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The Anarchy of the Marx Brothers
September 1, 2022
Occasionally we like to take a little break from our typical marketing blogs and explore different topics. So on the eve of the 90th anniversary of Horse Feathers, we’re going to take a look at one of the most influential comedy troupes of all time, The Marx Brothers: Groucho, Chico, Harpo, and Zeppo.
The Marx Brothers started on stage as early as 1905 and appeared together in 13 feature films from 1929 to 1949. Zeppo would stop appearing in films after Duck Soup in 1933 to start a talent agency with their other brother Gummo (who only performed with them in the vaudeville days). Over 100 years since their debut, their routines continue to influence comedy as we know it. Even if you’ve never seen one of their movies, trust us, you’ve seen their gags reused countless times.
The Marx Brothers in Paramount vs MGM
The Marx Brothers’ first five films were over at Paramount, while most of their remaining films were with MGM. There was one at RKO and two with United Artists but essentially, their filmography can be split into two distinct eras.
During their time at Paramount, their films were far more anarchic bits connected with pretty loose plots. As these five films went on, they got more and more zany. Look at this clip from Horse Feathers. The plot really doesn’t matter. They’re just a force of nature causing mayhem in a speakeasy:
Their first two films, The Cocoanuts and Animal Crackers, were based on their Broadway shows. They had more plot, more romance, more musical numbers, etc. The five Paramount films were progressively stripped down to be shorter, tighter, and funnier. By the time they got to Duck Soup, Chico didn’t have his piano solo, Harpo didn’t have his harp solo, and the romance angle was basically non-existent. It was just 69 minutes of hilarious chaotic anarchy. It was their final film at the studio and while it’s a classic today, reception at the time was lukewarm.
MGM producer Irving Thalberg’s assessment was that by pulling back the plot and the romance, audiences are left with nothing to connect with. So for their follow up, A Night at the Opera over at MGM, they added all of those things back in. While these films have some truly memorable gags, the brothers feel more restrained with more time dedicated to the story. For the remainder of their career, their films would be made roughly in this same mold.
Like we mentioned, you’ve seen comedy routines made famous by the Marx Brothers even if you’ve never seen a single frame of their films. But because of the way comedy evolves (especially with a lot happening on stage in the early 1900s), it’s not always easy to pinpoint where exactly a bit originated.
Let’s look at the card cutting gag in the above clip from Horse Feathers. While the movie came out in 1932, this bit was actually part of their Broadway show I’ll Say She Is from 1924. And being that it was their debut on Broadway, there’s a good chance that gag was borrowed from their days on the vaudeville circuit. But it’s entirely possible that such a simple gag, while maybe being made famous by the brothers, was being done by other comedians as well. And here’s Bugs Bunny doing it 16 years later.
Which brings us to one of the most famous Marx Brothers’ routines: The Mirror Routine. Perfected in Duck Soup, origins of this gag can be traced back to a stage play called My Friend From India in 1896. But the earliest surviving filmed version is in Charlie Chaplin’s The Floorwalker in 1916. This routine would be seen a few more times leading up to the most famous version in Duck Soup:
This particular bit is still being used today, with some recent examples found in Family Guy and Muppets Most Wanted.
One final routine we’ll look at is the stateroom scene from A Night at the Opera. This involved cramming as many people into a tiny room as possible. While the basic concept of cramming people into a tiny space wasn’t new, it was perfect for the Marx Brothers to put their spin on. One later example of this being used was in the season 8 episode of Seinfeld, “The Pothole” in which the four friends stuff themselves into a closet to order Chinese food.