December 12th, 2001

The Marx Brothers

An acquaintance of The Reaper’s once had the misfortune of interviewing Robin Williams. Upon being introduced to the “great” man, he was subjected to a typically breakneck gush of Williams improv – a snatch of James Brown morphing into a camp hairdresser; “you want some tea, some coffee, some cocaine, some heroin?”, the usual spiel. After fully three minutes of this, my stony-faced acquaintance said to Williams, “Can we start?”

Enduring The Marx Brothers, one understands exactly how he felt. Lord preserve us from “zany” comedy. Down, down a very deep well with “inspired lunacy”. And please, if anyone mentions the word “anarchic”, hand me my blunderbuss. Comedy is the most perishable of all the arts, even the classic variety. Extensive footnotes have to be provided to explain why anyone ever chuckled at Shakespearian comedies or the farces of Goldoni. Even recent stalwarts like Morecambe and Wise feel distinctly creaky in places nowadays.

Still, there is no excuse for The Marx Brothers. Chico, who spoke in a-da- mock Italian accent, wore a silly hat and molested women. Harpo, who wore a silly hat, whistled, cocked his leg up, molested women and interspersed incredibly tiresome bouts of protracted slapstick with cloying moments of Harlequin sentimentality. Zeppo, who was about as funny as a plank of varnished wood. And Gummo, or Fucko, or whatever his name was, whom we were spared on screen.

And Groucho. Other than Bugs Bunny and Alan Alda’s Hawkeye in M*A*S*H, both direct imitations of him, has there ever been a smugger, more self-satisfied creation in the annals of alleged comedy? The Marx Brothers’ essence, according to Philippe Soupault is that they utterly disregarded all social conventions, created their own, Freedonia-style anarcho-state of untrammelled delinquency. But they achieved this against such token, straw resistance that it’s impossible to admire. Goosing the perennially clueless and stuffy dowager-type Margaret Dumont was just too easy. Running rings and scoring cheap points round a bunch of hired stiff studio straights huffing and puffing as assorted generals, college professors, gangsters, etc, was like shooting the former lead singer of Marillion in a barrel.

Ah, but what of the immortal one-liners? Well, unless you’re unable to distinguish between someone talking very quickly and actually saying anything funny, they’re little more than a bunch of extremely elderly, puns of the sort that make your pancreas sink (“Why that’s bigamy!” “Yes, it’s big o’ me, too,”), predictable inversion (“How much do you get for playing?” “Ten dollars an hour.” “How much do you get for not playing?” “Twelve dollars an hour.”) or deeply crappy jokes about shooting elephants in pyjamas. Here’s one; “We took some pictures of some native girls but they weren’t developed. So we’re going back in a couple of weeks.” If that had been run as a Daily Star trailer for some topless photofest, there’d be uproar. But coming from Groucho Marx, such boorish play on words is hailed as immortal comic genius.

The Marx Brothers thrived during the Depression years and that’s understandable. If you were an unemployed Thirties factory hand or sharecropper with a family of nine, a bleak existence and a brain the size of a peanut, the sight of a man in a wig smashing up a piano for 20 minutes or three men failing to shake each others’ hands might provide some sort of rudimentary, cathartic joy. But there’s no excuse for subsequent generations. Indeed, as early as 1933’s Duck Soup, American audiences began to tire of the Marx Brothers. Produce Irving Thalberg had to remind the boys, after about 30 years in the profession, of one of comedy’s basic rules – that you can’t just tumble around like monkeys from one prank to another, there has to be some sort of solid foundation to your antics.

Mind you, that didn’t save either A Night At The Opera or A Day At The Races. Following the war, as Western society began to grow up a little, The Marx Brothers were finished. Today, they’re revived and revered by those who equate their rapid fire for hip-smart while contemporaries like Laurel And Hardy languish in unfashionability. Yet there’s far more variety in Oliver Hardy’s gamut of facial expressions than in Groucho’s perpetually waggling eyebrows, far more poignancy in Stan Laurel’s infinitely blank expressions than in Harpo’s wordless attention-seeking. As far rapid fire lunacy, any MGM or Tex Avery cartoon is far more satisfying than the dull, on-screen mess of a Marx Brothers routine. Seriously, for true Marxian wit (and I mean seriously) you’ll have more luck with Das Kapital than Horse Feathers.

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