Are you really a comedy fan if you don’t know The Marx Brothers? Many would beg to differ. The Marx Brothers are among the most iconic comedy troupes in history. Their wacky antics, amazing one-liners, and iconic films remain some of the greatest pieces of comedy gold to this day. They continue to inspire comedians and performers alike as some of the most important entertainers of all time. Here are 50 facts about the Marx Brothers that highlight their impact on the comedy world.
None of the Marx brothers go by their real names. Chico’s real name is Leonard Joseph, Harpo’s is Adolph, Groucho’s is Julius Henry, Gummo’s is Milton, and Zeppo’s is Herbert Manfred.
The brothers didn’t grow up in luxury. Their family lived in the Yorkville section of New York City, a poor neighborhood. Their father was a tailor, and their mother, Minnie, would eventually be their career manager!
A sixth brother, Manfred, was born in 1886. Unfortunately, he passed at only three months due to tuberculosis. Zeppo’s middle name is Manfred in honor of the lost brother.
There was also a Marx sister! Polly was an adopted cousin who grew up with them. I guess she wasn’t into the show-biz lifestyle.
Their mother’s side of the family had a rich history as entertainers. Minnie’s parents were both funfair entertainers. Her father was a ventriloquist, and her mother was a yodeling harpist.
Considering this, it’s no surprise Minnie became manager for the Marx Brothers. She managed them under the name Minnie Palmer to disguise her role as their mother. She got them started doing vaudeville performances.
Harpo was one of the most talented of the brothers. He could play six different instruments!
All the brothers were musically talented. Zeppo was a talented singer, Groucho a singer and guitarist, and Chico a trained pianist!
One of the first “Marx Brothers” acts was a group called The Three Nightingales. The group consisted of Groucho, Gummo, and author Mabel O’Donnel. Harpo joined the group a year later, followed by their Aunt Hannah and Minnie. They had to rename the group “The Six Mascots”.
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The Marx Brothers realized they had a future in comedy thanks to runaway mule. While performing in Texas, their show was interrupted when the crowd learned about a loose donkey and left to check it out. Groucho scolded them when they returned, but the audience found it funny rather than threatening. Thus, the Marx Brothers were born.
The five Marx Brothers only appeared on stage together once! Zeppo was 14 at the time, and joined his brothers on stage in Michigan during their Home Again tour. They performed a sketch where Groucho played a teacher, with the other brothers as students.
Gummo Marx left the group shortly after the Home Again tour. He never liked being on stage, and instead joined the army. He then entered the raincoat business, operated a theatre agency, and finally represented Groucho on the show The Life of Riley.
Interestingly enough, Gummo was the first brother to perform on stage! He played a dummy in a papier-mache head during one of his uncle’s vaudeville performance.
Minnie bought a farmhouse for her and her sons to avoid the draft. Only, these city boys weren’t cut out for the farm life. They had a problem with rats stealing the chicken eggs. Gummo and Zeppo ended up heading to WWI, while the others were rejected.
Four of the brothers, Gummo, Chico, Groucho, and Harpo, got their nicknames while playing poker. At the time, the fad was to give people nicknames that ended in an ‘o’. As the dealer dealt hands he gave the brothers their names.
Groucho’s name comes from his grumpiness. Chico’s name came from him being a “chicken chaser,” and Gummo was said to be a “gumshoe,” often sneaking around like a detective. Harpo’s name came from his love of the harp. However, Zeppo’s origin story was the weirdest of all. He got his name from a chimpanzee named Mr. Zippo, who performed acrobatics much like Zeppo.
People know the Marx Brothers for their improvisational comedy. Harpo once chased a girl across the stage unannounced while Groucho was giving a monologue. Instead of panicking, Groucho said, “First time I ever saw a taxi hail a passenger,” and then, “The 9:20 is right on time” as the two made their way back down the stage.
The brothers’ stage success eventually led them to sign a deal with Paramount Pictures. Their first films were adaptations of their act, The Cocoanuts and Animal Crackers. Monkey Business was their first original film.
The Marx Brothers film Duck Soup features a fictional country named Freedonia. This angered the people of Fredonia, New York, who asked Paramount to remove all references. Groucho’s response was legendary. He told them to change the name of their town, as it was hurting their film!
The Marx Brothers’ debut film was in the film Humor Risk. This movie, however, never saw a major release. It’s rumored that it screened once in the Bronx, but didn’t boast enough interest for a wider release. It was a spoof of the popular film Humoresque.
The Marx Brothers continued to find success after their contract with Paramount expired. They quickly signed on with a new company, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM), to make more high-production films. At this time Zeppo and Gummo left the picture, leaving only Groucho, Chico, and Harpo to work on the next pictures.
According to the Marx Brothers, the films done under Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (A Night at the Opera and A Day at the Races) were their best ever. They featured stronger plots, more traditional flow, and characters that were easier to sympathize with. They went on to make three more films with the company.
Chico Marx had a bit of a gambling problem. He convinced the other brothers to do the last two films for MGM specifically to earn him money to pay off gambling debts. He couldn’t be trusted with his salary, and had to work into his 70s to keep up his habit.
The Marx Brothers split up for a little while after their stint with MGM. Chico started a band called the Chico Marx Orchestra, and Harpo performed in various nightclubs. Groucho starred in the radio series You Bet Your Life for 14 years, and wrote a few acclaimed books.
At one point, the Marx Brothers were working on a pilot called Deputy Seraph. It would star Harpo and Chico as angels who could possess people to lead them down the right path, with Groucho as Deputy Seraph. Unfortunately, filming had to stop when they found out that Chico had arteriosclerosis, meaning he couldn’t be insured.
While the script was being finalized, MGM let the brothers test out jokes from A Night at the Opera on live audiences. This helped them nail the timing during filming.
Groucho’s success as a host on You Bet Your Life led to an offer hosting the Tonight Show. Groucho declined, however, and Johnny Carson stepped in. Groucho instead covered for two weeks while Carson was preparing. He even introduced Carson for the first time!
60 years after the release of Duck Soup, Spy magazine had a bit of fun with House of Representatives members. They asked members, “Do you approve of what we’re doing to stop ethnic cleansing in Freedonia?” Many members fell for it, and showed their sympathies and support for the fictional land of Freedonia!
Harpo’s final recorded harp performance was on Mahalia Jackson’s album Let’s Pray Together. The first time they met, Jackson was shocked by the fact that Harpo was totally bald, as he always wore a wig during performances!
Speaking of Harpo, the man could not step away from his harp. He even had a harp in his bathroom so he could practice on the toilet!
The brothers only appeared on TV together once! This was on a show called Tonight! America After Dark, an early “tonight show” type broadcast. Unfortunately, no footage can be found of this appearance, only a photograph to prove it happened.
The Marx Brothers inspired some of the greatest performers of all time. These include the Monty Python guys, Judd Apatow, and Woody Allen. Kurt Vonnegut, Anthony Burgess, and The Beatles were also fans of the troupe.
Salvador Dali was a big fan of The Marx Brothers. He drew Harpo, and wanted to make a movie with the brothers. Dali wanted to call it Giraffes on Horseback Salad. The film was pitched to MGM, but was too surreal for the company. The film was about a shapeshifting woman who is detained and subsequently liberated by the wacky antics of the Marx Brothers. The script was recently turned into a graphic novel.
Few fans know, but Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’ Dopey was based on Harpo Marx! Not sure how the average person would feel if they inspired a character named Dopey, but hey, it is what it is.
The last film by Marx Brothers, Love Happy, featured a cameo from then-unknown Marilyn Monroe! It was one of her first times on-screen. Despite this iconic moment, Groucho wasn’t too happy with the film. He called it a “terrible movie” on Today and unenthusiastically promoted it on You Bet Your Life.
Although Love Happy was their last film, the three brothers appeared together in The Story of Mankind, but separated. Chico plays a monk, Groucho a Dutchman who smokes a cigar instead of a peace pipe when offered by Indians, and Harpo plays Sir Isaac Newton as he discovers gravity. The film was panned upon release, and won a Golden Turkey Award for “worst casting of all time”.
Writer and poet Jack Kerouac, most famous for On the Road, wrote a poem dedicated to Harpo Marx. The poem is called To Harpo Marx, and features lines like, “When did you chase your last blonde / across the Millionaires’ lawn / with a bait hook on a line / protruding from your bicycle?” It’s a touching tribute to a great comedian.
The Marx Brothers all passed on within a 15-year time period. Chico went first due to his arteriosclerosis. Harpo went three years later after open-heart surgery, and Gummo and Groucho passed next, within four months of each other. Zeppo was the last to go, and passed on due to lung cancer.
The 30th president of the US, Calvin Coolidge, once went to see Animal Crackers on Broadway. Coolidge was known to love sleeping, something he often got criticism for. When Groucho saw the President in the audience, he couldn’t help but make a crack. He asked the president, “Isn’t it past your bedtime, Calvin?” Assumedly to great laughter.
Harpo was part of the Algonquin Round Table. It was a gathering of popular writers, actors, and critics, including Charles MacArthur, Dorothy Parker, and Art Samuels. Groucho was part of the circle for a moment, but found it to be “an intellectual slaughterhouse.”
Under MGM, the Marx Brothers worked with Irving Thalberg. They loved the man, but couldn’t get a hold of him sometimes. On their first meeting, they found Thalberg’s office shut. They blew cigar smoke under the door and yelled “Fire!” to get his attention. During another meeting, Thalberg excused himself for a little too long.
When he came back, the brothers were naked, roasting potatoes over his fireplace! Another time, the brothers covered Thalberg’s office door with filing cabinets after growing tired of waiting for him. Understandably, they weren’t allowed to come back in there after that.
Groucho was a comedy heavyweight, but his humor didn’t always click. One instance of this happened when he was asked for his opinion on President Nixon. Groucho said, “I think the only hope for this country is Nixon’s assassination.” The quote made national headlines and awarded Groucho a visit from the FBI. Oops!
During their vaudeville days, each Marx Brother used to play up ethnic stereotypes. Chico played an Italian, Harpo an Irishman, and Groucho a German. Groucho quickly switched over to a Yiddish stereotype, however, after WWII started heating up.
Robert Florey, director of the first official Marx Brothers film The Coconauts, couldn’t contain his laughter during filming. Legend says he had to hang out in a soundproof booth while directing to keep his laughter out of the film!
Their film Monkey Business was banned in Ireland! Specifically for the line, “Oh, why can't we break away from all this, just you and I, and lodge with my fleas in the hills? I mean... flee to my lodge in the hills.” Apparently this was a little too risqué for the Archbishop. Sounds like a fun guy.
Groucho once took his daughter Melinda on a trip to Germany. While there, he requested to see the bunker where Hitler ended his life. Once there, he climbed on the rubble and danced the Charleston for a few minutes. Legendary.
The Marx Brothers often played each others’ roles. The brothers all looked remarkably similar out of makeup, allowing them to switch it up regularly. This is how they got away with the iconic mirror scene in Duck Soup, where one plays the literal mirrored image of another.
Director Billy Wilder wanted to unite the brothers for one final film, A Day at the United Nations. It would have been a political parody featuring the Marx Brothers causing mischief at the UN. However, the film was canned after Harpo fell ill and Chico passed on. A 40-page treatment exists.
Although he played the “straight man” in most Marx Brothers productions, the brothers thought Zeppo was the funniest. He apparently had the quickest wit of them all!
Fate clearly had other things in store for Zeppo, though. After leaving the troupe, he invented a clamping device used to hold atom bombs on the Enola Gay. He became a multimillionaire inventor and engineer. Who knew he had it in him?
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