The Marx Brothers entered Vaudeville as children in musical acts. Their careers as a team and, later, as individual performers, lasted for half a century. Originally, the team was made up of Groucho / Julius (1890-1977) and Gummo / Milton (1893-1977). Harpo was pulled into the act by Mother Minnie (her sons’ first agent-manager, when she discovered that Harpo was being used as a dupe by a criminal gang. Later Chico / Leonard (1887-1961), who began his career in his very early teens playing piano in bordellos, then vaudeville, joined his brothers and became the act’s fearless manager, propelling them out of small-time vaudeville onto Broadway and then into movies where Chico negotiated the first, percentage of the gross receipts salary in Hollywood history. A world class card player (bridge, pinochle and poker), Chico (pronounced Chick-o) could never resist the long gambling odds that became his downfall.
Harpo and Chico looked so much alike as kids, that Harpo could take Chico’s place playing piano (until his limited repertoire betrayed him), while older brother Chico moved on to better-paying jobs and ‘girlfriends’). Harpo was as carefree as Chico was daredevil. It was while Harpo was in the family Vaudeville act that he discovered the harp, and it was instant love.
Groucho began as a boy soprano with the inchoate hope of graduating to an academic career, yet he became the brother most wedded to the fame that show business conferred on him and enjoyed a long and successful solo career. Gummo had talent as an eccentric dancer, singer and straightman, but was too shy to enjoy life upon the stage, so his mother Minnie surrendered him to the USA Army in WWI, and Gummo’s place in the act was taken over by Zeppo / Herbert (1901-1979). In training as a juvenile delinquent, mother Minnie snatched Zeppo off the streets and installed him in the act. Zeppo was the last to join the family act, and the first to quit after trying in vain to make something of his cardboard romantic youth roles.
Like Chico, Zeppo was fearless, but, unlike Chico, Zeppo became the richest brother, establishing a successful Hollywood talent agency (with Gummo), then selling it to become a successful aeronautics inventor and entrepreneur. Gummo managed Chico’s, Harpo’s and Groucho’s solo careers. Both Gummo and Harpo were devoted family men; the other three were typical of young men traveling from one town and theatre to the next, out ‘on the road’ forty weeks a year.
The movie career of the Marx Brothers divides into three parts. Of their first five films, all for Paramount, three (Animal Crackers, Horsefeathers and Duck Soup) were their all-time best for any studio, with Duck Soup an undisputed masterpiece. Then they made five for MGM. Night at the Opera and Day at the Races were very good, but the remainder for MGM (At the Circus, Out West and The Big Store suffered from weak scripts and uninspired direction. Louis B. Mayer’s MGM was known as the studio where great comedians (Buster Keaton, Jimmy Durante, Marx Brothers, Laurel & Hardy and Red Skelton were misused, then buried).
The Marxes ended their feature film careers with several independently produced features: Night in Casablanca was unexpectedly well made and enjoyable, Room Service something of a misfire, while Love Happy was a middling farewell.
Monkey Business, the third of their Paramount five, receives a 7.5 IMDB rating. Rotten Tomatoes critics reward it with an 89% favorable score and RT audiences give it 84%. It isn’t as satisfying as Animal Crackers or Duck Soup but Monkey Business has its moments; among them: Harpo taking refuge in a children’s puppet show and playing his harp solo, Chico at the piano, Groucho’s eccentric dancing, and the presence of beauteous Thelma Todd and bungling Tom Kennedy.
Lead screenwriter, S. J. Perelman, a well-regarded humorist, could not write as deftly for the stage or films as he did for the page, so cartoonist and gagman Will B. Johnstone was called in to collaborate and pep up the script. Yet the most telling deficiency for Marx fans, is the notable absence of the Marxes’ gloriously grande dame straight-woman, Margaret Dumont (1882-1965).
Frank Cullen is a show-business historian and novelist living in the East Mountains.