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Marxism Begins at Home
by Mariana Cirne

Groucho: That’s...that’s all right, that’s in every contract. It’s what they call a sanity clause.
Chico: Hahahaha, you can’t fool me. There ain’t no Sanity Clause.
--from A Night at the Opera

The Marx Brothers, namely Chico, Harpo, Groucho and Zeppo, were the children of a vaudeville family troupe that landed in the movies during the late 20s. They made a dozen during the course of the 30s and 40s, among which are Duck Soup, Horse Feathers, Animal Crackers, A Day at the Races, and the classic A Night at the Opera. Their sense of humour was densely populated by puns such as the one above, from the famous contract scene in A Night at the Opera. How translators went about the task of making this kind of gag accessible to foreign audiences is a mystery to me. Nevertheless, there has always been an audience for them where I come from (of course, there’s more to the brothers’ humour than just puns). I was introduced to this Marxism of the grouchian line as a child by my stepfather, who didn’t speak a word of English at the time. A few years later we moved to Boston, where we gained access both to the English language and to numerous reruns of the Marx Brothers classics on TV. Needless to say, we were hooked.

The first thing that comes to mind when trying to describe the brothers is that each had a well-defined persona that never changed. They had in common the fact that they were all lovable scoundrels, and Harpo, the mute clownish type, was the most obviously endearing. Chico, a sui generis musician, was the creator of the comedic piano – the way he moved his fingers around the keys would have made my piano teacher’s hairs stand on end. Chico’s character was supposedly of Italian origin, and his accent alone had a comedic effect, but most importantly, it provided him with the opportunities to create hilarious puns and malapropisms. These word games reached their wise-cracking peaks when they happened between Chico and the most famous of the brothers, Groucho. It’s safe to say that even those who have never seen a Marx Brothers flick, or heard of Groucho Marx, are familiar with the classic “thick eyebrows and mustache” look. When Groucho created this look and all the mannerisms that went along with it – the bent knee walk, the stinging voice, the cigar - he hit the nail right on the head. He is pure charisma, the kind that makes you laugh by simply showing up. As for Zeppo, some say he was the insipid member of the troupe (and I tend to agree), while others argue that he contributed by counter-balancing the boys’ hyperactivity.

In spite of all the nonsensical action, it is common knowledge that the brothers produced extremely incisive social satire. They showed no respect whatsoever for members of the high society, scholars, statesmen, military officials, physicians or stuffed shirts in general. One could argue that they were simply having a go at authority and pomposity, since these are obvious references for comedy. The Marxes themselves would probably have maintained that even in Duck Soup – where Groucho figures as the President of a country named Freedonia - they were making no political statement whatsoever. Regardless of wether or not there was any method in this madness, the brothers were undeniably rebellious and skeptical of conventions. Not all of the boys’ films are brilliant – some, like The Big Store, are quite forgettable (although I would say there is at least one moment of genius in every one of them). One must watch their classics from 1929-37 to find the brilliance that has influenced such people as Woody Allen, Monty Python and so many comedy writers – in fact, the range of their influence is such that it has been incorporated into the general spirit by which American humour operates.

The Marx team left Paramount and joined MGM in 1935, bringing all their anarchy and brilliance with them, but the studio thought it necessary to have them formatted for movie audiences of the time. A comedy had to necessarily include elements of romance and music. So writers were hired to create storylines to balance the marxist humour. Fitting all that creativity into a plot was not a bad thing in itself, of course, otherwise their films would have simply been a collection of vaudevillian sketches. But the fact is, MGM’s efforts to mold the marxian acidity into the standard musical/romantic comedies of the time created some of the corniest moments of movie history. Today those scenes look completely out of place and ring as phony as can be, not to mention the abrupt twist of mood from outrageous comedy into syrup-sweet “love-making.” No, this didn’t make their gags less ingenious or intelligent, but it did rob most of their films, as a whole, of one characteristic that their humor has kept: timelessness.



The brothers sans makeup, 1924.
Can you tell who's who?

 

 

MARXIST MOVIES:

The Classics:
The Cocoanuts (1929)
Animal Crackers (1930)
Monkey Business (1931)
Horse Feathers (1932)
Duck Soup (1933)
A Night at the Opera (1935)
A Day at the Races (1937)

The Gradual Decline:
Room Service (1938)
At the Circus (1939)
Go West (1940)
The Big Store (1941)
A Night in Casablanca (1946)
Love Happy (1950)