Sunday, December 20, 2020

Seinfeld likes the Marx Brothers [so do I]

The NYTimes just ran a piece where Jerry Seinfeld talks about his current reading: “So the book that’s on my stand right now that I’m really, really enjoying is called Four of the Three Musketeers, by Robert Bader, and it’s a very, very long, detailed history of the Marx Brothers.” He goes on to remark:

This Bader — it’s a ridiculous book. I don’t know what this guy was thinking, that he would spend this much time and do this much work on the Marx Brothers. This is not an old book, it’s from like 2016. But he did the most incredible job of research. And he’s also a very good writer. And you know, to me, the history of the Marx Brothers is kind of the invention of comedy, not just as a substance but as a business. And also, if I can put this the right way: They emerged as Jews in New York City, just kind of coming out and going, “By the way, we’re better at this than anybody.” And ever since then you can trace — I mean, you can trace comedy obviously back to the Greeks — but in terms of what you see now, in the world, the Tigris and Euphrates to me is the Marx Brothers and vaudeville in the teens and early ’20s of the last century.

I share Seinfeld’s admiration and affection for the Marx Brothers. Years ago in my late teens I read an autobiography by Groucho, Groucho and Me I believe it was called, and one by Harpo, Harpo Speaks. Both of course talked about their early days in vaudeville, which I found fascinating. I remember that Harpo also talked about playing golf. Groucho may have talked about golf as well, but it’s Harpo I remember, in particular how, for whatever reason, he played a round in the nude.

I’d grown up watching Groucho on TV. He had a quiz show called “You Bet Your Life.” The quizzing wasn’t very serious – the money was peanuts. It was a vehicle for Groucho’s wit. My father loved the show. He loved language and Groucho was a master of word play, puns in particular. I associate the term “ad lib” with my father’s remarks about Groucho. It was only later that I’d associate the term with jazz performance.

Father also loved their movies, but I didn’t get to see any of them until I went to college. Seinfeld mentions their first film:

The first Marx Brothers movie was “The Cocoanuts,” which was originally a play that they did. And talkies had just happened, and a couple of years later Hollywood was looking around for anybody that could talk on film, and obviously grabbed the Marx Brothers. And so they made this movie. Nobody really knew how to make a movie; they just kind of shot the play, onstage. And the brothers hated it. They hated it so much, they wanted to buy it back so it wouldn’t be released. Then it was a gi-monster hit and it made a fortune. That’s so much fun to read, stuff like that. People do things and they hate them and the public

loves them, and then they have to change their thinking on it.

I’ve seen it, at least once in college, and probably once or twice on TV. I’ve also seen Horse Feathers, Duck Soup and A Night at the Opera (I own that on DVD). I’ve probably seen the others, but I don’t have specific memories. Aside from general antics, each film would have a set piece where Chico played the piano and Harpo played the Harp.

My favorite scene from the films is a one from Duck Soup where Groucho and Harpo mirror one another. Harpo is disguised as Groucho. The mirroring starts at 2:04, but you should watch from the beginning to get some idea of the context.

Groucho is in the foreground and Harpo is the mirror image. He gives the game away at c. 3:41 when he has the wrong hat behind him – it’s his standard “Harpo” hat. Chico joins them in a three-way question.

In response to a question, Seinfeld remarks that while he’d like to see the Marx Brothers adapted for TV or movies

But I don’t know if people would be interested. And you could never do it. You could never recreate these guys. Remember they did that Three Stooges movie? My manager, George Shapiro, says trying to get someone to act like a comedian is like trying to get them to act like a baseball player. It’s almost impossible. There’s so many tiny polished movements they have that the best actors struggle to replicate.

What about the effort it took for Groucho and Harpo to imitate one another?

1 comment:

  1. I really can't make any sense out of the last statement.

    It works in that it marks what a comedian does as very different and distinct. Aside from the identity observation, left scratching my head.

    Yes it is almost impossible. Difference between, not being able to do and do, can be split second and slight. Also a painful journey, ending in a terse, 'you can play the role now' and everything moves on.

    Get the attention to tiny detail.

    Exact replication, makes no sense to me. Why would you want to do that? Why not just watch the original, do the detail and learn to do something else with it?