Cranky Hanke’s Screening Room: Are the Marx Brothers old hat?

The Marx Brothers—for those who don’t know—were a team of Jewish comics who made their way from vaudeville to the Broadway stage and from there to the movies. For our purposes, they were Groucho, Harpo, Chico and—for five movies anyway—Zeppo. According to rumor and most historians and critics, they are supposed to be funny. They counted George Bernard Shaw, T.S. Elliot and Salvador Dali among their fans (Dali even sent Harpo a harp strung with barbed wire). Many books—ranging from the fannish to the exceedlingly academic—have been written about them, starting with Alan Eyles’ The Marx Brothers: Their World of Comedy in 1966, which coincided with their disovery by a generation of moviegoers who were mostly born after the boys made their best films. But where are the Marx Brothers on today’s radar?

The question has been on my mind of late—in part because Justin Souther and I have been slugging it out—metaphorically speaking—over just what Marx Brothers movie would be the best choice for their debut at the Asheville Film Society. I found it interesting that Justin took what can only be called the Marxian purist stance, while I took a more populist approach. (I’ll come back to this.) A more forceful reason to think about the Marx Brothers came about just this past week.

Once a year for a few years now, I’ve ventured into the halls of academia to give a class of students a good talking to on the topics of film and movie reviewing. That’s not as random as it perhaps sounds. I mean I’ve been invited to do this. It’s not as if I just wander into any old classroom and start pontificating. (That idea certainly has its appeal, though.) As is usually the case, I was asked to suggest a movie to be shown to the class prior to my appearance. Looking over the titles that had already been shown and realizing that the class ran only 75 minutes, I opted for something that would fit—Leo McCarey’s Marx Brothers film Duck Soup (1933). I didn’t attend the screening, but I got the fallout from it when I showed up two days later. I think it’s safe to say they were underwhelmed. That both did and didn’t surprise me.

Groucho, who ended up becoming the elder statesman for the team in later years, used to delight in telling a story about a review of their act by powerful theatre critic Percy Hammond that commented, “The Marx Brothers and their various relatives ran around the stage for 20 minutes. Why, I have no idea.” All in all, I think the class would have sided with Hammond. Most of the objections seemed to be grounded in the not entirely satisfactory (to me) realm of “I don’t care for this type of comedy.” My objection to that as an explanation is that the Marx Brothers don’t really embody a “type of comedy.” Further comments indicated a distaste for “slapstick,” which is not the first word that comes to mind when I think of the Marx Brothers.

What intrigues me about the tepid response to the Marx world is that 40 years ago, this class was the very age group that catapulted the Marx Brothers to a level of fame and an iconic status they’d merely tasted during the era when they made their movies. Of course, I realize I am running the risk here of being seized by the anti-boomer contingent (you know who you are) for bringing up how the Marx Brothers were viewed by “my generation” (strokes grey beard pensively). Well, I can’t help that—and it sometimes makes for interesting exchanges. That one young lady in the class—who cited Wes Andeson as her favorite current filmmaker, making me immediately sympathetic to her—said she knew the films because her father likes them argues for the generational aspect.

There’s little denying that the Marx Brothers were the perfect comics for that era. They suited the mood of the day in that they were anarchic and anti-authority. Their specialty lay in taking the piss out of society, social pretensions and government. That these things were combined with vaudeville routines, sight-gags, praftalls, wordplay and musical numbers made them a strange—possibly surreal, certainly absurd—mix of rather low, populist humor and the cerebral. The very form of their films—at least the last three made for Paramount Pictures, Monkey Business (1931), Horse Feathers (1932), Duck Soup—was a reaction to the who concept of “well-crafted entertainment.”

Their first two films—The Cocoanuts (1929) and Animal Crackers (1930)—were adapted from their Broadway shows of the same names. These paid lip-service to “well-crafted entertainment” by including non-comic musical numbers and storylines built around some kind of drama involving a juvenile lead and an ingenue. One way or another, the Brothers would somehow—without any particular emotional investment in the matter—help smooth out whatever stood in the paths of the young lovers. In those two films, however, it’s worth noting that the Marxes seem largely uninterested in these plots. In fact, when the barely functional plot of Animal Crackers is explained to Groucho (who has been operating completely outside of the storyline) he remarks, “That’s very interesting,” then thinks about it for half a beat and decides, “Well, fairly interesting.”

The three films that follow are the Marx Brothers at their purest, which is to say that there’s not a lot of plot, no romantic subplot and the overall tone is pure anarchy. Among Marxists, these tend to be the most highly-prized of their works—with Duck Soup being given place of honor at the highest height the Brothers ever reached. At least, that became the case in the late 1960s and early 1970s—thanks to the youthful taste for the anarchic and subversive over the well-crafted. Conventional wisdom up till then had A Night at the Opera (1935) as their best film—mostly because it had made a lot of money.

Looked at within the body of work, Duck Soup is not only the best made of the films (thanks to Leo McCarey), it’s almost a compendium of them taken to new extremes. Its opening is a slicker, leaner version of the opening of Animal Crackers—which, in itself, was pretty much appropriated from the works of Gilbert and Sullivan. Its premise is the logical—if utterly insane—extension of Groucho being the honored guest at a ritzy Long Island house part (Animal Crackers) or the head of a college (Horse Feathers). That anyone should consider him for those improbabilities is as nothing compared to him being made leader of an entire country.This moves the film out of mere social satire into the realm of political satire.

It seemed very relevant in the 60s and 70s—a movie with a leader of a country who is not only completely without the slightest qualification for the job, but is openly contemptuous of it and just as openly out for his own good and his own pleasure. He only has the job because Mrs. Teasdale (Margaret Dumont) is funding the country and has been convinced—by Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho) himself,  of course—that he’s the man to lead Freedonia. (Mrs. Teasdale is simply the same society matron she was when she was Mrs. Rittenhouse in Animal Crackers—where she was also played by Dumont. In other words, she has absolute faith in Groucho even when he inspires none and makes it clear that he shouldn’t.) The strange thing—and the satirical point—is that the nation on the whole is perfectly happy to cheer Firefly on, even when he tells them outright, “If you think this country’s bad off now, just wait till I get through with it.”

Duck Soup takes this even further by having Firefly plunge the country into wholly unjustified and unnecessary war with a neighboring country. Why? Ostensibly because he doesn’t like the ambassador (Louis Cahern), but mostly because he can—that and because, of course, as he and two of his brothers sing, “They got guns, we got guns, all God’s chillun got guns. We’re going to walk all over the battlefield ‘cause all God’s chillun got guns.” It hardly matters why anyway, because everyone is delighted by the prospect of a war (“At last we’re going to war!”) and are happy to copy every action the Marx Brothers undertake in a musical orgy of mindless jingoism. If the Marxes wave their arms like they’re at a revival meeting, so will the crowd. If they get down on all fours and kick their legs in the air, so will the crowd. It’s very clever—but it’s also very disturbing if you stop to think about it. I’m not sure it’s any less relevant now than it ever was.

So why did it not strike a chord with this particular class? Are they lacking a taste for dissent and subversion? I wouldn’t care to hazard that as a guess, but it clearly didn’t speak to them in way it spoke to us all those years ago. It’s impossible for me not to wonder if it would have gotten a better reception had they come to the film with the anti-authortarian and political satire aspects brought into play as things to consider. I know, however, that they saw the film cold. It is also possible that they simply couldn’t relate to the oddness of the Marx characters. I mean you’ve go one brother with a painted-on mustache and eyebrows, one brother who speaks in an Italian dialect, one brother who doesn’t speak at all and one brother whose specific talents seem limited to a cool name, a nice presence and the unerring ability to deliver dialogue by emphasizing all wrong words in any given sentence.

Of course, it could just be the basically subjective nature of comedy. Or it could be that particular audience. I’ve seen enough films multiple times with enough audiences to know that what one audience finds hysterically funny another will inexplicably sit through in stony silence. That’s not new and it’s not generational. I have probably given the impression that back in “my day” all my contemporaries loved the Marx Brothers, and that’s certainly not true, but it was certainly true of the cineaste crowd. Or maybe it’s the simple fact that it hurts the movie’s subversive cache to have been tagged as “culturally, historiccally, or aesthetically signficant” and being preserved by the National Film Registry.

But in all honesty, I think there may be an altogether different factor at work here—one that’s actually hinted at in some conversations I had with students on the film after the fact. It kept coming back to the lack of a strong story and characters with whom they could connect. In fact, I came away thinking that one of the very things that had worked in its favor 40 years ago—the refusal to pander to the idea of “well-crafted entertainment”—played against Duck Soup. Would a tidy romantic subplot that found the Marxes righting some wrong and bringing together a pair of young lovers have made it play better?

This comes back to the slugfest between Mr. Souther and myself over the first Marx Brothers film to be shown by the Asheville Film Society. OK, so slugfest not only sounds like a overstatement, it is one, but we did disagree. When I submitted my tentative list of December titles, he immediately wanted to know why I chose A Night at the Opera rather than one of the Paramount films—knowing full well that personally I like all five Paramount films better than anything that came later. My feeling was that it was the most viewer-friendly of the movies and therefore a good introduction.

It’s not simply that it has a romantic subplot—both The Cocoanuts and Animal Crackers have those. It’s that it has a reasonably good subplot with two likable co-stars in Kitty Carlisle and Allan Jones. That, to me, is key—and much as I dislike what MGM “wonder boy” Irving Thalberg did to the Marx Brothers by taming and domesticating them, he scored with the subplot in A Night at the Opera. Since Thalberg died during the production of their second MGM film A Day at the Races (1937), it’s hard to say how they might have fared under his continued guidance, but considering the casting of the rather bland Maureen O’Sullivan in Races happened on Thalberg’s watch suggests Opera was a bit of a fluke.

Sure, A Night at the Opera is a trade-off. On the plus side, it’s possible to care about the romantic leads and the plot. And it doesn’t entirely neuter Groucho, who is as much looking out for his own interests as those of the leads. But the air of the surreal is all but gone. About all that’s left is Groucho addressing the audience directly—and I think that only happens once. The world of A Night at the Opera is fairly realistic—even to the unthinkable extent of Mrs. Claypool (Dumont again, of course) seeing through Groucho’s brazen chicanery. That would never have happened in her Paramount appearances. And it’s true of all the characters—instead of blindly accepting Groucho at his word, here they’re clearly skeptical. There’s no denying it diminishes him.

Still, having said that, I’m of the opinion that A Night at the Opera is probably the best all-around introduction to the Marx Brothers. So does that mean I won the argument? Well, not really. I told Justin to make it either A Night at the Opera or Animal Crackers and left it up to him. Why it was A Night at the Opera when I saw the schedule I don’t know, but it was ultimately his choice and it is screening on at 8 p.m. on Tuesday, December 14th in the Cinema Lounge at The Carolina. On the off-chance that any of the students I spoke with the other day read this, they can consider it a personal invitation to come check out a Marx Brothers film that they might like better. Then again, they might not, so I’ll be scanning the crowd for folks carrying ropes or overripe vegetables.

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About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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67 thoughts on “Cranky Hanke’s Screening Room: Are the Marx Brothers old hat?

  1. luluthebeast

    The Marx Brothers have always been my favorite comedy troup and I’ll have to stick with DUCK SOUP as my favorite.

  2. UnaffiliatedVoter

    I dont think Southerners were ever able to understand their humor.

  3. Ken Hanke

    The Marx Brothers have always been my favorite comedy troup and I’ll have to stick with DUCK SOUP as my favorite

    You kinda came to the wrong guy for an argument.

  4. Ken Hanke

    I dont think Southerners were ever able to understand their humor.

    Just because your level of comprehension stops at Larry the Cable Guy doesn’t mean that everyone’s does.

  5. I think the best introduction to the Marx Brothers is the Loony Tunes cartoons. Bugs Bunny is essentially an animated version of Groucho, and it primed me for his persona when I first encountered HORSE FEATHERS at nine or ten years old.

  6. Ken Hanke

    I think the best introduction to the Marx Brothers is the Loony Tunes cartoons. Bugs Bunny is essentially an animated version of Groucho, and it primed me for his persona when I first encountered HORSE FEATHERS at nine or ten years old.

    I might agree if I was trying to introduce children to the Marx Brothers — more perhaps in terms of surrealism than Grouchoism. I am probably being naive in my belief that everyone has seen Bugs Bunny cartoons by adulthood, but I do tend to think that’s true. But work on that assumption with me for the moment. Now tell me which film you’d start with.

  7. Now tell me which film you’d start with.
    My (unhelpful) response to that is – Who is this suggestion for? What other kinds of films do they like? Are they open to old movies?

  8. Chip Kaufmann

    Were these high school students or collegians and did the film being in black & white have anything to do with it?

  9. Ken Hanke

    My (unhelpful) response to that is – Who is this suggestion for? What other kinds of films do they like? Are they open to old movies?

    Well, say it’s a class or say it’s a film society. What other kinds of films they like is impossible to say. Assume they are open to old movies.

  10. Ken Hanke

    Were these high school students or collegians and did the film being in black & white have anything to do with it?

    College and I’d say no. I’d say the black and white was not a problem (I think that’s an overstated factor in general) since they’d favorably sat through Sunrise earlier.

  11. Chip Kaufmann

    Did anyone mention what type of comedy they did care for?

  12. Ken Hanke

    Did anyone mention what type of comedy they did care for?

    Not specifically, though someone did ask what I thought of Will Ferrell, which may give us a clue — or not. The impression I was left with, though, was that it was the fact that there was no story or character that could be related to. One person did cite Chaplin as a comic he liked.

  13. The impression I was left with, though, was that it was the fact that there was no story or character that could be related to.
    Well, I think that’s going to be an issue with the Marx Brothers across the board. I can’t think of a film of theirs in which I was invested in the characters. Didn’t reduce my enjoyment of them, though.

  14. Ken Hanke

    Well, I think that’s going to be an issue with the Marx Brothers across the board. I can’t think of a film of theirs in which I was invested in the characters. Didn’t reduce my enjoyment of them, though.

    Maybe. But that’s why I’d like to see the response to A Night at the Opera. That strikes me as the best possible bridge — if there is one. It at least offers the safety net of a well-crafted story that’s reasonably interesting.

  15. luluthebeast

    I say just show them the dang movie and let them learn something.

  16. Ken Hanke

    My four year old loves the Marx Brothers.

    And how do you feel about that?

  17. Ken Hanke

    I say just show them the dang movie and let them learn something

    That’s only marginally more helpful than the suggestion that I run Love Happy and then tell them “this is nothing like the real thing.”

  18. shadmarsh

    My four year old loves the Marx Brothers.

    And how do you feel about that?

    I’m Quite proud actually.

  19. DrSerizawa

    You may be seeing the tip of the iceberg from the short-attention span of the generation that was raised on gaming and television. Maybe they don’t have enough patience for anything deeper than Will Ferrell.

    I really refuse to believe that. My son is 26 and enjoys many of the comedies my wife and I do. Maybe you just happened to get a strange random sampling of students in that class.

  20. Ken Hanke

    You may be seeing the tip of the iceberg from the short-attention span of the generation that was raised on gaming and television.

    That doesn’t really fit with what I was told by them — despite the Will Ferrell question — which does seem to be somehow grounded in the whole “well-crafted entertainment” and lack of a sympathetic character biz. I’ve since recalled that last year when my suggestions were Sunrise and The Magic Christian, the latter, while getting a warmer response than Duck Soup, generated some of the “I just don’t like that kind of comedy” comments. That’s a film that is even more anarchic than Duck Soup.

    I really refuse to believe that. My son is 26 and enjoys many of the comedies my wife and I do.

    Well, bear in mind that’s about Justin’s age — and he was the one arguing for hardcore Marxian mayhem. I don’t think this audience was necessarily a litmus test, but I did find it an interesting response.

  21. shadmarsh

    Perhaps the Marx brothers are just too subtle for todays 20 something feeb?

  22. You may be seeing the tip of the iceberg from the short-attention span of the generation that was raised on gaming and television. Maybe they don’t have enough patience for anything deeper than Will Ferrell.

    DUCK SOUP is a hell of a lot faster-paced than most contemporary cinema. It’s also 68 minutes long, compared to say, STEP-BROTHERS, which is a full half-hour longer.

    I could see kids raised on Marx Brothers movies not having the attention spans for Will Ferrell comedies, but not the other way around.

  23. Perhaps the Marx brothers are just too subtle for todays 20 something feeb?
    There are many words I would use to describe the Marx Brothers, but subtle ain’t one of them.

  24. luluthebeast

    That’s only marginally more helpful than the suggestion that I run Love Happy and then tell them “this is nothing like the real thing.”

    Possibly, I’m a little grumpy today.

    And let’s hear it for anarchy!

  25. Ken Hanke

    DUCK SOUP is a hell of a lot faster-paced than most contemporary cinema. It’s also 68 minutes long, compared to say, STEP-BROTHERS, which is a full half-hour longer.

    True, but Duck Soup requires the patience for wordplay and the like — a frame of reference doesn’t hurt either. Step Brothers works on the undeniable, irrefutable and positively iron-clad concept that nothing spells funny like Will Ferrell rubbing his testicles on a drum set.

  26. Ken Hanke

    Keith Moon would be proud.

    At least till he sobered up — however briefly.

  27. Ken Hanke

    Possibly, I’m a little grumpy today.

    As long as you’re not cranky — that’s my domain.

  28. luluthebeast

    I wouldn’t dare!

    And I wouldn’t let Ferrell anywhere near me!

  29. Ken Hanke

    And I wouldn’t let Ferrell anywhere near me!

    That may be for the best.

  30. DrSerizawa

    Maybe literacy is a factor. The Marx Brothers made their comedies in the era before TV. People used to read a lot and had much larger vocabularies. The advent of TV and the ‘Net has reduced the common denominator for literacy. I’m not sure that many younger people even understand many of the English words used in these films. Just look at a popular novel these days. There might be a 2000 word vocabulary. The plotting and characterizations are juvenile at best. How many movie goers could comprehend classic books from Twain or even once contemporary books like “Catch-22” or “How I Won The War”?

  31. Ken Hanke

    Maybe literacy is a factor. The Marx Brothers made their comedies in the era before TV. People used to read a lot and had much larger vocabularies. The advent of TV and the ‘Net has reduced the common denominator for literacy. I’m not sure that many younger people even understand many of the English words used in these films.

    This, of course, is possible, but these seemed like bright kids and I don’t really suspect their literacy. Now, their frame of reference might be another thing altogether. Even granting the question about Will Ferrell — bear in mind that came from one person — I don’t want to sell them short.

  32. DrSerizawa

    I don’t want to sell them short.

    I don’t either. I’m not one to decry the younger generation like so many old fogeys do. I know the kids are innately as bright as kids ever were.

    Perhaps the frame of reference of the Marx era is like a foreign culture to them. I probably wouldn’t appreciate a “Noh” play for the same reason.

  33. Ken Hanke

    Perhaps the frame of reference of the Marx era is like a foreign culture to them.

    Quite possibly, but really it’s a foreign culture to me in many ways. Consider in Animal Crackers: there’s a whole sequence built around satirizing the Theatre Guild’s production of Eugene O’Neill’s Strange Interlude. There’s a reference to Abie’s Irish Rose. There’s a reference to the fictional character “Raffles.” There’s a reference to “The Trial of Mary Dugan with sound.” And so on. These things are not contemporary to me. And that’s part of the appeal — I actually like encountering references and words I have to check into the meaning of. That, to me, is precisely how you actually develop a frame of reference. I guess I’m the exact opposite of that guy on Rotten Tomatoes who decided a review was “worthless” because the critic used the word “lugubrious” and the poster didn’t know what that meant.

  34. DrSerizawa

    I guess I’m the exact opposite of that guy on Rotten Tomatoes who decided a review was “worthless” because the critic used the word “lugubrious” and the poster didn’t know what that meant.

    Can’t challenge the readers. How could a reviewer expect someone to know how to use a dictionary? Nope, instead dumb everything down. Soon all “worthwhile” reviews will either say, “Awesome!” or “Sucks!”. LOL. Sounds like the IMDB.

  35. Jeffrey

    I might have considered Monkey Business or Horse Feathers instead of Duck Soup. I feel that those are more pure comedy without the social commentary. That might have appealed to the audience more. I will be interested in hearing about how A Night At The Opera goes over. I would suspect the long musical and romantic number will bore today’s viewers.

  36. Ken Hanke

    Can’t challenge the readers. How could a reviewer expect someone to know how to use a dictionary?

    It becomes even more preposterous when you realize how easy it is to do so in the internet age. You needn’t even go pick up one of those weighty books.

  37. Ken Hanke

    I might have considered Monkey Business or Horse Feathers instead of Duck Soup. I feel that those are more pure comedy without the social commentary.

    I really don’t think the socio-political commentary was the problem. And Monkey Business is slightly too long — and its best and longest gag assumes the viewer knows who Maurice Chevalier is. Horse Feathers is so in need of a restoration that it looks like hell.

    I will be interested in hearing about how A Night At The Opera goes over. I would suspect the long musical and romantic number will bore today’s viewers.

    Bear in mind that this will be a different audience — and one that, based on films we’ve screened, seem to have no problem with musical numbers.

  38. response

    Hey, Ken. As one of those students who watched Duck Soup last week, I wanted to offer my two-cents (since I didn’t offer it the day of the discussion):

    I think it’s significant that, for most students, this was the first Marx brothers film they’ve seen. Consider watching Duck Soup out of the context of the greater group of Marx brothers films. It seems as though it’d make a difference if you walked into a screening room with zero knowledge of the film, the context, their signature style(s), etc. This idea of not knowing what to expect seems to be a big factor in the class’s reception of the film.

    Sure, you could argue that good cinema is good cinema, point blank. And I would have to agree that the Marx brothers films are classic examples of pure comedy. But, there’s also the nostalgic factor for me. Admittedly, my dad is a huge fan and that may play into why I enjoy them so much. I know to expect clever one-liners and that silly eyes-to-the-sky look when Groucho enters a scene, and I know the back-story as to why Harpo never speaks. I have something vested in those characters and it makes me appreciate them even more.

    So, maybe the Marx Brothers aren’t really “old hat”; perhaps in seeing more of their films the audience can garner a greater appreciation of their comedy?

    Just a thought.

  39. Jeffrey Long

    I was in college in the early 1990s. I took a class on popular entertainment and the instructor showed about 10 mins of Duck Soup (mostly the courtroom scene.) I loved the Marx Bros and I was shocked to see that in a class of 30 twentysomethings, the scenes from Duck Soup garned only a few modest chuckles. However, shortly afterwards the instructor showed a scene from I Love Lucy where Lucy was wearing a large headdress and fell down a flight of stairs. That had most of the class rolling in their seats. I could only surmise at that time that the fast-paced wordplay of the Marx Bros was lost on the younger generation.

  40. shadmarsh

    Maybe I’m just an elitist, but I take pride in the fact that the Marx bothers are now an acquired taste, and that I have acquired it and am able to pass it along to my son.

  41. brianpaige

    As a follow up why not show these same students the Wheeler and Woolsey movie Diplomaniacs, which was made the same year and also has Calhern and Kennedy in the cast? I can only imagine their reactions to the Geneva Peace Conference finale of that film. It’s a much darker and unsettling film than Duck Soup though.

    The first Marx movie I ever saw was Animal Crackers, so I would start with that one. If the class didn’t care for the no frills madness of Duck Soup, why would they like to hear a bunch of tedious grand opera music numbers?

  42. David Morrill

    It hurts, but I’m not surprised that the Marxes didn’t click with students. The Brothers’ brand of anarchy fit it well with the unrest of the late 1960s. Today, however, being anarchic — like voting — is just too much bother for people used to so much comfort.

    Think I’ll start watching the movies in order again and ponder this further. Although I discovered them at the age of 12 in 1973, references to Chevalier and Minnie the Moocher didn’t detract from my enjoyment any more than Veronica Lake and Bernard Baruch jokes in Bugs Bunny cartoons. Did someone call me “Schnorrer”?

  43. Ken Hanke

    I think it’s significant that, for most students, this was the first Marx brothers film they’ve seen.

    Yes, I agree with you.

    Consider watching Duck Soup out of the context of the greater group of Marx brothers films. It seems as though it’d make a difference if you walked into a screening room with zero knowledge of the film, the context, their signature style(s), etc. This idea of not knowing what to expect seems to be a big factor in the class’s reception of the film.

    I think the mere fact of not giving it any context played against it. I suspect telling them what to expect and what to look for might have helped.

    Sure, you could argue that good cinema is good cinema, point blank. And I would have to agree that the Marx brothers films are classic examples of pure comedy.

    I think I’d more readily argue — if we want to put it on this basis — that a great many people over the years (myself included) did indeed come to the Marx Brothers cold and responded positively. I find it quite possible to take both sides in this.

    So, maybe the Marx Brothers aren’t really “old hat”; perhaps in seeing more of their films the audience can garner a greater appreciation of their comedy?

    I think that’s entirely possible. Now as to the likelihood of them seeing more of them…well, that’s another issue.

  44. Ken Hanke

    However, shortly afterwards the instructor showed a scene from I Love Lucy where Lucy was wearing a large headdress and fell down a flight of stairs. That had most of the class rolling in their seats.

    I think this attests to the utterly subjective nature of comedy, since I stopped finding Lucy even slightly funny by the age of 10. Indeed, my vision of hell involves being given the Ludovico Treatment while that scene with Lucy and Ethel and the chocolates on the conveyor belt plays in an endless loop. (Okay, granted that vision was before I ever saw Sarah Palin and it might need adjusting now.)

  45. Ken Hanke

    Maybe I’m just an elitist, but I take pride in the fact that the Marx bothers are now an acquired taste, and that I have acquired it and am able to pass it along to my son.

    Yes, but are you an elitist bastard? That’s the real question.

  46. Ken Hanke

    As a follow up why not show these same students the Wheeler and Woolsey movie Diplomaniacs

    Well, for starters these are not my students, so it’s not up to me. Also, last I knew there was no commercially available copy of Diplomaniacs, though I admit I find it hard to keep up with WB DVD-R releases. Moreover, though, if they didn’t take to the Marx Bros., I’d be vastly surprised if they’d take to Wheeler and Woolsey — especially, if part of the problem was the inability to relate to or sympathize with the characters. I won’t even get into the preamble you’d need to go through to set the stage for the fact that the film has a massive blackface musical number. (You know, there’s a reason why the “Goin’ to Heaven on a Mule” number from Wonder Bar is never included in Busby Berkeley documentaries.)

    The first Marx movie I ever saw was Animal Crackers, so I would start with that one.

    Why wouldn’t I start with The Cocoanuts since that was the first one I saw?

    If the class didn’t care for the no frills madness of Duck Soup, why would they like to hear a bunch of tedious grand opera music numbers?

    Well, first of all, I don’t think they are tedious. Aside from which “bunch of” consists of a brief bit of Pagliacci at the beginning of the film and one duet from Il Trovatore at the end (which is intercut with plot development). The rest of Il Trovatore that we see involves gleefully sabotaging it. I also thought I made it clear that the objections actually seem to stem from the “no frills” aspect of Duck Soup and the inability to relate to the characters. Of all the Marx Brothers films I do think A Night at the Opera comes closest to having a story with characters it’s possible to give a damn about.

  47. Ken Hanke

    Although I discovered them at the age of 12 in 1973, references to Chevalier and Minnie the Moocher didn’t detract from my enjoyment any more than Veronica Lake and Bernard Baruch jokes in Bugs Bunny cartoons.

    Well, I knew who Chevalier was — at least to the extent of him being that old guy in Disney movies — when I first saw Monkey Business. Actually, I must have known slightly more, since I was able to realize the song was “You Brought a New Kind of Love to Me and not, as was said in the book The Marx Brothers at the Movies, “If a Nightingale Could Sing Like You.” (I think Wm. K. Everson once suggested that the song’s overuse in The Big Pond was perhaps being satirized here.) My dad explained “Minnie the Moocher” to me — also Veronica Lake, come to think of it.

  48. Son of Rufus

    I’m late coming into the conversation and apologize for not going through each of the comments to read its content.

    In relation to the article:

    Well, now I have something else to add to my list of old pop culture I have to orient myself with.

    Before I read this I thought that the Marx Bros. were just like The Three Stooges. I see that I was way off. Once again, Rufus disappoints (he’ll probably blame his thinking that sons think their fathers taste is lame [not true]).

    After I get to the Betty Boop dvd, I’ll tackle this.

    I also wonder if Opera is your favorite because it was your first 16mm full-length feature film…?

  49. Ken Hanke

    Before I read this I thought that the Marx Bros. were just like The Three Stooges. I see that I was way off. Once again, Rufus disappoints

    Allowing a child to grow up thinking the Marx Bros. are like the Three Stooges is unthinkable. I may be compelled to give him a good talking to.

    I also wonder if Opera is your favorite because it was your first 16mm full-length feature film…?

    Ah, but you misconstrue. It is not my favorite. It’s my 6th favorite. It’s simply that I think it might be the best introduction to them.

  50. Nick Santa Maria

    I always show Duck Soup to the uninitiated and it usually fails. The bite is gone. I even showed Animal Crackers to a Broadway musical conductor who’d never seen it. He said, “It was tough to watch because I really had to LISTEN!”. And there-in lies the rub. We must remember that a couple of generations of people who’ve been weaned on a barrage of media have come down the pike and the Marx Brothers seem almost “quaint” to them. The proof is in the fact that of all the vaudeville comedians it’s the Stooges who’ve lived on and have flourished. They are uncomplicated, the shorts are fast, and the humor is basic. Personally I feel fortunate that I was around during the time when the Marx Brothers, WC Fields, Mae West, Laurel and Hardy, and the rest were revered as great artists who seemed almost current 40 years after their best work was behind them. Unfortunately, the world’s attention span has been pared down to ridiculous levels.

  51. Ken Hanke

    The proof is in the fact that of all the vaudeville comedians it’s the Stooges who’ve lived on and have flourished. They are uncomplicated, the shorts are fast, and the humor is basic.

    I’m not sure I’d call that proof. I’m not even sure the Stooges are especially popular outside a narrow demographic. God knows if the class rejected the Marx Bros. because of slapstick, they’d hardly be likely to take to the Three Stooges who offer nothing else.

  52. David Morrill

    I recently went through all 190 of the Stooge two-reelers, and there’s definitely more going on than just slapstick. But your point’s a good one. I wonder if some of the Duck Soup problem is McCarey cutting more typical Marxian material and replacing it with so much silent-film schtick better suited for L&H.

    Another question — Is there anyone out there today who carries on the Marxian tradition, and could one approach the Brothers through him/her/them?

  53. Nick Santa Maria

    Sorry Ken, but the Stooges are practically mainstream popular. Just look at the TV listings and you’ll find them being shown regularly on 2, count ’em, two different stations (AMC and Spike). Much more than a “narrow demographic” at work here.

  54. Ken Hanke

    Sorry, Nick, but I don’t think AMC and Spike qualify as that huge of a demographic.

  55. Joe Adamson

    I was told in the late 60s that Charlie Chaplin doesn’t get laughs anymore because of a bad screening of THE GOLD RUSH — I was told in the early 70s in Pennsylvania that DR. STRANGELOVE doesn’t work with audiences anymore — Then I was told by a whole class in the late 70s that, compared to Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton wasn’t funny at all — I was told recently that WC Fields was funny to kids but Groucho Marx wasn’t because he makes too many allusions to things that nobody remembers anymore — None of these things have turned out to be really true in the slightest or indicative of anything at all — Beware of reading too much into a bad screening — I’ve seen bad screenings of SUNRISE and RASHOMON too, but somehow those films are still considered classics by people who appreciate good stuff —

  56. Ken Hanke

    Beware of reading too much into a bad screening—I’ve seen bad screenings of SUNRISE and RASHOMON too, but somehow those films are still considered classics by people who appreciate good stuff—

    I think this is very wise. I’ve been to at least four screenings of Twentieth Century over the years — three of them were all I could have hoped for; the fourth was rather tepid. (How anyone can not laugh at John Barrymore’s “Oh, Lawdy, Lawdy, Miss Mary Jo, your daddy jus’ killed Mr. Michael” is beyond me — no matter that it’s not politically correct.) Unfortunately, it was the screening I was hosting.

    I once showed Horse Feathers to a group of friends. Dead silence. It made me hesitant to show it again for years. Finally, somebody requested it — and everybody loved it. Fact is, sometimes you just get a bum audience. Sometimes you get one that simply isn’t in the mood. Some other time, under other circumstances, they might like it.

    We ran Ernst Lubitsch’s One Hour with You at the Asheville Film Society last night. The crowd was small, but bigger than I’d expected, because I wouldn’t have driven there in last night’s weather if I hadn’t been the one bringing the movie. I’d say we had about the same size group as the film class. Only one person had seen it before. I think three had seen a Lubitsch picture before and four or five knew who he was. Now, this movie strikes me as potentially a hard-sell. It’s very stylized. The humor is often very dry. There are a couple of elaborate build-ups to simple, absurd gags. If you don’t like Chevalier and MacDonald, you’re in trouble, though most of this audience had seen and liked Love Me Tonight, so that didn’t bother me much. The songs? Well, I like stuff from that era and even I could do without “What a Little Thing Like a Wedding Ring Can Do” and “Day After Day We Will Always Be Sweethearts,” but the rest I’m good with.

    The thing is they liked it. They seemed to like it a lot, based on response and what I was told afterwards. The crowd ranged from 20-something to 80-something. One woman, who’s only recently been coming to these screenings, told me she’d never seen a movie that old before “and it was just so charming.” (I wonder if she’ll be back on Thursday for Midnight Meat Train. Probably be best if she isn’t.) That kind of thing is what makes this worthwhile.

    Haven’t tried this group on Fields, Chaplin or the Marx Bros. yet, but a Mae West double-bill packed the place and was hugely popular. Well, A Night at the Opera is on the 14th. We’ll see.

    And, of course, Mr. Adamson, I have to ask if you are…well, you know, the Groucho, Harpo, Chico and Sometimes Zeppo Joe Adamson?

  57. Nick Santa Maria

    Sorry, Nick, but I don’t think AMC and Spike qualify as that huge of a demographic.

    Can’t agree, Ken. Any regular showings of comedy films that are 50 years old (or more) being shown on not one, but two cable stations would be comparatively mainstream. Especially in a society that doesn’t know what happened before 2005.
    And here in Los Angeles the annual Stooge festival sold out the huge Alex Theater for the umpteenth time. The Stooges are as mainstream as they get in the classic comedy world. They are the cockroaches of comedy….they seem to survive no matter what.

  58. David Morrill

    I figured that when SONY even released the Besser two-reelers on DVD — and they have — the Stooges’ saturation would be complete.

  59. Ken Hanke

    They are the cockroaches of comedy…

    That part I agree with.

  60. Ken Hanke

    I figured that when SONY even released the Besser two-reelers on DVD—and they have—the Stooges’ saturation would be complete.

    My oversaturation with the Stooges occured about 40 years ago — with a very few notable exceptions.

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