Although Groucho Marx was the third-oldest son of "stage mama" Minnie Marx, he was the first to take the plunge into show business. With his mother's blessing, the 14-year-old Marx took a job as a boy soprano with a group called the LeRoy Trio. This first engagement was nearly his last when, while on tour, he was stranded in Colorado and had to work his way back home. Marx was willing to chuck the theater and pursue his dream of becoming a doctor, but the undaunted Minnie organized Groucho, his younger brother Gummo, and a less than talented girl named Mabel O'Donnell into a vaudeville act called The Three Nightingales. Before long, Groucho's older brothers Chico and Harpo joined the act, which, by 1910, had metamorphosed into The Six Mascots (Minnie and the boy's Aunt Hannah rounded out the sextet). Fed up with indifferent audiences, Groucho began throwing jokes and insults into the act, directly addressing the crowd in as hilariously nasty a manner as possible. The audience loved it, and the four Marx Brothers eventually became a comedy team.
Through the many incarnations of their vaudeville act, the characters remained the same: Groucho, the mustached, cigar-chomping leader of the foursome, alternately dispensing humorous invectives and acting as exasperated straight man for his brothers' antics; Chico, the monumentally stupid, pun-happy Italian; Harpo, the non-speaking, whirling dervish; and Gummo (later replaced by Zeppo), the hopelessly lost straight man. During the run of their vaudeville sketch Home Again, Groucho was unable to find his prop mustache and rapidly painted one on with greasepaint -- which is how he would appear with his brothers ever afterward, despite efforts by certain film directors to make his hirsute adornment look realistic. After managing to offend several powerful vaudeville magnates, the Marx Brothers accepted work with a Broadway-bound "tab" show, I'll Say She Is. The play scored a surprise hit when it opened in 1924, and the brothers became the toast of Broadway. They followed this success with 1925's The Cocoanuts, in which playwrights George Kaufman and Morris Ryskind refined Groucho's character into the combination con man/perpetual wisecracker that he would portray until the team dissolved. The Cocoanuts was also the first time Groucho appeared with his future perennial foil and straight woman Margaret Dumont. Animal Crackers, which opened in 1928, cast Groucho as fraudulent African explorer Capt. Geoffrey T. Spaulding, and introduced his lifelong signature tune, the Bert Kalmar/Harry Ruby classic "Hooray for Captain Spaulding." Both Cocoanuts and Animal Crackers were made into early talkies, prompting Paramount to invite the Brothers to Hollywood for a group of comedies written specifically for the screen. Monkey Business (1931), Horse Feathers (1932), and Duck Soup (1933) are now acknowledged classics, but box-office receipts dropped off with each successive feature, and, by 1934, the Marx Brothers were considered washed up in Hollywood. Groucho was only mildly put out; professional inactivity gave him time to commiserate with the writers and novelists who comprised his circle of friends. He always considered himself a writer first and comedian second, and, over the years, published several witty books and articles. (He was gratified in the '60s when his letters to and from friends were installed in the Library of Congress -- quite an accomplishment for a man who never finished grade school.)
The Marx Brothers were given a second chance in movies by MGM producer Irving Thalberg, who lavished a great deal of time, money, and energy on what many consider the team's best film, A Night at the Opera (1935). The normally iconoclastic Groucho remained an admirer of Thalberg for the rest of his life, noting that he lost all interest in filmmaking after the producer died in 1936. The Marx Brothers continued making films until 1941, principally to bail out the eternally broke Chico. Retired again from films in 1941, Groucho kept busy with occasional radio guest star appearances and a stint with the Hollywood Victory Caravan. Despite his seeming insouciance, Groucho loved performing and was disheartened that none of his radio series in the mid-'40s were successful. (Nor was the Marx Brothers' 1946 comeback film A Night in Casablanca.) When producer/writer John Guedel approached him in 1947 to host a radio quiz show called You Bet Your Life, Groucho initially refused, not wanting another failure on his resume. But he accepted the job when assured that, instead of being confined to a banal script or his worn-out screen character, he could be himself, ad-libbing to his heart's content with the contestants. You Bet Your Life was a rousing success on both radio (1947-1956) and television (1950-1961 on NBC), winning high ratings and several Emmy awards in the process. Except for an occasional reunion with his brothers (the 1949 film Love Happy, the 1959 TV special The Incredible Jewel Robbery), Groucho became a solo performer for the remainder of his career.
During the '50s, Marx made occasional stage appearances in Time for Elizabeth, a play he co-wrote with his friend Harry Kurnitz; this slight piece was committed to film as a 1964 installment of Bob Hope Presents the Chrysler Theatre, and in which the comedian looked ill at ease playing an everyman browbeaten by his boss. Working less frequently in the late '60s, Marx returned to the limelight in the early '70s when his old films were rediscovered by young antiestablishment types of the era, who revelled in his willingness to deflate authority and attack any and all sacred cows. By this time, Marx's health had been weakened by a stroke, but through the encouragement (some say prodding) of his secretary/companion Erin Fleming, he returned to active performing with TV guest appearances and a 1972 sold-out appearance at Carnegie Hall. And though he seemed very frail and aphasic in his latter-day performances, his fans couldn't get enough of him. In 1974, with Fleming at his side, Marx accepted a special Oscar. Ironically, it was the increasing influence of Fleming, which some observers insisted gave the octogenarian a new lease on life, that caused him the greatest amount of difficulty in his final years, resulting in the estrangement of his children and many of his oldest friends. In the midst of a heated battle between the Marx family and Fleming over the disposition of his estate, Groucho Marx died in 1977 at the age of 86. ~ Hal Erickson, Rovi