Picture this: Groucho on guitar and vocals, Zeppo and Gummo on vocals, and Harpo on harp (duh). Well, that’s how the Marx Brothers got their start, as a musical act. Fortunately, they soon realized Groucho’s ability to get laughs, and switched to a comedy format. The rest, as they say, is show business history.
Of course, those weren’t the boys real names. Arthur (Harpo), Julius (Groucho), Leonard (Chico), Milton (Gummo), and Herbert (Zeppo) used their real names until their first appearance on Broadway in their musical comedy revue I’ll Say She Is in 1924-25. They followed that show up with two more comedy hits, The Cocoanuts and Animal Crackers. These two became their first movies, which ended up being little more than films of their stage productions.
Gummo never appeared in films, and the four Marx Brothers became three when Zeppo quit the act following Duck Soup (1933). They made five features for Paramount, including Animal Crackers, Monkey Business, Horse Feathers, and Duck Soup. They then switched to MGM, where they had most of their success with their early films, primarily A Night at the Opera and A Day at the Races.
At their best they were masters of comic timing and repartee. Here are some great lines from their films, and a couple of wonderful scenes:
GROUCHO: I never forget a face. But in your case, I’ll be glad to make an exception.
GROUCHO: I’ve had a perfectly wonderful evening. But this wasn’t it.
GROUCHO: How much would you charge to run into an open manhole?
CHICO: Just the cover charge.
CHICO: I wasn’t kissing her, I was whispering in her mouth.
GROUCHO: Remember men, we’re fighting for this woman’s honour; which is probably more than she ever did.