Tag Archives: Marx Brothers

Matinee Monday: At The Circus (1939)

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This week, I’m returning to my theme of writing about the great crop of movies that came out in ’39. I’ve already written about most of the ten nominees for Best Picture, only omitting the two I have never seen before. Now I want to start writing about pictures that weren’t in the top ten, but are notable in themselves. They may have been second tier, but oh, a second tier like those in ’39 never existed!

By 1939, Groucho Marx was 48, and starting to show his age. The best years (and films) of the Marx Brothers were behind them. There was no way they could again bottle the magic of such comedy classics as A Night At The Opera or Animal Crackers. But they were still capable of creating a few gold nuggets, every now and then.

At The Circus, while not among the pantheon of Marx Brothers classics, is memorable for two things, one off-screen and one on. One of the gag writers who worked on At The Circus was the great silent comic, Buster Keaton, His career was sliding, and Louie B. Mayer (head of MGM at the time) directed him to work behind the scenes with the Marx Brothers developing comedy gags. The problem was that the comedic styles of Keaton and the Marx Brothers just didn’t mesh. One time, when Groucho was upset over how a joke wasn’t working, he called Keaton on it. Keaton responded, “Hey, I’m only doing what Mr. Mayer told me to do. The truth is that you guys are so good that you don’t need help.”

The second notable fact was that At The Circus featured Groucho performing that great comedy classic song, Lydia, The Tattooed Lady. A quick search of YouTube will pull up many different covers of the sing, including one by Kermit the Frog, but here is the original:

CSL

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Matinee Monday: Harpo Marx

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Alright!  Harpo!! Arthur Marx, the youngest of the family, joined his brothers in the family singing act, in vaudeville. In one of his memoirs, Groucho says that Harpo became the “silent one” because he wasn’t very good at learning dialog. However, you have to consider the source; after all, Groucho is also the source for the obviously false story that Margaret Dumont was so staid that she never got any of the jokes.

In the Marx Brothers movies, Harpo was silent, never saying a word. His character, with baggy trench coat, battered top hat and curly wig, was a perfect translation of the vaudeville clown. Majoring in pantomime and great sight gags, accompanying his attempts at communication with whistles and charade, Harpo delighted audiences with his child-like behavior and outrageous antics. And always, he was able to bedevil Groucho, and sometimes, even his partner in crime, Chico.

Away from the studio, Harpo, who was a second-grade dropout, liked to spend his time sitting in on the Algonquin Round Table, America’s answer to Britain’s Inklings. Harpo says that his main contribution to the Round Table was providing an audience.

Like his brother Chico, Harpo was musical, playing the harp in every Marx Brothers movie. The fascinating fact about Harpo is that he is self-taught! He saw a picture of an angel holding a harp at a five-and-dime store, but couldn’t find anyone in vaudeville who could teach him how to play. The story is that he learned to tune and play it himself, and it was years later that he learned that he had done it wrong. When he hired teachers to learn the correct way, they were fascinated by how he played, and spent more time watching him than teaching.

Here is an example of Harpo’s skill, from the 1939 film, At the Circus. Enjoy:

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Matinee Monday: Chico Marx

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Last week, Groucho; this week, Chico. One might ask me, “Hey, didn’t you only do one post on Laurel and Hardy? Why a post on each Marx Brother? Why not one on Laurel and one on Hardy?” That’s pretty easy to answer. You never see Laurel without Hardy, nor Hardy without Laurel. Even if both are not in the same shot, the gag will eventually involve both of the boys. With the Marx Brothers, each had unique comedy gifts that separate them from each other.

Just as Groucho had his wise-cracking conman identity in every film, Chico (pronounced “Chick-O”, not “Cheek-O”) had his happy, dim-witted Italian-paisano persona. As with Groucho, Chico ‘became’ Chico because of that one episode in which they were so bad as singers that they resorted to comedy to keep themselves interested in performing.

In every Marx Brothers movie, Chico was in partnership with Harpo and they had some classic scenes together. Quite often, the plots of these movies had Chico and Harpo bedeviling Groucho, in some way. And always, there had to be a music scene, so that Chico could play piano. After all, before being comics, the Marx Brothers were musicians, and Chico was an accomplished pianist. In fact, for a while, in real life, Chico was a bandleader, fronting his own orchestra; it is Chico who gets the credit for giving Mel Torme his start in performing.

Famous for mugging at the piano, and famous for his idiosyncratic piano techniques (note-shooting among them), he was a delight to watch at the keyboard. Here is Chico, in A Night At The Opera, playing “All I Do Is Dream Of You.” (which later is sung in Singin’ In The Rain). You can tell that he and the kids are having a wonderful time together.

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Monday Matinee: Groucho Marx

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The third son of Sam and Minnie Marx grew up to be one of America’s greatest comics, and to be part of one of the most successful comedy acts in American theater. Julius Henry Marx began as a child singer, and with his brothers, was part of a forgettable singing act in vaudeville. During a really bad performance one afternoon, the brothers began ad-libbing jokes to entertain themselves on stage, and discovered that the audience liked them better as comics than as singers. The Marx Brothers were born.

Each of the Marx Brothers created a character that they ended up playing in all of their movies. Groucho, with the greasepaint mustache and eyebrows, scuttling like a lascivious beetle, wisecracked his way into being an American institution. Groucho and his brothers were successful in vaudeville, on Broadway, and in film. As a solo, Groucho went on to radio and TV, with You Bet Your Life.

Groucho, unlike his brothers Harpo and Chico, became Groucho in real life. There are a few stars who create a persona and no matter what role or movie they are in, they are just the same person in a different movie. Bob Hope and Carey Grant are a couple of movie stars that come to mind. Groucho, in his movies, on You Bet Your Life, and in his many guest starring roles, was always Groucho, wise-cracking, insulting, ad-libbing.

The three brothers did zany screwball comedy, with great slapstick routines, played off of stereotypes, used many stereotypes, and even incorporated literary and social commentary in their films (one critic has called Duck Soup the greatest anti-war movie every made). Always, zaniness reigned, and Groucho was the ruling monarch of the prevailing insanity.

In every role, Groucho’s character had a ridiculous name that poked fun at societal pomposity: Rufus P. Firefly, Prof. Wagstaff, Dr. Quackenbush. In Animal Crackers, he was the famous African explorer, Capt. Jeffrey Spaulding. In this clip, Capt. Spaulding gives his high society audience a lecture on his latest expedition, and includes the classic line about shooting an elephant in his pajamas.

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