Bright Lights Film Journal

No One Gets In Alive! Kicking Down Doors with the Marx Brothers

The famous stateroom scene from A Night at the Opera (Universal)

The Brothers don’t enter into sanctimonious class systems, organizational institutions, or drawing rooms to assimilate and enjoy the fruits of its privileges either; they gain access, enact a savage modus operandi that only they are privy to, and shred everything from clothes (mostly Harpo’s) to furniture to any remaining decorum.

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Were the Marx Brothers alive in 2018, they’d feast, clear-eyed, on the deranged incompetence and Zirconia-encrusted populism of our current state of affairs. The Marxes were particularly adept at sniffing out frauds and exposing practitioners of elitism, on film and in the sober, real world. Any number of the cartoon villains currently sucking up oxygen in the various sectors of American politics and art could easily be stand-ins for Marx foils: think of the likes of Trentino, the ickily buffoonish ambassador to Sylvania in Duck Soup; or the abusive, egomaniacal opera singer Lassparri in A Night at the Opera; or the House Committee on Un-American Activities (an outfit the Brothers abhorred). Groucho once said of a formerly disgraced president, “I think the only hope this country has is Nixon’s assassination,” and then only slightly walked it back later by issuing, “I deny everything, because I never tell the truth” (Kanfer 382). What in the name of holy Dumont would Groucho, Chico, and Harpo unleash on today’s swath of plundering pricks and cultural dinosaurs? To dream …

Trentino (right) with Chico and Harpo in Duck Soup (screenshot)

On New Year’s Day, Cambridge, Massachusetts’ Brattle Theater ran their annual – vital – mini-marathon of Marx Brothers films, including the slightly off-brand titles of Go West (1940) and Room Service (1938), along with stalwarts A Night at the Opera (1935) and A Day at the Races (1937). Although the Brothers’ mojo as a unit was beginning to wane after Races – a marked drop in sustained wit and energy that some attribute to producer and Marx guardian angel Irving Thalberg’s sudden death in 1936 – Go West offers a dynamic, key-shooting piano performance from Chico, and Room Service mingles in the visual Marx motif of doors and doorways. In fact, many of their films’ set pieces are built around doors and their innate inability to actually keep out, contain, or even impede any of the Brothers. It is, again, a sharp echo of the Brothers’ actual collective persona: as the stories go, when Thalberg once kept them waiting outside his office, they blew cigar smoke under the door until the producer contritely, suffocatingly, emerged. The final time Thalberg made the mistake of keeping them on the hook, they buttressed his office door with filing cabinets, trapping him inside for an hour. “Never again did the Marx Brothers cool their heels” on the other side of a door (Kanfer 191).

Film historian Allen Eyles observed of the Brothers: “There is a startling forcefulness and persuasiveness about the Marxes’ work – they are decisive and sure of themselves …” (199). The prevalence of door imagery, then, helps to cement the Brothers’ slippery, mostly good-hearted ethics and inalterable confidence. They barge in and slink out of doors and doorways, almost always with no knock, announcement, or declaration, their presence set to disrupt (when their arrivals are announced, as in the case of 1930’s Animal Crackers, for example, it’s with over-the-top pomp and reverie, an obvious parody). The Brothers don’t enter into sanctimonious class systems, organizational institutions, or drawing rooms to assimilate and enjoy the fruits of its privileges either; they gain access, enact a savage modus operandi that only they are privy to, and shred everything from clothes (mostly Harpo’s) to furniture to any remaining decorum. And, fundamentally, doors are an act of separation, a them-on-one-side, us-on-the-other-side scenario. The Marxes don’t abide, man.

Chico, Groucho, Harpo, and Margaret Dumont in Animal Crackers (Universal)

As a matter of a balanced cinema education, it’s commendable the Brattle’s programming would offer something from the Marx oeuvre other than the evergreen classics Crackers, Monkey Business (1931), and Duck Soup (1933); although understandable, it’s especially disappointing there’s no Horse Feathers (1932), probably the Brothers’ best film – it should be required viewing annually, not only as a study in escalating comedic tension, but as a still-relevant skewering of the dark, self-aggrandizing politics of higher education (and “I’m Against It” remains Groucho’s most emblematic, most casually nihilistic musical number).

Feathers revels in revolving door-capades, too: the “swordfish” scene, where Groucho’s Professor Wagstaff attempts to enter a speakeasy through Chico’s doorman Baravelli, ostensibly to find a couple of ringer football studs, but really to torch society’s hunger for secret passwords and coded social language, and blast open private clubs reserved for private sins. That Wagstaff and Baravelli switch sides of the doorway multiple times underlines the notion that the Brothers didn’t really trust each other. Later, Wagstaff invades the apartment of the college widow (was that really a thing?), played by a comedically lithe Thelma Todd, and nonsensically pleads with her to stop seeing his son (second to last role for brother Zeppo). In short order, Baravelli and Harpo’s Pinky will bust in at separate intervals, too, and the flat’s two art-deco doors never stop groaning on their hinges after that, increasing in intensity of slamming as the scene barrels on, punctuated by Pinky heaving blocks of ice out the window. The absurdity of these sequences could mean a hundred things, including nothing, but it makes the case that the Marxes were equipped to pass through a diversity of social sectors and lay waste, no matter the barrier. Indeed, when Baravelli and Pinky are locked in a room to prevent them from playing in the big game – and when they decide the door isn’t an option for escape – they create a doorway, albeit by sawing through the floor. By the time they’ve crashed down on a table in the flat below, populated by bridge-playing society wives, and scrambled out the building wearing the ladies’ fur stoles and frilly housecoats, it’s as if they’ve raided, cannibalized, and subsumed a couple of layers of stratified upper crust.

But what about the films actually screened for the Brattle’s first program of the new year? A Night at the Opera contains what is rightfully considered the epoch of these door allusions: the stateroom scene aboard the ocean liner to New York. Further proof of the Marxes’ empathy for the immigrant and working classes is evoked here, for with each opening of Otis B. Driftwood’s stateroom door, he allows in another member of the ship’s proletariat – a maid, a repairman, the maid’s partner, a manicurist (watch her face throughout the scene, it’s gold), the repairman’s assistant, and finally, the wait staff. When Mrs. Claypool (holy Margaret Dumont), who has needed Groucho’s Driftwood as entrée into the New York theater world, opens the stateroom door, it unleashes a phalanx of diversity. It’s a frenzy, but it’s also an inclusive jack-in-the-box, a tableau of the kind of citizenry the Marxes would frequently find themselves propped up by. Mrs. Claypool later berates him about associating with “riffraff,” yet another sign of disconnect between the status-starved ambitions and faux-philanthropic tendencies of the elite Establishment and the hopes of the cast-off classes to just simply matter (to paraphrase Saturday Night Live co-head writer Michael Che, although, admittedly, he wasn’t referring to Chico’s patently cartoonish Italian shibboleth).

Room Service is, by most measures, a stilted Marx affair (Groucho’s character is saddled with the weakest moniker of his career, Gordon Miller, with apologies to all other Gordon Millers). The door motif, though, is in full, uh … swing. From the opening credits, as animated doors flap open to reveal cartoon caricatures of the three leads, to the door of the White Way Hotel room number 920 that, in an inverse of the Marx as invader, will keep them in and all other barbarians behind the gate until the team can figure out how to get a backer for their play. Nearly all of the film’s running time takes place in the room and mostly the Brothers are fending off the blustery, opportunistic hotel chief Wagner (Donald MacBride, who blustered similarly in a string of Abbott and Costello films). And if a self-serving blowhard as the man-in-charge isn’t resonant enough for you, one of the film’s sub-storylines has Russian émigré waiter Sasha Smirnoff fervently courting producer Groucho for a role, one he ultimately gets and nails, bringing down the house with a passionate performance in the play within the film. The Marxes, self-identifying underdogs themselves, never shied away from letting the ethnic outsider triumph. And, okay, yes, while they were initially using Smirnoff to get food and never really intended to give him his part, the Brothers also know when to cede the spotlight and let the anarchy – and joy – they’ve fostered take hold of a crowd (see also the finales of Night at the Opera and Day at the Races).

Roy Blount, Jr., author of Hail, Hail, Euphoria, wrote of the Brothers, “[They were] defiant not just of war but of pacifism, of movies, of everything.” That independence, free of ideology, feels like a cautious antidote to contemporary politics. But if it’s true, that as a society we get the comedy act we deserve (that’s how that goes, right?), then where is our Groucho, Chico, and Harpo?

Works Cited

Kanfer, Stefan. Groucho: The Life and Times of Julius Henry Marx. New York: Knopf, 2000. Print.

Eyles, Allen. The Marx Brothers: Their World of Comedy. New York: A. S. Barnes, 1969. Print.

Blount, Roy. Hail, Hail, Euphoria! Presenting the Marx Brothers in Duck Soup, the Greatest War Movie Ever Made. New York: It Books, 2010. Print.