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Biography from Current Biography (1948) Copyright (c) by The H. W. Wilson Company. All rights reserved.
The madcap antics of the three MarxBrothers, Groucho, Harpo, and Chico, have been as familiar to the motion picture and theater public of the 1930's and 1940's as Charlie Chaplin's satiric slapstick was to a generation of silent-picture fans. Although their particular style of comic art has been described in terms that range from "zany" to "surrealistic," the Marxes themselves have come to regard their "lunatic" comedy primarily as portraying the probable actions of the majority of individuals, were these persons not repressed by an accepted code of social behavior. The MarxBrothers, who had been vaudeville entertainers, were originally five in number (two of them at different intervals retired from their stage or film careers); Groucho, Harpo, and Chico, the remaining three, have contributed the carefully conceived Marx humor to a number of successful films and revues. Descended from a family the maternal branch of which was imbued with the vaudeville tradition, the MarxBrothers were born in New York City: Leonard (Chico), the eldest, on March 22, 1891; Adolph, who later took the name of Arthur (Harpo), on November 23, 1893; and Julius (Groucho) on October 2, 1895. Two other brothers completed the Marx family: Milton (Gummo), who was the third son in the family, being born before Julius, and Herbert (Zeppo), the youngest. All received their formal schooling in their native city, Arthur, in the words of one biographer, being "stamped as a genius at a very early age" because of his "inability to learn anything in school." Their parents, Samuel and Minna (Schoenberg) Marx, who met, and were married, in the United States, had emigrated to their adopted country from Alsace and Germany, respectively; Samuel Marx became a tailor on New York's East Side, Minna Schoenberg, before her marriage, an employee in a lace factory. Mrs. Marx's father had been a wandering magician who took his troupe on tours throughout Germany; her mother, a harpist, accompanied her husband's group; and her brother was to attain fame, in the days when vaudeville was at the height of its popularity, as Al Sheean, of the popular song and comedy team of Gallagher and Sheean. Although the father of the five Marx boys took little interest in the entertainment field and envisioned no theatrical career for his sons--later he did, however, organize many an effective claque for them--their mother was determined that they should follow in some phase of her family's profession. The brothers, in the course of their stage and motion picture work, were to foster and inspire numerous legends and anecdotes about their experiences. Leonard, (Chico), by all accounts, was the first of the Marx brood to become a vaudeville entertainer. From the time he was able to cope with the keyboard he had a fondness for and an exceptional ability in playing the piano. His first jobs involved piano performances, wrestling, and entertaining in several of the local East Side "spots." Since at this time his brother, Arthur (Harpo), who resembled him, had learned to play two tunes which Leonard had taught him, the eldest Marx used to apply for and find jobs for both of them in two different places. Arthur's repertory of "Waltz Me Around Again Willie" and "Love Me and the World Is Mine" was exhausted the same night he began work. When the managers of the saloons and silent picture houses learned of the deception, Arthur was fired, five times altogether. Instead of adding more piano pieces to his repertory, he adopted a "broken-down harp," the property of his grandmother, and by his own unconventional methods became a "virtuoso" on the instrument and a composer for it. In the meantime, Julius (Groucho), a "dour-faced lad with a sense of humor," was launched into his stage debut by his mother: she took him to Gus Edwards, the famous vaudevillian and discoverer and sponsor of child players, who was engaging children for his musical act The Messenger Boys, organized to sing in various city restaurants to raise money for the victims of the San Francisco earthquake disaster (1906). Julius was made a member of the company. His singing, in a "delightful soprano voice," had been heard before this in school assemblies and in a church choir. After The Messenger Boys, he was hired as a performer with a minor vaudeville troupe, the LeRoy Trio, which toured the country about 1908 as impersonators of girl singers. During this trip the youth was stranded in Denver (Colorado) when his voice changed, and he was obliged to get work as a wagon driver in Cripple Creek, in the same State, to raise money for his fare to New York. It was not long, however, before Julius re-established himself: he obtained the role of a "newsboy hero" in a circuit skit and served also as a singer between acts. Early in the second decade of the 1900's Mrs. Marx organized a team called the Three Nightingales, consisting of Julius and two others, a tenor and a girl. The Three Nightingales failed to accumulate any profits, and for several years following, while the act was being presented at a number of places, its membership was altered constantly. Arthur, then a teen-age bellhop, became one of the act, when it was playing Henderson's Coney Island theater, by the simple expedient of being shoved onto the stage by his mother; he was reportedly struck dumb with stage fright. (It is said that this and the fact that "he could not be trusted with many speaking lines," resulted in his remaining, since, a pantomimist.) The Three Nightingales after this experience evolved into the Four Nightingales. Mrs. Marx and the boys' aunt were the next additions, the revue now being billed as the Six Mascots. After "exhausting" the East, the Marx family moved to Chicago, using the Windy City as a home base for their often financially failing skits. Finally brothers Milton and then Leonard--the latter had taken his piano specialties to various theaters and cafes in Eastern and Midwestern towns--were recruited to team with Julius and Arthur alone in a variety act now entitled the Four MarxBrothers. In a short while the Four MarxBrothers were a recognized comedy team on the country's major vaudeville circuits. Among their vehicles were Fun In Hi Skule and Home Again. World War I interrupted the career of the quartet for about a year, since Arthur and Milton enlisted in the United States Army, the former serving overseas with the Seventh Regiment from New York City; and Leonard and Julius toured army camps to entertain the soldiers. With the end of his military service, Milton, having tired of stage work, went into private business in New York as a raincoat manufacturer. His place with the Four MarxBrothers was taken by the youngest of the family, Herbert. In 1918 the group of four launched another revue, Mr. Green's Reception, to be succeeded by other memorable Marx vaudeville shows, including On the Mezzanine. Some years before 1918 the brothers had already acquired their stage names of Chico, Harpo, Groucho, Gummo, and Zeppo, the supposed creation of Art Fischer, who invented the pseudonyms at a poker game between one of the Marxes' rural-show acts in which all the brothers then had a part. The character style which they were to bring later, with some changes, to a world-wide motion picture audience was also being developed by them in this period: Groucho, the multi-personality, mustached, voluble punster; Harpo, the mute, curly-towheaded harp player, who let fall cascades of table silver from his pockets; Chico, the dialect-speaking, piano-playing monologist; Zeppo, not so funny a comedian as his brothers, a more or less "straight" actor. As for their "mad" activities, these are reputedly the outgrowth of two Texas incidents; one, when they succeeded in retrieving their audience (it was watching a mule kick a cart to pieces outside the theater) by frenziedly burlesquing their own act; and two, when they were obliged to go in for "spontaneous idiocy" to take the place of their stage properties seized by a town sheriff. Eventually the Four MarxBrothers were to decide to leave vaudeville, which they found was limited, to embark upon several musical ventures. Having become the possessors of an "ailing" musical, The Thrill Girl, they revised it, renamed it I'll Say She Is, and opened in it at a New York theater in 1924. At first comparatively unnoticed, it was soon acclaimed, as a result of the efforts of Alexander Woollcott, and of their friends Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, by the now enthusiastic critics who were happy to "discover" the brothers. The musical ran for forty-eight weeks on Broadway and then was taken on the road by the Marxes. I'll Say She is was followed by such other well-received, long-run Marx offerings as The Coconuts (about 1926) and Animal Crackers (1928). When William Bolitho, British journalist and author, came to the United States in the late 1920's to observe the American dramatic scene, he described the Four MarxBrothers' current routine thus: "This Marxian quadruped is authentically one of the sacred breed.... One of its ancestors is Pegasus." Harpo, Groucho, Chico, and Zeppo Marx were introduced to their motion picture audience when their last two musicals, The Coconuts and Animal Crackers, were adapted for motion pictures with the same titles (1929). (Their only similar undertaking in the past had been a silent film, Humor Risk, a travesty on Humoresque, made in 1919.) After a "triumphant" trip through Europe by Harpo in 1929, the foursome journeyed to London in the succeeding year to become the stars of Charles Cochran's musical, Varieties. The Marxes' next vehicle, an original screenplay, was Monkey Business, to be followed in 1932 by Horsefeathers (produced by Paramount Pictures as were their previous films), a parody of American university life. Soon Marxian comedy was being assessed as to its value by critics on both sides of the Atlantic. It was in 1932 that the brothers' work was first labeled surrealistic, by Francis Birrell of the British New Statesman and Nation, who likeened their work to the nonsense of Lewis Carroll. After Duck Soup (Paramount) was screened in 1933, the four-man team became a trio: Zeppo decided that acting was not his vocation (he "always seemed a little ill-at-ease on the screen"), and left the moving pictures to establish his own business in Hollywood, the Zeppo Marx Agency for actors. Several years afterward Gummo joined his brother in operating a talent bureau. The initial MarxBrothers film to contain only Chico, Harpo, and Groucho was A Night at the Opera, a Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer release. Then, in order, appeared A Day at the Races (1936), another MGM film; in 1938, Room Service (RKO) and A Day at the Circus (MGM); two years after, Go West (MGM); and their eleventh production, The Big Store (also Metro), in 1941. Meanwhile, in 1937 Groucho had collaborated on the script for Warner Brothers' The King and the Chorus Girl. The completion of The Big Store, a highly "polished" Marxian vehicle, was to bring to an end for five years the professional relationship of the three Marxes and their particular brand of waggery. In a statement issued to the public, Groucho explained the brothers' reasons for their retirement (which he believed would be permanent although Chico was not very eager to break up the team) from the screen: "When I say we're sick of the movies, what I mean is that the people are about to get sick of us. By getting out now we're just anticipating public demand by a very short margin. Our stuff is stale. So are we." This announcement came as a disappointment to many a Marx fan, among them certain of the critics, including Bosley Crowther of the New York Times, who was to write (August 18, 1946): "What did it matter, really, if the Marxes' last three or four films had been, comparatively speaking, a little (or a lot) below par? Granted that their Room Service was a trifle out of their line, and that Go West and At the Circus were concocted pretty largely of old stuff. The MarxBrothers' old stuff was always good enough for us. And besides, in each of their pictures, no matter how 'stale' the patterns seemed, there were always a few priceless moments that made up for any other lack." Edgar Anstey of the English Spectator earlier (October 3, 1941) had voiced his own regret by asserting, "Today they [the Marxes] can retire--if they must--with the distinction that no pretentiousness ever survived the friendly investigations of Harpo and Chico, and that no social, political, or economic skullduggery ever found Groucho at a loss for a nimble oration. The MarxBrothers have had a succession of imitators, and their salutary anarchies have deeply influenced the whole Hollywood tradition of burlesque. They allowed fresh air to blow through a host of musty studio conventions." Although the three Marxes separated upon leaving the screen, none of them had any intention of retiring from the professional field. Chico Marx returned to vaudeville, traveling with his band and displaying once more his piano "finger-ballets" and dialect routine; in 1944 he was one of the performers in the variety review Take a Bow, his act receiving complimentary reviews in the main, although Burton Rascoe (then of the New York World-Telegram) found it repetitious. Harpo took to the stage for a short while where he had parts in temporary revivals of plays such as Kaufman's and Hart's The Man Who Came To Dinner, starring the authors. Then, like his older brother, he became the leader of his own orchestra. Groucho, who was looking forward to writing, was co-author with Norman Krasna of a comedy, Time for Elizabeth, which, some years afterward, was to have its premiere in California in the summer and its Broadway opening in September of 1948--the New York critics' reviews were generally unfavorable and the play closed after a week's run. Finally Groucho received sponsors in the years following 1941 for radio programs of his own or appeared as semipermanent guest on others. (According to Brooks Atkinson of the New York Times, Groucho "has a soft spot in his heart for studio audiences because they laugh at him without his mustache.") Groucho (formerly, in about 1934, he had been on the air with Chico) fared well in his solo radio performances, for his quick and lethal wit proved effective in this medium. During World War II the three Marxbrothers employed their talents also at camp shows for servicemen and at war bond rallies. By January 1946 the three Marxes were once again in pictures, this time occupied with a film produced by David L. Loew and released (by United Artists) in the same year, A Night in Casablanca. As in most of the preceding Marx screenplays since A Night at the Opera, their twelfth picture was planned so as to be the "last work in the science of entertainment," although the Marxes' sans souci, "harum-scarum" actions on the set would seem to belie this. Parts of the picture were presented at vaudeville theaters in different regions of the country: all lines accorded uproarious laughter were retained for the screen version; gags to which audience response was delayed were "sharpened"; script sequences which failed to arouse reaction were removed. In the matter of the choice of a name for the film there was some controversy. As soon as A Night in Casablanca was completed--a story concerning spy intrigue and hidden Nazi gold, it was welcomed by the public of both the United States and England--the three Marxes again separated. Groucho was starred with Carmen Miranda in a screen musical, Copacabana. From October of 1947 until the latter part of April 1948, and resuming the program later in that year, Groucho Marx was master of ceremonies on the "quiz" radio show You Bet Your Life (American Broadcasting Company). Harpo, who refused a large sum of money to speak one word in his last picture, preferring to carry on as a pantomimist, became a nightclub entertainer; and in 1947 he headed the performers of a USO-Camp Shows troupe which visited servicement's hospitals. After opening a chain of Los Angeles restaurants in 1946, Chico returned to the vaudeville circuit. In June 1948 the three MarxBrothers were scheduled to begin work on another motion picture, called Love Happy, a screen play by Ben Hecht, adapted from a comedy by Lester Cowan; it was released in the fall through United Artists. Their manager, brother Gummo Marx. has announced that another film in which they are also to appear will feature the story of their life. Later in 1948 Groucho was at work with Frank Sinatra and Jane Russell on "It's Only Money," and Chico was to go to England for personal appearance performances. The MarxBrothers, remarked Edgar Anstey, "have always seemed anxious to avoid any basis for the 'high-brow' suggestion that they embody modern psychoanalytical theories in their work." While reviewing Horsefeathers in a L'Europe nouvelle article (translated in Living Age, December 1932), Philippe Soupault had expressed a view of Marxian art held primarily by the brothers themselves. "The comedy of the MarxBrothers lifts us out of reality by exaggerating our peculiarities and aggravating our habits. We are neither shocked nor vexed by this caricature, but astonished to recognize ourselves. All our usual gestures become mechanical and we laugh, we laugh at ourselves. But the real quality of the MarxBrothers and of their extravagant, excessive comedy remains human. They are exactly like ordinary people and act just as we should act if social regulations did not prevent us from behaving in that way." James Feibleman in his In Praise of Comedy (1939), in analyzing the Marx humor, has this to add: "The comedy of the Marxbrothers is essentially that of the commonplace. Nothing in contemporary American life is safe from their jibes. The real estate business, the medical profession, horse racing, returning African explorers, the opera [and, Feibleman points out later, the romantic aspects of life]--we laugh because in the cock-eyed presentation of these familiar occupations we remember it all." The author considers the Marxes, especially Groucho, to be the masters of the deflated platitude ("Don't leave a stone unturned. He may be under one of them.") and of the illogical chain of deductive reasoning ("Just remember, my little cabbage, if there weren't any closets there wouldn't be any hooks, and if there weren't any hooks there wouldn't be any fish, and that would suit me fine."). Although much of Marxian art--the wild chases, the unabashed leering, the dialect of Chico and pantomime of Harpo, etc.--is adapted from previous circus and vaudeville comedians, the three brothers have contributed to comedy the illustrated pun ("Get the seal" is said when a document is to be signed by a university president, and Harpo drags in a live seal) and a "consistently high quality" of workmanship and of individuality. From the standpoint of the brothers' contributions to Marxian humor, most critics regard Groucho, the versatile impersonator of personality types, as the finest of the three, although many have praised the pixy-like comedy of Harpo; Chico (or Ravelli as he has become known to audiences) is placed after his brothers in comic ability. The eldest Marx is a medium-sized man, five feet six inches tall with brown hair and eyes. He is the father of a grown daughter, Maxine (Mrs. James H. Culhane); Mrs. Chico Marx is the former Betty Karp, a dancer. When he is in Hollywood, Chico relaxes at the Hillcrest Country Club to which his two brothers belong, or at horse races and baseball games. (Groucho is the owner of a minor league baseball team.) When Harpo, described as having the "odd, beautiful face of a changeling," removes his platinum wig (although for some time he has taken to dyeing his hair for his roles), the slender, dark-eyed, five-foot-seven-inch tall comedian is revealed to have dark hair. Harpo's assumed mutism is only professional; he is said to be the most garrulous of the Marxes. In 1936 he was married to Susan Fleming, an actress; they have four adopted children, Billy Woollcott and Alexander (both named in part for one of their father's best friends, the late Alexander Woollcott), and the twins, Minnie and Jimmy. Seldom seen in the "gay night spots," he leads a quiet existence, with golf, croquet, and collecting primitive paintings among his sports and hobbies. Well-read and well-informed on international affairs, the spectacled Groucho, who lives on the "fringe" of the University of California (Los Angeles) campus, is "frequently mistaken for a scholarly professor." He is the author, in the field of comic literature, of Beds (1930) and Many Happy Returns (1940), an "unofficial guide" to income tax problems. In July 1945 Groucho was married for the second time, to Catharine Marvis Gorcey, former wife of Leo Gorcey of the "Dead End Kids"; they have one child, Melinda, and they have adopted a French boy. Miriam and Arthur are the children of his marriage to Ruth Johnson, once a Marxcompany actress, from whom he was divorced in 1942. Formerly an expert at tennis, Groucho, who has brown eyes, black hair, and is almost five feet eight inches in height, now devotes much of his spare time to baseball games. Like his other two brothers he is an adept musician on a number of instruments.
Am Weekly p11 Jl 20 '47 pors; Collier's 117:24+ Mr 16 '46 pors; N Y Post p5 Ap 10 '41; N Y Times X p6 D 15 '40; PM Mag p6+ Ja 27 '46 pors; Read Digest 29:49-52 O '36; International Motion Picture Almanac, 1947-48; Levant, O. A Smattering of Ignorance (1940); Profiles from the New Yorker (1938); Who's Who in America, 1948-49; World Biography (1948)
Citation: Original source: Current Biography Original publication date: 1948 Original publication type: Print Publisher of original publication: The H. W. Wilson Company Database publisher: The H.W. Wilson Company Database: Biography Reference Bank