Mention the Marx Brothers and I instantaneously break out into that stooped walk, with a cigar in hand, made famous by Groucho Marx. I also can’t help but smile when I see that silly grease paint moustache that Groucho proudly sports. Though I break out in laughter when I think of his brother Harpo with his mischievous antics of blowing horns and slapstick, teamed together with the dozens of items he constantly keeps pulling out from within his coat. Last but not least, Chico rounds out the trio of brothers I fondly remember, always seemingly up to no good with Harpo, playing a crafty con artist with a bad Italian accent. But wait what about Zeppo and Gummo Marx, I hear you say. True, there were five Marx brothers, however Gummo, the youngest brother, never appeared in any of his brothers movies. While Zeppo, who played the straight man and romantic only appeared in the brothers’ first five movies. (At one point they were known as the Four Marx Brothers, later simply as the Marx brothers.) Nonetheless, I hope you will agree with me that Groucho, Chico and Harpo are the quintessential Marx brothers we all adore and remember.
The Marx brothers, all five of them, were born in New York City and raised in a poor neighbourhood on the Upper East Side at the turn of twentieth century. Their parents, in particular their domineering stage mother Minnie Marx, were determined to see them succeed and encouraged the boys from a very early age to sing and explore their artistic talents. To the boys’ credit they were willing to try anything in an attempt to escape a life of poverty. Harpo, of course, as we know was an amazing harpists, Chico an excellent pianist and Groucho a guitarist and singer.
The first stirring of modest success came in the early 1910’s in shabby horrible venues in small towns. When the Marx Brothers act was one day hijacked by a runaway mule, outside a Vaudeville theatre in Texas, the incident was a blessing in disguise. Legend states that the theatres audience apparently raced out the door to see this runaway mule, leaving the Marx brothers utterly astonished, as they looked at the empty theatre in front of them. Finally, when the audience returned to their seats, Groucho angrily burst into a tirade of abuse at the audience. The audience apparently burst into laughter and so legend states that Groucho saw the potential for a new act. From then on end the brothers became more and more adventurous, developing witty humour and impromptu gags for their act.
In 1914, a very positive review in Variety magazine helped catapult them to stardom. Suddenly the Marx Brothers found themselves booked solid on all the top vaudeville circuits. As the act began to come to the fore, Groucho began to invent more new material that brought even greater laughs. It was around this time that the brothers acquired the nicknames by which they would become famous for around the world. They also adopted a stage persona, which they then stuck with for the rest of their careers. Harpo, in particular, stopped talking on stage, choosing to get laughs out of an old car horn to ‘honk’ out his retorts.
By the early 1920s, the Marx brothers began to realize that vaudeville was dying a slow death. People had grown tired of it as a form of entertainment. So in 1924 they moved their successful act to Broadway. It wasn’t long before they became the toast of New York. All that remained was now to conquer Hollywood and they did to some extent with their first outing, The Cocoanuts (1929), a successful transfer of the Broadway stage act to the big screen. It fair to say, it may not have been their greatest foray into motion pictures; however it had all the chaotic madness we come to except from the Marx Brothers.
Of all the Marx Brothers movies, it is the period before America’s involvement in World War II, that audience straight out of the Depression era first fell in love with the zany brothers. It is rare in my opinion that they made a bad movie in the pre-war years. The Marx Brothers in the 1930s were at the zenith as a comedy act. Chaos ruled both on scene and behind the camera. They were sometimes described as ‘unhinged maniacs’ and complete show-offs. Industry insiders have commented that their confidence as performers was often interpreted as arrogance. They walked with a swagger because they knew that they were funny.
However, after a short retirement during the war years, the Marx Brothers movies that followed the end of WWII never really lived up to audience expectation. (In my opinion I believe they should have stayed retired at the end of 1941, but purportedly reunited because of Chico’s financial troubles.) It seemed that audiences had grown tired of the anarchical mayhem they were famous for. To add insult to injury, the American public had fallen in love with someone new, in particular Abbott and Costello. Furthermore, in the postwar world, New York and the rest of America would be swept up by the slapstick hysteria that was Martin and Lewis. Yet despite these harsh observations, the Marx Brothers genuinely hold a special place in cinema history.
For students of cinema, film buffs and readers in general, here below is what I believe are five essential films that say something about the Marx Brothers and the legacy of laughs they left us. I have deliberately stayed clear of the post-war years and I hope that you will agree with my choices, but as always I am happy for you to persuade me otherwise.
Animal Crackers (1930)
Between 1929 and 1933, at Paramount Pictures, the four Marx Brothers made some of the wildest comedies of all time. Their earliest pictures, both The Cocoanuts and Animal Crackers, are two examples of the closest thing to their successful stage acts and Broadway shows of the late1920’s. A very loose plot interjected with the occasion musical number, see Animal Crackers focus on the theft of a valuable oil painting, where Groucho steers us through a silly mystery manhunt. That said, the Marx brothers run amok, indulging in a riotous amount of ad lib, probably for the benefit for the best amount of laughs. Personally I can’t complain, no one here is really focusing on the script including the Marx Brothers. Three of the films most memorable scenes worth mentioning are Groucho’s African safari lecture, the loony bridge game scene played out by Chico and Harpo and the closing act where Harpo as the Professor, is chastised by a police sergeant, and in an attempt to escape he sprays everyone with a ‘knockout substance’ from a flit can.
Monkey Business (1931)
The Marx brothers led by Groucho gave the writing team behind Monkey Business a tough time. He hated the first draft of the script, despite being keen on the idea of the Marx Brothers as stowaways on a luxury liner. After some five months of reworking ideas and gags, a script to the liking of Groucho was finally ready. Interestingly, even with a script the Marx Brothers ran riot with their fondness for improv and ad lib humour. It’s safe to say, the brothers managed to annoy everyone with their antics in the film. It is also a film that Groucho, for better or worse, excelled in with his crude dialogue. That said, Groucho’s scenes with actress Thelma Todd are still amusingly enjoyable despite all the sexual innuendo.
Many have argued that Monkey Business is one of the Marx Brothers weakest films at Paramount Pictures. Personally, I’m not so certain that is the case. Sure, the plot is flimsy, but after all, in a film littered with gags, jokes, puns and one-liners, we will never be short of a laugh.
Horse Feathers (1932)
The plot of the Marx brothers fourth film Horse Feathers centres on the fortunes of a college football game and Professor Quincy Adams Wagstaff’s (played by Groucho) attempt to recruit professional footballers to help the Huxley University team. All is definitely not well when through a series of misunderstandings, Groucho recruits Chico and Harpo, who go onto wreak terrible havoc across the university. In fact, one of my favourite scenes involves Chico and Harpo, as they attempt to kidnap the opposing team’s star players in the films big game and end up – in true Marx idiotic style – kidnapping themselves.
Without giving too much more away about this wonderful comedy, I must at least also mention the ‘password’ scene played out by Chico and Groucho, as an example of what I feel exemplifies the spirit of the Marx Brothers comedic genius. It is often through these sort of simple exchanges and talkative scenes that they excel in as comedians. Not only is the witty delivery of the lines clever in the ‘password’ scene, but also how Chico as a comedian is always so dependable at playing the perfect foil for his brothers.
Duck Soup (1933)
Not all their films were well received including Duck Soup, which over time has become regarded as one of the greatest comedies of all time. This madcap feature is one of my favourite Marx Brothers films. Right from the opening scene, with four ducks swimming in a huge pot of water, you know something special is cooking. No pun intended! Well actually, it is the non-stop puns that really drive this quintessence Marx Brothers picture. Make no mistake about it, with Groucho in charge of proceedings, you can’t escape, the pun after pun that flows from his mouth like verbal diarrhoea.
The film successfully sends up the foolishness of dictatorship and of war, where an inexperienced leader plunges the imaginary country of Freedonia into war. I believe Benito Mussolini even banned the movie in Italy, citing the films political message a little to close to his own deep-seated insecurities. Groucho Marx, of course, would have us believe “We were just four Jews trying to get a laugh.” Nevertheless, Duck Soup was a film well ahead of its time, with its satire look at early 1930’s politics, its witty dialogue and physical gags. One of the films standout sequences finds Harpo pretending to be Groucho’s reflections in ‘the mirror scene’. With what seems like possible skill and timing, Groucho puts Harpo through an exhaustive test to prove Groucho is looking at his own reflection. When the brothers exchange places during the skit, you can’t help but marvel the lengths they go to make us laugh.
A Night at the Opera (1935)
In 1934, after moving to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios, without Zeppo (who went on to become a successful agent, representing his older brothers, among many others talents), the repackaged Marx Brothers starred in a series of comedies, which included A Day at the Races (1937), At the Circus (1939) and Go West (1940) that were designed to be a lot more commercially acceptable. To achieve this the famous onscreen anarchy of the Marx Brothers previous pictures was toned down by studio head Irvin Thalberg (who also added a besuming element of romance to the subplot of their pictures).
The first film that sort to exploit this new formula was A Night at the Opera, widely regarded as one of their best films along side Duck Soup. In short, A Night at the Opera contains several of the Marx Brothers most iconic moments, notably the crowded stateroom scene, which piles a group of people and a trunk into the smallest cabin you have ever seen on a ship and the contract-tearing scene between Groucho and Chico. Interestingly, A Night at the Opera, for all the studios efforts to tone down the Marx lawless humour, still manages to allow them enough rope with the final opera mayhem scene, to conclude a truly satisfying funny picture.
Photo credit: The header image is a publicity photo of the Marx Brothers in A Night in Casablanca (1946). It is used the under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International license. I am not the uploader of You Tube clips embedded here in this article.
This article originally appeared on Sean Munger’s website as Anyone care for some Duck Soup? The Marx Brothers Revisited. I have taken the liberty to revise and expand my ideas here to make it a feature on my essential films series.