Pre-Code Blogathon: The Marx Brothers
These days, when the term “Pre-Code Hollywood” gets thrown around in certain circles of movie fans, it’s usually meant to emphasize the content filmmakers (and studios) were able to get away with before the Hays Code was fully enforced in 1934, like the just-short-of-explicit suggestiveness of Trouble in Paradise or The Divorcee, or being critical of the institutions of the time in ways that wouldn’t have been possible post-1934, as in I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang. The Marx Brothers certainly had their share of suggestive content in the pre-Code films they made at this time (my favorite example still being Groucho’s line from Animal Crackers; “Signor Ravelli’s first selection will be ‘Somewhere My Love Lies Sleeping’ with a male chorus”), and both Horsefeathers and Duck Soup mocked, respectively, colleges and politics (among other things). But the content of the Marx Brothers’ films made in the pre-Code era – all at Paramount – and the ones they made afterwards isn’t just in the content, it’s how the brothers were used.
Like many actors in Hollywood in the late 20’s and early 30’s, the Marx Brothers came from Broadway, as the studios grabbed talent from there who could handle the adjustment from silent films to sound films. Like many other comedians at the time, the Marx Brothers originally came from vaudeville, which is where they had originally developed and perfected their personas. Groucho was the fast-talking wisecrack artist, Chico was the book dumb but crafty con artist who told lots of bad puns, and Harpo was the silent (by choice) comedian who seemed to be on another planet. To further the Broadway angle, the Marx Brothers’ first two movies, The Cocoanuts (1929) and Animal Crackers (1930) were based on two of the plays that had first brought them acclaim. I’m not a big fan of the former; it’s not just, like many early sound pictures, it looks somewhat stilted, it’s also that no one looks really comfortable, except for Harpo (who gets some good gags, like eating a telephone). There are some good scenes, like Groucho wooing his perpetual foil Margaret Dumont (“Oh, I can see you now, you and the moon! You wear a necktie so I’ll know you”), the auction scene (“Believe me, you have to get up early if you want to get out of bed”), and the famous “Why a duck?” scene. Groucho would blame this on co-director Joseph Santley, whom he claimed didn’t understand comedy, while Joe Adamson, author of the Marx brothers biography Groucho, Harpo, Chico and Sometimes Zeppo felt the fault lay with the other co-director, Robert Florey, who apparently didn’t think the Marx Brothers were funny.* Whatever reason, while it does set the template of their other films for Paramount – in that the plot is just an excuse for them to run amok, especially Harpo – it’s not especially memorable.
Animal Crackers, on the other hand, is when they start to hit their groove. It’s not that the plot is that much more sophisticated – in The Cocoanuts, it’s a jewel robbery, while here, it involves a rare painting and two forged copies of it – or that those playing off of the Marx Brothers had much more to work with (Kay Francis plays a thief in the former, while Lillian Roth (the subject of the 1950’s biopic I’ll Cry Tomorrow) plays the ingenue in the latter). It’s more the Marx Brothers themselves seem more comfortable in front of the camera, and director Victor Heerman (who went on to contribute to the screenplays of such films as Stella Dallas, Meet Me in St. Louis, and both the Katharine Hepburn and June Allyson versions of Little Women) seemed comfortable enough with them. Though one line from “Hooray for Captain Spaulding”, the Bert Kalmar/Harry Ruby song that became Groucho’s signature song, was cut by the Hays Office (Groucho’s “I think I’ll try and make her”), there’s some risque material here; in addition to the line I quoted in my opening paragraph, there’s also Groucho’s line about visiting Africa (“We took some pictures of the native girls, but they weren’t developed. But we’re going back in a couple of weeks!”), and his proposing marriage to both Dumont and comic villainess Margaret Irving at the same time (“Why, that’s bigamy!” “Yes, and it’s big of me too”). More importantly, however, once again, it’s the fact Groucho, Harpo and Chico are allowed to act pretty much uninhibited. There’s the occasional bit where someone gets the better of them (like Irving and butler Robert Greig getting the drop on Harpo), but mostly, it’s things like Chico and Harpo humiliating Louis Sorin as art collector Roscoe Chandler (he gives them a check so they won’t reveal to everyone else he used to be a fish peddler; Harpo bounces it on the floor), as well as Groucho (when Chandler says he’s glad Groucho asked him something, Groucho retorts, “I withdraw the question!”), Chico and Harpo playing bridge with Dumont and Irving (naturally, every card Harpo plays is the ace of spades), and the insane ending, where Harpo sprays knockout gas at everyone, including himself.
Monkey Business, which came out the following year, is even less inhibited, and is the only film they made in which they didn’t really have any characters at all and are more or less “themselves”. They’re stowaways on an ocean liner, and while they eventually stumble into a plot involving warring gangsters (played by Rockliffe Fellowes and Harry Woods), the daughter (Ruth Hall) of the former (Zeppo romances her) and the jealous wife (Thelma Todd) of the latter (Groucho flirts with her), once again, it’s just an excuse for the gags. Adamson cites as a highlight the scene where Groucho breaks into Woods’ room, flirts with Todd (“Oh, no. You’re not gonna get me off this bed”), and then talks his way out of being confronted at gunpoint by Woods with nothing but his wit (“I’m wise!” “You’re wise, eh? Well, what’s the capital of Nebraska? What’s the capital of the Chase National Bank? Give up?”), and it’s really funny and anarchic. Just as good are when Harpo gets involved in a Punch and Judy show on the boat (when the captain (Ben Taggart) and first officer (Tom Kennedy) try to pull Harpo out of the booth, Harpo joins them), Groucho and Chico breaking into Taggart’s quarters (“One of (the stowaways) goes around with a black mustache!” “So do I. If I had my choice, I’d go around with a little blonde”), all four brothers trying to sneak past customs by impersonating Maurice Chevalier singing “If a Nightingale Could Sing Like You” (Harpo, naturally, plays a phonograph he’s hidden in his coat of Chevalier singing), and Fellowes introducing the most “beautiful” creature in the world at his party (his daughter), which Harpo naturally takes as his cue to make an entrance. The movie does have a somewhat conventional ending, with Woods kidnapping Fellowes’ daughter and taking her to a barn, and Zeppo saving the day by beating Woods in a fight, but even that gets mitigated by Chico and Harpo bopping Woods’ cronies on the head even after they’ve been knocked out and Groucho’s shenanigans; he unfurls himself from a haystack and asks, “Where’s all those farmer’s daughters I’ve been hearing about for years?”, he pretends to announce the fight, and when it’s all over, he’s tearing through the hay again (when Fellowes demands to know what he’s doing, he replies, “I’m looking for a needle in a haystack”).
Horsefeathers, which came out the following year, sticks them back in a plot. Groucho, as Professor Wagstaff, the new dean of Huxley College, is told by his son (Zeppo) that he needs to recruit football players to beat rival university Darwin in order to become a successful college, but he ends up recruiting Chico and Harpo by mistake. Oh, and all four of them try to romance a college widow (Todd), who is also involved with a gambler (David Jennings) trying to fix the game for Darwin. Again, the brothers observe the niceties of college life in the same spirit they observe the niceties of being aboard a ship, which is to say not at all; Groucho allows Chico and Harpo (who have become students at Huxley) to throw out a boring professor (Grieg again) so he can take over and make puns (“Beyond the Alps lies more Alps, and the Lord Alps those who Alp themselves”), Harpo can pull out of his jacket a candle lit at both ends (he also points out, at other points in the movie, a cup of coffee, a fish, and an ax to “cut” cards with, among other things), and Chico hides in a locker because he’s practicing secret signals. And while there is a big game at the climax, there’s no sentiment; Harpo throws banana peels to keep Darwin players from tackling Zeppo, then throws one under Zeppo’s feet, Groucho hangs out by the stands or lounges on the field reading a newspaper and smoking his cigar, and as for Chico’s signals, they speak for themselves (“Hi diddle diddle/The cat and the fiddle/This time I think we go through the middle; hike!”). Like the Marx Brothers’ other pre-Code films, there’s been some bits here and there that were cut out, though Groucho does get to say to Todd, “I was going to get a flat bottom but the girl at the boat house didn’t have one”). I don’t know who was actually the first one to break the fourth wall in the movie, but Groucho was an early contender; while Chico is playing and singing “Everyone Says I Love You” (a song all four of them perform at one point or another), Groucho walks up to the camera and says, “I’ve got to stay here, but there’s no reason why you folks shouldn’t got out into the lobby until this thing blows over.” Finally, while an ending involving the four brothers playing cards while the college burns down was apparently cut, the current ending – all four of them marry Todd – is twisted in its own way.
Duck Soup, which came out the following year, is usually considered their best by Marx Brothers fans (though I prefer Monkey Business and Horsefeathers). Part of this is because some feel the musical performances by Chico (the piano) and Harpo (the harp) in the previous movies made those movies drag (I wonder why no one complains about the songs performed in Duck Soup, as they’re really not that great), but a lot of it has to do with, unlike the previous films, a genuinely great director was at the helm. Leo McCarey, at the time, was still best known for his work with Laurel & Hardy, and his best films (Ruggles of Red Gap, The Awful Truth, Make Way for Tomorrow), as well as his best known films (Going My Way, Bells of St. Mary’s, An Affair to Remember) were still ahead of him. But while, as Adamson points out, there seems to be two movies going on at once in Duck Soup (Groucho as Rufus T. Firefly making wisecracks as ruler of Freedonia, while Chico and Harpo, who are allegedly working as spies for Louis Calhern, ruler of rival country Sylvania, seem more interested in annoying Edgar Kennedy, a peanut vendor outside the government office; not only that, but much of it plays like silent comedy), McCarey does make it all work for the most part. The movie is best remembered for the famous mirror routine, where Harpo, who’s dressed as Groucho to steal Freedonia’s secret war plans, breaks a mirror and has to pretend to be Groucho in the mirror when Groucho arrives at the scene. It’s also been much debated as to whether the movie is consciously a political satire; when Adamson interviewed the principals involved, all of them denied it, saying they were just out to entertain (Groucho would later say it was just “four Jews trying to get a laugh”), but Nat Perrin, who was credited with writing additional dialogue for the movie, did allow that satire might have crept in because of what everyone thought at the time (certainly, Groucho has been political, mocking the blacklist and admitting in a newspaper during the Vietnam War that if he had a son of draft age, he would encourage his son to go to Canada rather than fight). It’s also obvious the movie doesn’t take politics any more serious than it did college; Groucho would rather play jacks than conduct a meeting, he slaps Calhern and provokes war because Calhern calls him an upstart, Chico changes sides because he likes the food better, and Harpo’s idea of recruiting is to wear a sign that reads, “Join the army and see the navy”. And at the end, the four brothers win the war for Freedonia by pummeling Calhern with fruit; when Dumont, once again playing Groucho’s love interest (Groucho says of her to the others, “Remember, you’re fighting for this woman’s honor, which is probably more than she ever did”), sings “Hail Freedonia!” in triumph, they all turn and throw fruit at her.
While Duck Soup, as I said, has become regarded as the Marx Brothers’ best film, starting when it played in revival houses in the 60’s, it was a box office disappointment, and critics at the time weren’t crazy about it either (Adamson quotes Time, the Nation, and the New York Times as all finding it disappointing). Most importantly, the studio wasn’t crazy about the film or about its box office, so the Marx Brothers parted ways with them and ended up at MGM. By the time they made their first film at the studio, A Night at the Opera, in 1935, the new, beefed-up version of the Production Code was in full force, so it was harder to sneak in more risque material (though when Groucho hears about an opera singer being signed for a thousand dollars a night, he claims you could get a record of “Minnie the Moocher” for 75 cents, and adds, “For a buck and a quarter, you can get Minnie”). More importantly, however, Irving Thalberg was supervising them, and while he found them funny, off-screen as well as on (Thalberg was legendary for keeping people waiting for interminable periods while overseeing the detail of every production he was involved in. The Marx Brothers – down to three, as Zeppo had retired to become their agent – reacted to being kept waiting by, among others things, stripping down naked in Thalberg’s office and roasting potatoes in his fireplace. When Thalberg came back and discovered this, according to Adamson, he called the studio commissary and ordered butter), he also insisted they needed to be “relatable” to audiences, and wanted to make sure the rest of the story and music also worked as a story and music, rather than just an excuse for the Marx Brothers to react to. Therefore, instead of Harpo, for example, simply creating chaos at will, he only reacts to being picked on by the comic villain (Walter King); Chico, who used to always hustle for money, now insists to the romantic hero (Allan Jones) he’s happy without money (though not food); and even Groucho gets a softening moment when he passes along a note from Jones to his love interest (Kitty Carlisle Hart). The film has enough great gags – the contract scene, the stateroom scene, the scene where the three of them, and Jones, are trying to hide in a hotel room from a detective (Robert Emmett O’Connor), and, of course, the climax at the opera – that the film manages to get by anyway, and it was profitable enough and well-received. However, during the making of A Day in the Races (1937), Thalberg died, and Louis B. Mayer, the head of MGM, didn’t think the Marx Brothers were very funny, and didn’t give them talent to work with. Therefore, while Thalberg at least understood there needed to be some genuine humor to counterbalance the sentiment and story, the later movies, while having maybe a handful of good gags (in A Day at the Races, the scene where Chico cons Groucho out of betting on a sure thing), just don’t hold a candle to the earlier ones. It’s been said the films the Marx Brothers appeared in were never as good as they were, but at least with the pre-Code films (except, as I said, for The Cocoanuts), you see them closest to their unvarnished best.
*-For the most part, both Florey and Santley’s subsequent careers were unmemorable, though Florey at least did direct the Bela Lugosi version of Edgar Allan Poe’s Murders at the Rue Morgue, one of the better pre-Code horror films.