- The Marx Brothers as Social Critics: Satire and Comic Nihilism in Their Films by Martin A. Gardner
My first Marx Brothers movie was A Night in Casablanca (1946). I shall never forget the opening scene, in which Harpo is leaning against a wall next to a building. When a police officer sarcastically asks if he is holding up the building, Harpo nods. As soon as the officer orders him to move on, the building collapses. I laughed out loud at the absurdity of it, little knowing that “absurd” would soon acquire a specialized meaning including such incongruities as sight gags. I finally understood the “incongruous” when years later, I caught up with A Night at the Opera 1935), in which a seemingly endless number of people pile into a stateroom intended for one. Impossible, improbable, but brilliant—everything we wanted from this peerless trio.
Typical of Gardner’s meticulous scholarship and close analysis is his ability to trace a line of dialogue to the film that inspired it. In A Night in Casablanca a performer asks Groucho if he would like to hear her sing. His reply, “You don’t have to sing. Just whistle,” was a sly reference to Lauren Bacall’s invitation to Humphrey Bogart in To Have and Have Not (1944): “You know how to whistle….You just put your lips together and blow.” If Gardner had succeeded in doing nothing but acknowledge the genius of the screenwriters, especially George S. Kaufman, Morrie Ryskind, and S. J. Perelman, who invested the scripts with delicious word play and topicality, his book would not have been in vain. But it contains much more.
In the world of the Marx Brothers, nothing is sacred, except perhaps the Great Depression, reduced to quips like “the stockholder of yesterday is the stowaway of today” (A Night at the Opera) and “I’ve worked my way up out of nothing to extreme poverty” (Horse Feathers ). But everything else is grist for the mill of satire, even the playwright Eugene O’Neill, whose interior monologues in Strange Interlude are spoofed in the scene in Animal Crackers (1930) when Groucho claims he is having a “strange interlude” and delivers a soliloquy. The brothers were downright irreverent in sending up the Florida real estate craze of the 1920s in The Cocoanuts (1929). When Duck Soup (1933) opened in the worst year of the Great Depression, the year in which Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected president and Adolf Hitler, chancellor of Germany, the possibility of another world war was nothing audiences cared to contemplate. In the film, Groucho as president of the mythical Fredonia declares war on Sylvania. When the Sylvanian ambassador, like President Wilson in 1916, admits that he will do anything to stay out of a war, Groucho complains, “I’ve already paid a month’s rent on the battlefield.” Small wonder that many moviegoers were incensed by the film. Supposedly, World War I was the war to end wars.
Satire, if it cuts too close, can generate anger. Greek theatergoers were probably angered by Aristophanes, whom the brothers most resemble. Aristophanes did not [End Page 213] flinch from satirizing anything that merited it, from demagoguery (The Knights) to educational innovation (The Clouds), and skewering such icons as Socrates (The Clouds) and Euripides (The Frogs). The ancients distinguished between two forms of satire, epitomized by their two greatest satirists, Horace and Juvenal: the genial and urbane (Horatian), and the vitriolic and unsparing (Juvenalian). The Marx Brothers represent the Horatian brand. They offend and mend, as all great comic artists do, but any wounds they inflict are minor, healed by the soothing balm of art.