The things about the Marx Brothers that most people remember—that they obsess over and memorize and if they are feeling reckless even try to imitate—are found in seven films made between 1929 and 1937. The brothers made another six movies after that, culminating in the dreary and impoverished Love Happy in 1950, but the comic frenzy subsided after A Day at the Races. While Groucho went on to a second career as television’s most (or perhaps only) memorable quizmaster in You Bet Your Life, which ran from 1950 to 1961 and persisted long after in reruns, Chico and Harpo found few performance opportunities after the movies dried up. (Gummo and Zeppo, the younger brothers who had in earlier phases been part of the act, had long since dropped out.)
Yet The Cocoanuts, the primordial talkie they filmed in Astoria in 1929, represented a rather late milestone in their career. Chico, the oldest of the brothers, was already forty-two, and had been playing piano in honky tonks, nickelodeons, and beer gardens since his mid-teens (he had already, according to family lore, established his penchant for gambling and bad company before the nineteenth century was out); Harpo had followed Chico into the saloons and mastered his older brother’s limited piano repertoire (which for a long time apparently consisted of a single song, “Waltz Me Around Again, Willie”). Groucho, born in 1890, had been performing professionally since his fifteenth year: how far his roots go back can be measured by his appearance in a benefit for victims of the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, on a bill featuring Yvette Guilbert and Lillian Russell.
In those days they were Leonard, Adolph, and Julius; the familiar nicknames were bestowed by a theatrical friend during a poker session around 1914. The personae that went with the nicknames evolved in hit-or-miss fashion through years of more or less improvised, more or less chaotic wanderings—as the Three Nightingales or the Six Mascots, with or without their mother Minnie or their aunt Hannah, with or without their failed tailor of a father planted in the audience to egg on the laughter—over most of the United States, mostly in the lower, small-time echelons of vaudeville. The chief fascination of both recent studies of Groucho and his brothers, Stefan Kanfer’s Groucho and Simon Louvish’s Monkey Business, lies in what they can tell about these lost decades in which the Marxes invented their art. The frustration is that they can after all tell so little. A few fragments of script, some rare photos, some not very revealing contemporary reviews, and the unreliable anecdotes in memoirs written long after the fact: from such remnants a world must be imagined.
It is worth imagining, that domain (in Harpo’s words) of “stale bread pudding, bug-ridden hotels, crooked managers, and trudging from town to town like unwanted gypsies,” into which Groucho was sent out at fifteen—his education halted permanently at his mother’s insistence—to be …