'American Classic' by Richard Rowland, an article on the Marx Brothers
Rowland, Richard. ‘American Classic’. Hollywood Quarterly. Vol 2. No. 3. (April 1947). 264-269.
In this essay, Richard Rowland wonders which films will stand the test of time (and as this article was written in 1947 one feels rather strange looking back on it nearly sixty years later). Rowland suggests that Marx Brothers films have such a legacy, although he admits that some of the humour is dated. Rowland proceeds to ask why the films persist. One reason suggested is the excellent script writer S.J. Perelman who worked mainly on the early films. Rowland states, ‘Perelman has a remarkable talent for torturing the English language into a sort of insane poetry, formed by weird juxtapositions of formal diction and advertising copy, of slang and preciosity, so that he becomes a slapstick James Joyce’ (265). Yet Rowland notes that the Marx Brothers continued to be funny after Perelman finished writing for them, so he wonders could the legacy be rooted in the ‘comic genius’ of the acting?
Rowland rejects this line of thought too and he concludes that the nature of reality is what is at stake here:
‘They deal with the gravest question with which comedy can deal. They ask us, at least the successful ones do, ďWhat is the nature of reality?Ē ’(265).
What unfolds is an interesting argument as Rowland notes the inherent unreality of the Marx Brothers’ world:
‘Harpo’s wig is clearly a wig and, indeed, often seems in danger of falling off. Groucho’s mustache [sic] is either painted or fastened to his cigar, we are never quite sure which. Chico’s accent is as detachable as the wig or the mustache [sic], and is sometimes similarly askew.’ (265-266)
Rowland describes how in some scenes, the Marx Brothers miraculously provide all the comforts of home aboard a travelling steamer and he concludes that, ‘disorder succeeds, and the way of order becomes the way of failure’ (266). Margaret Dumont and the other ‘stooges’ are consequently ‘doomed’ because the rules of logic that they try to use do not apply in this world (266).
‘This is more than a joke; it is a moral lesson. No world, dream or real, will allow itself to be fitted into a system—-though the nature of man demands that he go on trying to make it fit’ (266).
Sometimes the Marx Brothers deal with the nature of reality directly. Rowland gives the example of Night at the Opera where a huge number of people are fitted into a small room. The idea of it is unreal, yet one witnesses it before one’s very eyes. In the same film, a harassed tenor continues to sing as the Marx Brothers accidentally change the back-drops to scenes totally inappropriate for the opera being performed. Rowland also mentions the famous scene is Duck Soup in which the brothers all dress as Groucho leading up to the broken mirror scene where Harpo pretends to be Groucho’s reflection.
‘Are there two of me? Is that other figure real? Who, indeed, am I? Am I real myself? Never, perhaps, has the shifting instability of the dream world been more vividly presented on screen.’
Rowland gives further examples, such as the Punch and Judy scene in Monkey Business where Harpo fights with puppets. Who is real and who is make-believe?
Some of the most interesting insights that Rowland makes, however, are on the nature of language in the Marx Brothers films. Rowland describes how faith is words has ‘collapsed’ (267). To the admonition not to ‘burn the candle at both ends’, Harpo can produce just that object Ė a candle burning at both ends Ė and Rowland describes how we respond by feeling ‘the failure of words which seemed real but which have suddenly proved worse than useless since they always mean the wrong thing’ (267).