Monday, May 25, 2015
Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts, or just life in general. You are free to agree or disagree with him.
TO KNOCK YOU MUST REVERE
Groucho and his brothers take over the captain’s bridge. Groucho sends orders for the captain’s lunch down the primitive speaking tube. Let us never forget that this is a passenger liner and many lives depend upon the captain’s word as spoken from the bridge. What matters is that Groucho ordering lunch is Groucho serving himself. His inner anarchist. To hell with social order. The anarchist who defies the righteous protocols of running a liner. Elsewhere in the same film (Monkey Business, 1931), the brothers take over a barbershop and snip off the whiskers of a moustachioed client who has come for a shave. And Harpo runs from the ship security men, who are looking for stowaways, and takes over and sabotages a Punch-and Judy show. And the great climax (before the film descends to routine farce) where all four brothers (yes, poor Zeppo was still part of the act then) attempt to pass through customs by pretending to be Maurice Chevalier. So bureaucratic immigration authority is defied as well as shipboard authority.
I confess to knowing the Marx Brother from my earliest youth, even though I was born twenty years after they made their most inventive films. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, when I was a child and when television had only begun to have an impact on New Zealand, the cinemas on Queen Street in Auckland would still play, as holiday treats, films made in the 1930s. Double bills of Laurel and Hardy and the Marx Brothers. It was at such screenings that, indulged by either my father or my eldest brother, I first saw Laurel and Hardy in Bonnie Scotland persuading the rest of their platoon that they were the only soldiers in step – surely their best ever sight gag. Or Laurel and Hardy negotiating a maze in A Chump at Oxford.
But more to my juvenile taste were the Marx Brothers, sabotaging an opera in A Night at the Opera or cheating each other furiously in the less successful (and, in retrospect, somewhat tackier) A Day at the Races. That scene where cunning Chico gets gullible Groucho to buy all the code books before placing a bet.
Those were the big budget films they made when they moved to M.G.M.
It was only as a young adult, via television and (later) videotape and DVD, that I discovered that their most inventive films were the cheaper, more ramshackle, more anarchistic ones they had made at Paramount before they shifted to M.G.M.
So I constantly play in my head my favourite pieces of anarchy from these films. The scene in the really primitive early talkie The Cocoanuts (1929) where shyster hotel manager Groucho persuades his employees that they don’t need wages because they don’t want to be “wage slaves”. Groucho making his entrance in Animal Crackers (1930) as “Captain Spaulding”, with a song that ridicules all mythology about Great White Hunters and Great White Explorers. The scene in Horse Feathers (1932) where Groucho introduces himself as head of a university in a song (“Whatever It is, I’m against it!”) which has him pulling the whiskers of learned professors. Harpo and Chico in the same film, first escaping from the gangsters who have fixed the outcome of a football match, then proceeding to ruin the football match. Harpo getting into a speakeasy in mime-talk. Groucho rudely parodying An American Tragedy when he takes a young woman out in a canoe. And in their masterpiece Duck Soup (1933) all the stuff that ridicules war and militarism, and the sublime scene where Harpo and Chico, as spies, report to their spymaster and give him double-talk about “spy stuff”. Not to mention Harpo wrecking the roadside stall of the lemonade-seller.
And all the time, the rude and opportunistic courting of Margaret Dumont by the impudent Groucho.
I can pluck some anarchism from their later films, and some joy from the linguistic games that people like S.J. Perelman and George S. Kaufman dropped into their screenplays – like the scene in A Night at the Opera where Groucho and Chico discuss a contract (“You can’t fool me. There ain’t no Sanity Clause!”). But even though some of their later films turned up as Saturday matinees at our local fleahouse when I was a kid (Room Service, The Big Store), they did not have the real anarchistic pizzazz of the earlier films. Indeed some of the later films were really sorry stuff.
Now why have I burdened you with this nostalgic recall?
I have one of my brilliant ideas coming on.
When Groucho, Harpo, Chico and (in the early films only) Zeppo thumbed their noses at stuffed shirts, authority, cops, immigration officials, university professors, cultural highbrows at the opera, the military, patriotism and other sitting ducks as targets for rude satire, they were living in a world in which such things were respected and even revered. Indeed, for all their mockery, the Marx Brothers really reinforced such respect by telling us that these things were important. Their clowning was in the nature of a medieval Feast of Fools where all manner of rude things could be said about authority on the full understanding that such authority really counted. The Marx Brothers let us visit Cloud-Cuckoo Land for a moment and blow off steam at those targets that sometimes made us grumble, but whose necessity we did not challenge.
And this seems to me far from the current brand of “satire” which is essentially destructive and in which every bright spark has a one-liner to belittle or demean.
I’m saying the fantastical anarchy of the Marx Brothers let us pretend to be children for a happy while, before we returned to reality and remembered how much responsibility and authority guide us. Hear the sneer of the stand-up comic addressing a hip audience, and you are far from the world of the Marxes who smashed authority only because they knew they were cocooned and protected by it.