Ian Thomson

What unites Churchill, Dali and T.S. Eliot? They all worshipped the Marx Brothers

On the eve of a BFI season of Marx Bros films, Ian Thomson celebrates the anarchic genius of Groucho and his brothers

What unites Churchill, Dali and T.S. Eliot? They all worshipped the Marx Brothers
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‘I had no idea you were so handsome,’ Groucho Marx wrote to T.S. Eliot in 1961 on receiving from him a signed studio portrait. The Missouri-born Eliot was the Marx Brothers’ devoted fan; three years later, in June 1964, Groucho called on the 75-year-old poet at his home in London. Eliot was interested in the Marx Brothers’ first undisputed film masterpiece, Animal Crackers (1930), while Groucho wanted only to quote from ‘The Waste Land’; however, the men agreed that they shared a love of cats and fine cigars.

Winston Churchill was another who admired the Marxes and their deliciously mad repartee. During an air attack on London in May 1941 he found himself watching Monkey Business (1931), and was ‘glad of the diversion’. The Marx Brothers season this month at the British Film Institute includes Monkey Business as well as the other, glorious Paramount productions Horse Feathers (1932) and Duck Soup (1933). The ever-popular MGM extravaganzas of the mid-1930s, A Night at the Opera and A Day at the Races, are also billed, along with a handful of lesser-known Broadway transfers.

Corny as a whoopee cushion, Marxian wit (‘Marriage is a wonderful institution, but who wants to live in an institution?’) borrowed from Broadway vaudeville but was inseparable from Jewish émigré culture. The five brothers, Chico, Harpo, Groucho, Gummo and Zeppo, were born in turn-of-the-century New York City to Jewish immigrant parents. Harpo Marx had travelled through Hitler’s newly anti-Semitic Germany in 1933 on his way to perform in Soviet Russia, and was disturbed by the sight of shop windows daubed with ‘Jude’. Duck Soup, though not overtly political, features a dangerously unhinged dictator in the guise of Groucho’s Rufus T. Firefly. ‘We stand ’em up against the wall and pop goes the weasel!’ he sings while brandishing a machinegun-like parasol. The fate of European Jewry had yet to be decided in 1933 when Hitler became chancellor.

The brothers had all been pushed into Broadway by their German-born mother, Minnie Marx, who worked as a seamstress on New York’s Upper East Side before becoming her sons’ manager and booking agent. Minnie’s boys remained at heart vaudevillians; except for Gummo (who went into the theatre agency business), they successfully transferred from theatre to the silver screen. Chico’s pistol-shot style of piano-playing was the stuff of Broadway burlesque, as was Zeppo’s bewildered straight-man act; to Buster Keaton’s deadpan gag routines the brothers added a dose of Yiddisher wisecracking mayhem.

Groucho greatly admired writers, but he was irked by intellectual analyses of the films. Antonin Artaud, the French surrealist, hailed Animal Crackers as a ‘surrealistic’ masterwork that outraged bourgeois propriety — never mind that it was Paramount’s funniest movie to date. If grand pianos, opera sets and courtrooms are smashed up in the films it is not from surrealist intent but from a childish delight in making an unholy mess of things. ‘I suppose you think Herman Melville set out to be symbolic about good and evil when he wrote Moby-Dick?’ Groucho once complained to an over-analytical journalist, adding, ‘If you ask me, he just thought he was writing another whaling story.’

Salvador Dalí, like the humourless Artaud, saw the five Marxes as iconoclastic outsiders, and revered the trench-coated, blond-wigged Harpo as a grotesque man-child who made a virtue out of his speechless inarticulacy. Understandably, Harpo was wary of the Catalan artist’s attentions, and did not want to be viewed as surrealism’s mute mascot. Dalí’s 1937 film script, Giraffes on Horseback Salad, featured a giant eyeball with 20 flailing arms (as well as a load of flaming giraffes); Harpo did not much care for it.

His memoir, Harpo Speaks… About New York, tells of a tough childhood spent in a tenement off Lexington Avenue. Marx père, Samuel ‘Frenchie’ Marx, a French-speaking dance instructor and tailor from Alsace, seems to have been a lousy bespoke cutter and something of a chancer. The brothers first triumphed in 1929 with their Broadway hit The Cocoanuts (a tale of skulduggery in a Florida beach resort), but it had not been easy for them. As a teenager, Chico played piano in a whorehouse frequented by Little Italy hoodlums (‘Atsa good, eh, boss?’), while Harpo dropped out of school at the age of eight, scrimped as a hotel bellhop and generally tried to outwit government inspectors.

Accordingly, Harpo is often a trickster figure in the films, eluding capture even as he taunts the authorities. ‘Getting away with it’ — one of the great Marxian themes — is the subject of T.S. Eliot’s adored Monkey Business, a film lit up by an atmosphere of clever rascality and mania. In a justly famous scene, Harpo outsmarts the officious captain of a transatlantic liner by crashing a children’s Punch and Judy show disguised as a puppet. A Day at the Races, for all its undoubted longueurs, is a showcase for Chico’s street-savvy Eyetie cunning. In the hilarious ‘getta your tootsie-frootsie ice-cream!’ scene, he ingeniously cheats Dr Hackenbush (played by a panama-hatted Groucho) out of his last cent. Chico was a small-time swindler and gambling liability both on and off screen. ‘Nobody could know Chico unless he was a card hustler,’ Groucho commented of his older brother on Chico’s death in 1961, at the age of 74.

Needless to say, the films would not have been half as funny without the long-suffering Margaret Dumont, who was practically the fifth Marx Brother (the matinee idol-like Zeppo was never considered an equal member of the gang). In her evening gowns and glittery tiaras, the well-upholstered Dumont is repeatedly and mercilessly teased by Groucho. In Duck Soup he asks for a lock of her hair and of course Dumont is delighted. Bad mistake! ‘I’m letting you off easy. I was gonna ask for the whole wig,’ jibes Groucho. When Dumont died in 1965, it emerged that she had been miffed at being typecast by Groucho as the easy foil.

Groucho alone of the Marxes had a successful solo career. In his television quiz shows You Bet Your Life and Take It or Leave It he appears without the greasepaint moustache but is still the master of the withering ad-lib. One of his last known TV appearances, in 1971, was on a chat show with the novelist Truman Capote. Groucho had put on a jolly knitted tam for the occasion with three ball-shaped tassels dangling down. He asked Capote, a homosexual, ‘Why don’t you get married?’, and Capote answered, ‘No one has asked me.’ Groucho, with that characteristic kittenish toss of the head, replied, ‘I’m available. Why don’t you marry me?’ Capote: ‘Because, Groucho, you have three balls.’ Incredibly, Groucho had been monkeyed.

The Best of the Marx Brothers’ is at BFI Southbank from 14 to 31 January.