I’ve always been old. I started shaving in the fifth grade*. My artillery of typewriters speak to some sort of perpetual untimeliness. For a man (allegedly) under the age of 80, I have an unusually large amount of pre-war radio programs on my iTunes account. I have spent a near-career’s worth of time insisting on Orson Welles becoming cool again. My preternaturally old bona fides cannot be disputed.
But, folks, there is some truly great stuff back there in the past, and I’d like to share some of it with you now.
Comedy is a thing that doesn’t often age well. While he is undoubtedly human society’s premiere summoner for the turn of phrase, the comedies of Shakespeare are less “laugh out loud**” funny, than, per Byron, they merely end with a wedding***. For my money, the fact that the writing of Mark Twain is still funny over 100 years after the great man’s death is one of the great miracles in all of human culture.
The only ones who have any hope of re-creating that feat are Groucho, Harpo, Chico, Zeppo (sure), and (I guess) Gummo. The Marx Brothers are always funny. Forget The Three Stooges, move past Abbott and Costello****, and even Charlie Chaplin needs to take a back seat to the Marxes. They are congenitally unable to be unfunny. They’re so funny that Harpo—who doesn’t talk—still found a way to be funny on the radio*****. Even in the later years, after Gummo****** and Zeppo moved on, they were great. You Bet Your Life, the game show Groucho hosted in the later years? Great. A Night in Casablanca (1946), the last true Marx Brothers movie*******? Fantastic. Hell, the Vlasic pickle commercials reach for greatness simply because their corporate mascot is trying to be Groucho… Except, you know, he’s a stork… for reasons.
But for those looking to just dip their toe in the water, I have a primer to help guide you in your first steps. I might suggest The Vintage Radio Shows, currently available on iTunes. It has a lot of the great musical numbers from their best films, but outside of context, the best parts may not work as well as I think they do. In that case: watch the films themselves. If you’re not won over as a complete fan of the Brothers after viewing these movies, then I don’t know how to help you anymore.
The Cocoanuts (1929)
All right. This one is a bit of a challenge to get through for a newbie, but if you’re into it, then you’re a Marx Brothers fan for life. Shortly after the advent of the talking picture, Hollywood didn’t really know what to do with their brand new toy, and defaulted to doing not much more than taping a performance of stage plays. See The Jazz Singer (1927) and even Dracula (1931)******** for further examples of the stilted early history of the talkie. The Cocoanuts is not exempt from this phenomenon. The film isn’t at all cinematic, and there are long stretches where banter between the brothers (and the noises of Harpo) halt altogether in favor of song and dance numbers. Things were different before the Great Depression, I guess, but it’s still worth a look.
Animal Crackers (1930)
This entry in their oeuvre moves on from the limitations of early sound pictures, while still keeping the Brothers true to their theatrical roots. “Hooray for Captain Spaulding” can fairly be deemed Groucho’s theme song, following him to the later years of his career on the aforementioned You Bet Your Life. The film also sports the ultimate dangling modifier joke:
One morning I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got into my pajamas I’ll never know.
It’s a funny line, made all the funnier by the fact that Groucho is giving himself a hard time. It’s a peek into the appeal of the Brothers, in that as much as they introduce chaos into every movie they appear, they are committed to making their own lives just as difficult as everyone else’s.
As I read the above description of the film, I should probably mention that it is genuinely enjoyable as a whole. I felt like I needed to be a little clearer on that front.
Duck Soup (1933)
I’m going to go out on a limb and proclaim that this movie is the Marx Brothers movie. Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho) is the sudden leader of Freedonia, land of the “freeeeee and braaaaaaaaaaaave.” One might be tempted to call Firefly and his administration corrupt, but he is all too aware of his deficiency of scruples. The rich people of the country wanted him to run things, so what could be done? Sound familiar? It may just be the Marx Brothers movie we need right now.
Next week, I’ll continue our journey into the geriatric, although I’m not entirely sure where I’ll go next. The old Universal Monsters? Forbidden Planet? Maybe I’ll do both.
*It actually happened. It was traumatic. But, by all means, have a chuckle.
**Or LOL, as the kids are fond of using lately.
***As opposed to his other plays, that end with a funeral. If Johnny Carson were here, he’d say “What’s the difference?” For the record, I do not co-sign on that ad lib. While I enjoy marriage, weddings can be quite a chore.
****Unless they’re bumping into the Frankenstein’s monster, or any of his other pals, but I’m thinking we’ll get into that next week.
*****Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy, eat your heart out.
******Who didn’t even stick around for the group’s film career. Thanks a lot, World War I.
*******Yes, I know Zeppo, Groucho, and Harpo all appear together in Love Happy (1949), but Groucho is not much more than a cameo. …Casablanca is the true last Marx Brothers movie.
********Seriously. Beyond Lugosi’s performance, the one vampire film that everyone can name off the top of their heads may legally qualify as a sedative.