From Soup to Golf

         The Marx Brothers were a significant part of the evolution of the comedy/slapstick genre. Prior to the addition of sound first heard in Alan Crosland's 1927 Jazz Singer slapstick was dominated by a lovable little scamp by the name of Charlie Chaplin.

         Chaplin was a master of physical comedy but had a difficult time in the transition to sound, his voice that of a very distinguished English gentleman simply did not match that of his lovable little scamp character.

         This left a void in the realm of slapstick, a void it would take three men to fill. These three men better known as the Marx Brothers elevated the art of comedy, with their frantic pacing, and quick witted wise cracking dialogue.

         In Leo McCarey’s Duck Soup (1933), we see an early use of political satire in film. Groucho the newly appointed leader of a fictional country is a ridiculous leader and was an obvious jab at some of the political leaders at the time. Harpo and Chico were hired as spies to help an aristocrat unseat Goucho by gathering information against him.

         This would all work beautifully except that Chico is a peanut vendor constantly warring with the lemonade vendor next to him, and Harpo does not speak but mimes and honks horns instead. Harpo along with his duties with Chico at the lemonade stand is the ruler’s driver in a recurring bit where Harpo rides up on a side car equipped motorcycle. When Groucho gets in the sidecar Harpo pulls away on the motorcycle leaving Groucho sitting in a side car on the front steps.

         In Duck Soup no social class was off limits. All groups from the working class all the way up to the ruling class, were targets for the Marx Brothers quick-witted humor.

         It is easy to see how the Marx Brothers were influencing on both the actors and the genre as it is today.If people want to view witty political satire all they have had to do for the better part of three decades is to turn on their television sets on to NBC every Saturday night. Saturday Night Live, though not at its best in recent years, has made an institution out of showing just how ridiculous our world’s leaders are.

         When we look at films one particular film stands out, Caddyshack. Though most might not see the connections to Duck Soup right away they are clearly there upon closer examination. When we look at Chevy Chase’s (Ty) we see elements of Groucho Marx. Ty is quick-witted and wise cracking. (A set of character traits that Chase would later use in the Fletch series of movies.) He is also a bit of a ladies man or at least tries to be. Bill Murray’s grounds keeper character is reminiscent of Chico’s character in Duck Soup. Although he may be slightly unstable and not make much sense, he is a hilarious character. For a parallel to Harpo we must turn to the grounds keeper (Bill Murray) in the film's arch nemesis the gopher. Neither character speaks but instead depends on funny sounds to be funny. The gopher and the grounds keeper in Caddyshack are similar to Harpo and Chico in Duck Soup; both pairs are constantly at odds playing tricks on one another. The film itself is also a parallel to Duck Soup. In Caddyshack the premise is to make fun of the rich and powerful elitist’s that are members of Brushwood’s Country Club.

         Whether it be in government or in a country club, the genre of slapstick comedy owes much to the Marx Brothers.

Corey McBee

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