When Marx Brothers movies are discussed, they are generally broken into two main categories–Paramount (the first five features up through “Duck Soup”) and MGM (“A Night At the Opera” and the next–and increasingly less impressive–four movies). (The two worthless coda items, “A Night In Casablanca” and “Love Happy” rarely rate their own discussion group. Consider them post-Marxist.) The Paramount’s and the MGM’s are as different as night and day and tend to divide people up along the same lines that sepearate those who grew up watching Disney and those of us (me, for instance) that would have nothing to do with anything but Warner Brothers cartoons. The MGM user-friendly Marx Brothers movies haven’t, to my eye, held up at all. Not only are the plotlines far too “developed” and boring, but the set-piece routines–with a couple of exceptions–are too self-consciously “zany” and simply not playing to the Marx’s great strength–which was the idiosyncratic (and weirdly human) nature of each of the brothers brand of corruption. (For instance: though I laugh somewhat reluctantly at the “stateroom scene” in “A Night At The Opera”, I don’t think of packing too many people into a stateroom as necessarily a “Marx Brothers routine” as it has nothing to do with Groucho’s bluster, Chico’s seductive Ponzi-scheming machinations or Harpo’s otherworldy pick-your-pocket-while-shaking-your-hand talents. You get my drift?) One way or the other, the Paramount films are what I think most of us mean when we think of these angels of our times (Kurt Vonnegut’s phrase…for the Marx’s or Laurel and Hardy?)
But I would add a sub-category to address the first two features, simply and austerely named “Stage Adaptations”. For the Marx’s were Broadway royalty of the 1920’s and both “The Cocoanuts” and “Animal Crackers” allow us a glimpse of what seeing the Marx Brothers in the live theater might have felt like. The film of their show “The Cocoanuts” is, of course, a piece of real antiquity–as clumsy and remote an early talkie as you’re likely to ever see. The photography is abysmal, the pace sluggish and the musical numbers wildly dated and ineptly shot. (This isn’t to say I don’t dearly love “The Cocoanuts”–I do…for all those very wrong reasons). But what is oddest about “The Cocoanuts” is pointed out by Joe Adamson in his book “Groucho, Harpo, Chico and sometimes Zeppo”–the best book written about the Marx’s and one of my favorite of all books on film history. Adamson notes that in their first film, Groucho’s “delivery can claim none of the power and urgency we’ve come to know him for…and Chico’s lines don’t sound funny when he says them: they just sound belligerent.” He concludes that the lesson we might take from watching “The Cocoanuts” is that “at this point (the Marx’s) feel very uncomfortable about playing to a silent house.”
This is a major point and perhaps the fatal flaw of “The Cocoanuts” as a film–none of the brothers, save Harpo, seem to be quite sure if this movie-acting stuff is really right for their brand of high low-humor. There’s a nose-holding quality to their participation–a kind of “what will the boys at the Algonquin Round Table say when they here what we’ve been up to” non-committal vibe that pervades the proceedings. Only a year later, though, all these problems appear to have been solved. Watching “Animal Crackers” we not only are in the presence of the Marx Brothers we know and love, we are even perhaps in a slightly edgier Marxian universe that belonged more to their Broadway personas than to their later film personalities. Indeed “Animal Crackers” is a transition film–bridging the gap between the “toast of Broadway” Marx’s and the newly film-savvy Beverly Hills bound Brother’s.
We are also, script-wise, in a world of surreal sophistication that they never again were quite able to match. Written for the stage by George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind (also of “The Cocoanuts” and later at least partially responsible for the “Night At The Opera” script), “Animal Crackers” has become, over the years, the Marx Bros. movie that I’m always happiest to revisit–largely because I’ve never quite caught my breath and taken in the multitude of snappy one-liners, strange speeches, demented tangents and deeply weirdly philisophical byways and pursuits that the script provides the audience with.
“What do you think of the traffic problem? What do you think of the marriage problem? What do you think of when you go to bed at night, you beast!” This is very much the Broadway Groucho–not afraid to be harsh, unlikable, insulting and flirtatious all at the same time. (In several scenes he appears to be about to launch physically violent attacks on Margaret Dumont as well as on his brother Zeppo.) Whereas his progress through the later Paramount’s (“Monkey Business”, “Horse-Feathers” and “Duck Soup”) gradually turns his madness into mere wackiness…and by the time he gets to MGM he’s nothing more than a con-artist with a good heart underneath it all. “Animal Crackers” gives us Groucho as a walking id, a demanding, unstoppable and ferociously illogical tyrant of every situation he stumbles upon.
The first clip is his intro, the justly famous “Hello I Must Be Going”–which leads into “Hooray For Captain Spaulding”. (How the hell does he do that dance, where he spins his leg in a circle? And while smoking a cigar yet…) Second is one of the best set-pieces Kaufman and Ryskind ever devised for Groucho, the “seven cent nickel” routine (his foil is Louis Sorin, twenty-five years before his appearence as Mr. Manicotti on “The Honeymooners”). “Think of it…a man could buy a three cent paper and get a nickel back. Why one seven cent nickel carefully used could last a man a lifetime!” Third I’ve posted Groucho’s hilarious “Take a Letter Jamison” routine, where he dictates to his secretary (Zeppo, of course) a letter which sounds eerily like the kind of SPAM I so often find (and sometimes read for pleasure) in my inbox.
“Animal Crackers” was never a lost film, but for years it went unseen due to copyright issues. It re-emerged for a theatrical run in 1974 and I was at the Los Angeles premiere where, thanks to somebody whose name I can’t remember, I was introduced to Groucho. He was sitting uneasily next to Erin Fleming, his infamously young girlfriend. A few seats down was the director of the film, Victor Heerman, who appeared to me–a ten year old boy–to be over one-hundred years old. (For the record, Heerman was a mere eighty-two). Upon shaking Groucho’s hand I realized I had nothing to say to my hero…but I’d recently seen the musical of the Marx’s life “Minnie’s Boys” so I improvised and told him I’d just seen his life story on stage. “So that’s what happened to it!” responded Groucho. Not knowing enough to exit on a laugh I added “Minnie was your mother, right?” Groucho stared levelly at me and answered: “She used to be”.