I Wonder Whatever Became of Me?
French, Tony, CineAction
A NOTE ON THE MARX BROTHERS
Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore,
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed, to me:
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.
--Emma Lazarus, inscription on The Statue of Liberty
Ever since I started seeing the Marx Brothers' films in the 1930s (the later ones at first, alas!), I've been wondering what was so special about them and why they've lasted so magnificently, with an endurance equalled, in comedy, only by silent films such as those of Laurel & Hardy and--nowadays with a good many reservations--of Charlie Chaplin. Other comic talkies of the 1930s, mostly of the "screwball" variety, have also lasted well, but always, I think--as in the case of, say, The Awful Truth or Bringing Up Baby--because they were about something, usually intimate man/woman relationships. But the Marx Brothers' films can hardly be described as being obviously "about" anything at all. Of course, one might characterise The Cocoanuts (1929) and Animal Crackers (1930) as being "satires" on High Society just before and during the Wall Street Crash: but no-one could reasonably claim that Cunard or The Mob would have been justified in suing the makers of Monkey Business (1931) for misrepresenting life on passeng er liners and the true nature of gangsters, or that Horse Feathers (1932) gives us the low-down on the American system of Tertiary education, which was doubtless, like most such systems, beyond satire anyway. Many writers, including the admirable Joe Adamson (Groucho, Harpo, Chico and Sometimes Zeppo, London 1974) discuss Duck Soup (1933) as being direct political satire--possibly (but none too probably) meaning that, in the arraignment of Chico for espionage, it anticipates Hitler's Reichstag Fire trial by several months and Stalin's Treason Trials by four years: a truly prophetic achievement... But, sarcasm apart, I'm still, seventy-two years after their first film was released, wondering why the Marx Brothers' movies endure. Aren't they pretty meaningless, apart from mere jokes like "You're heading for a breakdown--why don't you pull yourself to pieces?"? Can pointless things be amusing (if at all) more than evanescently? What, really, are the Marx Brothers' films about?
First, to make some basic distinctions, which I think are generally accepted these days: the films which the Marxes made after they went over to MGM in 1935 (and after Zeppo left the act) show the new studio's complete misunderstanding of their art, an incomprehension which was made acceptable, in the first two at least, by the glossy genius of Irving Thalberg. Thalberg, having supervised A Night at the Opera (1935), died during the making of A Day at the Races (1937), and thereafter the Marx Brothers' films went into a steep decline, though they trickled on for another decade (one must expunge Room Service and Love Happy from one's mind. Apart from the general tiredness of the humour, the glitzy "production numbers" and the facile New Deal optimism, the MGM films look all wrong: they are so expertly-photographed (in one sense) that they give one the impression of taking place in the real world, or at least MGM's bryicreemed idea of it, whereas the Paramount films float the freer from mundane reality by virt ue of their very crudity, and Groucho's greasepaint moustache is entirely in keeping with the unreality of just about everything else. The MGM Brothers' personae have also changed fundamentally: they are now trying to help young lovers instead of sedulously disembowelling the whole idea of conventional bourgeois "love." There are plenty of hilarious sequences (five per film was Dr Thalberg's prescription), but for the most part they are merely funny. There is perhaps a sense in which, in viewers minds, the earlier films have been assimilated to, even absorbed by, the later. In my view the authentic Marx canon comprises only the five films made for Paramount between 1929 and 1933, all of which I've already mentioned. …