October 30, 2015

WATCH ME IF YOU CAN | Why the Marx Brothers Worked

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By MARINA CAITLIN WATTS

In a time where genres and comedic styles were shifting, it became difficult for entertainers to remain popular.  But not for the Marx Brothers. They were the greatest entertainers of their time and possibly the the greatest of all time.  

Vaudeville was a sideshow form of entertainment filled with side-gags and runaway jokes.  Narrative content was suppressed; the story was always subordinate. When audiences began to find this type of entertainment subordinate to comic realism, which was growing in popularity, this aesthetic was rejected since people thought this kind of humor was crude and associated it with a lower standard of morality.  

There was a strong desire for narrative content, and even though Hollywood hired many vaudevillians, the industry began to tell more stories. Enter the Marx Brothers.

Photo Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

Photo Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

Iconic, each of the brothers brought their own personality to the silver screen. None of them abided to the Victorian Era ways and each did their own thing without regards to any societal standards and circumstantial rules put in place. They started their career with Broadway stars, Chico overseeing which direction they should go in and Groucho overseeing the more creative matters.  They became wildly popular theater acts with their organic improv. I’ll Say She Is was the first show they starred in, which was a musical review. Their other two onstage hits were The Cocoanuts and Animal Crackers, which both were adapted to film.  

Groucho donned a moustache and caterpillar-esque eyebrows and always had a cigar in hand.  His constant motive was to woo matronly woman while upholding some type of prestigious title he was given for the film. With his constantly innuendo-laced dialogue, Groucho was clever and always thought on his feet.  Groucho also broke the fourth wall a lot, which brought even more laughs.

Chico spoke with an Italian accent and was always looking to make some money.  He wore a fedora of sorts and a blazer that looked a little small on him. Chico’s accent allowed him to focus on making constant plays on words and created a pseudo-language barrier for comedic value.  

Harpo, the mute, relied solely on the physical comedy he could offer along with his musical talent of playing the harp. He donned a head of curly blonde hair, wore a top hat, a jacket and pants that were clearly too big for him. Harpo tripped everywhere and had childlike antics reminiscent of a world before the talkie.

In the earlier films, Zeppo always had a clean-shaven look to him as he played the main romantic interest to some pretty young thing. His wooing was much more respectable than any of the schemes Chcio tried to pull over on any girl. In the end of the film, he would wind up coupling off with her, making for a perfect Hollywood ending.  

In each of their films, they poked fun at whatever was going on in the real world. Animal Crackers focused on how stuffy and ridiculous high society and Victorian ways could be, as a painting was highly regarded and house guests were entertained by what they expected to be a refined musical performance. Meanwhile, it was really just Chico, Groucho and Harpo improvising. A Day at the Races focused on the world of horse races and gambling. A Night at the Opera commented on the art culture, as the brothers schemed to reunite a rising opera star with the woman he loved. Horse Feathers made fun of the college student life and college-level football in a time when regulation began to get tighter, along with Prohibition. And their most popular film, Duck Soup, commented on dictatorships in a post-WWI setting with Groucho taking the reigns as leader.  

Photo Courtesy of Metro-Goldwyn Mayer

Photo Courtesy of Metro-Goldwyn Mayer

So, why are their films so important? The Marx Brothers were able to adapt to different cinematic circumstances in a world where the vaudeville stars became less and less significant. In order to see how subversive their characters are (namely Chico, Groucho and Harpo), you don’t need to think too much. Their comedic style provides the opposite of immediate gratification and their films also offered the Hollywood ending, as order was restored and couples were appropriately paired off. Marx Brother films appropriately responded to the narrative of comic realism, even though the majority of their gags were reminiscent of the vaudeville aesthetic.  

Scenes from their movies also became very iconic and were recreated in many other films.  A Night at the Opera features a scene of a crowded cabin. Duck Soup included the famous mirror scene. The hat scene in Duck Soup is similar to the one in Waiting for Godot.

Moving forward, films would almost always contain narrative content.  However, everything was initially drawn from the vaudeville aesthetic. And reader, please if you have never seen a Marx Brothers film, do yourself the favor by at least doing a YouTube search for their films. Or skip class today and watch all of them in one sitting.  I probably did that in preparation to write this article anyhow.  

Marina Caitlin Watts is a senior studying Communication. In addition to writing for The Sun, she has also been published on various film websites along with The Daily Beast. She loves Frank Sinatra and hates decaf coffee. If you need her, she is waiting for Godot. Watch Me If You Can appears on alternate Fridays this semester. She can be reached at mwatts@cornellsun.com.

One thought on “WATCH ME IF YOU CAN | Why the Marx Brothers Worked

  1. Pingback: WATCH ME IF YOU CAN | Shifting from the Vaudeville Aesthetic to Comic Realism – Sunspots

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