Icons of Comedy is a series in which I shine the spotlight on a hero of my favorite genre–comedy. The comedy genre has given us directors and especially actors whose careers embody all of the things that make the comedy genre so great. Today, I’m rewarding everyone with a three-for-one, as I’ll be writing about the Marx brothers.
Who are the Marx Brothers?
The Marx brothers were a family comedy act. There were five brothers. Grouch, Harpo, and Chico are the most celebrated. Zeppo appeared only in a few key early films, and Gummo never made an appearance. As such, I’ll be focusing on the first three. They were first generation Americans who grew up in New York. The brothers had an innate comic knack, and were quite successful first on Vaudeville and later on Broadway. By the late 1920s, Hollywood came calling and they signed with Paramount.
From there, they forged a legendary career.
What is their style?
Much of what the Marx brothers did was rooted in their Broadway and vaudeville background. Specifically, there are heavy musical elements to their films, with Harpo playing the harp (what else?) and Chico playing the piano. Occasionally, the three main brothers will serve as secondary characters whose presence ultimately turns them into the primary character, taken collectively. The plot will unfold with multiple other characters taking on the major roles (though Zeppo often took on one of these major roles), while Groucho, Harpo, and Chico float around the periphery injecting their own special flair to the films. While it didn’t happen this way in all of their films, it certainly wasn’t out of the ordinary. In other words, if you go into a Marx brothers movie expecting to see the plot revolve around them, it’s quite possible you’ll be disappointed, and yet they’ll always be on the scene. Their comedy can also take on a bit of a surreal tone at times, breaking the fourth wall for random asides and the like. We’re not talking Buñuel, but it’s far from the norm for 1930s comedies.
The beauty of the brothers is that they each possessed their own unique style. It wasn’t a traditional comic team–the funny man and the straight man setting him up. They all set each other up for various gags. Groucho was a one-liner machine gun, ripping off one incredible line after another possessing puns, wordplay, and the like. If you blink, you’re liable to miss something when he’s speaking. Chico plays a foreign character, equally adept at puns, but with a more deliberate comic style. Many of his gags involve misunderstandings that arise from his failure to grasp the language. Last and certainly not least is Harpo, the silent clown of the trio. Harpo communicates through the use of a bicycle horn, which he honks as a punchline indicator. He absorbs most of the visual gags of the trio, and does it all while displaying childlike mischief. Any one of the three could carry a comedy but when they’re working in concert, what comes out is an amazing symphony of laughs. There’s really never been anything like it, either before or since.
What movies did they make?
There are four films that serve as their best–Horse Feathers (1932), Duck Soup (1933), A Night at the Opera (1935), and A Day at the Races (1937). Beyond that, there are several other solid efforts, including The Cocoanuts (1929), Animal Crackers (1930), Monkey Business (1931), Go West (1940), and A Night in Casablanca (1946). In my estimation, the two essentials are Duck Soup and Horse Feathers, with the former serving as heavy, poignant political satire that ran so deep, Benito Mussolini took it as a personal insult.
And now, some scenes…
Here are some great examples of their humor: