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The News Has You Depressed? Go See a Marx Brothers Movie.

Culture Watch
tags: Marx Brothers, Marx Brothers and the Golden Age of Vaudeville



Bruce Chadwick lectures on history and film at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He also teaches writing at New Jersey City University. He holds his PhD from Rutgers and was a former editor for the New York Daily News. Mr. Chadwick can be reached at bchadwick@njcu.edu.

The very first Marx Brothers comedy film I ever saw was Horse Feathers. I do not remember when. I do not remember where. What I do remember is that I laughed for a long time. So did many others who saw their memorable films from the 1920s, ‘30s and ‘40s.

The boys are back again. On Friday, the Film Forum, 209 West Houston Street, New York, premiers “Marx Brothers & the Golden Age of Vaudeville,” showcasing just about all of their films through September 29. The movie house will run them as double features and you can see two for the price of one ticket (for further information: filmforum.org)

Lots of people enjoy the Marx Brothers, and have for nearly ninety years. Their success is due to two reasons: 1) witty scripts with sharp and humorous dialogue, 2) their memorable film personas and the way that they poked fun at just about everybody and everything.

Groucho was the star of the Marx Brothers movies. His real name was Julius and he said that he was nicknamed Groucho after a comic strip character. He had that marvelous walk, the enchanting style of talking, over and under his thick cigar, the wildy arched eyebrows and sported that delightful thick moustache. You expected him to come up with some witty line of dialogue and he always did (“Let’s fight for this woman’s honor; she never did” and “I shot an elephant in my pajamas last night…how he got into my pajamas I’ll never know…”).

Chico was actually a fine pianist. Like Harpo, he played second fiddle to Groucho but had his own unique film image with that too tight coat and the crazy hat and forced accent and every few minutes the need to say to someone “hey boss…”

Harpo was beloved. He never talked on film and never shut up when the cameras stopped rolling. He cavorted through the films with his large honking horn, oversized hat, endless running and that crazy, frizzy hair.

Zeppo was the fourth brother (fifth brother Gummo was in some films, too) and usually played the straight man in their movies, the guy whose character helped the plot move from scene to scene and who often set up the others for funny bits.

Many successful people in show business are just lucky. Others happened to have come along at the right time. Others were discovered.  Some had the right look. Not the Marx Brothers. The five of them were the offspring of talented parents (Mom Minnie was a longtime entertainer) who introduced all of them to show business at an early age. They developed their comedic skill in clubs and on stages in the vaudeville era, worked hard and by the late 1920s were Broadway stars. The next logical step was film. They appeared in one dreadful silent movie, Humor Rick, in 1921 and then shot to stardom in 1929, just after pictures introduced sound, with Cocoanuts. Then, in rapid succession, they starred in Animal Crackers, Monkey Business, Horse Fathers, Duck Soup, A Night at the Opera, A Day at the Races and other films.

The Marx Brothers have not only charmed people in America, but all over the world.

Bruce Goldstein, the theater’s repertory director, who put together this film forum tribute, is one of them. “This is the first time we have done the Marx Brothers. I always wanted to do a film series on them like this and I think it will do well. The Marx brothers have fans around the country.”

He thinks the attraction to the Marx brothers over the years is that young audiences embrace their very original sense of humor. “Comedies usually follow a formula. They are not risky. The Marx brothers are. All those funny lines. The sight gags. The frenetic  pace of the films. Who else does that kind of humor? Young people like that,” he said.

Critics have always applauded the originality of the Marx brothers’ humor. When A Night at the Opera premiered, the critic for the New Republic magazine wrote that “the Marx Brothers, who have a zeal for clowning and a need to be cockeyed that are either genius or just about enough to fit them all out with numbers and a straitjacket, and who troop through this impossible hour and a half of a picture with such speed and clatter as to pin up a record for one of the most hilarious collections of bad jokes I’ve laughed myself nearly sick over.”

There are seven Marx brothers’ films in the festival. “I picked the funniest films and the earliest films, which were the best,” said Goldstein. There is one big surprise in the festival. After its original run, the Marx film Animal Crackers had several of its sexual  innuendos  cut out. The Film Forum has restored them.

Their first eleven movies (out of 13) were made during the Great Depression. Americans were looking for light hearted fare to take their mind off the terrible economic conditions in the nation that they faced every day and the Marx Brothers were there to give it to them. They were perfect for the era and the people.

That was not why they became show business legends, though. Their movies have been shown thousands of times on television all over the world and they are applauded as heartily today as they were in their heyday. The reason? “They were funny then and they are funny now. Those four guys were just funny,” said Bruce. “People will laugh at them a hundred years from now,”

They all had after-lives beyond the last of their films, Love Happy, in 1949. Groucho had a long career in television and was the star of the game show You Bet Your Life.

Zeppo and Gummo founded a successful talent agency that represented the brothers as well as other prominent stage and screen stars. “Most people do not know that,” said Goldstein.

His own Marx Brothers favorite? “Oh, Horse Feathers. It is hilarious,” he said.

In addition to the Marx movies, Film Forum will present two talks with films by Goldstein, “Vaudeville 101” and “Tribute to the Nicholas Brothers,” the dance team. In addition, Ron Hutchinson, of the Vitaphone Project, will present talks on Vitaphone’s history, “A Night at the Palace: Vitaphone’s Greatest Hits” and”Unseen Vitaphone Varieties, Part 1.” The festival will also present “From Bowery to Hollywood: Vaudeville’s Legacy,” with Alejandra Espasande and Kelly Kreft.

There are hundreds of memorable lines from their films. My favorite?  It was Groucho in his hotel room in the film Room Service, chomping on his cigar, eyebrows raised high, on the phone with a hotel’s front desk: “Room service? Send me a room…”



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