Once upon a time, on an ocean liner bound for New York, there was a very small stateroom occupied by a very large trunk.
Here’s how you build one of the greatest gags in cinema history, one step at a time.
1. Groucho. As in all of the brothers’ escapades, his unflappable nature beautifully undercuts the escalating madness. You can readily believe that his first instinct each time there’s a knock on the door is to invite the person inside, just to see how they’ll react. (Arguably the funniest moment is his delighted “No! Come on in!” when asked if he’d ordered a manicure.) And because he treats the situation as if it’s perfectly normal, so too does everybody else—if anyone seemed the slightest bit exasperated or put out, the scene wouldn’t be such a classic.
2. The trunk. Gigantic steamer trunks are inherently funny, though the only other movie I know of that recognizes this truth is Joe Vs. The Volcano, in which Tom Hanks buys four of them from the most ardent luggage salesman of all time. It would have been easy to just crowd a lot of people into an even smaller room, but the beauty of the trunk (in addition to its function as a plot device—Chico, Harpo, and boring straight man Allan Jones smuggle themselves onto the ship in it) is that characters keep vanishing behind it and then suddenly reappearing, creating the impression that the room is somehow spontaneously coughing up even more interlopers.
3. Stew. Most of the folks who show up do so without any advance warning, and once the gag is well underway, it’s easy to forget the prelude out in the hallway, during the course of which Groucho methodically orders enough food to feed a small army and Chico and Harpo tack on two dozen hard-boiled eggs. The bit works fine on its own, but also turns out to be a setup for the climactic moment when Stew and three colleagues show up with the feast, right when there seems to be literally not a square foot of space remaining. (And, indeed, they can only squeeze inside because Harpo gets lifted into the air and onto their trays, using them as a bed.)
(Aside: As I’ve noted in past columns, one of my dumb obsessions is converting dollar amounts in old movies to see what the figure would mean to us today, adjusted for inflation. Groucho asking Stew if he has two fives for a 10 implies that he’s going to give the guy $5, which would be quite a good tip even today; back then it was the equivalent of about $75. The 10 cents Groucho then stiffs the poor guy out of would now be $1.50, which leans toward the cheapskate side.)
4. Ribaldry. Apparently, one of the most celebrated dirty Groucho lines is apocryphal. (“Lady, I love my cigar,” he’s supposed to have told a woman with 19 children who appeared on You Bet Your Life, “but I take it out of my mouth once in a while.”) Even if he had said it, it would have been cut by the censors. But he somehow gets away with telling Chico that he won’t know if those are the hard-boiled eggs they ordered until the two chambermaids get into the room. Given how much pressing of bodies against other bodies is about to commence, I’m amazed MGM let that one slide, even though it’s impossibly tame compared to any four seconds of Horrible Bosses (and also, perhaps not coincidentally, funnier than the entirety of Horrible Bosses).
5. Harpo. Speaking of groping, it was another stroke of genius to have most of it done by a character who’s completely comatose. His inability to wake up is explained earlier with an offhand line about insomnia, but it’s really just an excuse to let Harpo paw the women without alarming the tender sensibilities of the era. If I’m not mistaken, he gets an inadvertent laugh from the actress who plays the chambermaid he’s all but dry-humping (take that, Bad Teacher!)—she even says something at one point, right after the engineer shows up, sounds to me like “I can’t get over,” shooting Harpo a warm smile before appearing to remember that the camera’s still rolling and switching to an expression of disgust. Barely discernible in the chaos.
6. The manicurist. One ironclad rule of comedy is that, when doing a routine based on repetition, the third iteration has to take the gag in a new direction. We saw it out in the hallway: “Make that three hard-boiled eggs” twice, then the third time Harpo adds a mini-honk that Groucho interprets as a request for a duck egg. Likewise, the first two knocks on the stateroom door are from people with a legitimate reason to enter the room—chambermaids to make the bed, an engineer to fix the heat—so the third intrusion needs to be utterly random, the last person you’d expect to show up. For all I know, manicurists really did once roam the halls of ocean liners offering their services; even if they did, though, the idea of Groucho getting his nails done in the midst of all this hubbub couldn’t be more perfectly absurd.
7. Huge enormous gargantuan dude. No explanation necessary. I’m surprised it wasn’t a sumo wrestler, frankly. If there are any heating engineers reading this, maybe you can tell me what he’s doing with his hammer when the maid with the mop comes in; I wasn’t aware that you could fix a pipe by randomly tapping it and—the actor gets pretty desperate—rubbing it.
8. New camera angle. Marx Brothers movies get a bad rap formally, and it’s true that most directors—including Sam Wood, who shepherded this one—just pointed the camera at the boys and let them do their thing, which was probably for the best. But there’s a nice, fairly subtle moment here when the chirpy lady in the hat shows up looking for her Aunt Minnie (a nod to the team’s mother, Minnie Marx). As she shoves her way to the phone, Wood shifts the camera 90 degrees to the right (in a cut), revealing a wall where the camera had been for the entire scene up to that point (save for some closer shots from the same screen direction). It doesn’t call attention to itself at all, but it nonetheless serves to unconsciously reinforce the sense that this is all happening in a completely enclosed space, which the absence of that fourth wall for the duration would have slightly undermined. Interestingly, it’s just that one brief shot.
9. Allan Jones never says or does anything. You can see him primping in front of a mirror at one point, and he helps Chico lug Harpo around, but no effort is made to include him in the comedy, even though he’s ostensibly one of the movie’s stars. (Blame Irving Thalberg, who insisted on dull romances to offset the anarchy when the brothers moved from Paramount to MGM.) If you’ve ever seen a movie star who’s not exactly renowned for yukking it up guest-host Saturday Night Live and get dragged into sketches, you know what a godsend this decision was.
10. Margaret Dumont, dogpiled. Goes without saying.