Comedy has been a loyal friend to film. Since the first flickering images, scenes of men being blasted in the face with garden hoses, or hungry fellows quickly consuming tables full of food, have amused audiences. People want to be entertained, which a lot of the time means they want to laugh.
There have been many comedy pioneers of the motion pictures. The most iconic include Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, Charlie Chaplin, and The Marx Brothers. Whereas Keaton, Lloyd, and Chaplin were more of the silent, slapstick comedians, the Marx Brothers were cracking jokes on the other side of the talkie transition, except for Harpo, of course.
Fresh from the Vaudeville stage to the silver screen, Groucho, Chico and Harpo easily made themselves identifiable with audiences. They achieved this through unique appearances, trademark gestures, and even signature musical interludes; they were real entertainers. Because their style and personalities remained the same from film to film (and sometimes their goofy names as well), audiences became more acquainted with them. For example, when the pompous, aristocrat played by Margaret Dumont enters the scene in many of their flicks, audiences can look to Groucho for an expected wise and insulting remark that he never fails to deliver.
Like all great artists, this bunch of funny fellows continually grew and perfected their trade. This is why their humor has withstood the test of time. Eighty years later viewers are still laughing. Then again, laughter doesn’t easily fade.
A Day at the Races
Following suit with most all of their features, the brothers are charged with running amuck, as well as saving the day. In this case, the setting is a sanitarium on the grounds of a race track. Groucho plays a veterinarian who is posing as the head doctor at the facility, Chico is his assistant and their friend, Harpo is a jockey at the track. The problem: A greedy banker wants to bankrupt and gain control of the sanitarium before turning it into a casino.
This is one of the Marx Brothers’ best pictures. It contains an assortment of funny routines, amusing dance and musical numbers, and it’s full of energy all around. Typical to a Marx Brothers film, there is a segment in which Chico (on piano) and Harpo (on, well, a harp) demonstrate their musical talents. Working these instruments in from film to film allows for their comedic creativity to run wild. A Day at the Races produces the cleverest setup for Harpo to gain his harp.
See if chaos can save the sanitarium on TCM June 9, at 10 a.m.
Another one of their best and probably most popular, Duck Soup tells the story of a failing country known as Freedonia which is on the brink of war with its neighboring country Sylvania. This time around, Groucho plays the newly-appointed leader of Freedonia, Rufus T. Firefly. Chico and Harpo (Chicolini and Pinky) begin the movie as hired spies sent from Sylvania, but end up serving as Firefly’s cabinet members.
Unlike some of the brothers’ other films, that have one or two spots of down time, Duck Soup begins on a high note and sustains it all the way to the end (which comes somewhat abruptly). In fact, this one holds some of the Marxs’ highest points of their career. This includes the scene in which Harpo, disguised as Groucho, attempts to evade Groucho’s suspicion by pretending that he is actually Groucho’s own reflection. Another high point soon follows with the hilariously choreographed musical number when it’s finally declared that “Freedonia is going to war!” This was the last film they made under contract with Paramount and the last to feature the fourth brother, Zeppo, who had played straight-laced characters in the four previous films.
Watch this comedy classic anytime on Netflix.
A Night in Casablanca
The only other Marx Brothers film available to watch at this time is A Night in Casablanca. Made 17 years after their first big screen hit, The Cocoanuts, this was the second to last picture the brothers made. Though the three are nearly two decades older and the wrinkles are beginning to show, they continue to bring on the laughs and haven’t lost any wit.
The movie is a loose spoof on 1942’s Casablanca. A Nazi general seeks to gain ownership of a hotel in order to retrieve treasures that are believed to be hidden in the building. Naturally, Groucho stands in his way as the hotel’s new manager.
It too can be viewed on Netflix.
(Reece Kelly, a native of East Liverpool, studied film at Regent University. He can be reached at ReecesReviews@gmail.com)