The Marx Brothers were a family comedy act that was successful in vaudeville, on Broadway, and in motion pictures from 1905 to 1949. Five of the Marx Brothers’ thirteen feature films were selected by the American Film Institute (AFI) as among the top 100 comedy films. The core of the act was the three elder brothers, Chico, Harpo, and Groucho; each developed a highly distinctive stage persona.
The Marx Brothers’ stage shows became popular just as motion pictures were evolving to “talkies“. They signed a contract with Paramount Pictures and embarked on their film career at Paramount’s Astoria, New York, studios. Their first two released films (after an unreleased short silent film titled Humor Risk) were adaptations of the Broadway shows The Cocoanuts (1929) and Animal Crackers (1930). Both were written by George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind. Production then shifted to Hollywood, beginning with a short film that was included in Paramount’s twentieth anniversary documentary, The House That Shadows Built (1931), in which they adapted a scene from I’ll Say She Is. The Marx Brothers’ third feature-length film, Monkey Business (1931), was their first movie not based on a stage production, and the only one in which Harpo’s voice is heard (singing tenor from inside a barrel in the opening scene). Horse Feathers (1932), in which the brothers satirized the American college system and Prohibition, was their most popular film yet, and won them the cover of Time. It included a running gag from their stage work, in which Harpo produces a ludicrous array of props from his coat, including a wooden mallet, a fish, a coiled rope, a tie, a poster of a woman in her underwear, a cup of hot coffee, a sword; and, just after Groucho warns him that he “can’t burn the candle at both ends,” a candle burning at both ends.
During this period, Chico and Groucho starred in a radio comedy series, Flywheel, Shyster and Flywheel. Though the series was short lived, much of the material developed for it was used in subsequent films. The show’s scripts and recordings were believed lost until copies of the scripts were found in the Library of Congress in the 1980s. After publication in a book they were performed with Marx Brothers impersonators for BBC Radio.
Their last Paramount film, Duck Soup (1933), directed by the highly regarded Leo McCarey, is the highest rated of the five Marx Brothers films on the American Film Institute‘s “100 years … 100 Movies” list. It did not do as well financially as Horse Feathers but was the sixth-highest grosser of 1933. The film sparked a dispute between the Marxes and the village of Fredonia, New York. “Freedonia” was the name of a fictional country in the script, and the city fathers wrote to Paramount and asked the studio to remove all references to Freedonia because “it is hurting our town’s image”. Groucho fired back a sarcastic retort asking them to change the name of their town, because “it’s hurting our picture.”
After the expiration of the Paramount contract, Zeppo left the act to become an agent. He and brother Gummo went on to build one of the biggest talent agencies in Hollywood, helping the likes of Jack Benny and Lana Turner get their starts. Groucho and Chico did radio, and there was talk of returning to Broadway. At a bridge game with Chico, Irving Thalberg began discussing the possibility of the Marxes joining Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. They signed, now billed as “Groucho, Chico, Harpo Marx Bros.”
Unlike the free-for-all scripts at Paramount, Thalberg insisted on a strong story structure that made The Marx Brothers more sympathetic characters, interweaving their comedy with romantic plots and non-comic musical numbers, and targeting their mischief-making at obvious villains. Thalberg was adamant that scripts include a “low point”, where all seems lost for both the Marxes and the romantic leads. He instituted the innovation of testing the film’s script before live audiences before filming began, to perfect the comic timing, and to retain jokes that earned laughs and replace those that did not. Thalberg restored Harpo’s harp solos and Chico’s piano solos, which had been omitted from Duck Soup.
The first Marx Brothers/Thalberg film was A Night at the Opera (1935), a satire on the world of opera, where the brothers help two young singers in love by throwing a production of Il Trovatore into chaos. The film—including its famous scene where an absurd number of people crowd into a tiny stateroom on a ship—was a great success, and was followed two years later by an even bigger hit, A Day at the Races (1937), in which the brothers cause mayhem in a sanitarium and at a horse race. The film features Groucho and Chico’s famous “Tootsie Frootsie Ice Cream” sketch. In a 1969 interview with Dick Cavett, Groucho said that the two movies made with Thalberg were the best that they ever produced. Despite the Thalberg films’ success, MGM terminated the brothers’ contract in 1937; Thalberg had died suddenly during filming of A Day at the Races, leaving the Marxes without an advocate at the studio.
After a short experience at RKO (Room Service, 1938), The Marx Brothers returned to MGM and made three more films: At the Circus (1939), Go West (1940) and The Big Store (1941). Prior to the release of The Big Store the team announced its retirement from the screen. Four years later, however, Chico persuaded his brothers to make two additional films, A Night in Casablanca (1946) and Love Happy (1949), to alleviate his severe gambling debts. Both pictures were released by United Artists.