Success did not come overnight for the Marx Brothers. Their second Broadway show, The Cocoanuts, a madcap romp of 1925 that established them as major entertainers, followed years on the vaudeville circuit. At the time, Leonard, Adolph, Julius, and Herbert Marx (Chico, Harpo, Groucho, and Zeppo) were veteran performers; all except Zeppo, who was much the youngest, were in their middle or late thirties. The other brother, Milton (Gummo), never comfortable on stage, had already gone into business.
Simon Marrix, their father, had emigrated from Alsace-Lorraine to New York City in 1881. He met Minnie Schoenberg, from another immigrant family, married her, became Sam Marx, and settled into a tailoring shop in the lower East Side, where so many poor but later thriving immigrants lived in the final decades of the nineteenth century. Simon was an unambitious man whose main achievement was fluency in French, German, and Yiddish. Because of Minnie, however, his children experienced little or no life in the ghetto, for she soon guided Sam and a growing family of boys north to a series of temporary apartments until she finally found a small but comfortable flat on East Ninety-third Street.
The mild-mannered Sam influenced his sons in no important way; Minnie did. Her children would always sing her praises as the instigator of their success. She, recognizing some signs of musical and comic talent in her sons and understanding that show business offered opportunities for young men of limited financial and educational resources, pushed them in that direction. Her brother Adolph, as Al Shean, had already established himself as a member of a popular group called the Manhattan Comedy Four. He would go on to greater fame as half of the famous vaudeville team of Gallagher and Shean.
By the time of The Cocoanuts, the brothers had firmly established the personae that made them instantly recognizable to audiences (though, ironically, much less recognizable off stage): Chico’s floppy hat, pseudo-Italian dialect, and flashy piano style; Harpo’s red wig, penchant for outrageous mime, and skill on the harp; and Groucho’s painted moustache, bent-legged walk, and rapier wit. Zeppo, physically attractive but a more entertaing man off stage than on, served normally as a straight man. Animal Crackers (1929) followed, and when both shows were translated to the screen in the early 1930’s, the Marx Brothers made captives of audiences all over America.
Beginning with Animal Crackers, reviewers compared the Marx Brothers’ nonsense to that of Lewis Carroll. A British critic observed that Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) was, in comparison, “a serious book of reference.” In the 1933 film Duck Soup, to Kanfer one of “the classics of political satire,” Groucho plays the leader of the mythical nation of Freedonia. It remained, however, for critics of the Vietnam era to catch the trenchancy of such thrusts as Groucho’s explanation that he cannot avoid a threatened war because he has “already paid a month’s rent on the battlefield.”
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and its complement, Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There (1871), as students of literature have long recognized, do constitute a serious work, and in much the same manner as Duck Soup. Both ridicule humans’ boundless capacity for stubbornly contravening the logic of which human minds are capable. Both are replete with riddles, wordplay, and mind games generally. Both even foster illusion through the use of looking glasses. There are significant differences between the characters of Alice and Rufus T. Firefly, Groucho’s character in Duck Soup. One pertains to the roles of the protagonists. Alice, a child, remains the puzzled victim of all the illogic and perversity that envelops her; Firefly is the perpetrator of the nonsense. As a result, Lewis Carroll’s satire ridicules the human condition generally, while Duck Soup focuses caustically on the political follies of the 1930’s. Kanfer credits Martin Gardner for his pioneering 1970 Ph.D. dissertation on the Marx Brothers films as social criticism. He might have noted that the same man was responsible for The Annotated Alice (1960), which makes clear why Lewis Carroll’s masterpiece is not the mere children’s book it is often taken to be by those who have not read it carefully.
Groucho was a much more complex man than his brothers. While Chico contented himself by compulsively gambling away his money and Harpo...
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