Simon worked as a tailor, but since he refused to use a measuring tape, his customers were seldom satisfied. His real talents were in cooking.

Minnie helped her brother Al Sheen get into show business and decided early that her children should follow him. Chico played the piano in pubs; Groucho sang as a boy soprano. The brothers appeared as The Four Nightingales and The Six Mascots.

The first performance in the Marx Brothers style as we know it was Fun in Hi Skule in 1912. Other shows were Mr. Green’s Reception, Home Again, On the Mezzanine Floor and I’ll Say She Is which became their first big success in 1924. After Home Again Gummo left show business and became an agent. He was replaced by Zeppo.

What followed was The Cocoanuts a Broadway show which became their first film. This show as well as Animal Crackers was originally written for the stage and what we see today are more or less filmed versions of the stage productions. These stage performances gave them the possibility to test the script before an audience and so they perfected the puns and timing. They went back on stage for test performances when filming A Night at the Opera.

From 1929 on they were mainly active in filming. In their first films they appeared as The Four Marx Brothers (Chico, Harpo, Groucho, Zeppo), but Zeppo left the movie business after Duck Soup. From 1929 to 1949 they made thirteen films. After that Chico and Harpo more or less retired, but Groucho started a second career as a show master in the quiz show You Bet Your Life.

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