The Marx Brothers- Lightning in a Bottle
“The secret of life is honesty and fair dealing. If you can fake that, you’ve got it made.”
“I, not events, have the power to make me happy or unhappy today. I can choose which it shall be. Yesterday is dead, tomorrow hasn’t arrived yet. I have just one day, today, and I’m going to be happy in it.”
When was the last time you went to a movie and actually laughed out loud? Or a scene from a comedy burned into your subconscious so deeply that you remembered it five years later? Another year has gone by, the movie industry is still in recovery mode from Covid, and there isn't that much to laugh about. The funniest movies of this year are almost all animated movies- Minions, Turning Red, Lightyear, and The Bad Guys. The comedy from most of these movies is subtly silly, mixed in with action and adventure to guarantee box office success.
I'm sure I'm showing my age, but back when Hollywood was still young, comedies seemed edgier, more chaotic, and willing to take chances. If you do a search for top comedic movies of all time, almost none of them are from the 21st century. When I think movie comedies, I think Bill Murray, Woody Allen, Mel Brooks, Monty Python, or Naked Gun, all of which were from the 1970's and 80's. The movie business, like most other businesses is one of copying trends. Each successful comedy inspires yet another one, just as blockbuster superhero movies are inspiring producers today. If I trace movie comedy back far enough, I always seem to end up at the Marx Brothers.
The Marx Brothers were pioneers of movie comedy, and one of the best ever at producing consistently funny and iconic movies. I recently did a binge of all 12 Marx Brothers movies (All available on DVD or streaming), and they hold up nicely for the most part. While many of the racial and sexual attitudes of the 1930's and 40's might seem offensive today, the comedy bits lose little, and the mayhem is cathartic. Their movies take place in a fairly dark period of American history- the Depression and World War II. No doubt their humor was appreciated all the more given the uncertainty of the times. (It's said that Winston Churchill watched Marx Brothers movies to cheer him up during the Blitz.)
Most of the movies follow a basic script:
-Groucho Marx, the wise guy, led the way in poking fun at institutions of the time. His jabs and insults were rehearsed meticulously and almost always made their mark. He mocked his targets, himself, and sometimes even broke the fourth wall to clue the audience in on the fun.
-Chico Marx, the smart aleck, played comic foil to Groucho and buddy to Harpo, helping to make both of his brothers shine. Sporting an Italian accent in every movie, he played dumb but always seemed to get the best of his opponents. Almost every movie contains a scene of Chico playing the piano. Chick-o, as he was originally named, was something of a ladies' man, and also a compulsive gambler. (Some of the later movies were supposedly made to help pay off Chico's gambling debts.
- Harpo Marx, the mute clown, used physicality to produce humor and provided a necessary counterpoint to Groucho's loudmouth wise guy. In person he was known to be the sweetest of the brothers, and he kept his mute act up for the public, never speaking in any public engagements. In almost every movie he plays a harp solo.
- Zeppo Marx, the normal one, only appeared in the first five movies, choosing to work behind the scenes as an agent. Zeppo played the romantic lead or straight man most of the time, and left out of frustration for not being given enough comedic scenes. (Supposedly when the brothers were playing on Broadway Zeppo stood in for Groucho for a few weeks and was so funny he stirred up some jealousy.)
(There was also a fifth brother, Gummo, who never appeared in any of the movies, although their father Sam had a cameo in Monkey Business)
- Margaret Dumont was in more than half of the movies and provided an essential element of stuffy, normal society for the boys to play against. Dumont and Groucho had many scenes where his wisecracks seemed to go over her head, and she played the straight woman upon which much of their mayhem was unleashed.
Comedy is hard. Much harder to perfect than drama. One of the elements that made the Marx Brothers comedies so funny is that they tried a lot of their routines out on live audiences. The brothers got their start in Vaudeville, doing live shows together and finding out what audiences laughed at and what they didn't. The first two Marx Brothers movies are actually stage plays that they perfected on Broadway. Two of their biggest hits- Night at the Opera and Day at the Races, were tried out on tours around the country before actual filming began. Getting a laugh from a line is not a predictable thing, and one of the secrets to the humor is the time and effort given in fine-tuning the jokes based on audience reaction. It's what stand-up comedians do every night. (Politicians do this too- try out new material on test audiences, and keep going with the stuff that gets the best reactions.)
Here then, is a short recap of all 12 movies:
Cocoanuts- Set in Florida during a real estate boom, their first film has some technical issues related to the quality of film used. It was a hit on Broadway, and Paramount made a huge production of it with large dance numbers and stupid jokes like the one below.
Animal Crackers- A missing painting is all that's needed in this one. Also a hit on the Broadway stage, they did this live at the same time they were filming Cocoanuts.
Horsefeathers- The brothers go to college and help un-fix a rigged football game.
Monkey Business- The boys stow away on a boat and cause chaos wherever they go as they dodge crooks and gunmen.
Duck Soup- The purest comedy of the 12- no love stories, no harp or piano solos, just making fun of war, spies and government officials as World War II looms. This was their last Paramount movie and a box office bomb, but later picked as one of their best.
A Night at the Opera Their first movie with MGM under Irving Thalberg, who rejuvenated their careers with a funny romp through the stuffy world of opera.
A Day at the Races Their second and last outing with Thalberg, who supported them more than any executive ever would. This time they try to save a sanitarium by betting on horses. The sketch below was tried out in front of live audiences and became one of their most famous.
Room Service- This was a popular stage play about the theater business, not written for the Marx Brothers. They bought the rights and made it their own for RKO, along with a very young Lucille Ball, who would go on to buy the studio later.
At the Circus - The boys take on a struggling circus and crooks trying to take it down.
Go West More fun in the old west
The Big Store The Marx Brothers try to foil a plot to take over a department store.
A Night in Casablanca Their last movie together in 1946, made mainly because of Chico's gambling debts. It actually holds up well today as it foils a plot with Nazi's and stolen treasures.
There was a 13th movie called Love Happy, but it was so bad that the brothers and their fans have ignored it. They also appeared in separate cameos in a movie called The Story of Mankind, and were in talks for a 14th movie in 1960 before Chico and Harpo got ill and eventually died.
The movie business has changed substantially since the days of the Marx Brothers, and nothing like their act is likely to reoccur. Movies with skirt-chasing cads and blackface-wearing comics wouldn't pass today's standards, but a lot of their clever wordplay and physical comedy is immortal.
Are comedians today less talented? No. But the replacement of Vaudeville with stand-up comedy encourages an entirely different skill set in aspiring comics. And the huge amounts of money at stake in Hollywood makes it less and less likely for a studio to take a risk on pure comedies. As a baby boomer, I grew up on a steady diet of comedies like this, and I regret that today's young people don't have something as silly and anarchic to latch onto. Hopefully comedy will prevail and evolve, because- boy, do we sure need it, especially now.