Who are the Marx Brothers?

Jessica Ellis
Jessica Ellis

The Marx Brothers were a famous comedy act of the 20th century. Popular for their sight-gags and chaotic setups, the family of brothers successfully transferred from the Vaudeville stage to film. Chico, Harpo, Groucho, and Zeppo are firmly imprinted in the encyclopedia of American culture as one of the greatest comedic teams in history.

Man with hands on his hips
Man with hands on his hips

The sons of two Jewish immigrants living in America, Leonard, Adolph, Julius and Herbert Marx were all pushed toward musical careers by their mother, Minnie. From their home in the Upper East Side of New York City, Minnie formed them into a singing group to perform publicly. On the vaudeville stage, the four Marx brothers and their fifth sibling, Milton or Gummo Marx, found some success.

Eventually, when they began cracking jokes on stage, the boys realized their potential as a comedy act. For several years, they performed both music and comedy, while developing the comedic characters that would become their main personas for their entire career. Gummo left the troupe to serve in World War I, being permanently replaced by the youngest brother, Herbert, better known as Zeppo Marx.

By the 1920s, the Marx Brothers were filling theaters with their engaging comedy routines. Known for their slapstick sight gags and detailed characters, the four brothers continued to gain both skill and popularity. They moved their act to Broadway in 1924, starring in several musical reviews and their own shows, Animal Crackers, and The Cocoanuts.

From Broadway, the Marx Brothers soon made the jump to the booming business of motion pictures. Between 1921 and 1933, the four brothers released seven movies, which gained enormous popularity. Zeppo left the group in the early 1930s, and the remaining three brothers continued to make films, starring in nine movies together as well as pursuing solo careers as comedians.

The Marx Brothers were well known for their distinctive characters on the stage and screen. Julius, called “Groucho” on stage, was famous for his bushy moustache and glasses and constant stream of one line jokes. Zeppo was the straight man, and often the butt of the jokes. Chico spoke with a campy Italian accent, while Harpo was notable for his silence and bright, curly wig. The personas were created in collaboration with the brothers’ uncle and mentor Al Shean.

The legacy of the Marx Brothers is enormous in the film and comedy worlds. They are considered by many experts to be the greatest gag-comedians in the history of the genre. Many modern physical comedians attribute the Marx Brothers as mentors and inspirations, and the world of comedy would be inexpressibly different without their influence and many recorded works.

Jessica Ellis
Jessica Ellis

With a B.A. in theater from UCLA and a graduate degree in screenwriting from the American Film Institute, Jessica is passionate about drama and film. She has many other interests, and enjoys learning and writing about a wide range of topics in her role as a wiseGEEK writer.

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