Remember the fake eyebrows, the brilliant pantomime and the Italian accent? They are known as Groucho, Harpo, Chico, Gummo, and Zeppo, but their real names are Leonard, Adolph, Julius Henry, Milton and Herbert Manfred. These five and one more, Manfred, were the children of a Franco-German Jewish family. Minnie and Simon were the parents. The big family lived in New York, struggling to survive. Who would know that these brothers were destined to become comedy legends?
The world knows them as the moustache and cigarette, the Italian joker and the one who never spoke. However, beneath the masks were hidden personalities completely different from those they made us believe were their natural. The Marx brothers have started off with stage careers, but they were most famous by their movies. Nevertheless, not all of them were keen to succeed in Hollywood. Manfred, the firstborn child in the family, died shortly after his birth. The remaining five were entertaining the audience for years, even though only three of them became recognizable comedians.
The oldest one among the performers was Leonard Marx. Chico might sound more familiar, perhaps? He got his tag from chasing “chicks”. He loved women and often was unfaithful. He spent his life gambling and performing with the brothers or himself. His talent of music can be seen in the movies, but he worked as a musician, as well. He worked as a radio host together with his brother and later in his life he did solo acts in order to earn money because he was always in debt. Chico had two wives and a daughter, whom he loved and was very close with.
A year younger than Chico was Harpo, or Adolph (later Arthur). What people remember the most about him is that he never spoke. That is true in the films, but not at all on stage. He spoke until the production of “Home Again”, when he decided to use pantomime as part of his act. The audience and critics liked the new Harpo, thus he removed the speech out of his performance forever. His original name Adolph was too ‘German’ according to him, thus he changed it during the World War I. Harpo never passed the second grade and dropped during the second year in that class. The reason was not his laziness or the lack of money, but the bullying as the only Jew in the class. He never actually learned to play the harp, even though he always played it in the films. Later, he wanted to learn to play it correctly, but he had developed his unique style and stuck with it. Harpo dedicated his whole life to the performance – he died almost half a year after his retirement, on the age of 75.
Julius Henry, or Croucho, was responsible for the rise of the careers of all of the brothers. He started with his stage career when he was 15 and the other brothers joined him later. At the beginning of his career, he played a stereotypical German character. His well-known walk was popular in the 19th century, and even Theodor Roosevelt used it. He simply brought it on another level for his performance. He was the brother who was hardest to recognize in public because of his unique eye-glasses, fake eyebrows and the moustache. During his most successful years he worked as a radio host, alone and with his brother Chico. He used humor even behind the scenes. People were used to hear jokes from him and see him do something unconventional and amusing. He married three times and had three children. All of his marriages ended up in divorce.
Gummo and Zeppo are the remaining brothers. Gummo was the original performer in the family, together with Groucho. Yet again, he is almost forgotten by the Marx brothers’ fans. When he went to join the army he was replaced by Zeppo, and after that he was his brothers’ manager. He and his younger brother Zeppo were inventors and had patents. Even though he was called a mechanical wizard, Zeppo, the youngest brother, was not a funny character in the films like the others, but his brothers said that in person, he was the funniest of them all. Beside that, it is said that he could replace every one of his brothers when they couldn’t work.
Originally, the brothers were a music and performance act. At the beginning, even their mother and aunt performed together with them during the musical act. Soon after this, they realized that they are capable of doing comedy after an incident on stage. They started to make jokes about the incident and the audience accepted it very well, thus they started including comedy in their shows. Their characters’ development can be seen through the following years, during which they slowly get their recognizable looks and styles. The result of their decades-long work are many films full of witty quotes, funny jokes and amusing acts that will never be surpassed.
Deezen, E. (2012). How the Marx Brothers Got Their Nicknames. Today I Found Out. http://www.todayifoundout.com/index.php/2012/10/how-the-marx-brothers-got-their-nicknames/
Biography. Marx Brothers. http://www.marx-brothers.org/biography/index.htm
Marx Brothers. Wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marx_Brothers
Photo: DoctorMacro. http://www.doctormacro.com/movie%20star%20pages/Marx%20Brothers-Annex.htm