Happy Birthday, Chico Marx!

Mar 22, 2017

Born 130 years ago today was Leonard "Chico" Marx, the piano-playing "Italian" Marx Brother who uttered one of the most famous lines in film history:

"You can't fool me! There ain't no Sanity Claus."

That was in their classic film "A Night at the Opera" (1935) when Chico and brother Groucho negotiated a contract. They disagreed about "the party of the first part," particularly the "first part of the party of the first part." They tore up most sections of the document, until they got down to a paragraph saying parties must be "in their right mind, or the entire agreement is automatically nullified… That's in every contract. That's what they call a sanity clause," Groucho tried to explain.

Harpo (from left), Zeppo, Chico, Groucho and Gummo at "The Tonight Show" in late 1950s or early 1960s.
Credit NBC

Chico was born on March 22, 1887, the oldest of the five brothers from New York City. Next came Adolph (Harpo, the silent one) in 1888; Julius (Groucho, the wise guy) in 1890; Milton (Gummo, a theatrical agent) in 1897; and Herbert (Zeppo, who appeared in the first few films as a straight man) in 1901.

Chico played the stereotype ignorant Italian immigrant, usually as Groucho's foil. Groucho was best known, but Chico was just as funny, and gave Groucho the best shot at being Groucho.  

"Well, who you gonna believe, me or your own eyes?"

In their first movie, "The Cocoanuts? (1929), Groucho pointed to a viaduct on a Florida map.

From top: Chico, Harpo, Groucho and Zeppo
Credit Wikipedia

"Why a duck? Why a duck? Why a no chicken?"

In "A Night At The Opera," Groucho told Chico to scram: "Get outta here before I get arrested." To which Chico replied:

"Nah, I'd like to stay and see that!"

In most of their films, Chico played piano and Harpo played the harp. In one "Horse Feathers" (1932) scene, he taught a piano lesson to Thelma Todd, who boasted about her falsetto voice.

"That's a funny. My last pupil, she had a false setta teeth."

Although known as "Chico," Leonard's nickname originally was pronounced "Chicko" because of his pursuit of women. Back then he was what they called a "chicken chaser,” slang for a guy who loved women. He also was a gambler. After Chico died in 1961, at 74, Groucho said some of their last films were made to keep Chico in cash. He had filed for bankruptcy before their filmed "A Night In Casablanca" (1946).

When Chico's character was on trial for treason in "Duck Soup" (1933) there was this exchange:

Chico (left), Harpo and Groucho with director Sam Wood during a break in filming "A Day At The Races" (1937).
Credit MGM

Judge:  "When were you born?"

"I don't remember. I was just a little baby."

Judge: "That kind of testimony we can eliminate."

"That's fine. I'll take some."

First Judge: "You'll take what?"

"Eliminate. A nice, cold glassa lemonade."

Groucho: "Chicolini here may talk like an idiot, and look like an idiot, but don't let that fool you. He really is an idiot…. I suggest that we give him ten years in Levenworth, or eleven years in Twelveworth!"

"I'll tell you what I do...I'll take five and ten in Woolworth!"

I'll close this with a clip from "Horsefeathers," when Chico refuses to let Groucho into a speakeasy without giving the password "Swordfish." It's one of their funniest bits. (Who you gonna believe, me or your own eyes?) Thanks for a lifetime of laughs, Chico!