Marx Brothers – Merchants of Mirth
“Humor is reason gone mad.” – Groucho Marx
For these American madmen, there existed no sacred cow in their crazy, loony, zany world. Everything fell within their satirical target range – education, politics, culture, sex, upper class, war, police and every authoritarian icon – their humor transcended time.
As American film historian Paul Zimmermann put it, “Marx Brothers are larger than life and more lunatic than life – (they) have become a metaphor for the improbable.”
With ‘anything for fun’ as their motto, the Brothers Marx were Harpo, Chico and the one and only Groucho. In his own immodest way, Groucho changed the world around him, like his great namesake, but unrelated, Karl did! Hollywood never made full use of their talents but these Marxists did not care. Without stooping to the movie moguls they conquered other worlds, of radio, television and the human heartland. Without a doubt, the Marx Brothers were one of the most brilliant comedy teams of all times.
“I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book.”
“Those are my principles, and if you don’t like them… well, I have others.””Remember men, we’re fighting for this woman’s honor; which is probably more than she ever did.”
“Martha dear, there are many bonds that will hold us together through eternity – Your government bonds, savings bonds, liberty bonds!”
“The secret of life is honesty and fair dealing. If you can fake that, you’ve got it made.”
“One day, I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How it got there, I don’t know!”
“Anyone who says he can see through women is missing a lot.”
“Outside of a dog, a book is man’s best friend. Inside of a dog it’s too dark to read.”
Invigorating insults, crazy nonsense, deliciously delightful word jugglery or a rare vintage cocktail of all? Whatever it is, these boxed hors d’oeuvres are just a succulent sample of the comedy from those loopy, zany merchants of humor, mayhem and disorder – The Marx Brothers!
Their father Sam was a well dressed, unsuccessful tailor and mother Minnie, the stage-struck daughter of a wandering German magician. Born Julius (Groucho-1895), Adolph (Harpo-1893), Leonard (Chico-1891) along with the two other brothers Zeppo and Gummo, they found their way into vaudeville and tried out many light sketches. The path to success on stage at the infancy of last century was paved with potholes but they crossed them all.
Vaudeville shows in American towns with names like Thisbodaux, Plaquemine, Lafayatte (yes, such towns do exist in the U.S), no big time conquests and Broadway not yet in sight – that’s the way it was for the Brothers till the roaring ‘Twenties’ dawned. In 1924, after many a winter of discontent and small fry summers of success, the Marx Brothers made it to Broadway, at last! Their show “I’ll Say She Is!” was a raving hit and shook New York with fits of laughter.
Their second show ‘The Cocoanuts’ was another hit, followed by smashing success of ‘Animal Crackers’. The hat trick complete, Groucho and his gleeful gang had New York at their feet. With Broadway conquered, Hollywood came calling making coy and cash rich gestures. Responding to Paramount’s overtures, they struck a deal to turn the ‘The Cocoanuts’ into a movie. Back then, Paramount also had a studio in Astoria, New York. The film was shot there, as it was convenient for the Marx Brothers to shoot the film while the sun shone and play on Broadway at sundown.
Movies had just begun to talk when they debuted in 1929 with ‘The Cocoanuts.’ Film directors Robert Florey and Joseph Stanley had to struggle with new unfamiliar, bulky sound equipment with a penchant to often break down in mid-take. If the machine behaved well, Florey broke up with loud laughter spoiling the take. Thus with man and machine messing up takes, some gags had to be shot and reshot as many as thirty times till finally Florey, was placed inside a sound proof glass booth from where he directed the movie with eloquent gestures.
A solid hit, the story is too involved to narrate in brief. It also starred Margaret Dumont (who was to play his foil in many of Marx Brothers’ movies) as a rich society lady whom Groucho woos and insults with equal gusto, “Did anyone tell you that you look like the Prince of Wales? And when I say Wales, I mean whales. I know a whale when I see one!” he tells his prospective sweet-pie.
The success led to the making of the second movie, ‘Animal Crackers’ (1930). Paramount paid each brother 50,000 dollars per movie as against 2000 dollars a week on Broadway. America was in the grip of the great crash of 1929 and that was a fistful of dollars. Lured by the tinsel town, the Marxists bade good-bye to Broadway.
Another smash, ‘Animal Crackers’ was more a canned version of their stage play but audiences did not seem to care about imperfections of cinematic art. Groucho was, as usual, in form with his rapid-fire monologues, meaningless chatter and plethora of barbed insults.
One of the famous scenes in this film is his recital about Africa. ”Africa is God’s country and He can have it,” he tells the guests, “…after fifteen days on water, and six on boat, we arrived in Africa – we took pictures of native girls. But they were not developed; not the pictures, I mean, the girls!”
‘Monkey Business’ (1931) was their first movie specially written for the screen. This real McCoy was made possible by the pen of comic genius S. J. Perelman, famed to tickle even frozen mummies into gales of laughter. Perelman’s genius is clearly evident in the literary flavour permeating the movie. In a memorable sequence, Harpo is chased by an angry crew aboard a ship. In a flash of his own brand of brilliance, he seeks shelter in a Punch and Judy show for kids in progress. He picks up a pair of puppets leg and clips them on to his neck like a tie. Now he pokes his head onstage and becomes the third puppet in the show.
Even as Monkey Business had the bolt-chewing critics howling with laughter, came ‘Horse Feathers’ (1932) a dazzling Marx style satire on the American system of collegiate education, lampooning many aspects of campus life. Groucho plays Professor Quincy Adams Wagstaff who becomes college president. He has his own super ideas, of course, on education, sports and life. His basic philosophy as college president, “Whatever it is, I am against it!”
As America wilted under the crushing impact of the Great Crash, Marx Brothers kept a grateful nation in good humour. ‘Duck Soup’ (1933) was a movie in that mould. While it was not a big hit, it is considered by cognoscenti as one of their best. In fact, it is one of the two Marx movies in the library of film classics of MOMA (Museum of Modern Art).
After the cool reception to Duck Soup the filmic graph of the Marx clan dipped perilously and nothing seemed to click. One day Chico, a regular bridge player met a slim, serious man who asked him about the trio’s plans and invited them to lunch.
Amidst salad and souffle, the host pointed the errors in the Marx brand comedy. Then he said, “You get me the laughs and I’ll get you the story.”
Two years later came ‘A Night At The Opera’ (1935) and the pale young man turned out to be Irving Thalberg, the legendary production head at MGM. Added to the genius of Thalberg and the talent of Marx gang was the directorial brilliance of Sam Wood, exceptionally good at screen comedy. No wonder the film turned out to be a super hit, a screen comedy classic, a laugh explosive. The story is about Mrs. Claypool (Margaret Dumont) a midde aged, millionairess seeking a fast track elevation in high society meeting a penniless quick talking, culture promoter Otis P. Driftwood (Groucho). She invests her dollars and opera singers are hired to perform in New York with Groucho sparing no insult. He addresses her as “my good woman” and she snaps back, “I am not your good woman” and pronto comes the reply, “I don’t care what your past has been. To me you will always be my good woman. ‘A Night At The Opera’ went on to make screen history, netting a three million dollar profit in the US alone!
Trying to repeat the rewarding recipe, Thalberg launched, ‘A Day At The Races’ (1937) but he died three weeks later. He was 39. A movie about horse doctors treating haughty women, it was a come down for the Marxs, whom MGM turned into assembly line contractual clones. All that followed; ‘Room Service’ (1938), ‘At The Circus (1939), ‘Go West’ (1940), ‘The Big Store’ (1941), ‘A Night In Casablanca’ (1946), ‘Love Happy’ (1949) was fun but the missing touch of class.
Of their decline, Groucho laid the blame on the demise of satire in American cinema while Harpo said “Nobody took the care we took. We worked with the writers for six months and then they worked alone for six months. By the end, it just wasn’t done that way anymore.”