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The true story behind the downfall of the Marx brothers

Newcomers to the crazy world of Marx brothers should know that their earliest films for Paramount are mostly showcases for routines that the brothers had perfected in vaudeville. Camera, design and even direction take a back seat groucho, chicoAnd Harpo (And zepo, technically) say, sing and dance. The films deliver laughs, but with unremarkable and sometimes flawed technical support. Over time, the Marxs developed material for the screen, and the filmmakers around them continued to embrace the medium’s language and possibilities, building toward the spectacular cinematic Comedy sequences from duck soup. But the kind of careful and deliberate behind-the-scenes talent selection that one might expect from stars as big as the Marx Brothers wasn’t shown to them until they signed to MGM and Irving Thalberg.


During her lifetime, the Marx Brothers’ move to Hollywood’s Tiffany Studio was considered a coup. A night at the opera And A day at the races were her two top-grossing films at the box office and were considered by many to be her finest for a time. Groucho claimed they would remain so for the rest of his life. But as the Marx Brothers were rediscovered by young, countercultural audiences in the 1960s and ’70s, the standard partisan line in Marxist filmography began to change. duck soup was now her greatest achievement. A night at the opera earned some of its accolades, but the MGM Marx films were increasingly seen as a dead end. The studio and Thalberg took a gonzo troop of uncompromising comics and stripped them down to eccentric do-gooders in subpar musical “comedies” that flattered MGM’s “respectable” audience. And who would choose that over their grittier shenanigans at Paramount?

That has remained the conventional wisdom about the Marx Brothers among many classic film fans in the years since, and there is enough commentary on this effect on the color perception of their films by first-time viewers who are unaware of the reasons for the Marxes’ split from Paramount and style change. So what was behind the move, and did it lead to the brothers’ greatest triumph or the beginning of their decline?

The Marx Brothers left Paramount at a critical point in their film careers

Image via Paramount Pictures

The Marx Brothers came to Hollywood relatively late. The eldest, Chico, was over 40 when they did this The coconuts 1929; Zeppo, the youngest, was approaching 30. The brothers’ youth had been spent on the stage. In the often unforgiving world of vaudeville, they made their names and developed the personalities that fueled their comedy: Groucho’s mustachioed and bitter wit, Chico’s ethnic con, Harpo’s mischievous and silent clown, and Zeppo’s…well, he brought them to the Four Brothers he advertised . And when they started making films for Paramount, they kept their established theater experiences firmly in mind. The coconutsand 1930s Animal Crackers, were adaptations of Marx’s Broadway shows. Both of these films were shot in New York while the Marx’s were filming The coconuts At the same time, they performed the stage version of Animal Crackersand neither film was given much money or considered getting the plot on celluloid.

The films did well enough that Paramount brought the Marxs to Hollywood, where they got new writers and a little more flair in the filmmaking. Their scripts were now written for the screen, with some material borrowed or adapted from stage or radio routines. The comedy still had the same vein as Marx’s earlier work: a loose plot (sometimes very loose) the brothers threw at everyone, including each other. Their individual shticks and various storyline combinations showed no mercy in the search for laughs. Groucho, Chico and Harpo terrorized their fellow passengers on the ocean liner nonsense (Zeppo had a romance with the girl); They burned down Huxley College (literally in a lost scene) in the college parody. horse feathers; and send in the war picture duck soupevery aspect of war and statecraft, good and bad, was falsified.

All of these films have jump cuts, continuity errors, and narrative holes and dead ends (exacerbated for horse feathers through censorship over the years). They also have some of the best routines the Marx Brothers have ever done. This was the time they did the famous mirror scene which was later recreated i love lucy. It was when Groucho delivered such gems as “Remember, you are fighting for this woman’s honor, which is probably more than ever!” horse feathers incorporated the two best musical numbers for the team, “I’m Against It” and “Everyone Says I Love You”, the latter into the storyline in a way that gives all four brothers a turn.

Contrary to some reports, none of them were a box office flop. But they represented diminishing returns, and duck soup was met with a particularly hostile public reaction, given that it premiered in the depths of the Great Depression. When the comedy was not viewed as offensive in the current economic and political climate, it was viewed as a reprise of previous films. Production took place as the brothers and Paramount were negotiating a new contract. The Marx Brothers showed little more respect for authority in life than in character, and the Depression did not make Paramount superiors any more generous and kind. After duck soup was fired, a new studio boss came in who didn’t like the Marx Brothers. The feeling was mutual, and by 1933 the Marx Brothers were without a studio (and without a junior member; when their contract expired, Zeppo left).

Irving Thalberg introduced the Marx brothers to the structure

So there were the now three Marx Brothers, middle-aged and pre-depression without a studio contract. The critical and financial performance of duck soup left Groucho wondering if he’d be better off as a solo comedian. Harpo was pushed into a goodwill tour of Russia. And Chico played, and while playing he met Irving Thalberg.

Thalberg, Hollywood’s prodigy, was a studio executive for Universal in his 20s and ran MGM as executive producer in his 30s. He catered to the public’s tastes while continuing to indulge his own, kept a firm grip on the stars and directors of MGM and never gave credit to himself, even when personally producing a film. When he and Chico played cards together, he didn’t seek out the Marxs for his studio, but when Chico said he didn’t think he and his brothers were as done as the critics claimed, Thalberg agreed. “You have been mistreated,” he said.

Through Chico, Thalberg called the brothers together and explained his vision of film and comedy to him. As funny as the Marxes’ Paramount films are, they have too many jokes, he said. They came so fast that the audience missed one while laughing at another. And when a joke didn’t land, there was nothing in the ramshackle plot or the brothers’ hitherto indiscriminate clowning for an audience to cling to. The deal he offered the Marx’s? “You get me the laughs and I’ll get you the story.”

The kind of story Thalberg had in mind was likened to a soccer game. He wanted the home and opposing teams to be clear to the crowd and he wanted the view of the end zone to be unobstructed. And the most thrilling games to watch were those where the home side seemed destined to lose, only to turn things around with spectacular plays late in the fourth quarter. The established characters of Groucho, Chico, and Harpo could remain as they were, but they would now be a group of hapless characters who befriend a young couple in distress, are similarly harassed by the heavies, and then reunite in their darkest moment to fix things – with comedy, of course.

Did Thalberg’s structure help or hurt the Marx brothers?

Groucho Marx as Rufus T. Firefly in Duck Soup
Image via Paramount Pictures

Thalberg, never a sane man, only saw two Marx Brothers films go into production, A night at the opera And A day at the races (he died while the latter was in production). Like the later Paramount films, they have some of the brothers’ most popular material. A night at the opera has the “sanity clause”, the cabin scene and a rough finale. A day at the races lets the trio subjugate their long-suffering widow Margaret Dumont to a ridiculous medical exam. As mentioned above, they made MGM a lot of money. But the three Marx films the studio produced after Thalberg’s death, all of which recycled to some extent the screenplay he developed, represented another series of diminishing returns, and this time it wasn’t just because the films didn’t kept up they weren’t good.

Is this proof that Thalberg’s instincts were wrong for the Marx Brothers, that they just got lucky the first two times? According to this logic Steven Spielberg is to blame for every horrible shark movie made after that Jaw. But there’s little point in blaming a talented filmmaker when second-rate imitators execute their ideas poorly. The Marx Brothers’ screen decline had more to do with a lack of enthusiasm But Thalberg had for her at MGM. The Marxs, who got on well with their producer, felt their enthusiasm for films wane after his death. Even without a champion, the brothers showed their age in their films in the 1930s.

Whether Thalberg’s dealings with the Marx Brothers were creative confused – well, that’s a matter of taste, isn’t it? I compare the split between the Paramount and Thalberg MGM images in the Marx filmography to the difference between Bob Clampetts Looney Tunes cartoons and those of Chuck Jones. They both made funny animated shorts, they both worked with Daffy Duck and Bugs Bunny (who was partially modeled on Groucho Marx), but their approach to comedy was quite different.

Like the Paramount Marx films, Clampett enjoyed anarchy. His cartoons are wild, thinly plotted, rapid-fire in their wit and random in their goals. Jones was more like Thalberg. He relied on structure and pattern, he was more likely to give his films a point (even if it was a silly point), and he always made sure at least Bugs was the hip party by using his comic gifts as a weapon against bullies and show-offs.

You can find plenty of disagreement over whether Clampett and Jones’ cartoons are better (fueled by their own rivalry), but few would argue that either’s work can’t be funny. Yours are among the most popular and influential of the Looney Tunes Short films that continue to shape their reputation and perception among audiences to this day. Personally, I lean more towards Jones (and A night at the opera over one of the Paramount Marx films), but that doesn’t make the Clampett cartoons “fake” or unfunny.

It’s best to treat the studio split with the Marx Brothers the same way. If the pendulum has swung in favor of the Paramount films, that shouldn’t color perceptions of Thalberg’s work with the brothers as a mistake or an aberration.

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