For the uninitiated: Zeppo, Groucho, Chico and Harpo
One hectic spring somewhere in my thirties, I realized that I was coming perilously close to taking myself and everyday life too seriously. Dwelling on chronic annoyances and my inability to remedy them was simply compounding my problems. I was at risk of developing a permanently sour expression. Then I stumbled upon a most unexpected antidote to gloomy self-absorption. While browsing at the library, I found a DVD box set of the first five Marx Brothers movies.
The Marx Brothers were a cultural phenomenon that I had somehow ignored. I knew who Groucho Marx was, of course, and I was aware of Harpo’s pantomime shtick, but beyond a rudimentary knowledge of titles and famous routines, I knew almost nothing of their celebrated movies. What was it that made them so appealing to their fans? The box set was an opportunity to eradicate my gnawing ignorance. Anal retentive that I am, I resolved to watch all of the movies in the order by which they were released. It was a course of action that, in hindsight, I would prescribe to anyone who feels weighed down by their burdens.
Like all medication, however, it helps to be disciplined in your consumption. Don’t be put off by the strange flavor of the first dose. Modern movie audiences have little inherent patience for the quirky conventions of early cinema, and the Marx Brothers began their film careers at the dawn of talkies. The Cocoanuts (1929) can be challenging viewing for anyone accustomed to today’s technical standards and narrative structures. The language of cinema was still in its infancy. When Paramount Studios decided to adapt the Marx Brothers’ Broadway hit as a motion picture, their creative team made an almost literal translation of the work from stage to screen. Consequently, The Cocoanuts comes across as half entertainment and half historical document. The sets look like stage sets. The choreography is stage choreography. Dance numbers that may have worked charmingly well in the theater merely interrupt the narrative. It is almost as if someone set up a few cameras around the Marx Brothers and company and simply let them do precisely what they had done on the Great White Way.
Despite its weaknesses, The Cocoanuts introduces the essential elements of an act that had been honed to perfection over years of vaudeville performances. Groucho, the verbally violent puncturer of pomposity. Chico, the deadpan deliverer of nonsensical speeches with the inexplicable persona of a stereotypical Italian immigrant. Harpo, perhaps cinema’s purest channeler of uninhibited juvenile mischief. And Zeppo, the…well, somebody had to be the straight man. Toss in straight woman Margaret Dumont, some whimsical piano playing from Chico and a harp solo from Harpo, and you have the basic formula that would follow the Marxes through most of their film career.
Incredibly, while the Marx Brothers were filming The Cocoanuts by day, they were starring in their second Broadway success at night. Naturally, it was adapted as their next movie. Animal Crackers (1930) is a tighter production in all regards, deftly sustaining a narrative of romance and intrigue amid the mayhem of its stars. Monkey Business (1931) sets the madness aboard a cruise ship, while Horse Feathers (1932) puts the Brothers on a college campus.
The Marx Brothers reached their artistic zenith with their next two efforts, though the pair of films are wildly dissimilar in many respects. Duck Soup (1933) ostensibly satirizes the politics of war, though its narrative of failed diplomacy is mostly another vehicle for Marxian lunacy. It includes the justifiably famous mirror sequence, a spectacular pantomime punchline to the farcical setup of Harpo and Chico running about impersonating Groucho. The last of their pictures for Paramount, it was also the swan song for plot lines that were subservient to anarchic comedy and surreal laughs, as well as being the final film for Zeppo.
When the Marx Brothers returned to the silver screen in 1935, it was under the tutelage of MGM’s wunderkind Irving Thalberg, who envisioned their humor enriched with higher production values, a credible narrative, and a parallel romantic storyline. The winning result, A Night at the Opera, was their most accessible film to date, featuring Allan Jones as – dare I say it? – a better Zeppo than Zeppo. Groucho and Chico perform their great “party of the first part” contract routine, Harpo has a hysterical turn impersonating a famous airman who is asked to give a speech, and Kitty Carlisle shines as Jones’ love interest. Thalberg even managed to seamlessly incorporate the obligatory piano and harp solos. Oh, and there’s great music, too. And Margaret Dumont.
Jones worked with the Marx Brothers again in A Day at the Races (1937), but the magic was starting to wane. Subsequent efforts paled in comparison to their first films, yet they contain gems to reward patient viewing. At the Circus (1939), to take one example, is very uneven, yet there is a wonderfully comic scene in a circus midget’s miniature dressing room, and Groucho sings Lydia, the Tattooed Lady, one of the funniest (and bawdiest) G-rated songs ever written. If you’ve watched every Marx Brothers film from The Cocoanuts through A Night at the Opera, they’ve already won you over, and even their lesser efforts offer some satisfying time with old friends.
But what of the medicinal value of concentrated Marx Brothers viewing? It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what it does, just as we may be at a loss to explain precisely what aspirin is doing in our systems, but I know that it works. Prolonged exposure to the Marx Brothers simply made me feel better, not just while watching their films but throughout the rest of the day. The fantasy world they created, in which incompetent authority is ridiculed without consequence, has timeless appeal. There is something very satisfying about seeing Groucho heartlessly eviscerate his oppressors. Chico’s dryly delivered conundrums offer respite from the social expectation that one must behave sensibly. The madness of Harpo is a total liberation from the constraints of reality. All of these things are true in themselves, but it is their combination with a host of intangible and unidentifiable factors that is the magic elixir.
Feeling blue? Start your cinematic antidepressant therapy with The Cocoanuts, and see if things haven’t lightened up a bit by the time you spend A Night at the Opera. If it works for you, too, then by all means, repeat as often as necessary.