The Ritz Brothers were an American comedy team who appeared in films, and as live performers from 1925 to the late 1960s.
Although there were four brothers, the sons of Austrian-born haberdasher Max Joachim and his wife Pauline, only three of them performed together. There was also a sister, Gertrude. The fourth brother, George, acted as their manager. The performers were:
- Al Ritz, (August 27, 1901 – December 22, 1965)
- Jimmy Ritz, (October 4, 1904 – November 17, 1985)
- Harry Ritz, (May 22, 1907 – March 29, 1986)
The family name was Joachim (pronounced "joe-ACK-him," as Harry himself explained on a Joe Franklin TV interview) but eldest brother Al, a vaudeville dancer, adopted a new professional name after he saw the name "Ritz" on the side of a laundry truck. Jimmy and Harry followed suit when the brothers formed a team. The Ritzes emphasized precision dancing in their act, and added comedy material as they went along. By the early 1930s they were stage headliners.
The Ritz Brothers were hired for a New York-filmed short subject, Hotel Anchovy (1934), produced by Educational Pictures. This did well enough for the film's distributor, Twentieth Century-Fox, to sign the Ritzes as a specialty act for feature-length musicals. During this period they appeared in On the Avenue, a 1937 Irving Berlin musical. That same year Fox gave the Ritz Brothers their own starring series, beginning with Life Begins in College.
The brothers had a large following, and some fans compare them to the Marx Brothers, but the Ritzes did not play contrasting characters like the Marxes did; the boisterous Ritzes frequently behaved identically, making it harder for audiences to tell them apart. The ringleader was always rubber-faced, mouthy Harry, with Jimmy and Al enthusiastically following his lead. They frequently broke into songs and dances during their feature comedies, and often did celebrity impersonations (among them Ted Lewis, Peter Lorre, Tony Martin, even Alice Faye and Katharine Hepburn).
Their talent was also noted by Samuel Goldwyn, who borrowed them from Fox for his Technicolor variety show, The Goldwyn Follies, where they appeared with other headliners of the day including Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy. Perhaps their most successful film during this period was Fox's 1939 musical-comedy version of The Three Musketeers, co-starring Don Ameche. Later in 1939 the Ritzes staged a highly publicized walkout (complaining about the low quality of their latest script, The Gorilla). Fox responded by completing The Gorilla anyway, terminating the Ritzes' starring series, and casting them in a B picture starring Jane Withers. The Ritz Brothers left Fox for good in 1939.
In 1940 they moved to Universal Pictures, where they were scheduled to star in The Boys from Syracuse, but were removed from that production and reassigned to make brash B comedies with music. Their final film as a trio was Never a Dull Moment (1943). Al died in 1965. Harry and Jimmy continued to appear in films up until the 1970s, though the productions were strictly amateurish.
|1936||Sing, Baby, Sing|
|1937||One in a Million|
|1937||On the Avenue|
|1937||You Can't Have Everything|
|1937||Life Begins in College|
|1938||The Goldwyn Follies|
|1938||Straight Place and Show|
|1939||The Three Musketeers (1939 film)|
|1939||Pack Up Your Troubles (1939 film)|
|1942||Behind the Eight Ball (film)|
|1943||Never a Dull Moment (1943 film)|
|1976||Won Ton Ton, the Dog Who Saved Hollywood|
In later life
The Ritz Brothers continued to appear on stage and in nightclubs, and made guest appearances on network television in the 1950s. They soon became a top Las Vegas attraction. In 1958 Harry participated in a sketch-comedy LP, "Hilarity in Hollywood" (also known as "Hilarity in Hi-Fi").
The Ritzes were appearing at New Orleans Roosevelt Hotel in December 1965 when Al died of a sudden heart attack. Harry and Jimmy were devastated, as the trio had always been very close. The two surviving brothers continued the act, and appeared together in a couple of films. The last appearances of the Ritz Brothers as a team (minus Al) were in the mid-1970s films Blazing Stewardesses and Won Ton Ton, the Dog Who Saved Hollywood, a spoof of the old Rin Tin Tin and Lassie movies. In Blazing Stewardesses the Ritzes were cast as replacements for The Three Stooges, who dropped out of the film when Moe Howard's declining health forced the trio to cancel. (Contrary to many accounts, Moe was still alive when Blazing Stewardesses filmed in March 1975; he was simply too ill to work. Moe died in early May of that year; Blazing Stewardesses opened a month later in June 1975.) Harry and Jimmy also made a lively encore appearance on television, as guests on Dick Cavett's PBS talk show.
Harry's final months were plagued by Alzheimer's Disease; Jimmy Ritz died in 1985 shortly before Harry, but Harry's health was so delicate that he was never told of his brother's death. Harry died the following year.
The brothers were buried in Hollywood Cemetery, now called the Hollywood Forever Cemetery in Hollywood, CA. They are interred near each other in the Hall of David Mausoleum.
The influence of the Ritz Brothers was greater than their film career, in part because of their long career as nightclub entertainers. They influenced actors including Danny Kaye, Jerry Lewis, and Sid Caesar. In his 1976 film Silent Movie, Mel Brooks paid tribute to the Ritz Brothers by casting Harry in a cameo (he's the fellow leaving a tailor's shop). It was the actor's last role.
An article in Esquire Magazine by Harry Stein (June 1976), "Mel Brooks Says This [Harry Ritz] is the Funniest Man in the World", makes a strong case that many top comedians were influenced by, and even borrowed bits from, Harry Ritz. In an interview in Playboy magazine, George Carlin said Harry Ritz "invented the moves for a whole generation" of comedians. Extensive discussions of the brothers in print are in Frank Cullen & Donald McNeilly's "Vaudeville, Old & New: an Encyclopedia of Variety Performers in America" (2006) and Leonard Maltin's Movie Comedy Teams (1970).
Enduring tributes to them include a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and mentions in The Simpsons (episode "Mountain of Madness"), M*A*S*H (episode "Aid Station") and the films My Favorite Year, Mr. Saturday Night and Pretty Woman.
They were the favorite musical clowns of the great German-Jewish Poet Else Lasker-Schüler, who lets them appear in her last play, "I and I" (IchundIch).
- Al Ritz at the Internet Movie Database
- Al Ritz at Find a Grave
- Harry Ritz at the Internet Movie Database
- Harry Ritz at Find a Grave
- Jimmy Ritz at the Internet Movie Database
- Jimmy Ritz at Find a Grave
- Mel Brooks Says This Is the Funniest Man On Earth Harry Stein's article from Esquire Magazine, June 1976.
- The Clipping File: The Ritz Brothers Richard Brody's article from The New Yorker, March 2012.