Animal Crackers

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Movies in the Mountains

April 20, 2 pm

one of their best, based on a Broadway hit show

Groucho, Harpo, Chico, Gummo & Zeppo:
Before and After Hollywood

The Marx Brothers’ act was at once a late manifestation of a very old stage tradition and a new trailblazing zany style of comedy. It began as a weak singing vaudeville act put together by mother and wife Minnie Schoenberg Marx. Father and husband, Simon Marx (called Sam” and “Frenchie”) was a gentleman and fine cook yet unskilled as a provider as were the rest of the combined Marx and Schoenberg families. Only Minnie’s brother, vaudeville headliner Al (Schoenberg) Shean, partner to Ed Gallagher had found success. Looking hopefully to her four (later five) sons to bring in much needed money, she refused to believe her family’s talent vein of several generations had petered out with her brother.

Leonard (Chico, 1887–1961), her eldest and favorite displayed immediate aptitude for music when she bought a second-hand piano. But Chico, a born hustler, had been on his own since he was old enough to shuffle cards, and any cash he won was soon lost. Until he went into vaudeville, his idea of regular employment was as house pianist in nickelodeons and brothels—the latter of which he found more congenial.

Although Adolph (Harpo, 1888–1964), next in birth, could pass as Chico or his twin, Harpo was a temperamental opposite. Like his father Sam, Harpo seemed happily innocent of ambition.

Minnie turned to sons number three and four, Groucho (Julius, 1890–1977) and Gummo (Milton, 1893–1977). Both could sing and had minor stage experience beginning about 1905, so, in 1909, Minnie made her debut as an actor’s agent and put Gummo and Groucho into a singing trio, “The Three Nightingales” (first with Mabel O’Donnell, then Lou Levy, in turn replaced by Fred Klute, then Paul Yates).

When Minnie discovered that Harpo was unwittingly working for a burglary gang, she drafted him into what became The Four Nightingales. Harpo couldn’t sing, but he could punctuate, when called for, the trio’s harmony with a faux basso’s ‘boom-boom’.

One of the strict rules in vaudeville was that the performer(s) had to “play the act as known.” That meant no substitutions for the specific act that management auditioned, contracted and booked. The boys, then in their late teens and early twenties, were unruly young men who knew they didn’t have a good act.

The Four Nightingales were onstage in a small town theatre in Nacogdoches, East Texas—far away from the controlling hands of both the vaudeville booker and their mother and agent Minnie—when a mule kicked up a ruckus outside the theatre.

Bored with reedy Nightingales, the audience went outside to watch the mule. Annoyed at the temporary desertion of their audience, and disgusted with themselves for their lame act, the boys began horsing around on stage. Back in their seats, the audience seemed to enjoy rather than resent the Marxes’ impudence.

Nevertheless, to keep her boys in line, Minnie and Aunt Hannah joined the act, which she re-billed as The Six Mascots. Harpo suggested they ditch singing for comedy. School-room acts were popular with audiences, so they cobbled together their version with music as well as comedy.

“Fun in Hi Skul” showcased the low-comedy genesis of The Marx Brothers’ fifty-year careers. A mustachioed Groucho portrayed the teacher with an exaggerated Prussian authority and accent. Gummo adopted the guise of an earnest and studious Jewish boy. Paul Yates essayed a sissy, and Harpo played a stupid Irish kid with a dunce cap over a curly, red wig. Other students included middle-aged Minnie and Aunt Hannah! Eldest brother Chico, who had been working vaudeville with other partners, joined his brothers after they switched to comedy.

Their stage roles had been nineteenth century immigrant stereotypes. But, as the USA prepared to joined The Great War, propaganda painted German enemies as despised Huns, so Groucho abandoned his dialect. The Ancient Order of Hibernians protested Harpo’s demeaning portrayal, so he shed his stage-Irish identity and dunce cap (later he swapped his red wig for a blonde one).

Italians hadn’t yet won political clout or civil respect, so Chico kept his thick-headed and thuggish Italian, gradually softening it into one more jovial, even avuncular. His nickname was originally Chicko (for his womanizing), but when a programme typesetter dropped the ‘k’; his stage dialect cemented that Chicko would henceforth be known as Chico.

Gummo, the best dancer in the group, was not at ease performing. When it came time for one of them to leave the stage and join the army, mother Minnie volunteered Gummo. Zeppo, the youngest was well into delinquency, so Minnie pushed him into Gummo’s place in the act, but as an all-American romantic juvenile.

As was to be expected, the boys’ act had begun to support the large Schoenberg/Marx family, but the then grown boys rebelled when they discovered that Minnie Schoenberg, (she chose ‘Palmer’ as her showbiz surname) was cutting her boys’ asking salary as an inducement to bookers to also hire her other acts.

With her blessing, Chico took over managing the Marx Brothers. Deliberately losing card games to producers, he finagled the act’s spectacular fortunes—steering them into big-time vaudeville, Broadway revues and musical comedy and then movies.

Chico (and eventually Zeppo) were fearless and ambitious like Minnie. Despite Chico’s unreliability and being the first to leave her nest, he remained her favorite. Sam Marx, husband and father was the homemaker who made inept stabs at being a tailor. He, Harpo and Gummo shared much the same temperament.

Zeppo & Gummo became successful Hollywood agents with a cluster of bright stars under contract. They managed Groucho, Harpo and Chico, but only after Chico yielded the reins to focus on ever higher-stakes gambling. He was a pinochle and bridge master, but habitually drawn to impossible long-shots.

Zeppo sold his big-time agency to move on to great triumph in industry, where he made a fortune and had several aeronautic and medical patents to his credit.

Gummo also earned a patent, a snap-together single-piece garment box that he designed while in the garment business. Later, Gummo took over the management of the joint and individual careers of Harpo, Groucho and Chico (who was always broke).

All the Marx Brothers were musical. Gummo was a good eccentric dancer; Groucho and Zeppo sang (thinly but on key) and played guitar and ukulele. Harpo favored his harp but was accomplished on several keyboard and wind instruments. Chico could play anything on the piano from classics to ragtime.

When their MGM movies declined in quality, Groucho and Harpo chose to semi-retire and settle into individual careers as they grew older and newer teams like Abbott & Costello, Crosby & Hope and Martin & Lewis rose in popularity.

Chico couldn’t afford to retire. He took over the Ben Pollack Band as well as playing solo dates in England and Australia and starring on television with a one-season, half-hour series set in a malt shop, The College Bowl.

A few years before his death, Chico won rave reviews when he toured the country in the road company of Sylvia Regan‘s The Fifth Season, a comedy-drama about the garment industry, taking over the lead role that Menasha Skulnik had originated on Broadway.

Harpo was hobbled as a voiceless comedian unless he had a ‘feed’ (a straightman) like Chico, with whom he often partnered in Las Vegas, other big-time casino appearances and on NBC’s The Colgate Comedy Hour. Harpo conceived the film Love Happy as a solo starring vehicle, but financing proved impossible unless Chico and Groucho joined the cast. They did, but Groucho restricted himself to little more than a cameo role in what became the final Marx Brother movie.

Harpo’s solo triumph came as a startlingly effective performance in “Silent Panic”, a half-hour dramatic turn on June Allyson’s dramatic anthology series. He donned a black wig to play a mute store-window dresser who witnesses a murder.

Groucho proved less convincing as a dramatic actor or a solo comedy actor than his brothers. He made four starring film features (without his brothers) that he failed to ignite. After several unsuccessful attempts at radio, he scored big time with the quiz show “You Bet Your Life” as an adlibbing quizmaster, a role that carried Groucho into television. For over a decade You Bet Your Life ranked as one of TV’s top ten shows.

During the rest of his long life, Groucho guested on talk shows, took a few cameo film roles, wrote books, toured his one-man show of reminiscence, played Ko-ko in a televised version of Gilbert & Sullivan’s The Mikado (a fulfillment of a life-long ambition), was awarded a Life-Career Achievement Oscar that he accepted on behalf of Harpo and Chico and himself. (By then, both had died).

The Marx Brothers made thirteen feature movies, half of which remain among the all-time best American comedy films. Because of that, the team has never lost their popularity or prestige.

—Frank Cullen