The Marx Brothers’ humor killed but didn’t lead to the deaths of tens of millions of people.
I have a confession to make.
I am a Marxist.
Some of those who populate the comments page might be inclined to say, “What do you expect? Goldstein’s always been a socialist.” But before anyone refers to me as a “red diaper baby,” it isn’t the Marx you’re thinking of.
No, the Marxism I espouse wasn’t written by Karl but rather by Groucho, Harpo, Chico and sometimes Zeppo. These men named Marx were a lot funnier than their German counterpart and their material didn’t lead to the deaths of tens of millions of people.
For most people the New Year chimes in at midnight. But for me the calendar doesn’t turn over for another twelve hours. You see every year at noon on January 1 the annual Marx Brothers Movie Marathon commences in the heart of Harvard Square at the Brattle Theater in The People’s Republic of Cambridge.
After reflecting on the previous year’s disappointments, I need to begin the New Year with a laugh. Actually, I need about seven hours worth of laughter. It readies me for yet another year’s worth of setbacks and falling short. The Marx Brothers are the perfect tonic even if you don’t have a hangover.
I first saw the Marx Brothers on Magic Shadows and Saturday Night at the Movies. Both programs aired on TVOntario and were hosted by the late Elwy Yost. Indeed, Groucho, Harpo, and Chico appear prominently in the opening credits of Magic Shadows. Elwy never saw a movie he didn’t love. But he absolutely glowed when it came to the Marx Brothers. And who wouldn’t be aglow after seeing Harpo climb the curtain in the climactic scene of A Night at the Opera?
Although The Marx Brothers largely took an anarchistic approach to their brand of humor, it nevertheless retains both a sense of timelessness and reassurance. I am confident that a thousand years from now people will still be laughing at Groucho’s wisecracks, Chico’s puns, and Harpo’s facial expressions.
No matter how old these films are they never really get old. I remember watching Monkey Business to start off 2009. Of course, this was only a few months after the financial collapse. So when Groucho said, “Don’t forget that the stockholder of yesteryear is the stowaway of today,” the crowd erupted in applause. One man exclaimed, “You said it, Groucho!!!”
Another reason they don’t get old is that the pacing is so frenetic it’s impossible to remember every single funny line. So even if you’ve seen Animal Crackers, Horse Feathers or A Night at the Opera a dozen times, the jokes are still fresh after multiple viewings. Chico telling Groucho “there ain’t no sanity clause,” will be funny until the end of time. This simply cannot be said for contemporary comedy, which all too often confuses vulgarity with wit.
But perhaps the funniest Marx Brothers’ skit never made it to celluloid. Shortly after moving from Paramount Pictures to MGM in 1935, the Marx Brothers requested a meeting with MGM studio head Irving Thalberg. However, Thalberg was notorious for either not showing up at the meeting or turning up only to be called away on urgent studio business never to return to his office.
Needless to say, the Marx Brothers took umbrage at this impropriety. The next time Thalberg walked out of his meeting they had a plan. Harpo got some potatoes from the studio kitchen while Groucho and Chico built a fire in the office fireplace. After Harpo returned with the potatoes, they stripped completely naked and proceeded to peel spuds right in Thalberg’s office.
When Thalberg finally returned and saw the spectacle before him, he did the only thing a rational man could do under the circumstances. He ordered butter from the commissary. Thalberg also never kept the Marx Brothers waiting ever again.
I must admit that I have been sorely tempted to use this tactic to resolve matters in the workplace. Yet somehow I doubt the targets of such a tactic would have possessed Irving Thalberg’s sense of humor.
In 2013, aside from our individual trials and tribulations, we have the beginning of President Obama’s second term to look forward to or, more accurately, to dread. As Groucho’s Rufus T. Firefly sang upon assuming the presidency of Freedonia in Duck Soup, “If you think this country’s bad off now, just wait till I get through with it!”
It’s going to be a long four years. They can take away the Constitution and they can take away our guns. But they can’t take away the laughter.