The Marx brothers were sibling comedians of vaudeville, stage plays, and film. The brothers were Groucho (Julius Henry Marx, 1890-1977), Chico (Leonard Marx, 1887-1961), Harpo (Adolph Arthur Marx, 1888-1964), Zeppo (Herbert Marx, 1901-1979) and Gummo (Milton Marx, 1892-1977).
They got their start in vaudeville. Their uncle Al Shean was half of the vaudeville act Gallagher and Shean, and his success no doubt inspired their mother Minnie Marx to put her boys on the stage. Groucho started in vaudeville in 1905, mostly as a singer. By 1907 he and Gummo were singing together as two-thirds of The Three Nightingales. The next year Harpo became the fourth Nightingale. By 1910 the group was expanded to include their mother and their Aunt Hannah and renamed The Six Mascots. The act evolved from singing with some incidental comedy to a comedy sketch set in a schoolroom, featuring Groucho as the teacher presiding over a classroom which included students Harpo, Gummo and, by 1912, Chico. The last version of the school act, entitled Home Again, was written by Al Shean. By this time the brothers had begun to incorporate their unique brand of comedy into their act and to develop their characters. Groucho began to wear his trademark greasepaint moustache and walk stooped over, Harpo began to wear a red fright wig, carried a small bicycle horn and never spoke, Chico started to talk in a fake Italian accent. By 1924, the brothers' vaudeville act had become successful enough to take them to England and Broadway, where they made it big with I'll Say She Is and The Cocoanuts.
The Marx stage shows became popular just as Hollywood was making the change to sound films. Their first two films were adaptations of Broadway shows: The Cocoanuts (1929) and Animal Crackers (1930). Both were written by George S. Kaufman.
Their third film, Monkey Business (1931), was their first that was not based on a stage production. Horse Feathers (1932) was their most popular film yet, and won them the cover of Time Magazine.
Duck Soup (1932), however, was not a hit, and, following the suggestion of producer Irving Thalberg, the studio decided to alter the formula for the subsequent films. In the rest of their films, their comedy would be interwoven with romantic plots and non-comic musical numbers. Only the first five films represent their genius in its pure form.
The brothers had been talented musically from an early age. Harpo, especially, could play nearly any instrument, including the harp, which he often played on film. Chico was a pianist, and Groucho played the guitar.
A running gag in their films involves Harpo having nearly anything in his coat: for instance, at various points in Horse Feathers Harpo pulls out of his coat: a wooden mallet, a coiled rope, a tie, a poster of a woman in her underwear, a cup of hot coffee, and a candle burning at both ends.
The on-stage personalities of Groucho, Chico and Harpo were said to have been based on their actual traits, though Harpo in real life could talk.
The 1957 TV talk show Tonight! America After Dark, hosted by Jack Lescoulie, may supply the only public footage in which all five brothers appeared.
On January 16, 1977, The Marx Brothers were inducted into the Motion Picture Hall of Fame.