A Magnificent Display of Effusion...


There was a morning a couple weeks back, after I had woken up before 4:00 a.m. to take care of an emergency that was rather liquid in fashion (and to also feed my cry-baby of a cat, who always picks the most inopportune times to whine about something, i.e. usually the middle of the night... the jerk), when the TCM announcer informed me that the Marx Brothers' classic Animal Crackers was about to come on the air. Settling back in bed, I sighed a deep sigh of comfort and happiness, assuming that I would be swept back into Dreamland with the antics of my favorite comedy team glowing across the bare white walls of the bedroom.

This would have been a great plan if I had fallen asleep before the movie had actually started, because once it did, any thought of drifting mellowly back into slumber went away swiftly. It wasn't even the Marx Brothers that did the deed: it was the film's opening six minutes, from the opening credits and music, Robert Greig addressing the bellhops, 
Margaret Dumont and Louis Sorin setting up the plot, cutie pie Lillian Roth being adorable, and then Zeppo singing... every line, every pause, every sound served to keep me awake. The worst part was that I wasn't even watching the screen; I slept on my side, as I always do, facing away from the television, but everything that was occurring on the screen was fresh within my mind, and everything said was passing through my lips by rote. And Captain Spaulding had yet to even make his entrance.

And when the esteemed Captain did glide into the hotel lobby, I knew that I only had two options: watch the entire damn film again, or change the channel. (Turning off or turning down the TV are not on the option menu. While I usually prefer total darkness and silence, Jen uses the TV like a singing nightlight, requiring both the light and a decent sound level to lull her to sleep.) I started out, as expected, with the first option, sitting up in bed and singing quietly along with the full Captain Spaulding number and the first appearances of Chico and Harpo. But as soon as Harpo's gun battle with the statuary occurred, I knew that sleep was a far more important course to take (I did have a rather important meeting later that day), and that my affection for the Brothers Marx would not be hurt by this minor betrayal. And so, for the first time in my life, I turned off a Marx Brothers film.

This was tempered by the fact that, while I did already own a DVD copy of Animal Crackers, wending its way in the mail to me was the Marx Brothers Silver Screen Collection, a Universal DVD compilation of the first five (sound) films of the Marxes' oeuvre: The Cocoanuts, Animal Crackers, Monkey Business, Horse Feathers, and my hands-down favorite Marx film, Duck Soup. This purchase, bought through the auspices of a very nice and timely gift certificate given to me by my boss, was something I had been putting off for a longer time than I wished, as I was not buying films for most of a year until I got established in my new locale, and it would finally complete my Marx film collection. (Jen had given me the Warner/MGM Marx Bros. Collection the previous year.) Thus, while it definitely hurt my heart to turn off Animal Crackers, much-needed sleep was the issue, and soon I would be wallowing in as much of the Marxes' silliness as I wished.

When my parents took my brothers and I to our first Marx Brothers film, which just so happened to be Animal Crackers, it was 1974. I was ten years old when our family drove the twenty miles or so from our home in Eagle River to the Polar Theatre in Anchorage. The Polar Theatre at the time had only one screen, but would eventually switch to a multi-theatre set-up, with one large screen and two postage stamp ones. The Polar was the theatre where I saw The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi in their original release, and where I also saw Blue Velvet, Re-Animator and The Evil Dead (amongst many others) for the very first time. A few years before I left Anchorage, the Polar was shut down and was cruelly converted into an alternative school which was named, in a very taunting fashion that I just know was solely directed at me to piss me off further, Polaris. 


Our appearance there was due to the fortuitous national re-release of Animal Crackers that year, thanks to a particular rabid Marx Brothers fan named Steve Stoliar. Having recently seen a much degraded copy of Animal Crackers at a revival house, the UCLA student enlisted the aid of none other than Groucho Marx himself, then in his dotage, to whip up wild support and begin a campaign to have Universal release the picture nationally. The Marxes were exceedingly popular among college students of the day. While only Groucho and Zeppo were alive at the time, the counterculture had picked up the Marxes as anarchist symbols, and Groucho did nothing to dissuade the resulting adoration. He used the attention to tour the country nationally and quite successfully, releasing several books, and making numerous appearances on television. The eventual outcome of all this would be an Honorary Oscar in 1975, but in 1974, all I knew about the Marxes was what I knew from television and my mother.

I knew who the Marx Brothers were before that day: I had certainly beheld many clips of their films on television for years, and it had been explained to me that the voice that Alan Alda on M*A*S*H would break into on many episodes was an impression of Groucho Marx. I also owned a series of audiocassettes of old radio shows that I would listen to at night, and one of those tapes was a solid hour of "You Bet Your Life", which I had pretty much memorized by that point in time. (It was my favorite after Abbott and Costello's "Who's On First?", of course, which was my choice by default, owing to my baseball obsession.) So, to be honest, I did have some exposure to the Marx family before this trip to the Polar Theatre.
But I didn't know exactly what was going to happen to me after that trip. I recall that Animal Crackers was shown in conjunction with a Ma and Pa Kettle film, the actual title in that series I don't remember. In fact, except for a flash of pickup truck careening down a backroad that is still stuck in my memory, I don't remember anything else of that movie. I'm sure that I laughed at the Kettle flick (my parents certainly loved it), but the world stopped for me when Groucho and his brothers hit the screen.

And once Animal Crackers started, and those same opening six minutes I described above in that modern TCM showing came to life on the screen, I almost died of boredom. I knew nothing at that age of musicals, of plot development (such as it is), of setting up characters or scenes later in the film. To this day, I have almost zero interest in the plot of any Marx film. Yes, there are films like A Night at the Opera, where the plot seems to be a well-considered component of the total film, but I personally can do without its intrusion. I just wanted to see the Marx Brothers... where the hell were they? Well, Zeppo is there in those first six minutes, but I really did not know him by sight then. No, it wasn't until Groucho was carried in by his African porters (complete with a separately carried gun rack) that I perked up in my seat. From the moment he first spoke -- and especially when he sings his famous Hello, I Must Going song -- I was hooked.

Truth be told, and this is no surprise to any of my longtime friends who have had to suffer through thirty-odd years of my poor imitation of the fellow, it was actually Harpo Marx that won my heart in that first film. Harpo is the one that kids automatically identify with the most, and I was no exception. As much as Groucho and Chico carry the story along with their taunts and jibes, it is Harpo who was the true spirit of anarchy in the film. He is the bratty child unleashed, and there are little or no consequences for him to pay for from his silly though often violent or shocking actions. 

Groucho is more of a bratty adult; he might act at times like a child, but he is very recognizably an adult playing at children's games, relying more on adult wit (and his abuse of the wits, or generally lack of it, of others), and he is only as wild as the plot allows him to be. An example would be in the opening musical sequence, where he will be goofing on some piece of Marxian business, but the story demands that he has a line to sing, and it snaps him momentarily back into accepted civilized behavior, but only until the demand is met and then he is off again skewering the snobs. Groucho, however much he jokingly sneers at society, because he is the closest thing to an adult in the team, is our sole anchor to whatever plot there is in the film. (Zeppo seems to be the adult, but he is hardly necessary to the plot at hand, even when they try to force the issue.) 

Harpo, on the other hand, is barely controllable even by his brothers, and almost entirely a creature of destruction (except for the harp solos, which are the sole evidence of Harpo having, well, a soul), ruled completely by his id, and is flat-out a large-sized child (albeit with some very lecherous tendencies towards blondes). Chico seems to maintain the middle ground between the other two brothers, jumping from bits with Groucho to bits with Harpo with ease, playing the punning pinhead in the first and then jumping to almost straight man status for the mute, frenetic Harpo. Zeppo, though I have more of a appreciation for him than most people I know, is practically furniture when the other three are in the room together. He does well in his verbal sparring with Groucho in their famous "Take a letter" scene, but when all is said and done, Zeppo is Zeppo.

So Harpo won out that day, though this may be due to my being most familiar with Groucho already. He was less of a surprise to me, and Harpo did mostly physical comedy that I could try to replicate badly on my own. Eventually, Groucho would win out with me. His verbal wit, whether on screen, radio, or in his numerous books (all of which I would own eventually) would be hard for most others to match, even Harpo and Chico. If any angel guided me in my often angry but more often frustrating battle against the forces of society throughout the rest of my life, it has been Groucho.

But, at the age of ten, when I saw the Marxes unchained and on a big screen for the first time, satire, surrealism and anarchy were unknown concepts to me. Fears of the adult world to come were not a concern yet. I was only a child, and even with my limited world view and experience, I just knew that the Marx Brothers were the funniest people in the history of our planet. And to me, no matter how much comedy I had seen or read since then, no matter how much I grew to revere Chaplin or Keaton or Lloyd or Fields or Kaye in the following years, the Marxes are still at the top of the heap.

Which is why I was completely delighted when my boss Jonathan asked me recently to loan him a couple of Marx movies, so that he may introduce his young children to them for the first time. I gave him my original discs of Animal Crackers and Duck Soup, and when he asked which one to let them watch first, naturally I gave him only one choice: Animal Crackers. To find out the next day that, like me, they were a little confused and bored at first, but completely ecstatic about the brothers by the end of the film and begging to see Duck Soup, made this Grinch's heart grow three sizes that day. I suddenly had some small hope for the future of mankind.

And wishing that I were Jonathan's kids watching the Marxes for the very first time? I don't need to wish for that time back. All I need to do is watch Animal Crackers again... and I am there.

[This article was updated and re-edited slightly on April 14, 2016.]

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