Biography of Comedy Stars The Marx Brothers Part 2

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


The Marx Brothers

The 1929 crash put a damper on Broadway just as the advent of the "talkies" was creating a demand for comics who sounded as well as looked funny. So the Marx brothers moved to Hollywood and made 11 films in 12 years--a "soft racket" for the now middle-aged Marxes, who were used to giving up to five performances a day. They went back on the road, however, to polish some gag routines for their two best films, A Night at the Opera (1935) and A Day at the Races (1937).

Throughout the years in vaudeville, in the legitimate theater, and in films, the Marx brothers had retained their individual identities, which had been forged in the crowded ethnic patchwork of New York City. Leonard "Chico" Marx (1886-1961), the oldest brother and his mother's favorite, was the promoter, the hustler who quit school at 12 to work the streets. He learned a variety of dialects for protection in case he got caught by an Italian or Irish gang, and he learned to play a little piano, at his mother's insistence. But his main interests were gambling and girls, in that order. Chico could "smell money," Harpo insisted, and he had a photographic memory for poker hands. He would later receive his nickname because of his success with the "chickies."

Wearing a pointed hat pulled down over his curly hair, speaking in ice-cream Eye-talian, and "shooting the keys" at the piano, Chico provided a bridge between the acerbic Groucho and the angelic Harpo in the act. He also succeeded Minnie as the brothers' manager, bolstering their confidence and promoting them from vaudeville to the theater by hustling a producer into putting together I'll Say She Is. Later, at a card game in Hollywood, Chico discovered Irving Thalberg, who became the producer of the best Marx brothers films. (Anybody that good at bridge must be good at making movies too, Chico reasoned.) Chico was also responsible for their worst films, made after W.W. II primarily to help him pay his gambling debts. He worked intermittently as a bandleader (billed as "Chico Marx and his Ravellis") on the nightclub and countyfair circuit, an unregenerate gambler and Don Juan to the end.

Adolph Arthur "Harpo" Marx (1888-1964) looked like Chico and also inherited his older brother's skill with cards and women, but in temperament he took after his father. A school dropout in the 2nd grade because he was getting beaten up by the Irish boys, he learned German and magic from his grandfather at home. He also taught himself to play the harp, gaining surprising proficiency despite improper tuning and fingering. Onstage, he remained silent except for harp solos, horn beeps, and the clatter of stolen silver dropping from his sleeves.

Alexander Woollcott, the dean of New York critics, hailed Harpo as the star of the Marx brothers plays. Woollcott also introduced Harpo to the celebrated Algonquin Round Table of wits (as the only full-time listener, Harpo joked), invited him to summer with the literati in Vermont and on the Riviera, and persuaded him to tour Soviet Russia as a pantomimist during the 1930s. In California, Harpo was a frequent weekend guest at William Randolph Hearst's "ranch," as Hearst called his castle in San Simeon. He finally married at age 48, adopted four children, and settled into his Palm Springs estate, El Rancho Harpo. "I wanted to have a child at every window, waving to me when I came home," he said.

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