Marxism = Anarchy

Zeppo takes notes for Groucho in "Duck Soup."

Zeppo takes notes for Groucho in “Duck Soup.”

Among the classic silver screen comedy teams there are many greats. Laurel and Hardy, Abbott and Costello, Hope and Crosby, the Three Stooges, and so on all have very special places in my heart, however, there is one team who has, for me, always stood out. I speak of the Marx Brothers. With their quick wit, innovative style, musical talent, and anarchic irreverence, the Marx Brothers have more than earned their places in cinema history. They were a unique blend ripped straight from vaudeville and their powers were only sharpened on the big screen.

Harpo, Zeppo, Chico, and Groucho stowing away in "Monkey Business."

Harpo, Zeppo, Chico, and Groucho stowing away in “Monkey Business.”

One of the things that always separated the Marx Brothers from other comedy teams was their number. Most of the great comedy teams were comprised of only two. One would play more of the straight man (Bud Abbott, Bing Crosby) or bear the brunt of most of the physical pain (Oliver Hardy) while the other would be more infantile and always be getting into trouble (Lou Costello, Stanley Laurel) or sometimes they would just bounce lines off every straight performer in the film (Bob Hope). The Three Stooges (the greatest incarnation of which being comprised of Moe Howard, Larry Fine, and Curly Howard) changed things up a bit because there were now three and they were all pretty goofy. Moe would try to keep the boys in line, but his ignorance, belligerence, and propensity to get injured would always knock him down to the levels of the slower Larry and the manically infantile Curly. Cartoonish violence would quickly ensue.

The Marx Brothers had a completely different schtick. Originally there were four of them in the films (a fifth, Gummo, left the group before Hollywood and his namesake was seemingly arbitrarily used as the title to the 1997 Harmony Korine film).

Zeppo woos Thelma Todd in "Horse Feathers." Harpo makes a gookie face on the floor.

Zeppo woos Thelma Todd in “Horse Feathers.” Harpo makes a gookie face on the floor.

Zeppo (Herbert originally) Marx (1901-1979) was the underused straight man of the brothers, but he only made it into their first five features. Zeppo’s screen time is short and sporadic throughout their movies. He usually played Groucho’s secretary or son or some other minor character who might court the girl or take a letter. It has been said that Zeppo was actually very funny off-screen, but since he did not have a specific comic persona like the other three he got lost in the shuffle. The best Zeppo moments, I think, come in Animal Crackers (1930) when he tries to take a letter that is being dictated by Groucho. My other personal favorite Zeppo scene is the big musical number about going to war in Duck Soup (1933). This number features all of the Marxes at once being equally silly as they sing, dance, strum banjo, beat helmeted guards’ heads like xylophones, and puppeteer an entire room of serious politicos. Duck Soup would be Zeppo’s last movie appearance. Zeppo left as their contract with Universal came to a close.

Chico plays a tune in "Animal Crackers" while Harpo gets anxious and clangs horseshoes.

Chico plays a tune in “Animal Crackers” while Harpo gets anxious and clangs horseshoes.

Chico (Leonard) Marx (1887-1961), renowned for being a bit of a womanizer and gambling addict, was the Italian guy of the group. The Marx Brothers were all Jewish, but in the days of vaudevillian comedy it was very normal to play stereotypical ethnic characters on stage. Chico was the only one of the Marxes who kept the ethnic schtick throughout their film career. His clothing (like Groucho and Harpo) would also stay rather consistent. The same cheap hat and coat would follow him from film to film. His performances consisted of saying dim malapropistic things with a heavy Italian accent, and being a springboard for many of Harpo’s antics. A very fine musician, Chico played the piano in most of their films. His characters were also the most prone to Donald Duck-like exasperation (usually brought on by Harpo). Chico and Harpo were often paired together as lower class vagabonds, thieves, or spies. Some of Chico’s best scenes come when he is with Groucho and his double-talk and mispronunciation carry them down awry verbal tributaries. I think some of Chico’s best scenes can be found in Animal Crackers where he and Harpo play bridge with some unsuspecting ladies (one of which being Marx Brother mainstay, Maragaret Dumont), or when he and Harpo attempt to steal a famous painting during a blackout, or when he and Groucho discuss where the painting might be and after much silly talk Chico asserts that it was stolen by left-handed moths. His best and funniest piano playing scene may also be found in Animal Crackers.

Harpo sleeps through insanity in a crammed state room in "A Night at the Opera."

Harpo sleeps through insanity in a crammed state room in “A Night at the Opera.”

Harpo (Adolph) Marx (1888-1964) was the harp-playing, silent type. Harpo never spoke a word on camera (although he often whistled and honked horns that protruded from his overlarge, tattered trench coats). Always with a shabby top-hat and curly, red wig, Harpo was easily the most clownish of the group. His characters were all happy-go-lucky pantomiming miscreants—often times abused by bad guys or Chico—but he always got the last word (so to speak). Goofy faces (or “gookie” faces for the purists), a far away look in his eye, illiteracy, a voracious appetite, sloppy clothing—containing everything from live animals, perpetually lit candles and blowtorches, coffee, weapons, appliances, etc.—and a strange running gag of loving a horse and the harp were all part of Harpo’s bag of tricks. Some of his best scenes come with Chico in Animal Crackers, and his job interview with Groucho in Duck Soup where after many screwball antics, Harpo reveals his home is a tattoo of a doghouse on his own chest. Groucho leans in to “meow” at the doghouse, when suddenly a real dog’s head pops out and barks at him. Groucho leaps back as Harpo quietly closes his coat and grins whimsically. The most surreal of the brothers, it’s no wonder Salvador Dali was so fascinated by him (Dali actually wrote a script for the Marx Brothers, Giraffes on Horseback Salad, but it was never filmed). One of Harpo’s other great scenes comes in A Night at the Opera (1935) where he disrupts the opera performance at the grand finale of the film. For all his zany antics, his touch at the harp was always smooth and you could see the significance this instrument had on him.

Groucho's grand entrance as Capt. Spalding in "Animal Crackers."

Groucho’s grand entrance as Capt. Spalding in “Animal Crackers.”

Groucho (Julius) Marx (1890-1977) was the ring leader of the bunch. Unlike Chico or Harpo who were gifted at the piano and harp respectively, Groucho was a guitar player but he seldom displayed his musical talent on screen (he plays the guitar in Go West and briefly in Horse Feathers and promptly tosses it into a lake at the song’s conclusion). He was the wiliest and sharpest of the group. Groucho always wore baggy suits and round glasses and smoked a cigar beneath a thick greasepaint mustache while his painted eyebrows bounced up and down insinuating some sort of sneaky double-entendre. His hunched comic gait was actually a parody of a walking fad from the late 1800s. This absurd walk was another trademark of the Groucho persona. He was usually cast as a shady man of some note who has been brought in to provide temporary guidance to a sinking ship. He was Quincy Adams Wagstaff, president of the financially struggling Huxley College, in Horse Feathers (1932), and he was Rufus T. Firefly, the leader of the bankrupt country of Freedonia, in Duck Soup, and Detective Wolf J. Flywheel in The Big Store (1941). Groucho was very well-read and his intelligence shines through in his improvised dialogue opposite other characters. His wit was so sharp and so quick that actors like Margaret Dumont (his usual foil/counterpart and butt of many jokes) would frequently not understand them. His rapid-fire delivery is reflected best when the other characters can barely keep up with his humorous train of logic. Virtually every time Groucho opened his mouth on camera it was hilarious and it might be difficult to pinpoint his best scenes, although Animal Crackers and Duck Soup features some of his best and sharpest conversations. Duck Soup also features the classic mirror sequence where Harpo, dressed as Groucho, copies his movements to hide his presence and the fact that the mirror is broken.

Margaret Dumont gets a run down.

Margaret Dumont gets the usual once-over.

The Marx Brothers had many classic motifs and running gags, but their brilliant comic timing and talent moved beyond that. They were unique. They were able to be edgier than most other comedians of their day and Groucho made comedy a lot smarter than most. Chico took ethnic caricature to a new level, occasionally mocking his well-known non-Italian heritage in their films. Harpo kept silent comedy alive years after the silent era. Groucho reminded everyone that comedy could be more intelligent than drama if done properly. All having markedly different comedy styles (although all birthed from their vaudevillian New York City roots) they brought comic crassness to new heights when they were together. Whether they’re playing the final football game in Horse Feathers or taking on the gangsters in Monkey Business (1931) they were always innovative and hilarious.

Fake beards and awkward speeches to elude the police in "A Night at the Opera."

Fake beards and awkward speeches to elude the police in “A Night at the Opera.”

Like most creative minds, they did lose some creative control when they switched studios. Sadly their later films did not have the same spark and fire as their first forays into moviedom. Of their thirteen or so consecutive movies their first six are easily their best and funniest. Their first, The Cocoanuts (1929), is a bit uneven (too much Irving Berlin) but it has some great bits. Animal Crackers, Duck Soup, and A Night at the Opera rank among my all time favorite comedies. Their later films were lacking because they were in want of the real Marx Brothers.  A Day at the Races (1937) and At the Circus (1939) were better than Room Service (1938), The Big Store, A Night in Casablanca (1946) and Love Happy (1949) but nothing could measure up to their earlier efforts. Their one period piece, Go West (1940), was probably their last decent one and it’s worth a look.

The jig is up...unless they brain this guy with a heavy cigar box, tie him up, and steal his clothes...which they do.

The jig is up…unless they brain this guy with a heavy cigar box, tie him up, and steal his clothes…which they do.

The studios were trying to control them too much because they failed to realize that what worked in the Marx Brothers was anarchy. They brought anarchy to respectable people and self-important situations when they were at their best. The Marx Brothers attacked aristocracy, art patrons, opera, investors, gangsters, academia, politics, war, etc. Anything that took itself too seriously was deemed a suitable Marx target. I’m still rather fond of that rule. Do yourself an enormous favor and check out some of the greatest comedies of all time; the films of the Marx Brothers.

War! The finale of "Duck Soup" pulls out a lot of zany gags.

War! The finale of “Duck Soup” pulls out a lot of zany gags.

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” May 4, 2010

Babbitt and Catstello Meet Tweety Bird

If there is one thing that defines the Warner Bros. studio it is their “Looney Tunes” cartoons from the 1930s, 40s, and 50s. These decades produced some of the most memorable cartoons in history along with some of the most iconic and edgy cartoon characters ever to be transmogrified into accordions via a falling anvil. Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Elmer Fudd, Porky Pig, Speedy Gonzales, Road-Runner, Yosemite Sam, Pepe Le Pew, the Tasmanian Devil, Wile E. Coyote, Rocky the Gangster, Hippety Hopper, Sam Sheepdog, Witch Hazel, Foghorn Leghorn, Marvin the Martian, Sylvester, Tweety, and all the rest have become such a part of our culture it’s difficult to imagine America without them.

Classic characters aside, there were some equally memorable side characters that never made it into more than a few shorts. Pete Puma, the Dover Boys, Michigan J. Frog, Marc Anthony, the Dodo, Frisky, the Three Little Bops, the Scotsman, the forgetful wolf whose name escapes me, and countless others only ever had one or two shots to become a part of the illustrious Warner Bros. cartoon cannon. But they made it!

Often times Hollywood celebrities from the era made it into the act as well. From random gatherings in Have You Got Any Castles? (1938), Hollywood Steps Out (1941) and Book Revue (1946) (directed by Frank Tashlin, Tex Avery, and Bob Clampett respectively) to more subversive integrations like when a caveman with the voice and caricatured mannerisms of Jack Benny pursues Daffy Duck while verbally abusing his pet dinosaur in Chuck Jones’ Daffy and the Dinosaur (1939) or when Porky Pig horrifically morphs into Oliver Hardy in the finale of Clampett and Norm McCabe’s Timid Toreador (1940). That Porky Pig morph actually disturbed me as a child. Sometimes the Warner’s cartoons had fun playing with their own formulas such as when Robert McKimson made Ralph Kramden and Ed Norton into mice for The Honey-Mousers (1956). These cartoons also frequently took pot shots at Lon Chaney, Jr.’s performance as Lennie in Of Mice and Men (1939)…perhaps funniest in McKimson’s Hoppy-Go-Lucky (1952).

One of the funniest cartoons ever made (in my most humble opinion) is Robert Clampett’s A Tale of Two Kitties (1942). In this cartoon a pair of cats, modeled after the very funny Abbott and Costello comedy team, try and get a little baby bird. It just so happens that this particular cartoon is the first appearance of Tweety Bird. As with most “Looney Tunes” cartoons it’s all just a standard formula setup for imaginative violence. Cats try and get bird, bird hurts them. What makes this cartoon so hilarious is that Babbitt and Catstello are actually funnier than their real life human counterparts.

Bud Abbott and Lou Costello were very popular comic icons from the 40s, successfully conquering the stage, radio, film, and eventually television. Their infamous “Who’s on first!” bit still plays in the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York. The constant theme was that Costello was almost a baby trapped in a man’s body and Abbott was the oft times far too harsh straight man. Where it makes more sense, despite their differences, why Oliver Hardy and Stan Laurel would share beds (Hardy probably knows he’s a big loser and you can tell he really likes Laurel) I could never figure out why the mostly humorless Abbott would ever put up with Costello’s infantile shenanigans. This infant and grouch duo made nearly 40 films together including some comedy classics such as Buck Privates (1941), Hold That Ghost (1941), Who Done It? (1942), Hit the Ice (1943), The Naughty Nineties (1945), and Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948).

With knowledge of the rules and dynamics for an Abbott and Costello routine and a firm grasp on the lawlessness and physics-lacking hyper-violent universe of “Looney Tunes” one can now sit back and enjoy A Tale of Two Kitties.

It opens with a lean Babbitt (voiced by Tedd Pierce) kicking around a rotund Catstello (voiced by the incomparable Mel Blanc). From the get-go you recognize the familiar voices and then you get an even bigger laugh when you see the cat forms of Abbott and Costello. Babbitt almost looks more like a wolf and his long, graceful build is more reminiscent to a Wile E. Coyote than a Sylvester the cat. Catstello has the weak, wrinkled brow and dim, pleading eyes, and exaggerated jowls and is about as hard to recognize as a cat as John Kricfalusi’s Stimpy. Yet the pointed ears and typical color patterns tells us that these hideous mutations are indeed of the feline persuasion. Babbitt is evidently accustomed to harassing Catstello into performing dangerous tasks and so today’s adventure should be no different. Catstello must climb a very high telephone pole and apprehend the baby bird. Several attempts lead to Catstello falling from great heights, being flattened, shot, bludgeoned, blown up, etc. Babbitt all the while waits comfortably on terra firma and slaps Catstello around whenever he returns empty-handed.

It’s well drawn, has brilliant timing, there are puns and anvil gags, but the real big joke is just how exaggerated everything is. Babbitt is not just being impatient like Abbott. He’s being downright sociopathic and barbarically unreasonable. That Catstello takes it like an ashamed idiot puts the real Abbott and Costello in a whole new light. They aren’t friends with the occasional difference. These are two diametrically opposed individuals and their lives play out more like a shockingly abusive relationship than comedy. When Catstello gets crushed several feet into the earth by an anvil, a suddenly concerned Babbitt compassionately screams “Speak to me! Speak to me!” Following a childish whistle from the flattened feline, Babbitt scoldingly bellows “Why do you do these things?” as he pulls his broken friend off the anvil and slaps him across the face. It’s so unreasonable it’s comedy gold!

In many ways this short is spookily prophetic of the serious rift that would eventually break up Abbott and Costello. Unlike Laurel and Hardy who stayed friends to the end, their friendship eventually did deteriorate and their comedy suffered.

Catstello is just as pathetic as Babbitt is unfeeling. Perhaps moreso. Mel Blanc’s explodingly shrill and obnoxious Costello screams are just hilarious. Simple lines like, “Look, Babbitt. Stilts. ♫.” become hysterical in Blanc’s unflattering impersonation. Ted Pierce does a pretty funny Abbott as well. These two ingredients make for the funniest cat duo ever to pursue a Tweety Bird. Sylvester teamed up with a lot of cats over the years, but not one single combo had the elasticity and barbarity of these schmoes. In addition to being crapped on my Babbitt, Catstello is also malevolently manhandled by Tweety Bird. The “this widdle piddy went to market” gag still cracks me up. It’s as much a sick game for Tweety who has no feeling for a would-be predator as it is chastising a small child to Babbitt and poor, dumb Catstello is stuck in the middle. It’s amazing Tweety Bird really took off as a result of this cartoon because he’s more of a plot device to set up evil gags directed at the plump cat (Tweety would largely be handled by director Friz Freleng in the future). Tweety does develop a strong character in this cartoon though and he’s more diabolical and I’d say funnier than he ever would be again. The same can be said of the two cats.

True they were a one hit wonder, but Frank Tashlin directed a pseudo-sequel called A Tale of Two Mice (1945) featuring two mouse versions of Abbott and Costello. The result was not nearly as funny. Clampett would assign another celebrity identity to a cat body in A Gruesome Twosome (1945) where a dopey-eyed cat and a Jimmy Durante styled cat fight over the affections of a female. Tweety Bird gets in the mix again and the Jimmy Durante cat is very funny, but it never reaches the wild and zany brilliance of A Tale of Two Kitties. Everything worked and I suppose it would be hard to top had they done more. Maybe they’re better off as one-shot wonders like Michigan J. Frog. They did manage to make a few cameos and even one more short, but it weren’t as good so we can skip it.

This cartoon is Bob Clampett at the top of his game. It’s zany, violent, screwy, and the characters are stretchy and boneless. It ranks up there alongside Wabbit Twouble (1941), Bugs Bunny Gets the Boid (1942), An Itch in Time (1943), Falling Hare (1943), and The Great Piggy Bank Robbery (1946) for sheer baffling comic ludicrosity. Clampett might have been the only one who could have pulled off all the gags in this cartoon. The best “Looney Tunes” were anarchic and screwball and if you’ve ever seen Porky in Egypt (1937)* (yes, even more than Porky in Wackyland) you know Clampett could be wild and inventive. By taking two classic comedians and making them hyper-violent cartoon cats and pitting them against a seemingly innocent naked baby bird you can get one of the funniest cartoons ever made.

A Tale of Two Kitties makes me fall on the floor laughing (generational translation: rofl) every time I see it. And I have seen it a lot. One thing I almost forgot to mention was that this cartoon features some interesting wartime jokes and even a smarmy reference to the Hays Code that history buffs might enjoy. For the birth of Tweety Bird, some truly warped incarnations of classic comedians, or just for a good laugh watch or re-watch A Tale of Two Kitties. Lord knows it’s out there on the internet.

*Porky in Egypt starts as your typical period exploration into the realm of cultural insensitivity. Porky Pig is your standard milquetoast protagonist and he’s not particularly interesting. About halfway through the cartoon the sun punches Porky’s camel square in the face. The camel, named Humpty Bumpty, goes crazy from desert madness and whatever story was being carefully setup completely derails and becomes a nightmarish descent into insanity. It’s almost ironically titled Porky in Egypt because Porky does very little in the cartoon. It is hilarious and totally unpredictable and I can’t help but feel like the yak’s breakdown in the Royal Canadian Kilted Yaksman episode of “Ren and Stimpy” was somewhat modeled after it.

http://johnkstuff.blogspot.com/2006/09/timingpacing-tale-of-two-kitties-1942.html

http://www.sidereel.com/The_Looney_Tunes_Show/season-13/episode-1

http://fan.tcm.com/_A-Tale-of-Two-Kitties-WB-1942-d-Robert-Clampett/photo/8790883/66470.html?createPassive=true

http://www.twynkle.com/movies/33474