M is for The Marx Brothers
There were five Marx Brothers, but the world conveniently only ever recalls three. Gummo was part of the stage act but never appeared in the films. Zeppo was the straight man and occasional singer.
But it’s the trio of Groucho, Chico and Harpo who people remember. Groucho with his cigars and fake moustache; Chico in his crushed hat, tinkering on the piano and making groan-inducing puns; Harpo the mute with the ridiculous hair, blaring his horn and plucking harpstrings.
Seriously, can you recall what Zeppo looked like?
The family – yes, they really were brothers – was on stage when they were still kids, playing vaudeville shows under the name “Home Again”, then touring the country, slowly evolving their stage personas. In 1928 they signed to Paramount.
Their first film for the studio was little more than a filmed stage show, The Cocoanuts, but the follow-up, Animal Crackers, showed a developing sense of plot.
Both films were made in New York, but they moved to Hollywood for their third effort, Monkey Business.
By the time of Horse Feathers the team had settled into the formula of manic anarchy, double-dealing and generally harmless mayhem that is The Marx Brothers’ hallmark.
Then came the political nonsense of Duck Soup. Groucho is President Rufus T. Firefly of the Republic of Freedonia (“Land of the Spree, Home of the Knave”); Chico and Harpo are secret agents from a neighbouring country; Margaret Dumont is, as usual, a wealthy paramour of Groucho, who rises above his insults with her customary dignified air (years later, Groucho said she only ever managed that because she seldom got the jokes).
It’s not exactly subtle and it’s hardly threatening as political satire, but Mussolini banned it anyway. Mind you, it was the Thirties and it was clear Europe was headed in a bad way (Harpo’s real name was Adolph; he changed it Arthur).
But Duck Soup was not a box-office success, so Paramount dropped them. MGM’s Irving Thalberg wanted them (on salary plus 15% of the gross), and as part of the deal the gang would go on the road to test material in front of a live audience before deciding to include it in any movie. Thalberg was adamant that there should be a love story.
The brothers’ first film for MGM was A Night at the Opera, which made more money than any of their other movies, and is probably their most famous film.
The follow-up, A Day at the Races, did equally well.
Most critics agree that after that there was a decrease in standards. They popped over to RKO for just one film, Room Service, before going back to MGM for At the Circus and Go West. By this time Thalberg was dead and the new honchos at MGM didn’t seem to care as much for the Marxes; Groucho complained about the quality of scripts they were offered.
There were several more films to come, and they are a mixed bag: The Big Store, A Night in Casablanca, Love Happy.
The three worked separately in film and TV – with mixed results: of the three, Groucho probably had the most success on his own.
Bonus: M is also for Aline MacMahon
Aline MacMahon was an exotic-looking, world-weary character actress who appeared in Babbitt, Gold Diggers of 1933, Dragon Seed, and The Man from Laramie. I wrote about MacMahon here.