Biography of Comedy Stars The Marx Brothers Part 1

About the famous comedy stars The Marx Brothers, biography and history of Groucho, Harpo, and Gummo.


The Marx Brothers

In a 1975 poll of Brown University's freshmen, the third most admired man in world history, after Jesus Christ and Albert Schweitzer, turned out to be comedian Groucho Marx.

Then in his 80s, Groucho was enjoying a renaissance of popularity. A play about the Marx brothers, called Minnie's Boys, had been produced on Broadway in 1970. A Carnegie Hall tribute in 1972 attracted a standing-room-only crowd, including dozens of Groucho, Harpo, and Chico look-alikes. Groucho was made a French Commander of the Order of Arts and Letters in 1972 and received a special Oscar in 1974. Marx brothers film festivals and retrospectives created a new generation of fans, some of whom kept a curbside watch outside Groucho's Beverly Hills home, wearing greasepaint mustaches and bushy eyebrows.

The fans may have been new, but the idea was timeless. Nearly 50 years earlier, when the Marx brothers opened on stage in Los Angeles with The Cocoanuts, the front row was filled with Hollywood's top stars, all wearing Groucho mustaches and carrying cigars.

It was a long way from East 93rd Street in New York City, where the Marx boys grew up in a noisy, crowded apartment--an extended Jewish family of "castaways," Harpo called them. The household included Grandpa and Grandma Schoenberg from Germany, a former traveling magician and his harp-playing wife; their daughter Minnie, blond and plump, and her husband, "Frenchie" Marx, who came from French-speaking Alsace, an indifferent tailor but a superb cook; Minnie's five sons (a sixth had died in childhood); a homeless cousin; as well as other stray relatives.

"Minnie held us all together while she plotted our rescue," Harpo wrote later. "Minnie was the Outside Man. Frenchie was the Inside Man." With a combination of determination and chicanery, Minnie promoted her various sons, relatives, and friends into vaudeville as "the Three Nightingales," "the Four Nightingales," and "the Six Mascots" (the larger the troupe, the higher the pay in those days), musical acts with pretensions to class.

But Minnie could never quite control her zany sons, not even by hissing "Greenbaum" at them from the wings. (Greenbaum held the mortgage on the first Marx family home.) Once onstage, the boys would begin to roughhouse, compulsively cutting up, demolishing all order and affectation with their nonstop insanity. Soon they evolved a format for their inspired lunacy, variations on a schoolroom theme with Groucho featured as Herr Teacher.

When vaudeville began to decline during W.W. I, the Marx brothers went on tour with I'll Say She Is, a musical revue featuring Groucho as Napoleon. "The last time I came home all France was with you," the emperor cried to his Josephine, while she was being passionately pursued by his brothers, "and a slice of Italy too." The show opened to rave reviews on Broadway in 1924, and a triumphant Minnie, having fractured her ankle, arrived at the theater by stretcher. Her dominating passion would thenceforth be playing poker (Frenchie preferred pinochle).

Now the toast of Manhattan, the Marx brothers moved on to two custom-crafted vehicles created by top playwright George S. Kaufman: The Cocoanuts (1925), a spoof of the Florida land boom, and Animal Crackers (1928), a tropical travesty of the great white hunter. These plays marked the beginning of a 16-year partnership with Margaret Dumont, a woman with a formidable dignity that the Marxes did their utmost to demolish. The brothers did so much ad-libbing and improvising onstage that fans enjoyed seeing the plays over and over again. ("I thought I heard one of the original lines," Kaufman deadpanned one night.) Both plays were filmed in New York.

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