I think it’s telling that people who make comedies love the Marx Brothers. There is something about them that I find irresistible. They have such distinct personalities on film and everyone has a favorite. Harpo (the silent clown), Groucho (the caustic, verbal sparring artist), Chico (the sly Italian con artist), Zeppo (the straight man), and Gummo (Gummo was a part of their stage act in the teens, but he was drafted during the First World War and never appeared in their movies. He, apparently, was the straight man before Zeppo but I could be wrong about this). They were all practically raised in the theater.
The Marx Brothers careers together can be divided into distinct stages. They made their way up through vaudeville, reaching the heights of success on the stage in the 1920s. They transitioned to film at the very end of the decade and the very beginning of sound. Their first few movies were originally stage shows that they perfected in front of audiences for months. These movies were chaotic, almost anarchical comedy that featured musical interludes intended to entertain the Broadway audiences. I could watch Chico play the piano for hours and love how Harpo’s seriousness behind the harp is in such stark contrast to his child-like screen persona.
Animal Crackers is the second of their movies. The plot is as inconsequential as the plot in all Marx Brothers’ movies seem. Groucho plays an explorer just returned from Africa (which leads to some moments that may seem racially insensitive to modern viewers), Zeppo plays his assistant, Harpo plays a professor who never speaks and Chico plays an Italian con man. They are at a party thrown by a wealthy society woman and a painting is stolen. Shenanigans ensue. Margaret Dumont, who appeared in many of their movies, plays the stuffy heiress. Her interactions with Groucho are always worth watching and I consider them to be one of the greatest onscreen duos in history. She never seems aware that he is making fun of her. Chico and Harpo both have piano numbers and Groucho sings “Hello, I must be going,” one of my favorites of his songs.
After their fifth movie, Duck Soup (which was a financial disappointment at the time but is considered now to be one of the greatest comedies ever), Paramount dropped the brothers and Zeppo left the act, transitioning into a career as an inventor, industrialist, and agent for other actors. The remaining three brothers began their careers anew with MGM under the direction of wunderkind producer Irving Thalberg.
Thalberg knew what audiences wanted and reined in the notoriously riotous brothers (it was, apparently, almost impossible to get them together in one place at one time and absolutely impossible to control them). The two movies that they made before Thalberg died at the tender age of thirty-seven were critical and box-office hits. They involved the three Marx brothers trying to help out a young man who was in love with a woman that he could not have, but who loved him back. There was a bad guy, a romance, and musical numbers (the young man was often a singer). Thalberg gave their movies some direction and lead characters that the audience could feel for. This was an element lacking around the zany antics of their early work. After Thalberg died, their movies continued to follow the general outline that he had proscribed, but the quality declined steadily.
I recommend seeing all of the Marx Brothers movies, especially through A Day at the Races. You could really see any of them and have a great time. They had a wonderful gift and are still able to make audiences laugh. If you only know the Marx Brothers as historical Hollywood figures, you should definitely check them out on film, and Animal Crackers would be a fine place to start.
Why this was a hard decision (other movies from 1930 worth seeing):
Most people forget that the early thiries, in stark contrast to America after Pearl Harbor, was filled with anti-war films, which reflected the isolationist feeling in the country. All Quiet on the Western Front was one of the great anti-war films of this period. Anna Christie is an interesting film, which features Garbo’s transition to sound. She and Chaplin were two of the last major holdouts. Howard Hughes’ Hell’s Angels has some wonderful aerial film work and is an expansive (if sometimes over-acted) production. The Blue Angel was the star-making vehicle for Marlene Dietrich and features another great performance by Emil Jannings. If your tastes are slightly more esoteric, you might like the surrealist movie, L’Age d’Or, by Luis Bunuel and Salvador Dali.
Did you know? (1930 Trivial knowledge)
I’m sick of these conventional marriages. One woman and one man was good enough for your grandmother, but then again who wants to marry your grandmother? Nobody, not even your grandfather. -Groucho