The Marx Brothers were a family comedy act that was successful in vaudeville, on Broadway, and in motion pictures from 1905 to 1949. The group are almost universally known today by their stage names: Chico (Leonard Marx; 1887–1961), Harpo (Arthur Marx, born Adolph Marx; 1888–1964), Groucho (Julius Henry Marx; 1890–1977), Gummo (Milton Marx; 1893–1977), and Zeppo (Herbert Manfred Marx; 1901 –1979). The core of the act was the three elder brothers: Chico, Harpo, and Groucho. Each developed a highly distinctive stage persona.
Harpo and Chico “more or less retired” after 1949, while Groucho began a second career and became a well-known television host. Gummo was not in any of the movies; Zeppo appeared in the first five films in relatively straight (non-comedic) roles. They both left performing to run a large theatrical agency, through which they represented their brothers as well as others at times.
By the 1920s, the Marx Brothers had become one of America’s favorite theatrical acts, with their sharp and bizarre sense of humor. They satirized high society and human hypocrisy, and they became famous for their improvisational comedy in free-form scenarios. The Marx Brothers’ stage shows became popular just as motion pictures were evolving to “talkies”. They signed a contract with Paramount Pictures and embarked on their film career at Paramount studios. Their first two released films were adaptations of the Broadway shows The Cocoanuts (1929) and Animal Crackers (1930). Both were written by George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind. Their third feature-length film, Monkey Business (1931), was their first movie not based on a stage production. Horse Feathers (1932), was their most popular film yet, and won them the cover of Time. Their last Paramount film, Duck Soup (1933), directed by the highly regarded Leo McCarey, is the highest rated of the five Marx Brothers films on the American Film Institute’s list.
After expiration of the Paramount contract Zeppo left the act to become an agent. Groucho and Chico did radio, and there was talk of returning to Broadway. At a bridge game with Chico, Irving Thalberg began discussing the possibility of the Marxes joining Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. They signed, now billed as “Groucho, Chico, Harpo, Marx Bros.”
“Is it my imagination, or is it getting crowded in here?” Groucho Marx
A Night at the Opera (1935) was the first film made for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer starring the Marx Brothers, and featuring Kitty Carlisle, Allan Jones, Margaret Dumont, Sig Ruman, and Walter Woolf King. It was a satire on the world of opera, where the brothers help two young singers in love by throwing a production of “Il Trovatore” into chaos. At the suggestion of Thalberg, the film marked a change of direction in the brothers’ career. In their Paramount films, the brothers’ characters were much more anarchic: they attacked anybody who was so unfortunate to cross their paths whether they deserved it or not, albeit comically. Thalberg, however, felt that this made the brothers unsympathetic, particularly to female filmgoers. So in the MGM films, the brothers were recast as more helpful characters, saving their comic attacks for the villains.
There is a famous scene in the film where an absurd number of people crowd into a tiny stateroom on a ship. The Stateroom scene developed with participation of Buster Keaton and became one of the most famous comedy scenes of all time.
Two years later, A Day at the Races (1937), was an even bigger hit, in which the brothers cause mayhem in a sanitarium and at a horse race. Despite the Thalberg films’ success, the brothers left MGM in 1937; Thalberg had died suddenly during filming of A Day at the Races, leaving the Marxes without an advocate at the studio.
After a short experience at RKO (Room Service, 1938), the Marx Brothers returned to MGM and made three more films: At the Circus (1939), Go West (1940) and The Big Store (1941). Prior to the release of The Big Store the team announced they were retiring from the screen. Four years later, however, Chico persuaded his brothers to make two additional films, A Night in Casablanca (1946) and Love Happy (1949), to alleviate his severe gambling debts. Both pictures were released by United Artists.
From the 1940s onward Chico and Harpo appeared separately and together in nightclubs and casinos. Chico fronted a big band, the Chico Marx Orchestra. Groucho made several radio appearances during the 1940s and starred in You Bet Your Life, which ran from 1947 to 1961 on NBC radio and television.
Sources/More to Read:
Wikipedia: Marx Brothers
Wikipedia: A Night at the Opera
IMDb: A Night at the Opera
Marx Brothers – Night at the Opera Treasury
Wikipedia: Chico Marx
Wikipedia: Harpo Marx
Wikipedia: Groucho Marx
Wikipedia: Gummo Marx
Wikipedia: Zeppo Marx
Wikipedia: Irving Thalberg