It is hard to believe that when Leonard, Arthur, Julius, and Herbert Marx (better known by their stage names (Chico, Harpo, Groucho, and Zeppo) assembled in early 1929 to make their first motion picture, most were already in their middle age: Chico, the firstborn, was 42, Harpo 40, Groucho 38, while Zeppo, the baby of the family born a full decade later, a mere 28. Something about their irrepressible energy, their irreverence, and their sheer outrageousness made them seem much younger, but those qualities had been honed to perfection over the previous two decades on the long hard road to stardom, as the family slowly but surely worked their way to the top of the vaudeville circuit and then Broadway. Over the twenty years that followed the brothers made a dozen more films (some against their better judgment), and while it is difficult to pick one as their absolute best, an argument could be made that they never surpassed their first five; the ones for Paramount Pictures before the infamous Hays Code imposed its “moral” guidelines on movie content, the ones that include Zeppo, and the ones the Brattle Theatre has chosen to screen this time around in their New Year’s Day marathon.
That first film, The Cocoanuts, has a rough, cobbled-together, almost amateur look to it. Essentially a tricked-out version of their successful stage play, the movie was hampered by the primitive technology of the brand new talkie era, as the noisy camera had to be kept in a stationary box, and paper props soaked in water to keep them silent when handled so as not to drown out the dialogue. Rigidly choreographed song and dance numbers sit uneasily beside the loose, improvisational feel of the brothers’ comedy routines, some of which don’t survive the transition to celluloid with their full impact. The Marxes seem to be only a part of the larger cinematic stew, but it is their spirit that shines through, if only sporadically, upending the supposedly serious plot at every opportunity.
Animal Crackers (1930), another adaptation of one of their stage successes, proved a much better vehicle for the brothers, whose talents are on center stage and in full glorious display. Gone are the incongruous dance numbers, the hodgepodge approach, and the hamstrung camerawork. The film is wonderfully warm and intimate, and features Groucho’s famous songs “Hello, I Must Be Going” and “Hooray for Captain Spalding,” as well as some of his finest insults as he continuously abuses everyone in sight during a high society weekend gathering at which he is the guest of honor.
With Monkey Business (1931), the Marx brothers at long last broke free of the constraints of their Broadway shows, and struck out in new, uncharted, territory. Their only limits were those of the medium itself, and the result is an exhilarating burst of comic liberation, probably the purest expression of their unique form of hysterical anarchy ever recorded. Gags pile on top of gags as the quartet wreaks havoc while stowing away on a cruise ship, alternately hiding from and insulting the crew, taking them about as seriously as they do the gangster plotline that tries unsuccessfully to assert itself. Harpo is given a number of magical moments, both of madness and of tenderness, a true otherworldly presence, while Chico is as comically stoic, simple minded and levelheaded as ever, mangling the language to his own purposes and Groucho’s eternal dismay.
Horse Feathers (1932) continues in this vein, with the brothers skewering college life and rivalries, prohibition, football, and anything else that comes their way. Duck Soup (1933) ends their tenure at Paramount on the highest possible note, and is often pointed to as the pinnacle of their peculiar genius, as the team turns their comic venom and gift for mockery to the most serious subject of all: war. With its manic energy and deliriously over-the-top musical production when the country of Freedonia announces their military initiative, Duck Soup flows along at such breakneck speed that one hardly notices it is the only Marx brothers film without the usual instrumental solos from Chico and Harpo. (Perhaps this was Groucho finally getting his way, as he reportedly detested those scenes and included one of his own, on guitar and vocal in Horse Feathers, hoping to show his brothers how foolish he felt they appeared.) The justly famous mirror scene is a breathtaking break in the action; a surreal stroke of genius, a strange silent stretch of time that seems to exist completely in another realm, not of this earth.
The brothers themselves seem, even today, to be simultaneously not of this earth and somehow the most important, even essential, part of it. Their repeated, relentless, sending up of anything serious, stuffy, or self-important is a universal tonic in any age, and certainly a godsend as viewed from our 21st century perch. The instantly recognizable characters they created were natural extensions of their own forceful personalities, and, coupled with their unassuming ease in front of the camera and their instinctive gifts for comic timing, delivery and improvisation, made them seem old friends, always welcome in shaking up the boring goings on in polite society. Like Chaplin’s great Tramp character, the constancy of the Marx brothers and their behavior no matter what year, what movie, or what names they took for any particular story, are a comforting constant in a continuously changing and often harsh, unfriendly, and all too serious world. Hence the difficulty in choosing one film as their “best;” memorable scenes or exchanges abound in most of them, and it is easier to view their collected work as one extended performance to be enjoyed one tiny piece at a time.
After these five films at Paramount, the brothers were courted by boy wonder Irving Thalberg at MGM, soon signing with that studio and dropping Zeppo from their lineup to make some of their most successful works including A Night at the Opera (1935) and A Day at the Races (1937), but something of their original madcap energy was diminished. Thalberg stressed the importance of the plot as a vehicle to hang the gags on, and the brothers’ antics were suddenly saddled to these sterile storylines. As in The Cocoanuts, however, their magic could not be completely contained, and we can be thankful for these additional examples of the brothers in action, as we can for all their individual appearances over the years, from Groucho’s television program You Bet Your Life in the 1950s to Harpo’s famous guest spot on I Love Lucy. Every single time we are lucky enough to glimpse one of these old friends it accesses a primal place of pure joy within us. And when we are faced with the barrage of action and innovation contained in these first five movies, that joy is almost overwhelming.