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The Marx Brothers

Three Jewish boys make their mark on comedy.

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Julius, Adolph, and Leonard Marx had excellent timing. Had they emerged onscreen a few years earlier, film sound would not have been invented, and the centerpiece of their comedy--glorious squalls of absurdist language--would have been unavailable. Hard as it may be to picture the Marx brothers pantomiming silently and bookended by intertitles, it is necessary to realize that the brothers were themselves products of the sound era. Without sound, their comedy, too, would have stayed silent.

Starting at an Early Age


The Marxes were born between 1887-1890 and grew up in New York City's Yorkville enclave of German Jews. The sons of immigrants, the Marx's father was a tailor and their mother, Minnie Schönberg, hailed from a show-business family. Minnie's brother, Al Shean, was a singer and vaudeville performer who welcomed his nephews into his act. By age 11, Julius was singing onstage, and both Adolph and Leonard played musical instruments.
 
Minnie turned her teenage sons into a vaudeville team, renaming them Groucho (Julius), Harpo (Adolph), and Chico (Leonard). Two other brothers, Gummo and Zeppo, were involved in the family act early on, but soon dropped out to chase other pursuits.
 
Eventually, the brothers discovered they were more comfortable cracking jokes than playing instruments. According to legend, one night in Nacogdoches, Texas, Groucho took over the microphone during a lull in the set. The audience started laughing, and they never stopped.

All in the Family


Over time the Marxes developed a routine honed by years of nightly practice and a dependence on the familiar tropes of ethnic humor.
 
With his greasepaint mustache, cutaway coat, and omnipresent cigar, Groucho was the Jew masquerading as an entrepreneurial WASP; Chico was the calculating Italian immigrant, always scheming for a buck or a leg up; and Harpo was the mute, his omnipresent musical instrument--kazoo, washboard, or harp--serving as his voice.
 
Over time, the onstage personalities of the three brothers solidified, and the audience grew so accustomed to their onscreen selves that it was difficult to imagine them any other way.

Getting the Timing Right


In their early years, the Marx brothers used the vaudeville stage to prepare for film roles. Having worked up new material, they would head out on the road to polish it before audiences, testing out punch lines and pratfalls before immortalizing them on celluloid. The plots of early films such as The Cocoanuts (1929) and Animal Crackers (1930) had the hit-and-miss quality of vaudeville: if you didn't like the current act, another would follow momentarily.  
 
Even then, the brothers had begun to establish their anarchic sensibility. While Groucho used his verbal wit to ruffle the feathers of delicate 1920s propriety, Harpo ignored all conventions of social civility, grabbing at women, honking his horn, or playing his harp at inopportune moments.
 
With so many characters about, a straight man--or woman in this case--was necessary. Margaret Dumont often played the stiff who never got any of the jokes and never understood she was the butt of them. Dumont's presence was essential for the Marx Brothers' experiments to succeed; audiences wanted not only to laugh, but to feel as if they were part of the inner circle, in on the joke.
 
Working with punch line-heavy screenwriters such as S.J. Perelman and the team of Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby, Marx efforts like Animal Crackers (1930) and Horse Feathers (1932) offered little in the way of plot, which cleared space for more inspired lunacy. 

Hitting Their Stride


The Marx brothers did not hit their stride until they worked with a better class of directors and screenwriters, and--illogically enough--when given unnecessary subplots and romantic leads. Their last film for Paramount before departing for MGM, was 1933's classic Duck Soup. Groucho played Rufus T. Firefly, the new prime minister of Fredonia, who leads his country to war in the name of eternal peace.
 
Directed by Leo McCarey (Love Affair, Going My Way), Duck Soup features one of the brothers' most beloved routines. In the mirror sequence, Harpo, while dressed as Groucho, attempts to convince Groucho that he is looking at a reflection of himself. Groucho tries every trick in his repertoire to shake his shadow, but Harpo holds strong, imitating his every move for as long as he can. With some digressions, (primarily for Harpo to squeeze in a musical solo) Duck Soup is the most focused Marx brothers film, a pointed satire of war and diplomacy whose barbs have lost little of their sting over the years.

The Big Leagues


Their switch to MGM came at a cost. Groucho and company were no longer considered hefty enough to carry a film on their own, and were paired with bland costars like Allan Jones and Kitty Carlisle as the comic component of romances. Their routines in 1935's A Night at the Opera and 1937's A Day at the Races paused to allow the romantic leads to banter, or--even worse--sing. But Night and Day amply reward audiences for their patience, raising the bar on their hijinks even higher.
 
A Night at the Opera contains one notable scene in which an expanding array of people and objects attempt to cram into Groucho's miniscule stateroom. "I hadn't planned on a manicure," Groucho tells a manicurist who unexpectedly joins the swelling crowd, "but I think on a journey like this, you ought to have every convenience you can get...You'd better make 'em short. It's getting kind of crowded in here." 
 
Groucho and Chico also haggle over a contract, tearing a lengthy document to pieces as they debate each other. "It's all right, that's, that's in every contract," Groucho informs Chico about the last remaining shred of paper. "That's, that's what they call a 'sanity clause.'" Laughing knowingly, Chico responds, "You can't fool me. There ain't no Sanity Clause!"

Downsized


By the late 1930s, the brothers' grace period at MGM had expired, and charmless slogs like Room Service and At the Circus were the result. Groucho's verbal wizardry no longer had the facility of youth, and Chico and Harpo had been relegated to revisiting old routines. The quality of the writers and directors assigned to the Marx Brothers also slipped dramatically.
 
They continued to make films into the 1940s, but few fans have fond memories of Go West (1940), The Big Store (1941), or A Night in Casablanca (1946). Of the three, only Groucho managed to find sustained success outside the Marx Brothers, writing a number of books and hosting You Bet Your Life, the long-running television series.
 
For the first ten years of the sound film, though, there was no one anywhere who was funnier than the three Jewish boys from New York City. They bequeathed to later comics a love of chaos, a taste for oddball mayhem, and inspired wordplay. A look at the work of Peter Sellers, Steve Martin, or Mike Myers offers hints of the Marx brothers. Their particular brand of over-the-top hijinks continues to be injected directly into the bloodstream of American comedy.

Saul Austerlitz

Saul Austerlitz is a writer and film critic in New York.

 
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