FULL MARKS FOR MIRTH John Burke says hallo, I must be going.
With all attention on Oscars and BAFTA and Grammy awards, I wonder how many cinema-goers remember that eight decades have passed since Room Service starred a young Lucille Ball.
This year also marks half a century since the demise of James Burke (no relation) who came up through vaudeville only to be foiled as the dastardly villain At the Circus. Its 80th anniversary falls next year along with the 90th of The Cocoanuts – spelt so.
If that is not enough to celebrate, it is now 86 years since Horse Feathers and 77 since a onetime opera-singer, Margaret Dumont, played the owner of The Big Store. And if you can just about wait until 2065 for more nostalgia, it will be the bicentenary of the birth of Miene Schönberg … the Marx Brothers’ mom who put them on Broadway.
Well, hyping up this topical irrelevance is an excuse to post up that I am an unabashed fan of Groucho, Chico and Harpo, if not of Gummo – with them on stage – and Zeppo who got cheesy parts in the early films.
Nothing as hilarious as the Marx Brothers has ever been screened. Buster Keaton was dead-pan with lunatic stunts. Charlie Chaplin used bathos and postures. Laurel and Hardy indulged on slapstick. But the Marx Brothers were slicker with these and other antics, ranging from subterfuge and repartee to mockery and impudence.
Essentially, instead of a solo or double act, there were at least three of them, whose contrasting personalities were a gift to the scriptwriters and directors. The ringleader, Groucho Marx played the socially climbing imposter with glasses, cigar and greasepaint moustache. He often wore a frockcoat that accentuated his apelike gait, but it was almost a laugh a minute with such gags as, “If I hold you any closer, I’ll be in back of you”.
Chico Marx was the streetwise con-man whose shabby clothes and battered Alpine hat suggested, as much as his assumed accent, an illiterate Italian immigrant. (Actually, the family was Jewish.) This loveably rogue outwitted not only the really bad guys and overbearing authorities; sometimes he even cheated Groucho himself.
Thus, he seems to offer a tip during A Day at the Races, but that involves purchasing and decoding a series of equestrian guides. With the money, Chico backs the winner just before the bookie’s hatch closes on Groucho.
Chico was usually in league with the third brother, such as in Go West where Harpo repeatedly recycles from Groucho’s pocket the same $10 bill for Chico’s several payments. Harpo was the funniest brother with his rubber face beneath a curly, blonde wig. His expressions ranged from maniacal delight to horror mask and from mischievous glee to utter imbecility.
His trench-coat had voluminous pockets, stuffed with an arsenal of implements and utensils, such as cosh, scissors, hydrant, blow-torch, cup of coffee, lighted candle … A complete clown, he communicated solely through miming or motor-horn, yet was the fixer when all else failed. For example, in Day at the Races, crooks hide the favourite, Hi-Hat. Harpo alerts the others by whisking a race-goer’s top hat off.
Far from dumb, literally or figuratively, Harpo was the most intellectual member of the family, and he married for life. All four chased women across the silver screen, with Groucho cosying up especially to Margaret Dumont – though only for her fortune!
This statuesque beauty was a female foil in seven of 13 films, cast as a dowager or businesswomen prone to being duped by the unscrupulous, rumbustious trio. She reacted with charming innocence or incomprehension to whatever insult or indignity she suffered. According to Tinseltown gossip, she never saw the joke on or off the set.
Adding to the fun were worsted opponents – stereotypes or caricatures – ranging from scheming crooks and seductive vamps to pompous officials and officious policemen. The plots too were ingenious, and would have made good thrillers, stripped of their burlesque.
By contrast, musical interludes betrayed how the mad-cap brothers had graduated to Hollywood from America’s counterpart of the music-hall. Adolf Marx’s got his stage- name as an accomplished harpist, while Leonard (Chico) became a virtuoso on the keys. Few films were without a song by a leading tenor or soprano, who usually doubled as the male and female lead to include a love interest.
Then there was the chorus, such as Italians in steerage class (Monkey Business) or Negroes in a shanty-town (A Day at the Races). Yet most settings were as glamorous as those in romantic movies like High Society. They included stately home, ocean liner, luxurious hotel and Ruritanian palace.
Yet all through was an undercurrent of surreal comedy, such as in the film about a circus. Searching for stolen money, Harpo and Chico slit the mattress underneath the slumbering strongman. When this raises a blizzard of feathers, Harpo portrays Santa Claus.
For sheer mayhem, the finest sequence belongs to A Night at the Opera where Chico and Harpo infiltrate the chorus, having substituting a Tin Pan Alley score about baseball for the overture of Il Trovatore. The show must go on, so a cop too dons theatrical costume to capture them on stage, but Harpo escapes to the fly loft where his acrobatics keep changing the scenery.
Yet the cinema has never screened funnier miming than in Duck Soup. Groucho and Harpo, both clad in nightgowns and nightcaps, suddenly confront each other in a room archway, so the latter pretends to reflect Groucho in a mirror. The choreographed masquerade succeeds until Chico, likewise disguised, shuffles in.
For many critics, this satire on spy-thrillers and war films was the Marx Brothers’ finest hour. Freedonia’s “upstart” president (Groucho) dons various uniforms throughout the closing battle that ends with Margaret Dumont’s singing the national anthem … only to be pelted with apples by her fraternal allies.
Others prefer A Night in Casablanca, an outrageous spoof of the melodramatic Bogart/Bergman movie. (Warner Brothers wanted to sue, but received a counter-claim: Marx Brothers Inc was copyright.) Yet again, Chico and Harpo gatecrash a tryst that would compromise Groucho, and the final reel is a rollicking version of a thriller’s climactic chase.
All three hijack the Nazis’ taxiing plane from a lorry, putting a crazed Harpo – grinning, goggle-eyed – at the joystick. Incidentally, Groucho was alive in 1973 to receive an honorary Oscar, despite his best-known one-liner as Julius Marx: “I would not care to join any club that would accept me as a member”.