By Mike Guarino
When it comes to film commentary, the only comparison I feel comfortable making between myself and Roger Ebert is that we were both introduced to the Marx Brothers at a young age by our fathers. The first film Mr. Ebert saw at the theater was a re-release of 1937’s “A Day at the Races,” and my earliest memory of watching a movie with my dad is sitting down to a well-worn VHS copy of “Animal Crackers.” Watching the Marx Brothers was something of a tradition in my family, going back to when my great-grandmother took her family to see all the original theatrical runs of their films. As a family of Neapolitan immigrants, Chico was the perpetual household favorite and Little Nonna went to her grave believing not only that he was Italian, but also that Groucho’s mustache was real and Harpo was really a red-haired lunatic who couldn’t speak.
August 3rd, 2019 marks the 90th anniversary of the release of their first film, “The Cocoanuts.” And while you may have never sat down and watched one of their movies, their work is so influential that I promise you’ll recognize some of it. Whenever Bugs Bunny declares “Of course you know this means war!” he’s quoting Groucho. When they rock out to Bohemian Rhapsody in Wayne’s World, the cassette playing in the Mirthmobile is one of the two Queen albums named after Marx Brothers films (A Night at the Opera and A Day at the Races). Ever heard someone singing about a lady named Lydia who has some tattoos? First heard being sung by Groucho in “At the Circus.” Wonder why someone would use “swordfish” as their password? Another Marx Brothers original.
Contrary to what my grandma may have believed, the comedy team eventually known as the Marx Brothers were in fact five Jewish kids of German immigrants from New York City’s Upper East Side. All born between 1887 and 1901 to Samuel and Minnie Marx, boys Leonard, Adolph, Julius, Milton, and Herbert (better known to the world by their stage names: Chico, Harpo, Groucho, Gummo, and Zeppo) were descended from a family of performers on their mother’s side of the family. After showing early talent for music and singing, the boys made their debut in musical theater in the early 1900s. Encouraged by their vaudevillian uncle and mother, who worked tirelessly as their manager, The Nightingales, as they were known, found some success on the musical stage.
All that changed one night in 1912 at a vaudeville performance in either Texas or Oklahoma (depending on which of the brothers you ask), when their show was interrupted by the audience members rushing out of the theater when cries came from the street about a runaway mule. Upon their return, Groucho, irritated at the disruption, started making jokes at the expense of the audience and their town. When his insults were met with laughter instead of anger, the group realized their comedic potential.
As time went on, their act evolved from concerts to musical comedy skits. By the 1920s, the four remaining brothers (Gummo left the group in 1918 to enlist in WWI and later established a talent agency) had graduated to Broadway. They would star in three shows, two of which were later adapted into films. In 1929, Paramount Pictures signed them to a five-movie contract that would launch their film careers.
Between 1929 and 1949, the Marx Brothers would make 13 full length feature films. Though Zeppo would leave the group in 1933 at the conclusion of their contract with Paramount to work for Gummo’s agency, remaining brothers Groucho, Chico, and Harpo continued making movies for other studios. Although all of the brothers would have various solo projects and cameo offshoots, the core Marx Brothers body of work is when three or four of them appear together. With so much to watch, and it being of such varying quality, here are what I consider their five best films.
Their second film, adapted from their Broadway show of the same name, builds on many of the characters and running gags from The Cocoanuts. Here, we see Groucho portray his most recognized character, Captain Spaulding, the famous African explorer who is the less than gracious guest of honor at a party thrown by the rich widow Mrs. Rittenhouse (Margaret Dumont). Her social rivals seek to disrupt the party by replacing a priceless painting that is to be unveiled in the Captain’s honor with a forgery. What they don’t know is that Mrs. Rittenhouse’s daughter has done the same thing with the hope of earning a commission for her starving-artist boyfriend from the painting’s wealthy owner. But when the painting is stolen, Spaulding, his secretary Jameson (Zeppo), along with party guests Emanuel Ravelli (Chico) and The Professor (Harpo) team up to solve its mysterious disappearance.
I’ve never forgotten the first time I saw this movie and this constantly remains one of my favorites. To me it perfectly encapsulates the core message of the Marx Brothers; nothing is above ridicule. They work to tear down social norms, the fourth wall, and even the laws of physics itself. Memorable moments for me include the introduction of Captain Spaulding, Chico and Harpo playing bridge, and Groucho talking about his adventures in Africa.
I would be remiss if I didn’t take a moment to mention Margaret Dumont’s extensive involvement with the Marx Brothers. Trained as an operatic singer and actress, she performed in numerous theatrical productions. In 1910, she married the millionaire John Moller Jr. and retired from acting. However, after he died in the Spanish Flu pandemic eight years later, she made her return to the stage, eventually being cast in two of the Marx Brothers’ Broadway shows as a dowager character. When The Cocoanuts and Animal Crackers were adapted into films, Dumont returned in the film versions of her stage roles.
These characters became her archetype for all seven of her film appearances with them; a rich widow who is romantically pursued by Groucho and serves as his comic foil and straight person. I really cannot stress how essential her presence became to their comedic stylings; Groucho himself took to referring to her as the “fifth Marx Brother.” Though it was incorrectly assumed for years (and encouraged by Groucho’s straight-faced joking) that she took to the part because she simply didn’t understand that she was being made fun of; nothing could be further from the truth. In a 1942 interview with the New York Tribune Herald, she explained her role on screen as the following:
“Scriptwriters build up to a laugh, but they don't allow any pause for it. That's where I come in. I ad lib—it doesn't matter what I say—just to kill a few seconds so you can enjoy the gag. I have to sense when the big laughs will come and fill in, or the audience will drown out the next gag with its own laughter... I'm not a stooge, I'm a straight lady. There's an art to playing straight. You must build up your man, but never top him, never steal the laughs from him.”
Nowhere is this better displayed than in Animal Crackers.
Their fourth film, though named for a slang expression for nonsense, was almost anything but. Originally planned with a mobster setting and a much darker tone, that concept was mostly abandoned while the film was in development due to the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby in March 1932, thought to have been perpetrated by organized crime. Parts of the original concept are still present but the writers instead decided to build the film around some of the Marx Brothers early skits that were set in a classroom. Frank Wagstaff (Zeppo) is a student at Huxley College where Quincy Wagstaff (Groucho), his father, has just been appointed President of the school. With the big game against rival Darwin coming up, Quincy sets out to hire a couple of professional ringers and arrange the kidnapping of the opposition’s star players to assure victory on the gridiron. Through a case of mistaken identity, he instead ends up enrolling Pinky (Harpo), a dogcatcher, and Baravelli (Chico), a bootlegger, and must rely on them to play.
Not short on comedy or songs, what I like best about it though is how, at almost 90 years old, it feels eerily modern. Much of the humor revolves around the ridiculous lengths schools go to funding sports at the expense of education and how to subvert the eligibility rules for their best players; topics in the headlines now just as much as then. Highlights for me include the scenes at the speakeasy, Ms. Bailey’s apartment, and of course, the football game itself. While the Marx Brothers were popular, the image of them in the garbage can chariot (seriously, just watch) on the cover of Time Magazine catapulted them to a new level of national exposure and drove Horse Feathers to become Paramount’s highest grossing movie of the year.
Duck Soup, the last Marx Brothers film for both Zeppo and Paramount Studios, has become an American comedic classic. Though not meant as an intentional political statement, its mockery of the nationalism that was gripping Europe at the time has placed the satire alongside other classics like The Great Dictator. Made the same year Hitler came to power in Germany, Groucho claimed the five of them were just goofing off but they were overjoyed when the film was banned by the Italian dictator Benito Mussolini as it assuredly brought more publicity to the film and must have been personally satisfying to upset anti-Semites.
Here, we see the wealthy widow Mrs. Teasdale (Dumont) insist upon the appointment of Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho) as leader of the small, bankrupt nation of Freedonia in exchange for a loan to make the country solvent again. Seeing the weakened position of their neighboring country, Ambassador Trentino from Sylvania attempts to seize control of Freedonia. First through political mechanization with the assistance of two spies of questionable loyalties, Pinky (Harpo) and Chicolini (Chico), and later through outright invasion. Firefly must deal with all these threats while assisted by his secretary Bob Rolland (Zeppo).
High points for me include the classic mirror scene, Chico and Harpo competing with the lemonade vendor, and anytime Groucho verbally eviscerates Trentino. Landing at #65 on the AFI 100 Greatest American Movies of All Time List, Duck Soup is a must watch for any fan of subversive political comedies.
Their sixth feature marked not only a radical change in the structure of all future Marx Brothers movies, but represented the pinnacle of their comedic achievements. Groucho considered it their best work and I must agree, as it’s my personal favorite. As the country moved deeper into the grip of the Great Depression, the Marx Brothers were transformed into different types of characters. Rather than being placed in positions of importance (celebrity explorer, college president, ruler of a nation, etc), they instead are typically portrayed as everyday people just trying to get by. This change not only made them more relatable to the movie going public of the day but also served as a vehicle to add actual story to their work rather than just sitting back and laughing at the mayhem they create. A Night at the Opera serves as a blueprint for their subsequent films; the four brothers assisting a young couple in their typical chaotic style.
In Italy, Otis B. Driftwood (Groucho) works as the business manager for Mrs. Claypool (Dumont) to arrange a sizable donation to the New York Opera Company so they can hire Lassparri, a famous tenor, to sing in America. Choral singer Ricardo and soprano Rosa love each other, though she is romantically pursued by Lassparri. Ricardo hires his friend Fiorello (Chico) as his talent manager who tries to convince Driftwood to sign him to the opera company as well. Failing this, Ricardo, Fiorello, and Tomasso (Harpo, as Lassparri’s former dresser) stow away on the cruise ship taking everyone else back to New York. Ricardo and Rosa are reunited but discovered by Lassparri who has Rosa dismissed from the performance. Driftwood, Fiorello, and Tomasso team up to get revenge by disrupting the opera in any way that they can.
Much in the same way that Animal Crackers improved upon The Cocoanuts, A Night at the Opera renews and improves upon the stowaway routine from Monkey Business and the small room setting seen in Horse Feathers. Though the whole thing is a gem, my favorite parts are the scenes in Groucho’s stateroom, Chico and Groucho negotiating the contract, and any of the musical performances. While the songs and music has always been a strong feature of their work, it is particularly good here which seems appropriate given the operatic setting. As another resident of the AFI Top 100 List, A Night at the Opera sets a comedic bar that all their subsequent performances are unable to top.
With the exception of 1974 honorary Academy Award presented to Groucho on behalf of all the Marx Brothers, A Day at the Races represents the only of their films to receive an Oscar nomination; the routine from “All God's Chillun Got Rhythm” for the now defunct category of Best Dance Direction. Though it starts the decline in quality from prior films, the set up for A Day at the Races is one of their best and there are still plenty of classic scenes to enjoy.
Tony (Chico) works as the driver at the struggling Standish Sanatarium. Its owner, Judy, is able to keep it open due only to the patronage of Mrs. Upjohn (Dumont). When she intends to leave, Tony contacts Hugo Hackenbush (Groucho), a veterinarian and Mrs. Upjohn’s former doctor, to come work at Standish to convince her to stay. Meanwhile, Judy’s boyfriend Gil has purchased a horse, Hi-Hat, with the intention of saving the sanitarium by winning races at the track. As Hackenbush struggles to fend off both Judy’s suspicious business manager and aggressive buyout attempts, Tony, Gil, and jockey Stuffy (Harpo) evade the Sheriff over unpaid feed bills for the horse while they prepare to enter the big race.
While the horse race descends into a farce worth of Horse Feathers’ football game, my favorite part without a doubt is Chico helping Groucho place his bets at the track. In perhaps the best example of the sunk cost fallacy ever filmed, fans of Rob Zombie’s horror films will undoubtedly recognize the origin of the request for ‘tutti frutti’ in The Devil’s Rejects.
If you’re interested in pursuing more of their work from here I’d encourage you to check out more of their early work; The Cocoanuts and Monkey Business are probably the two best outside this list. While their later work is considered to be substantially lower in terms of quality, there are reasons to watch even “Love Happy,” their last movie together. Groucho avoided talking about it and he and Harpo only agreed to make the movie to help Chico pay off his gambling debts. However, it does feature an early appearance by Marilyn Monroe and is unique in that it utilized product placement in the movie itself, which was taboo for the time.
Because so much of their work was rooted in pop culture of their time, the humor was easily understood by audiences when the films were released but modern viewers may not be aware of items that commonly occupied 1930s newspaper headlines. Thankfully, Matthew Coniam has written The Annotated Marx Brothers: A Filmgoer's Guide to In-Jokes, Obscure References and Sly Details. This is an excellent companion piece that explains the meaning and context to even the most obscure bits from their films and I highly recommend it.