The first Marx Brothers movie, Humor Risk was initially released over one hundred years ago in 1921. By then, the comedy group already had significant success as a comedy stage act through the vaudeville scene. With their success in the burgeoning field of movies with sound in them (known initially as “talkies”), the brothers created a comedy group that has been widely recognized as one of the greatest and most influential of the 20th century.
However, their story is far from straightforward. Through a series of strange twists of fate, the same family that helped build the foundation of American movie comedy also produced technology vital to the dropping of the Atomic Bomb at the end of World War II.
Most people know the Marx brothers as the trio of Groucho, Chico, and Harpo. These three brothers had the most distinct characters, both visually and comedically, and achieved the greatest celebrity during their careeres. However, there are two younger brothers who were part of the team: Zeppo and Gummo.
Both brothers missed the early success of the Marx Brothers’ performances by virtue of age, they were too young. While both did participate and appear in movies they already found routes outside of performing by the time they were drafted by their mother to join in the comedy troupe. Zeppo in particular had a significant role as the straight man and romantic lead in many productions. Also, having observed the main cast’s performances, he was able to effectively sub in for them in their live shows if need be.
Unfortunately they never were able to develop distinct characters and quickly faded into the background. By the time the Marx Brothers had established themselves as major acts and household names, both Gummo and Zeppo had found themselves considerable success in other completely separate lines of work.
This is where the Marx Brother’s brush with the Atomic Bomb came to be. Gummo – real name Milton – became a successful agent and businessman. Zeppo – real name Herbert – had worked as a young man as an engineer for Ford Motor Company. Upon moving on from the Marx Brothers, Zeppo found great success with his engineering company. One of his most notable inventions was the “Marman Clamp,” originally designed to keep cargo secure.
This clamp was later used to hold the “Little Boy” atomic bomb before it was dropped on Hiroshima in 1945.
While this particular brush with history was strange, to say the least, the Marx Brothers had numerous unexpected encounters. For example, Zeppo at one point became neighbor and close personal friend to Frank Sinatra. Sinatra and Zeppo’s wife, Barbara Blakeley, ended up having a prolonged affair which was made public to the press. Eventually Blakeley divorced Marx and married Sinatra, becoming the iconic singer’s fourth and final wife.
The many other strange stories of Zeppo and the Marx Brothers show the huge influence they had on both comedy and American celebrity culture, and the length to which they were cultural influences. Perhaps more stories will be worth writing about in the future.