August 23, 2006

Yeah and I used to be a hunchback by C.P. Lee, an article on the Marx Brothers

Lee, C.P. ‘ “Yeah and I used to be a hunchback”: Immigrants, humour and the Marx Brothers’. Because I Tell A Joke or Two: Comedy, Politics and Social Difference. Edited by Stephen Wagg. London and New York: Taylor & Francis, 1998. 165–179.

Marx Brothers - Animal Crackers

C.P. Lee begins the essay with two quotations: one from Theodore Roosevelt stating that there can be one language only and the other a play on words by the Marx Brothers. Lee responds: ‘So much for legislating the most amorphous and misleading of things—–language’ (165). Lee suggests that verbal displays were a means of defence for immigrant in the US. This was a way of coming to grips with ‘WASP (White Anglo–Saxon Protestant) principles’ which were used as a means of controlling how people thought and behaved (166). The Marx Brothers’ humour is thought of as a means of rebelling against this and Lee quotes Groucho from Animal Crackers: ‘Put it on the penultimate Jameson, not on the dipthonic’ (qtd. in Lee, 166). Lee admires the Marx Brothers who are described as ‘three Jews pretending to be a harp–playing mute, an Italian con–man and a motor–mouthed shyster’ who ‘could cross over from the ethnic melting pot and establish a rich vein of absurdist humour’ (166).

Lee argues that the situation of immigrants lends itself to this kind of comedy. Those immigrants who arrived at Ellis Island faced hostility and the difficulty of integrating into a new language. In juxtaposition with comments on the polylingualism that existed within US communities, Lee offers a sketch from Animal Crackers that plays with pronunciation and mispronunciation:

GROUCHO: Put it in a box Jameson. Mark it Fra–Gilly.
ZEPPO: Fra–Gilly?
GROUCHO: Look it up in a dictionary Jameson. It’s under fragile. (qtd. in Lee, 166)

Lee considers how ‘mini–language communities’ survive giving examples of patois, argot and slang. The essay argues that ‘the English of The Marx Brothers is that of a dominant tongue filtered, mediated and regurgitated through the consciousness of an essential ethnicity of perception’ (168).

Lee outlines the Marx Brothers background. They were brought up in Harlem , New York, which was then not a predominantly black neighbourhood but a mixture of different ethnicities. Their father, Sam, was French (from Alsace), while their mother, Minnie, was German. The Marx Brothers grew up speaking German and Yiddish at home. Groucho later based routines on his act as a dialect comic. Lee sees this kind of dialect comedy not as racist but ‘as an agent of cohesion, awaiting recognition, agreement and unity’ and he then quotes a scene from Go West (170).

GROUCHO: White man’s red friend. White man want to make friends with red man’s brother.
CHICO: And sister too.
INDIAN: Beray! Beray! Kulah! Kulah! Cocho! Rodah! Nietzsche! Pardo.
GROUCHO: Are you insinuating that the white man is not the Indian’s friend? Who swindled you out of Manhatten Island for $24?
CHICO: White man.
GROUCHO: Who turned you into wood and stood you in front of a cigar store?
CHICO: White man.
GROUCHO: Who put your head on a nickel and then stole the nickel away?
CHICO: Slot machine. (qtd. in Lee, 170)

Dialect became an essential part of the Marx Brothers’ developing act – they experimented with Irish and German accents, but finally Chico was the only brother to retain the cod–Italian accent. However Lee suggests that one element of the original act was retained – the idea of otherness. The dowager, Margaret Dumont, then becomes a means for hegemony to be undermined.

Lee suggests that there are three ‘geopsychical spaces within the language community’ that the three brothers represent.
•Groucho, the ‘intellectual’, is ‘quick–witted’ and ‘fast–talking’ and he ‘controls the speech situation’ (173).
•Chico battles with the ‘weapon’ of ‘unyielding literalness’ and he represents ‘the eternal battle of the plain speaker up against the Latinate ruling class culture’ (174).
•The primitive noises and gestures of Harpo take us into the realm of the Shaman according to Lee – a world of magic, of Levi–Strauss’ bricolage.

Lee now makes a strange diversion into discussing Kaballah in which ‘all words resonate with power, and this power can be concentrated in order to effect changes in reality’ (175). Lee states that although the Marx Brothers were not interested in this kind of magick, they did have an awareness of the power of language. He compares Kaballah with the tradition of Calypso.

Lee now tackles the topic of the Marx Brothers’ Jewishness and while he admits that there is a brand of ‘Jewish humour’, he is reluctant to suggest that the Marx Brothers’ comedy was exclusively Jewish. However, Lee points out ‘a survival mechanism adopted by European Jewry in the nineteenth century of carrying your trade in your head’ and Lee wonders if this could be a reason for the proliferation of Jewish performers.

Lee suggests that post–war, so–called ‘ethic comedy’ was less in favour and that performers became more detached from their cultural identities. Yet Lee suggests that the Marx Brothers championed a brand of comedy that acted as a tool of defence and integration for immigrants. To conclude his essay, he cites one of Groucho’s anecdotes:

‘In the 1920s two friends of the Marx Brothers were walking along 5th Avenue. The first was Otto Kahn, a patron of the Metropolitan Opera. The second was Marshall B. Wilder, a hunch–backed script writer. As they walked past a synagogue Kahn turned to Wilder and said, “You know I used to be a Jew”. And Wilder said, “Yeah and I used to be a hunchback”.’ (qtd. in Lee, 179)


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