The World Turned Upside Down

The Marx Brothers’ comedy is driven and gentle and chaotic and anarchic, and somehow bawdy and wholesome at the same time. It’s also all about the American Dream.

I’m always on the lookout for DVDs for the kids and me, and it’s always old comedies. It seems every car wash in Southern California has displays at the register of Abbott and Costello, the Marx Brothers, the Three Stooges and Laurel and Hardy for $1.98. (So quintessentially American that the most prosaic places have become our libraries of Alexandria.) We take them home, pop them in and howl like maniacs. There’s plenty of fine things made today, but for plain, old head-back cackling and sofa slapping, you just cannot beat Moe hitting Larry with a shovel or Bud trying to explain something to Lou or Oliver Hardy looking straight into the camera imploring us to understand what he has to endure.

The Fantastic Four: Zeppo, Chico, Groucho and Harpo Marx

Well, all great comedians are funny (and all funny ones are great), but the ones whose humor challenges and prods as it tickles are the Marx Brothers. I have laughed a lot in my life, but most of the really big laughs, the out loud ones, came from them. One is from “A Night at the Opera” (1935), when everyone tumbles out of that stateroom in slightly sped-up motion. Another is from “A Day at the Races” (1937), when Chico successfully sells Groucho a preposterous armload of telephone book-sized racing “manuals.”

The gold-medal winner, though, just might be—no, has to be—the entire peanut scene from “Duck Soup” (1933), where Harpo and Chico torment a lemonade seller played by the wonderfully reliable Edgar Kennedy. There must be five or 10 (or 20 or a hundred; I don’t know and can’t stop laughing to count) huge laughs in that scene, on their own and together, and they build and build on each other. But get this: The entire scene and every joke in it gets me every time, start to finish. Think about that. Every laugh, every moment, every look, every line: every time.

You may tell me that certain things are very difficult to do in life, like open heart surgery or negotiating a treaty with horrible people, or trying to remember anything you’ve just seen on the History Channel. And all of these things are certainly not easy. But making people of all ages and backgrounds laugh to the bottom of their souls for 80 years with a product as fresh as the day it came out? Pretty difficult, no?

Margaret Dumont and Groucho listening for intruders just before the mirror scene.

Here’s something else that’s not so easy to do: Write about their comedy in a way that’s fresh and funny and important on its own. Well, that’s what Roy Blount Jr. has done with his new book.

But wait, you’re trying to remember the plot of the “Duck Soup”: Two countries decide to go to war . . . and it’s very funny. Now, back to our author.

I’m serious, that’s all you need to know about the movie, or at least all I can tell you. I must have seen the thing 30 times, and I still have no idea what it’s about.

This may be the greatest virtue of the Marx Brothers, that the only thing you ever need to know about them is: Just see the thing. Most of us go through life overthinking hamburgers or pretty girls or bad people; the Marx Brothers eat them, kiss them and befuddle them. (Come to think of it, that is the plot of “Duck Soup.”)

Besides, every Marx Brothers movie has essentially the same plot and theme anyway, one that I personally find very appealing: Good-looking, slender WASPs try to run the world and short, Jewish men turn it upside down.

The Marx Brothers were three (or four, or five; or six if you count Minnie, their mom) throbbing ids, and they would never have explained themselves, because they didn’t need to. But we need them to, and we want them to, and so Roy Blount has done it. For all of us.


Larry’s Five Lost Comedy Gems

Well, they’re not exactly lost, but there are five of them, and they’re gems.

The Road to Morocco (1942) Bob Hope and Bing Crosby’s “Road” movies are always fun, and this one is terrific times two. This was made when Hollywood took comedies seriously enough to nominate them for Oscars. As a team, Hope and Crosby are smooth and silly in everything they do (though it’s nearly impossible to imagine now, but these guys were hip.)

Buck Privates (1941) Abbott and Costello are a lesson in rhythm every time they open their mouths. Two naturals who found something beautiful together. “Buck Privates” was a B movie on double features made for nothing, given almost free to theater owners to toss on while people went to the bathroom. They came back and started laughing. So will you.

The Inspector General (1949) People don’t talk much about Danny Kaye these days—what a shame. One of the biggest bundles of talent ever to stroll into Hollywood, he was like a baseball player who hits .300 with 40 homers and 40 stolen bases, a 150 RBIs and a Golden Glove as well. And sings. This movie is just dandy, and sports a cast of the best supporters in town: Gene Lockhart, Elsa Lanchester, Alan Hale, Rhys Williams and the magnificent Walter Slezak.

My Little Chickadee (1940) Anyone who talks about American Comedy (and American eccentrics) without mentioning W. C. Fields is just not taking the whole thing seriously. And speaking of American originals, has anyone ever been smarter or more specific in her branding than Mae West? These two together kill me. There’s never been more preposterous acting together in one story than here.

The Quiet Man (1952) : I know, I know, I can hear brakes squealing all across America: “That’s not a comedy!” Hear me out. John Ford is the greatest storyteller in movie history—then, now and forever—and he always put humor into his pictures. A lot. If you aren’t smiling and laughing all the way through this love song to Ireland, you’re just not alive. Remember Barry Fitzgerald walking into what he thinks is John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara’s honeymoon room and seeing the bed collapsed (for a different reason)? He mutters, “Impetuous . . . Homeric . . .” It’s the smartest, wittiest joke I’ve ever heard.

A personal happy moment: I was on a flight a few years ago and saw Maureen O’Hara sitting there. I walked, kneeled down, and when she turned I said, “Mary Kate Danaher, you’re still the prettiest girl in all of Mayo.” If I live another thousand years I don’t expect to see a better smile.

-Larry Miller


I like to think I know a little about the Marx Brothers and 20th-century American comedy, but I have never thought about them the way Mr. Blount does, and this new book of his, “Hail, Hail, Euphoria: Presenting the Marx Brothers in Duck Soup, the Greatest War Movie Ever Made” (a title just slightly shorter than the book itself), is a good deal more than just an analysis of a great American movie. He guides us, like Boone through the Cumberland Gap, to our own land, already settled but brand new just the same, taking us backward to see forward. This leaves even a fan like me slightly open-mouthed with respect.

Mr. Blount mixes the story of the Marxes with the story of the movie, and it becomes the story of America. The brothers were driven and gentle and chaotic and anarchic, and somehow both bawdy and wholesome at the same time. And isn’t that exactly what we all are? Julius (Groucho) and his siblings may have had the hardest-of-scrabble youths, but the only people they ever look to tear down are the pompous, not the rich. Think about it: In all their movies they don’t want to kill the rich, they want to marry them—or at least co-opt or become them. That’s what we used to call The American Dream: Tear down the windbags of every generation until you become a windbag yourself, and the next generation tears you down.

Mr. Blount describes and analyzes the peanut scene, for instance, in exact, beat-by-beat detail, and not only doesn’t suck the wind out of it, but puts it on a pillow and wraps it in a ribbon: It made the scene better for me than it’s ever been.

The only place we part company is his disdain for the slightly knuckleheaded love stories he feels are always square-pegged into Marx Brothers movies, something he notes when his discussion ranges beyond “Duck Soup” to others in their egg. (I’m tired of saying “oeuvre,” and I just stopped now. So there.) Anyway, I love the love stories and am perfectly prepared to be called a dope for it. I adore Alan Jones and Kitty Carlisle in “A Night at the Opera,” for example, and even when she pronounces “debut” like Madame DuBarry, she can do no wrong. Love, in the end, really does make the world go ’round, even with a family of lunatics honking at it.

The Whole Gang: The brothers in a promotional shot for ‘Duck Soup.’

Little matter; Mr. Blount and I agree on everything else, and “Hail, Hail, Euphoria” is the most lyrical, insightful, scholarly, illuminating and celebratory 144 pages I’ve ever sat down with. This book is a stream of fun—there are no chapters, you just start reading, stop when the need arises to mix another restorative, and wherever you stopped was somehow . . . correct.

I never tire of great Hollywood stories. Somehow just hearing about Maureen O’Sullivan agreeing to meet a besotted Groucho for lunch and then being puzzled that he couldn’t stop cracking jokes is an insight into the man like no other. Plus, Mr. Blount periodically finds an idea so big it makes me lean back, exhale and mutter out loud, “Wow, pal. Wow.” He notes, for instance, while discussing the ways of their usual director, Leo McCarey (one of the great American storytellers), the extent of comedy’s Jewish-Irish collaboration in and around the Marx Brothers’ time in business, creativity and romance: Ted Healy and the Stooges, Abbott and Costello, Stiller and Meara, Edgar Kennedy and our boys in that peanut scene, are just a few that he brought to mind. (How ironic in our unfinished march from pluribus to unum that the greatest Irish Catholic beauties of Hollywood in those days, like O’Sullivan and Grace Kelly, affected accents exactly like the young girl who hadn’t yet become Queen Elizabeth.)

Oddly enough, the greatest moment in a book filled with great moments may just be a pun that almost knocked me off my chair. It’s so good I can’t bring myself to take the air out of it by telling you. In a just world he would get paid for that alone. (It’s on page 90, and the origin is Shakespeare.) I know he loves it, too, because he pauses to mention it again. I would’ve done the same thing.

That “Hail, Hail, Euphoria” is so good did not come to me as a surprise. I first became aware of Mr. Blount and his pen when I was in the throes of adolescent sexuality. (No, not last week, the first time around.) I don’t think he’d mind, but my first respect for him had nothing to do with his writing, at least not directly. Steve Atlas and Jimmy Kaufman and I would gather behind the garage and pore over Steve’s dad’s old Playboys, like lost soldiers poring over maps in the hedgerows after D-Day. About every other woman (or every other issue) were the words: “Roy Blount Jr., Humorist.” I was a credulous kid, or maybe just an idiot, but I clearly remember thinking, “This guy must know these women. And, they hired him to be funny.” “Roy Blount Jr., Humorist.” If the president of the United States strolled up behind us and said howdy I couldn’t have been more impressed. (Maybe if it was Andrew Jackson—I always wondered how you can have that much hair and still need to drink.) And what in the world was a humorist? Near as I could figure, it was a non-Jewish comedian.

I know what it is now: someone smart enough and funny enough to teach as he entertains. We’re all busy, but give yourself a gift: Rent or buy “Duck Soup” and watch it. Then read this book. Then watch the movie again. Lather, rinse, repeat. Roy Blount Jr. has plenty to show you about what made your country. Come on, you’re never going to get to that new Washington biography anyway, are you?

Mr. Miller is an actor, writer and comedian living in Los Angeles.


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