Monday, July 11, 2011

Groucho, Harpo, Chico and Sometimes Zeppo

"Groucho, Harpo, Chico and Sometimes Zeppo" is the title of book by Joe Adamson. It came out nearly 20 years ago but the title stuck in my mind. I recall reading portions of it several years ago when I used to prowl book stores...back when book stores and single screen movie theaters were plentiful.

During Independence Day weekend, the Castro theater screened two Marx Brothers films.

Duck Soup starring the Four Marx Brothers and Margaret Dumont; directed by Leo McCarey; (1933)
A Night at the Opera starring the Three Marx Brothers and Margaret Dumont; (1935)

For the neophytes, the Marx Brothers consisted of Groucho, Harpo, Chico (pronounced Chick-O not Cheek-O) and Zeppo. I consider that line-up to be the Golden Age of Marx Brother films. Eventually Zeppo left the act (to become a successful agent) and the remaining Marx Brothers carried on. Groucho quipped, "We're twice as funny without Zeppo" although that was in response to studio demands for a salary cut after Zeppo lef the act. Zeppo remained close to his brothers after leaving the act; even representing the three Marx Brothers. There was actually a fifth Marx Brother whose stage name was Gummo. He performed in the act while they were on the vaudeville circuit. Gummo left the act after he was drafted into the Army in WWI.

So the title of this post is fitting because Duck Soup was Zeppo's final film and A Night at the Opera was the first Marx Brothers film without Zeppo. Zeppo never had much to do in the films so maybe Groucho was right. However, I think their films was more zany during the period Zeppo was part of it. Duck Soup and all the Marx Brother films before it were filmed at Paramount. A Night at the Opera was the first film after the brothers moved over to MGM. I'm not sure if MGM reeled in some of their on-screen antics but I can clearly distinguish the Paramount films from the MGM films.

Duck Soup is not one my favorite Paramount films by the brothers. A plot summary only serves to distinguish the Marx Brother films from each other. Duck Soup is the one where Groucho is the dictator of a Freedonia. Horse Feathers is the one where Groucho is the president of a university. Monkey Business is the one where they are stowaways on a ship.

The most memorable part of any Marx Brothers film are the gags. Duck Soup has the one where Groucho and Harpo do the mirror gag. Harpo would repeat the gag 20 years later on a memorable episode of I Love Lucy. Duck Soup is also the one where Harpo has a feud with a lemonade seller. Something unusual is that Harpo didn't play his signature instruments in Duck Soup.

A Night at the Opera actually has two major plot lines. For the first half, the boys are on a ship (Chico, Harpo and Allan Jones as faux Zeppo are stowaways). The centerpiece of the film takes place in the second half when the boys wreck a performance of Il Trovatore. Among the memorable gags include crowding 15 people into Groucho's tiny stateroom, Harpo (or maybe Chico) inserting "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" in the orchestra's sheet music & the ensuing baseball themed chaos and Harpo & Chico hiding among the supernumeraries on stage during the performance.

Even if they weren't my favorites, I can't help but laugh during a Marx Brothers film. They don't make films like these anymore - all gags with a meager plot. Most comedians couldn't pull off a movie based on their gags alone. That just proves the greatness of Marx Brothers' comedy.

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