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Christian
English Major
Writer
Thinker of odd things

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ENG 101, paper #6 [Thursday, Dec. 09, 2004, 10:21 pm]

Okay, I promise this is the last paper I will thrust upon you this semester, because it's the last one for English 101. I know the topic I chose is quite a shocker. And it may be the last paper I ever put up here at all - wouldn't that be exciting! This is really long...so if nobody reads it, I understand perfectly. It's always worth a shot though.

“Ladies and Gentlemen... I guess that takes in most of you,” begins Groucho Marx, during
an impromptu speech to a packed opera house. “This is the opening of a new opera season, a season made possible by the generous checks of Mrs. Claypool.” The audience applause. “I am sure the familiar strains of Verdi's music will come back to you tonight,” continues Groucho, “and Mrs. Claypool's checks will probably come back in the morning.” Worried expressions play across the faces of a few audience members. “Tonight marks the American debut of Rodolfo Lassparri. Signor Lassparri comes from a very famous family. His mother was a well-known bass singer. And his father was the first man to stuff spaghetti with bicarbonate of soda, thus causing and curing indigestion at the same time. And now, on with the opera. Let joy be unconfined. Let there be dancing in the streets, drinking in the saloons, and necking in the parlor. Play, Don,” he says as he motions toward the puzzled conductor.

This is a brief example of the wit and sarcasm displayed by Groucho Marx in the 1935 classic musical comedy, “A Night at the Opera”, one of the largest financial successes of all the Marx brothers’ movies. It was also given a five star rating by Video Movie Guide. Most people have probably heard of Groucho Marx before. And I’m sure many could also identify him by his trademark appearance: Glasses, greasepaint moustache and eyebrows, and a large, omnipresent cigar sticking out of his mouth. There are some who would know him as the host of the popular 1950's TV game show, “You bet your life”. But what a lot of people don’t know is that the first half of Groucho’s acting career was shared with three of his brothers, in a comedy team collectively known as The Marx Brothers.

Aside from Groucho, there was Chico, the eldest of the brothers. He usually played the part of a dumb but charming con artist with a phony Italian accent. In the movies, his character was usually in cahoots with that of his brother, Harpo, the second-eldest. Harpo’s most recognizable trait was that he never spoke a word in front of a camera. He wasn’t a mute in real life, but he found that pantomime was a much more effective way for him to be funny. He played the harp (hence the nickname), and always carried a large assortment of things in his pockets, including an old car horn which he would often honk while chasing girls in the movies. Zeppo, who left the act after five films, was the “comic foil”. He mainly functioned as the romantic lead, or the brunt of his brothers’ jokes, which certainly factored into his decision to depart.

In order to avoid alienating those who may not have appreciated one particular comedy style, the brothers wisely integrated several different styles into their team, to provide something for everyone. According to Bill Marx, Harpo’s son:

“[In the old] commedia dell’arte ... you had the authoritarian figure, you had the idiot, and you had the mime, and it was a proven formula that has lasted through the ages. The Marx Brothers, through hit and miss ... accidently came upon it, with Groucho being the authoritarian figure, Chico being the idiot, and Harpo being the mime. Of course, their own personalities, on stage, became stage persona more or less based upon an extension of their real personalities.”

The characters they created were very different, and certainly not the type that would ordinarily hang around together, but since they were brothers, their natural chemistry together as actors melded their differences as characters into a working team.

The Marx Brothers were all born in the late 1800's and early 1900's. Their parents were Jewish immigrants from Germany, who had taken up residence in New York City. “Give or take a few years, I was born around the turn of the century,” Groucho said. “I won’t say which century. Everyone is allowed one guess.” Their mother, Minnie Marx, was determined to see her sons succeed in show business. She had a plan, and wasn’t going to let anyone or anything get in the way of it. She was eventually able to push her three middle sons into an act that was originally a singing group, which gradually evolved over time, and eventually began touring locally. Here is how Harpo Marx describes his first time on the stage, at the age of twenty:

“Minnie pushed me ... I came to a halt beside Lou Levy. I turned. And there They were. A sea of hostile, mocking faces ... And here I was, with nothing to hold onto, absolutely nothing. With my first look at my first audience I reverted to being a boy again. My reaction was instantaneous and overwhelming. I wet my pants. It was probably the most wretched debut in the history of show business.”

Fortunately for Harpo, his confidence on stage improved over time, and so did the brothers’ performances. At this point, Gummo, the fourth Marx brother, was playing the part of the comic foil. But in 1918, he finally decided that he’d had enough of show business, and left the act forever, to join the military. Zeppo, the youngest of the brothers, soon took over his role.

Over the course of the 1910's and early 1920's, the Marx brothers toured on the vaudeville circuit, performing wherever they could book a show and find a cheap hotel. Their act evolved over the years, from “The Four Nightingales”, their original singing group, to “The Four Marx Brothers”. Under this name, with full cast and crew in tow, they performed various acts which always centered on comedy. In 1924, the brothers finally hit Broadway, and starred in three different productions. Drama critic Alexander Woolcott attended their first performance, and instantly fell in love with their humor. Woolcott referred to the silent Harpo Marx as, “...the funniest man I have ever seen on the stage.” He and Harpo remained good friends until Woolcott’s death in 1943.

Although the Marx brothers became primarily a comedy act, music always remained a part of their performances. Harpo was a self-taught musician who played not only the harp, but also the piano, clarinet, flute, and who knows what else. Most of their movies contain harp solos from Harpo, which often made for a nice break in the hoopla. The other accomplished musician in the family was Chico, who became a very entertaining pianist. He had a flashy style, charming disposition, and employed fancy hand motions in his playing, all of which worked to endear the audiences to him. Groucho was more partial to singing than playing. He sang a part in the song “Hooray for Captain Spaulding”, featured in the movie “Animal Crackers”; the tune of which was later used as the theme song for his TV quiz show, “You bet your life.” Animal Crackers is also the movie that contains Groucho’s famous line, “One day I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got in my pajamas I don’t know.”

In 1929, a revolution swept over the world of entertainment: movies began to “talk”. It was in this year that the Marx Brothers, after a very successful run on Broadway, signed a five-film deal with Paramount Pictures, thus beginning their movie career. At the time, the oldest three brothers were hovering around the age of forty - a time when most actors were past their prime. The issue of age, however, was completely irrelevant to the Marx boys.

The first two films that the Marx Brothers made were film versions of their last two Broadway plays. Both did well, and the brothers soon moved on to new material. Their last film for Paramount Pictures was a satire on politics and war, entitled “Duck Soup.” Although it didn’t do well when it was released, it is now viewed as a classic, and is ranked #5 on The American Film Institute’s list of the top 100 comedies of all time. “A Night at the Opera”, the brothers’ next film, also made the list at #12.

Most of the Marx Brothers’ movies were not well-known for their storylines or romantic sub-plots. It was the humor of the brothers that carried the movies, because they didn’t need organized, well-structured movies in order to be funny. Indeed, they seemed to thrive on chaos. Even many of their meaningless film titles portray this spontaneity. In general, their comedy had a very anarchic feel to it. There was usually an institution that they were innocently trying to tear down. In “Horse Feathers”, the institution is a college. One of the scenes in this movie consists of Groucho’s hilarious attempt to teach a college anatomy class, as “Professor Quincy Adams Wagstaff.” In “A Night at the Opera”, the Marx Brothers work to utterly wreck havoc at the opera, in order to allow two young lovers to sing together. Their antics include Harpo swinging from the rafters, causing the backdrop scenery to continually change, and Groucho cat-calling from the audience. Their anti-establishment humor allows the viewers to identify with them, and root for them as if they were underdogs in a sporting event.

The Marx Brothers’ favorite target, however, was actress Margaret Dumont, who appeared in nine of their fourteen movies. Her character was always that of a gullible rich widow, whom Groucho was continually trying to romance. It is obvious to the viewer that he was only after her money, but this never seemed apparent to Dumont herself. Her stuffiness and seriousness made for the perfect foil for the brothers’ antics. She was constantly insulted and leered at by Groucho, and yet never seemed to comprehend his innuendos or double entendres.

It was after “Duck Soup” in 1933 that Zeppo finally decided he’d had enough of being the stooge, and departed the group, eventually becoming their manager. The Four Marx Brothers had been permanently reduced to the Three Marx brothers. They still produced several successful movies for MGM (including “A Night at the Opera”), but as the 1940's dawned, the Marx Brothers’ material and popularity began to wane. In 1942, they announced their retirement from the movies. Although they reunited to make two more movies in the late 40's, the Marx Brothers, who had been performing together for over forty years, were finally finished with the big screen, and went their separate ways.

Groucho took up writing, and also became the host of “You bet your life”, which had a very good run on radio, and was later successfully transferred to television. Chico led an orchestra for a few years, but was addicted to gambling and betting, which was continually a cause of financial troubles. Harpo and his wife went on to adopt and raise four children at their Tennessee ranch.

But by the time 1980 rolled around, all five Marx Brothers had passed away. So why is there still an audience for their movies, even today? Why has their humor endured for over seventy years? For one thing, their material wasn’t too dated. Despite its age, one doesn’t have to have grown up in the 1940's in order to most of understand their jokes or laugh at their sight gags. Their humor was usually was created to poke fun in a general sense, rather than targeting real-life people or events. This might have something to do with the fact that most of their movies were made during the Great Depression, when most people didn’t have a whole lot to laugh about, and therefore appreciated the anarchic, satirical humor.

Another reason that the Marx Brothers have withstood the test of time is simply because of who they were. They had grown up on the stage, and had worked with each other for almost all of their adult lives. This gave their routines a natural flow and chemistry, whether they were just standing and talking, or running amok at the opera, horse race, or doctor’s examination. They were brothers - not just a random group of actors that had been hired because they were funny. The Marx Brothers were more than just a group of comedic actors - they were a team of brothers who thoroughly exemplified anarchic humor in its craziest form. That’s why they were popular during their time, and that’s why they are still looked upon as “the reigning kings of madcap comedy".

Just for the record, I did cite my sources in my original copy...just not here.

wander -- travel

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