On-stage and in film, the Marx Brothers' antic comedy won millions of fans and left a major pop cultural legacy. Movies like The Coconuts (1929) and A Night at the Opera (1935) remain popular, and both Groucho Marx's wisecracking persona and Harpo Marx's silent, woman-crazed clown remain well-known icons. From their beginnings in vaudeville during the 1910s, to their rise as popular film comics during the Depression, Chico, Harpo, Groucho, Gummo, and Zeppo Marx delivered an energetic, anarchic comedy that seemed to overflow both the stage and the screen.
The Marx Brothers were the sons of Jewish immigrants from Germany, and all were born in New York City to Simon Marrix (later changed to Marx) and Minnie Schonberg. The first son, Manfred, died in infancy. Leonard Marx was born on March 22, 1887, and later adopted Chico as his stage name; Adolph Marx (later Arthur) was born on November 23, 1888, and adopted the stage name Harpo; Julius Henry Marx was born on October 2, 1890, and used Groucho as his stage name; Milton Marx was born on October 23, 1892, and adapted the alias Gummo; and Herbert Marx, born on February 25, 1901, would be known as Zeppo.
From an early age, the brothers were encouraged to express their artistic side. Harpo, naturally, played the harp, Groucho the guitar, and Chico the piano. In 1910 three of the brothers along with Mabel O'Donnell, Minnie Marx, and an aunt formed a singing troupe, the Six Mascots. While performing in Texas in 1912, Groucho, who had become irritated at the audience's inattention, made snide remarks. Instead of becoming angry, however, the audience laughed. From that point, the Marx family evolved into a comedy act, eventually comprised of Chico, Harpo, Groucho, and Zeppo.
During the 1920s, the Marx Brothers rose to fame in series of Broadway musical revues including I'll Say She Is, The Coconuts, and Animal Crackers. The latter two revues would become the brothers' first two movies in 1929 and 1930. Chico, Harpo, Groucho, and Zeppo then made three more films for Paramount, Monkey Business (1931), Horse Feathers (1932), and their most critically regarded film, Duck Soup (1933). After 1933, Zeppo left the team, and the Marx Brothers moved to Warner Brothers, where they made A Night at the Opera and A Day at the Races.
While the Marx Brothers are best known for their work in film, the trio and quartet can also be enjoyed on a number of recordings. The Marx Brothers Play & Sing is a three-disc box set of musical numbers from Coconuts, Horse Feathers, Monkey Business, Duck Soup, A Night at the Opera, A Day at the Races, At the Circus, Room Service, Go West, and The Big Store. Best of the Marx Brothers is a one-disc collection featuring oddities like "Lydia, the Tattooed Lady" and "Mama Wants to Know Who Stole the Jam."
Chico Marx died on October 11, 1961; Harpo Marx died on September 28, 1964; Groucho Marx died on August 19, 1977; Gummo Marx died on April 21, 1977; and Zeppo Marx died on November 30, 1979. ~ Ronnie D. Lankford, Jr.