Bohemian Rhapsodies: The genius of the Marx Brothers

❉ An appreciation of the quickfire comedy and anarchic spirit of the Marx Brothers.

After Karl and before Howard, there was Groucho and his brothers. In cinema terms, the Marx Brothers are comedy originals – although by the time of their first film, they were stage veterans – as their entrance in film coincided with the beginning of talking pictures. I was brought up on Marx Brothers films and, although their films are inevitably dated, made when cinema was in its infancy, it is amazing just how much of their dialogue and how many of their routines still mindboggle, impress and amuse almost a century later.

The Marx brothers’ appeal was their attitude and their latitude – Épater la bourgeoisie. In many of their films, they usually play underclass freeloaders attempting to break into elite circles – the art world, property, politics, academia – on a mission to affront strait-laced snobs and their lackeys, pulling the rug from under high society by mocking its traditions and exposing its snobbery.

In other words, their mission is that of many great comedians – rebelling against stuffy elitist attitudes, injecting a healthy dose of anarchy into well-ordered institutions, championing the cause of the underdog (and true love), and refusing to take anything too seriously. In a single word, subversion.

Their early films upcycled jokes, routines and plots from their stage shows and the long-lost radio series Flywheel, Shyster and Flywheel. The direction often belies the films’ theatrical origins and the infancy of cinema technique. However, they feature some of their finest scripts, and the closest on-screen realisation of pure Marx humour. The brilliant humour writer SJ Perelman contributed to two of their funniest films, Animal Crackers and Monkey Business.

The later films, specifically after the commercial peak A Night At The Opera, saw the Marx Brothers’ anarchy become diluted by the studio system. Whereas the early films were written for Groucho, Chico and Harpo’s mostly unchanging personas, the later films saw the brothers being shoe-horned into stock plots by MGM – 1938’s Room Service was based on the 1937 play of the same name by Allen Boretz and John Murray and considered by many as the worst Marx Brothers film.

In these later films, it’s often painful seeing the brothers tamed by constraining formats and puritan censors. One thing that films from both periods suffer from is the studios’ insistence on working tedious romantic subplots and ‘straight’ musical interludes. It’s always handy to have your finger poised over the fast forward button! All of their films are currently available on DVD, but the following titles belong in any comedy fan or film buff’s collection…

Animal Crackers (1930)

Their second film is a vast improvement on their technically ropey and stagey debut, The Cocoanuts, and has many comic highlights. Here Groucho is Captain Spaudling, one of Groucho’s best characterisations, and we see Margaret Dumont, the Marx Brothers’ stooge, cast as a patron of the arts and subject to Groucho’s attempts to woo her for her money, and subject of Harpo and Chico’s verbal and physical assaults. The plot involves a famous painting, due to be exhibited at a country house, being stolen and copied. For once, ‘straight man’ Zeppo gets some good feed lines as Spaudling’s secretary Jameson, especially during the hilarious ‘letter dictation’ scene.

There is also the Captain’s risqué monologue on his expedition (“We took some photos of the natives but they weren’t developed. We’re going back in a few months though!”) and a deliberately tedious, repetitive piano solo which mutates into the anvil chorus and turns into an American football game, and Groucho’s great “magnificent chest” gag.

Monkey Business (1931)

Here, the faults of the first two films seem to have been ironed out completely, and the brothers are in their natural element as stowaways on a cruise liner, talking their way into the captain’s quarters and talking their way out of some sticky spots with some gangsters. All the while Groucho attempts to woo gangster’s wife (played by the beautiful Thelma Todd) in some hilarious scenes.

The dialogue is quick-fire, with wordplay, double meaning and very bold innuendo coming so thick and fast you might run out of breath trying to keep up, and the action is fast-moving and slickly paced. A delight from start to finish, climaxing in inconsequential fashion after a very silly fight in a barn with Groucho commentating, big-match style, from the rafters. In the words of the great man himself, “Zow-ee!”

Horse Feathers (1932)

Slightly weaker than the previous two films, but well worth the effort. Groucho plays the headmaster of a college whose football team hasn’t won a single match, and so he enlists Chico and Harpo to sabotage the match. Meanwhile, Zeppo attempts to seduce the ‘college widow’ (Todd again), whose own MO is to steal the team’s plans for two gangsters with money on the other college. Groucho sings his anthem “Whatever It Is, I’m Against It”, pokes fun at bearded dons, attempts to give a completely surreal lecture on the bloodstream and the Alps (“The Alps are simple people who live on a diet of rice and old shoes, and the lord ‘alps those who ‘alp themselves”).

There is a famous sketch where Groucho attempts to get into a speakeasy by cracking the password (“Swordfish!”), and a classic finale at the football match. Also features an early example of Groucho ‘breaking down the fourth wall’, telling the viewers during an interminable scene to “go walk round in the lobby until this all blows over”.

Duck Soup (1933)

For many, “Duck Soup” is the creative peak of the Marx brothers’ cinematic craft. This time, Groucho is president of a European state called Freedonia. To justify having a Ministry of War, he starts a war with a neighbouring state by insulting its chief diplomat at a dinner party.

The film is a real one-off in the Marx brothers’ oeuvre, as just this once the romantic subplots and musical interludes are ditched. At eighty-five minutes it’s also their tightest film. This film features the famous mirror scene with a nightgown-and-cap-clad Groucho and two doppelgangers, and the hilarious (not to mention satirical) “We’re going to war” song, including a moment that time and political correctness has been less kind to, as the brothers break into a ‘negro spiritual’ pastiche, “All God’s chilluns gotta have guns!”

A Night At The Opera (1935)

The Brothers’ most successful and popular film. Moving to MGM gave them a bigger budget (some great sets and stunts including an ocean liner hull and an opera house), and a team of gag-writers. The first scene begins with Groucho at lunch with Margaret Dumont, no tedious exposition or songs! Again, the brothers are aiding a struggling artist – this time an opera singer – get the credit he deserves, this time by trying to oust an egotistical singer from a production so the novice can take his place. For once, the musical interludes are (mostly) integral to the plot’s terpsichorean theme.

The famous scenes in this film are the contract scene (“That’s a sanity clause.” “You no-a fool me, there ain’t no such thing as sanity claus”), and Groucho’s attempt to order food in a small stateroom as it fills with luggage, manicurists, porters and other ship staff. Sig Ruman makes his debut as the first of several bearded Teutonic types with a short temper, another marvellous foil. There is some very silly nonsense involving three famous pilots, and a classic anarchic denoument at the opera’s opening night.

A Day At The Races (1937)

This film is a tribute to the best-selling 1976 Queen album of the same name, with Groucho Marx playing a camp theatrical rock vocalist with a penchant for unitards. Not really. A bizarre plot involving a rich patient in a sanitorium, and a racehorse. Groucho plays the wonderfully named Dr. Hackenbush, and there is a fantastic scene in which Chico, ever the con-man, fleeces Groucho by getting him to buy various horse racing and betting guides to work out the odds of a race.

At The Circus (1939)

The brothers’ penultimate film for MGM, and by this time the brothers had arguably passed their peak. However, this is still a watchable film, with memorable scenes including Groucho singing the immortal shanty “Lydia, The Tattooed Lady”, Margaret Dumont being shot out of a cannon, and the surreal finale with a full orchestra playing on a floating plinth, floating out into sea past an ocean liner…

The Marx Brothers’ comic legacy is immeasurable – the original class warrior clowns, their freewheeling anarchic spirit is part of comedy’s DNA, from fellow vaudevillians Abbott and Costello and The Three Stooges, to the subversive surrealism of Spike Milligan and the Pythons, and any comedian whose sole raison d’etre is to cock a snook at pretension and the stuffiness of the establishment, and where kinetic slapstick and the illogic logic of tumbling wordplay tickles the funny bones.  Their work will always live on.


❉ Recommended reading: ‘Monkey Business: The Lives And Legends Of The Marx Brothers’ by Simon Louvish (Faber & Faber, 1999)

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