Follow The Path Of Marx! (Groucho Especially, But Harpo, Too.)

         Young people need to watch Marx Brothers clips, if not full movies. It’s like Vitamin C, or Zinc. There’s a minimum requirement of this kind of thing for proper health.

         As with the Beatles, the Marx Brothers product was imagination at the outer limits. In their best moments they transcended ordinary reality. The guys became like demi-gods of comedy, standing apart in space and time. Such things must be experienced. Consume enough of the better material of the Marx Brothers and an altered state opens up, some new zone of the brain switches on, and you’re not entirely in this world any more.

         Unfortunately for the young people who would benefit most from all this, a certain amount of work is involved to get to the good stuff. Some patience is required to dig out the nuggets, because this magic comes to you from the very distant past. The first Marx Brothers movie, The Cocoanuts, came out in 1929! These are extremely old movies, and while the comedy may be timeless, the film stock is not. The sound track will crackle and sputter at times. (Sound in movies was brand new.) Some scenes have a sharper focus than others. My favorite Marx Brothers movie, Animal Crackers, rates about a seven out of ten in terms of the quality of the best print available. It is a testament to how funny this thing is that I am willing to screen it for friends when it has the condition problems it does. But the barrage of chaotic comedy in Animal Crackers becomes amazing if you can get through the grainy film that holds it.

         Think of it as going back in time. Old movies are the closest thing we have to time travel. You are literally looking at people in another era. A baby in the movie may have died of old age by now. An actor in the background scratching his nose did so because his nose was itching—in 1929! The building where the film was shot may be a lake now, but the itchy nose goes on. Your great-grandparents may have seen this movie on their first date. Styles were radically different from our time, and that alone makes old black and white movies interesting (some more than others.) But when you find a creative genius from a past generation, it can be truly fascinating.

         It would be nice if the best clips of the Marx Brothers could be assembled into one package. That would be much easier to get young people to watch. As it stands, not only do we have the problem of the grainy old film and the fuzz on the sound track; the Marx Brothers movies also suffer from some 1930s film-making practices that have not stood the test of time.

         At some point in every one of these movies somebody will burst out in song! Usually it is a young couple, and usually the song they sing is purest cheese. In Animal Crackers the singing bit is not so bad because the lyrics to the song are amusing and the girl who sings is funny in her own right. On most other Marx outings the singing numbers are dated as hell, and it is hard to imagine a modern viewer sitting through them. It’s the same with most scenes where the Brothers aren’t on the screen. Some of it is amusing, but most just doesn’t make it. This is a real shame when you realize it is a barrier keeping modern youth from experiencing these cosmic comics.

         For some viewers the insane sexism of the films will be hard to take. Harpo goes nuts and chases girls around the room. Groucho zaps the pompous Margaret Dumont (“the fifth Marx Brother”) with zany one-liners. But their behavior was always outrageous farce, no matter what they were doing. Sadly, another barrier to appreciating this comedy team is that their last few movies did not measure up to their classics in terms of laughs. Tragically, these are the films that have crystal clear prints, so they are all that some people know of the Marx Brothers.

         Salvador Dali called them “the great surrealistic act.” They were like cartoons come to life. Along with the fact that they looked preposterous, their shows had cerebral wit (from Groucho) in a truly weird mix with slapstick and puns from Harpo and Chico. Nobody has really attained this style since, though you can see elements of the Brothers screwball comedy in Will Farrell and any number of modern comedians. Mel Brooks’ films have a Marx Brothers feel. Groucho’s insult humor inspired Don Rickles. In fact, it is an ancient style, predating Vaudeville by centuries, according to this article:  http://www.jpost.com/Jewish-World/Jewish-News/Badkhn-Belt-Jewish-humor-was-born-in-1661-prof-says

         At least one dedicated Marx Brothers web site exists, http://marx-brothers.org, and tons of tribute pages are to be found elsewhere. You can find numerous biographies of the Brothers, which make for fascinating reading. (They emerged from abject poverty.) Turner Classic Movies can be counted on to show the films, uninterrupted except by singing. The legacy of the Brothers is being archived, but is it being experienced, especially by young people? Oddly enough, the great hope may be clips on YouTube. It’s not the big screen of a 1930s movie palace, but it beats forever losing the Marx Brothers to the passage of time.

         Here are some clips to get you started:

The Mirror Scene

His Excellency, Rufus T. Firefly

The Stateroom Scene

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