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Memories of the Marx Brothers

October 12, 2012

In 1972 I bought “Why a Duck?”, Richard J. Anobile’s ingenious attempt to capture “Visual and verbal gems from the Marx Brothers’ movies” in a book. Despite upheavals and the passing years, I still have that book!

It wasn’t just me. Around the same time a fellow boarder had a lively item in Frensham Heights School Mag describing her tiptoeing away from her dorm after Lights Out to catch a late night viewing of “Monkey Business”. The louche and fearless Groucho, Harpo, Chico and sometimes even Zeppo fitted right into the era of “Monty Python’s Flying Circus”.

Now that the brothers’ movies are available to all in many forms the frame blow ups in Anobile’s book can seem a bit murky, but they were enough to inspire a life long admiration, fascination and exhilaration.

Anobile soon applied his technique of mixing frame blow ups with dialogue to full length movies – book versions of  “Animal Crackers” (which wasn’t available when he produced “Why a Duck?”), Rouben Mamoulian’s “Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde”, “Psycho”, “The Maltese Falcon” and James Whale’s “Frankenstein”.

Anobile also went on to produce “The Marx Brothers Scrapbook”, featuring interviews with Groucho and other key figures. Groucho actually made an unsuccessful attempt to suppress this book, a little embarrassed by the swearing Anobile reproduced from their interviews together, and may have regretted making such harsh comments on Zeppo, but it gives an especially vivid picture (and photos) of the Marxs’ early vaudeville days. And, though I haven’t managed to keep hold of my copy, I seem to recall that it was there I read of Zeppo’s brutal demonstration of the effrontery that was a big part of the Marx brothers’ original appeal.

While casually chatting with Anobile, Zeppo turned to a complete stranger and greeted him warmly:

“Hey! How are you doing? It’s been ages!”

The poor man made a faint hearted effort to reply but Zeppo turned on him:

“What are you talking about? I’ve never seen you before in my life!”

Early struggles and the indifference of audiences that might desert their vaudeville act “to watch a wayward mule outside” (Richard F. Shepherd, “Why a Duck?”) produced the devil may care attitude that led to their successful gate crashing of Broadway and Hollywood.

Then MGM got hold of them, and producer Irving Thalberg had them trying out film material on stage tours, which is why their biggest hits “A Night at the Opera” and “A Day at the Races” have over lengthy pauses for laughter that can seem pretty wearisome outside of a crowded cinema. Softened by plots that involved them in coming to the aid of anodyne romantic leads, and supporting players, formerly rattled and discomposed, that seemed to tolerate them as harmless clowns, their comic anarchy, such a welcome antidote to the social starchiness of the depression era was to be overshadowed by the much more horrible anarchy of World War 2.

Still, their best work remains to inspire us to resist the pretensions and put downs of our own time with fast talking wit, energetic barging through artificial barriers and, hopefully, irresistible cheek.

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From → Critic

One Comment
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