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.