I don’t see many contemporary comedies, and the reason is that when I do I usually don’t care much for them. I’ve occasionally wondered if this indicates some deficiency in me, or a development in the direction of Humorless Old Man. A great deal of contemporary humor seems to be more or less on the level of boys laughing at dirty words. And even when it’s more intelligent, there’s often a meanness about it that I tire of very quickly, even if it’s funny—mean in both senses of the word. There’s little joy in it. It makes light of serious things, but it’s rarely lighthearted. The Simpsons, for instance, is very funny sometimes (in my limited experience), but I’ve never watched it regularly because its cynicism is so thorough that it begins to feel oppressive.
The opening moments of a Marx Brothers movie, however, prove that even if my sense of humor is limited, it is certainly very much alive. The Marx Brothers represent for me something close to a Platonic form of comedy. They have everything, from verbal wit to pure physical comedy (truly pure in the case of Harpo, who never says a word). By no means does all of it work, but enough of it does that just thinking of it is bringing a smile to my face as I write this.
I had decided when we first talked of this 52 Movies project that I would work in a Marx Brothers movie, and that it didn’t really matter which one. I hadn’t seen any of them for ten or fifteen years, and although some are definitely better than others I really just wanted to salute the Marx Brothers, so any of them would do. At one time I would have said that Duck Soup is my favorite, and perhaps I still would if I watched them all again. I picked A Night at the Opera only because it happened to be handy—I had recorded it a while back from a Turner Classic Movies broadcast. I think it’s one of the better ones overall. But there are some specific scenes from others which are among the very funniest (the passport scene in Monkey Business, for instance). And of course it’s the specific scenes that matter; the plots are negligible and usually more or less absurd.
It was less than a minute into A Night at the Opera that I laughed out loud for the first time. The movie opens with the standard Groucho character, Otis B. Driftwood here, engaged in one of his scams with the standard Margaret Dumont character, Mrs. Claypool here. Dumont appears in most of the films playing a wealthy woman from whom Groucho is trying to extract money, pretending to romance her while making fun of her in ways that she doesn’t always get. She is so important to so much of the humor that Groucho once called her “practically the fifth Marx brother.” (And by the way, the fourth Marx brother, Zeppo, who was in some of the films but had no real role in the comedy, does not appear in this one. And the actual fifth brother, Gummo, left the family act before any of the movies were made.)
Otis B. Driftwood and Mrs. Claypool observing the impresario Gottlieb. Their acquaintance is premised on the absurdity that he is going to get her into society.
The Dumont character is a type who doesn’t exist anymore: a grande dame, grande in every sense, towering over Groucho, a rich, snobbish, and stuffy WASP type, who speaks in that antique English-y accent that apparently used to be typical of upper-class Americans in the northeast. The Groucho-Dumont humor could not exist today. The rich snobbish lady still exists, of course, but now she wears jeans—though very expensive jeans—denounces the rich, takes off her clothes for photographers (if she’s beautiful), and has written a book about her extensive sex life. You can’t mock the dignity of someone who has none (though you can certainly mock her pretensions).
Harpo’s first appearance also got a laugh from me. I spent ten or fifteen minutes looking for an image from that scene—he’s dressed in a Pagliacci clown suit and making extravagant singing motions, but no sound comes out—but couldn’t find one. And then I looked for any image at all that would serve as an example of the beatific-mischievous-crazy look he wears much of the time, and, interestingly, couldn’t find one that seemed to capture it. I think this may be because the mobility of his face is so important to that look. Even when it seems to be frozen on his face for a few moments, just prior to his committing some act of anarchy, it’s probably still moving, the grin slowly spreading before his whole body bursts into wild motion.
There’s a brief but quintessential Harpo moment early in this film: everyone is about to embark on an ocean voyage (from Italy to New York), and Chico and Harpo come rushing down a ladder to say goodbye to the sweet young woman who is also another frequent stock character. Chico embraces her. Harpo, from a running start, leaps up onto the pair of them, tumbles off, and runs manically through the crowd hugging and kissing everybody. In real life such a character would be a pathetic and maybe disturbing person, with no sense of appropriate behavior. But as created by Harpo he’s an exuberant and hilarious delight.
Chico is also his usual character, an Italian immigrant with a shaky grasp of the English language and a very pragmatic approach to the ethics of getting along in the world. It’s a gross stereotype which would be utterly unacceptable today, but is nevertheless funny. Here are Groucho and Chico working out the details of a contract which is fraudulent on Groucho’s side and questionable on Chico’s:
Groucho: You don’t need to read that one, it’s a duplicate.
Chico: Duplicate, sure. [continues to read]
Groucho: [after watching Chico for a few seconds] Don’t you know what a duplicate is?
Chico: Sure, it’s those five kids up in Canada.
Groucho: Well, I wouldn’t know about that, I haven’t been in Canada in years.
The “five kids” reference is no doubt to the Dionne quintuplets, born in 1934, the year before A Night at the Opera was released. The risqué touch at the end is pretty frequent in the movies, and is generally funny without being crude—in other words, risqué in the former sense of the word, before it started being used for anything sexual up to and including pornography. Reportedly the brothers were frequently forced to tone down their sexual humor, and their work is probably better for it.
(By the way, Al Pacino in the gangster movie Scarface, speaking with what is meant to be a Cuban accent, sounds exactly like Chico to me, which made watching Scarface slightly disconcerting. I kept expecting him to say something funny.)
I don’t think anyone ever writes about the Marx Brothers without using the word “anarchy” or “anarchic.” One might use the same word about much of the contemporary humor I was just complaining about, but there’s a very different spirit in the Brothers’ work. Today’s anarchic humor seems to spring from anger, the Marx Brothers’ from sheer high spirits. You can mock conventions and pretensions because you take them seriously and they make you angry, or because you can’t take them seriously at all. The anarchy of the Marx Brothers is of the latter type, and it’s joyful. Its essential lightheartedness reminds me of P.G. Wodehouse’s work. And while there is nothing of religion in either the Marx Brothers' or Wodehouse's work, the sheer levity of it, its suggestion that much of what we take seriously is actually ridiculous, sometimes seems to hint at something cosmic.
A Night at the Opera does in fact revolve around the opera, and the money and personalities involved in it. The actual story involves a handsome tenor who languishes unsung (heh) in the chorus, and a pretty soprano who loves him but is being pursued by the pompous and egotistical (of course) star tenor. From several different angles the Marxes help to bring the sweet couple together and to confound pretty much everyone else. There are a couple of big 1930s-style musical productions that I could certainly do without. But there are also musical interludes with Chico and Harpo, which are always fun.
I know it’s hopeless to try to describe or explain humor, and anyway I don’t have a lot of time to spend on this. Objectively, I recognize that a fair amount of the Marx Brothers’ humor falls flat—some of it’s just corny, some of it’s dated—so if you don’t like them as much as I do, I will try not to judge you. But even if only every other joke is funny, that’s still a lot of laughter for me. Here’s a little taste of anarchy for you:
A bit of trivia for people my age: one of those game shows from the 1950s or early ‘60s, maybe What’s My Line? involved a panel of celebrities who to me were mostly just names. I had a vague idea that they must have been well-known before going on the show, but had no idea why. One of them, I recall, was Kitty Carlisle. Well, I don’t know what else she did to be famous, but she played the soprano in A Night At the Opera.
Ok, having read the Wikipedia entry, now I do know what she was known for prior to the TV show. And the show wasn’t What’s My Line?, it was To Tell the Truth. And it continued into the ‘70s.
And by the way: Groucho and T.S. Eliot corresponded, and even met. They apparently admired each other’s work. There is a certain amount of lore about this acquaintance available, but I haven’t yet investigated it.
—Mac is the proprietor of this blog.