The Marx Brothers – mustachioed, stogie-smoking ring-leader Groucho, chatty, Italian-accented con man Chico, silent skirt-chaser Harpo and, early on, relatively “normal” matinee idol Zeppo – first got their start as a vaudeville comedy act at the turn of the 20th century. They would go on to conquer the Broadway stage before landing in films when “talkies” took off.
Zeppo would drop out of the act after five films, becoming an engineer and a talent agent. But his older siblings would continue their frenzied verbal and visual hilarity on the big screen until 1949, when the medium of television beckoned and competed for eyeballs. Groucho would host a TV version of his radio game show, “You Bet Your Life,” for 11 seasons on NBC and appeared on Dick Cavett’s TV talk show in the late ‘60s. That is when their Marx Brothers’ anarchistic approach to humor and word-play takedowns of hypocrites and stuffy high-society types hit a nerve with the counterculture.
Most of the Marx Brothers’ oeuvre can be found for free on YouTube. In honor of Groucho’s birthday on October 2, here are all 13 of his movies with his brothers, ranked from worst to best, including “Animal Crackers,” “A Night at the Opera” and “Duck Soup.”
13. LOVE HAPPY (1949)
The last film to feature Groucho, Harpo and Chico – and not a moment too soon. What was originally meant as a solo film for Harpo was expanded to help pay off Chico’s gambling debts. Once more, Groucho is a detective – this time, Sam Grunion – who is seeking the missing Royal Romanoff diamonds for years. His pursuit leads him to an acting troupe who is putting on a musical revue. Harpo helps support the performers while stealing groceries from lady shoppers and hiding them in his trench coat when he stumbles upon diamond smugglers. Meanwhile, Chico is itinerant musician Faustino the Great. Much business with fake and real diamonds in sardine cans follows. Groucho is mostly wasted, save for his swift scene opposite a very young Marilyn Monroe as a slinky client. With his eyebrows working overtime, he says, “Come in. Is there anything I can do for you? What a ridiculous statement.” Monroe: “Some men are following me.” Groucho: “Really? I can’t understand why.”
12. A NIGHT IN CASABLANCA (1946)
The brothers spoof wartime dramas as someone keeps killing off the managers of the Hotel Casablanca, namely a Nazi war criminal Ruman) who wants to grab the stolen art pieces that have been hidden at the inn. The latest manager is Ronald Kornblow (Groucho) who is oblivious about the fate of his predecessors. Chico’s Corbacchio appoints himself as his bodyguard alongside Kornblow’s silent valet (Harpo). A femme fatale (Lisette Verea) is sent to romance Kornblow and he gets arrested. The only reason to sit through this subpar string of one-liners arrives early in a sight gag designed by an uncredited Frank Tashlin. The best laugh arrives early when a crazy-eyed Harpo is idly leaning against a structure on a street. A cop yells at him, saying, “What do you think you are doing? Holding up the building?” Harpo nods his head and steps away – and sure enough, it crashes down.
11. THE BIG STORE (1941)
The brothers go wild in a department store after its owner has died. He leaves half to his nephew, a singer (Tony Martin), and half to his sister (Margaret Dumont). The evil store manager seeks to kill both so he can own the store. The heirs hire Groucho’s detective Wolf J. Flywheel to be a floorwalker and bodyguard. There is funny business with various props in the emporium’s bed department and another amusing segment when the Marxes (actually obvious stunt doubles) are chased throughout the store while elevators, stairs, chandeliers, roller skates, and a bike come into play. Groucho also comically breaks the fourth wall at a fashion show, noting, “This is a bright red dress but Technicolor is so expensive.” Harpo, who usually plays his harp at some point, accompanies himself on flute and bass violin with camera trickery.
10. GO WEST (1940)
Flimflam man S. Quentin Quayle (Groucho) heads west on a train and tries to bilk money from two prospector brothers, Joe (Chico) and Rusty (Harpo), he meets at the station. Instead, the siblings swindle him out of everything, including his pants. The rest of the plodding story concerns a pair of villains who try to get a lucrative railroad contract. The crazy ending, however, is worth the wait as Quayle, Rusty and Joe chop up passenger cars to fuel a locomotive.
9. ROOM SERVICE (1938)
This is a rare Marx outing not based on material specifically tailored for the brothers’ strengths and it shows. Gordon Miller is a broke theatrical producer (with the least funny Groucho name ever) whose staff includes director Binelli (Chico) and business manager Englund (Harpo). The plot involves a huge unpaid hotel bill for 22 actors, who hide out in the hotel’s ballroom, a fake measles epidemic and a phony suicide. Based on a Broadway play, the trio has to actually act rather than just doing another variation on their well-known personas. What passes for humor? When a character tells Binelli, “Well, if you fellows don’t mind, I’m going to wash up,” Chico says, “Yeah, go ahead. The rest of us are already washed up.”
8. AT THE CIRCUS (1939)
Goliath, the strongman, and Little Professor Adam, a midget, are in cahoots with a crook who wants to take over the circus. The underhanded performers steal s $10,000 from a boyfriend of Julie (Florence Rice), who does a horse act. Groucho’s attorney J. Cheever Loophole gets involved in retrieving the missing cash. Eventually, a wealthy woman (Margaret Dumont) is tricked into coughing up the money to hire the circus to entertain a gathering while Loophole sends the orchestra that was supposed to play out to sea on a barge. While not up their earlier shenanigans, the movie did provide Groucho with one of his most memorable songs, “Lydia the Tattoo Lady,” written by Yip Yarburg and Harold Arlen (“The Wizard of Oz”). Sample lyrics: “Lydia, oh! Lydia, say have you met Lydia/Oh! Lydia, the tattooed lady/She has eyes that folks adore so/And a torso even more so.”
7. MONKEY BUSINESS (1931)
Aboard an ocean liner sailing to American, four stowaways concealed in barrels labelled “pickled herring” are forced to be tough guys for two feuding gangsters while trying to avoid being found by the crew. That is about all the plot there is, as comedic chaos fills in the rest. The best-known sequence involves a passport stolen from French singer and fellow Paramount star, Maurice Chevalier. All four of the brothers imitate Chevalier’s distinctive vocal intonations and wears his trademark straw hat as they perform “You Brought a New Love to Me.” But silent Harpo pulls off his ruse by hiding a phonograph behind him that plays a recording while he mimes singing. When turntable loses steam, the jig is up.
6. A DAY AT THE RACES (1937)
Grouch is Hugo Z. Hackenbush, a veterinarian who is hired as chief of staff for a sanitarium to please wealthy patron Mrs. Emily Upjohn (Margaret Dumont) who insists animal doctor treats her. The owner of the struggling facility (Maureen O’Sullivan) hopes the patient will make a large donation. Matters grow complicated when her boyfriend (Allan Jones) buys a racehorse named Hi-Hat, but can’t afford feed. That leads to Chico’s famous “tootsie-frootsie” ice cream” scene when Hackenbush is tricked into buying code books in order to discover a betting tip. All ends well when it is finally discovered that Hi-Hat is a jumper and wins a steeplechase race. During the production, studio head Irving Thalberg, who brought the madcap brothers to MGM, died from pneumonia and, as a result, the quality of the three subsequent MGM comedies. There are signs that the formula that sparked their earlier comedic romps already showed signs of getting a bit threadbare here. The most noteworthy exchange is when Ethel Muir‘s Flo insists to Groucho, “Oh, hold me closer! Closer! Closer!” Groucho’s quip: “If I hold you any closer I’ll be in back of you.”
5. THE COCOANUTS (1929)
The first full-length Marx Brothers feature, an early sound film based on one of their Broadway successes, was a big hit in its day. The action takes place in Florida at the Hotel de Cocoanut, a resort hotel, run by Mr. Hammer (Groucho) and his lazy assistant (Zeppo). Chico and Harpo are two crooks who plan to rob guests and fill their empty bags. Mrs. Potter (Margaret Dumont), one of the few paying customers, pushes her daughter (Mary Eaton) to marry into wealth, but she loves the hotel’s clerk. Never mind the woo-some twosome or Irving Berlin musical interludes. The best comedic bit is when Groucho mentions there is a viaduct on a map and Chico, not comprehending, asks, “Why a duck?” and “Why a no chicken?” Frustrated, Groucho replies, “I don’t know why a no chicken. I’m a stranger here myself. All I know is that it’s a viaduct. You try to cross over there a chicken and you will find out why a duck.” A stuffed duck was a recurring mascot on Groucho’s game show in the 1950s, “You Bet Your Life.”
4. HORSE FEATHERS (1932)
Marxist mayhem reigns on a collegiate field as Groucho’s Professor Quincy Adams Wagstaff attempts to recruit pro players to boost his school’s dreadful football team. Instead, he pursues Chico’s iceman Baravelli and Harpo’s Pinky, a part-time dogcatcher. The catch: They have to enroll as students, which ultimately results in a horse-drawn chariot used to get a winning touchdown. Such memorable musical moments include Groucho’s “I’m Against It” and all four brothers singing “Everyone Says I Love You.” My favorite scene is when Wagstaff goes to a speakeasy to find gridiron candidates and hits a roadblock with Chico, who tries to get him to say the password, swordfish. He gives the prof three guesses, and a hint – it’s the name of a fish. The first guess: “Is it Mary?” Chico: “That’s-a no fish. Groucho: “She isn’t? Well, she drinks like a fish.” Also a joy is when Harpo shows that, yes, you can burn a candle at both ends.
3. ANIMAL CRACKERS (1930)
Groucho considered this the best of his movies with his brothers, based on their 1928 Broadway musical. There is a reason for that, since many of their best-known bits over the years were first done here. He leads the charge as noted African explorer Captain Jeffrey T. Spaulding, the man of the hour at party held by a society patron (Margaret Dumont). That leads to two songs, “Hooray for Captain Spaulding” and the odd response, “Hello, I Must Be Going.” Both songs would become enduring themes for Groucho. Chico and Harpo arrive in in the form of musical entertainment as Signor Ravelli and the Professor. A subplot involves confusion over works of art, but the heart of the film is such memorable quips as Groucho’s “One morning I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got in my pajamas, I’ll never know” and “Then, we tried to remove the tusks … but they were embedded so firmly, we couldn’t budge them. Of course, in Alabama the Tusk-a-loosa. But that’s entirely irrelevant to what I was talking about.”
2. A NIGHT AT THE OPERA (1935)
Reduced to a trio, the brothers’ first effort for MGM is probably their most approachable and polished serving of cinema. A case of mistaken identity made by Groucho’s Otis B. Driftwood, a business manager for Margaret Dumont’s rich art patron drives the plot. He recruits the wrong singer, Baroni (Alan Jones), for the New York Opera Company after the singer’s manager, Fiorello (Chico), declares him “the greatest tenor in the world.” There’s romance between Baroni and soprano Rosa (Kitty Carlisle, who became a regular on the game show, “To Tell the Truth”) amid the usual musical interludes. But the comedy hits a high note in one of the most revered sight gags among Marxists: Jones, Harpo and Chico stow away in Groucho’s trunk and climb out in his tiny stateroom on an ocean liner. They immediately demand food. That leads to all manner of people, from a manicurist to the ship’s engineer, jamming into the cramped space. The payoff comes when Dumont opens the door and all the occupants spill out into the hall.
1. DUCK SOUP (1933)
Groucho to an attractive woman: “I could dance with you ‘til the cows come home. On second thought, I’d rather dance with the cows until you came home.” The boys make a mockery of war games as Margaret Dumont’s wealthy Mrs. Teasdale helps Groucho’s Rufus T. Firefly become the new leader of the small and penniless country of Freedonia. An ambassador from Sylvania (Louis Calhern) dispatches a pair of spies, mute Pinky (Harpo) and talky Chicolini (Chico), to dig up dirt on Firefly. Renowned for its climatic battle scenes where Groucho does a series of costume changes, including military uniforms, both Union and Confederate, a British palace guard, a Boy Scout master and a Davy Crockett coonskin cap. Also famous: When Pinky, dressed like Groucho’s Firefly, pretends to be his reflection in a mirror while mimicking his every move. Harpo would re-create the scene with Lucille Ball on her 1950s sitcom, “I Love Lucy”