Monday, January 2, 2012

A New Year with the Marx Brothers

Every year I try to ring-in the New Year with the Marx Brothers.  It’s a tradition I started decades ago when I was a kid.  WTTW, our public broadcasting station, would show old movies on New Year’s Eve/New Year’s and it was where I was first exposed to these classic movies.  I was bowled over by them.  The slapstick of Harpo, the absurdity of…well pretty much anything that came out of Chico’s mouth, and the irreverence of Groucho that would lead him to romance Mrs. Teasdale in one breath, while insulting her in the next. Actually they all possessed that sort of irreverence, they just channeled it differently.  They went through life unphased by societal conventions and from what I understand it was the same off screen as it was on.  But then they had led a bit of a free-for-all life by the time their movie careers hit.  The Marx Brothers had been knocking around vaudeville for a couple of decades and were actually in or near their 40s (except for Zeppo, the baby of the family, who was 28) when they made their first movie, “The Cocoanuts” (1929).  It was based on a Broadway musical in which they also appeared.  They hit the silver screen at just the right time.  Before the advent of talkies two years before, Harpo and his silent physical humor might have been fine, but the verbal humor of Chico and Groucho wouldn’t have translated as well.  Conversely, if they had hit it several years later, Chico and Groucho might have been okay, but Harpo’s sort of physical shtick was bowing to more dialogue driven films.
It was the perfect mix at the right time and the chemistry that got them through all those years on stage was evident on screen even though they played characters who normally didn’t know each other (though Chico and Harpo’s characters usually had a friendship).  The jabs Chico and Harpo aimed at other people seemed almost accidental (or provoked by the victim’s arrogance).  At some point during the plots, they would fall into the orbit of Groucho’s character and the three ultimately conspired somehow to do something that would cause someone in high society great consternation.  Groucho’s jabs at his unsuspecting targets seemed meaner and unprovoked, perhaps in keeping with the off-stage, curmudgeon-like character of the comedian himself.
The three of them together were a physical example of vocabulary evolution, from the silent communication of Harpo, to the barely understandable verbiage of Chico, to Groucho, who used words with the swiftness of a snake and the precision of a surgeon.  Interestingly, in real life, Groucho had designs on being a doctor but his fortunes were with his family in show business.  Still he was an avid reader and writer, from articles, to letters. to books and even a play. 
There was often a musical cadence to his dialogue in the films which perhaps is in keeping with the musical talents of the three brothers.  Harpo, of course, played the harp and was considered quite a virtuoso even playing in Moscow as a good will ambassador.  It’s oddly appropriate that the devilish tramp he plays on film is able to sit behind a huge harp and produce such sweet melodies.  A focus overcomes him and suddenly nothing else exists but the man and his harp.

There wasn’t much of a transformation when Chico sat at the keys of a piano but that’s appropriate too.  His style of playing is raucous, rag time, the type of playing you’d find in a speak-easy, where you often found him both on and off screen and he carried that energy with him through life.  I once had a piano teacher tell me that the Chico Marx style of piano playing wasn’t the correct style of piano playing.  Who cares?  It was fun and it sounded great!  I don’t know if he could have played a Beethoven Sonata, but none of that mattered when he launched into a rousing rendition of one of the film’s main theme songs.  Later in life, he even toured with his own big-band.

Even Groucho got into the instrumental act when he played his version of “Everyone Says I Love You” from the film “Horse Feathers” on the guitar, an instrument he learned to play by ear (of the three, Chico was the only one who received lessons and he probably didn’t take those very seriously) and did quite a sturdy job of finger picking the song.

Their talent is particularly fascinating when you consider the fact that Chico was the only one to finish high school (and was probably absent more than present). The second oldest in the trio, Harpo, got through second grade while Groucho, the more academic of them, left before his 13th birthday.  Life, apparently, was their teacher.
When lists of classic films are released, the film “Duck Soup” (1933) ranks high and I concur whole heartedly.  But also on the list are two Marx Brother films which in the MB filmography, tend to overshadow films that I think are much more deserving.
After the release of “Duck Soup” the brothers left Paramount and were convinced by Irving Thalberg to sign with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. At this point there was some talk that the group’s act might be over but Thalberg was able to revitalize their careers with two films, “A Night at the Opera” (1935) (ANATO) and “A Day at the Races” (1937) (ADATR).  These were two great films to be sure with some classic bits.  And Thalberg was perhaps intuitive when he believed that tempering the brothers’ mayhem with a substantial romantic subplot would play better to a movie-going public that had changed since “The Cocoanuts” had hit the screen.  It worked (though sadly Thalberg’s sudden death in 1936 left them without an advocate at the studio and their careers suffered for it).
One reason I find these two films weaker than their previous films is because, for me, romance doesn’t just temper them, it waters them down completely.  Thalberg made them sympathetic and thus more acceptable to an evolving movie audience, yet he also blunted the absurd wit that made them so different and fun to watch in the first place.  Not that I mind sympathetic characters, it's just that's not the strong suit of these guys.
The brothers’ first two films, “The Cocoanuts” and “Animal Crackers” (1930) were both based on Broadway musicals and also had romantic subplots with two rather banal lovers singing swooning tunes to each other.  Still, these subplots, though time stealers, were kept from burdening the film too much by the sheer crazed force of the brothers themselves.  The schmaltz was properly balanced (unlike with “ANATO” and “ADATR”).
I love these two movies and I enjoy “ANATO” and “ADATR” but I would have to say that for me, along with “Duck Soup” the best movies the Marx Brothers made are two that are often ignored or much lower on the list when the lists are compiled.   “Monkey Business” (1931) and “Horse Feathers” (1932).  These are the first two movies written specifically for the Marx Brothers (as opposed to being stage plays turned into a Marx Brothers movie).  And along with “Duck Soup” any romance in them (such as it is) involves a Marx Brother so the storyline moves more seamlessly.
Let’s talk Zeppo for a moment.  I’ve concentrated on the other three, but in the beginning of their film career they were billed as The Four Marx Brothers because, until they moved to MGM, Zeppo was a part of the films.  Zeppo had been tooling around vaudeville with his much older brothers, often filling in for them (he could imitate all of them) if they were unable to perform.  In the films he often played Groucho’s assistant (often his foil) and did a good job at it. 

Who knows why he didn’t develop a character as his brothers did?  Who knows if he truly even wanted to be in the act?  But “Monkey Business” suggests a perfect role for him to play to remain in the films:  That of romantic lead.  He was certainly handsome enough for it and given more material, a stronger screen presence may just have emerged.  In “Monkey Business”, he and his brothers play stow-aways aboard a cruise ship that also carries a gangster and his daughter coming back (presumably) to America.  Along the way, two of the brothers are tapped to work for one gangster while two are tapped to work for his enemy, also on the ship.  The end result is that none of the brothers do a heck of a lot of work for anyone.  While running away from ship’s security, Zeppo has a “meet-cute” with the gangster’s daughter and the two fall for each other.  The film culminates with the daughter being kidnapped by enemies of the gangster and the brothers going to free her, Zeppo the only one actually putting any effort into it as he dukes it out with a kidnapper.
In “Horse Feathers” he plays the son of Groucho’s college president character, who also happens to be romancing the college widow.  The romance is not quite so sweet in this one (especially since the college widow, as played by Thelma Todd, seems to be open to romancing anyone), and his role much smaller, but Zeppo again shows that he can at least hold his own in a movie if given more to work with.  I suspect that one reason he left the group was because by the time “Duck Soup” came about again, he was back to playing Groucho’s assistant, given minimal dialogue or business to do, and didn’t see much point in continuing on (he would go on to a career as a theatrical agent).
In “Duck Soup” the romance angle seemed to go instead to Groucho who spends a good portion of the film alternating between insulting Mrs. Teasdale and asking her to marry him.  It was a game he played in the first two, but not to such vigorous proportions as in “Duck Soup.”  This movie fully reveals the mastery Groucho had with a line.  It wasn’t just the way he said it, it was the tone of his voice and his body language.  It was completely natural.  He could turn on a dime, as when he asks Mrs. Teasdale for a lock of her hair, then tells her, “I’m letting you off easy.  I was going to ask for the whole wig.”  Or when, as the newly installed president of Freedonia, he asks Ambassador Trentino, “So how about paying us that $20 million you owe, skinflint.”  There’s no mugging for the camera, or wacky tone in his voice even though the ridiculousness of the leader of a country calling another country’s ambassador “skinflint” is clearly there.
As pure Marx Brothers movies, “Monkey Business,” “Horse Feathers” and “Duck Soup” let the brothers do what they did best, without having to stop the energy for drippy love-bird songs or forcing them to blunt the sharpness of their skills.  Aside from the obligatory Chico piano and Harpo harp solos, there are no musical numbers in “Monkey Business” (though there is a hilarious reoccurring dance number between Groucho and Thelma Todd); while “Horse Feathers,” aside from Groucho’s opening number as he takes over presidency of the school, has only one other song, “Everyone Says I Love You” sung (or played) to Thelma Todd by each brother in their own style.  The movie spends a good portion of its time taking swipes at the pomposity frequently found in higher education as Professor Wagstaff, a man who fought, finagled or possibly cheated his way into his title becomes the head of a college to the chagrin of the bearded and robed professors at his installation ceremony.  He then decides to focus his attention on helping the college win the football championship by taking his son’s advice (and smothering his ethics) and hiring professional players that he finds at a speak-easy.  His teaching style left much to be desired too.

Curiously, there are no Chico/piano, Harpo/harp performances in “Duck Soup” but the film does boast two fantastic musical numbers.  The popularity of “Duck Soup” re-emerged dramatically in the early 70s as those opposing the Vietnam War honed in on the film’s tight political satire on the absurdity of war.  The film was released several years before Germany invaded Poland (and we all know what that led to) but it seems to have been more inspired by the imperial weirdness that led to World War I.  The end number, “The Country’s Going to War” illustrates the crazed jingoism that shuts out reason and often leads to unwise police actions or straight out war.

It also precedes a brilliant scene where President Firefly takes part in the war started by his own over-sensitivity and stubbornness, which he has no idea how to fight or finish.  Previous Marx Brothers movies may have toyed with messages of class vs. class, but this was a full out message movie.
So as glad as I am that Thalberg was able to help the group with revitalizing its career, and as much as I love the first two movies they ever made, in my opinion, the last three movies they made for Paramount showcased their talents the best and were the finest of a very fine career.