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The Marx Brothers: Funniest Siblings in the Movies
The Marx Brothers
When the discussion of which was the best comedy team in movie history comes up, as it often does, most of it is focused on famous parings like Burns and Allen or perhaps Laurel and Hardy. But for my money, the greatest comedy team of all time featured three hilarious brothers and admittedly their younger sibling who was along for the ride.
The Marx Brothers were led by Groucho, a man with greasepaint for eyebrows and mustache; he was a master of verbally trashing anyone who annoyed him. But no matter how mean he got, you always felt he was on your side. Chico was the talented piano player with the gift of screwing up common phrases and needling his opponents to the point of madness. Harpo was everyone favorite, a horn-tooting, curly haired, silent anarchist who rebelled against anything and everything while pulling the most unlikely objects from his pockets, like a hot cup of coffee.
Zeppo was…well, I’m not really sure what he was, save for the youngest brother who seemingly was the “handsome” one. The legend is that the Marx Brothers’ mother, who was basically their manager, wanted the older brothers to look after Zeppo, so he played the straight man, which seemed ill-fitting at times since he often joined into the zaniness. After the brothers moved to MGM after “Duck Soup”, Zeppo stepped out of the limelight and became an agent.
Steeped in the vaudeville tradition, the Marx Brothers honed their act to razor sharpness and were well suited for the new “sound” era in films when it arrived. With the release of “Cocoanuts” in 1929, they became an immediate hit and rode a wave of intense popularity at the Paramount studios until the curious box office failure of “Duck Soup” in 1933. Like Buster Keaton’s “The General”, there is no explanation for why the public rejected a film now considered one of their best.
What follows are three of the five films they produced at Paramount, if you find these entertaining, then the other two “Animal Crackers” and “Monkey Business” are sure to delight you as well.
Based on their hit Broadway play, the “Cocoanuts” has Groucho in charge of a not-so-successful hotel smack in the middle of the Florida land boom. He’s so desperate that’s he’s willing to cuddle up to rich Mrs. Potter (Margaret Dumont, usually the foil in all the Marx Brothers films) for money. It doesn’t help that Chico and Harpo keep fouling things up and potentially destroying Groucho’s chances of selling some real estate.
Admittedly, “Cocoanuts” is probably the least funny of the five Paramount films released by the Marx Brothers. While they do feature some classic gags, most notably Chico and Groucho’s discussion of what a “viaduct” is, the film is bogged down by unnecessary musical numbers and the limitations of the early sound recording system, making for some rather stiff acting on everyone’s part. It didn’t help that the microphones of the time used to record the sound were so sensitive that the props department had to wet down all the newspapers seen in the film.
Looking disaster in the mouth, the faculty of Huxley College welcomes Professor Quincy Wagstaff (Groucho) in as their new president. And while it helps him keep an eye on his son Frank (Zeppo), all he sees is the college widow (a very attractive Thelma Todd) wooing his son, Chico, Harpo, and practically half the campus (where was the college widow when I was in school?). While in this mess, Frank gets dear ol’ dad to recruit two “ringers” for the Huxley football team so they can beat their rival Darwin (something they haven’t done since football was created apparently). Of course Wagstaff screws up and gets Chico and Harpo by mistake.
This is my favorite Marx Brothers film, although I’ll admit that “Duck Soup” is arguably better. The film opens with a classic number by Groucho “Whatever it is, I’m against it!” sung in front of the students and faculty. What follows is a priceless scene of all four Marx Brothers trying to woo Thelma Todd in her apartment (a scene that’s somewhat choppy due to a re-edit a few years later to bring the film under code). What’s unusual is that at one point Groucho “breaks the fourth wall” and warns us, the audience, that we can go to the lobby until this current situation blows over.
Add to that another great Chico/Groucho discussion involving the password to a speakeasy while Harpo tears the joint up. The kidnapping of the “real” ringers and the final mess of a football game complete with a cigar chomping Groucho lighting a match on the behind of a football player just before the play starts.
It’s also interesting to note that poor Zeppo, who normally was stuck with some dull dialogue, has perhaps the funniest line he ever spoke on-screen when he calls out to his Dad, “Hey, ol’ timer!” while an attractive girl sits on his lap.
Trying to save their beloved country of Freedonia from a financial disaster, the wealthy Mrs. Teasdale (Dumont) loans them the money needed on the condition that they install Rufus T. Firefly to the presidency, upon which complete chaos ensues. It doesn’t help that a rival nation sends two spies Chicolini and Pinky (Chico and Harpo) to obtain whatever information is needed to insure the downfall of the country, assuming Firefly doesn’t destroy it first.
“Duck Soup” is flat out hilarious from the start and boasts several classic comedic scenes highlighted by Pinky’s ongoing war with a rival street vendor, any scene with Groucho and Margaret Dumont, the insane musical number “All God’s Children Got Guns” (an almost surreal parody of the popular MGM musicals of the day), and the classic “mirror” gag which has both Chico and Harpo dress exactly as Groucho, complete with greasepaint eyebrows and mustache. The sequence itself is marvelous in its timing, especially when Groucho dances, then spins to catch Harpo off guard (Harpo is not fooled). Perhaps the most interesting aspect is just how much Groucho, Chico, and Harpo look alike when sporting greasepaint eyebrows and mustache.
Perhaps, and this is just a guess, part of the failure of “Duck Soup” with audiences at the time is that Chico and Harpo do not play their respective instruments in featured musical numbers, something that was highlighted in their next film, “A Night at the Opera”.
All in all, a fun time can be had by all when viewing these Marx Brothers' classics. What makes them so wonderful is how you see them as you grow older. As a child, I loved Harpo, but didn't quite understand all the innuendo spoken by Groucho. But when I grew up I saw the brothers in an entirely different light. Though I still loved Harpo and never could figure out Zeppo.