The Marx Brothers

Three Jewish boys make their mark on comedy.

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Hitting Their Stride

The Marx brothers did not hit their stride until they worked with a better class of directors and screenwriters, and--illogically enough--when given unnecessary subplots and romantic leads. Their last film for Paramount before departing for MGM, was 1933's classic Duck Soup. Groucho played Rufus T. Firefly, the new prime minister of Fredonia, who leads his country to war in the name of eternal peace.

Directed by Leo McCarey (Love Affair, Going My Way), Duck Soup features one of the brothers' most beloved routines. In the mirror sequence, Harpo, while dressed as Groucho, attempts to convince Groucho that he is looking at a reflection of himself. Groucho tries every trick in his repertoire to shake his shadow, but Harpo holds strong, imitating his every move for as long as he can. With some digressions, (primarily for Harpo to squeeze in a musical solo) Duck Soup is the most focused Marx brothers film, a pointed satire of war and diplomacy whose barbs have lost little of their sting over the years.

The Big Leagues

Their switch to MGM came at a cost. Groucho and company were no longer considered hefty enough to carry a film on their own, and were paired with bland costars like Allan Jones and Kitty Carlisle as the comic component of romances. Their routines in 1935's A Night at the Opera and 1937's A Day at the Races paused to allow the romantic leads to banter, or--even worse--sing. But Night and Day amply reward audiences for their patience, raising the bar on their hijinks even higher.
 
A Night at the Opera contains one notable scene in which an expanding array of people and objects attempt to cram into Groucho's miniscule stateroom. "I hadn't planned on a manicure," Groucho tells a manicurist who unexpectedly joins the swelling crowd, "but I think on a journey like this, you ought to have every convenience you can get...You'd better make 'em short. It's getting kind of crowded in here." 

Groucho and Chico also haggle over a contract, tearing a lengthy document to pieces as they debate each other. "It's all right, that's, that's in every contract," Groucho informs Chico about the last remaining shred of paper. "That's, that's what they call a 'sanity clause.'" Laughing knowingly, Chico responds, "You can't fool me. There ain't no Sanity Clause!"

Downsized

By the late 1930s, the brothers' grace period at MGM had expired, and charmless slogs like Room Service and At the Circus were the result. Groucho's verbal wizardry no longer had the facility of youth, and Chico and Harpo had been relegated to revisiting old routines. The quality of the writers and directors assigned to the Marx Brothers also slipped dramatically.

They continued to make films into the 1940s, but few fans have fond memories of Go West (1940), The Big Store (1941), or A Night in Casablanca (1946). Of the three, only Groucho managed to find sustained success outside the Marx Brothers, writing a number of books and hosting You Bet Your Life, the long-running television series.

For the first ten years of the sound film, though, there was no one anywhere who was funnier than the three Jewish boys from New York City. They bequeathed to later comics a love of chaos, a taste for oddball mayhem, and inspired wordplay. A look at the work of Peter Sellers, Steve Martin, or Mike Myers offers hints of the Marx brothers. Their particular brand of over-the-top hijinks continues to be injected directly into the bloodstream of American comedy.

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Saul Austerlitz

Saul Austerlitz is a writer and film critic in New York.