When the four Marx Brothers became an overnight sensation on Broadway in I'll Say She Is in 1924, they had already spent 20 years in show business. Their uncle, character actor Al Shean (of Gallagher and Shean), helped them get started in the business, spurred on by their mother Minnie. The boys toured the vaudeville circuits, first as singers and eventually as comedians, until they slowly improved enough to make it to Broadway. Ultimately, the Marx Brothers revolutionized American comedy with their anarchistic, faster-than-lightning, anything-goes approach.
By the time of their first film, The Cocoanuts, in 1929 -- which was basically a filmed version of their second Broadway hit -- brother Gummo (Milton Marx, 1897-1977) had retired from the act and been replaced by the baby, Zeppo (Herbert Marx, 1901-1979). Ultimately, Zeppo retired from performing as well, leaving the three Marx Brothers best known today: Chico (Leonard Marx, 1886-1961), Harpo (Adolph Arthur Marx, 1888-1964), and the one and only Groucho (Julius Henry Marx, 1890-1977). Each of these three had his own strong screen persona: Chico was the Italian who mangled the English language and played the piano; Harpo never spoke, chased blondes, created general mayhem, and played the harp; Groucho, with his grease paint mustache and tilted walk, was a fast-talking wisecracker often on the dubious side of the law or morality.
The brothers could be just as wild offscreen as they were on, and tended to create chaos wherever they went. Their first five films -- The Cocoanuts; Animal Crackers (1930), based upon their third Broadway hit; Monkey Business (1931); Horse Feathers (1932); and Duck Soup (1933) -- all for Paramount, were particularly anti-social and anti-establishment, which made them well-suited to the mood of the country in the early years of the Depression. By 1935, they were working for Irving Thalberg at MGM (thanks to Chico, who played bridge with the producer and had worked out the deal). Thalberg insisted on better plot structure and romantic subplots, which made the brothers more popular in their day but, in retrospect, detracted from the inspired anarchy of their earlier comedies. After the first two MGM films, A Night at the Opera (1935) and A Day at the Races (1937), Thalberg died, and the quality of their films began a descent from which they never recovered, culminating in the mostly pathetic Love Happy (1949). The Marx Brothers themselves flourished, however. Even Gummo and Zeppo, who had quit performing years earlier, developed financially successful, albeit tangential, careers in show business. Chico formed his own band in 1942, which included a very young Mel Torme. Harpo made numerous comedy/concert tours, including an early trip to Russia.
Numerous books have been written about the Marx Brothers' often turbulent personal lives and their zany comedies. Their influence has been so widespread that many Marx Brothers routines -- particularly Groucho's -- have slipped into the American vernacular ("I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got into my pajamas, I'll never know"). The character of Hawkeye Pierce on M*A*S*H was strongly influenced by Grouchos screen persona, and the role of Banjo in George S. Kaufman's The Man Who Came to Dinner (1941) was based on Harpo.