Saturday, August 4, 2012

The Marx Brothers remain funny after all these years

From top: Chico, Harpo, Groucho, and Zeppo Marx

For better or worse, it takes a lot to make me laugh. I do not understand why, but it has always seemed that way.
I have a very particular sense of humor. It usually is not mainstream, and it can border on the eccentric. Because of this, most of what passes for humor in movies or television these days does not interest me. I do not necessarily consider it bad, but it does not tickle my fancy.

However, if an artist does stroke my funny bone, I typically will stick with them through thick and thin. When looking back through the history of films, the Marx Brothers made endearing films that were ahead of their time.  I have watched them since I was a boy, and they still make me laugh.
Film critic Roger Ebert said of them: "The brothers broke the classical structure of movie comedy and glued it back again haphazardly, and nothing was ever the same."
The Marx Brothers were vaudeville and Broadway stars who did not make their first movie until relatively late in their careers in 1929. This is understandable because talking movies did not begin until two years before that and an important part of their humor relied on the use of language.
Obviously, there was a lot of physical humor in their act. As part of the act, Harpo Marx did not speak so his humor had to be communicated in a physical way. He was a genius at it, and as a boy, he was my favorite of the brothers.
It was Groucho who understood how to use language, and as I have aged, he has become the one I have gravitated toward the most. His preposterous greasepaint mustache could distract some listeners from grasping the bite and intelligence of his humor. As Ebert also pointed out, the greasepaint was not makeup so much as a mask.
Groucho knew how to turn a phrase, and some of them are catch phrases that we still hear today if we will take the time to listen. Just ‘google’ his name, and I am sure numerous quotes will appear that most of us know.
Their early movies are my favorite, and if I had to pick one, it would be Duck Soup. Made in 1933, it looks dated in some respects. However, any film almost 80 years old will appear dated in some way, but that does not mean it is not great.
In the film, Groucho plays 'Rufus T. Firefly' who becomes dictator of the nation of Fredonia. Rival country Sylvania wishes to overtake Fredonia, and because of this, Firefly brings in Harpo and Chico (another of the brothers) as spies.
The premise is pretty lightweight, but it provides the brothers ample elbow room to do their thing. Groucho fills the movie with double entendres and puns, while Harpo and Chico handle the physical comedy. In one inspired sequence, they perform a three-hat sequence with one of the supporting actors in which the hats move as quickly and effortlessly as cards being dealt in a card game.
As for the absurd title, it really has nothing to do with the plot. As critic Tim Dirks wrote: "It is claimed that Groucho provided the following recipe: 'Take two turkeys, one goose, four cabbages, but no duck, and mix them together. After one taste, you’ll duck soup the rest of your life.'"
I have no idea if Groucho actually said that, but it does sum up the absurdist approach of the Marx Brothers. Keep in mind, absurdist humor can be quite intelligent, and the brothers definitely fall into that category.
Seek out their work.

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