Political anarchists have long been caricatured as gaunt, bearded men in overcoats tossing bowling ball-shaped bombs.
The Marx Brothers were anarchists, too, but instead of bombs their weapons were clever wordplay, slapstick physicality, and madcap characters.
Rather than blowing up buildings they blew up the pretentions of modern “civilized” life. They poked their fingers in the eyes of respectability, decency, and what passed for sanity.
Even today their crazed mania seems pretty “out there.” One can only imagine how it felt to Depression-era audiences.
And yet the Marx Brothers were huge, huge stars.
They got their start as a family musical act, working their way up through the ranks of Jewish theater and the vaudeville circuits before starring in Broadway musicals in the 1920s. Along the way each brother developed a comic alter ego.
Julius painted on a black moustache and donned glasses with busy eyebrows to become the insult-lobbing Groucho.
Leonard became Chico with a hammy Italian accent, a Tyrolean hat, and curly dark wig. He did musical tricks on the piano. (By the way, his name was pronounced Chick-O, in recognition of his womanizing ways.)
The craziest of the three was Adolph’s Harpo, who never spoke on stage or in front of the camera. With his crushed top hat, explosion of blond ringlets, billowing trench coat and arsenal of squeezebulb-honking horns, he was like a big bratty child, albeit one who liked to leer at pretty girls. Like Chico, he had a musical speciality – Harpo played the harp.
Zeppo (Herbert) was the fourth brother, the one nobody remembers. In the brothers’ early films he played the straight man – which is ironic since in private life he was acknowledged to be the funniest of the siblings. He was a brilliant engineer and inventor who became a millionaire after he left the act.
There was a fifth brother, Gummo (Milton), who abandoned show biz back in the clan’s vaudeville days. He had a successful career as a theatrical agent.
The Marxes became hugely popular with their early films: The Cocoanuts (1929), Animal Crackers (1930), and Monkey Business (1931). Their 1932 comedy Horse Feathers was Paramount’s biggest hit of the year, so there was much anticipation of what they would deliver in their next feature.
But behind the scenes, things were rocky. Financially, Paramount was on the ropes and the brothers hadn’t been paid all they were owed for their earlier successes. Their next film – Duck Soup – would fulfill their five-picture deal with the studio, and they were ready to jump ship.
Given all that, the Marxes might have kissed off the project and turned in an inferior product. Instead, Duck Soup is their masterpiece, acclaimed not only for its brilliant comic routines but for its satire of nationalism, jingoism, and saber-rattling.
(Of course, the brothers denied there was any significant political subtext to their work. “What significance?” Groucho protested. “We were just four Jews trying to get a laugh.”)
Groucho plays the cigar-wagging Rufus T. Firefly, who becomes dictator of the European country of Fredonia. The ambassador of neighboring Sylvania (Louis Calhern) hires a couple of inept jokers (Chico and Harpo) to spy on Firefly in preparation for an invasion of the country.
Also prominent in the cast is Groucho’s perennial foil, opera singer Margaret Dumont. She plays the wealthy Mrs. Teasdale, who uses her money and influence to put Firefly in power. Some of Groucho’s most memorable lines are directed at this human battleship: “Married! I can see you right now in the kitchen, bending over a hot stove. But I can’t see the stove!”
There’s no plot to speak of here...mostly the setup provides a framework for some of the Marx Brothers’ most memorable routines.
For example, there’s the famous mirror sequence. Attempting to burglarize Groucho’s home, Harpo disguises himself as Groucho in nightshirt, bedcap, glasses and moustache. When the real Groucho shows up, Harpo pretends that a doorway is actually a full-length mirror. Whatever Groucho does, Harpo matches his every move. This goes on for several hysterical minutes as Groucho tries to catch his “reflection” in a mistake; then Chico blunders onto the scene, also disguised as Groucho in sleepwear. At this point you can’t tell which one is the real Groucho. (Years later, Harpo would recreate the bit for an episode of I Love Lucy.)
Another classic exchange finds Chico and Harpo posing as sidewalk vendors and making life miserable for their competition, a lemonade seller played by veteran straight man Edgar Kennedy, who had worked with Chaplin and Mack Sennett.
Both routines had been perfected by the brothers over years of live performance and brilliantly adapted for the film medium.
But Duck Soup also had some fiercely original material, especially the siege of the farmhouse that climaxes the film. Firefly and his compatriots are under fire by advancing Sylvanian troops. In an absolutely chaotic sequence, Groucho tries to organize his fighters – except that in each shot he’s wearing a different outfit. He appears as a Civil War general (both federal and rebel), as a Boy Scout in shorts, as a coonskin-capped frontiersman...it’s insane.
While it is today regarded as their best movie, Duck Soup was considered a disappointment because it was only the year’s sixth-highest grossing film. Not only was it the Marx Brothers’s last film for Paramount, it was the last to feature Zeppo.
They still had other big hits ahead of them – like A Day at the Races and A Night at the Opera – but the brothers also had to deal with studio chiefs who insisted that their chaotic approach be watered down with real plots and especially tangential love stories involving insipid young co-stars.
The late Roger Ebert nicely summed up the importance of these anarchistic entertainers: “Although they were not taken as seriously, they were as surrealist as Dalí, as shocking as Stravinsky, as verbally outrageous as Gertrude Stein, as alienated as Kafka. Because they worked the genres of slapstick and screwball, they did not get the same kind of attention, but their effect on the popular mind was probably more influential.”
The series Make ‘Em Laugh features films voted the best American comedies of all time by the American Film Institute.
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About the Author
Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com. He joined the Library's Public Affairs team in 2012.