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“And now, on with the opera – Let joy be unconfined! Let there be dancing in the streets, drinking in the saloons, and necking in the parlor! Play, don.”
– Otis B. Driftwood, aka Groucho Marx opening a new opera season
Hi there, I hope everyone’s had a Happy Halloween, and I’d like to welcome back any and all newcomers who discovered this blog through Prydain On Film, which highlighted my two-part review of The Black Cauldron on their blog the same day I posted it. I’m happy to have you here.
Stick around, check out the other movie reviews I’ve done.
Be sure to read my retrospective on Gravity Falls too.
Please don’t leave.
Anyway, I’m especially excited – and more than a little daunted – for this month’s review, as I finally get to talk about some of my favorite comedians of all time, The Marx Brothers.
Julius, Leonard, Herbert and
Adolph Arthur – aka Groucho, Chico, Zeppo and Harpo – were sons of Jewish immigrants who discovered they had quite the knack for making people laugh as well as making music. Since their parents were already in the entertainment business, they had almost no trouble making a name for themselves. Groucho grew infamous for his quick biting wit, Chico for his fast-talking, womanizing and heavy faux-Italian accent, and Harpo for his childlike mischief and mute pantomiming (when not communicating through whistles and horn honks). Zeppo could be just as hilarious as his siblings onstage – for some performances he even stood in for Groucho and nobody could tell the difference – though he was often relegated to playing the straight man to his brothers’ antics. While already a hit on the vaudeville circuit and Broadway, the brothers made the leap from stage to screen with the advent of talkies and their fame quintupled overnight.
The Marxes’ unique brand of humor continues to influence comedians to this day; you can see them (especially Groucho) in the likes of Alan Alda, Lucille Ball, Judd Apatow, Bugs Bunny, Mystery Science Theater 3000, and the cast of Animaniacs. If you were to watch their films – their early ones in particular – you could say the threadbare plots were only there for them to hang jokes on. Cliché stories surrounding college football, high-class parties and traditional Hollywood romances were not safe from the brothers’ brand of anarchic humor; they poked holes in conventions of society and film, often breaking the fourth wall with the force of a sledgehammer to remind the audience how much of a farce even the most serious of scenarios really are. Their “us vs. them” antics helped America laugh through the Great Depression and World War 2, however not all of them were complete successes in their day.
After their ahead of its time war satire Duck Soup nearly bankrupted Paramount, the Brothers were cut loose from the studio and set adrift in Hollywood. Luckily they had an ardent admirer in Irving Thalberg, big shot producer at MGM, who quickly signed them on. Fortunate as this was, it didn’t come without a few changes to the Marxes which to this day angers certain die-hard fans:
First, Zeppo followed in forgotten Marx brother Gummo’s footsteps by quitting acting and reinventing himself as a successful agent, thus whittling the comic quartet down to a trio.
Second, their method of taking shots at anyone in their path was altered to karmic trickery; mess with them or their friends and only then do the gloves come off.
Third, in an effort to appeal to more women, a romance subplot would be added to their films wherein the brothers would help whatever couple was the focus hook up and achieve their dreams.
But does this warm touch and loss of one sibling mean the famous brothers have lost their edge? Will the inclusion of the opera, which was perceived as highbrow art for the upper class back then as much as it is today, serve as an excellent backdrop for the Marxes’ shenanigans or is it merely a musical distraction? And more importantly, can I actually make with the funny in this review as good as the Marxes did in their own film? Let’s find out.