The Marx Brothers were an American family comedy act that was successful in vaudeville, Broadway, and motion pictures from 1905 to 1949. Five of the Marx Brothers' 13 feature films were selected by the American Film Institute (AFI) as among the top 100 comedy films, with two of them (Duck Soup and A Night at the Opera) in the top 12. They are widely considered by critics, scholars, and fans to be among the greatest and most influential comedians of the 20th century. The brothers were included in AFI's 100 Years...100 Stars list of the 25 greatest male stars of Classic Hollywood cinema, the only performers to be inducted collectively.
The group are almost universally known today by their stage names: Chico, Harpo, Groucho, Gummo, and Zeppo. The core of the act was the three elder brothers: Chico, Harpo, and Groucho, each of whom developed a highly distinctive stage persona. Gummo was not in any of the movies; Zeppo appeared in the first five films, usually as a "straight man". The performing lives of the brothers were brought about by their mother Minnie Marx, who also acted as their manager.
Marx Brothers in "Hail! Hail!"
In mid-1934, following the mixed reception to their film Duck Soup, the Marx Brothers visited Nacogdoches, Texas. While there, they were transported back through time to December 15, 1826, on the eve of the Fredonian Rebellion. While trapped, they inadvertently rewrote history for the worse.
In 1934, the Marx Brothers found themselves at a career crossroads. Their most recent film Duck Soup, had not done as well as their previous films. Consequently, Paramount Studios had refused to renew their contract. At ends, they decided to go to New Orleans via the Sunset Limited.
After passing a few hours with Bridge, drinks, and dinner, the brothers were astonished by the torrential rains pounding Texas. Their porter, Oscar, informed them that the rains washed out the bridge between Houston and Beaumont, and the train would now have to detour through Nacogdoches for re-coaling before continuing east on a different route. The brothers didn't actually mind this; in 1912, Julius, Leonard, and Arthur (along with Milton, who was not present) had played Nacogdoches when they were a struggling song-and-dance act. Most of their audience ran out in the middle of the show to view a runaway mule. Irate, Julius began to insult the audience who remained. However, the audience misunderstood, and thought Julius was simply doing a comedy bit, and began laughing hard. The Marx Brothers realized they were better comics than song-and-dance men, and so adopted their new act.
However, Nacogdoches also tied into Duck Soup, although only Julius remembered the connection: Nacogdoches had been home to the failed Republic of Fredonia in December 1826-January, 1827, and the Marx Brothers had used the name "Freedonia" for the fictional country featured in the film.
When the train arrived in Nacogdoches, the brothers learned that the station wasn't ready with the new coal. They decided to go downtown and look at the Old Opera House where they'd first hit it big. After alerting Oscar to their plans, the four headed out into the town.
They were astonished by the signs of the Great Depression in the town. As they approached the Opera House, the rains picked up again, as did the lightning and thunder. The four were struck by lightning, but weren't killed, although Julius felt for a split second as if he were floating in space. When the sensation ended, he realized he and his brothers were alive, but that they were no longer standing in downtown Nacogdoches. The buildings, including the Opera House, were all gone, the rain was now quite cold, and the asphalt paving the streets had vanished. The only building they could see now plainly did not have electricity, and the air stank of human waste.
For lack of a better idea, Herbert suggested they go into the building for a phone. Neither Julius nor Arthur expected to find one. As they approached, Julius reflected on their situation, and was reminded of the works of H.G. Wells. He took note of the fact that the building was an adobe. After struggling some with the door, the four made it inside and found themselves in a tavern. Julius quickly ordered four whiskeys with the change he had in his pocket. Once the barkeep confirmed the change was silver, he poured them their drinks. When they made a toast of "L'chaim", they were approached by a younger man who spoke Yiddish to them.
The younger man introduced himself as Adolphus Sterne, and asked them what brought them to Nacogdoches, confirming to Julius what he'd begun to fear. Julius followed up asking Sterne for the date, who revealed it was December 15, 1826. Arthur began to remember the importance of the date, but Julius had already done so, singing the national anthem of "Freedonia", the fictional setting of Duck Soup. Sterne was horrified, and demanded that the strangers tell him how they knew about "Fredonia", but Julius was evasive with his answer. Nervous, Sterne invited the four to his home for supper. Julius realized that it would be more dangerous not to, and a quick glance at this brothers seemed to confirm that they agreed with him.
The group arrived to find a colored man cooking. He too spoke Yiddish, and greeted Sterne as "master". Julius realized that the man, Lemuel, was Sterne's slave, and had to make certain uncomfortable mental adjustments. After they ate (Julius couldn't help but notice that Lemuel was served last), Sterne sent Lemuel to the tavern, and then pulled a flintlock pistol on the Marx Brothers and demanded to know what they knew about Fredonia.
Julius, again speaking for the group, quickly calmed Sterne down by pointing out that the flintlock only had one shot, and that there were four brothers. Julius further astonished Sterne with the knowledge that Sterne had already smuggled in guns for Haden Edwards and the rebellion in barrels of coffee beans. When Sterne once again insisted that if these strangers knew, then the local Mexican political leaders would almost certainly find out. Julius gave Sterne a fifty-cent piece with the date of 1928. Sterne initially protested that the date was an error, but Julius assured him it was correct, and that he and his brothers were from 1934. After some thinking, Sterne decided to believe them.
Julius confirmed that the the Fredonian Republic was doomed, although he couldn't recall Sterne's fate. The idealistic Sterne was outraged. He argued that since the four knew how it failed, they could help the Fredonia Rebellion succeed. Despite having only the most limited knowledge of Fredonia, Julius, seeing no other options, agreed, much to the horror of his brothers.
The next day, the Marx Brothers began trying to figure out how to help the Fredonian cause. First, Sterne confirmed that Haden Edwards and his men were coming to town that day to seize the Old Stone Fort. Sterne and the rebel leaders expected that the local Cherokee and other American settlers would aid the rebellion. Julius informed Sterne that, in his history, the Cherokee did nothing and the other settlers backed the Mexican government. Leonard argued that the best course of action was to convince all sides that Haden Edwards was actually stronger than he was. To that end, Arthur suggested that if they got the Cherokee to like them, the Cherokee might then trust and support the rebellion. Naturally he suggested comedy. At that, he and Julius went into the mirror routine from Duck Soup to prove their point. Both Sterne and Lemuel were amused, and Sterne admitted that the scheme wouldn't hurt.
Just then, Haden Edwards and his men arrived. The group went out to watch them seize the Old Stone Fort after a short gun battle. Julius was somewhat amused by their patchwork appearance and their flag. While Sterne was enthusiastic about the victory, Julius was more cautious. Not long after, Sterne brought the brothers to Edwards and told him who they were. Julius promised to help Fredonia as much as possible, and told Edwards what happened in the future. Edwards accepted the Marx Brothers' offer of help, promising them that they'd never want for anything if they succeeded, and promising to murder each of them with his bare hands if they deceived him.
The brothers and Sterne rode out to meet with Cherokee leaders Richard Fields and John Dunn Hunter. Fields had very little Cherokee blood, and Hunter had none at all. But both were well integrated into Cherokee culture and the white man's ways, and so the Cherokee followed them. Fields greeted them when they arrived, and Sterne explained who the Marx Brothers were and why they were there to meet. Fields agreed to listen and summoned Hunter.
The group ate a supper of grits and armadillo before talks began. Once again, Julius explained that he and his brothers were from 1934 and offered coins to prove it. A full-blooded Cherokee named Eightkiller also looked at the coins. All saw dates from the 1920s, and Eightkiller observed the "clock" on Julius' wrist as being far more advanced than anything he'd ever seen. Based on this, the Cherokee were tentatively convinced the Marx Brothers were telling the truth. Julius then explained that in the Marx Brothers' historical record, the Mexicans convinced the Cherokee not to back Fredonia, and the rebellion failed. He further explained that, despite the Cherokees' change of heart, the Mexican government still mistrusted them, and that Fields and Hunter were hanged in the spring of 1827 as a result. Julius withheld the fact that the Cherokee people themselves did the hanging. Fields reasoned that if they threw in with Fredonia, they had to go all the way. Eightkiller pointed out that they could also just flat out refuse to help now, as well. The Cherokee began discussing in their own language their next course of action.
In order to sway the Cherokee, Sterne explained the white and red strips of the Fredonia flag symbolized whites and Indians working together. In response, the Marx Brothers sang the Freedonia anthem from Duck Soup. The Cherokee weren't wholly receptive to these idealistic exclamations. When Eightkiller asked what the best course of action was, Julius simply stated that sitting back as they had in the original timeline didn't work, but he made no guarantees as to what would happen if they backed Fredonia all the way. While the Cherokee had reservations about trusting Haden Edwards, they realized that they didn't really trust the Mexicans either, and so opted to back Fredonia, even chanting "Hail! Hail! Fredonia!".
The group stayed with the Cherokee for the next several days. Warriors started joining the band. On Christmas Day (a day even the Jewish Marx brothers wistfully observed), word came that the Mexican envoy, Peter Ellis Bean was on his way to convince the Cherokee to stay away from Fredonia. Fields reiterated his resolve to ignore Bean given his and Hunter's fate. Sterne explained to the Marx brothers that Bean was an American filibuster who was now a Mexican citizen, with a wife on either side of the border.
Bean arrived on December 27. He'd received information about the Marx brothers, and was immediately dismissive of them. Julius began goading Bean in response, reciting the playground song "Beans, Beans, the Musical Fruit". While it didn't exist in 1826 yet, every English-speaker quickly understood the gist. For good measure, Eightkiller even translated for some of the Cherokee warriors present. One made a fart-noise with his mouth. Bean also understood Cherokee, and this act made him even angrier. Despite warnings from Herbert, Julius continued to taunt Bean in a manner similar Rufus T. Firefly, his character in Duck Soup. However, Julius took things too far by slapping Bean in the face. Bean immediately declared that Julius had challenged him to a duel. As the challenged party, Bean selected pistols, and declared the duel would be at sunup the next day.
Sterne agreed to be Julius' second, and even provided him a pistol. For the rest of the evening, Julius and his brothers debated his options. Leonard suggested they flee, but Julius reminded him that they had nowhere to go. He also pointed out that Fields, Hunter, and even Haden Edwards would kill him once they found him. So despite, everyone's objections, he resolved to go through with the duel.
After a relatively sleepless night, Julius and Sterne went out to meet Bean. Sterne provided Julius the pistol, which he loaded and prime with great care. Bean and Julius agreed to the final rules of ten paces, and one shot only. As the sun came up, the duel commenced.
Luck was on Julius' side, although Sterne's care with the pistol probably helped. Bean turned and aimed faster, but his gun misfired. Julius took aim at Bean's chest and fired. His gun discharged, hitting Bean in the chest. The wound was not immediately fatal, and Bean took an hour and a half to die. While Sterne congratulated Julius, Julius vomited in horror, having never killed a man before. Over the course of Bean's slow death, Julius was able to come to grips with the duel to some extent. Bean's death insured that the Cherokee would stay in the Fredonian camp, as the Mexican government would not believe that the Cherokee were blameless. Richard Fields announced that the warriors would head to Nacogdoches after they buried Bean..
With the Cherokee secured and Bean dead, Sterne and the Marx brothers realized they now needed to get Stephen F. Austin's support. In mid-January, the five rode to San Antonio to meet with him. They were about half-way to San Antonio when they ran into the Mexican-Texan army encampment. Sterne decided to go into the camp, confident that he could convince Austin to meet with them. He slipped off, and the Marx brothers waited in the dark. Hours later, Sterne returned and cheerfully informed them that Austin had heard about the Marx brothers, and did want to meet them. Austin was also more inclined towards Fredonia than Sterne had expected.
The next morning, disguised as stragglers, they were able to find Austin. He was particularly interested in Julius since he killed Bean. When he asked for more proof of the Marx brothers' identity, Julius showed Austin his wristwatch, and Austin agreed to listen to what Julius had to say. Julius admitted he didn't know what would happen if Austin sided with Fredonia, but that because he didn't in the world that the Marx brothers came from, Fredonia failed. Julius further described the coming Texas Revolution in 1835, the American Civil War, and the end of slavery. Austin was sickened by the prospect of "n-gger equality". Austin resolved that the future Julius described should not come to pass, and so decided to back Fredonia, even though he had little use for Haden Edwards.
At Julius' suggestion, Austin decided to wait until the night to attack the Mexicans. While The Texans outnumbered the Mexicans, the Mexicans had more canons and gunpowder. Austin realized that a night attack would removed the Mexicans' advantage. For the rest of the day, Austin met with his fellow Texans and planned the attack. The Marx brothers had no role in this.
That night, Austin asked Julius if he and his brothers wanted to join the attack. Realizing their limitations, and still feeling bad about Bean's death, Julius politely declined on the grounds that none of the Marx brothers had the skills to be of use. Austin accepted this answer, and sent off the Texans. Shortly after, Julius and Austin heard the sounds of the battle. Soon, it was over, and Austin was informed that the Texans had captured Lt. Colonel Mateo Ahumada. He and Ahumada briefly had words, with Ahumada plainly disappointed in Austin's treachery. However, Ahumada gave his parole to Austin, as did the remaining Mexican soldiers, and Austin sent them home.
Austin's men, Sterne and the Marx brothers then headed to Nacogdoches. The Marx Brothers settled into Nacogdoches, where they rented a house, and began performing at the tavern. They tried to blend in more. Herbert even started dating a woman who worked at a dye shop. However, they soon grew weary of the place, and so Julius hit on a scheme to go out in a lightning storm again. While Herbert protested they could easily wind up dead or in the 18th century rather than 1934, the others were fine with trying.
Spring arrived, and so did a thunderstorm. The four went out, and were struck. The Marx brothers found themselves standing on pavement again. They even saw a car, proving they were in the 20th century at least. However, the car looked nothing like any vehicle they'd ever seen, and it was manufactured by "Montgomery". They also saw a sign that warned any blacks caught on the street after sundown would be hanged. They were horrified; Julius couldn't remember seeing any sign like that anywhere in the country before. They walked on and found a business with a flag painted in the window. The flag consisted of fifteen red stars on a white St. Andrew's cross on a blue field. The business was a slave-catching company, licensed by the "Confederal government" in 1909. Realizing what they'd done in the past, Julius was left praying for one more bolt of lightning.
- Performance Arts References in Turtledove's Work#The Marx Brothers, for additional references.
- The Engels Brothers, a fictional analog in the Southern Victory series.
- "Hail! Hail!", loc. 6-114.
- Ibid, loc. 114.
- Ibid, loc. 114-138.
- Ibid., loc. 155.
- Ibid., loc. 162-178.
- Ibid., loc. 178-223.
- Ibid., loc. 227.
- Ibid., loc. 235-268.
- Ibid., loc. 278-304.
- Ibid., loc. 313.
- Ibid., loc. 322-348.
- Ibid., loc. 348-374.
- Ibid., loc. 374-391.
- Ibid., loc. 393-444
- Ibid., loc. 444-492.
- Ibid., loc. 492-523.
- Ibid., loc. 523-583.
- Ibid., loc. 583-666.
- Ibid., loc. 666-696.
- Ibid., loc. 689-739.
- Ibid., loc. 739-782.
- Ibid., loc. 782.
- Ibid., loc. 782-803.
- Ibid., loc. 803-847.
- Ibid., loc 847-867.
- Ibid., loc. 867-877.
- Ibid., loc. 877-929.
- Ibid., loc. 929-981.
- Ibid., loc. 991-1032
- Ibid., loc. 1032-1042.
- Ibid., loc. 1042-1113.
- Ibid., loc. 1133-1192.
- Ibid., loc. 1192-1223
- Ibid, loc. 1234-1264.