"Politics is the art of looking for trouble, finding it everywhere, diagnosing it incorrectly and applying the wrong remedies." - Groucho Marx
In anticipation of the American Cinematheque’s screenings of the new restorations of the first five Paramount Pictures Marx Brothers films, we asked a local “Marxist” to comment on how the Marx Brothers took on the “one percent” to comic effect. The Marx Brothers Restored runs at the Aero Theatre June 16 – 19, 2016.
“I am a Marxist of the Groucho tendency” reads a still-popular t-shirt, translating from the original anonymous French. The Marx Brothers’ films are a joy to watch just for the crazy, often absurd humor each has to offer. However, strong political, social, and economic themes run through the brothers’ films and they are worth noting along with their source.
Like most Jewish comedians of their era, the Marx Brothers saw the world from the unique perspective of first-generation Americans. For them, upper and even middle-class life was both a goal and a strange unknown. The brothers managed to achieve a modicum of social and economic success. However, their work often included a mistrust of a range of American institutions. They were hardly Karl Marxists, but they poked fun at the privileged in every one of their movies, often with that delightful symbol of upper class privilege, Margaret Dumont, acting as the perfect foil for one or another scheming, dishonest character played by Groucho.
The Cocoanuts places the brothers in the middle of the greed and corruption of disreputable real estate entrepreneurs who are selling swamp land in Florida. Animal Crackers has Groucho as Captain Spaulding, pandering to a group of wealthy socialites in some of the most absurd and funny scenes in the history of American film. Monkey Business, the brothers’ first scripted film, pits them against a couple of feuding gangsters, some of whom are often overlooked as part of the one percent.
Academia and college sports get their due in Horse Feathers, with Groucho, in cap and gown as head of Huxley College, exclaiming in song “Whatever it is, I’m against it.” Duck Soup is the Marx Brothers' most directly political film, focusing on the role of war in the politics and economy of the fictional country Freedonia.
Another typically upper-class pastime, opera, gets the Marx treatment in A Night at the Opera, including a sharp critique of lawyers as Groucho and Chico tear more and more clauses from the contract they’re reviewing, with Groucho telling Chico about the “sanity clause” and Chico shooting back “You can’t fool me. There ain’t no sanity clause.” A Day at the Races has Groucho taking on the medical profession as the definitely non-professional Dr. Hugo Z. Hackenbush, a “horse doctor” posing as an MD.
The social and political themes of these films never feel belabored, however, as they come wrapped in some of the funniest scenes, characters, and gags ever put on film.
Barry Gerber is a Los Angeles Absurdist and lifelong admirer of the Marx Brothers.