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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