December 27, 2011
Holiday Family Laughs by Mark Heike
A lot of families tend to gather around the ol’ video at holiday time nowadays. I know Stephanie and I will be doing that very thing with her family in the next few days. We find comedies tend to be the best fare for this sort of event. Who doesn’t like to laugh? My favorite comedic performers made their best and funniest films prior to 1940, believe it or not; but no matter HOW MANY TIMES I’ve seen their films, I still laugh out loud at the best parts. Who am I referring to? The Marx Brothers. If you’re not familiar with their best movies, I encourage you to try them. They ARE an acquired taste, and people tend to either love them (like me) or hate them. Rather than than try to describe what it is that makes them funny, I think it’ll work better just to let you watch some clips.
I will say this, however- their earliest films were their best. “Animal Crackers”, “Duck Soup”. “The Cocanuts”, “Monkeybusiness” and “Horsefeathers” are their funniest. Starting off in vaudville, then having tremendous success on Broadway, their earliest films were adaptations of two very successful stageplays.
I’ve also learned in recent years that additional film dialogue and gags (material not authored by the brothers themselves) in these early films was written by Nat Perrin. Perrin went on to write comedy films and television shows for another 3 decades, including the 1960’s sitcom “Green Acres”; a show that echoes a lot of the kind of lunacy seen in those great Marx Brothers flicks.Interestingly enough, most of these early films were NOT commercially successful at the time. Into the 1940’s, the brothers moved onto another studio, and appeared in a series of films that WERE box office hits, including “A Day At The Races”, and “A Night At The Opera”, among others. Unfortunately (for true afficianados, any way) these screenplays focused a bit too much on plot, and featured bigger-name performers as the “romantic leads”. This approach brought more customers into the theaters and made everybody money, but didn’t focus nearly enough on the outrageous antics of the brothers and did not allow their madcap humor full sway. Those productions occasionally have some bright moments, but overall are not very watchable today. Most of these movies are readily available today, so I encourage you to give one a try. It’s hard to imagine how films made as much as 80 years ago and filled with pop culture references of the day can be timelessly funny, but to me they are. Be forewarned, though- ALL are musicals. With the wonders of modern video controls, you can mute or fast-forward through the songs & dance numbers if you like- but Groucho’s are usually clever & entertaining enough to leave the sound up on.