Pop culture can be as forbidding as it is inviting, particularly in areas that invite geeky obsession: The more devotion a genre, series, or subculture inspires, the easier it is for the uninitiated to feel like they’re on the outside looking in. But geeks aren’t born; they’re made. And sometimes it only takes the right starting point to bring newbies into various intimidatingly vast obsessions. Gateways To Geekery is our regular attempt to help those who want to be enthralled, but aren’t sure where to start. Want advice? Suggest future Gateways To Geekery topics by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
Geek obsession: The Marx brothers
Why it’s daunting: Even with the Marx brothers’ eternal status as one of America’s greatest cinematic comedy teams, an increasing number of generations know about them more than they actually know them. Aside from the fact that they gave Woody Allen a reason to live in Hannah And Her Sisters, a lot of younger viewers aren’t clear on why they should care about the Marx brothers. As far as the young and the jaded are concerned, the group has a lot going against them: Their films are in black and white, and often cluttered with corny musical numbers and hokey romantic subplots. Many have their origins in musical theater, making them sometimes seem stiff and stagey. Viewers who grew up before the cable and Internet eras got to see them thanks to frequent airings on syndicated television, but those days are long past. Many Marx brothers films are no longer available as single-DVD editions, and must be rented or purchased as part of a box set. In this era of mass multimedia saturation, it’s become harder to see Marx films than it was in the ’60s and ’70s.
But the films of the Marx brothers—Groucho, Chico, Harpo, and initially Zeppo—are more than worth seeking out. They’re downright essential in understanding the way American comedy developed in the 20th century, influencing everything from the sitcom to the game show, and bringing together various comic strains into a unified whole that had a nearly inestimable influence on the way humor in this country was shaped. The movies also helped mainstream previously isolated forms of Jewish comedy, assisted the transition of film comedy from the stage era to the modern age, and turned the Marxes into icons in an almost literal sense: Many comedians still pattern their entire personas after one of the three best-known brothers. And in an era where we question whether comedy from only a decade ago can still be relevant, their films remain incredibly funny as the oldest of them creep up on being a century old.
Possible gateway: 1930’s Animal Crackers
Why: Sometimes, with a Gateway To Geekery, you want to lead with an artist or group’s first work. In this case, that’d be The Cocoanuts, which is a bad place to start with the Marxes because it’s extraordinarily stagey even by the standards of 1920s talkies. Alternatively, sometimes you want to lead with the best. That’d be Duck Soup, which we’ll discuss later, but the big problem with starting there is that you have nowhere to go but down. Instead, let’s go with the team’s second full-length film, based on a smash-hit play that ran nearly 200 performances: Animal Crackers.
While The Cocoanuts is the movie that made the Marx brothers, Animal Crackers is the one that made them superstars, and transformed them from a successful regional act to a nationally known group that would help transform the whole notion of movie comedy. It still has a lot of staginess, but it’s a vast improvement on its predecessor. It maintains some of the creaky romantic elements that were forced upon most filmed entertainment of the day, and its plot is pure balderdash. But Animal Crackers also has some genuinely funny songs, featuring the Marx brothers at the peak of their powers. And they used months of practice and tons of clever improvisation to hone an already-excellent stage script by a team of comedy pros, plus Algonquin Round Tabler George S. Kaufman.
The plot, an utter trifle as it should be, involves the theft of a valuable painting during a party for Groucho, playing fabled explorer Jeffrey T. Spaulding. The cast members are all deeply immersed in their roles: Harpo, whose reputation later settled into zany slapstick, is more of a force of nature, a shambling whirlwind of destruction who exists only to fuck everything up. The reason his character worked so well, especially in quiet musical interludes, is that the rest of the time, he was just this side of terrifying. Women took one look at him and ran, and for good reason. He wasn’t so much the wacky mime of the public imagination as a sort of rabid Tasmanian Devil, always on the verge of wrecking the plot. Chico, likewise, is often reduced to the watsa-matta-you ethnic caricature who trades in groan-inducing puns, but he too had a much deeper role: the wise fool, and most importantly, the deflater of pretensions. He’s the one who can see through any disguise (and who here calls out a high-society impostor as “Abie the fishmonger”), and, vital to almost all the Marx brothers’ films, he’s the one guy who can get one over on Groucho.
Groucho is the central figure here, playing the roles that would become key elements in so much American humor: the anarchic prankster, ignoring all propriety; the wisecracking insult-monger, cozying up to authority figures (to exploit them, of course) but unable to stop himself from mocking them; the author of brilliant wordplay and the assayer of dizzying absurdist humor that still amazes. Even Zeppo gets his chance to, well, be Zeppo. Animal Crackers has some of the Marx brothers’ greatest material: The scene where Groucho has Zeppo dictate a letter is pure absurdist genius, and its loose, improvised feel is a testament to their skill as actors. Groucho’s wooing of wealthy society dames opens the gates to some amazing scenes, including his bizarre and memorable “strange interlude,” which was intended as a goof on Eugene O’Neill, but still stands up as a puncturing of heavy-handed, portentous dramatics. Throw in the terrific song “Hooray For Captain Spaulding,” and some sly metahumor from Groucho and Chico (“Say, when did you get to be Italian?”), and you’ve got a pretty good platform to judge whether you want more.
Next steps: You could just follow the films chronologically at this point; the brothers’ next movie, Monkey Business, is a step backward in terms of stagey film work and dull subplots, but it also has some of their sharpest material, and is the first of their movies that Groucho doesn’t completely dominate. Horse Feathers is a lesser effort, but it has the amazing “Swordfish” scene, some tremendous physical bits from Harpo and Chico, and Groucho at his raciest. (A lot of his material of this period ended up being cut because of pressure from the censors.)
Then you’ll hit Duck Soup, which deserves every inch of the praise it’s racked up over the years. Everyone is unstoppable in this one: Groucho is at his most savagely anarchic, starting a war out of sheer peevishness. Chico and Harpo are both fantastic, especially in a scene with a lemonade vendor that’s like a three-man clinic on physical humor. And for once, the material is up to the performers: the songs are good, the costumes imaginative (and changed at such a rapid pace that it becomes a running gag), and though studio bosses at the time blamed its lack of a romantic subplot for its mediocre box-office performance and mixed reviews, now, that absence makes it glide along as smooth and fast as a hunting shark.
Stick around for their next two, a matched pair called A Night At The Opera (1935) and A Day At The Races (1937). Critics are often split on which is the better of the two; my money’s on the latter. A scene where Groucho attempts to buy racing tips from crooked track tout Chico is one of the funniest, best-staged, best-acted bits in any of their films. 1938’s Room Service has its good qualities, but after that, their films suffered a pretty serious decline. You’ll also want to go back and catch up with Cocoanuts at some point. Rough as it is, it still has great jokes and a keen sense of how the boys got to where they were.
Where not to start: The Marx brothers ruled film comedy in the 1930s, and left an imprint that’s still being felt many decades later. But by the end of that decade, they were starting to run on fumes: They had less access to good material, audiences’ tastes had changed, and they’d all had success in other fields and ventures, leaving them without the killer instinct to be the best that drove their previous work. While most of their post-1938 films have their moments, they just don’t have the kind of performances, scripts, or pure unrefined craziness that made their earlier movies so great. At The Circus (1939), Go West (1940), and The Big Store (1941) are all pretty mediocre, with occasional high spots; the few moments of genius make them worth seeing, but they certainly shouldn’t serve as starting points. While the brothers redeemed themselves to a degree with the underrated A Night In Casablanca, their first movie since the end of World War II, their hearts weren’t much in it. They called it quits with 1949’s Love Happy.