New Year's Marxin' Eve -

New Year’s Marxin’ Eve


Having looked at the list of New Year’s Eve specials and found them all wanting (even CNN’s combination of Anderson Cooper and Kathy Griffin — with star power like that, it’s hard to understand why they’re in last place), I’m probably going to skip all reminders that 2010 happened, or that 2011 will happen. Instead I will retreat into a happier time free from economic turmoil and political strife: the 1930s. I’m referring, of course, to TCM’s Marx Brothers marathon, starting at 8 p.m. tonight.

First they’re showing four Paramount films — from Animal Crackers through Duck Soup — followed by the MGM staples A Night At the Opera and A Day at the Races. Oh, and also Go West, which isn’t very good, but that’s why it’s on at 5:30 in the morning.

The division of the marathon into Paramount/MGM blocks will lead to the usual round of discussion of Paramount Marxes vs. MGM Marxes and which is better. I should say that as a kid, my introduction to the team was with the first two MGMs, Opera and Races, when Elwy Yost programmed them on Saturday Night at the Movies. My parents, wanting to introduce me to the team, taped the whole show for me, and I watched the whole tape over and over, not just the movies but the interviews (mostly with people who had written scripts fro the brothers, like Addams Family head writer Nat Perrin and Meet Me In St. Louis writer Irving Brecher). Then when I saw my first Paramount Marx movie, I loved it, but it didn’t seem all that different from the MGM films. It wasn’t until I saw Duck Soup that it occurred to me that there was any change in their style.

Of course that might be because the first Paramount movie I saw was Animal Crackers, and that was based on a stage show, meaning it had the secondary love couple and additional musical numbers and all the rest of it. A Night at the Opera really just put back the elements that the Marxes had used on stage but not in their last three, shorter, Paramount movies. Also, Night At the Opera and Races have timing that’s reminiscent of those early stage-based movies, because they went out on the road and pre-tested the routines before filming them. Meaning those movies have long stagey pauses like in Animal Crackers and The Coconauts, where they’re pausing for the audience laughter that accompanied the original stage shows. It doesn’t really bother me, though — these movies were meant to be seen in theatres, and the audience laughter fills in the pauses.

The only downside to watching the Marx Brothers is wincing at the obvious cuts that have been made in three movies: Animal Crackers famously had dirty lines snipped out when it was reissued (are we ever going to hear Groucho sing “I think I’ll try and make her?”), as did Horse Feathers. And there are rumours about A Night At the Opera surfacing in the original print, before all references to Italy were cut, but it hasn’t actually turned up yet.

Everyone has a favourite thing about the Brothers, or a favourite Brother — yes, there are Zeppo enthusiasts. I’ve always been attracted to the idea, which David Thomson among others have promoted, that each of the three main Brothers embodies a different approach toward assimilation (and assimilation, whether it can be done and whether it should be done, is the subtext of a lot of U.S. comedy). Groucho is the one who tries the hardest to assimilate; he’s always the one with a full name, with a position of authority or honour, and the possibility of marriage with a wealthy WASP lady. But he just can’t control his rage against the phonies and snobs: where anyone else in his position would suck up to Margaret Dumont, he insults her endlessly. Chico is the one who acts like he’s sucking up, putting on the funny-foreigner act and calling everybody “boss,” while using that as cover for his real agenda of swindling anyone who’s richer than he is (including Groucho). Harpo doesn’t even try to fit in; he just constructs and lives in his own little world. And Zeppo is the one who is so assimilated that you almost forget, until late in the movie, that he’s from the same origins as the other three.

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New Year’s Marxin’ Eve

  1. Interesting; I'm familiar with a different Marxes-as-models-of-assimilation article, "The Marx Brothers, Jews & My Four-Year-Old Daughter," by Scott Haas. Haas agrees that Zeppo is practically "passing," says that Chico is hiding his Jewish identity by pretending to be an equally "exotic" but more acceptable variety of "foreigner," while Groucho defies the pressure to assimilate by exaggerating his stereotypical "Jewish" characteristics (cheapness, lechery–even hairiness) to the point of absurdity. And Harpo, of course, hides his "difference" by clamming up and acting like a child.

    • Those are equally good (or better) definitions. One thing about Night at the Opera is that it's almost the first time the high-society characters seem aware that Groucho doesn't belong in their world — instead of thinking he's wonderful and perfect, like they do in Animal Crackers and Duck Soup, they look down on him. It's a way of making him more sympathetic, by making him the underdog.

  2. My first taste of the Marx Brothers was A Night in Casablanca. It's typically dismissed as late MGM, but I think it holds up the best among those. I believe I videotaped it off A&E after catching a New Year's Day marathon on AMC (when AMC was what TCM is). Now I think of Duck Soup as my favorite comedy, and perhaps favorite film period.

  3. My favourite brother is Gummo because the first time I played Trivial Pursuit, I was the only one in the crowd who could name him. A few days later, while driving from Ottawa to Montreal, As It Happens was talking about a new Chinese version of the game and it got me thinking about all the Chinese players trying to name Karl Marx's four brothers.

  4. Say what you like about Kathy Griffin and Anderson Cooper's low-candela star power, but their New Year's Eve broadcast last year was must-see television, with Griffin continually nearly outing Cooper on live TV and briefly getting banned from the network for dropping an F-bomb. Not many heterosexual males will own up to looking forward to watching Griffin and Cooper, but she brings the element of danger back to live television.

  5. The first Marx Brothers movie I saw (at the suggestion of my mom) was HORSE FEATHERS — I'm glad she didn't go with me when I went to see it, because I collapsed in a heap, so to speak, and was literally in pain after I got out from laughing. A few months later, a local station ran A DAY AT THE RACES around Christmas day, and for months afterward, my sister would amuse the family with her impression of Grouch doing his hand-washing schtick. Alas, she was the only person my age I could infect with my enthusiasm — kids got The Three Stooges, but for some reason, the Marx Brothers were beyond them . . .

  6. Thanks for another Marx Brothers post Jaime! Keep it alive!

    And three hard boiled eggs!

  7. Jaime, I guess for you that evening 2010 came to say it must be going.