Looking at Hollywood: A Quarter of a Century with the Marx Brothers
by Ed Sullivan
Chicago Tribune October 30, 1938, page G3
When the Marx brothers start on their next screen assignment at M-G-M it will be their ninth picture and their twenty-fifth year in show business. Their career as a big-time vaudeville act started actually in Chicago in 1917. Their uncle, Al Shean (of Gallagher and Shean fame), was playing in Chicago in "Friendly Enemies" at the Woods theatre, and the mad Marxians were playing in small-time vaudeville in and around Chicago. They had twenty people in their act, "Fun in Hi-Skule," and they were getting $900 a week for it. Out of the profits they had rented a house, and when their famous uncle arrived in town he went there to live with the family.
It was Mrs. Marx, herself a mimic of no small ability, who asked Al Shean to write a big-time vaudeville act for his nephews. He did. He penned an act for them and called it "Home Again," with Croucho, Harpo, Chico, and Gummo playing the four roles. They introduced it at Freeport, Ill., in 1917, and Shean's understanding of the public demand was grounded in such fine showmanship that they became a big-time vaudeville act almost overnight. Three weeks later they were booked into the famous Palace theater at New York and from then on their progress was continuous.
Illinois figured importantly in the entire career of the Marx family. It was at Decatur, Ill. that they got the nicknames that have remained as a trade label. Art Fisher, a flip-cracking monologist, was playing on the bill with the, and he baptized them. The serious member of the Marx family became Groucho. Because a second brother played the harp, Fisher called him Harpo. Because a third was always chasing the girls (in those days they called 'em chickens), Fisher dubbed him Chico. The fourth had a mania for wearing rubbers. Fisher promptly corrupted "gum shoes" to Gummo. Gummo, however, was called to war, and the Marxes enlisted the fifth brother and christened him Zeppo.
It was as a result of their vaudeville experiences and successes that the Marx brothers cracked into the musical comedy field. For fifty-five weeks they had played all over the country in vaudeville. They knew every launch that the act contained, and it was this act which was the backbone of "I'll Say She Is," the musical comedy that took them into the Casino theater on Broadway.
I doubt that the history of Broadway offers and parallel to that particular opening night. From the time that the curtains went up it was a spectacular success. The next day's reviews were ecstatic. So were the Marx brothers.
Just as the Marx brothers have had a permanent label with their odd names, so also have they been labeled by the harp, the piano, and Groucho's painted desert of a mustache. Groucho's mustache came out of the vaudeville incubator. They were playing the Fifth Avenue theater in New York, and he had tarried too long over dinner. As a result, when he got back to the theater it was too late for him to attach the hair mustache he used as a prop. Hastily he applied a swipe of cork and powder to his upper lip and rushed to the stage. He had feared that the improvised mustache would hurt his laughs, but to his amazement the laughs came at the accustomed places. The manager of the theater, however, rushed backstage and proceeded to raise the roof. "I want you to wear the same mustache that you wore when I caught your act at the Palace," he stormed. Groucho brushed him off and from that time on wore the mustache which is a much a part of him as his comedy lines.
What comedy lines have won the biggest laughs for the Marxes? I put the question to Groucho. "The biggest laugh we ever got came, curiously enough, from an ad lib line that on the face of it wasn't funny," he said. "Chico was playing 'Tiptoe Through the Tulips' at the piano, and I turned to the audience and commented, "My brother is now playing "Slipshod Through the Cowslips,"' When I said it, I felt ashamed of the bad pun. To my amazement, the audience screamed and kept on laughing for several minutes. Still not believing it was a particularly funny line, I tried it again at the matinee next day. The response was identical. I never got a bigger laugh than that, and I still don't think it is funny."
Of all the personages in Hollywood there are few who have the quality that attaches to Groucho. He's a grand person -- warmly sympathetic, considerate, contemptuous of any type of hypocrisy. He is an avid reader. He is retiring almost to the point of shyness. His whole life is centered in his family and his friends. He is at his best as a friend when some one is in trouble.
The youngsters of Hollywood can always appeal to him for advice or assistance. His son Arthur is the apple of dad's eye. The youngster is one of the best tennis players among the coast juveniles, and Groucho beams his pride when Arthur wins a tournament. At first the tennis officials used to list the boy as Groucho Marx Jr. in the entry lists. The father stopped it. "The boy has his own individuality," he pointed out. "Don't saddle him with my name. I'd rather be known as the father of Arthur Marx."
Chico is the happy-go-lucky member of the Marx trio. He will bet on anything, and he'd rather discuss sports than anything else. There are few fighters or baseball players or jockies that Chico doesn't know, and few championship ringsides that haven't found him among those present. Additionally, he is a fine card player. Harpo inclines more to Groucho's seriousness and is also a great card player. Which Chico and Harpo are in a bridge game there are few Hollywood teams that can withstand them.
In their twenty-fifth year the Marxes are looking forward to at least three more active years. Their present contract calls for three M-G-M pictures spread over a five-year span. Their latest picture, "Room Service," is rolling up a huge gross.
© 1938 Chicago Tribune