A century after Groucho, Chico and Harpo gave American Comedy some legitimate teeth with their anarchic blend of wordplay and eternal flaunting of authority, their films remain just as funny- and just as edgy- as ever. Animal Crackers, their second sound feature, is about as great as any entry point into that oeuvre.
Full of memorable one-liners, Animal Crackers lays down as simple a plot as possible in order to fill the movie with as many gags as possible. Even the obligatory musical numbers are excuses for jokes- Groucho mocking Chico’s repetitive piano playing, or their most famous song, “Hooray for Captain Spaulding,” which ridicules the overblown endings most Hollywood musical numbers always have. These musical bits are infinitely more fun to watch than the Bros’ later, big-budget films where the studio forced them to insert dull, crowd-pleasing musical numbers without a hint of irony.
But the best stuff has to be seen, not read: Chico asking Harpo for a flash and getting an infinite number of visual puns instead: a flush, a flask, a fish… the timing is just brilliant. No need for editing when these vaudeville-trained comics nail the gags in a single take- the Marx Bros, like Chaplin and other comics of their era- have chops modern comics just don’t quite nail. Even when they screw up, they make it work: in one scene, Groucho’s Captain Spaulding is chatting with Roscoe Chandler (played by Louis Sorin.) Sorin screws up and calls Spaulding Chandler- clearly not part of the routine. But Groucho plays off the mistake so well, ad libbing more one-liners that they left the scene in the film as is.
It’s probably worth noting the material that doesn’t age quite as well in today’s climate- namely, the African stereotypes that come with Groucho’s “great African Explorer” character. “Africa is God’s country- and he can have it” is meant as a silly, innocuous one-liner, but showcasing the only Black people in the film as natives all painted up probably requires a trigger warning these days. Equally offensive in the 21st Century is Harpo’s entire woman-chasing persona, as he literally and aggressively runs after any and all women he can find without even a hint of self-restraint. His unabashed libido is still hilarious today, even though we “know better.”
But it’s their complete disregard for social conventions and authority that makes the Marx Brothers an essential part of American Culture. In a climate where the pressure to conform remains incessant and oppressive, their stubborn commitment to complete anarchy is the kind of thing we should be raising our kids with. If there are any rules in their universe, it’s simply that the gag is supreme, and everything else- no matter precious it may seem- is secondary.
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