Sunday, February 05, 2006

Sunday Musings on Marx

The Siren celebrated her new television (actually an old television off Craigslist--long story) by watching The Cocoanuts, one of the few Marx Brothers movies she'd never seen. Groucho is running a Florida hotel in this one, and Chico and Harpo play two thieves. Zeppo is a clerk and he's barely in the movie at all. Poor Zeppo, he's such a cipher. We were almost at the credits before I even bothered to notice his lack of screen time. This movie is somewhat less hilarious than the brothers' greatest films, but still has some hysterically funny sequences.

Margaret Dumont is in The Cocoanuts, and even here was ready to accept her crown as The Greatest Straight Woman of All Time. (Straight woman in the vaudeville sense, got that?) Marx authorities ranging from Dick Cavett to Groucho himself all say Dumont genuinely didn't get the jokes, on or off screen, but the Siren finds this difficult to believe. For one thing, the woman had a long career as a comic foil. For another, Dumont is just too good.

For contrast, check out Kay Francis in this movie. She looks ravishing. She also looks absolutely befuddled. In one sequence where the brothers are running in and out of her hotel room, Francis seems to be playing the part of a woman forced to dodge across the Santa Monica Freeway in high heels. She can't play off the mayhem, she's too afraid of being run over. When Dumont enters later in the scene, she is resolutely, regally in character and the jokes become just that much funnier. It takes real skill to be in a scene with the Marx Brothers and not look like you've been hit over the head with Harpo's horn.

Every time I try to write about the Marx Brothers, I just wind up quoting Groucho, so why should this Sunday be any different:

Groucho: Wages? Do you want to be wage slaves? Answer me that!
Bellhops: No.
Groucho: No, of course not. But what makes wage slaves? Wages!

Zeppo: Any luck with the 4:30?
Groucho: Yeah. It didn't hit me.

(Answering telephone)
Groucho: Hello? Yes? Ice water in 318? Is that so? Where'd you get it? Oh, you want some.

Groucho: Why, it's the most exclusive residential district in Florida. Nobody lives there.

Groucho: (on phone) You want to know where you can get a hold of Mrs. Potter? I don't know, she's awfully ticklish.

Groucho: All along the river, those are all levees.
Chico: That's the Jewish neighborhood?
Groucho: Well, we'll passover that.

Groucho: (addressing Dumont, of course) I can see it now: you and the moon. Wear a necktie so I'll know you.

This is a real antique, made in 1929. So the camera work is static, to say the least, but you get some slight compensation in that the costumes mark the fabulous death throes of High Flapper Style.

The Siren adores the Marx Brothers. Her favorite is Duck Soup. You could spend hours deconstructing the world view of that one. Or you could take Groucho's word on the film's political significance: "What significance? We were just four Jews trying to get a laugh."

That makes for an abrupt transition to part two of my Sunday ramblings. If there is one movie argument that the Siren just doesn't want to have, it's the one about Hollywood's alleged monolithic liberalism. Of course, my main field of interest is the Golden Age. The minute someone tries to tell me the general tilt was to the left during that period is the minute I realize I'm talking to someone whose classic movie viewing is largely confined to renting Casablanca on Valentine's Day. For heaven's sake, just look at the Hays Code. It's about liberal as Pat Robertson on a bad day.

As for the current movie scene ... one of my all-time favorite posts from master blogger Lance Mannion was one where he tried to put political arguments about the Oscars out of their misery. But the "Hollywood Has a Sinister Marxist Agenda" theme just keeps coming back, like Rasputin or Freddie or Jason or Martin Lawrence. Back it came this year, spurred by the list of Oscar nominations for Best Picture. And the gentleman at the consistently hilarious Kung Fu Monkey blog has taken some time out to feed the myth some cyanide cookies, pump it full of silver bullets and drive a stake through its heart. Please check out his post, as the Siren is still laughing over it. Enjoy your Sunday.


surlyh said...

I always felt the politics of the Marxes was anarchism. Cocoanuts, along with the great Duck Soup, were made before the MGM dictate of "the young lovers shall not be ridiculed" that undercut the Marxes' later films. Groucho was one of my two hollywood heroes growing up. The other was the tough and cynical on the outside, heroic on the inside Bogart. I'm not sure how you reconcile the two, but those are some role models.

Campaspe said...

Bogart? not Cagney? :)

Lance Mannion said...

Didn't Ibsen write a play called The Master Blogger? I saw the movie version when I was a lad and that inspired my lifelong ambition to be a master blogger.

Blogger! I said blogger!

I've never believed that about Margaret Dumont either. I think the legend that she didn't get the jokes might have this much truth in it: that she couldn't keep up. Being on the set with the Marx Brothers was apparently a surreal experience and it's possible that she just sort of hunkered down and kept herself in character and waited for it all to end. There were also a lot of jokes that didn't make it into the movies that a lady made a point of not getting.

"You go down here until you come to the viaduct."

"All right. Why a duck? Why a no chicken?"

"I don't know why a no chicken, I'm a stranger here myself."

Peter Nellhaus said...

Speaking of Jews in Florida, there is a former synagogue here is Miami Beach that serves as a museum of Jewish history in Florida. (This was also where famed gangster Meyer Lansky worshipped regularly, but I digress.) I learned that not only were Jews restricted as to where they could live in M.B., but also that hotels had restrictive policies. One preserved hotel sign reads, "Always a view, never a Jew".

Campaspe said...

Lance: Totally agree, I think Dumont must have had superb concentration.

Peter: Eeeeeeeeeeeeek. Now I am thinking of Gregory Peck trying to get into a hotel in "Gentleman's Agreement." Well, the Marx Brothers made fun of everything, even restricted communities. Wasn't there an old story about some hotel not wanting Groucho's daughter to swim in the pool? If I recall the story correctly, he told them she was half-Jewish and asked if she could go in up to her waist.

Filmbrain said...

I first exposed my son to the Marx brothers when he was four, but he didn't quite get it. Now, at six, he loves them, though I still have to explain a fair amount of the jokes. His favorite is A Night at the Opera, simply for the stateroom scene.

As for "liberal" Hollywood - I finally got around to watching The 40 Year Old Virgin and was kind of shocked at how nicely the film fit into Bush's America -- what with its pro-abstinence stance, no sex till marriage, etc.

Also, is Crash particularly liberal? Perhaps I missed its socialist agenda while I was being hammered over the head by Haggis' god-awful dialog and constant reminder of its self-important message.

surlyh said...

Yes, I loved Cagney, too. And that romantic type was not limited to Bogart. Perhaps it was the roles, but Bogart played that weathered romantic to perfection.

Maybe Cagney was a little too real, too tough, or a little too good an actor to be the heroic ideal of a 1960s suburban lower middle class young lad?

Campaspe said...

Filmbrain - Kids totally get the Marx Brothers. My niece (8) and nephew (5) find them hilarious. Another reason to suspect Margaret Dumont got the jokes more than she let on. :) I didn't see 40 Year-Old Virgin or Crash, but every year I see movies, good and bad, that fit just fine with a conservative agenda. And I don't get the whining over the Oscars. From what I understand, "Crash" is a pretty straightforward morality tale about racism. Has that issue been conceded completely to the liberals? I missed the memo!

Surlyh: I fell in love with Cagney as a musical star, of all things. Took me years to see most of his gangster pictures, LOL!

tempesttozephyr said...

I followed your advice and read the Kung Fu Monkey link. I laughed much. I am still laughing. Especially liked the bit about Star Wars Episode III...


Campaspe said...

((red)) It is always good to see you here. That blog is hilarious on a regular basis, I check it all the time. But he outdid himself there. And the Episode III thing was where I lost it, too.

Exiled in NJ said...

Growing up, You Bet Your Life segued into their films, which along with Ealing comedies, kept me in stitches. Surlyh is correct: Post-code Marx work was undone by a love conquers all ending, but, and I am sure this is sacrilege, for my brother, sister and I, the films would come to a dead stop when Harpo began to play.

Oddly Siren was writing Marxian theory as I was watching a Soprano rerun, one about sister Janis where Tony eggs her on about her abandoned son in Montreal whose name is Harpo.

Lance Mannion said...

C., Filmbrain, what is "liberal" about Crash, I think, is that it only liberals believe that racism is still a problem. In the Right Wing universe, we live in a color-blind society. The Civil Rights movement fixed everything, so why bother everybody with an angry movie about a non-existant problem? I'll tell you why! To make white people feel guilty so they'll fork over good tax dollars to useless social programs and make black people feel victimized so they'll want those useless social programs.

Durn liberals and their reality-based world view.

Campaspe said...

But of course, Lance! How silly of me to forget. Rush proclaimed that racism is dead more than a decade ago, didn't he? how many times does the poor man have to say it?

Campaspe said...

**whispered aside to Exiled**: I never liked the Harpo musical interludes all that much, either, although his skill always impressed.

surlyh said...

I still remember watching in strange fascination at Harpo playing, his eyes wide in concentration. I think I was waiting for the gag. But so much of the pleasure of watching films from an earlier era is surrendering yourself to their rhythms and conventions.

Typically I find the musical interludes in old films a charming feature. The movies took their time in those days. Now they rush around too much and yet run too long.

Gloria said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Gloria said...

Painter Salvador Dalí worked on a project with the Marx Brothers. Among the many ideas there was one scene with Harpo playing a Harp with barbed-wire strings... Dalí claimed to be against Communism but I bet he had a marxist streak in him!

Harpo was a good friend of Oscar Levant, who had his own peculiar brand of humour.

Re Duck Soup let's remember it was directed by Leo McCarey, who I feel is not enough remembered nowadays.

... And I bet something that Margaret Dumont KNEW: only that she was a genius of straight-face

Virginia said...

I enjoy th Marx Brother, too!

As a matter of fact, I have posted about them on my own blog at

You have linked to me under Old Acquantinces that is broken and that I didn't know about!

I'd like to keep the link because I enjoy your posts so can you fix the link and I'll put your link on my blog.

Thank you,

Campaspe said...

Thank you so much, Virginia. I love your site. I am not the world's greatest html maven and I apologize for the broken link. I will fix ASAP.

Thanks very much for stopping by!

Campaspe said...

Fixed now. Stupid closing brackets. :)