[To read Part One, click here.]
From Vaudeville To Broadway
The Four Marx Brothers evolved steadily during their apprenticeship on the vaudeville circuit, gradually taking on the attributes they are famous for today—quick verbal wit and loony wordplay punctuated by the piano- and harp-recitals of Chico and Harpo respectively, with frequent ad libs that left tissue-thin plots in tatters and turned the proceedings into virtual anarchy.
In their early days in vaudeville, the Brothers also relied on the ethnic stereotyping common to the vaudeville of the day, remnants of which are most obviously displayed in Chico's comedy. Dating back to his days as one half of a singing duo, Chico had been using an Italian accent copied from his barber for between-song patter and when he joined the act permanently, he adopted the Italian character to their show Fun In Hi Skule, playing an Italian schoolboy to Harpo's Irish kid and Gummo's Jewish one. Later, the Chico character developed into an Italian immigrant whose fractured English was the source of many jokes.
Chico also played the con man on stage, alternately sharp or dim depending on whether he was conning brother Groucho or someone else. In Animal Crackers it was even suggested that the Italian character was itself part of the con job:
"Say, how did you get to be an Italian?" asks an old acquaintance.
"Never mind that, whose confession is this?"
Between bits, Chico also played piano in a style so unusual, it became a joke in and of itself—as a boy, he took lessons from a teacher who could only play with her right hand, faking with her left, a style Chico copied faithfully.
Chico's on-stage accomplice in crime, Harpo, was the pure id of the act, a hyperactive puppy, as innocent as a child, as easily distracted and just as destructive. Harpo joined the act in 1912 as an Irish stereotype in a red wig but morphed into a mute out of necessity for the 1914 show, Home Again—Harpo complained to the play's author, his uncle Al Shean, that he had too few lines, and when in response, Shean cut Harpo's speeches altogether, Harpo stole a horn off a taxi cab, which became his sole means of communication, and transformed himself into a purely visual act, determined to become a scene-stealing machine who would wreak havoc whenever he was on stage.
Interestingly, of all the Brothers, Harpo's on-stage character was the farthest from his off-stage personality. If Groucho was in real life moody and insecure, forever hiding behind a mask of hostile levity, and if Chico was in fact something close to a con man looking only to gamble and talk his way into women's pants, Harpo was actually a gentle man with a serious passion for the harp, an instrument he worked hard to master. The intensity he brought to the performance in those movies that featured the harp was always at odds with the undisciplined character he otherwise played.
Harpo himself agreed that those moments playing the harp are when you see the real man.
"Harpo was the solid man in the family," Groucho said. "He inherited all my mother's good qualities—kindness, understanding, and friendliness. I inherited what was left."
Although known primarily for his wit, the mou- stache, the cigar, the stooped walk and the oversized frock coat make Groucho the most recognizable of the Brothers and a popular target of imitators. It was in 1921 during the run of On The Mezzanine that a tardy Groucho skipped the effort of gluing on his usual fake fur moustache—"easy to put on," he said, "but murder to tear off"—and smeared greasepaint on his upper lip instead; since no one noticed the difference, he stuck with greasepaint ever after and didn't grow a real moustache until filming the television show You Bet Your Life in 1947.
On stage, Groucho served to bridge the gap between the audience and his brothers. Where Chico and Harpo were usually off in their own worlds, motivated by impulses clear only to themselves (and often not even then), Groucho played recognizable members of society—teachers, lawyers, hotel owners, even petty dictators—who wanted the sorts of things the audience wanted, in Groucho's case, sex and money. Yet paradoxically, while acknowledging the world around him in ways his brothers rarely did, Groucho was the most hostile to the existing order, and he used his lacerating wit to keep the world—and the audience—at arm's length.
"I do not care to belong to a club," he famously wrote to the Friar's of Los Angeles, "that accepts people like me as members."
As for Gummo and Zeppo, neither developed stage characters as well defined as their brothers. From what I can tell, the act's comedy was always a case of every man for himself, developing through nonstop ad libs and scene stealing. Gummo was a quiet man with a childhood stammer and never much interested in performing; and Zeppo, being so much younger than his brothers and coming so late to such a well-established act, wound up as something of an afterthought. So Gummo largely sang and played the handsome straight man to Groucho's verbal cracks, and want it or not, Zeppo inherited the role when his older brother joined the army in 1918.
Once Chico joined the act in 1912, the Four Marx Brothers flourished in a series of original show. Aside from the misfortune of opening a new show, Street Cinderella, during an influenza epidemic (audience members were required to sit every other seat and wear handkerchiefs over their faces), the Brothers' only misstep during the vaudeville years occurred in 1922—but as missteps go, it was a doozy.
After a tour of England in the summer of that year, the Brothers found themselves blacklisted from all the top vaudeville venues when circuit boss E.F. Albee declared the overseas engagement a breach of contract. Faced with the choice of playing second-tier houses, appearing in a road show version of another team's act, or temporarily leaving the stage altogether—any one of which, their mother Minnie argued, would be a fatal step backwards—the Brothers aimed instead for Broadway and "legitimate" theater, an audacious goal considering they had no new material or the money to back it.
For once Chico's gambling habit came to the rescue in form of a coal baron named James P. Beury whom Chico met during a card game. Beury agreed to bankroll a new show, and a chance meeting with songwriter Tom Johnstone and his brother, cartoonist Will B. Johnstone, provided the Brothers with the needed material.
The resulting stageplay, I'll Say She Is!, was a sketch comedy/musical revue loosely linked together by a character named Beauty, a bored heiress to a fortune willing to marry anyone who could give her a thrill. The most complete transcript of the show (here) indicates an opening scene where, to impress a talent agent, the Brothers pretend to be none other than their uncle Al Shean (later dancer Joe Frisco when the show moved to New York, and still later Maurice Chevalier when they adapted the scene for Monkey Business). There was also a courtroom scene with Harpo as a judge and Groucho as both the prosecutor and the defense lawyer; a tour of Chinatown featuring a song and dance number in an opium den; and a finale built around Groucho's impersonation of Napoleon.
"When I look into your big blue eyes," he tells Josephine, "I know that you are true to the Army. I only hope it remains a standing Army."
Several of Harpo's bits from the play were recycled in both Animal Crackers (sight gags with stolen silverware and playing cards) and Horse Feathers (playing cards again).
The Marx Brothers reprised the opening scene of I'll Say She Is! in 1931 for a short film promoting Monkey Business. Presented here, the scene gives you a taste of what the Marx Brothers' act might have been like at this stage of their careers.
The show opened about as far from Broadway as you could get in those days—Allentown, Pennsylvania. The Brothers were taking no chances of a hostile critic wandering in while they were working out the show's kinks (among which were an inept chorus girl who was sleeping with their chief financial backer; the Brothers slipped her a mickey on opening night, but a longer term solution presented itself in the form of a handsome young chorus boy -- the two eloped together and left the show). After its successful premiere, the Brothers took the show on the road—Philadelphia, Boston, Detroit, Chicago, etc.—playing for a year before they finally opened at the Casino Theatre in New York.
"You could kill 'em all your life in big-time vaudeville," Groucho later wrote, "but you were still a vaudeville actor. There was a definite prestige about being a Broadway star that vaudeville could never give you."
Real- istically, the Brothers expected to play Broadway for a couple of weeks before taking the show back on the road, but influential critic Alexander Woollcott (at right in photo, with Harpo standing in middle) was in the audience on opening night and gave I'll Say She Is! a rave review. The show wound up playing 304 performances and the Brothers never looked back.
[To continue on to Part Three, click here.]