Daily | “The Best of the Marx Brothers”

The Marx Brothers

Groucho, Harpo and Chico

Introducing The Best of the Marx Brothers, a season opening today at BFI Southbank in London and running through the end of the month, Nick Bradshaw notes that “they were the ideal jesters for an era when the wheels had come off the economy, the world was in uproar and politics was turning weird. Sound familiar? Their power has never really ebbed—the Situationists tipped their hat in ‘68 Paris (‘Je suis Marxiste – tendence Groucho’), Duck Soup saved Woody Allen from suicide in Hannah and Her Sisters, and Jean-Luc Godard seems to have modeled his elder-statesman screen persona on Groucho. They’re chaotically, mercilessly funny—especially when you see them in a packed house.”

“The Marxes are loved; they are not quite revered,” writes Danny Leigh in an appreciation for the Financial Times. “The closest they come is with Duck Soup, their 1933 satire of dictatorship and war, starring Groucho as the leader of obscure republic Freedonia. Sniffed at by critics when it first came out, the film has long been acknowledged as a masterpiece. Not only is it wildly funny, it was made as the rumbles of fascism from Europe grew thunderous (Mussolini took personal umbrage). In the decades since, the world has rarely let its themes become passé.”

“It is the rat-a-tat-tat speed of their delivery that distinguishes the Marx Brothers from their contemporaries, and stops them growing old,” writes Craig Brown in the Guardian. “Other comedies from that era now seem sluggish and laborious: Duck Soup is alive and kicking…. Is Duck Soup a political satire? Many intellectuals and academics have argued as much, though they tend to belong to the school of criticism that likes to stamp all the jokes out of comedy so that they can praise its high seriousness without fear of contradiction. A New Yorker cartoon once showed a Professor of Semiotics saying, ‘The tautology of their symbolism thus begins to achieve mythic proportions in A Day at the Races, Duck Soup and A Night at the Opera.’ As is so often the case with New Yorker cartoons, it veers from reality only by a couple of degrees.”

“Groucho’s one-liners and Harpo’s physical comedy were allied to straight man Zeppo and Chico’s wordplay—younger brother Gummo chose to work only on the stage and not on film before becoming an agent.” For the BBC, John McKie considers the range of the fans. “Adam Sandler remembers being woken by his father Stan at 1am because one of their movies was on television.” Says Alice Cooper: “Groucho used to call me in the middle of the night and ask me to come over. We’d sit around and watch old black and white movies and he loved to point out personal things I didn’t want to know about the actors. Groucho was the ringleader of the brothers, sort of like the lead singer in a band. So I obviously really related to him.” And Judd Apatow: “The first movie that had an impact on me as a person interested in comedy was Duck Soup.”

Update, 1/18: “Sometimes overlooked amidst all this untrammeled anarchy are the regular accompanying actors who served as sympathetic support, straight men and women or comedic targets.” For Sight & Sound, Sabina Stent presents “a brief introduction to the extended family.”

Update, 1/19: BFI programmers Geoff Andrew writes an appreciation of Duck Soup‘s director, Leo McCarey, “who made one of the most heart-wrenching Hollywood movies of all time (the extraordinary if woefully underseen Make Way for Tomorrow (1937), which was famously an influence on Ozu’s Tokyo Story), some of the most mawkish (I’ll refrain from mentioning the titles), and some of the funniest…. You might think it would be nigh on impossible to ‘direct’ the supremely anarchic Marxes, but look how much tamer their later films were; the early Paramount movies are by far the freshest and least diluted by romantic flummery for juve leads.”

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