What Makes Screen Comedy?

        I remember the first time I saw a Marx Brothers movie. It was Christmastime, and I got four of their movies as presents. For those more familiar with the brothers, these were all some of the earlier Paramount movies rather than the MGM ones. So, we decided to start with the more famous one, Duck Soup (1933), directed by Leo McCarey, and I could not stop laughing. It was a revelation to me, these anarchic masters of comedy rampantly running around what otherwise looked like a serious movie. Margaret Dumont is famously mentioned as having not been in on the joke.

        What I find interesting as a film maker and film buff, however, is how the movies, for example, were done. The Marx Brothers were vaudeville performers, and one can see it some of their other movies more fully how much of entertainers they were by the musical interludes. Serious interludes included those in which Chico would play the piano or Harpo the harp. They were self-trained, which one can see in the freeform way that they perform. But the key here is that they were stage performers, and the Paramount movies are reflective of that. Granted, the cameras then were huge, heavy pieces of machinery, and movement was kind of limited overall, but that does not change the fact that the films look like stage shows. The set-up, the set design, all of it were done in that stylized sort of way.

        A lot of movies back then were kind of done that way. Certainly not all, by any stretch of the imagination, but early cinema was propagated by people from the stage transferring to the screen. The question is if it works or not, and when watching the Marx Brothers films, all I can say is yes. This is partly true just because having a record of their comedy on film is good enough reason, but there is enough inspiration to go around. In fact, this stylized sort of film making is kind of unique in a way. We do not particularly need to always buy these worlds and set-ups, even if some of them were not especially realistic. In Duck Soup, we can see the house, for instance, designed with great enough complexity that you buy it as a real house, but they always wound themselves into places that could easily be done on stage (the mirror gag, Dumont's room with characters running in and out of doors, trying to get in, etc.). There are cinematic elements and designs burgeoning, but they are all building up to these sorts of gags.

        What can we make of the transfer of vaudeville performers to the screen, though? There are always good comics and bad comics, but one bad movie I particularly could call mention to is The Gorilla (1939), which features the less talented Ritz Brothers. Watching them is a real reason to appreciate the greats and to understand what makes the Marx Brothers, Laurel and Hardy, Abbot and Costello so great. The Ritz Brothers indulged in shameless mugging and such rather than in the inspired wit and sharp satire on hand in a Marx Brothers movie.

        But screen comedy evolved anyway. You can certainly find now comedies done more cinematically, but you know the truth? The inspiration still comes from here in a lot of ways. The Marx Brothers exemplify everything from verbal to physical comedy: from political satire and satire of movies of the era to general zaniness and surrealism. Nothing beats good material. I am particularly fond of the high-level energy that erupts at the end of Duck Soup. The movie is non-stop brilliant from the start, but when the musical number starts in the courtroom, the absurdity reaches a particularly high pitch. The musical number parodies musicals of the time as well as politics, as this is all in a courthouse about war coming up. Then there is the Paul Revere bit, starting on a stage, quite literally. Harpo plays Revere in the scene, and gallops away to warn the people of the oncoming war, only to be sidetracked by a lovely lady. The humor there is all physical and visual gags, like panning across the shoes next to the bed only to come to the horseshoes. Then, war breaks loose, Groucho shoots his own men, Chico joins the other side but comes back for the food, Harpo gets locked up with some explosives, Zeppo is the over-the-top straight, buff man, and much, much more. It is all very fast and zany with Groucho continually quipping amidst the mayhem. The end shows pretty much everything that makes up the Marx Brothers style, complete with the fat lady singing to lead us out.

        I believe in the fullness of a movie, but you can have all the tricks in the world, and it would not make a difference to having something to do, some inspiration to bring. The Marx Brothers had a full display of inspiration, even Zeppo, believe it or not, often said to have been the funniest offset. It is something of a shame that he never got more of a role sometimes, and eventually stayed behind the scenes. A student of their films might grow to appreciate some of the things Zeppo does (for example in Duck Soup or, my other favorite, Horse Feathers) and, furthermore, see what makes the whole package of their stylings work. "'To string things together in a seemingly purposeless way,' said Mark Twain, 'and to be seemingly unaware that they are absurd, is the mark of American humor.' The 'sense' injected into the nonsense only compounds the nonsense" (Ellis 22).

Work Cited

Ellis, Allen. “Yes, Sir: The Legacy of Zeppo Marx.” The Journal of Popular Culture 37:1 2003: 22.

Jesse Gilstrap

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