the marx brothers -- 4/23/21

Today's selection -- from Broadway: The American Musical by Laurence Maslon and Michael Kantor. Groucho, Chico, Harpo, and Zeppo Marx were the toast of the town, superstars of 1920s Broadway and 1930s Hollywood:

"There would seem to have been more than enough insanity in 1920s Manhattan without any­one having to pay for it, but Broadway audiences couldn't get enough of the Marx Brothers. The Marxes began their arduous career in vaudeville in 1907, when Minnie Marx, an indomitable stage mother who would make Ethel Merman's Rose look like a wallflower, put her teenage sons Milton (Gummo) and Julius (Groucho) together with a girl into a singing act called the Three Nightingales; the next year Adolph (Harpo) became the fourth Nightingale. Brother Leonard (Chico) joined the act in 1912, and they quickly -- and mercifully -- turned their talents to antic comedy. Now with brother Herbert (Zeppo) replacing Gummo, the Four Marx Brothers were socko at the Palace in 1915. By 1922, Chico, despite his propensity for gambling, had become the act's manager and decided the time had come for them to go legit -- in other words, to star in an actual revue or musical comedy on Broadway.

"Their Broadway debut was in a piece of hackwork called I'll Say She Is in 1924. It was the first time Broadway critics reviewed them, and the show became a huge hit as influential critic Alexander Woollcott fell in love with Harpo 'in a nice way,' as Groucho would put it years later. The boys were flooded with offers from Broadway produc­ers, including Ziegfeld, but Chico held out again, this time for a first-class musical written expressly for them by real Broadway hands.

"He got the best: George S. Kaufman as librettist and Irving Berlin to write the music and lyrics. The Cocoanuts opened in 1925 and ran for more than a year on Broadway, and longer on the road. Kaufman was pressed into service again, along with co-librettist Morrie Ryskind and the songwriting team of Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby, to write Animal Crackers, which opened in 1928 and became another hit. During its run, the boys were commuting daily to Astoria, Queens, where they were filming a version of The Cocoanuts; eventually they filmed Animal Crackers there, too. Between the financial drain of the Crash and their obvious appeal in sound film, it only made sense for them to ship their brand of craziness out to Hollywood.

"Although Kaufman continued to write for them, he was constantly exasperated by the boys' lack of respect for the written word. Once, while standing in the lobby during a performance of The Cocoanuts, he broke away from a companion with whom he was having a conversation. 'I'm sorry,' said Kaufman when he returned, 'I just thought I heard one of my original lines.'"



Laurence Maslon and Michael Kantor


Broadway: The American Musical


Applause Theatre & Cinema Books


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