Wednesday, June 8, 2016

MARXISTS UNITE! by Nick Santa Maria

No, this isn't a political message. It means that the American Cinematheque is having a Marx Brothers festival in June. Let the celebration begin!

You say you've never heard of the Marx Brothers, or that you haven't seen their films?  Or, perhaps you haven't seen their films in a while.  Well, this is your opportunity to see one of the most unique and hilarious acts in the history of cinema.  And to top it off, you'll be seeing them the way they are supposed to be seen, in a theater with a live audience.

That last part is very important in the case of the Marx Brothers.  Unlike other comedy acts, before some of their films were shot they actually took the comedy scenes on the road and played them in front of live audiences. That way they could clock the laughs for timing and response.  This told the editor how to pace the scenes, and also told them what material should stay and what should go.

Who were the Marx Brothers, you ask?  Read on, MacDuff.

The Marx Brothers were born to German immigrants Sam and Minnie Marx in the Yorkville section of Manhattan (the Upper East Side).  In chronological order, there was Chico (Leonard, 1887-1961), Harpo (Adolph, who later changed it to Arthur, 1889-1964),  Groucho (Julius, 1890-1977), Gummo (Milton, 1896-1977, who was in the early vaudeville act, but never made a film), and Zeppo (Herbert, 1901-1979).  (A first child, Manfred, died in infancy.)  Their mother was the classic stage mother.  Her brother was the very successful Al Shean, of the popular comedy team Gallagher and Shean (“Absolutely, Mister Gallagher?...Positively, Mister Shean!”), and if it was good enough for him it was good enough for her boys.  The boys had a long career in vaudeville before they finally got their big break in a Broadway musical revue called I'll Say She Is. That led to The Cocoanuts and Animal Crackers.  Both were very successful.

While they were performing in Animal Crackers on stage in the evenings, Paramount Pictures called and decided to film The Cocoanuts during the day (as a performer I can assure you that this could not have been easy, to say the least).  This was their goodbye to the Broadway stage, and there was no turning back.

Twelve more films followed, and of the thirteen I would say that five of them are certified classics.  The rest have their merits, but it seems that two things hurt their later films:  the introduction of the production code, and their signing with MGM.  MGM was not known for its expertise in making “comedian comedies” (films that were actually tailored for specific comedians).  They were just fine in the “romantic comedy” department, but when confronted with the likes of a Buster Keaton, Jimmy Durante, Red Skelton, Laurel and Hardy, or the Marx Brothers, they were totally at sea.  MGM was the Tiffany's of studios, but like Tiffany's it could be fairly stodgy and took itself far too seriously.  The brothers' earlier films for Paramount were mostly made up of unbridled lunacy, all done at a rapid pace cramming in as many jokes, bits, and puns as possible.  These are the films most preferred by Marx fans, although their first film for MGM, A Night at the Opera, is as good as any of the earlier ones.

Fans love to quote their favorite lines from the films, and to recall the famous comedy set pieces from them.  Who can forget the classic stateroom scene from A Night at the Opera (1935), where about 30 people cram themselves into Groucho's shipboard stateroom, which happens to be the size of a broom closet?  Or the hilarious "mirror scene" from Duck Soup (Paramount 1933), in which Groucho is put through some very funny paces by Harpo (who is dressed exactly like him) as he pretends to be his reflection.  (Harpo repeated this routine with Lucille Ball in a very famous episode of I Love Lucy.)

Now let's look at some things you should know about the Marx Brothers characters:

Groucho was the star of the act.  Most of the plots (such as they were) revolved around his character. He was a comedian blessed with a masterful delivery (still being purloined to this very day), a hilarious physicality, and an irreverence which could probably be measured on the Richter scale.  He has inspired several generations of funny people, and rightfully so.  The intelligent comedy of Woody Allen, the inspired and biting wit of Bill Maher and Stephen Colbert, and the hilarious irreverence of Chris Rock all have roots from the tree of Groucho.  His visage is still being used as a brand to advertise comedy clubs and  shows, and everybody seems to do a bad imitation of him.

Harpo never spoke a word, but he was not a pantomimist in the accepted sense.  I always imagined that his character COULD speak, but chose not to because it was more fun for him.  He was anything but silent.  He could whistle, he used a handy taxi horn whenever he wanted attention, and he had a trench coat from which he could produce the most amazing things.  He also played the harp (thus his nickname).  When he sat down at the harp, his clowning stopped and he showed us his actual self.  Of the brothers he was the most magical, and because he didn't rely on jokes (which have a tendency to date, or become too familiar) his work seems to connect best with modern audiences.

Chico was the “Italian” who usually played the brother or best friend of Harpo's character.  He played straight man to Harpo, but he also played comedian to Groucho's straight man.  He was the essential middle man, much like Larry of the Three Stooges.  He was a rascal with a sly grin who always seemed to have a terrible pun on his lips.  But it was when he played the piano that the magic of Chico is revealed. As a comedian I don't think he was a major force, but as an entertainer he was terrific.  He had a style of piano playing that was all his own. 

Zeppo was usually called the straight man, or the romantic lead of the act, but that's not altogether true.  He was not utilized enough to warrant either of those titles.  Yes, he played the romantic lead in Monkey Business, and to a lesser extent, Horse Feathers, but he wasn't given enough screen time to make a real impression.  When I was a child I often wondered why he was there at all, but there was an energy that the four brothers had that was missing when they became three.  After their first five films Zeppo grew weary of being the nondescript brother, so he left the act to head a successful talent agency. 

I would be remiss if I didn't mention the honorary member of the family, the glorious Margaret Dumont (1882-1965)  She was a rather formidable lady of very regal bearing.  She was the perfect foil for Groucho.  Here are some samples of the comical abuse she took:

The Cocoanuts (Paramount 1929): 
"Meet me tonight under the moon.  Ah, I can see you and the moon.  You wear a necktie so I know you."

Animal Crackers (Paramount 1930): 
"You're the most beautiful woman I've ever seen, and that's not saying much for you."

Duck Soup (Paramount 1933): 
"I can see you now in the kitchen bending over a hot stove.  But I can't see the stove."

You get the idea.

Fans of the Marx Brothers revere her. But sometimes a more glamorous woman was needed to move the plots along.  Enter Thelma Todd (1905-1935).  Todd was the blonde beauty who graced many a Depression-era comedy with her sexy looks and her comedic talent. She worked with the brothers in two of their best films, Monkey Business (Paramount 1931), and my personal favorite, Horse Feathers (Paramount 1932).  If we couldn't have "Maggie", then Thelma was a welcome replacement.

In my opinion, their classic films are Animal Crackers, Monkey Business, Horse Feathers, Duck Soup, and A Night at the Opera.  After that the films became more formulaic and less funny.  They were rife with young lovers who sang a lot, production numbers that seemed to go on forever, and so-so comedy material.  I'm glad the later films exist, but it was obvious that the boys had had their day and were now pretty much just going through the motions. 

I leave it to you to form your own opinions.  See these films.  Bring your children.  The Marx Brothers were big stars back in their day, but during the politically turbulent late 1960s and early 1970s they were rediscovered and embraced all over again by a new generation who embraced their irreverence. Unfortunately, that worship has faded, but it seems to me that the boys are on their way back.  There is currently a revival of  I'LL SAY SHE IS about to open off-Broadway, and the release of a beautiful DVD collection featuring their television work has made quite a splash.  There is also a Blu-ray release on the way featuring restored version of all 5 of their Paramount films.

The Marx Brothers were that rarity in show business; they were entirely unique.  To this day there is nobody quite like them, and I'm wagering that there never will be. 

The Marx Brothers Restored takes place June 16 – 19, 2016 at the Aero Theatre in Santa Monica and will feature eight films presented in either 35mm prints or new digital restorations.

Nick is a comedian, actor, singer, writer, composer, lyricist, and film historian.  He's been on Broadway twice (Grease and The Producers), two national tours, has done stand-up comedy, and has appeared in films/on TV/in commercials/and has co-written the Off-Broadway show, Real Men: The Musical, and all in just 42 years.  He is also Benny Biffle in the recent Biffle and Shooster two-reel comedies, produced by Michael Schlesinger.  His book (written with Geoff Collins, and Aaron Neathery), Comedy Crazy: 60 Essays About Vintage Comedy, is awaiting the finishing touches before publication.