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The enduring legacy of the Marx brothers

In the history of comedy, the Marx brothers have established themselves as one of the most iconic performing acts of all time. Routinely cited by critics and scholars as to the apotheosis of American comedy in the 20th century, the Marx brothers have influenced several generations of aspiring artists who have been completely mesmerised by their comedic genius and incendiary wit. As a celebration of their invaluable contributions to the world of comedy, we look back at the extensive legacy of the Marx brothers.

Born in New York City to Jewish immigrants, Chico, Harpo, Groucho, Gummo and Zeppo (a sixth Marx brother passed away in infancy) grew up in an environment that encouraged artistic activity from an early age. Due to their family’s musical background, the brothers experimented with instruments as children. Starting their stage careers with vaudevillian acts, the brothers realised that they had a penchant for comedy when they tried to piss off an unruly audience in Texas with comments like “the jackass is the flower of Tex-ass” but were only met with outrageous laughter.

In their formative years, the Marx brothers tried to find a balance between music and comedy, which they finally managed to achieve by 1924. They developed their stage personas with the help of their uncle Al Shean, settling into routines that would become truly iconic. Groucho became famous for his greasepaint moustache combined with his uncanny ability to come up with witty non-sequiturs with impressive ease. Chico was a crowd favourite, with his delightfully absurd fake Italian accent, which had been a defence mechanism meant to protect him from neighbourhood bullies. Harpo and Zeppo brought range and versatility to the famous act, with many claiming that Zeppo was actually the funniest of them all.

After signing for Paramount, the Marx brothers ventured into the magical world of cinema with early gems like The Cocoanuts and Animal Crackers. Their mastery over the relatively new art form was tremendous. They made increasingly better projects, including Monkey BusinessHorse Feathers, and Duck Soup, which became their most acclaimed work due to later re-evaluations by critics and fans. In the ’60s, it was decided that the accomplished Billy Wilder was going to write and direct a new film starring the Marx brothers. Unfortunately, the project never came to fruition because both Chico and Harpo passed away around that time.

A major part of their legacy is their subversive treatment of “the utter denigration of upper-class values, which were widely believed to have caused all the troubles of the decade in which the brothers achieved their great popularity,” as noted by scholar Richard Schickel. The Marx brothers perfected the art of cinematic comedy by combining the visual elements with the verbal, dazzling the audience with physical gags as well as hilarious wisecracks. All these played an extremely important role in the evolution of American comedy, with references to their work being visible in the films of directors like Woody Allen and Steven Spielberg among others.

“The world is so serious now,” Groucho reflected in an interview with Roger Ebert. “In those days, people used to joke more, they weren’t so serious.” 

The Marx brothers left behind masterpieces like A Night at the Opera, which continue to be seen as some of the greatest comedic achievements despite the constantly changing political climates. From the Monty Python sketches to the paintings of the famous surrealist Salvador Dali as well as the plays of the absurdist writer Eugene Ionesco, they all owe too much to the unparalleled brilliance of the Marx brothers.