Groucho Marx : biography
After a few unsuccessful stabs at entry-level office work and other jobs suitable for adolescents, Julius took to the stage as a boy singer in 1905. Though he reputedly claimed that as a vaudevillian he was "hopelessly average," it was merely a wisecrack. By 1909, Minnie Marx successfully managed to assemble her sons into a low-quality vaudeville singing group. Billed as "The Four Nightingales", Julius, Milton (Gummo Marx), Arthur (from 1911, originally Adolph; Harpo Marx), and another boy singer, Lou Levy, traveled the U.S. vaudeville circuits to little fanfare. After exhausting their prospects in the East, the family moved to La Grange, Illinois, to play the Midwest.
An early photo of the Marx brothers with their parents in New York City, 1915. From left to right: Groucho, Gummo, Minnie (mother), Zeppo, Frenchie (father), Chico, and Harpo.
After a particularly dispiriting performance in Nacogdoches, Texas, Julius, Milton, and Arthur began cracking jokes onstage for their own amusement. Much to their surprise, the audience liked them better as comedians than as singers. They modified the then-popular Gus Edwards comedy skit "School Days" and renamed it "Fun In Hi Skule". The Marx Brothers would perform variations on this routine for the next seven years.
For a time in vaudeville all the brothers performed using ethnic accents. Leonard, the oldest, developed the Italian accent he used as Chico Marx to convince some roving bullies that he was Italian, not Jewish. Arthur, the next oldest, donned a curly red wig and became "Patsy Brannigan", a stereotypical Irish character. His discomfort speaking on stage led to his uncle Al Shean’s suggestion that he stop speaking altogether and play the role in mime. Julius Marx’s character from "Fun In Hi Skule" was an ethnic German, so Julius played him with a German accent. After the sinking of the RMS Lusitania in 1915, public anti-German sentiment was widespread, and Marx’s German character was booed, so he quickly dropped the accent and developed the fast-talking wise-guy character that became his trademark.
The Marx Brothers became the biggest comedic stars of the Palace Theatre, which billed itself as the "Valhalla of Vaudeville". Brother Chico’s deal-making skills resulted in three hit plays on Broadway. No comedy routine had ever infected the Broadway circuit.
All of this predated their Hollywood career. By the time the Marxes made their first movie, they were major stars with sharply honed skills, and when Groucho was relaunched to stardom on You Bet Your Life, he had already been performing successfully for half a century.
Their first movie was a silent film made in 1921 that was never released, and is believed to have been destroyed at the time. A decade later, the team made some of their Broadway hits into movies, including The Cocoanuts and Animal Crackers. Other successful films were Monkey Business, Horse Feathers, Duck Soup, and A Night at the Opera. One quip from Marx concerned his response to Sam Wood, the director of A Night at the Opera. Furious with the Marx Brothers’ ad-libs and antics on the set, Wood yelled in disgust: "You can’t make an actor out of clay." Groucho responded, "Nor a director out of Wood."
Marx worked as a radio comedian and show host. One of his earliest stints was in a short-lived series in 1932, Flywheel, Shyster, and Flywheel, co-starring Chico. Most of the scripts and discs were thought to have been destroyed, but all but one of the scripts were found in 1988 in the Library of Congress.
In 1947, Marx was chosen to host a radio quiz program, You Bet Your Life, broadcast by ABC and then CBS, before moving over to NBC radio and television in 1950. Filmed before a live audience, the television show consisted of Marx interviewing the contestants and ad libbing jokes, before playing a brief quiz. The show was responsible for the phrases "Say the secret woid [word] and divide $100" (that is, each contestant would get $50); and "Who’s buried in Grant’s Tomb?" or "What color is the White House?" (asked when Marx felt sorry for a contestant who had not won anything). It ran for eleven years on television.