Confessions of a Fifteen-Year-Old Film Historian
By Locksley Camille Hooker
The Marx Brothers
Hello people! I’m back again. First of all I want to thank you all for your considerate prayers and understanding. Secondly, I would like to note that I am going to continue writing this column. It’s what I want to do; and I plan on keeping it up, hoping that someone will bother watching some of the things I ramble on about. The chance to branch out and get some feedback for my writing is a blessing beyond measure. Plus, who else is gonna tell you where to find the best black-and-white Christmas movies, I ask you? Point received.
Here I am today to finally talk about my favorite of all the people I am ever going to talk about. And that was a lofty thing I said right there. Harpo Marx, (which one he is I’ll get to in a minute) holds the esteemed position of being one of the greatest comedy performers in the world. And when I say “comedy performer” don’t imagine some guy standing on a stage with a microphone and a rubber chicken telling jokes, because he doesn’t ever tell them. In fact, he never speaks at all. In fact, I highly doubt he ever stood still, on a stage or off. He MAY own a rubber chicken, but I digress.
Harpo Marx, along with his brothers Chico and Groucho (and sometimes Zeppo, but we won’t confuse things) were all really brothers despite their looks. They grew up together in a very, very poor Jewish family in the immigrant section of New York City. Their names were Leo (Chico), Adolph (Harpo – even before the time of Hitler he hated it and changed it to Arthur) and Julius Henry (Groucho). Despite that two of them knew some music (Chico took piano and Harpo taught himself to play harp) the Marx’s never considered show-business until their uncle Al Shean made it big in vaudeville. This is ironic since he is now entirely forgotten and they will live on in the world’s consciousness for decades to come.
So their mother, Minnie, (who happens to have been immortalized in a Broadway play, Minnie’s Boys — I promise I’ll stop going off on rabbit trails at some point) shoved and pushed them into forming a rag-tag act which involved Groucho as a boy singer (you’ll laugh about this, trust me, if you ever watch a Marx brother’s movie), Chico on piano, and eventually Harpo on harp. With another of their brothers, Herbert whom they called Gummo, backing them up. Gummo was replaced by Zeppo, so you can forget about him. Gummo went off to war then made it big in business — and I’m rabbit trailing again.
Somehow or other, the Marx brothers’ music gave way to comedy. This is not surprising, judging that the brother’s favorite pastimes involved disrupting other people’s meals in restaurants, playing dead on railroad tracks and stealing dogs at random intervals. That being said, it took a while for the brothers to each develop their own distinct act: but eventually Chico found he could get laughs by imitating a rather dim Italian who mangled the English language into some of the funniest word exchanges this side of “Who’s on First”. Groucho became the connoisseur of insults and wise-cracks, painting on a big black mustache and eyebrows and puffing a cigar, he reeled out witty word play like Milton Berle on espresso.
And Harpo, who had trouble saying lines and was no good at accents, got into the habit of just not speaking at all. His bushy red hair was leftover from an act where he played an Irishman, and the rest of his trademarks were his own add-libs. There’s no good way to really describe Harpo’s act: it’s kind of like watching a naughty three year old child in a man’s body during an extreme sugar rush. Unpredictable, random, ridiculous and hilarious are all adjectives that apply.
After vaudeville gave way to movies, the brothers had no problem adjusting to this new medium: with their first picture The Coconuts in 1929, Animal Crackers 1930, Monkey Business 1931, Horse Feathers 1932, to Duck Soup in 1933 the brothers terrorized the film world with some of the most plot-less, ridiculous and funniest acts the world had ever seen. Take a look at those titles again: they say a lot. Eventually their low-budget, do-anything-you-can-to-get-a-laugh schtick evolved into more sophisticated Hollywood thespian-ship. By their sixth, and by far greatest movie a Night at The Opera in 1935, they had lost Zeppo (don’t feel bad for him though, he also had a knack for business and ended up an inventor) and gained a following and star-studded reputation that lasted them the rest of their lives.
Though Groucho went on to became the most popular brother due to his early 60’s television show You Bet Your Life, and some other projects; as a team they lived out their golden years performing together and were by their own right, unstoppable. They changed the world of stuffy drawing room comedy during the vaudeville period, making it something new and altogether– ridiculous (for lack of a better word). So if you get a chance, don’t pass up the opportunity to catch a Marx brother’s movie: you’ll discover the ‘random’ trend around every corner today is all their doing.
P.S. I promised you Christmas movies. My supreme favorites will always be: Miracle on 34th Street (1947), the old black and white one starring Natalie Wood; It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) starring Jimmy Stewart; and White Christmas (1954), with Danny Kaye and Bing Crosby. Also good are Holiday Inn (1942), and A Christmas Carol the (1938) version. Until I write again, merry Christmas and a happy new year! ~Locksley