Sunday, September 22, 2013

Groucho & Co

Mr. and Mrs. Buce have this bud: he's our age, but the poor dear lived a deprived childhood in that he grew up on a ranch and thus did not share our culture of movies.  With the aid of Netflix, we've taken it upon ourselves to rectify this deficiency.  Our latest offering was the Marx Brothers' Night at the Opera, which either is or is not the best of the Marx  brothers 30s spectaculars.  Guest and hosts  at Chez Byce pronounced themselves well satisfied on what was, for me at least, a repeat viewing.  "Repeat," in the respect that I first saw it at the age of about 15 at the Palace Theater in Manchester NH, when I sat gobsmacked and breathless before its irreverent charms.  I should have thought I had seen it a number of times since, though on reflection, perhaps not since my own kid was close to the same age a generation ago.

All of which is by way of saying that I saw things this time that I'd never seen before.  Specifically: how much Marx brothers humor depends on vaudeville schtick, the kind of stuff the brothers would have worked up over an eternity of stomping, hoofing, arm-flapping and suchlike in charmless public venues in nameless and forgettable locales.  I take it from reading some background that this would be the least schticky of the great Marx brothers films--the one Irving Thalberg tried to turn into a musical.  Actually for my money, the musical stuff ain't all that bad: you almost need it as a kind of anti-comic relief.  But it is the vaudeville that comes roaring through.

And another: I suppose no kid would grasp this, but as an old guy I am stunned at how polished these guys are as performers.  Of course this has to be true: stuff this funny can't just happen, no matter how much natural ability lies beneath.

Which brings me to a slightly different point.  Mrs. Buce remarked on how, of the three, Grouch seemed the least memorable, even the least original.  If you knew here, you might not be surprised: she is no fan of smartmouth humor anywhere, and Groucho's style is one just designed to grate on some people. Fine, tastes differ.  But a different point is that Groucho is bound to sound less startling today than he did 60-plus years ago precisely because he has become so march part of the culture.   "and Mrs. Claypool's checks will probably come back in the morning"--now, that was funny the first time you heard it.  "Of course you know this means war!"--that was hilarious.  But they aren't at all clever any more: we all say them all the time.  And the reason they aren't all that clever is that Groucho taught us how to make them into common parlance. By contrast Chico and Harpo depend on a mix of character and physicality that was perhaps a bit less memorable at the time and so less forgettable today.

Next up, Alec Guiness, an Ealing Comedy.  We haven't made the final selection yet.  Mrs. B votes for Lavender Hill Mob, which I suppose is the most famous.  But I still favor the gnarlier, nastier Ladykillers, though definitely without Tom Hanks.


low-tech cyclist said...

As a nearly lifelong Marx Brothers fan, I find A Night at the Opera to be harder to watch as time goes by, because all the crap that Thalberg put in to appeal to the housewives of America ca. 1935 is barely tolerable to my sensibility.

The parts that are good are very, very good (e.g. the opening scene, the contract routine - you can't fool me, there ain't no Sanity Clause! - and the stateroom scene), but IMHO you might as well just fast-forward through the rest of the movie.

And even those parts...Thalberg didn't know what to do with Harpo, and was on his way to making Groucho and Chico one-dimensional, a task he completed during the making of A Day at the Races, even if he died while making it.

All of the three Paramount movies (Monkey Business, Horsefeathers, and especially Duck Soup) are better than A Night at the Opera.

Wayne Kernochan said...

Oh,come on. You can do better than LHM and even Ladykillers. There's Kind Hearts and Coronets; who could forget his extolling of the "Late Early Perpendicular"? But the most subtly great is Man In The White Suit, with that burbly machine music, spot-on representation of all sides, the honeyed tones of Greenwood, and above all Alec's absolute inhabiting of the obsessed scientist. And that ending ...

Anonymous said...

No contest. "Passport to Pimlico."