The Marx Brothers as Guardian Angels of Young Lovers in Jeopardy–Part 1

Harpo! When did you seem like an angel the last time? And played the grey harp of gold?

-Jack Kerouac, ”To Harpo Marx”

Are the Marx Brothers believable guardian angels? It may be difficult to conceive of Groucho, Chico, and Harpo Marx playing winged agents of the Almighty, but they were indeed cast as heavenly mediators in The Deputy Seraph (1959), an unfinished pilot that might have become a television series had Chico’s real life deteriorating health not halted the production. The surviving fifteen minutes of the pilot shows the three aging comics standing on a cloudy “Heaven” set playing supernatural variants of their classic personas. While the production values are poor, the bizarre footage boasts some clever sight gags, including Harpo munching on his own halo as if it were a hamburger and Groucho riding a motorcycle through the stars. The fantasy concept, complete with cartoon Christian imagery, might seem like a poor fit for the trio, and could easily inspire the reaction, “What were they [the brothers, the writers, etc.] thinking?” In fact, I must admit that I was somewhat taken aback myself when I first saw The Deputy Seraph rushes as a young adult. (I certainly didn’t know what to make of Angel Chico, still wearing that commedia dell’arte hat in Heaven.) But then I remembered how often the comedians behaved like bizarre guardian angels in many of their films, usually taking extreme measures to protect young engaged couples from gangsters, creditors, and annoying future in-laws. Sometimes the Marx Brothers seemed to have ulterior motives for assisting the young couples, while other times they appeared to be acting purely out of a selfless desire to help. Their generous spirit gave them a larger-than­life-quality that certainly impressed me as a child.

I remember that, when I was first introduced to their films at roughly the age of ten, my superhero-obsessed mind had no difficulty placing the threesome in the category of zany do-gooders who were always there when they were needed. I saw Groucho, Harpo, and Chico as fairy godfathers who humbled arrogant aristocrats, outwitted gangsters and cops, and helped broke young lovers raise the money they needed to get married. A Night at the Opera (1935) and A Day at the Races (1937) were particular favorites of mine, and I believed that the reason Harpo was able to perform magical tricks in those films—such as “running” up a stage backdrop to avoid the police—was because he was fighting on the side of justice, so God granted him special abilities to emerge victorious over the likes of Sig Ruman and Douglas Dumbrille.

Of course, in addition to mentally associating the Marx Brothers with angels, I was also associating Guardian Angels with the Greek god of erotic love, thanks to my familiarity with reprinted Renaissance artwork that depicted angels as “pudgy infants” modeled after Cupid. I don’t wish to push my boyhood view of the Marx Brothers as angels too far—especially since I must admit to having been fooled into thinking they were Italian when I was young, and even went as far as claim them as a source of ethnic pride. However, I do think that my naive interpretation of the Brothers Marx as guardian angels of young couples in trouble suggests a legitimate view of their characters that was seized upon and developed by The Deputy Seraph‘s production team. After all, despite their anarchic spirit and cynical one-liners, there is a warm-hearted and egalitarian quality to the Marx Brothers’ humor that can be traced all the way back to their first two Paramount pictures, The Cocoanuts (1929) and Animal Crackers (1930), if not to their earliest vaudeville acts. In fact, by introducing the romantic leads and subplots that paved the way for the brothers’ eventual transformation into guardian angels, these early films establish a precedent that justifies producer Irving Thalberg’s decision to emphasize their more altruistic character traits in their first two MGM pictures, A Night at the Opera and A Day at the Races.

While it is regrettably true that the producers who succeeded Thalberg after his death were not as skilled at making the more selfless versions of the classic Marx Brothers characters interesting and believable on screen, I would argue that the problems with the later films have more to do with the scripts and the directing than with the Marx Brothers “going soft” or “getting too sentimental.” Furthermore, Go West (1940), Room Service (1938), and At the Circus (1939) aside, I feel that the romantic leads themselves are often quite interesting characters that deserve a measure of critical attention themselves, especially if Allan Jones and Maureen O’Sullivan play the roles. Therefore, I intend to employ reader-response theory to focus my critical attention on the young lovers-their problems, their characterizations, and their ability to evoke audience sympathy, as well as to explore the various motivations that the films assign the Marx Brothers in coming to their aid, be those motivations selfish, selfless, supernatural, or bizarrely unexplained.

Attractive young male and female leads who play characters that are in love with one another but too broke to marry round out the supporting cast of every Marx Brothers film save three – Monkey Business (1931), Horse Feathers (1932), and Duck Soup (1933). In most cases, these young lovers want desperately to get married but their union is threatened by opposition from three formidable sources: a rich mother who has cut off their allowance, a criminal who plots to steal the deed to their land and business, and an entrenched establishment that doesn’t grant fame or success to poor newcomers.

In many of the films, the wealthy, disapproving mother figure (usually Margaret Dumont) is angered that her child has chosen to marry someone without good blood or a substantial fortune, and she will not pretend to support the marriage by giving her child any more of her money to live on. In At the Circus, the male lead is the one in danger of losing his inheritance, while in The Cocoanuts and Animal Crackers it is the woman. The young lovers also frequently face opposition from a criminal element that is trying to steal their land or business away from them, thereby crippling them financially and endangering their domestic stability, as in Go West, A Day at the Races (1937), and The Cocoanuts. Finally, at least one of the lovers (usually the male), has an undiscovered and unappreciated talent in the arts that can be parleyed into a successful career, if only a wealthy patron would deign to offer the struggling artist a break. (In The Cocoanuts that talent is architectural design, in Animal Crackers it is painting, and in A Night at the Opera (1935) it is singing.)

In each film, the young lovers can make only so much progress on their own behalf before circumstances are so aligned against them that they crumble. They often win audience sympathy by taking dramatic stands against Dumont, punching out leering gangsters, and showing off their impressive singing talents, but these efforts, on their own, are not enough to pay overdue bills or win over cold hearts. However, the Marx Brothers bring an element of the unexpected to the forefront that causes a reversal of fortune for the young lovers in the end. For example, Groucho often seeks to win the heart of the Dumont character, softening her up enough to get her to relent and restore her child’s allowance. Chico and Harpo are willing to kidnap, coerce, and steal to get society bigwigs to finally grant the young lovers an audience to determine that the kids can indeed sing/paint/landscape.  (That audience invariably ends with the bigwig realizing that he’s been a blind fool and should have offered the young protégé a commission in the first place.) Finally, the thieves, gangsters, and Nazis who seek to ruin the financial security and reputations of the lovers prove to be no match for the slapstick of the Marx Brothers, and they are left in an unconscious heap for the police to collect in the end.

Variations of the subplots and themes examined above can be found in most of the Marx Brothers films, but it isn’t immediately clear why these characters recur so often. Indeed, there has been some debate about the role of the “serious” romantic subplot in the Marx Brothers films. Most often it is seen as a boring intrusion forced upon the Marx Brothers’ fans by misguided studio executives and marketing committees of the time who hoped to broaden the brothers’ appeal with women. Consequently, viewers of today may justifiably skip past all the scenes involving the young lovers while watching the DVD. Another possibility is that young lovers serve a legitimate artistic purpose in the films, such as providing—along with the establishment villains and the stuffy Margaret Dumont character—a    necessary “real-world” stability that contrasts nicely with the Marx’s anarchic spirit. In a similar vein, the young lovers can serve as an inversion of the “comic relief ‘ notion in the tragedy genre—a “serious relief” from the Marx’s wackiness. Whatever the justification for the presence of the young lovers, they appear in ten of the thirteen Marx Brothers films (The Cocoanuts, Animal Crackers, A Night at the Opera, A Day at the Races, Room Service, At the Circus, Go West, The Big Store, A Night In Casablanca, and Love Happy). Once the young lovers become part of the story, they need to be dealt with by anyone who is unwilling to fast­forward through their scenes, or who chafes at the fact that the lovers, instead of the Marx Brothers, are onscreen during the fade-out at the end of The Cocoanuts. So why are the young lovers in the films at all? How does the script justify their presence, and the Marxes’ involvement in their fate? Is it because, as I have argued above, the Marx Brothers are guardian angels of a kind?

Sometimes that is the case, but not always.

Of all of the films, Love Happy (1949) and Go West come closest to overtly stating that the three men are indeed guardian angels of a kind. In Go West, Groucho proclaims himself and his two silly cohorts “Miracle Men,” while in Love Happy Harpo and Chico show off genuine (and unexplained) supernatural powers. In other films, each of the three brothers seems to have a different motivation for coming to the aid of the beleaguered betrothed. These varying motivations help to differentiate and redefine each of the Marx Brothers in the post-Duck Soup phase of his career, and provide Chico in particular with a dramatically different character than he played in the Paramount films. A selfish con-artist and pun master with learning disabilities in the Paramount films, Chico unexpectedly transforms into the soul of loyalty and generosity in A Night at the Opera, and he retains this softer characterization throughout the rest of his film career. Whether he is called Ravelli, Binelli, or Pirelli, Chico is invariably the Marx Brother who begins a given film with the closest emotional connection to the young lovers—especially to the young man, whom Chico either works for or grew up with in the same ghetto in Italy/Brooklyn. Chico’s shady past is acknowledged through his adeptness at conning the villains (and sometimes Groucho) out of money on behalf of his handsome, troubled friend, but he has qualms with stealing directly. Significantly, Chico’s character acts as a conscience for Groucho and Harpo, who sometimes are having too much fun to realize that they are sometimes inadvertently causing the young lovers as much trouble as the villains. Chico is also the voice of the narrator, and his job is usually to explain the plot to Harpo, or remind the audience what is at stake after a long string of comic sketches have just finished (during which time the lovers have been off-screen) and it is time to jump-start the stalled storyline. This role for Chico works beautifully in A Day at the Races, where Chico’s affection for both Gil (Allan Jones) and Judy (Maureen O’Sullivan) is totally believable and adds great heart to the film thanks to his pitch-perfect performance. On the other hand, this more gallant version of Chico’s con-artist character doesn’t work at all in films like Go West, At the Circus, or A Night in Casablanca, where—thanks to a combination of poor writing, editing, and directing –it isn’t clear how “Chico” met the young lovers in the first place or why he takes any interest in them at all.

Harpo’s motivations in helping the young lovers are not often as spelled out as Chico’s. Sometimes Harpo seems to be helping the couple simply because Chico likes them, and Harpo is drafted into the effort to help them because he’s friends with (or a brother to) Chico’s character. At other times, Harpo seems smitten by the troubled young lady in question, and wants to see her wipe away her tears and smile at him (as in his very touching scene with Mary Eaton in The Cocoanuts). Perhaps, most often, Harpo is motivated by the idea that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” since Harpo often has reasons of his own to dislike the villains in each film. (For example, he may happily kidnap Lassparri in A Night at the Opera because Lassparri used to beat him up, not just because Lassparri happens to be making life difficult for the heroic couple.) It is also important to note that the Puckish Harpo is frequently an agent of chaos for its own sake, and his pranks sometimes get the young lovers into deeper trouble than they were in before. After all, Harpo is the one who loses a real estate deed the lovers need desperately in Go West, and he inadvertently gets Annette thrown in jail in A Night in Casablanca (1946). Still, he always feels guilty enough to undo the damage he caused, and solve the rest of their problems in addition by the end of the film. This destructive tendency of Harpo’s aside, he is often portrayed on film as the “cutest” and most affectionate of the three brothers. For example, Harpo is often accompanied by exotic pet animals or little children, and he is the most likely to make friends with marginalized peoples, such as Native and African­Americans. In fact, these (troublingly stereotyped) figures are the ones who are fastest to see past Harpo’s hobo-exterior into the magical power within, as in A Day at the Races, when the black characters identify him in song as the musical Archangel Gabriel, and in Go West when the Indian chief pronounces him a true “medicine man.” In addition, a musical number in At the Circus dubs Harpo “Swingali,” a name that declares him a Svengali-like master of swing, and applies still more supernatural symbolism to Harpo. Whether or not Harpo is an angel in these early films, there is always more to him than meets the eye. He is like the can of sardines with stolen diamonds bidden inside it featured in Love Happy. Only the wisest or warmest characters can see the beauty within him, and they are the ones who Harpo is most likely to go out of his way to help.

Of the three brothers, it is perhaps hardest to see Groucho in the mold of guardian angel because his one-liners are so uniformly scornful. However, some of the films are quite good at hinting there is a sentimentalist hidden beneath his prickly exterior. If Chico is most often moved to help the young couple in question out of loyalty to the man, Groucho is more often motivated by attraction to the woman. Since the readily apparent age-difference makes a romance between the middle-aged Groucho and the ingénue unlikely, he does not do much beyond flirt gently with the young woman, perhaps give her a puppy dog look, and then he tries to secure her happiness by arranging a marriage between her and her true love. Once again, this characterization of Groucho is most successful in A Day at the Races, probably because Groucho was apparently attracted to Maureen O’Sullivan in real life, and his genuine attraction to her can be seen in brief but important moments on screen. This attraction is what makes it believable when his Dr. Hackenbush considers confessing that he is a fraud to O’Sullivan’s Judy Standish, and when he risks being arrested by staying at her side when he should be running for the hills. When Dr. Hackenbush says to Judy, “For you, I’d make love to a crocodile,” he means it.

Published with the permission of Cambridge Scholars Publishing

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Marc DiPaolo is associate professor of English and film at Oklahoma City University. He wrote War, Politics and Superheroes (2011) and Emma Adapted (2007). He is editor of Godly Heretics and Unruly Catholics from Dante to Madonna, and coeditor (with Bryan Cardinale-Powell) of Devised and Directed by Mike Leigh (all 2013). His personal web site is here.

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1 Comment

  1. Ian Thal says:

    It’s interesting that you mention Commedia dell’Arte in passing but don’t seize on the fact that the Marx Brothers are behaving exactly like the zanni characters of the commedia, in that they are generally marginal characters who function both to insert chaos into an otherwise mundane story and then to help the lovers get together in the end after everything has been shaken to their foundations.

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