For proof of the Academy's bias against comedy, look no further than the Marx Brothers. Despite making some of the greatest comedies of their era, including two—Duck Soup and A Night At The Opera—that are now preserved in the National Film Registry, the Brothers received no awards, nor were any of their movies were ever nominated for best picture.
In fact, other than a nomination in the short-lived category of dance direction for Dave Gould's work on A Day At The Races, no Marx Brothers movie received a nomination of any kind—not acting, not writing. Nothing.
But let's face it, if I thought the Oscars were a useful benchmark for measuring a film's worth, I would have never started this blog in the first place.
The Academy has long dismissed comedy—indeed, any genre not long-form drama—when it comes award time. There seems to be a belief, not confined to the Academy unfortunately, that only a drama need apply for the designation of "art." There's this sense that comedy is easy while drama is hard, and that only a drama can peel back the bark that hides the ugly truth about life and the human condition.
And yet no art form is better at skewering the pretensions of the rich and powerful than Chico and Harpo wreaking havoc on opening night of the grand opera or at revealing the embarrassing absurdity of sex and seduction any time Groucho woos Margaret Dumont.
Or let me put it another way—who would you rather see do the stateroom scene from A Night At The Opera, the Marx Brothers or Laurence Olivier? Because while the latter might make a pretty good Hamlet, he'd be a lousy Otis B. Driftwood. Their work may not earn the meaningless praise of an instructor at an acting school, but you'll find no more perfect performances, and I'd rather honor what actually works on the screen than talk about some abstract theory of acting that leaves me cold.
The performances of Groucho, Chico, Harpo, and even much maligned Zeppo—collectively known as the Marx Brothers—are my choice as the best actors in a comedy or musical for the award period 1932-33, and if somehow you've never seen them in action, you'll find no better place to start than the movies featured here, Horse Feathers and Duck Soup.
There are many conflicting legends surrounding the Marx Brothers' rise to stardom, some no doubt true, but many nothing more than fanciful yarns spun by the Brothers themselves. With no certain way of separating fact from fiction, I've cobbled together the version of the story I like best—hopefully, it has more than a passing acquaintance with reality.
The Birth Of The Marx Brothers: From New York To Vaudeville
Born in New York to Jewish immigrants Sam "Frenchy" Marx and Minnie nee Minna Schönberg, Leonard, Adolph, Julius Henry and Herbert Manfred—better known to the world as Chico, Harpo, Groucho, and Zeppo—worked their way through the ranks of vaudeville to become big hits in the so-called "legitimate" theater of Broadway, and finally on to Hollywood where they are celebrated to this day as iconic screen legends. In order of birth, they are Leonard (Chico) 1887, Adolph (Zeppo) 1888, Julius Henry (Groucho) 1890 and Herbert Manfred (Zeppo) 1901.
And let's not forget Milton, aka Gummo, born in 1893, who performed on stage with his brothers until leaving the act in 1918, and, for that matter, a sixth Marx Brother, Manfred, the eldest, born in 1886, who died of tuberculosis at the age of three months.
Here's a family photo, dated 1915. From left to right, that's Groucho, Gummo, mother Minnie, Zeppo, father Sam, Chico and Harpo:
The family grew up on the Upper East Side of New York, in what was then known as Yorkville, a poor enclave of recently-arrived immigrants that included Irish, Italians and Germans. Sam Marx eked out a living as a tailor, but was a better cook and often paid the rent by providing elaborate meals to the landlady.
"My father was a very bad tailor," Zeppo said later, "but he found some people who were so stupid that they would buy his clothes, and so he'd make a few dollars that way for food."
In fact, the family's real talent lay in music, with each of the brothers singing and taking up an instrument—Chico, the piano; Groucho, the guitar; and Harpo, yes, you guessed it, the harp. Inspired by their uncle Albert Schönberg, who performed as Al Shean of the duo Gallagher and Shean, the brothers took their talents on the vaudeville circuit, first individually and then collectively as a variety of acts—the Nightingales, the Six Mascots, and eventually the Four Marx Brothers.
The term vaudeville had a very particular meaning in those days, referring to a variety show performed on stage, and typically featuring singers, dancers, acrobats and one-act plays, and playing at a circuit of theaters throughout the country. Vaudeville was distinguished from burlesque which featured striptease acts as well as from the "legitimate" theater—serious dramas performed in tightly-regulated, licensed venues.
From 1870 until its demise at the beginning of the Great Depression, vaudeville was the most popular form of entertainment in the United States.
Groucho, age 14, was the first of the Brothers to join the circuit, working primarily as a singer, first with the LeRoy Trio, then with Lily Seville, the latter abruptly leaving the act, although not before first substituting newspaper clippings for the money in Groucho's wallet. When after a tour of Montreal young Groucho came home with a venereal disease, his mother Minnie hastily formed a new singing group, the Nightingales, which featured Groucho, his brother Gummo, and on one occasion, aunt Hannah and Minnie herself.
"The fact that neither my mother nor her sister had the slightest talent," Groucho wrote later, "didn't bother my mother in the least. She said she knew many people in show business who didn't have any talent. At the moment she was looking at me."
If Groucho is to be believed, his mother's singing career lasted all of one number which came to an end when a prop chair collapsed mid-song under her rather matronly weight.
According to The Marx Brothers Encyclopedia by Glenn Mitchell, the singing act became a comedy act in Nacogdoches, Texas, when most of the audience temporarily abandoned the show to watch a runaway mule—upon their return, an angry Groucho treated them to a steady stream of insults such as "Nacogdoches is full of roaches" and "The jackass is the finest flower of Tex-Ass," a display of crude wit that nevertheless endeared him to the town's citizens.
Donning a red wig, Harpo joined in the fun, playing the character "Patsy Brannigan" in the team's new show, Fun In Hi Skule, the first to rely primarily on comedy rather than music. Following a popular trend of the day, the skit was centered on the antics of school kids with Groucho playing the teacher:
"What's the shape of the earth?" he'd ask.
"I don't know," Harpo, not yet playing a mute, would reply.
"What are the shape of my cufflinks?"
"Not these. The ones I wear on Sundays."
"That's it. Now what's the shape of the earth?"
"Square on weekdays," Harpo would say proudly, "round on weekends."
Other bits from Fun In Hi Skule were recycled for the classroom scene in Horse Feathers.
Chico, meanwhile, moved to Philadelphia where he worked for a while as a "song plugger" and a branch manager for a music publishing company before trying his luck on stage as one half of a singing duo. His talent as a pianist came in handy, and he picked up an Italian accent from his barber for between-song patter, but his penchant for gambling away the team's earnings drove away a succession of partners.
"His interests lay far afield in the ten ball in the side pocket," Groucho wrote of his brother, "and bridge, poker, and pinochle for stakes always higher than he could afford. If there was no action around, he would play solitaire—and bet against himself. Chico's favorite people," he added, "were actors who gambled, producers who gambled, and women who screwed."
Chico was so fond of gambling that while filming the steeplechase scene that ends A Day At The Races, the crew convinced him to bet on the losing horse—despite the fact that Chico knew the scripted outcome in advance. "The odds were twenty-to-one," he said.
In late 1912, Chico's bad luck turned into his brothers' good fortune.
Out of work again and without a partner for his stage act, Chico snuck into the orchestra pit and took over the piano during his brothers' show in Waukegan, Illinois. When Harpo recognized his brother's inimitable playing style, he hurled a stage prop apple at him, beginning an on-stage food fight that delighted the audience.
Thus was born a new act, the Four Marx Brothers.
"They sang, danced, played harp and kidded in zany style," said W.C. Fields who was briefly on the bill with them in 1915. "Never saw so much nepotism or such hilarious laughter in one act in my life. The only act I could never follow. I told the manager I broke my wrist and quit."
Zeppo appeared with the act briefly in September 1915, marking the only occasion when five Marx Brothers worked together, then joined the act permanently as Gummo's replacement when the latter volunteered for the army after the United States entered World War I. With that one change of personnel, the Four Marx Brothers performed together continuously from late 1912 until Zeppo left the act in 1933.
[To continue to Part Two, click here.]
A Note On Sources: There are many wonderful sources for information about the Marx Brothers. Among those at my fingertips are The Marx Brothers Encyclopedia by British film historian Glenn Mitchell; Groucho Marx's autobiography Groucho And Me; and his collection of correspondence The Groucho Letters; the transcripts of the Marx Brothers radio show, Flywheel, Shyster and Flywheel, edited by Michael Barson; David Thomson's The New Biographical Dictionary Of Film; three wonderful websites devoted to the Brothers, The Marx Brothers: Chico, Harpo, Groucho, Gummo and Zeppo, The Marx Brothers Council Of Britain and The Marx Brothers; the Internet Movie Database; the ever reliable Wikipedia; the films themselves; and whatever else I happened to stumble across as I worked on this post.