The Hard Work of Making It Look Easy
May 15, 2000, Vol. 5, No. 33 • By DANIEL WATTENBERG
Growing up in Manhattan in the early years of the twentieth century, the bookish and introverted Julius Henry Marx dreamed of becoming a doctor. Instead, he dropped out of school just before his bar mitzvah and went into show business, at the insistence of his mother. Yes, to please his Jewish mother, Groucho Marx did not become a doctor. Is it necessary to inquire any further into how he developed a sense of humor?
Minnie Marx drove all five of her boys -- Leonard, Adolph, Julius, Herbert, and Milton -- into show business. The spur was her husband, Simon, whose small tailoring business teetered perpetually on the edge of failure. The lure was her brother, Al Shean, half of one of the most popular vaudeville musical comedy acts, Gallagher and Shean.
As the Marx Brothers, Groucho, Harpo, and Chico (with a Zeppo here and a Gummo there) would rise to the top in vaudeville and conquer Broadway with three musical comedy smashes in a row, I'll Say She Is!, Cocoanuts, and Animal Crackers.
Then they became the most acclaimed and popular comedians in the new talking pictures, a medium made for their warp-speed wisecracks and wordplay seasoned with music and old-school slapstick. In time, the act got old and the brothers went cold, and only Groucho rose again to star in television, as the host of the long-running quiz show, You Bet Your Life.
Whatever the medium, the Marx Brothers were big box office. But their mob appeal was matched by their snob appeal in a way that has few parallels in the history of American comedy. Some of the greatest names in American humor were Marx Brothers gagmen. After declaring, "I'd rather write for the Barbary apes," the legendary playwright George S. Kaufman -- author of Dinner at Eight, Stage Door, and You Can't Take It with You -- conceived and co-wrote the stage plays for Cocoanuts and Animal Crackers (though apes might have shown greater respect for his scripts than the Marx Brothers ever managed: Pacing the back of the theater during a Cocoanuts rehearsal, Kaufman remarked, "I may be wrong, but I think I just heard one of the original lines").
One of the century's great literary humorists, S. J. Perelman, co-wrote two early Marx Brothers classics, Monkey Business and Horse Feathers. Harpo Marx, who could barely spell, became a regular at the Algonquin Round Table, under the aegis of Alexander Woolcott. T. S. Eliot particularly admired Groucho. Other fans included Graham Greene, Somerset Maugham, George Bernard Shaw, Antonin Artaud, Salvador Dali, and Winston Churchill. What other American comedians enjoyed this kind of dual appeal to mass public and intelligentsia alike? Charlie Chaplin, certainly. And maybe Woody Allen for a short time in the 1970s.
Beginning in 1929, the Marx Brothers made five films for Paramount, the relaxed studio that was home to the best comedy talent, including W. C. Fields and Mae West. Starting in 1929 with the first feature-length musical shot in America (with songs by Irving Berlin), the Marxes made four hits in a row: Cocoanuts (1929), Animal Crackers (1930), Monkey Business (1931), and Horse Feathers (1932). So successful were their first two features that after Animal Crackers (adapted from their stage show), they negotiated the first "participation" contract in Hollywood history.
Under its terms, the brothers (Zeppo was still part of the act) received $ 200,000 per picture plus 50 percent of the profits -- and this in the teeth of the Depression. "Everything's coming up grosses," Groucho cracked. With the opening of Horse Feathers in the summer of 1932, they landed on the cover of Time magazine.
Duck Soup, released in 1933, was directed by the gifted comedy director Leo McCarey, a pioneer of silent comedy and later of the screwball genre. Now widely regarded as one of their best movies, the political farce (in which Groucho is installed by perennial foil Margaret Dumont as the president of mythical Freedonia) flopped badly on release. Exhibitors and trade papers began pronouncing the Marx Brothers "washed up."