August 8, 2005
The Marx Brothers, Groucho, Chico, Harpo, Zeppo. To anyone who loves to laugh, they are the masters. To aspiring comedians, they are mentors. To anyone with a funny bone and a rebellious streak, they are role models. For me, these are the greats. There are many wonderful movie comedies, and many wonderfully funny comedians, but the Marx Brothers tops them all.
You've done it, too, haven't you? Be honest. You've pulled out your favorite Groucho lines on your blind date. "But you know why I was with that other woman? Because she reminded me of you. Even you remind me of you." Hmm. Maybe that's one to save for later in the relationship.
You've offered an annoying stranger your leg, and made silly faces like Harpo. Deep down, you wish you had his courage to chase after every pretty girl in sight. You wish you owned one of those magical trench coats, that hide everything in creation.
I'll bet there are a a couple times you played piano like Chico, with the funny expressions and trigger finger on the keys. What a perfect time to practice your bad Italian accent, wink at the girls, and tell that story about how you flew across the Ocean.
And, finally, you identify with Zeppo. Zeppo, the straight man, the younger brother born into the family too late to properly fit in. You know he's really the funniest one in the bunch, just like all the quiet kids in the classroom. You'll get your chance, if but for a moment here and there.
There's something about great movies, in their wit and romanticism and imagination, that can make or break relationships. I once suggested to a roommate that he should take his date to see Lawrence of Arabia when it was playing one evening at the Heights Theatre (and in 70mm, too). If you both disagree about the movie, I advised, break up with her. There's no future between you two.
Everyone has a number of movies that are on their personal make-or-break list. The Marx Brothers are on mine, right up there with Lawrence of Arabia, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Mystery Science Theatre 3000. The Marx Brothers are my heroes. They should be yours; if they aren't, well, I don't know. I'm not sure I could really trust you.
My personal favorite of the Marx Brothers' movies is Duck Soup, but A Night at the Opera follows closely behind. Laugh for laugh, it's very nearly as funny, and there are so many lines to memorize and add to your vocabulary. These are the role models for comic anarchy and total disrespect for authority.
A Night at the Opera is noticably different in tone than the earlier movies for Paramount, and this is where the great division between Marx fans resides. Those first five films have about as much plot as a Bugs Bunny cartoon, and for many of us, this is sufficient. Once the basic situations is established - the Marx Brothers stow away on an ocean liner, Groucho becomes President of Freedonia - we can get straight to the jokes and slapstick.
For many others, A Night at the Opera is the pinaccle of that other style: the Marx Brothers in a Hollywood romantic comedy. Pure anarchy is replaced with a structured storyline, and romantic subplots between a pair of Hollywood starlets. The Brothers serve a purpose beyond simply tweaking the rich and powerful; the anarchists reinvented as guardian angels.
The man responsible for this change is the Irving Thalberg, the young genius who possesed a Midas Touch during his years at MGM. While a fan of the Brothers, he felt that their movies would be better served with more disciplined scripts, stories with purpose. The Brothers had ended their contract with Paramount after Duck Soup failed to become a hit (their earlier pictures were all enormously successful), and Thalberg offered to take them under his wing, they jumped.
Under his watchful eye, A Night at the Opera was assembled with a team of writers and Groucho, Chico, and Harpo (Zeppo retired from show business after Duck Soup). Thalberg's best decision, and one that the Brothers no doubt loved, was to take the show on the road, and rehearse the comedy scenes on the vaudeville circuit. This was a return to their roots, and enabled them to perfect their routines.
In the movie, you notice that the jokes are perfectly timed for audience reaction; you have time to laugh without trampling on the next punch line. Naturally, it helps that the comedy is first-rate, and so effectively integrated with the plot. Later Marx Brothers movies failed to succeed on this point, and it's one notable reason why they are so dull and witless (A Night in Casablanca being the sole exception).
Some of Opera's funniest moments are among the funniest ever seen in the movies. Chico and Groucho debating the merits of a contract; Groucho's dinner date with Margaret Dumont, the great comic foil and de-facto fifth "Marx Brother"; the Brothers disguised as famous aviators, trying to bluff their way out of a speech; a mad scramble of furniture between two rooms, to the frustration of a policeman; and the climactic, chaotic scramble at the opera house.
And, of course, the greatest Marx Brothers routine of them all: the stateroom scene. Ah, the stateroom scene! Any aspiring comedian who professes ignorance deserves to be instantly gonged and send packing. The same goes for the rest of you.