The Marx brothers on film: souped-up comedy

With a BFI season in view, the FT analyses the undying appeal of the masters of quick wit
Poster for ‘Duck Soup’ (1933)

Listen to this article

00:00
00:00

In July 1937, Charlie Chaplin and Groucho Marx arrived at the Beverly Hills Tennis Club. The occasion was the opening of a new clubhouse, and an America vs England pro-celebrity doubles match in which Chaplin and Fred Perry were to play Marx and Ellsworth Vines. Chaplin, grimly serious about his tennis, saw Marx step on court with 12 rackets and a suitcase, and inquired what was in it. Groucho asked in turn what was in Chaplin’s. Chaplin said he didn’t have one. “No suitcase?” Marx replied. “What kind of tennis player are you?”

Chaplin fumed that he hadn’t come here to be a straight man but it was already too late. After a few haphazard games, Groucho sat down on court, opened the suitcase, and unpacked a picnic lunch.

As the BFI begins a season of Marx brothers films in London, the tennis match seems neatly symbolic. Originally a mere entertainer, Chaplin is now solemnly viewed as an artist and a visionary. Of course, Groucho, Chico and Harpo are treasured, too (I’ll exempt the hapless fourth brother and fifth wheel Zeppo); but still they sit at the other end of the court, anarchically firing off wisecracks. Like Chaplin, they are seen as great — but their greatness is of a different order. The Marxes are loved; they are not quite revered.

The closest they come is with Duck Soup, their 1933 satire of dictatorship and war, starring Groucho as the leader of obscure republic Freedonia. Sniffed at by critics when it first came out, the film has long been acknowledged as a masterpiece. Not only is it wildly funny, it was made as the rumbles of fascism from Europe grew thunderous (Mussolini took personal umbrage). In the decades since, the world has rarely let its themes become passé.

The film also features the brothers’ most cherished routine: the mirror scene. The set-up is deathlessly simple. President Groucho in nightgown and cap finds Harpo, a spy, in his rooms. Dressed identically, the intruder pretends to be his reflection, and the two brothers spend the next three minutes locked in a mad dance of mimicry. The result is flawless, the kind of ecstatic comedy in which the world outside the cinema simply falls away. Variations on the skit had been performed by others before but the brothers raised it to undreamt absurdist heights, claiming it for ever as their own.

It’s strange that the Marxes’ signature moment involves about the only three minutes in their whole career when someone isn’t talking. After all, the entire point of Groucho, with his logic-bending and pricks at pomposity, was that he never shut up (and if he ever did, Chico would take over).

Groucho Marx in the movie’s famous mirror scene

But it was always Harpo, the mute with the angelic curls and the raincoat full of car horns, who sneaked the brothers into high culture and drew in the aesthetes. Salvador Dalí was among those smitten, presenting him with a barbed-wire harp and writing a script for him to star in, Giraffes on Horseback Salad. While making Duck Soup, its director Leo McCarey, too, preferred to work with Harpo on his wordless routines, leaving the verbal gags to fend for themselves.

Lately, analysing Harpo has become a zealous business. One recent book, The Anatomy of Harpo Marx, devoted itself to academic scrutiny of every movement he made on film. “Watching his screen adventures,” author Wayne Koestenbaum says, “I don’t laugh. I concentrate.”

The cynical reader may find themselves unable to refrain from picturing Harpo’s response. More to the point, even with the mirror scene, Duck Soup remains, like every other Marx brothers film, essentially a din. No pseudishness can drown out the glorious racket, the flying insults, the crazed non sequiturs and the musical eruptions that Harpo, with his harp, was usually party to. How better to convey the Marxes’ brilliance than the riotous number from 1932’s Horse Feathers, “Whatever It Is, I’m Against It”?

But all that noise can hit a nerve. Among film historians, there are mixed feelings about the very existence of sound — the great leap forward that ruined so many careers and so much exquisite technique. And the Marx brothers only started making films at all when sound took over, brought to Hollywood as exactly the kind of brassy fast talkers the movies were now to showcase. No auteurs were they; throughout, they remained more interested in the nearest card game than the mechanics of film-making. Buster Keaton’s The General and Chaplin’s City Lights are among the glittering peaks of silent film, shaped by their stars’ perfectionism. While hilarious, the first Marx brothers films look like they were made with cameramen in boxing gloves.

But the relative status of Chaplin and Keaton can’t just be put down to the clunk of early sound films. Another issue is the language barrier: Groucho’s cigar-chomping jabber was a harder sell in Paris or Tokyo than Chaplin’s silent pathos.

There’s also the question of what, and whom, the brothers inspired. Entering the movies with the arrival of sound, the Marxes left the door ajar for altogether cruder talents: the comics who followed them on to the screens of the 1930s and 1940s were no one’s idea of graceful. First was the catchphrase-heavy shtick of Jimmy Durante; soon, the Three Stooges threw pies and poked eyeballs; later, Abbott and Costello parlayed a basic vaudeville act into 36 films in 16 years; eventually, it was the age of Bob Hope. Few of these have yet enjoyed the warm glow of critical reappraisal.

This may be unfair. Loudly as they creak and dated though they are, the Road To . . . movies Hope made with Bing Crosby have a giddy zest, his delivery as precise as a diamond cutter. (You can still hear his echo in modern late-night talk show hosts.) Abbott and Costello, too, are smarter on screen than their reputation suggests. But the Marxes’ impact didn’t end there anyway. It ripples on into every improvised comedy Hollywood produces (Groucho having ad-libbed his way through his whole filmography), and every decent one-liner in one of its scripts.

Perhaps that’s the problem. It’s hard to inspire the reverence that surrounds a Charlie Chaplin with a career making verbal wisecracks because, as soon as they’re made, they’re so easy to recycle. Watch The General and it soon becomes obvious that none of us could ever be Buster Keaton. Announce “I’ve had a perfectly wonderful evening but this wasn’t it,” and we can, for a moment, almost be Groucho Marx.

Endlessly quotable lines tend to find themselves endlessly quoted. This is the Marx brothers’ curse. But their gifts are such that we keep returning to hear them being let loose the first time, to revel in Harpo’s lunacy and Groucho’s bad manners, and the particular delirium only they create where no one is in charge and chaos truly reigns. Chaplin was a genius, yes, but on that summer day in Beverly Hills in 1937 he proved he didn’t understand everything about comedy. Clearly, when dealing with the Marx brothers, none of us can be anything but the straight man.

‘The Best of the Marx Brothers’ opens at the BFI Southbank on January 14, bfi.org.uk

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't copy articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.