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.Marx Brothers

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. One night in a small Illinois town, the brothers were renamed by a comedian during a poker game -- Julius, a tight-moneyed grouch, became Groucho; Adolf became Harpo; Milton, the gumshoe-like lurker, was Gummo; and girl-chasing Leonard turned to Chico. Another brother, Zeppo, was 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. 

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Saul Austerlitz

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