The third son of Sam and Minnie Marx grew up to be one of America’s greatest comics, and to be part of one of the most successful comedy acts in American theater. Julius Henry Marx began as a child singer, and with his brothers, was part of a forgettable singing act in vaudeville. During a really bad performance one afternoon, the brothers began ad-libbing jokes to entertain themselves on stage, and discovered that the audience liked them better as comics than as singers. The Marx Brothers were born.
Each of the Marx Brothers created a character that they ended up playing in all of their movies. Groucho, with the greasepaint mustache and eyebrows, scuttling like a lascivious beetle, wisecracked his way into being an American institution. Groucho and his brothers were successful in vaudeville, on Broadway, and in film. As a solo, Groucho went on to radio and TV, with You Bet Your Life.
Groucho, unlike his brothers Harpo and Chico, became Groucho in real life. There are a few stars who create a persona and no matter what role or movie they are in, they are just the same person in a different movie. Bob Hope and Carey Grant are a couple of movie stars that come to mind. Groucho, in his movies, on You Bet Your Life, and in his many guest starring roles, was always Groucho, wise-cracking, insulting, ad-libbing.
The three brothers did zany screwball comedy, with great slapstick routines, played off of stereotypes, used many stereotypes, and even incorporated literary and social commentary in their films (one critic has called Duck Soup the greatest anti-war movie every made). Always, zaniness reigned, and Groucho was the ruling monarch of the prevailing insanity.
In every role, Groucho’s character had a ridiculous name that poked fun at societal pomposity: Rufus P. Firefly, Prof. Wagstaff, Dr. Quackenbush. In Animal Crackers, he was the famous African explorer, Capt. Jeffrey Spaulding. In this clip, Capt. Spaulding gives his high society audience a lecture on his latest expedition, and includes the classic line about shooting an elephant in his pajamas.