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 robbed by his employers and given a dose of gonorrhea by the first woman he slept with, a domain whose Hobbesian realities were matched only by the desperate energy of its tattered amusements. “In a typical week,” writes Stefan Kanfer of the life the brothers led around 1912, “they might play three days in Burlington, Iowa, catch the overnight train and play the following four days in Waterloo—four-a-day vaudeville for five days, five-a-day for two days, for a total of thirty shows per week. The process went on unvaryingly, in the cities around the Great Lakes, in Ohio, Illinois, Texas, Alabama.”
Perhaps one would not really want to savor every phase of that long and miserable pilgrimage, to watch the young Julius making his 1905 debut in drag with the Leroy Trio before being stranded in Cripple Creek, Colorado, where Mr. Leroy absconded with all the money, and then setting out once again, touring Texas with an English “coster singer and comedienne” named Lily Seville, a pair of clog dancers, and a seventy-four-year-old tenor. The Dallas Morning News for December 25, 1905, remarked: “Master Marx is a boy tenor, who introduces bits of Jewish character from the East Side of New York.”
He and his brothers weren’t of course the only wild kids of the road. There was an army of them. The children who performed with Gus Edwards’s famous troupe (Groucho did his bit with Edwards’s “Postal Telegraph Boys” in 1906) included George Jessel, Eddie Cantor, Ray Bolger, Eleanor Powell, Ricardo Cortez, Mervyn LeRoy, and Walter Winchell, a successful handful among the vast and largely threadbare host of small-timers who sustained their internal migrations from the Gilded Age until the circuits began petering out in the Twenties. An army of the lost: we must be content with what we can glimpse in S.J. Perelman’s recollections of an early Marx Brothers appearance that also featured
Fink’s Trained Mules, Willie West & McGinty in their deathless housebuilding routine, Lieutenant Gitz-Rice declaiming “Mandalay” through a pharynx swollen with emotion and coryza, and that liveliest of nightingales, Grace Larue.
If the Marx Brothers’ work is “about” anything, it is about survival in that world. Half-grown, without training or material, they were thrust into the business of entertainment, and it took them two decades to fight their way to the Broadway opening in 1924 of I’ll Say She Is!, the show that finally sealed their fame. The legend of how their mother Minnie turned them into performers by main force has been well rehearsed, beginning with press releases overseen by the brothers and culminating in 1970 in the Broadway musical Minnie’s Boys (co-written by Groucho’s son Arthur). Indeed, the whole early history of the Marx Brothers was carefully remade by them and their chosen publicists, and both Kanfer and Louvish become enmeshed in layers of deliberate mythmaking and minute misrepresentation of such simple things as dates and locations. Even in their memoirs Harpo and Groucho consistently took five years off their ages, and the internal contradictions in the various anecdotal histories of the family make any precise account of their doings virtually impossible. The family’s life in the three-room East 93rd Street apartment where they lived from 1895 to 1909, a life crowded with relatives and visiting show business types, can only be envisioned as an unknowable but presumably chaotic corollary of the world of their films.
The centrality of their mother in their career resulted to some extent from the fecklessness of their father, an immigrant tailor from Alsace more devoted to cooking and pinochle than to his chosen profession. As the daughter of an itinerant Prussian ventriloquist and magician and the sister of the increasingly successful vaudevillian Al Shean (of Gallagher and Shean), Minnie had every reason to be drawn to show business. The alternatives were not many or appealing, and her sons—excepting the bookish Groucho—showed early tendencies to drift into the life of the street. So she sent her children on the road and eventually set about building her own show business empire, moving the family from New York to Chicago, managing not only her sons but a string of other troupes with names like the Golden Gate Girls, Palmer’s Cabaret Review, and the Six American Beauties. It may be, as Simon Louvish surmises, that “being Minnie’s Boys was a bad career move” and that their mother’s managerial flaws—her empire was short-lived—may have made the boys’ progression toward stardom unduly slow, but what we appreciate in the brothers’ art has everything to do precisely with its slow and familial evolution.
The Marx Brothers create a world because they have no other choice. They start from no plan or idea but proceed by groping and trying out, grabbing at any material that offers itself. Everything takes shape through an accretion of bits. “I was just kidding around one day and started to walk funny,” Groucho wrote. “The audience liked it, so I kept it in. I would try a line and leave it in too if it got a laugh. If it didn’t, I’d take it out and put in another. Pretty soon I had a character.” The phrase “pretty soon” covers years of experiment. For a long time Groucho’s persona was a comic German, until the sinking of the Lusitania made Germans less than comic. The German bits became Yiddish bits, until these were sloughed off in turn and he made the crucial transition into a character not dependent on dialect. (Chico, on the other hand, stuck with his Italian persona to the bitter end.) It took years, likewise, for Harpo to understand that he had no gift for verbal comedy and remake himself as a silent clown.
Their performances remain breathtaking because of a moment-by-moment control and rapport that distills years of trial and error. This was comedy as experimental science, and the experiment was conducted under the most prolonged and uncomfortable circumstances. Years later, when studio filmmaking threatened to dull their instincts, the brothers attempted to regain intimacy with the audience by trying out the script for A Day at the Races on the road. One of the publicists recalled how Groucho’s line “That’s the most nauseating proposition I ever had” was arrived at:
Among other words tried out were obnoxious, revolting, disgusting, offensive, repulsive, disagreeable, and distasteful. The last two of these words never got more than titters. The others elicited various degrees of ha-has. But nauseating drew roars. I asked Groucho why that was so. “I don’t know. I really don’t care. I only know the audiences told us it was funny.”
It was an apprenticeship of a kind no one has time for anymore, nor indeed would one wish it on anyone. It only took them twenty years to become geniuses. “They had absolutely no marketable skill outside of comedy,” writes Kanfer, “and they instinctively rode that skill as far as it would take them.” Their finesse was acquired in the roughest of schools, where a pause, even the most momentary relinquishment of control, would be fatal. Even if they were brilliant in a field populated largely by the not so bright, witty in an area where wit came cut in broad slabs, imaginative where the rule was to grind out every last possible bit of juice from repeated and imitated and stolen routines, it was still not quite enough to guarantee success. The final ingredient was an unparalleled ferocity. The rule had to be: No mercy, no exceptions, no leeway for the audience to think or resist.
All vaudevillians practiced a cer-tain savagery in their assault on the audience, but often the savagery came disguised in the form of heart-warming sentiment or reverential high-mindedness. The Marx Brothers were not interested in eliciting sympathy. Even the sentimental trappings of the later films—where the brothers figure as benign eccentrics rescuing star-crossed lovers, and the infantile ecstasies of Harpo assume an ever more self-consciously beatific aura—cannot altogether conceal a persistent kernel of exhilarating heartlessness. Not malice: simply comedy in its most cold-eyed state. In The Cocoanuts (1929) and Animal Crackers (1930) the violent energy of the stage performances is still palpable. Harpo’s emergence into the frame, on the heels of a blond parlor maid, registers as a chaotic intrusion the camera can barely capture. Groucho’s verbal assaults are flanked by the downright menacing physical comedy of Chico and Harpo.